It’s hard to believe we’ve already been in Peru almost one month (we arrived November 30) and that we’re coming to the end of our fourth month away. We’ve spent the last few weeks exploring the Sacred Valley of Peru, including many sites of Inca ruins, local markets, soccer fields, hiking trails, and restaurants.
When we first arrived to our rented house in Huayoccari, the contrast between our new surroundings and where we’d just come from in Montevideo and Buenos Aires felt extreme. The Sacred Valley is roughly 60km in the Andean Highlands of Peru, and consists of fertile farmland that was once the heart of the Inca empire. Today, it is many small towns, and a few larger ones, both in the valley along the Urubamba River and in the even higher highlands, well above where we are staying (which is at ~9,000ft.)
Our house is ~1 mile up a dirt road off the main road through the valley, and our primary form of transportation to the nearest ‘big’ city (Urubamba) or anywhere else is to walk down to the main road and catch a ‘combi’ which are basically minivans that act as local busses and run back and forth through the valley on no specific schedule. Passengers are picked up whether or not there are seats available, and they stop and start as quickly as possible, so traveling in them with our group of five has been interesting to say the least. (At least we’re providing some entertainment for the locals). We’ve also learned that there aren’t specific stops- to request a stop, you simply call up to the driver “baja esquina” (literal translation: get down/off, corner) and then you see where the driver decides to stop.
We’re fortunate in that our house has a nice flat yard in the back which we’ve used extensively for soccer, and the first few days, we could only go a few minutes before one of us would call “halftime” due to the altitude. We’ve definitely gotten acclimated, but physical exercise is still noticeably more challenging than we’re used to!
We’ve packed in so many fun adventures and activities during our time here thanks in great part to one of Jim’s longtime friends, Franco Negri, who runs Explorandes, one of Vaya Adventures’ longest-standing business partners. Franco and his wife Marlis hosted Jim in their home 14 years ago (when they had 1 infant daughter who was 6 months old…they now have 4 children, the youngest being 5) and helped Jim start to get familiar with Cusco and the Sacred Valley for setting up his operations in Peru.
Only a few days after our arrival, we joined Franco, three of his kids (Mateo 12, Alegria 8, and Kantu 5) and a few of their friends for a BBQ at a local ‘sport club’ that is the only place of it’s kind in the area, with an indoor 50m pool, a turf soccer field, volleyball courts, climbing wall, grass soccer field, and more. Needless, to say, the kids had fun! (But wow, try swimming 50m (not to mention actual laps) at altitude sometime…a bit of a challenge!)
Colin’s 5th birthday was a few days after we arrived, and Franco and his family came over to help us celebrate with Colin’s requested menu: chicken and rice. I wasn’t quite ready to ‘entertain’ so early in our stay (was still learning how to use the oven!) but it was fairly easy since one of the most common types of restaurants in Peru serves “pollo a la brasa” which is basically rotisserie chicken with papas fritas (thick-cut french fries) and other sides. We also took Colin to a local bakery and he picked out his own cake, which we served with sides of jelly beans and gummy bears.
We made a “pin the soccer ball on the goal” game (original artwork by Jim and Cecelia), and had lots of fun.
The first major Incan site that we visited was Ollantaytambo, which is about 40 minutes north of where we are staying in the Sacred Valley. During the Inca empire, Ollantaytambo was a royal estate, and later was an important stronghold for the Inca resistance against the Spanish conquest. The site is elaborate and beautiful, featuring incredible terraces (to make the steep slopes farmable, and for defense), ceremonial centers, storehouses, temples, and baths. At 9,160ft and featuring the large stone steps typical of Inca sites, it was one of our more challenging visits since we were still adjusting to the altitude.
In the town of Ollantaytambo:
Touristing it up with the other tourists:
Views from the ruins:
The family of the owner of the house we are staying in also owns another house up the road from us, as well as a beautiful hacienda even further up the road that hosts lunches for tourists including weaving demonstrations. Through the sister of the owner of this house, we signed up for ceramics classes at “Tallera Huayoccari” and have been enjoying our family ceramics classes a few times each week.
Our teacher, Sergio, has been doing ceramics for 30 years and sells his own works at a store on the main road in Huayocarri. We’ve been shown the basic steps of creating the actual clay (the proportions of different types of rock and sand), how to work with a manual and electric potter’s wheel, and the fundamental steps involved in creating a strong base and building up the side walls. It’s been a lot of fun to take the class together in an art in which none of us has much experience, and the kids have especially enjoyed that they are better at most of the steps than both Jim and I.
Another amazing local site in the valley are the ‘salineras’ or salt mines, high up in the hills near the towns of Maras and the ruins of Moray. We visited all three plus the town of Chinchero all in a day-the kids are real travel troopers these days! This particular day we were blessed with bright blue skies and great weather, affording amazing views of many far-off peaks and glaciers, including those of Mount Victoria and Mount Salcantay, the latter which is the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range at ~20,500ft.
The 3,000 salt mines are owned by about 300 local families that have been tending them for many generations (hundreds of years). The mines are terraced on to the steep hillside (like so much of the agriculture in the valley) and are fed by a spring named Qoripujio. The stream feeds the ponds through a series of small aqueducts that must be opened and blocked for each pond. Once each pond is filled and drained via the spring, the remaining water takes about a month to evaporate and leave the crystallized salt. When things get to the point of more salt crystals than water the owners of the ponds manually scrape out the salt which is put into a basket or colander to continue draining.
These ponds produce pink salt, salts for bath therapies, salts that get combined with flavorings and even salt for animals (salt licks).
After seeing the salineras and the town of Maras, we visited the ruins of Moray. Moray is on a high plateau at about 11,500ft and consists of many terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is 98ft deep. That may not sound like much at first, but try to imagine a huge pattern of concentric circles in the middle of an extremely rocky mountain plain and how it could have been created with handmade tools and human labor…it starts to boggle the mind a bit when you remember that the site was created hundreds of years ago with no mechanical tools. While it has sustained some damage from flooding and earthquakes over time, it is largely intact and very impressive.
Look closely and you’ll see four intrepid travelers headed down the path to the lower circles…
As with many other Inca sites, it also has an irrigation system. No one knows for sure that the depressions were used for but many speculate that because their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom, it is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.
From Moray we headed to Chinchero, which sits at 12,3ooft and has some of the most fertile land in the Sacred Valley. The ruins at Chinchero are thought to be ruins of a country resort for Inca Tupac Yupanqui, son of Pachacutec. There are many aqueducts and terraces among the ruins which are still in use today for farming purposes. The church in Chinchero that sits over the main plaza was built in 1607 by the Spanish and features ornate painted ceilings (but alas, no photography was permitted so can’t share that particular detail).
Chinchero is known for the quality of the textiles and weavings and we stopped at a weaving collective for a demonstration of how the different colors are created. These demonstrations can feel touristy, but it was still really cool to see how different plants and even animals (one particular bug provides over 20 shades of red!) are used to dye the sheep, alpaca, and llama wool.
Franco and his son Mateo also took us for a hike near a small lake up above the town and ruins of Pisac, in an area called Amaru in “parque de la papa” (potato park) which is so-called because more than 1,000 varieties of potato are grown there. Different varieties are grown at different altitudes on the steep slopes, and over time, the farmers have had to move varieties up the mountain to adjust for climate changes (warmer weather). Varieties previously grown at the highest altitudes can no longer be grown successfully because it’s now too warm.
We were at more than 11,000ft and were (mostly) all smiles…
Franco with Colin and Cecelia:
We’ve been to Cusco once so far for an overnight and will spend two more days and one more night there before we depart for the Amazon region of Tambopata. Cusco is the capital of the region, and was the historic capital of the Inca empire until the 16th century Spanish conquest. Cusco features many ruin sites as well as many buildings and walls throughout the city feature original Inca architecture with Spanish influence. The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces and used the remaining walls as bases for the construction of a new city. The main plaza of Cusco features a beautiful Spanish cathedral which was built between 1560 and 1664. The main material used was stone, which was extracted from nearby quarries and some blocks of red granite, taken from the fortress of Saksaywaman.
Cusco from the hillside above:
Because of its antiquity and importance, the city center retains many buildings, plazas, streets and churches of pre-Colombian times and colonial buildings, which led to its declaration as a World Heritage sight by UNESCO in 1983.
Walking down into Cusco on a typical narrow stone road:
Plaza de las Armas (main plaza) at night:
While in Cusco, we also visited the Museo de Chocolate and the kids got to make their own chocolate to bring home. They highly preferred making chocolate to visiting more ruins, but nonetheless we did use our time in Cusco to visit a few more sites.
The fortress of Saksaywaman is on the northern outskirts of Cusco and the huge stones, like at many Inca sites, are carved smooth and fit together with no cement, sand, or other type of mortar. The best-known zone of Saksaywaman includes a huge plaza that can hold thousands of people, and its adjacent three massive terrace walls. The stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in pre-hispanic America. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between them. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes that have occurred in Cusco over the past few hundred years.
Thanks again to Franco and Explorandes, we’ve even gotten to enjoy camping while here, with Franco’s team providing all of the (top of the line) equipment, and two onsite cooks who provided us with all of the delicious meals! I guess it would be more accurate to call what we did ‘glamping,’ especially considering that the tent Cecelia and I shared had a beautiful woven rug and two cots with extra plush sleeping pads and cozy sleeping bags.
At the site, we took a nice hike with beautiful views of Lake Piuray and the surrounding towns and far off mountain ranges, and got to enjoy some stand-up paddle-boarding with our guide Alvaro. Alvaro also showed us how to use eucalyptus leaves as natural ‘menthol’ therapy for stuffed up noses (demonstrated in the pic below 🙂 )
The kids also noticed that Alvaro was picking up plastic trash as he walked, so they became an eco-posse and collected tons of trash on our return to the campsite. Alvaro told the kids how impressed he was with their environmental responsibility and they were proud and have continued to pick up trash on other walks we’ve taken since.
There was a huge storm with heavy rain, lightning, and thunder just after it got dark. Cecelia and I passed the 1-hour storm snuggling and talking in our tent, while ‘the boys’ spent the hour wrestling and somehow playing soccer in their own tent 😉
The next morning was calm and sunny and we spent a few hours having fun on the lake. Jim and Cecelia played chicken on a stand-up paddle-board…Cecelia won!
Just a few days ago, we (finally) went to see Machu Picchu! In addition to enjoying the train ride to the site, hiking to the sun gate (a tough climb for Colin, especially), and covering a lot of ground at the ruins, through Jim’s connections and friends, we were also treated to three unbelievable meals in the town of Aguas Calientes. Peru is definitely known as having some of the very best food in South America, and we concurred even prior to being so spoiled at local spots Chullpi, the Pueblo Hotel’s own cafe, and the Treehouse restaurant. At Chullpi, the chef came to our table with every course and explained each dish. He also treated us to two surprise extra courses between the courses we knew about, both completely exquisite. Jim and I agree that the 2+ hour lunch was definitely the best meal we’ve ever had. We’ve since decided we need to feed the kids cereal, noodles, and soup for dinner for the next few weeks to make sure they don’t get used to anything too gourmet.
Because of all the business that Vaya Adventures does with Inkaterra hotels, we were also upgraded to the presidential suite at the Pueblo Hotel, with a separate adjoining suite for the kids! It was the first (and probably will be the last) time either of us ever spent the night in a presidential suite and needless to say, we didn’t mind it too much! We’ve been so spoiled in the last few days and are extremely grateful to everyone at Explorandes and their many partners for all the special treatment.
The weather the day we were at Machu Picchu was very mixed- the day started off sunny and turned to rain and clouds. The colder weather and rain scared a lot of the other tourists off, so we got to enjoy the ruins almost to ourselves in the afternoon, which was great.
Jim getting balanced on the Inca trail:
Despite the pouring rain by the time we left, the kids did great, and even did a ‘treasure hunt’ Jim devised to find three key features within the ruins. This visit to Machu Picchu is 13 years later than when Jim and I hiked the Inca trail to get there while dating in 2003. It was fun to re-visit the site with the kids and many fun memories of that trip have re-emerged for both of us while we’ve been in Peru.
Last but not least for this already lengthy post is our holiday celebrations here in Huayocarri. We returned from Machu Picchu on Christmas Eve with plans to cook our own simple dinner, open a few Christmas presents, and get to bed early so that Santa Claus could make his rounds. We enjoyed a quiet night at home, with our Spotify Christmas playlist, and the kids watched the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Christmas trees are not prominent in these parts, so we decorated a Christmas plant in the house with all homemade decorations.
Cecelia made pancakes from scratch Christmas morning, which we enjoyed with the local traditional Christmas morning treat, panforte, strong coffee and an omelette that became a scramble due to the uneven heat on the stove that we’re still not quite used to 🙂
After our own celebration at home, we went to the neighboring town of Yucay to watch a Christmas procession, featuring at least ten different dance groups from all over the area. The elaborate costumes, music and dancing covered a few miles of the main road and included men, women and children.
After the procession, we joined the locals at the town’s center plaza for a Christmas fair that is scheduled to last the next three days. The children exhausted themselves in a bouncy house slide, running up to slide down over and over again, laughing and shrieking at each other’s antics.
After watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas, all truly was (finally) calm and bright (clear sky filled with tons of stars) as the kids quickly nodded off to sleep tired out by all of our adventures in the past weeks.
We enjoyed our quiet Christmas, but also missed all of our family and friends. We hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season, and we’re excited to see everyone soon in the New Year.
All of our love and we hope the new year brings everyone health, happiness and new adventures of your own.
XOXOX and Tchau for now!