Peru Part 2 - The Sacred Valley
We arrived in Cusco airport and got a taxi into town to buy our Boleto Turistico, a ticket that gets you into many of the ruins and museums across the Sacred Valley. You can pay for them individually, but the Boleto Turistico is much cheaper. It is valid for 10 days and you get a stamp for every site you visit. We then got a collectivo to the Incan village of Ollantaytambo. Collectivos, also known as combis, are shared minibus taxis, and are a cheap convenient way to get around. They leave when they are full and passengers get on and off along the route. It was a two hour journey through the Sacred Valley to our destination, but the route was stunning as we slowly descended through the mountains.
Ollantaytambo is a unique intact Incan Village, and is often people's last stop before reaching Machu Picchu. This can give the place a bit of a backpacker vibe, but instead of just passing through, we decided to stay there for four nights. It is referred to as a living Inca Village, because the traditional Incan streets are intact and it is still inhabited by the indigenous Quechua speaking community. The people living here in Ollantaytambo today are the direct descendants of the people who built the town.
On our first day we explored the ruins of Ollantaytambo. We went slightly off the tourist trail and found a path that led us right up the side of a mountain, leaving the tour groups far behind. The route we took gave us a spectacular view of the valley and the low-lying clouds. We then climbed up to the granaries on the opposite mountain. These mysterious sloping buildings look like churches, perched on the inhospitable hillside, but they are in fact store houses that were used by the Incas to store grains.
Moray and Maras
The next day we decided to visit some of the local sites with a driver, as recommended by our hostel. We visited Moray, Maras, Salinas de Maras and Chinchero in one day for the cost of about £40, plus tip. The mysterious circular terraces of Moray look like an amphitheatre, but it is believed they were actually used as an agricultural laboratory. As the different levels of the terraces receive different amounts of wind and sun, it allowed them to see which crops grow best in different weather conditions.
We also visited the salt flats at Maras. You can wander around the extensive salt mines on a network of wooden bridges. Warm salty water drips constantly between the hundreds of salt ponds. Salt has been mined here since pre-Incan times. Naturally salty water emerges from an underground spring and evaporates in the sun leaving pools of white crystals behind.
The town of Maras its self is very small and very quiet and has an unusual and slightly eerie atmosphere. Our driver took us on a route from Maras to Chinchero via the back roads, which in the winter are completely impassible. This was a wonderful opportunity to see the unspoiled Peruvian landscape. You see whole families working in the fields growing traditional crops like corn and wheat, the way they have done for hundreds of years. At one point we had to make an emergency stop as a herd of piglets ran across the dirt track. The scenery is stunning, with golden green fields of wheat and dramatic snow topped mountains.
The little town of Chinchero is famous for its traditional weaving community, and was one of my favourite places in Peru. The Incans knew it as the birth place as the rainbow, and it certainly produces a lot of colour and beauty. At over 12,000 feet it was the highest altitude we experienced, I must have been an alpaca in a past life because I was completely impervious to the altitude. We later met people who had gotten serious altitude sickness from visiting this village. There are numerous collectives of weaving families who sell their wares together and give demonstrations of the traditional processes. The alpaca wool is washed and spun by hand before being dyed with natural organic dyes. Purple corn, lichen and cochineal are used frequently. The women demonstrated how the shade of red produced by the cochineal can be changed by adding ingredients like salt or lime juice. The finished yarn is then woven to create beautiful textiles used in traditional dress and homewares. The weaving process is elaborate and lengthy, and the traditional designs incorporate many symbols of Peruvian nature, such as pumas, lizards, rivers and mountains. The most expensive textiles are those finely woven with alpaca wool; they are very detailed and are often used in clothing. The dense weave keeps out the rain and different towns have different traditional designs. My favourite type of traditional Peruvian textile is the Frazada, which means blanket in Spanish. They are made in two halves and then sewn together. These are a chunkier, heavier textile and quicker to weave, which is why they are less expensive. They are used as rugs and blankets are and cut up to make backpacks and cushion covers. In the square in front of the white washed church of Chincero, women in traditional dress sell their colourful textiles. This open air market backs onto the Chinchero ruins.
Pisac is famous for its market, and is busiest on the main market days when tourists pour into the town from a fleet of coaches. The market is a colourful maze spread over the cobbled town square, and sells everything from the most beautiful textiles to the tackiest tourist tat. A lot of the goods are mass produced and there is more of a hard sell here, which is why I prefer shopping in Chinchero. After wandering through the market we decided to head up to the ruins. These were our favourite ruins; they were a challenging walk with spectacular views and Inca terraces and fortresses dotted all over the mountain. We had the trail almost completely to ourselves. At the top of the mountain we met a tiny little old lady selling bottles of water from a huge bag on her back.
Where to Eat
As a pair of jet lagged coffee snobs it's always important to us that we find a good local cafe. Our favourite in Ollantaytambo was Cafe de mi Abuelo. The coffee was good, the staff are friendly, the top floor has an amazing view over the mountains, and they have great home-made alfajores. Also they have a daily happy hour, which means you get two Pisco sours for around £4, which is exactly what you need after a tiring day of walking up mountains. On our last day we discovered Cafe Mayu, which is right next to the platform in the train station and has excellent coffee. It is attached to El Albergue restaurant and B&B. Uchucuta was our favourite restaurant, and did an excellent alpaca steak with red quinoa and Andean sauce. We also visited Hearts Cafe regularly, a casual cafe and restaurant whose profits all go to local community work. The Living Heart charity does lots of fantastic work in the local community, and I am proud to support them with the sale of this print.
The Sacred Valley is a magical place with truly unique people. Stay tuned for part three and four where we spend a night in the Urubamba Valley at Inkaterra and then venture on to Machu Picchu.