Category - Peru

Cusco and The Sacred Valley

1 Aug

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Flying into Cusco was surreal. From so high up, it’s so small amongst the Andes, which dwarf the town. Or should I say city? It’s home to over 340,000 people after all. After spending a few days acclimatising to the altitude in Ollyantaytambo and Aguas, we returned to Cusco, and I’m so glad we did. It has the hustle and bustle of a city, complete with endless markets and noisy taxis, with the quaint qualities of a small town. The main square is full of cobble stone streets, small taxis zipping around, gardens and fountains, and little alleyways off to the sides of large, looming church facades.

After negotiating with our taxi driver to get us to the right part of town, and of course because we always stayed with people in their homes, we always found ourselves miles from the centre of town, we arrived at Carlos’ place. He runs somewhat of a hostel situation – a large building with a central open courtyard and rooms all around. We stayed on the second floor, in a dark but cosy room, complete with heavy blankets piled high on our comfy bed, and white, fluffy dressing gowns. What appeared to be little luxuries quickly turned into necessities come nightfall. Cusco sits at an even higher altitude of 3400m above sea level, and night time is freezing, especially due to the lack of heaters. I’m still unsure if we got sick because of the altitude, but it sure felt like a cold. The ever stoic Josh never gets sick, but the next few days were spent in bed, surfing the web, reading, and consuming lots of coca (an Andean plant that helps with altitude sickness) in the form of tea and honey flavoured lollies for the sore throats we were sporting.

We had to get really creative with cooking, as the local supermarket had nothing – mouldy fruit and veggies were of course in abundance, and even canned goods were hard to find. After eating endless puffed quinoa, chia and ancient grain cereal mixes (which I now miss terribly), I did some extensive research and was determined to find Orion Supermarket, of which there are two in Cusco. It took us half a day, a few blisters on the feet, and a few squabbles to find it, but it was like heaven on earth once we had. Finally we could find pesto, cheese and fruit without the bruises again. It seems such a small thing, but when your only job is feeding yourself, you become quite consumed with it.

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Once we had a decent amount of food in the cupboard and in our bellies, and were on the mend, Cusco soon became a sensory overload and ended up being our shopping destination. We were able to buy some special pieces for our loved ones, and the endless shops and markets, holes in the walls that led to inner courtyards, and stairs that led to beautiful shops full of colour could keep anyone busy for months. The down side to this is that everyone has something to sell, but we found Cusco to be far less pushy than other tourist destinations we’d been to. The desperation to sell wasn’t there anymore and it felt much more easy going. We spent our days wandering the streets, eating traditional baked goods from little bakeries and taking in the colours, sights and llamas of Cusco.

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We used Cusco as a base to explore the Sacred Valley; the heart of the Incan Empire, and we tossed up renting a motor bike or jumping on a tour bus to experience it all. We ended up on a bus full of Spanish speakers, which kind of made the trip feel a little less touristy, and the English speakers amongst the group were very keen to take photos with us, and practise their English. The tour guide always chucked on a condensed, poorly articulated version of the elaborate story he told everyone else in Spanish, which we found highly entertaining. He told us just enough, and we let the scenery do the rest, and truly, we found it the best way to get all the information about the area, and sights into one trip.

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Our first stop on our two day trip was a small market place at the foot of Písac; an ancient farming ruin, established to protect Cusco from possible attacks. We didn’t have much time there, but through the twists and turns of the busy market stalls, we found a smaller inner courtyard with a large clay oven, and a little caged castle full of squeaking guinea pigs. One of the many reasons we choose not to eat meat anymore. When you’ve seen too much… you know? We bought some spinach and ricotta, and pineapple empanadas (pastries) and piled back on the bus, while the tour guide unsympathetically left the stragglers in the dust. To be fair, he had warned everyone to be prompt.

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The Inca constructed agricultural terraces all over the Sacred Valley, always on steep hillsides, some of which are still in use. These terraces enabled the organised production of food and allowed for the crops to survive in all weather patterns. We visited the pear shaped ruin, Moray, which contains unusual Inca ruins. The ruins are set on a backdrop of snow capped mountains, smoke billowing on the horizon, the smells of burning palo santo on the wind, and flora that is reminiscent of Dr Seuss illustrations. The ruins consist of several terraced circular depressions, created with a sophisticated irrigation system in mind. The depth, design, and orientation creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C between the top and the bottom of the ruins. Such large temperature differences allowed the Incas to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.

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Our last stop was Maras; a series of salt evaporation ponds set into the side of a steep hill, in use since Inca times. A subterranean stream bubbles up from the hill, and as the highly salty water emerges, it is diverted, split and directed into an intricate system of tiny channels. It’s been constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto several hundred terraced ponds. Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square, and as water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated, and salt precipitates as various sized crystals onto the surfaces of the ponds.

The altitude was brutal throughout our two days, and I struggled to “stroll” around the ruins, many times resting while Josh jogged off. I found altitude sickness to be a strange thing – not what I expected at all. It’s the pressure on your sinuses and in your bones, the sore muscles, light headedness and general flu feeling that hangs around. It would increase as we drove up and decrease almost immediately upon decent. It certainly is a fickle sickness.

Machu Picchu

6 Jun

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We had high expectations, considering the price we had paid to get ourselves here, but we’d never take back our experience of Machu Picchu, and photos could never do it justice. In retrospect, we’re glad we had the privilege of visiting this place, and were surprised by the many stories it had to tell.

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We started our journey with a train trip to Aguas Calientes, which is sadly, a tourist-exploited town that sits in a valley below Machu Picchu. We were told the best way to see the heritage site was as early as possible, so after finding our hotel and some food, we wandered the streets, crossed bridges and strained our necks as we looked straight up the towering mountains around us.

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It’s funny what you do and don’t remember about places, experiences, and pain. I’d been sick a few days prior, and had finally worked out, the night before, that the altitude sickness tablets I was taking didn’t agree with me. I’d hardly been able to walk for long before needing to lie down, mostly due to the pain I had in my lower back. I spent that night drinking huge amounts of water to flush out the diamox from my system, and praying I wouldn’t need to sprawl every few hundred metres the next day for some pain relief. I needn’t have worried – adventure kicked in and the pain became a distant memory.

The woman who sold us tickets for the morning bus told us to start lining up an hour before the buses were to leave (5:20am) and we thought she was joking. Well come 5:00am the next morning, we were already lined up, and then waited in line for the following 2 hours before we finally got on a bus. The road up wound back on itself, what felt like hundreds of times, as the bus chugged its way up each steep but short stretch. We found ourselves at the gates of Machu Picchu, shortly after opening, wove between the guides hounding tourists at the gate, marched past the slow walkers, and took a left as soon as we were through the gates, heading straight for the Sun Gate.

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The clouds hovered over the mountains as the sun beams shot through the mist, dancing across the structures below. The site sits at 2430m above sea level, and as we’d only been at high altitudes for a few days, we panted and puffed our way up the trail, slowly but surely climbing up. Passing the occasional rester, we sat at the Sun Gate, just the two of us, and just watched the site wake up. Researchers say they are unsure why this site was built here, as it served no real purpose, but I think the Incan people placed a high value on feeling connected to the world. Here, you feel like an eagle sitting on the highest peak. The world below you is serene and quiet, and there is a connection to the earth around you that you won’t find in many other places. It’s almost like you need to go there just for a moment with the mountains. You’re so high above the world that you’re always feeling like maybe you could tumble at any moment. And the fall would be long, and would last forever.

We watched the hikers arrive from their four day hike in, and enjoyed a moment of solitude to just appreciate the site, as the mayhem of tourists and selfie sticks awaited us below. Finally we walked back down and explored the ruins. We listened in to the different guides as we passed group after group, all providing unique facts, each more outrageous and contradictory than the next.

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The most surprising thing about this place is how accessible it is. You think, being from the other side of the world, that visiting Machu Picchu sounds exotic and only for the sound of body and adventurous spirit, but the incredible amount of people visiting this place, how accessible it is (think wheelchair access) and the variation in people, old and young, from all walks of life, was mind blowing.

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Though we found ourselves overwhelmed by the crowds and were back to our hotel before lunch, the experience was unlike any other, and we’re incredible grateful that we were able to visit Machu Picchu, and see it in all its glory.

Ollantaytambo

29 Nov

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Our next stop was the capital of Peru, Lima, and honestly it felt like a little bit of returning to civility for us. We enjoyed supermarkets with everything we could want, walks through beautiful neighbourhoods and strange little cat parks, cooler weather and the famous eerie fog of Lima. We milled around the outdoor shopping mall, built into the side of one of Limas famous cliffs, ordered coffees at Starbucks where no one knew how to spell Joshs name, stuck to the nicer neighbourhoods like the tourists we were and I spent time getting over some serious back pain, which I later discovered was directly linked to the altitude sickness tablets I was taking.

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A few days later, we hoped on a very small plane, which was delayed by 2 hours, and slept the whole way to Cusco. The second we left the plane, we felt the effects of the 3399m change in altitude. The air felt crisp and our bones seemed to ache, and after a few hours in a little mini van with little ventilation, a slight headache appeared for us both – a rare occurrence for Josh. We had decided in advance, to head straight to Ollantaytambo, a small Incan village a few hours out of Aguas Caliente which is at the base of Machu Picchu. Our decision was based purely on my fear of altitude sickness and what it might do to us, and as the town sits at 2792m above sea level, it was enough of a difference to Cusco to make all the difference in our adaption.

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We stayed in a tiny traditional house with a lovely couple and spent the following days strolling around the cobble stoned alleyways, watching tiny rugged up humans in traditional Peruvian clothing playing in the streets with dogs, and disappearing into holes in the wall. The town is beautiful and quiet. It was never truly conquered by the Spanish, and as such, it has kept its original Incan buildings and generations of Incan people. The town sits in a hazey valley, surrounded by enormous mountains and two big Incan ruins which sit halfway up two opposing cliffs. It’s a lazy town, used only as a hub for the Incan Trail hike and the train station which takes tourists to Machu Picchu daily. Around noon, the bustle of people dies down as tourists board their trains, and we found this to be the best time to explore the town. The market is full of fruits we couldn’t pronounce, grains and potatoes, smiles full of gold teeth and promises of the best fly – covered foods in town. We visited the one woman in the whole town who sold bread on a daily basis, and spent our lunches downing peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

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We slowly climbed the cliff behind our accomodation and visited the Incan storehouses of Pinkuylluna. We watched the sun set on the ants that were tourists of the Ollantaytambo ruins on the opposite cliff, having the storehouses mostly to ourselves, watched the smoke from Incan households rise into the air, breathed deep the thin, Palo Santo scented air and decided this was the most beautiful and authentic place we’d ever visited.

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