Sacred Valley + Machu Picchu

Sacred Valley + Machu Picchu

Our flight to Cusco was uneventful. We had heard that it was the “most dangerous flight in the world,” but after arriving we still don’t see why.

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Yes, you fly over mountains and over the city itself, but this is no more dangerous than Burbank. Then again…

Our pre-arranged driver to Ollantaytambo showed up almost an hour late, even though we had agreed to pay $20 extra to have him meet us at the airport, which is normally not included in the pre-arranged travel. Apparently, most people spend a few days in Cusco “to adjust to the altitude” before heading to Machu Picchu. Unlike those people, we had to be back in Los Angeles Monday morning. The airport is literally in the middle of town, though, so (unlike in other cities) there wasn’t any extra driving involved, just a chance to gouge some gringos with no other options.

Cusco didn’t really seem like a place we’d want to spend a few days. Lots of thin stairways jabbing up the hills between always-under-construction unremarkable brickwork and a lot of stray dogs fishing through the ample sidewalk trash. Maybe there’s a whole other side we didn’t see.

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Three days of “exploring” this? We elitist jerks will just skip it. Thanks.

Outside Cusco was a different story. We spent two hours driving through the swooping valleys of the Andes, vaguely reminiscent of the Swiss alps if someone had placed blocks of chocolate over the valley floor and flatter parts of the hillsides. Well, I guess the swiss alps go straight up, so it’s not that much like it, but it certainly would be similarly exciting skiing country if the snow ever fell below the mountain tops (it doesn’t).

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Red things are good things in the Sacred Valley. Red soil raises red corn to mash into red beer to pass through the red sun-burnt lips and make red noses of thirsty gringos.

Our transport ended in Ollantaytambo where we would take the train to Aguas Calientes. The hotel we would stay at the following night on our return trip through Ollantaytambo has a private path from the train station through the farms straight to the nearby ruins up on the mountain and they informed us that the ruins would be closed the following day due to local elections. With about a half hour to spare before our train to Aguas Calientes would leave, we left our luggage at the hotel desk and rushed east to see the ruins of the Terraces of Pumatallis.

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Looks can be deceiving, folks. This one mile run brought back memories of childhood asthma attacks.

Of course, I say “rushed” but it was more hard walking and then heaving since the altitude difference was starting to kick in. We’d only been in the Andes for about three hours at this point. Usually people don’t acclimate by running up a hill on their first day. But, those people have entire days to spend here, we had 30 minutes.

Sam barely made it to the entrance of the park by the time we had to turn back and so she didn’t actually get to go inside. I huffed and puffed my way up the set of stairs to the Temple of the Sun, maneuvering around oh-so-slow tour groups.

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Pinkuylluna; so close, yet so far away. Due to the altitude climbing to the temple of the sun and then going over there too would be enough for one day for most people. We packed half of it into half an hour.

I jumped my way down the rock stairs around the same tour groups that I’d ran around to come up (still on their slow plodding – but smarter than me! – way up) to reach the valley for a few more photos.

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This is not the temple of the sun, so there were almost no tourists on these steps, but I didn’t have the time or lungs to go up.

Did I mention we were short on time? And my cell phone was dying. And I didn’t bring a watch to Peru (too afraid it would be snatched off my wrist in Lima). I put my phone on the ultra power saving mode to use it just as a clock. Felt a bit like we were filming B-roll for the Peruvian version of National Treasure (“quick, Nick! get to the temple of the sun before the bomb goes off – you’ve got five minutes!”).

With no time left, I ran out into the souvenir area outside the park to find Sam.

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I found Sam buying coca leaf candies because she’d nearly blacked out just on the mile walk to the ruins from the hotel.

Back at the station tired and hungry (it was 4:30 and we hadn’t eaten anything since 6am, did I mention that before? That probably contributed more to the light-headed-ness than the altitude, huh?) we grabbed a few sandwiches and ate them on the jittery jam-packed Inca rail line.

There were frequent awe-inspiring views through the high windows of the carriage, but the tight quarters didn’t allow for many photos that didn’t feature reflections from inside the cab, or even a good angle.

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Oh, did I mention we went to Ireland on this trip too?

At the Machu Picchu station a man met us to bus our bags to the hotel, which was through the souvenirs shop and up an incline.

The hotel was nice enough on the surface, but as soon as we laid down early to sleep other guests started partying against the thin walls and floors. Everyone says to go to Machu Picchu early. And “early” means be at the bus station at 5am for the first bus. This entire town only exists to funnel tourists up the mountain to the ruins. Except for the couple rooming next to us, apparently on spring break or something.

Our intention was to TRY to sleep early and be at Machu Picchu for sunrise by taking that 5am bus. That didn’t happen with Stompy McLaughingface and Peeing Force living their best lives in the next room.

We needed that sleep because we were going to attempt to hike the mountain at the other end of Machu Picchu famous for its extremely vertical steps which claim lives every year (although how many is up for debate).

Instead, we got up at our emergency alarm of 6:30 and quickly prepped ourselves for the day. That included me starting an antibiotics course because, yep, it wasn’t just the shellfish that got to me yesterday. For the record, I’d like to state that Montezuma has no need to take revenge on me, as far as I know, I have no Spanish ancestry. Apparently, Montezuma is a fan of racial profiling and I look pale enough to deserve his wrath.

Google translate tells me “Gestion” translates to “Gestion.”

(and yes, I know Montezuma was Aztec, much farther north than the Incas, but the medical condition that exists in several far flung parts of the globe has the same name for western travelers whether you’re in Mexico or not)

So I ate and drank very little before clenching what I could clench as we headed up the bumpy and dangerous (yet still somewhat luxurious) bus to Machu Picchu. Keep in mind I eschewed sustenance not only to keep Montezuma at bay, but because once you’re inside the gates of the citadel there’s no restroom until you exit for good.

Early call time on the set of my Pepto-Bismol commercial today, can you tell?

At the gate around 8:15 a local guide approached us and Sam haggled him down to 100 Soles (about $33) for a tour of the site that would culminate at the entrance to Huayna Picchu, the Death Stairs.

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Far over the misty mountains grim

The weather report said it would rain all day, but once on site it would rain for twenty minutes and then the fog would clear and the ancient city would glisten, and then it would rain another twenty minutes.

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Welcome to the famed “Seattle of the Incas!”

On paper, Huayna Picchu doesn’t seem that tough of a hike by US National Park standards. On paper, I didn’t even think I would need my knee supports. The paper doesn’t account for altitude adjustment as you force your body up wet stone steps that are sometimes two feet high.

Can’t say I’ve ever seen myself from this angle before. You’re welcome.

Sam would have stopped anyway because of her anemia, but I was more than happy to join her. I did not chew on the coca leaves or take the altitude medication because I read it’s a diarrhetic. Probably not the best thing to do if you already have diarrhea.

No, I am not taking advantage of an ancient Incan bathroom in this photo.

Through shear drops, shallow breaths, and slippery stones we reached the summit. And the sun rewarded us for the effort, shining down on Macchu Pichu for the duration of our visit.

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I don’t know where her lens cap is either. It disappears at LAX and reappears when we get home. This is what’s called “close-up magic.”

What nobody tells you about the citadel is how the city is now managed for tourists. There are signs and ropes keeping you on a one-way tour through the upper half the city. The Peruvian equivalent of park rangers keep watch along the path.

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Proof that humans can get bored anywhere.

At the other end of the complex the pathway bends back around at the Huayna Picchu entrance so you can experience the lower half, the terraces frequented by the llamas.

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Instead of growing rice for humans, these terraces grow grass for llamas.

We ended up getting very close to the llamas over the next hour.

Emphasis on very. Still not close enough for you?
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How about now?

It turns out there’s a whole little house (?) of Llamas where they cluster during the day to escape the sun and relax. Most of the people that look in (most don’t) assume you’re not allowed in and keep on moving to the exit (it’s at the back of the complex).

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We are not those people.

Back down in town around 4pm we were exhausted from a day with so much hiking, but no food and little water. We knew it might be our last chance to try a few traditional Peruvian dishes at a restaurant, so we ordered the famous fried cuy (hamster) and alpaca steak. Like Ralphie’s mother, Sam made a special request that the chef cut the hamster’s head off before delivering to our table. Neither were that great, to be honest, but hey, put it on the checklist of weird food we have eaten.

The alpaca steak just tasted like rough steak. The yellow sauce and risotto (who knew Peruvians like risotto almost as much as Italians?) were good, though.
That skin is as tough and rubbery as it looks. What’s under it isn’t much different from a emaciated chicken.

We walked to the train station to catch an earlier train out, but being in the middle of the jungle in the Andes with only one set of tracks, there wasn’t one. We lounged at the hotel for a few hours instead before taking the 7pm train to Ollantaytambo.

Even though the train was only an hour and forty minutes it felt like an eternity as we had to share the car with a caravan of teenage backpackers that treated it like their dorm room. At one point one of them spilled his complimentary coffee all over Sam’s suitcase, but since it didn’t get on his bags he just laughed it off. We were literally surrounded by this group so there wasn’t much comeuppance we could offer.

This ride was probably the most uncomfortable experience we had in Peru…and due in zero part to any Peruvian as the backpackers were all from New Zealand. How do I know they weren’t Aussie’s? Because when they shout at the top of their lungs you can discern those less than subtle differences.

It’s unclear if what happened next was due to the train operator’s sympathy or what, but before the ride ended an attendant brought Sam and I (and nobody else in the carriage) nice bags with a package of truffle chocolates inside.

At El Albergue, the hotel at the train staiton in Ollantaytambo, we found a nice quiet and very dark room to slumber away after a quick call to our tour guide to confirm the details about the next day (after the girl at the hotel desk found their phone number since the one they sent us with our reservation was disconnected). You see, the tour operator had emailed me a few days ago stating our tour that would originally start “whenever you want between 8 and 12” would now have to start at 7:30am. No bueno, compadre!

Their reason for the change? We had coincidentally chosen the day of our tour to coincide with a special election in Peru regarding corruption. The US state department confirmed this and also advised US tourists to avoid cities as “demonstrations” may occur. (our guides informed us “demonstrations” means “riots” there) Okay then. In our email exchange with the tour guide I noted our only real concern was getting to the airport in Cusco for our flight to Lima. We would skip the tour entirely if we had to to avoid those election complications. The response was that we would be in Lima by 1pm. Uh, our flight is at 8:12pm, we don’t need to be there 7 hours early AND get up early if we don’t have to, but when I pointed this out I didn’t get a reply.

It’s important to note that we had to get up early several times on this trip for legitimate reasons. However, on this particular day, we would be taking two night flights, the last one a red-eye to LAX. I don’t know about you, but I would like to sleep in a little before embarking on what may be a 48 hour day (I can’t sleep on planes).

So, at the end of Saturday we were able to reach the tour operator and he agreed to pick us up at 10:30am and everything would be fine, the election wouldn’t complicate the tour after all. A complete reversal from what we’d been told, so we left our fates in his hands.

The next day we took that tour, driving out of Ollantaytambo and up through the mountains beneath the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.

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That little girl seems just as mad as I am that the gringo lady had to get in my shot.

First, we stopped at the Moray Hills, an ancient incan site (although, it’s important to point out that only the Kings were known as “inca” and everyone else was Quechuan, but we’ll keep using that as shorthand for the culture on this blog post) used to test varieties of plant cultivation. Take a look for yourself:

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You say plant circles, Discovery channel says aliens!

Our guides cut across the wide mountain tops below the glacial peaks of the Andes until we reached the Salt Mines of Maras.

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I didn’t blur these kids’ faces for their own protection; this picture was taken inside a van going about sixty miles an hour down a dirt road.

The salt mines weren’t exactly the Mines of Moria, they were terraces (geez, are you starting to see a theme here? The Incas loved terraces, didn’t they?) dug out of the mountainside where a natural spring rich with minerals originally flowed down to the valley.

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This lady in traditional garb was posing for pictures with/for locals, until she saw the gringo with a Sony and got mad and said “no!” Too late, lady.
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We got to taste the salt in the terraces ourselves and as the internet says “can confirm 10/10 is salty.”

The entire world has learned to “exit through the gift shop,” and this salt mine in the middle of the Andes was no exception. Between the mine and the parking lot was a winding uphill street of souvenirs. At first this was a little annoying, but we soon found souvenirs that (for a reason yet unkown) were not duplicated at any of the other souvenir shops (and we visited hundreds) in the country. One shop was giving out free samples of a drink contained in flasks covered in brightly covered fabric. It tasted so good (and unique) that we had to buy it. An internet search later showed it was liquor made from locally grown Anis seed, which Maras is known for. Apparently, this is also considered absinthe.

That’s the anise-seed in my other arm there.

Slightly further up we saw a sign for cups of “strawberry corn beer” for only 1 Sol (33 cents). How could you not? The beer was surprisingly good because it was made from the “chicha” red corn mash. Turns out the chicha drink is a regional delicacy specific to Cusco. Establishments that have it make it known by tying a red balloon on a stick outside the business.

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If you see the red cloth hung outside a roadside stand like this, stop and try the chicha!

In case you forgot, the Chicha is the drink I ordered two nights in a row in Barrancos. I had no idea at the time it was rare (although I didn’t see it on any other menus in Lima, so that was a clue), just that it was very tasty.

As we sipped on the beer we also ate Aguaymanto, or Peruvian Cherry, which is only grown at high altitudes. The soft orange rind opens up to sweet little juice packets with sourish seeds. Our guides told us you’re supposed to eat the seeds as they’re good for you. (this is the fruit at the end of the sacred valley video at the top of the post)

On the drive through the mountains back to Cusco we stopped in Chinchero to walk amongst the local people, who instead of rioting, were celebrating the elections by barbequing at the town square.

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A laugh riot, more like it.

We sat for a moment to order a plate of the barbequed beef (old beef, chewy, but hey, authenticity, right?) and potatoes for only 10 soles ($3.35 USD).

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Pretty sure the green stuff was peanut sauce, so you’ll have to ask Sam how that tasted.

We arrived at the Cusco airport around 4 and paid to switch to an earlier flight as they could not pre-check our luggage for the international flight home. This allowed us to rest a little easier in the knowledge that we had plenty of time to get our luggage in Lima and recheck in the international terminal.

This actually became an issue. Even in Lima at the international airport, the attendants at the international check-in don’t speak English. They didn’t allow us to use the automated check-in machines and forced us into a “special needs” long line to talk to one of the few employees that spoke English. All just to check our bags and print our tickets.

At least my journey ended when we got back to LA. Sam had to turn around and go straight back to LAX for a red-eye to New York for work the same night! This time I politely declined the invitation to join her, sleep becoming a pressing priority that usurped a free hotel room anywhere.


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