Sacred Valley of the Incas

We drove 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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