Visit Peru with Ammon and Sasha:
From the Colca Canyon we backtracked to Arequipa and then took a long bus to Cusco where we stayed a night. It was our worst hostel/hotel of the entire trip and based on the reviews of many of the cheaper places to stay in Cusco, not an unusual experience. Fortunately for us, it was literally just for the night and the next morning we relocated to Ollantaytambo, a small but very popular tourist village in the Sacred Valley.
This is prime Incan territory and Ollantaytambo claims to be the last living Incan village, having never been conquered by the Spanish. While Ollantaytambo fortress was the site of a battle that went in favour of the Incas, there are no doubt many places that the Spanish didn’t officially conquer and both Peru and Bolivia have huge indigenous populations still carrying Incan blood. Nevertheless, Ollantaytambo, like the whole valley area, is full of ruins and sites to visit, headlined by the aforementioned fortress. Being smaller, lower in altitude and with cheaper train links to Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo is a popular first stop in the area and it made sense for us to base ourselves there for a few days to ease the acclimatization process for Dylan (Bree is invincible anyway).
The fortress climbs up one side of the valley directly behind the village and provides spectacular views. As our first major Incan ruins we were to learn a few things that would reoccur throughout the rest of our ruin visits.
1. The Incas were really, really good at terracing and shaping and stacking stones that fit incredibly well together.
2. The Incas didn’t decorate much. There are no carvings or paintings on walls to see. While somewhere like Angkor Wat is completely covered in beautiful bas-reliefs, Incan ruins are nothing but solid stone.
3. The Incas really had great taste in location. Wow! The views are generally more impressive than the actual ruins.
4. Peru is allergic to info signs. No explanations, no signs telling you what is what. If you aren’t already an Incan expert or haven’t come with a guide, you will learn nothing new. There must be a conspiracy here. In any case, totally unacceptable and very frustrating.
5. The tourists come in waves. 90+% of visitors are on guided tours running to a very similar schedule. Figured it out and we were able to not be overly swamped anywhere. It helps that April is the beginning of the dry season and still not the tourist busy season so days were generally nice and crowds manageable.
We stayed in Ollantaytambo for 2 nights to take things at a slower pace. The fortress was nice and we also climbed up to the granary ruins on a hill across from the fortress for more great views. There are other things to see a little farther away like the quarry area where the huge fortress stones came from but Dylan got violently ill one night and we needed some downtime. We were also able to eat alpaca (which tastes better than llama), and a local specialty cuy (guinea pig). Cuy is quite popular with tourists as a dare to eat because it is generally fried and served whole with head and claws still attached. It was quite chewy and I thought comparisons to chicken were unfounded. The meat is darker and is probably most similar to rabbit. Since it runs at nearly 10 times the price of a normal local meal it is unlikely we will be eating it again.
Another nice thing about the area is that most of the ladies are still wearing some form of traditional dress. In some cases it is deliberate (along with their accompanying alpacas) as a money-making grab by posing for photos, but that is completely unnecessary as there are so many other people and alpacas running around that authentic photos are still quite easy to come by.
|You can see the granary ruins on the opposite hill|
|Overlooking the valley away from the village|
|Ollantaytambo fortress seen from the granary ruins|
|Guinea pig for lunch anyone?|
There are a few other smaller sights in the valley between Ollantaytambo and Cusco which many drivers offer along the way during transfers between the two. The first of these sites that we visited was at Moray where the Incas set up an experimental agricultural area to test crop growing. The site is set up as a series of terraced circles descending into what must have been a natural depression in the hills. There are 3 of these sets of circles and apparently there is enough of a micro climate between the terraces that they could test various strains of crops to optimize their agricultural techniques and efficiency. If true (so much is not known about most of these ruins) that is impressive. In any case, the ruins have been nicely restored and the rural views nearby are beautiful as well.
Just a few km from Moray are the Salinas de Maras. This is a salt “mining” area which is actually a very large collection of evaporative salt pools that have been set up on the side of a gash in the hills where there is a small stream. They divert the water (already with a high mineral content from the local geology), evaporate and collect. The salt collection goes back to Incan times of course, and today is still privately owned and run by the local families in the area with each owning a different number of pools depending on size, need, wealth, whatever. The whole area was larger than I’d expected and while the concept is nothing new, the salt harvesting I’ve seen in other countries (mostly around the Mediterranean) was a lot flatter and used seawater.
|Salinas de Maras|
|The salt water spring that feeds the pools in an intricate series of channels|
Our final stop on the way back to Cusco was a quick one at Chinchero. Chinchero is probably more famous for its textiles market than for its ruins but we were not there on a market day and so it was pretty quiet overall. There was still the plethora of souvenir stalls lining the walk to the plaza and ruins selling the same thing as every other stall in every other stop we’ve made in Cusco and the valley. The ruins were just below the central plaza and colonial church and all that remains are more terraced walls. Once again I have no idea what its purpose was.
|Chinchero plaza and colonial church|
|A Chinchero street with central drainage|
With most of the Sacred Valley less than an hour away from Cusco, many tourists just make day trips out and our final visit to the area was to Pisac a small town about 45 minutes from Cusco and home of another popular market and the the 2nd best ruins in the area after Machu Picchu. The ruins sit on top of a hill above the town and the most enjoyable way to visit is to take a taxi up to the ruins and then hike the few km back down to town. The ruins are of a series of terraces leading down the mountain from a village sitting at the top of a hill. There are a number of other smaller groups of ruined “neighbourhoods” scattered about the area also linked by trails. We had another beautiful day and the views of the valley were stunning as well. Of all the ruins around Cusco, this was the most important one to not miss.
|Overlooking the valley from the Pisac ruins|
|Pisac ruins and terraces|
|Exploring Pisac market|