is the name of the indigenous ethnic people of the Central Andes and the name of their language, the language of the Incas. They still occupy the dizzying heights today. They are not a tall people. Shanna would fit in height-wise and Vibert would feel tall. The Quechuas' weathered, leather-like faces told of countless hours in the sun working fields of corn and quinoa grown on precarious perches on the steep and verdant inclines of the Andes.
Edgar was Quechua and was as described above. He skillfully piloted the big white bus through the crush of Cuzco traffic, along streets lined with brownish-red, mud-colored buildings and away from downtown. The idea now was to drive to lower elevation to acclimatize but it appeared that we first had to go even higher and soon we were gazing down at Cuzco city nestled in a valley.
The scenery was stunning when we leveled out. Lush green grasslands and fields of maize and beans stretched out before us, punctuated now and then by a cluster of tiny houses in tiny settlements, all serving as a most picturesque foreground and contrast to the grandeur of the snow-capped Andes which raked the sky.
We caught occasional glimpses of llama and alpaca grazing on the roadside while their owners, brilliantly adorned in colorful traditional clothing, laid out souvenirs and knitted apparel of alpaca wool for the passing tourists.
We were in The Sacred Valley
(El Valle Sagrado) of the Incas - a 70-mile-long (112 km) but narrow strip of verdurous land high up in the Peruvian Andean highlands. Rio Urubamba cut a meandering path through the valley. The Incas, ancient masters of astronomy, thought it sacred because of the way the Milky Way arc over the valley at certain times of the year. Also, maize grew in abundance and maize was the main ingredient of chicha, a fermented brew consumed in large quantity by the Incas, especially during ceremonial occasions. Lofty snow-capped peaks as high as 16,400 feet (5,000 meters) set off by a lush green valley and a fast-flowing river ... yes, there was mystique in this place alright. In the 1400s, El Valle Sagrado was an area of estates and country homes of the Incan royalty.
In an hour-and-a-half, we had descended 1,731 feet (527 meters) and we had Urubamba (from the Quechuan word ‘Urupampa
’ meaning “flat land of spiders”),
the largest town in the valley, in sight. The road plunged downhill and we continued straight through Urubamba.
Edgar pointed out four egg-shaped, glass cocoons fastened (but appearing to be floating) high up on the mountainside and over the roadway. He explained, in broken but understandable English, that those were hotel rooms which we accessed by rope. We filed this info away for future reference.
Thirty minutes outside of Urubamba, we arrived at our destination, Ollantaytambo (the double L combination makes a ‘Y’ sound in Spanish). At 9,160 feet (2,792 meters) it was significantly lower than Cuzco and the hope was that our sorochi
(altitude sickness) would subside. Ollantaytambo (say that four times, fast) was built as a playground by the legendary Inca Emperor Pachacuti and is steeped in history and culture. As a matter of fact, this small town of 700 residents has some of the oldest continuously occupied buildings anywhere in South America.
Samanapaq, hidden behind huge metal doors that open out to a dusty, narrow cobblestoned street, was an idyllic boutique hotel dwarfed on two sides by mountains. We checked in, asked Tula, the welcoming and talkative receptionist, for a restaurant recommendation and headed
out. It was surreal to walk on the very streets laid out and used by the Incas. Totally cobbled, it was barely wide enough to allow a tourist bus to pass through without squashing pedestrians. The buildings flanking the road was of adobe (mud brick) construction and totaling fitting for the scene - a scene so primitive, so authentic that it made the old Beetle car parked on the side look out of place. In a few short minutes, the claustrophobia of the streets gave way to the openness of Ollantaytambo’s Plaza de Armas. Every Spanish town or city, it seems, has a Plaza de Armas - a central meeting spot of sorts. This was relatively small by comparison to others we had encountered but it was yet quite a commercial space - bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, internet cafes - but with local flair. Overlooking the square, off in the distance on the mountainside were ruins from Inca civilisation. From this now ruined fortress, legendary Inca warrior-emperor Manco Inca and his men, some recruited from Amazonian tribes, rained down arrows, javelins and rocks from slings on Hernando Pizzaro (brother of famous Spanish explorer Francisco Pizzaro) and his legion of 31,000.
In a move of sheer genius, Manco Inca diverted a nearby waterway flooding the area below the fortress causing Pizzaro's horses to get bogged down in mud. But these ruins were of even greater significance serving as a series of temples, chief of which was a temple to Inti, the sun god, whom the Incas revered.
Many tiny streets, like tributaries, branched out from the square. We took one that led downhill and over a covered, ancient-looking footbridge linking the two flanks of a deep gorge through which crystal-clear, fast-flowing glacial melt streamed. Little white flowers lined the river. Just across the bridge and up a flight a stairs, we found ourselves in Apu Veronica, the restaurant Tula had recommended. Apu Veronica and its fare was a foodie’s delight and could well be the principal subject of an entire blog. The Alpaca A La Plancha
was to die for - tender, perfectly seasoned and grilled to perfection. So too the Arroz con Pato
(duck with rice) and the cheesy pizza baked in the wood-fire mud oven behind us. Half-gallon tumblers of jugos naturales and the now mandatory yellow syrup of Inka Kola capped a most memorable meal eaten with
a most memorable view. While we ate, the young Peruano waitress asked if she could take fussy little Nathan for a walk. We agreed but both exchanged concerned glances when she disappeared down the stairs, re-emerged on the other side of the bridge and made a beeline down the road with Nate in a cuddle. Thankfully, he was safely returned, cheerful and glad for the breath of fresh air and change of scenery.
The air became bracingly cold the very moment the sun slid behind the mountains. The heaters in our rooms were basically very stylish canisters that were filled with ethanol by the hotel staff and then lit. It’s bright blue flame then heated surrounding rocks and, subsequently elevated the room temperature. We didn’t know when the flames died. We were fast asleep.
Breakfast was a veritable feast. God, we love this place! We would end up spending another day here, waking up early to see the town slowly come to life; exploring the markets where little old Quechua women sold veggies, quinoa and corn; aimlessly following and marvelling at the ancient network of perfectly-cut stone aqueducts and totally soaking up the ambiance of this little gem
in the highlands. But it was time to move on and Edgar dropped us at the railway station from which departed both Inca Rail and Peru Rail. The destination was an hour-and-a-half away - Aguas Calientes (Hot Water) in Machu Picchu Pueblo. And just in case you are wondering
: the lower altitude did help to ease the sorochi
and so too did some tea. Three cups of tea made from locally-sourced leaves steeped in hot water. The miracle leaves, you ask? Coca leaves.
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