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October 14th 2018
Published: October 14th 2018
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For breakfast we went back to the rooftop restaurant at our hotel and had the somewhat meager Hotel Polo breakfast buffet (no eggs and no avocado!). I had heard about the good avocados in Peru and the bountiful breakfasts where the rest of our traveling troupe stayed, but sadly had not had the pleasure yet. But we did drink cupfuls of coca tea to stabilize our rocky stomachs.

Safe water is dear in Peru, especially when tourists can’t drink from the tap, so an early morning hike for bottled water was in order. Larry joined me in search of water while Dave and Celia went up to get ready to leave. Morning traffic in Cusco seems to be one dangerous bottleneck after the other which doesn’t impact pedestrians unless you want to cross the street. Then you take your life in your hands. Elias warned us early on to not expect Peruvians to stop for you in the road. We gulped and ran. With the great Inca emperor Pachacuteq watching over us, we crossed a very busy intersection to get to the apothecary on the other side. I later found out that the 37’ tall monument to this icon of Peruvian identity, perched on top of a six story tower on the roundabout on Avenida del Sol, is actually a tower museum. With no time for local museums, bottled water in hand, we boarded the bus and were off to explore the highly anticipated lower elevations of the Sacred Valley.

Stopping and starting through the congested morning traffic in Cusco, we didn’t get far before we were sitting in front of the small Orellana Pumaqchupan water fountain park with its great smiling sun face giving us optimism for the day ahead. After picking up the remainder of our touring “family” and negotiating the incredible traffic, we were on our way out of Cusco and heading down elevation to the Sacred Valley of Peru. According to Inca mythology, the valley had a sacred character because the Urubamba river that flows along the valley floor, joined the Milky Way, the Andean celestial river. Looking out of the bus window as we traveled through the rolling, fertile land of the Peruvian Southern Sierra, we were reminded that we were in farmland as patchworks of golden brown fields of harvested crops punctuated by an occasional cow or llama slowly drifted by.

Andean Colors, a small weaving and textile center, was the first stop on our busy day. Set among the foothills of the Andes, this picturesque alpaca textile farm gave us a wonderful opportunity to learn first hand about the work of these talented weavers. We lined up to feed the alpacas before entering the open gravel courtyard where we were given lessons by Marco Marquito. He and his wife manage this small cooperative designed to offer a new life to women like his wife who was a single mother and had previously been a victim of violence. The women who work here are similarly single mothers who were also victims of violence and given an opportunity and a safe haven here. Marco, speaking English, assisted by some the of Andean or Quechua women who did not have skills in English, explained the dying, processing and weaving of the fine alpaca wool. The women who work here wore colorful red felt hats shaped like a shallow fruit bowl; contrasting black, beautifully patterned designs were inside the “dish”. Peruvian women know how to wear a headpiece. Their outfits were also wonderful to see, with white embroidered blouses, black skirts and woven mantas, or lliqlla in Quechua, used to carry their babies on their backs while working. Smart and stylish women with a bright future.

A sample of baby alpaca wool and artificial mixed wool was passed around for us to be able to feel the textural differences, and learn about the value of the baby alpaca over the cheaper imitation. One of our group offered the palm of her hand to demonstrate the mixing of blood with a variety of herbs to produce the colors used in dying the wool. I hope the stains came off easily! I got the easier demonstration of dipping a skein of wool into various dyes to observe the results on the alpaca wool. After learning about the process we were given the opportunity to purchase the lush handmade woven scarves, sweaters, socks and toys made by these women. Andean Colors is a wonderful women's cooperative providing work opportunities to make quality alpaca textiles enabling single women with children to thrive. I was so glad that Kaypi gave us the opportunity to meet these wonderful women and to purchase items that would support their budding enterprise.

A view of Ollantaytambo and grain storages perched on the steep side of the mountain opposite A view of Ollantaytambo and grain storages perched on the steep side of the mountain opposite A view of Ollantaytambo and grain storages perched on the steep side of the mountain opposite

If you click on this photo (as in all photos here) it will blow up so you can see the rectangular grain storages precariously built on this mountain. Quite amazing really.

Our bus left the weavers and bumped and jiggled north on semi paved roads through the fertile valley passing more farms, and mountain views until we began the steep switchback descent into the town of Ollantaytambo, or “Ollanta” which at 9,160’ elevation, is “the city dedicated to corn”. Our Kaypi group gathered with Franco at the base of the ruins and we listened as he spoke about the design and history of Ollantaytambo pointing to photos of the ruins built in the shape of the sacred Inca llama. From where we stood we could see the image of Tunupa the creator god, etched by nature on the side of Pinkuylluna mountain across from the ruins of Ollantaytambo.

Next to Tunupa, high up on an impossibly steep slope is a series of storehouses for the grain and corn that were grown on the numerous terraces on Ollantaytambo’s steep slopes. The terraces provided a variety of different environmental growing zones created by a variation in altitude. In addition, the terraces were protected from the wind by lateral walls which also absorbed solar radiation during the day, then released the collected heat at night resulting in a unique microclimate that would be several degrees warmer than the surrounding area.

I had read that the Spanish conquistadores, in their 40 year campaign against the Incas, launched an attack on Emperor Manco Inca’s town of Ollantaytambo in 1537. The formidable ruins are perched high on a cliffside and considered part temple and part military fortress. It was here that the Incas won their greatest military victory against the Spanish conquistadors, albeit one of very few battles against the invaders.

Dave decided to nurse his sore back and altitude problems at the base of the ruins while I, after much deliberation, belatedly attempted to climb the steep stairs, and, breathing very slowly, reached a height of 9,450’, with the rest of our group. My climb was rewarded with an incredible view looking back over the steep terraces to the base of the ruin and the town below. That climb also afforded me an opportunity to see first hand the amazing Wall of the Six Monoliths at the Temple of the Sun. Typical of the genius of Inca engineers, these structures were designed with a combination of fieldstones and cut and fitted multisided, monolithic pink granite stones to last through all that the millennia could throw at them, including earthquakes. When I finally reached the Temple of the Sun I was able to see first hand why this structure is one of the great mysteries of the Andes. Six massive stones approximately 36’ wide by 14’ high, and each weighing 50 to 100 tons each, were dragged 2 1/2 miles from the quarry of Chachiqata on the other side of a 1,000’ deep valley to be pulled and rolled up this incredibly steep mountain to ultimately be lined up together so tightly that a credit card could not pass through. Littered around the base of the temple are even larger stone blocks that locals call “tired stones” because the stones were too tired to reach their final destination. I understood. I was tired too. Work was abandoned here for reasons yet unknown; could have been altered weather conditions, sickness, or maybe everyone was just plain exhausted.

We all needed a break after that amazing climb so we hopped on the bus to the Muna Restaurant for a buffet luncheon with live Andean pipe music. As our bus climbed back up out of “Ollanta” town, several
I saw these guys from our bus window riding the roads near the Moray Crop Site I saw these guys from our bus window riding the roads near the Moray Crop Site I saw these guys from our bus window riding the roads near the Moray Crop Site

Since the light was not great for the crops, I thought this would be more fun to see
astute travelers noticed an enormous 711 sign on the mountain getting a chuckle from the travel weary. Muna, true to its name, had plenty of muna tea for the tummy weary along with an enormous selection of Peruvian and Asian specialties. Of course there was the ubiquitous quinoa soup and my now favorite pesto pasta (safe for those who were altitude challenged). I did try the smoked alpaca, which was tough, and I was urged to try the “famous” donut from Peru that is to be dipped in a honey sauce. I can’t say that I will be pining for that at home.

Rested and fed we hopped back on the bus and drove south passing signs to Moray, the Inca Agricultural Laboratory. As we drove through more of the farmland in the Sacred Valley I was pleased to see the light from the afternoon sun making the landscape come alive but unfortunately the Moray Crop Fields were deeply shaded making photography there difficult at best. In addition the wind was so fierce we left the exposed overlook and retreated inside a building for a discussion of these testing fields. Moray is an incredible feat of agricultural ingenuity, with nearly 100 large terraces that rise and fall in elevation, the Inca used these unique designs for crop experimentation testing the adaptability of potatoes, quinoa and corn to varying climate and altitude conditions. The Incas were incredible at growing enough food to sustain their large empire, and this is where they perfected their craft. 3,000 varieties of potato were developed by the Inca using this productive crop terrace practice. Back on the bus, we were off to the salt mines!

Sandwiched in a valley in between rugged mountains near the Urubamba River, the Maras Salt Mines, really more flats than mines, are a dramatic patchwork of pools varying in sizes, elevations, and striking in their unintended designs with shades of brown to blue to creamy white. There are about 3,000 of these shallow pools fed by mineral rich springs. These springs come up from the mountain to pass over interior salt cavities that then exit the mountains’ cavities to ultimately flow through trenches designed to fill the pools. Each pool is roughly two inches deep changing color as an intricate system of spring-fed waters continue to wash over the pools. The pools start out brown in color and lighten as water continues to flow, changing the color as it fills. When the pool is filled, the keeper of the pool lets the hot Andes sun evaporate the waters, then the salt is harvested with paddles, sieves and shovels. Back breaking work for sure.

After climbing down the steep steps to get close enough to dip our fingers into the warm water to taste the salt, I looked across at some nearby pools and saw some of the families bent over working in their pools, presumably collecting salt by hand. Franco informed us that the mineral-rich salt doesn’t just add flavor to dishes, it’s also good for you. It contains magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc, which help reduce stress and prevent anaemia and osteoporosis. It also provides a buffer for blood sugar levels, preventing diabetes and enabling diabetics to use less insulin. Good to know!

Today the Maras is a cooperative with 250 participating families, continuing a practice that dates back to the Chanapata Culture, long before the Incas. I was pleased to see that Maras is unspoiled by the commercialization of tourism giving us an opportunity to see first hand a practice that goes back thousands of years. It was getting dark and at 9,919’ with a chill wind whipping through the shadows of the mountains I was ready to get back into the protection of the bus for our ride back to Cusco.

It was well past our normal dinner time and we struggled with the choice of eating or simply going to bed. We opted to eat. Celia and Larry joined us at the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Polo where Dave had a brownie ala mode and I chose cheese stuffed fried wontons with an avocado dip. I knew they had avocado there! And who said dessert couldn’t be dinner?


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