Puno to Cusco and the Sacred Valley

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October 14th 2017
Published: October 14th 2017
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August 31: We are only 3 days into this trip and already I am wondering how people survive being on organized tours. So far, it has been full on every day and these early starts are killers. We had eaten and were ready to go by 6:30am for the next adventure. To give you an idea of how cold it was - there was a large outdoor heater, inside the lobby!!!!! The rooms were warm with water radiators and the beds had HEAVY wool blankets but it seemed there was no warmth anywhere else. We were transferred to the MER bus terminal for our tourist bus ride to Cusco. Unfortunately, our assigned seats were towards the back of the bus ( the Travel sick seats - for some) but we ended up with 2 seats each which was really handy because when the people in front of us reclined their seats (which they did because they could) there was absolutely no leg room. So being able sit sideways was a huge benefit. And being on a tourist bus which was one of many going the same route, we were all given purple identifying lanyards for green bus #2. Hopefully the first and last time I am ever in a group identified like this!!!!

It seemed like every couple of hours there was some kind of stop so the entire journey of 10 hours was not too painful. The first stop was Pukara, a pre Iincan settlement. Here we were given a tour of the museum (which we declined in favour of wandering around the small town square). Not a particularly exciting stop but a chance to get a snack or a drink - or to buy from one of the many tourist stands. This area is known for its ceramics, in particular the bulls we had seen on rooftops - always in pairs, they bring good luck and prosperity - and that was the primary item on sale.

The next stop was La Raya, the highest point between Cusco and Puno at 4,335 m. This was a very picturesque spot with the high snowy mountains providing a great back drop to the colourful fabrics and blankets that were for sale (along with more opportunities to pay for a photo of a “lady with alpaca”).

And then it was downhill from the altiplano into the Cusco valley. Our itinerary said that we would stop at Sicuani for lunch and I suppose that is where we stopped!. A large restaurant catering to tourist buses where every bus had their assigned tables. Apparently, a great buffet but I was not travelling too well so opted to lie out in the sun - and watch more Peruvian ladies with alpacas making money off photo taking tourists.

The only ruin that we visited was the Incan site at Raqchi - not a lot is remaining other than a few walls, but the artists renditions of what the original temple looked like was pretty impressive. Prior to the destruction by the Spanish, the roof extended 25 m from each side of the peak. The entire structure of temples and houses was surrounded by a 4 km long wall - definitely a good separation between royalty and the common folk. You did not want to be one of the latter as there were fairly high odds that you would be sacrificed at some point. After visiting this site, we were given “free time” which essentially was time allowed for us to visit all the tourist stands in the attractive town square.

The final
stop of the day was to visit the colonial church of Andahuaylillas (known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas due to its baroque decorations). And then at 5pm we rolled into Cusco where we were met by Oscar, another Karikuy representative. After being delivered to the Siete Ventanas Hotel we had a free evening and two whole free days to look forward to.

Cusco was once the capital of the Incan Empire and is now known for its Spanish Colonial Buildings which were constructed on top of the Incan city. There are still a few Incan walls remaining within the city proper and they are amazing for their tight, mortarless constructon. We were walking down one of the narrow alleys and wondering why so many people were having their photo taken while pointing at a stone! Then we realized we were looking at the 12 angled stone in the wall known as Hatun Rumiyoc - quite amazing that hand cutting could result in such perfection. We took ourselves on our own walking tour of the town center, managing to avoid all the guides who were offering their services. Starting in the very large and busy Plaza d’Armas we explored a number of smaller squares, ending up at the San Pedro market which was great for taking food photos but unfortunately ,we were not hungry, having finished breakfast only a short time before. The most challenging thing was to avoid being run over. Cars did not give way and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the police officers who were blowing whistles frantically. At intersections, it paid to look up to see if there were any traffic lights - and if not, just wait for a reasonable gap in traffic and hustle across.

We wanted to visit the Sacred Valley which was the heartland of Incan Civilisation - but all regular tours were expensive and 12 hours in duration - we did want to be on the go from 7am to 7pm the day before the trek. And the organized tours either spent a day at the various ruins OR went to Salinas and Moray - and we wanted to see some of both. Finally, we found an English speaking tour agency who set us up with a car and Spanish speaking driver for an 8 hour tour the next morning. We had hoped for an English speaking driver but that proved to be impossible at short notice and so we hoped that Vera had enough Spanish to get us by.

Our first evening in Cusco we had eaten Pizza (one of the most popular types of restaurant here - and it makes sense. With wood fired pizza ovens in the middle of the restaurant, they are actually warm!!!). Night two it was time to venture a bit further afield and we struck gold at a small restaurant that had various soups and mains for a whole 10 sole each ($4 CAD). Soups ranged from quinoa to asparagus to corn and the mains from spag with meat sauce to a delicious chilli chicken dish. And their Pisco Sours were great too.

September 2 and we were picked up by Ronaldo at 8am. It took us a while to get out of Cusco - first, the traffic congestion in the narrow streets and then the narrow windy roads getting us out of the valley. It seems like every region has its food specialties and we passed a lot of restaurants advertising Chicharone - I had read about this dish earlier (fried pork, onion and
mint) and had the chicken version earlier in Puno and was not impressed. Later today we also passed through “guinea pig” town - a huge guinea pig statue welcomed us but there is something a bit off putting about a cute little guinea pig roasted on a stick. Needless to say, we did not try it, even though it is a very popular delicacy in Peru.

First stop was the pretty little town of Chinchero which is the center of weaving in Peru. We were welcomed to one of the weaving centers and after having admired the pet llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs, were given a demonstration of wool cleaning, dying (using plants and seeds), spinning and weaving. All very interesting - and absolutely no pressure to buy anything!!!!!! In order to visit any of the Incan sites in this area, you need to buy a “Cusco Tourist Ticket” which is good for one, two or ten days. For 70 soles each we got the one day ticket which included a brief visit (another uphill walk) to the Incan ruins in Chinchero. The most interesting thing for me was the ornate stone pathways in the main square. And of course, there were the obligatory market stalls everywhere. So tempting to buy! When we first arrived in Peru, just a few days ago, all the colours seemed so garish but now we are so used to them.

And then it was onto the Moray Ruins - a bit off the beaten path was an understatement as we drove along rough roads, apparently taking a short cut. But the view of the ruins was so worth it - from the Only Peru Guide - The deep bowl shaped hollows are circular in shape and have stair like terraces climbing up to the valley floor above. It is widely believed that the ruins were once an agricultural laboratory used by the Inca. Because of the different conditions at each level (depth, design and orientation with regard to sun and wind), there is a temperature difference of 15C from the top to the bottom which represents the temperature difference between sea level farmland and Andean farming terraces.. It is thought that the terraces and different temperature were used to test crops and experiment with them. Eg: due to experimentation, Peru has more than 2000 varieties of the humble potato. In order to get from one terrace to another, stepping stones were set into the stone retaining walls.

More driving along fairly rough roads that were surrounded by giant mountains and we arrived at the spectacular Salinas de Maras salt ponds. From Wikipedia - Since Pre Incan times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salted water emerges at a spring where the flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto several hundred ancient ponds. As water evaporates, salt precipitates as crystals onto the walls and floors. The water feeder notch is then closed and the pond allowed to go dry. The dry salt is carefully scraped off and carried away. We were able to walk along narrow walkways throughout the pond area and later purchased some salt for cheap!!!!! With background music played by a fellow on an Andean pan flute, this has to be one of the most surreal places I have visited.

Then it was down, down, down to Urabamba and turn right heading to the Incan Ruins of Pisac. Yesterday when we were booking this trip we were advised to take our lunch with us “to save time”. But we figured there would be SOMEWHERE where we could get a snack. Wrong! and by the time we got to the rather hippy town of Pisac, we were starving. The local market was open and seemed a likely option as they had a sandwich stand. When Kelly and I each ordered a sandwich, the owner ran off to buy the ingredients needed - onions, spinach, eggs, tomatoes, avocado. Then she had to run across the street to get propane. Delicious sandwiches but agonizingly slow to make with each piece of vegetable being placed individually on the bun - I swear it took 5 minutes for the spinach alone. And then the whole process had to repeated for 3 more sandwiches - and she only made 2 at a time. An hour later and we were on our way to the ruins - at least it made for a memorable lunch.

The most impressive sight at Pisac were the giant terraces covering the hill sides as well as crumbling ruins that involved yet another uphill walk. Happily, we realized that we were feeling “normal out of breath” rather than “gasping out of breath” - I suppose we are getting acclimatized to the altitude - although being 1000m lower than Taquile Island helped. But seriously - hopefully we are getting used to this as we leave tomorrow for our Incan trail trek. Overall, this was a great day with lots of varied sites - salt ponds, laboratories, weaving and only one ruin - in a country known for its Inca ruins, it is easy to get burned out and loose interest.

Back in Cusco at 4:30pm gave us lots of time to get organized for the Inca trail adventure. We had met with Oscar and our guide, Mario the previous evening for our pre trek briefing. We had hired 2 porters between the four of us to carry our rented sleeping bags and clothing. Turned out they also carried the sleeping pads. With a 14 kg limit for each porter and 2 sleeping bags and 2 pads weighing in at 6kg, that left us 8kg per couple. No problem we thought - but it is amazing how things that appear to weigh nothing, add up when put together. As we would not be showering for 4 days, toiletries were minimal and we only had a couple of T shirts each. All we had to carry each day was a hydrator pack that we thought was roomy enough – but with hindsight, that would be the one thing I would change – a bigger day pack, so extra clothing was easy to access. Once we left camp each morning, we did not see the rest of our gear til late in the afternoon, so we were carrying any layers we thought we might need as well as wet weather gear (heaven forbid).

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