Making our way to Machu Picchu

As we flew into Cusco from Lima, excitement was high. We were at the very beginning of our week in the Sacred Valley, where we would be not only meeting up with my parents for a weeklong visit, but making our way up to the ruins of Machu Picchu. This was the first major tourist destination of our trip so far, one that we had talked about and planned for months. We immediately made our way through the Sacred Valley by taking a taxi from the Cusco airport into the city, then another to the small village of Urubamba. There, we geared up for our beautiful train ride to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes, where we would meet up with Momma Leah and Rand Dawg. We spent the evening in Urubamba having a yummy pizza dinner, and ended with sitting on the steps of the cathedral in the main square, where the village locals had set up a huge projection screen and sound system in order to watch the soccer match between Peru and Brazil. The entire town of Urubama appeared to be in attendance, and vendors set up popcorn stands and refreshment carts at the base of the stairs. The game didn’t go well for Peru, and the attendees appeared a little subdued in result. But it was still a fun and unexpected experience – a slice of daily life in the Sacred Valley.

We awoke early, had a breakfast prepared by our sweet hostel host (breakfast burritos, which were quite a treat), and jumped in yet another taxi to the neighboring town Ollantaytombo, where we caught the train to the town Aguas Calientes. We met up with my parents and made our arrangements for the next day. Our train tickets to leave Aguas Calientes had already been purchased, since that has to be booked months in advance, but we still had to get our tickets to Machu Picchu, and our bus tickets up to the site. After our errands for the day were complete, we were able to walk through and explore the town, which was extremely touristy, but charming, and enjoy some time just relaxing and catching up with Mom and Dad. Paul, Mel and I were treated to a yummy dinner by Randy at their hotel (our fanciest dinner of the trip), and returned to our room for the night to try and get some shut eye for the following day, which was a bit hard because of how excited we all were for Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Waking up at 4am isn’t usually a fun thing, but on this day we hopped right out of bed. We had gotten the earliest bus tickets possible up to the site, at 5am sharp. Randy yet again had treated us and booked a personal tour guide for the morning, so we met at Mom and Randy’s hotel, met up with our tour guide and caught our bus. Halfway up the very windy and steep mountain, our bus broke down. Thankfully, it was a quick fix and within about 15 minutes we were all moved to another bus and finally got up to the main gates.

This was a moment that I had been imagining for so long. Only having seen pictures of this place had made for some assumptions on how it would actually look and feel like in person. As we made our way up to the top view point (the view seen in most pictures of Machu Picchu), my heart was racing, and I had the realization that this bucket list item was really being crossed out. Approaching the lookout, the view overcame my emotions and my eyes welled with tears. The place is full of mystical air, spectacular views and a magical feeling when you start to think about the Incas that built and lived their lives in the very place you are standing. The magic is endless, and what I thought made it so magical was that this place was created in not only a difficult place to get to, but it’s still standing. The buildings and structures not only had a purpose, but the location itself had a purpose for the Incas. Despite its reputation as a lost “city”, the site was built as an exclusive getaway for Incan royalty and religious elites. Given its important occupants, it was heavily guarded and located in a place hard to reach and easy to defend. A small population of caretakers, farmers, and other personnel lived there year-round, ready to host the elite guests whenever they arrived.

It is nearly indescribable the way I felt there. We walked through the entire site with our guide as he explained some possible explanations for the structures and their locations, taking many stops along the way to capture priceless moments on camera. Some of the pictures are quite silly, but they are some of my most favorite to look back on, because even those bring back the exuberance I had while exploring those ancient grounds. After our morning of exploring the site, which took about four hours, the three of us ‘kids’ parted ways with Leah and Rand Dawg and went on a little hike to the Inca Bridge, a rock and wood bridge built along a steep cliff, which we speculated was an entrance into Machu Picchu at some point. The 35-minute hike was pretty special. It followed along a trail that had been walked along and used for such a long time. The magical feeling off the main site still lingered in the air as we sat and looked across the way to the precarious bridge, now blocked from tourists attempting to cross.
By the time we were leaving Machu Picchu, the crowds had really started to form and we were even more thankful for the experience and the fact that we had gotten there as early as we had, to be able to see the place with a bit smaller of a crowd. We got back into Aguas Calientes, had a quick snack, got our bags from our hotels, and got to the train station where we caught our 4-hour train back through the sacred valley to Cusco. The train ride was yet another unforgettable part of our day. Not only did we get to sit at a table, but we had a small meal and drinks served (coca tea for the elevation change that causes a small headache), along with a fashion show full of sweaters and other garments made of Peruvian llama wool, set to traditional music as the train rumbled down the tracks. I even got to join in on the show and made my fashion show debut while wearing a sweater while I walked up and down the train car aisle.

We arrived in Cusco and grabbed a taxi from the train station to our hostel. Our very action packed day didn’t end there. Sadly, we had our first – and hopefully only – accident of the trip. As the taxi pulled up in front of our hostel and were opening doors to all get out, a tour van came cruising down the narrow cobblestone road from behind and nearly took off the driver’s side backseat door. Mel and I, still in the taxi, screamed, as Paul, already out on the sidewalk, was trying to figure out what had just happened. No one was hurt, but the taxi driver clearly was going to need a new door. In no time the three of us were surrounded by ten people, mostly passengers from the van, all speaking Spanish so quickly that we couldn’t understand a word, other than “policia”. Finally a couple of them, who spoke very good english, explained to us that the tour van driver believed that the accident was our fault and we would have to pay for the damage. Our driver had no insurance, which apparently isn’t required in Peru. Fear set in, and as we looked around we realized we were steps away from the police station. Oddly enough, the police that were outside and saw the accident at no time tried to get involved, though a couple came over to stand nearby as we all talked – something that seemed quite foreign to us Americans. And what was even more foreign was how the entire ordeal was resolved.

We were told we had two options. One, go to the police station to spend hours filling out reports and paperwork until we figured out how to pay for the damage. Or option two, let the taxi driver give us a price on how much the fixing of the door would be and pay that amount. Our eyes widened with fear of how much this all would cost. The taxi driver made a quick call to someone, and told us the damage would be $200 in US dollars. We breathed a sign of relief that it wasn’t thousands – and that we had that much on us. We handed over the cash and got out of the street and into our hostel as quick as possible. Overall it was a sobering and scary moment, and one that seemed to take a few hours from which to totally calm down. What an end to a beyond-epic day.

The Ruins of Ollantayatambo

Our first tour of the Sacred Valley took us from Cusco through a few stops, with magnificent views along the way of the valley itself from atop the the mountains that surround it. We were able to watch and learn how yarn from llama wool is made and dyed. At that stop we were greeted by women wearing traditional dresses and hats, with braids in their hair. As we sipped on fresh coca tea, a teenage girl explained, in sweet broken english, the entire formula of how yarn is made. The process has been one that their ancestors have been using for generation after generation. First, the wool is washed in natural detergent to whiten it, then dried, and after those steps they literally rub the wool together and are able to produce long strands that become the yarn. After the yarn is made, they use all types of natural plants, flowers and even bugs to dye the yarn with a little help from hot water. In a poignant moment, our hostess took a few little bugs and smashed and smeared them into her palm, raising it to show us how it made a bright red color. She then put some on her lips and said they use it as a natural makeup. She then took us over to watch older traditional women work on their table runners and blankets. All which are made out of the yarn that they hand-made. We were able to feed llamas and also buy some handmade goods directly from the woman who made them.

Deeper into the valley, we visited Ollantaytombo, the town we had left from to get to Aguas Calientes a few days before. The ruins there were extremely similar in many ways to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Not as large or built up, but with our excellent personal tour guide for the day (who has a masters in Anthropology), we got a deep understanding for how and why the Incan people built these sites, and how they lived in such places. We learned that the Incas were very community-based. All people in the community had a ‘job’ or calling which they contributed to various projects. Their communities would consist of everything from farmers to scientists and mathematicians. As a whole the Incas, were very interested in learning about the land they lived from and also praising what they had which they believed all came from mother earth herself – a very forward-thinking and ambitious people.

The ruins in Ollantaytambo, sitting on the hillside above town, were largely farming terraces with a small amount of housing and or lookout spots for the valley. Most of the housing in ancient times is still in use in the town today. Since most of the Sacred Valley is deep with steep sides, the Incas had to learn how to adapt crops and store the food they would grow year-round. The Incas were a group that invented the idea of irrigation, and were masters at cutting, transporting, and building with huge rocks. We could even see the enormous ramp that led from the rock quarry across the valley to the ruins, used to move the huge stones making up the structure. Our guide was full of knowledge that helped us understand what we had seen the day before at Machu Picchu and what we would see later on in our trip.

Our tour ended with a walk through a market place that was full of all things Peru. Llama wool goods like hats, sweaters, and blankets, art, jewelry, and many llama figurines which Mom got pretty excited about – ending up with a small collection to take home.

Incan Salt Mines / Moray Moray / Sacsaywaman

Our second day of guided tours started with a drive up to the famous Incan “fortress” that sits above the city of Cusco. The place is called Sacsaywaman (which is pronounced like ‘sassy woman’). Calling it a fortress is a misnomer – it was used primarily as a sacred grounds and for community gatherings. The primary infrastructure is a large rock wall (using rocks even bigger than those used in Machu Picchu) that zigzags back and forth to symbolize, from an overhead view, the teeth of a puma. Our guide showed us an even more impressive feat of Incan architectural planning: on a map of Cusco, it is obvious that the entire city is built in the shape of a puma. Sascaywaman is the head, and the zigzagging wall is in perfect placement as the teeth. The puma was important to the Incas because it symbolized the earth itself. A wide open grassy area adjacent to the wall hosted the large gatherings. It was easy to imagine thousands of Cusco residents roaming around the area, like a modern day fairgrounds.
After a scenic drive back into the Sacred Valley, our next stop was the impressive Incan salt pools, used for the production of salt and still actively used today. Underground, a huge deposit of natural salt combined with a hot spring flows up from the hillside at a rate of several gallons per minute. The Incans took advantage of this fortunate geological occurrence by routing the salty stream through small aqueducts. A maze of pools about ten feet in diameter dominate the hillside, and are periodically opened to the aqueducts to allow small trickles of the water in until they are full. They are then closed and allowed to evaporate for days in the sun, until all that remains is crystalized salt, which is then scraped up and collected. Over time, the site has grown and now includes dozens of pools, in a constant cycle of filling, drying and harvesting. Eight local families have owned and maintained the pools for generations. What looked like white, flat, and sturdy levels of platforms from afar were actually pools of mushy and, at times, watery salt. Walking on the small trails between the pools allowed us to feel and taste the crystals. On our way to exit the pools, we were able to purchase small bags of salt, some plain, and others flavored with garlic, oregano, and paprika for cooking. We still have a few packets and are happily reminded about the day every time we sprinkle the salt while cooking.

Our final and most impressive stop for the day was the circled crop terraces named Moray Moray. At first glance from the hillside above, the formation looks like something that might have been made by aliens, or better yet a couple small “stadiums” where sporting events might have taken place. But we learned very quickly that the layers of concentric terraces made of rock walls and soil were placed in such a way by the incas to learn how to grow all types of vegetables. Due to the unique location in a depression in the mountainside, and the various elevations of the terraces, they were able grow foods at incrementally different temperatures, irrigate at various amounts, and eventually learn what types of food flourish in specific conditions in the Sacred Valley, like a giant farming laboratory. With each new area and culture conquered as the Incan empire expanded, the armies brought back seeds of the native fruits and vegetables, providing new types of corn, potatoes, squash, and many other experimental crops to develop for the masses.

All in all, both days of our guided tours gave us a much deeper appreciation of how the Incan people lived. The architectural and agricultural techniques that they created are still used today, and gave us an understanding what daily life would have been like so many years ago. I would say the tours and the chance to get to see such spectacular areas of the Sacred Valley gave us a sense of complete awe. The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are definitely places and experiences I will hold on to and never forget.

Highlights of our time in Cusco

In addition to our wonderful three days of exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, Cusco itself was a great place to stay and explore for the other five days. Since Leah and Randy were visiting, we made the most of it by doing all we could. We were able to go to mass at the smaller of the two cathedrals on the main square of Cusco, which was something I had wanted to do the whole trip. Impressive and beautifully old churches and cathedrals are something I have gotten used to seeing and being able to walk through, but sitting down for a night mass and being able to fully soak in the experience was a special opportunity. We had many nights of great food. Peru, by far, has had the best food that we have eaten along our journey. We even got Mom to try a traditional South American-style menu of the day lunch, called “Almuerzo”. At the restaurant we picked, chicken, rice, soup and veggies were the selection for the day, and it was delicious. We were able to walk through the Incan Museum, which was even more interesting after our tours that filled our minds with knowledge about the Incan people and traditions. One afternoon was spent with exploring the largest cathedral on the main square. A visit we thought would be a short one lasted a couple hours because of all the paintings, statues and beautiful works of tile and wall paintings to see.

Our time in Cusco was a very happy one. We had a full week of time with my parents, which was very much needed to take care of the slight homesickness that was building. And it seemed that at every turn there was more history to learn about. We did have to say goodbye to our travel buddy Melissa, as she made her way back to Portland. We have wished quite a few times that she could have stayed longer! We miss you Mel! Paul and I had another day in Cusco after the parents and Mel left, which we used to explore the less tourist area of the city, and get a look at the daily life. We walked through probably the largest market we have seen. It seemed to go on for block after block, and in no time we realized we had walked through market streets for a few hours. It was a fun and exciting way to wrap up our time in Cusco.