Sitting on a wooden bench in Cusco's pretty Plaza de Armas surrounded by beautiful and ancient buildings we had a decision to make. We'd just visited a tour office and been informed that if we wanted to do the famous Inca Trail then we could as due to low season permits were still available. The Inca Trail books up months in advance as only a select number of hikers a day are allowed entry, as we had no idea when we'd be in Peru we had discounted the idea of doing it completely. I was in turmoil, would we regret it if we didn't do it? Could we justify the high cost? Were we even feeling up to it after the altitude sickness in La Paz? In the end we decided to turn down the opportunity. Low season in Peru coincides with rainy season and I wasn't keen on the idea of trekking at high altitude in the pouring rain for three days, sometimes saying no to something is the right thing to do.
Instead we booked a minibus to take us from Cusco to Hidroelectrica where we'd then walk along the railway tracks to Aguas Calientes the town that sits in a valley just below Machu Picchu. Our trip wasn't for a few days so we also booked two tours of the Sacred Valley to fit in as much as possible into our time in the area. After a day of decision making and acclimatising to the altitude we treated ourselves to dinner at Greenpoint a fantastic vegan restaurant. Walking at dusk through the vibrant alleyways by the Incan stone walls to the restaurant we peeked in little shops selling all sorts of curios; incense sticks, little statues and colourful fabrics; I was reminded of the quirky crystal shops in Glastonbury, England.
The next day in the afternoon we joined a tour of the local Sacred Valley sights. We were taken to Qorikancha a former convent turned museum where we learned how Incan walls were made; they required no mortar or cement as the stones were carved so precisely to fit together. We bought a chocolate covered custard filled doughnut from a local woman holding a tray outside, her sweet treats we're going down a storm. We visited many of the local sights but our favourite was Saqsayhuaman where we had just enough time to walk to a viewpoint over Cusco and admire the huge stone walls.
Now we'd adjusted to the high altitude we decided to spend a full day exploring the Sacred Valley with an organised tour. The Boleto Turístico that we bought for 130 soles the day before would be our entrance ticket to all but one of the sights. First we stopped at a cultural centre to watch local women weave with naturally dyed wools, we were given a traditional drink to taste and of course encouraged to buy their handcrafted wares.
The circular terraces of Moray were a sight to behold, each terrace was used by the Incans to grow experimental crops. The formation of the walls reminded me of an amphitheatre, the crops have since been replaced with lush green grass which is well managed. If you look closely at the walls you will notice small rocks jutting out which were the steps used by the Incans to easily walk from one terrace to the next.
Ollantaytambo is a name recognised by many who know of the Sacred Valley, the train to Machu Picchu departs from the small town but it also has an Incan sight of its own. We walked through the dusty town to the fortress and began walking up the steps. It was a hot day, the sun was blinding and the sky a perfect blue. The heat made walking a challenge, sweat dripped from my skin and my breathing was laboured. Everyone in the group tried to hide in a tiny sliver of shade created by the stone walls but the guide moved us all on to the top. The views of Ollantaytambo and the Incan sight were beautiful, facing the town and to the left was a cliff face where the Incan’s kept their produce, like a huge natural larder. To the right was a valley and on the other side of the valley was a quarry where the stones were sourced to build the fortress. The Incan’s would somehow have cut and collected the stone and with their might transported it across the valley and up the steep slopes.
We tried our first Inca Cola at Salineras de Maras a salt mine which we paid an extra 10 soles to enter. Walking down the steps through market stalls selling tiny bags of medicinal salt, chocolate bars and trinkets we felt relief at being under some shade. Inca Cola is a luminous yellow colour, I couldn’t help but think it looked toxic when I saw other people swigging from the clear bottles with a blue label. It tasted however, just like sweet bubblegum. Water is collected in pools and evaporated to leave the salt behind, the pools looked like a patchwork quilt of browns in the valley.
My favourite sight of the day was Pisac. As we walked through the gates high in the valley the low sun shone through clouds casting shadows over the landscape. A man was playing a pipe; a tune I found so familiar as it has been played all throughout Peru. I’ve since learned that the tune is none other than Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, it will forever remain a reminder of the beautiful Peruvian landscapes. We walked through a stone structure and there stood Pisac, draped in golden light, infamous lush green terraces and stone walls. We walked to the stone buildings, high on the top it was windy and we began to feel a chill in the air. The guide pointed at holes in the cliff face across the valley; they are Incan tombs that have since been raided by people looking to make money selling the priceless trinkets found inside on the black market.
Visiting the Sacred Valley sights has fuelled my interest in Incan culture and only makes me more excited to see the most famous Incan sight of them all, Machu Picchu.
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