We met our driver, Senor Avelino, at the Cusco Airport after what can only be considered an adventurous flight from Lima over the rugged, snow-capped Andes Mountains.
He met us with a smile and traditional greeting, and quickly packed our belongings in his Toyota for our trip into the Sacred Valley of the Inca.
We’d flown into Lima from Houston the night before, gotten a room at the attached airport hotel (many others chose to sleep on the airport floors) and then took the early flight out of Lima to avoid the dangerous turbulence of later flights.
As we cruised through dusty streets, past vendors and crowded alleyways to the mountains beyond, we soaked in the sights. The statues of bulls perched on red clay rooftops. Sidewalk vendors hawking sticks with splayed cooked guinea pigs. Women wearing traditional and colorful garb and Lincoln-style top hats ambling along the roadway.
Turning a bend in the road, we spotted our first relics from Incan times – tiers of cropland, cut into the mountainside, bolstered by rock container walls hand built more than 600 years ago. Still used today, Senor Avelino pointed out the rows of quinoa, maize (imagine corn with huge, waxy kernels) and papas (a variety of potatoes) that are planted at varying altitudes to best meet the needs of the plants.
His sense of pride in his heritage seeps through in his smile and crinkled wrinkles at the corners of his cocoa brown eyes.
Flowers dot the gently rolling landscape as we descend into the valley to our initial stop on this epic vacation. Pisac is an underrated jewel of the valley, often just a brief stop for hikers and tourist buses. From the moment we arrived in this colonial village, we realize how spectacular it is.
Senior Avelino unloads our luggage as we arrive at the Pisac Inn, right on the famous Pisac market square. The Inn provides a welcome oasis with hot coca tea awaiting us, and lovely rooms overlooking a delightful garden atrium. Flowers abound, as do the colorful, traditional textiles that tastefully make this adobe-and-wood-rafter inn cozy and comfortable.
From the second-floor terrace of the Inn, we sip our tea and look over the world famous Pisac market. Families tear down these intricate wood-and-canvas booths each night and re-erect them in a new location each morning. They load their goods into giant bundles they stack on top of bicycles, motorized scooters and in wagons to take back home for the night, before returning the next morning.
These are industrious, entrepreneurial people who are also warm and genuine in their interactions with strangers and friends alike. Scarves, blankets, bird whistles, knitted finger puppets, sweaters, jewelry, paintings, and carvings fill the stalls from top to bottom, side to side.
As we watch the bustle of activity and trade, a cool wind sweeps down from the mountains above, flapping canvases and twinkling chimes. Every afternoon, around the same time, there’s a brisk mountain wind that streams into this valley, mingling with the locals before calming again for the evening quiet.
For dinner, we visit the guinea pig palace (where the furry creatures live as in a Barbie house) up a few colorful, cobblestone alleyways and then enjoy chicken empanadas from the wood-fired ovens.
Day trips into the valley and up to the mountains
The next morning, we’re awakened by carts rumbling by our window on their way to set up the market. The village gradually comes alive as children giggle and play, as the dogs once again roam free, and as the market is erected.
It’s a new day, a sunny one, filled with prospects. We enjoy our breakfast of purple papas, eggs and homemade bread before exploring the market and catching a taxi up to the Incan fortress that towers above the village.
On the way up, we purchase tickets to the Pisac Ruins site via a Boleto Turistico del Cusco, which will gain us admission into several historical and archaeological sites throughout the region.
The Pisac Ruins are expansive. The taxi drops you off in a parking lot where a half dozen vendors hawk bottled water and handicrafts, and a few folks offer private guided tours. As you pass by, you’ll enter the Pisac gates and you’re greeted by a breathtaking view of the stone-terraced 1440 defensive settlement that overlooks the majestic Andes Mountains.
Here there are tombs, ritual baths, an intriguing Temple of the Sun, from which a variety of other buildings extend, alters, and paths that you can walk nearly endlessly.
This is a place to sit and soak up the wonder and energy of such an ancient place.
There are sporadic groups that meander through the site, but it’s relatively peaceful and little traveled.
After several hours of winding our way along paths, the wind picked up so we decided to head down to the village below.
We meandered through the village and market again, purchased a few gifts, and heralded in the sunset upon the Pisac Inn balcony sipping a couple of Pisac sours, their famous beverage.
We watched in fascination into the night as the market families disassembled and molded the square into yet another configuration, each day different.
The next day we packed up and Senor Avelino drove us to our next stop – the Tierra Viva Valle Sagrado Urubamba, a resort tucked away in the countryside.
Here, llamas and alpacas mow the lawn, and fountains and flowers make for a relaxing spa-like getaway for a bargain price.
After enjoying a meal of traditional Peruvian dishes, including my all-time favorite Tres-leche – a moist and rich cake – we plotted our course for the coming days and enjoyed a massage at the spa.
The next morning, feeling wonderfully relaxed, we set out with Senor Avelino to see the mountain village of Chinchero, the sacred agricultural laboratory of Moray, and the salt mines of Maras.
Chinchero and Moray are both included in the Boleto Turistico, and Maras cost 10 soles a person admission (about 3 US dollars).
Along our way to Chinchero, we drive by fields of crops, grazing animals, Incan terraces and then climb up into the mountains, stopping at a scenic vista overlook where women wear traditional garb and pose for photos with tourists next to outfitted llamas.
Once in Chinchero, we gradually ascend the stone cobblestone steps and walkways past vendors who busily etch designs into gourds or weave their scarves and table runners.
They gladly share the stories behind their work – the story of their people that they painstakenly carve into the colorful gourds.
We eventually reach the village square, which is framed by an ancient Catholic church built upon the foundation of Inca ruins and pillared ruins.
All along the square are women sitting cross-legged in front of colorful blankets that display their wares.
After exploring the site, and paying proper homage to the craftsmanship of the locals’ wares, we descend the steps to grab lunch at a local empanada place, and then back to the car, where Senor Avelino waits patiently, reading a newspaper.
Next, we’re off to Moray, which is a short walk from the arid and dusty car park to the enormous escavated terraced hole in the ground.
The green lushness of the site is in stark juxtaposition of the surrounding landscape.
Here, the Inca experimented with different crops at different microclimates to determine the best agricultural methods.
The fact that it is still in such great condition today shows the homage that these people pay to their heritage.
The Maras salt mines proved to be an entirely different experience, with the red rock canyons opening up to a patchwork of squares and rectangles frosted in white salt crystals.
For generations, families have made their livings by harvesting the salt in these pools that gather down to the very edges of the canyon wall.
Visitors are welcome to walk out among the pools, and see the process of harvesting salt for themselves.
They’re also encouraged to purchase the salt from the vendor shops along the path.
Journey to Machu Picchu
We woke the next morning in anticipation of making our way to Machu Picchu, the wonder of the world and UNESCO heritage site we’d initially come to Peru to see.
Packing our bags so only the necessities for the next day were in carry-on luggage we could take on the train, we whittled our belongings down to the necessities. The rest of the luggage would be stored at the train station until our return.
Senor Avelino dropped us at the Ollantaytambo train station, on the edge of the historic town that merits a day or two of exploration we hadn’t planned in our itinerary.
Our Inca Rail train chugged up to the platform, where conductors graciously help passengers board, store their luggage, and take their seats. We opted for the first class ride, which came with plenty of elbow room and white tablecloth service of a scrumptious meal and drinks.
As the train started to slowly pull out of the town, past its famous Inca ruins, live traditional music from the nearby train car leant a bit of cultural reverie.
We glided past miles of gorgeous scenery, fields and homes where locals went about routines that are likely not that different than their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ days.
Soon, fields and hills gave way to mountains, as we approached Aguas Calientes, the home base of Machu Picchu. Pulling up to the village, with our train passing mere feet away from a hotel along the tracks, we noticed a bustle and buzz of excitement, but one without cars (other than the buses up to the mountain, you’re hoofing it on your own two feet in this village).
Every day, trains from Cusco and other stations make their way to Aguas Calientes filled with tourists looking to see all the Machu Picchu sites that day before an evening train trip back to the city.
Since we chose to go it alone on our trip, we planned in a couple of days here to really soak in this majestic place. We checked into our bed and breakfast, which included a morning alarm of a real life chicken that cock-a-doodle-dooed every early morning.
Then we took off for the bus ticket shack, which involves a long queue (even if you ordered online in advance… don’t bother) and only takes cash or Mastercard. If you’re using a Mastercard, let them know before they ring up your ticket or it throws everything behind by a half hour or more. (This is the one time we encountered a rude or unhelpful person along our entire trip.)
Once we finally had our tickets in hand, with the help of a local tour guide Jonatan Huayllapuma Holgado, we boarded the bus for the slow and precarious switchback up the mountain. Around the bends, we glimpsed the lower tiers of Machu Picchu, and the excitement built.
Arriving at the top, we disembarked, handed our tickets (we’d purchased online in advance – much recommended) and passports to the people at the gates, and entered.
The path just beyond the gate opens into a panoramic view of the craggy, jungle-covered mountains, the Machu Picchu ruins, and the valley far below.
We followed our tour guide on this afternoon tour up the stairways and paths to get a birds-eye view of the ruins below. As we sat on rocks off the path and looked over its majesty, Jonatan explained the history of the location, how the emperor was carried to this place along the Incan trail, the significance of the temples, fountains and gates.
We then enter the ancient citadel, just as many daytrippers departed. It felt like we had the place to ourselves as rain on a nearby mountainside mixed with the afternoon sun to create a double rainbow right over Machu Picchu.
We got a great lay of the land and historical context from which to view Machu Picchu from Jonatan before we had to head toward the exit to catch the last bus off the mountain.
Before reaching Aguas Calientes, Jonatan kindly offered a few of his favorite dining establishments and we took him up on his suggestions, enjoying awesome Peruvian dishes and cold bottled Coca-Cola at Mapacho.
We settled in for the night, listening to the sounds of the jungle forest around us, and dreamt of the next early morning dawn at Machu Picchu.
Like many trekkers, we woke before dawn to catch one of the first buses up the mountain to Machu Picchu. A heavy mist swirled through the citadel this morning as visitors poured through the gates to capture glimpses of llamas meandering through the green lawns and rocky crevices of the ruins as the light broke over the ridge.
Different than the day before, yet just as mystical. The place seems to hum with history. There’s little doubt that though I’ve been to other remarkable and even more ancient sites than this, Machu Picchu and the surrounding Sacred Valley are the most culturally significant places I’ve ever had the pleasure to view.
Back to the cradle of the Incan empire
Cusco is known as the capital of the Inca. We’d quickly left from the airport to travel down into the valley upon our arrival so we could acclimate to the altitude.
Now, after our many adventures throughout the valley, we traveled back to Cusco, which is at a high altitude of 11,152 and its surrounding mountains.
While coca leaves, plenty of bottled water and iron supplements seemed to help with altitude sickness for most of our stay, Cusco still proved to be a bit too high for our bodies.
This is a busy and larger city, with much more of the hustle going on. Still, we strived to enjoy its hidden beauty and culture.
We started off slow, with a walking tour (with occasional taxi ride) of the city to explore some of the museums included on the Boleta Turistico and the Plaza de Armas. We next set out to view some of the more modern Peruvian culture at the San Pedro Market.
Here the people of Peru sell huge wheels of cheese, whole hogs thrown over countertops, spices, produce, grains, tea, clothing and crafts.
The smells are both heavenly and repugnant at times as we walked along the aisles, our eyes feasting on the colorful array of goods before us.
One can taste, smell and see the essence of Peru and the heritage of the Inca in this market.
The stroll back to the hotel, among the narrow cobblestone alleys with little to no sidewalks was a buffet of South American colonial architecture – plazas, flowers, stone arches.
The next, and final day in the valley, involved a taxi trip arranged by the hotel to visit a few more spots on the outskirts of Cusco. These include Saqsaywaman, Qenqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay, all of which are included in the Boleta Turistico. Each proved to be different than the ruins we’d seen before, each unique and fascinating.
As we reflected on our journey that night whilst warming our feet by the fires in the courtyard at Antigua Casona San Blas, we arrived at one word – epic. We’d done the trip correctly, allowing for plenty of time to explore at our leisure, and we’d done it without a tour group or really knowing much Spanish. We’d felt safe, and tapped into the Peruvian culture, history and connected with its people.
We left Peru with love and a deep abiding respect in our hearts.