Into the Sacred Valley

Written by Emmy on 27 January 2013

On day two in Peru, we woke up very early and beat the Lima city traffic, weaving back through the downtown and to the airport. Like most tourists, we were on our way to Cusco. The national government would never allow an international airport to be built in the more frequented city or Lima would never get any visitors. So on a plane filled with others making their way to Machu Picchu and the valleys of Incan ruins, we made the quick journey, venturing further up than away. Less than an hour later, we landed in Cusco, a city over 10,000 feet high.

From the moment we landed, it was possible to feel how much thinner the air had become. So we started drinking copious amounts of water (I had been joking the whole week before the trip that I was pre-hydrating, but there’s a limited amount you can do in advance) and prepared to explore. On Sunday, we planned to bypass Cusco all together and head outside the city, with plans to return. But on our way up the hills, we paused for a panorama of the city.

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From this hilltop perch, we caught a glimpse of tents in the central square. We inquired and learned there was a Christmas market in full swing. Never ones to miss out on a market visit, we detoured into downtown Cusco to see what we could see.

The annual market attracts artisans from throughout the Sacred Valley, the region surrounding Cusco. Each displays its wares and sells as much as it can, though the true attraction is a contest. All items sold must be handmade and there are a series of judges who determine which handicraft is best. We saw many handmade dolls and an inordinate number of baby Jesus figurines. Peru is majority Catholic – we heard numbers varying from 70 to 90 percent. However, their Catholicism is of a unique variety. Because of the rich indigenous history in the country, the native religion and its traditions blended with those of the Spanish over time, creating somewhat of a blend of customs. Many Peruvians go to mass on Sundays, but then also make offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). So the baby Jesus figurines at the market have their own unique flair; for every booth selling a doll, there were four selling outfits for the baby. Families buy multiple outfits and dress Jesus up in traditional Peruvian garb inside the Catholic nativity.

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In the market, we also encountered a phenomenon we had been warned about. Once upon a time, when traveling in the Middle East, my family had come into contact with countless young children who would run up to us and pose for photos. With four of the five of us traveling with big cameras, we’re an easy spot and are all happy to take infinite photos. But then the children would demand money in exchange for the photos and follow us till we gave more and more. We knew this might be the case in Peru. This time we were a little more prepared though; at the suggestion of a friend, we brought a box of ballpoint pens to give out to children who approached us.

In Cusco, we were indeed approached by multiple children, many of whom were carrying baby llamas. They dutifully posed and then asked for a tip. We gave them coins and pens, but it wasn’t deemed to be enough and so they followed us around the market for a bit.

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I obviously took a photo, which in the moment seemed like a fun idea. But over the course of the trip, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea. It felt exploitative in many ways. We continued to give pens out to kids we met, especially those we interacted with in more meaningful ways, but stopped taking so many pictures. It just felt a bit wrong.

After our little trip to the market, we piled into a van and headed into the hills with a long list of sites to cover over the next two days. But on the way, we paused to visit a llama-and-alpaca farm. Ever since entering the mountains, we had been seeing animals everywhere; families and dogs herding sheep, cows mooing by the side of the road and a series of mysterious, but very fluffy, animals.

IMG_2445At the farm, we learned all about the native creatures of Peru. Llamas, alpacas and vacunyas dominate the landscape and have been kept by natives for centuries. Horses and other working animals are not native to South America; they were brought over by the Spanish. But our furry friends have long been companion to the Peruvians, helping on farms, but primarily serving as a resource. Sheared seasonally, the animals all make for nice blankets and sweaters. Each has a slightly different texture and fluffiness, easy to see when the coat is still being worn by the animal himself.

Allowed to get far closer to the animals than one would ever be permitted in the U.S., we became fairly personal and made some new friends. (We also assisted in the provision of an early lunch.)

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Alix in particular seemed to have a natural connection.

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We made friends with the young children who live at the farm. They begged to have their photos taken, but not for money. They were very excited about the prospect of seeing themselves inside the camera, and so we obliged. However, they also could not be convinced to stop eating for the camera. People do say you and your pets become like one another…

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From the farm, we continued driving up, up and away into the mountains. When the Spanish first came to Peru, the Incas and other indigenous tribes fled up into the hills. Though they had once settled inside the valleys along the riverbeds, they recognized those villages as the most vulnerable to invasion and conquering. Fleeing higher and higher gave them greater security. Despite being up in the mountains, they discovered another way to continue prospering agriculturally: terrace farming.

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Looking down from the sides of the eerily high cliffs and peering into the valleys, it’s almost inconceivable how the Incas could have ventured up so high and managed such extensive construction. Throughout the whole trip, I was constantly amazed at what a successful and intelligent civilization they had been. While Peruvian cities today fall prey to occasional earthquakes (the country lies dangerously at the intersection of a few faults), the Incan homes of the 1500s were built with anti-seismic construction practices. Water flowed freely to crops thousands of feet up in the air and remained safe from invaders (for at least a time). What’s especially puzzling though is the relative lack of record of the civilization. To the knowledge of historians today, the Incas never had a written language and therefore there are no real records of their relatively short reign. For that reason, most are still trying to uncover the secrets of that era.

We continued along the valley to the town of Pisac, which appeared quite large on the map, but turned out to be little more than a central town square and a handful of local artisans. We sat down for lunch, which true to its Spanish colonial heritage, is the largest meal of the day in Peru. The change in altitude and the relatively long morning had left us all quite hungry, so I was pleased to find the favorite local snack — roasted corn kernels — waiting for us on a pretty ceramic plate. We were also handed glasses of lemonade, the very typical lunchtime beverage. Mine had mint in it, which was especially pleasing.

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Our multiple course lunch started with soup, pumpkin or quinoa. I opted for the former, having already spotted quinoa on the menu as an ingredient in all three courses.

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Quinoa is grown all over Peru. Along with Bolivia, Peru grows the vast majority of the world’s quinoa. And as it becomes trendier in places like Brown’s dining halls (one of the first places I ever really encountered it), it only serves to benefit economies down here.

Quinoa grows in three colors in Peru: white, red and black. There’s some debate as to whether or not it’s a grain (the red is reportedly related to the beet), but nevertheless, it graces most menus in at least a few variations. In part because of a pretty steady immigration path from Asia to Peru, the local cooking styles actually take on a good deal of Eastern influence. My quinoa lunch was stir-fried with chicken, egg and vegetables, a sort of Peruvian take on fried rice.

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Our journey through the valley continued as we made our way toward a quieter town, the delightfully named Urubamba, where the river known by the same name flows. We pulled up to our hotel and we were immediately greeted by Angel, who offered to introduce us to the resident alpaca. Yes please!

Our introduction to the alpaca left him less than thrilled. Turns out the animal’s natural tendency is to be super aloof, and he turned his butt to us when we walked into his little hut. (It was about to rain and so the animals had been led inside; they normally just roam the hotel grounds.) However, his good friend, the llama, was definitely more friendly.

The llama was really interested in getting up close and personal, nibbling at my ankles and sticking his neck through Alix’s legs. Even though the alpaca seemed to be saying, “No touching,” the llama nuzzled himself right in there and went for a kiss or two. The alpaca was not impressed.

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We amused ourselves for a while longer, and then after seriously washing our hands, headed in for dinner. We started with an intriguing sounding idea, a local dish called panquitos. The appetizer consisted of little corn cakes, baked and served inside corn husks, and served alongside grilled cheese and a light sauce. It was a little less exciting than I was expecting — the corn just tastes so much starchier (and less sweet) than what I’m accustomed to — but it was still an interesting concept. And a local specialty, so of course we had to at least experiment.

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The main course was a lamb stew, served with, of course, mashed potatoes, and filled with veggies and nuts. I kept ordering dishes I half expected to be spicy, and yet, it was the spice that never was. But dinner was still very good and very local.

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We fell asleep to the sounds of Rio Urubamba, and woke early again to further explore the region. We were joined on our drive by several herds, who we continuously paused for on the road. While pedestrians have no legal rights in Peru (we were reminded and warned of this constantly), animals totally own the roads.

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IMG_2637We wound through hillsides and valleys, pausing to both take in the vistas and alleviate the nausea of careening around curves at 11,000-foot altitudes. Finally as we turned a particular corner, massive white puddles emerged on the grounds below. The unfamiliar site? Salt mines.

The salt mines of mountainous Peru have been an economic boon for centuries. The natives discovered white and pink salt hundreds of years ago and began mining it. Little known fact: the word “salary” is derived from the Spanish sal, for salt, because traders were paid in salt. And in a related etymological lesson, one of the only Quechua words to become part of international vernacular is “jerky,” for the salted meats that were cured in the Peruvian mountainside salt mines.

Today’s mines give you an understanding for why “back to the salt mines” is an idiom for a day of hard labor. Collecting salt is back-breakingly hard labor. About 300 families collectively own the salt mines we visited, though the fact that it was Christmas meant they were empty. On a normal day, multiple generations would have been knee-deep in the water and silt. School is mandatory in Peru, but that doesn’t mean much up in the hills where the average kilo of salt sells for one sol (about $0.40). Peru supplies nearly all of France’s and Japan’s salt from its mountainside mines, but the families working the land don’t earn nearly enough to move upward.

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After poking around in the salt a bit (one of my sisters may or may not have some hiding in her suitcase), we continued onward to Maray. These ruins, whose name translates either to mean “dehydrated potatoes” or “deep circles,” were only fully excavated about five years ago. We spent a lot of time discussing Peru’s recent political past with our guide, Maria Teresa, and learned more about the oppressive regimes of the ’70s and ’80s that bred terrorism. It was only when the climate became safer and the government more focused on the country’s general well-being that sites like Maray began to receive the attention they deserve.

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IMG_2675We walked down into the center of the concentric circles and joined hands in a prayer to Pacha Mama. We were feeling very meditative until another group loudly asked if we were also from New York. We took that as our cue to exit stage right.

We continued driving through the endlessly fertile valley. Many of the homes we passed were near shambles, lacking adequate roofing and doors, but with land to feed the families inside. Still, it was hard to imagine that many of these people had ever left their tiny villages, and so you had to wonder what they thought of our van rolling through with four of us sticking our cameras out the windows.

After not too long, we arrived at a site far more used to our cameras. In the hills of Peru, every tribe has its own weaving patterns and traditions, and here we were introduced to the Chincherro women. Trained from childhood, the women are all highly practiced in the art of weaving, dying and knitting, creating beautiful scarves, blankets and clothing out of alpaca. They showed us how each pattern was composed, what natural products were used to create each color and how to properly wear the garb. Most impressive is the piece of cloth the women wrap their babies in before casually tossing the whole apparatus over their shoulders.

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After our weaving lesson (and a solid bit of shopping), we were ready for lunch. We dined at an old hacienda; once a major plantation house, the mansion is now owned by the consul to Spain. He lives full time in Cusco and so rents out the space in his home as a restaurant when he’s not around. Filled with just a few tables, the place is teeming with antiques and overlooks the valley’s lush greenery. Upon sitting down, we were served full glasses of lemonade and potatoes from the house’s garden, served alongside a dipping sauce made from the mint relative native to the area.

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We also enjoyed a lovely salad from the same garden just outside, and then chose from a menu featuring what I would call the hallmark dishes of Peru — a piece of grilled trout and lomo saltado — and then a few other local surprises as well.

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We left lunch on the late side (our shopping had taken more time than our guide anticipated) and so attempted to beeline to one last historic site. But there was a slight hitch. As we entered the town we had to drive through to get to our destination, we saw that a parade had subsumed the streets. And said parade was not going to move, thus blocking the only road in the area that would have allowed us to move from town to town.

This was not the first time I had been trapped by a rogue parade. Similar to my prior experience, we made the only logical decision and decamped from our van, deciding that if we couldn’t move through the parade, we might as well move in it.

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Despite the policeman’s initial claims that passage could not happen for at least two hours, our van suddenly came honking through the crowd and so we hopped back in, waving goodbye to the pretty colors (and to the parked line of tuk tuks!).

We made it to the ruins of Ollantaytambo just as the guards were closing the gates for the day. We convinced them to let us inside and have a quick look at the Incan settlement, filled with temples, granaries (the Incas knew that a good year meant save so that there would be food in a bad year), small homes and other architectural marvels. We checked the time of day and year at the various sundials and stuck our fingers into a fountain that has ostensibly been running since the 1400s.

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IMG_2798In the small town just outside the ruins (which goes by the same name), we saw families herding their sheep and other animals down the street. We shared pens with the young children and said hello using the one vocab word we had picked up in Quechua.

We headed back to the hotel for dinner and tried an interesting variation on one of the Peruvian standards. I had croquettes with aji de gallina — the yellow chicken I had sampled in Lima — inside.

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The dish was an interesting concept and pretty good, but maybe a little unexciting.

As previously mentioned, Peruvian food is generally pretty mild and occasionally left me yearning for something just a bit spicier, but on the whole, the cuisine is pretty approachable. I don’t think I tried anything throughout the trip that I genuinely didn’t like.

After dinner, we said goodbye to the new friends we had made at the hotel — llama and alpaca included — and packed up our stuff to head out early the next morning. It was time for the grand adventure, the reason most people venture to Peru in the first place — the lost and mysterious city of Machu Picchu.

 

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