The High Life in Sacred Valley

Pisac – Ollantaytambo – Aguas Calientes –

7 June 2019

It was a good night’s sleep at the Tierra Viva in the Sacred Valley. We had spent the night here instead of in Cusco as it was at a slightly lower altitude – 2,900 metres compared to Cusco’s 3,400. All the same, I woke up with a headache and decided I needed to be diligent with the Diamox. There was some repacking to be done as we were to spend tonight at Aguas Calientes before returning to the Tierra Viva here in Urubamba tomorrow.

Inca Ruins – Pisac Chapter

Today we make a start on the Inca ruins – as Dan said, once we’ve been to Machu Picchu, the rest pale in comparison…so no Inca ruins after Machu Picchu. We set off after a good breakfast in the hotel’s sun-filled dining room, served by some very sunny staff. Getting to our hotel last night, in the dark and in the haze of altitude-induced tiredness combined with real tiredness, I had had absolutely no sense of our surroundings. Today I saw that we were in an absolutely beautiful area surrounded by mountains; right outside our room this morning, there was a cute alpaca – which was cause for much excitement.

First stop was Pisac, at the eastern end of the Sacred Valley. As we drove to Pisac, Dan pointed out huge etchings on the mountainsides – some had numbers, or names – or both. These were apparently done by rival colleges…an “I’m bigger than you” sort of thing? Thousands of years from now, generations might look at these markings (if they last thousands of years i.e.) and wonder what superior civilisation made these markings.

Nazca – not

Pisac’s claim to fame is its Incan ruins, touted to be as dramatic as Machu Picchu – some say even more dramatic. The drive there was certainly quite dramatic as the road wound up the mountain, hairpin bends and all. We finally got to the entrance of the ruins, overlooking the valley below, and began our (slow) walk up. This was the highest altitude any of us had ever been at, and we were all feeling the effects to different degrees. I was getting winded by the gentlest of inclines – at least here I could blame the altitude and not my general state of unfitness.

The ruins of Pisac and what their exact purpose was are said to be shrouded in mystery – but it reminded me of some of the ruins I’d seen in Rajasthan, Chittaurgarh in particular – while perhaps not as fortress-like, it had everything a self-contained community needed…from agricultural terraces and irrigation channels, to temples and some defence fortifications, and homes complete with bath areas.

At one point, I remember stopping – ostensibly to look at the view behind me, but also to catch my breath – as I looked up towards what appeared to be remnants of homes on a little peak, I thought, ‘to climb or not to climb’…then Dan said, “If you want to, we can go up…and that will be the last stairs for today.”…being easily persuaded, we set off. We, of course, found out later, that he meant the last stairs for Pisac.

On a mountainside across from us, there were holes in the sheer mountain face – they looked like little caves – these were, in fact, part of the largest Inca cemetery, the Tantana Marka. More than 3,000 Inca nobles are buried here – I read later, in the fetal position.

Part of the Tantana Marka

It was a slow walk back down to the car; the sun was high in the sky by now, and we stopped to buy some hats from one of the many roadside vendors…experiencing for the first time Shiv’s bargaining prowess…

We spent a bit of time walking through Pisac’s little market place and stalls before stopping for a quick empanada lunch. Dan had an Inca Cola at lunch – we all had to try a bit of this famed golden yellow soda, loved across Peru. Inca Cola has consistently outsold that other Cola in Peru; some years ago, Coca Cola decided that if you can’t beat them, join them, and bought 50% of Inca Cola’s shares. This gave them the rights to market and produce Inca Cola everywhere – except in Peru, where the original corporation retains these rights, the Coca Cola logo appearing in small print.

While it looked quite different, Inca Cola tasted exactly like F&N’s ice cream soda, and immediately transported me back to many happy holidays at my grandfather’s home – the very competitive games of Scrabble, AEIOU and 5-3-2 with my cousins only interrupted by visits to the fridge that was always well stocked with F&N sodas – ice-cream soda and cherryade being my favourites. It’d been a LONG time since I’ve had any drink this sweet. To be fair, the bottle was labelled ‘alto en azucar‘ or ‘high in sugar’ – this labelling, a very recent development, is part of a law to promote healthy eating among children and adolescents. Given the popularity of Inca Cola and its sugar content (45g in that 1 bottle), this is going to be an uphill battle…but then as I was finding out, most things here are uphill…

The lunch place also had cuy...the live ones. We had seen roadside vendors waving roasted cuy on skewers as we drove to Pisac, but here were the pre-skewer versions. Dan had (quite tentatively) asked if we’d like to try this Peruvian specialty – it was an unanimous NO.

Walking back to our car, I was stopped by a student doing a survey. It was a KAP type of survey – on people’s knowledge, attitude and purchase behaviour towards alpaca and vicuna products. Helpful people that we are, we all ended up doing the survey, providing a nice bump to his sample size, I’m sure.

Street intercept – Pisac style

We eventually manoeuvred our way out of the narrow cobblestoned streets of Pisac and were on our way to Ollantaytambo, passing fields of quinoa on the way. I would never have guessed that those shades of red and yellow were quinoa fields – being familiar only with the boxed or packaged varieties. What a riot of colour; needless to say, a photo-stop was in order.

And now, we had a train to catch. We were supposed to stop at the Ollantaytambo Inca archaeological site, but given our altitude woes, and the fact that we’d spent a bit longer in Pisac – and in the quinoa fields – we decided to give this a miss. As we drove through the equally narrow and cobblestoned streets of Ollantaytambo, we caught sight of the steep climb to the ruins – I, for one, was glad for our sensible decision.

We got to the train station with time to spare and stopped at a little restaurant for a quick bite – tequeños (Peruvian cheese sticks) with the freshest guacamole I’ve ever had. Absolutely delish – so yummy that it was all gone before I thought about taking a photo.

Next stop – Aguas Calientes

Our PeruRail Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes was all of 2 carriages long, with the ride being just under 2 hours. The (clean) windows and glass panels above them provided us with some stunning views as we sped through the Sacred Valley. Seeing the Urubamba River sparkling in the sun and the snowcapped Andean mountains, while having cake and sipping tea (courtesy the train, not Shiv), made for a lovely ride.

Aguas Calientes aka Machu Picchu Village (or Town) felt like Kathmandu (though I’ve never been – this was what I’d imagined it might be like). The railway station spilled into the neighbouring marketplace selling all manner of alpaca wear, souvenirs and dried food. The station porters managed large wheelbarrow-like things through the market and up and down the narrow streets, eventually getting to our hotel at pretty much the same time we did.

This was another Tierra Viva hotel…which we had discovered offered rather nice dark chocolates (in plural) as part of the turndown service. This was to be an early night given the early start tomorrow. Before we set out for dinner, Dan introduced us to Victor who’ll be our Machu Picchu guide tomorrow. Most important piece of information was that we’d need to be in the bus queue by 5AM, which meant bags down and breakfast at 4.30AM.

Dinner was at an Italian place – Carpe Diem. The food was good, as was our waiter, who entertained us with barman tricks with a glass full of water. He asked for, and I promised, a Trip Advisor review.

The altitude here is actually much lower than Cusco and Sacred Valley at 2,040 metres, which probably explained why I felt (very slightly) less winded here. The headache at least is gone. We go up to 2,400 metres at Machu Picchu tomorrow – still lower than Cusco and Pisac.

I went to bed, hoping for good weather tomorrow…and maybe meeting KPI #1.

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