Inca Fever: Cusco & The Sacred Valley!
Travel, Dining, Site-Seeing, and Shopping
Let’s face it, the U.S. dollar no longer stands against the Euro. Besides, though there are many wonderful place in Europe, haven’t we all been there, done that already? Asia seems to be a bit trendy these days, however, it’s quite a ways away. The Middle East may not be so safe. Australia is exciting, but it just doesn’t float my boat, at least not yet. What about South America? And, if South America, where better to vacation than Peru, where the food and culture is great, the people are friendly, the language is easy to pick up, and hey, a World Wonder—Machu Picchu!
If you’re flying from San Francisco, you can now fly direct through LAN Airlines. LAN Air kicked off their direct flight from SFO to Lima, Peru on July 1, 2010, making SFO a new hub for the airline. Flights range from $600-$850 depending on season and are about 9-hours in length. It beats having the traditional stopover in either Los Angeles or Houston, and another rather lengthy stopover in Panama City. Of course I was not aware of the direct flight until I had already seen Machu Picchu and was on a train back to Cusco where I met a travel agent, ironically from Palo Alto, who told me all about her direct flight to Lima. I was instantly jealous and wishing I had shopped around more when searching for my flight.
Cusco, Day 1
Nevertheless, after seeing Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Lima, the stopovers were well worth the trip to Peru. Shortly after my arrival in Lima I was on yet another flight heading south to Cusco where I would get well acquainted with an ancient civilization we know today as the Incas. The flight from Lima was slightly over an hour and upon arrival in the early morning it was cold to the bone. I picked up my luggage and began my search for the man that was to pick me up and transport me to my hotel, Samay, where I would wait for the rest of my party to arrive. Tourism is a major industry, especially in Cusco considering Machu Picchu is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Therefore, if you’re booking an all-inclusive trip that includes transportation, you can expect to have your ride holding up a sign with your name on it ready to transport you from the airport to your hotel. I booked my trip through Rossendito Tours in Lima and found they offer some of the best prices and are much more helpful than most travel agencies. Just ask for Alex Olivo and he will take care of everything for you. Once arriving at Samay I was immediately offered Coca Tea, a tea made with coca leaves and said to help with altitude sickness, digestion, and relieve muscle pain and tension. I am not certain if the coca helped me or not but it sure was good and worth buying some of my own to enjoy.
Before taking the train to Machu Picchu we spent two days around Cusco visiting some Incan ruins that, to a large extent made up the Incan Empire and increased our anticipation of Machu Picchu. Our first stop was Qorikancha, a fortress and monastery where the Incas mixed their religious beliefs with Christianity after the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. The Incas worshipped the sun god but were also taught to paint frescos and oil paintings depicting the story of Christ’s death. Many of the paintings embellish the crucifixion to represent the Inca culture. For example, you may find that rather than roman soldiers, it is Spanish soldiers leading Christ to the mountain, and many characters are eating coca leaves.
Next we visited Tambomachay and Pukapukara, where outsiders could bathe in fresh spring water, trade goods and services, and pay homage prior to entering Cusco, then the capital of the Inca Empire and thought to be a sacred city. Just below Pukapukara lies Qenqo, a place of fertility where Incas would go for festivals. There are many high walls built from granite stone and tunnels to explore. The largest stone, in the center has the appearance of the female sex organ. Below Qenqo is a city called Saqsayhuaman, over 3,000 acres where the Incas lived and/or spent much of their time. Because archeologists have found fossils in the granite structure, they believe much of the land was a lake that has now dried up. You will also find the granite was carved into shapes like llama or guinea pig. The llama was a very popular domesticated animal and still is today. The guinea pig was a delicacy for the Incas, and is still eaten in much of Peru today.
 New Seven Wonders of the World, distinct from the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. The distinction is from a historical perspective.
 http://www.rossenditotours.com/index.php Ask for Alex Olivo. He can book your trip to Machu Piccu, make your flight reservations, and even book some tours for you in Lima and throughout South America.
The Sacred Valley, Day 2
Second full day in Cusco and it was a big one. We packed our overnight bag, checked out of our hotel, and headed out to Pisaq, where we hiked through the ruins for about an hour. The hike is moderate with only a few inclines, but a pair of good hiking shoes, or canvas shoes will suffice. Wear a hat and apply sunscreen. The Incas cultivated over 6000 variations of potatoes, grown on the higher elevations, while they had corn on the lower elevations. Because the ruins are on the side of the mountain, the crops were all tiered. This is much like the agriculture in Machu Picchu.
We stopped in Urubamba for a buffet lunch where for the first time, I tried Mazamorra Morrada y Arroz con Leche. This is a very common and popular dessert in Peru and locals and tourists alike can find it just about anywhere. Mazamorra Morrada translates in English to purple pudding. It is made by boiling Peru’s famous purple corn in water, adding sugar, cinnamon, quince, and corn starch and boiling until it thickens into a pudding texture. (Some recipes include dried fruits such as plums). Often Mazamorra Morrada is served with a rice with milk mix.
After enjoying the Peruvian delights, we were back on the bus heading towards Ollantaytambo to see some more ruins and catch our two-hour train through the Sacred Valley, stopping for the night in Aguas Calientes. Ollantaytambo, like Cusco, was considered sacred. Even though it was not the capital of the Incan empire, it housed all the elite and the intellectuals. Much like Machu Picchu, they built their city on a slope of a mountain. The air would come through the valley from the opposite side of the mountain keeping their crops fresh and cool. Therefore the city served as a natural refrigerator. Ollantaytambo was also the gateway city to Machu Picchu!
Shopping in Oolantaytambo and Around the Sacred Valley
Ollantaytambo is commonly included in any Machu Picchu tourist package. This is the village where you will catch the train, if not from Cusco, to Machu Picchu, and therefore the village hosts several hotels, hostels, shops and restaurants. While waiting for you train to Aquas Calientes, in our case, several hours, there is a market just outside of the ruins where you can buy Incan jewelry, artifacts, clothing and textiles. Alpaca is the most popular Incan textile and much of the clothing is an 80/20, synthetic alpaca mix. There are shops where you can find 100% alpaca, however be prepared to pay a little more. Alpaca is a breed of llama and is considerably smaller. Their coat is extremely fibrous, soft, and the baby alpaca coat is highly sought after and used for knitting and weaving. Genuine baby alpaca is usually soft and cold to the touch and it has little to no elasticity. It can be found in white, tan, brown, and black. There are stores in Cusco and Ollantaytambo that invite you into the factory where you can feel the textures of the various coats, (llama, vicuna, alpaca), and also see how the knits are made. The stones that are most commonly used for jewelry are Jasper, Rose Quartz, and Turquiose. These can be found at just about any market in the form of jewelry, shaped into figurines, or as tumbled rocks. I was lucky to have discovered the Peru version of Starbucks, a little coffee shop called Inca Bucks. Unfortunately they didn’t have my favorite toffee-nut, so I settled for a hazelnut latte instead and was satisfied. I didn’t find Starbucks anywhere in the Sacred Valley but was sure to spot one in the Miraflores district in Lima later on in my travels.
Stay tuned for more on Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. And later I will write about Lima and the great tastes of Peru.