We got together with a little tour group, collecting people here and there from hotels in Cusco until there was us, a couple from Wisconsin, a pair of Hungarians, and a quad of Australians, along with our guide Maria, and our driver, who pointed the van toward the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley slopes down from the top near Cusco down to Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu. The road is pretty obviously slanting downward the whole way, which tracks through some narrow valleys in the mountains before entering the Sacred Valley proper. After a brief stop at a scenic point, our first real stop of the day was at Pisac, which has widespread structures over several mountaintops, and thousands of holes on the opposite cliff marking burial sites. Most of the site was completed by the local Pisac culture, though some walls show Incan work after the area became part of the empire. We climbed up to the top, and then back down. In a little crack in the stones, Maria pointed out a mint plant with a very potent, fresh scent. Evidently locals would tuck a sprig of mint behind their ears to keep refreshing minty air about them. Pisac was also where we first had a chance to try an 'Incan stair' of rocks that project from the wall to form steps.
Down below in the valley is the modern town of Pisac, which we visited for the sake of the market, which includes not only the tourist souvenir shops, but an actual local produce and meat market. Many varieties of potato, corn, oca, cucurbits, tomatoes, fruits, dyes, etc. We enjoyed an empanada and chicha morada (a sweet drink made from purple corn).
We drove further down the valley to have lunch at Muña, where they had a nice buffet with lots of choices of local foods from alpaca & onions, to dried beans and corn, potatoes and potato chips, quinoa, etc. Although we had the place almost to ourselves, clearly the place is designed for the tourist trade -- to take big busloads of tourists at a moment's notice. But still really nice, with good food and gardens that we strolled about for a bit to the music of an Andean flute being played by a very talented musician (with instrumental backup on tape).
A short drive after lunch brought us to a chicheria. Chicha is a fermented corn 'beer' and many of the locals brew it up on their own and stick a red flag out front to show that chicha is for sale. The lady at the one we stopped at has brewed chicha for 32 years. Chicha is quite sour, somewhat similar to hard cider. It's not likely to supplant beer in the US, but I enjoyed the small taste I had. The local ladies enjoy a variant that has strawberries added to it, and it makes a really fine alcoholic smoothie. The locals drink it in large, flaring half liter glasses. It was interesting to (later) see ancient ceramic cups in the museums with very much the same shape and purpose. A common game at the chicherias is the juego de sapo, where you toss brass disks or pucks at a board, trying to get it in the frog's mouth. My aim was pretty poor, and I hadn't even had any chicha at the time. In addition to home-brew chicha, some of the locals also supplement their income by raising cuy, or guinea pig, which are a local delicacy. So we saw her guinea pig room.
Thence to Ollantaytambo, which is really quite an impressive site. Huge terraces stretching up the mountainside with an incomplete sun temple perched at the top. Apparently the site was abandoned before the Spanish arrived. We climbed up and down and all around it. Much of the city below in the plain is built on Incan stone foundations. Great views from the top of other structures on neighboring cliffsides, as well as the natural stone 'face' of Viracocha the creator-god.
Going back toward Cusco, we were dropped off near our hotel in Yanahuara, and as one last neat bit, Maria showed us the cochineal bug, which are scale-like bugs that live on prickly-pear cactus. You can spot them because of the white waxy covering they exude to protect themselves. Maria plucked one off, and when you squish it, you get a bright purply-red natural dye. Carmine (the dye) is still used in lipstick and foodstuffs.
Maria was a great guide and very enthusiastic. I liked the fiendish glee with which she described how you prepare cuy. She had been asked whether cuy pelts were used for anything. No, no! The crispy skin is the best part! After you strangle the guinea pig, you dip it in boiling water so the hair comes off.
We got picked up by the hotel van, and brought back to La Hacienda del Valle. The hotel's a pretty neat place, but possibly we arrived at the wrong season for it, or something. The rooms are in separate little bungalows amid gardens. Though it was pretty warm hiking up the cliffs of Ollantaytambo in the day, those bungalows got pretty cold there at night in the southern winter; the temperature drops rapidly after the sun goes down. Service at the hotel restaurant was not so hot, either. We finally got our pisco sours when I had about two bites of dinner left. Rather disappointing, especially since the hotel is quite remote from anything and everything. On the plus side the grounds are very quiet and peaceful, and (while the sun was still in the sky) we strolled about and enjoyed the views. This was really the only disappointing hotel on the trip, but I think another time of year, or with a few more staff, or something, it would have been great. A pretty full day, and we'll be up again early tomorrow for another long day. But the reward is Machu Picchu.
Got up with the roosters, quite literally. Heard his cockadoodle as we got dressed. Up and out quickly, and the driver was waiting for us at reception as we checked out. He took us down the cobbled street to the main drag. Along the way, he stopped for a train of horses to pass. Out on the main drag, we went to the train station in Ollantaytambo, where we caught the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes. It's not so much a train as a single car with its own engine. But lots of window and comfort and stewards with snacks and drinks.
It's really a great ride. An hour and a half through a narrow canyon along the Urubamba, on its way to the Amazon. Mist shrouded snow-capped peaks, forbidding cliffs and mountainsides, and occasional Inca ruins. As the trains descends, the mountains get greener and greener until you are in rainforest/cloud forest, with parasitic orchids and bromeliads attached to tree limbs here and there. A few short tunnels add some additional interest, and sometimes the cliffs hang out over the traintracks. On the opposite bank, sometimes the Inca Trail appears, on which hikers make the 4 day trek to Machu Picchu.
Aguas Calientes is the end of the line. Not much of atown -- it's just the gateway to Machu Picchu, crowded with restaurants, hostels, hotels and souvenir shops to serve the tourists. We meet up with Haydee, our guide. It's us and four members of a Peruvian family, though a couple live in Miami. The aunts only speak Spanish, so Haydee did her best to simulcast the tour. With a tight small group, it wasn't a problem -- listen in English; take photos during español.
But I'm jumping the gun. Haydee led us to the bus terminal, where we got on the 30-ish minute ride up ridiculous switchbacks to Machu Picchu. As we rose, we got better and better views of the mountains and the river, and then peeks and better and better views of Machu Picchu.
It's impossible to give a blow by blow, but the cumulative effect of the site is amazing. We scrambled up, down, and around everything -- well, not quite, since we saved some for tomorrow in the upper reaches. Everything you expect is there: the close-fitting masonry, the trapezoidal windows and arches, the stairs, the water channels and fountains. After the official tour, we had time to clamber around on our own. It was nice knowing we'd be back next day, as it gave us the opportunity to just sit here and there and soak in the view. Although we were warned endlessly about mosquitoes, that may have been only so that vendors could gouge you for repellant (no doubt it's very different in the warmer, rainy season). It was hot in the sun, but many places had strong mountain breezes to keep you cool, if not downright chilly. Although technically we were there right around the winter solstice, Machu Picchu is only about 13 degrees south of the equator, so it's still very tropical, with the sun pretty high in the sky. Most of the cold we encountered on the trip was more because of the elevation.
Back down the bus to Aguas Calientes, we made our way to the amazing and luxurious Inkaterra hotel/resort, tucked up in the cloud forest, beyond the edge of, and a world apart from, the rest of Aguas Calientes. At reception, we were greeted with a moist towel and a glass of iced tea, no doubt using tea grown on the plantation on the hotel's grounds. We were educated about the many wonders here, from the sauna and natural spring water pool, to the eco-trails and orchid garden.
The room is very comfortable with all the necessaries and quite a few totally unnecessaries. The resort takes its eco very seriously, and the water is naturally sourced, so that you're warned that in the rainy season it may be a bit yellow and have chunks of jungle in it. Anyway, we strolled a bit around. The gate to the orchid garden was locked, but as it really wasn't orchid season, we could see there weren't many blooms in evidence anyway. The trails lead up the riverside, paralleling the traintracks, with branches here and there that lead uphill to other destinations, like the 'sacred rock' with pictographs on it, possibly the first real ancient 'art' we'd seen. The Inca architecture is really quite spare; no doubt it was tarted up with colorful cloths and such, but the stonework itself is relatively unornamented, very unlike Maya or Aztec structures, which are not only carved, but often covered (inside) with frescoes.
We saw two hummingbirds: one looked very much like the common ones we see in SoCal -- green with flashes of other colors, while the other was a magnificent orange. Though he was camera-shy, I managed to get a pretty decent picture of him. Back up in the resort, they had placed bananas in a few trees, and these attracted many small colorful birds who were kind enough to let us take lots of (somewhat fuzzy) pictures. Now for a little clean up before dinner.
Ah... marvellous dinner -- my compliments to the chef. Many hotels here offer a couple free pisco sours to guests. It's nice, but a little disappointing that it oftentimes comes from a jug o' pisco sour, shaken 'til frothy and then topped with a dash of Peruvian Amargo Chuncho bitters. Even at Inkaterra, they didn't start with an egg, but with premade mix. But there my disappointment ends. For starters, an ensalada de lomo tataki with rare beef tataki cozing up to lettuces and leeks in a soy-based vinaigrette. Absolutely fantastic; I'm not that big a foodie, but this was really well-designed and delicious. And for the main course? Guinea pig ravioli in peanut sauce (evidently a common sauce for guinea pig). Hard to distinguish the taste with just tiny amounts of ground guinea pig in the ravioli, slathered in a rich peanut sauce, but the meat was perfectly tasty, with just a hint of an interesting tang. Not as strong as lamb, and not really like lamb, but there's something similar to that peculiar tang. Not a fabulous dish, but perfectly good. A chilean cab was a good fit for the salad and fine with the ravioli. For afters, 'la bête noire': chocolate mousse with a dollop of homemade ice cream. Excellent again. Dr. Pookie tried out ceviche -- probably iffy to order raw fish from a street vendor, but at Inkaterra she had no worries -- followed by some beef tenderloin IIRC. She gave a local Peruvian red a try. Most of the Peruvian wines I've seen are blends, and it was fine, but not distinguished. They seem to be far far behind the Chileans and Argentines in wine production and sophistication.
The dining room itself is a great place with beautiful windows overlooking the river (though too dark at dinner to see it). But we did see some puffs of steam/smoke as one of the trains passed by. For tomorrow, Machu Picchu Day 2 and the return to Cusco.