Tag Archives: sacred valley

Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market

You know you’re obsessed with photography when you hire a driver to take you on a photography trip. But that is exactly how we spent our last day in Cusco. We hired a taxi to take us to Chincheros and the surrounding countryside in the Sacred Valley simply to take pictures. The driver’s English was severely limited and our Spanish was not much better, but we communicated simply by saying “Photo!” every time we wanted him to pull over to the side so we could snap away.

Most tourists visit Chincheros to see the town’s ancient ruins, but when we tried to visit, we were informed that we could only enter by purchasing the costly tourist ticket that includes many sites in the region. Since we had already been to many of those sites and were off to Puno that afternoon, we shrugged our shoulders and told our driver, “more photos!”

The views were truly beautiful, and I literally took over 1,000 pictures in the span of two hours. So don’t say I didn’t warn you…

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The dynamic duo!

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Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly

The salt pans in Maras was one of my favorite trips in Peru. There’s not much to do but to walk along the salt pans and admire the unusual beauty of the sun shining on the salty water. But I had never seen anything quite like it, and that is part of the reason I love traveling: I love being continuously surprised by the world.

Practicalities: We needed to be at the train station in Ollantaytambo (Olly) by 3:00 p.m. to catch our train to Machu Picchu. That gave us about half a day to tour the salt pans in Maras and the ruins in nearby Moray. While it is possible to see these sights using a mixture of public transportation, random taxis and the legs God gave us, I balked at the idea of taking random taxis in my valiant effort to avoid getting kidnapped. Plus, we had our luggage with us. Instead, our hotel called a driver for us who picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 a.m., drove us to the salt pans and to Moray, and then dropped us off at the train station in Olly, while we left our luggage in the trunk. This cost us 120 soles ($43.00) which isn’t dirt cheap, but split between two people, isn’t terrible either. Note: You will also have to pay for admission to the salt pans and the Moray ruins.

Sacred Valley Map2

The salt pans is truly a sight to see. Based on my limited research (AKA Wikipedia), this is how it works: Salty water from a natural stream flows through a series of channels into terraced polygon-shaped puddles of water. The intense sun dries up the water, and the salt crystalizes on the surface, allowing locals to mine the deposits. While that may sound rather technical and uninteresting, the view is stunning. See for yourself.

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The taxi pulled over so we could take a picture of the salt pans from above.

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Mmmmm. Tasty.

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After the salt pans, our driver took us to Moray, home to Incan ruins consisting of impressive terraced circles that look like modern day crop circles. It’s not clear what the circles were used for, but you can hike down and speculate for yourself.

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My friend, Lisa, sitting at the bottom of one of the circles, enjoying the morning sun.

The views of the surrounding area were equally, if not, more beautiful.

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Part 4: A Town Called Olly

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…

Olly map2

The first thing you need to know about Ollantaytambo is that we could not pronounce it. At all. I am certain every time we tried we screwed it up. It shall henceforth be known as Olly.

The second thing you need to know is that Olly is famous today for being the starting point for the intrepid souls hiking the Inca Trail and the less intrepid souls taking the train to Aguas Calientes. But it is also a perfect example of an Inca city, having been inhabited continuously since the 13th century.

Today, the small Sacred Valley town revolves mostly around its tourists trappings. The main plaza is surrounded by restaurants, inns, and stalls filled with Peruvian crafts.

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We came to Olly not to hike the Inca Trail (sleeping in a tent for four nights? No thank you.), but to visit the ancient ruins that served both as a fortress and a temple to the Incas.

When we arrived in Olly, we noticed a couple of things. First, it is even smaller than Urubamba. Second, the city felt older, perhaps because it is. Instead of partially paved roads, we found narrow cobblestone pathways, a reminder of the ancient city that once was.

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We spent the majority of the afternoon climbing the steps to the mountainous ruins and looking down on the city. The scenery was beautiful, and since our thighs were screaming out in pain, we took many breaks to simply sit and enjoy the view. What can I say? I’m a sucker for mountains and ruins.

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Practicalities: We took a taxi from our hotel in Urubamba for 40 soles since we had slept late and wanted to get started on our day. The taxi is comfortable and will stop along the way so you can take pictures. The total drive time is about half an hour. On the way back, I convinced Lisa to travel like the locals. After asking three people if they spoke English I found the bus stop in Ollantaytambo. Bus is a generous term. In the Sacred Valley, buses are actually collectivos – vans that only leave when they are stuffed to the gills with passengers and drop people off along its designated route, all for the super cheap price of a sole and a half (or 53 cents).

I’m not entirely sure why but I found the experience incredibly entertaining. In some collectivos, the seats fill up and passengers are left standing as the van hugs the curves of Peru’s winding roads. Personally, I thought the collectivos were a bargain, and completely worth feeling like a sardine in a can for a short ride.

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Part 3: When in Urubamba…

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever

Urubamba map

The town of Urubamba with my commentary

The town of Urubamba is small, but filled with quirky surprises. The hotel concierge provided us with a map and kindly pointed out the one place we could buy bottled water with a credit card. We became frequent visitors of said gas station (see above map).

Most of the roads are narrow and questionably paved. There does not appear to be any perceptible rules of traffic. Cars drive and people walk, hopefully not at the same time and not in the same place. There also doesn’t appear appear to be a concept of one-way versus two-way traffic. Basically, if a driver wants to go down a particular road, he just goes. We found this terribly confusing, but when in Urubamba…

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The houses are tiny, and many are falling apart. The citizens look overwhelmingly tired, but persistent. We were amazed by their ability to carry everything on their backs, from their children, to packages, to grass.

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Even in its smallest and poorest towns, Peru remains a country of color. Whether it’s the bright textiles they sell, or the bright blue and red doorways, or the random murals on street walls, they embrace color as a way of life. And so did we.

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After a short stroll, we made our way to the market, where you can purchase all sorts of fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and grains — some you didn’t even know existed. The children run around while the parents (usually the mothers) hawk their products.

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Someone is not happy…

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My friend Lisa buying some delicious mangos at the local market

Urubamba pics side by side


 

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Part 1: Getting To The Sacred Valley is Not Easy

[Note: We are still in Peru and we are having an amazing time. Although few people speak English, we are getting by and it is beautiful. But more about all that later.]

Getting to Lima, Peru is not a big deal. If you live in any major city you can probably find a non-stop flight to Lima, or a flight with a short stopover (as was the case for me).

Getting to the Sacred Valley requires a lot more effort.

First, the flight to Panama City was pleasant and comfortable. I flew Copa Airlines which uses the Lufthansa lounge in Dulles Airport – the same Lufthansa lounge I used on my trip to Paris in 2012. The seats were comfortable, the food and drinks were plentiful, and the wifi worked. No complaints here.

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The business class seats were more like domestic business class seats – wider seats, deeper recline – but no lie-flat seats. My flight took off at 4:30 p.m. so going to sleep wasn’t much of an option anyways. I downloaded a couple of books on my iPad and enjoyed the luxury of being able to sit comfortably and actually move my feet.

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Apologies for the crappy iPhone picture.

I was a little nervous about my 47 minute connection in Panama, but the flight landed on time, and as I disembarked, the gate for my connecting flight to Lima was literally next door. My entire visit to the Panama airport consisted of me getting off one plane, walking a couple of feet to buy an obscenely expensive bottle of water, and then getting on another.

When we landed in Lima at one in the morning, that’s when the real fun started. I went through immigration and got my luggage easy enough, but I had a 7:30 a.m. flight to Cusco, and all I wanted to do was recheck my luggage, find the lounge, and go to sleep.

The check-in area was a mess. I speak exactly four Spanish words/phrases (hello, thank you, what’s your name, and bathroom). I finally found someone who spoke enough English for me to understand that Avianca check-in was closed and would open in half-an-hour. So I got on line. As I waited, I noticed weary travelers sleeping pretty much everywhere and in every contorted position possible. I prayed the lounge would be more comfortable.

As soon as the line started moving I made a beeline for an Avianca employee and said “business class.” She took me to the front of the line, and I silently thanked my miles for allowing me this luxury.

Finally, after checking in and going through security, I found the domestic lounge. I did my research in advance and discovered that the Lima airport has a Priority Pass lounge in the domestic area, so I called up Chase and asked for my free Priority Pass card – just one of the perks of having the Chase Ink Bold credit card. I’m allowed two free Priority Pass visits (all subsequent visits are $29), so I planned to use one on the way to Cusco, and one on the way home from Lima.

But when I get to the domestic lounge, my heart sunk. It was tiny – the size of a crappy New York City studio, or maybe even smaller. To make matters worse, there were three televisions and they were all playing Spanish soap operas – at two in the morning!

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Spanish soaps!

I did the only thing I could. I moved two chairs together, set my alarm, plugged in my earphones and nodded off to sleep. Lo and behold, when I woke up at 6 a.m., the Spanish soaps were still on!

The Avianca flight to Cusco was similarly pleasant. Business class looked very much the same, and I had the row to myself. The short one-hour flight is filled with stunning mountainous views, and I managed to take a few pictures despite my sleep-deprived state.

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The Cusco airport is pretty much a big room with conveyer belts for baggage and a bunch of tourists companies, taxis, and hotels hawking their services in Spanish. [Not to Peruvians: I am pasty white. There is an excellent chance that you can tell I don’t speak Spanish just by looking at me. If you want to increase your chances of me listening to your pitches, make them in English.]

When my friend arrived an hour later, we went through our usual routine of complaining about how exhausted we were and then went outside to find our driver. I had arranged for a driver and made a $20 deposit via pay pal with KB Tours, a very respectable tour company according to trip advisor.

He wasn’t there, so we waited. And waited. And waited. We tried to call, but the phone number listed in our Lonely Planet book didn’t work, and there is no phone number on the website. Half-nervous and half-pissed, we went back inside and asked the representative for our Urubamba hotel for some advice choosing a taxi. We had read enough accounts of people getting kidnapped by rogue taxi drivers – which is why we had arranged for a driver in the first place. [Note: KB Tours refunded our deposited very quickly after we emailed them.]

He was incredibly helpful and informed us that the woman in the yellow vest will put us in an official taxi. She pointed out to us the taxi’s official ID number and I took pictures of his ID number and license plate just to be safe (paranoid much?).  The one-hour drive was pleasant and the views were beautiful.

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Not a bad photo for shooting out the window of a taxi as it winds its way down a mountain.

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Ditto.

Needless to say, we were not kidnapped, and one hour later, we arrived at our amazing hotel exhausted, but otherwise in one piece. Our adventure had begun.

 

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