Did You Say Cusco or Costco? – Days 5 and 6

Sacred Valley, Peru

The train ride from AC back to Ollyantaytambo was an uneventful, but beautiful ride through the Andes and the foothills. When I arrived in Olly, David was there to meet me for our ride through the Sacred Valley to Cusco. However, before we took in any sites in the Sacred Valley, David had our driver stop at a little homepub for some Chicha beer (corn beer) and a little game of Frog. Frog is a very popular Peruvian game the features a “board” in the shape of pin ball machine. An open mouthed frog rests in the middle of the table top board and is surrounded by holes. The goal of the game is to toss one of the twelve coins you are handed into the mouth of the frog. You are awarded points for dropping the coins into the holes around the frog, but the big prize is awarded if the coin lands in the mouth of the frog. I started out like I could go pro at this game, but went downhill fast (and I hadn’t even had a drop of the Chicha beer). OK enough of this. I hate to lose and I lost badly to David.

Playing a little “frog”

Anyway, the homepub was part of a family’s home and were were invited inside by our host to see how Chicha is made. As we walked inside the one room home, low and behold there was a still and mashed up corn and yep a big clay pot full of Chicha regular and Chicha strawberry beer (along with the requisite herd of guinea pigs that weren’t there for pets). I can say without reservation that if you think you have tasted bitter beer you have not tasted bitter until you have had Chicha beer. (I am certain that the first taste I had caused me to have that bitter beer face from the commercials years ago.) I moved on to the Strawberry flavored beer and it was much more palatable. Two glasses later and I had a major buzz on. WOWZA this stuff packs a punch. Reminds me of “Purple Jesus” we used to make in University with alchool (100% grain alcohol) and fruit and God knows what else.

We moved on from the buzz fest to stops at Salinas (the salt mines) and Moray before ending the day at Chinchero. The salt mines were originally founded by the Incas and were important to the Incas because they used the salt to preserve their food and their dead. What I found so fascinating is that the salt mines are owned by one town and have been owned as such for generations. The families that live in the town work the mines. From a distance, the salt mines kind of look like homes you would see in the Greek Islands. Terraced, whitewashed buildings. On closer inspection the terraced areas are individual pools of water filled with salt. When the water evaporates sufficiently, the salt is removed. How is the salt removed you ask? Believe it or not… the salt is removed by hand. I watched workers in sandals stand in the water, bend over and gather baskets of salt, shifting the baskets to remove the water and then piling the salt in the sun to dry. My first thought was “good God that has to be back breaking work.” My second thought was “I wonder how many of these people suffer from hypertension from standing in the salt and the water all day.” David confirmed my concern that many of these people to indeed suffer from hypertension. Guess they don’t have labor laws here.

Take the picture will ya (of the Salt Mines)

We moved on to Moray and let me tell you … getting there was a riot. We went through back roads and dirt roads in the middle of cow pastures. Over ruts and rocks and around broken down cars. We stopped more times than I can count for sheep and cows. I found it interesting that the women were the herders. I tried to get a couple pictures, but the ride was so damn bumpy the pictures did not turn out. Anyway, we finally reached Moray, which is another Incan archeological site. It is comprised of terraced gardens that rise from a crater in the ground to several stories high. It was here that the Incas planted and cultivated fruits and vegetables using the terraces are their own form of greenhouse with plants that needed warmer temperatures planted on the lower terraces and plants that could withstand colder temperatures planted higher. David and I hiked down into the terraces, but it was a major workout climbing up the terraces and back to the level where the car was parked. The wind was whipping around and I thought I was going to blow over and back down into the “pit”.


We ended the day with a trip to Chinchero to visit one of the most beautiful churches in the Sacred Valley as well as to visit some local weavers. Chinchero is the highest point in the Sacred Valley at 12,400 feet above sea level. The hike up the hill to the Church left me winded, out of breath and flat out longing for a break from the thin air. Not only that, but the sun had set and the Andean winds had picked up so it was cold cold cold. Walking the cobblestones of the little town in the dark (uh no there were no street lights) was also a challenge. At one point, I asked David if he didn’t like me anymore. We finally arrived at the Church and it was surrounded by hill women (women who live in the Andean hills, make their living weaving or farming and wear very colorful clothing). Apparently, there had been a market that day and the hill women were packing up their wares. Unfortunately, the wind was causing havoc with their efforts to pack up. (I actually wanted to run over and help one poor woman who was having a terrible time with a large blanket she was trying to fold up.) Despite my desire, we walked past the hill women and entered the Church which had beautiful multicolored mosaics on the ceiling, church pews decorated for a wedding and many religious paintings and carvings. I didn’t want to say anything to David, but after seeing St. Peter’s Basillica in Rome, every other church is pretty much a letdown. Nevertheless, it was a lovely church, and the addition of the Incan stone ruins at the base of the Church was unique and very interesting.

A weaver spinning wool to yarn

The trip to the weavers was another story. I could have stayed there all night watching these women work. And although I said I was only buying a Christmas ornament on my trip to Peru, I ended up with a llama wool scarf. (I really wanted a sweater I saw, but the woman wanted too much and she wouldn’t budge from her price.) Anyway, we walked into this two story windowless building that was a weaving cooperative of some friends and families. I was shown how the llama wool is cleaned and then dyed with all natural dyes (solely organic dyes made from roots of vegetables, bugs, flowers and leaves from plants and trees). The lady weavers then took over and showed me how they hand spin the wool and weave the wool into tapestries, sweaters and other handicrafts. After I bought my scarf the women gave me some coca tea for the altitude and allowed me to take a couple pictures. I was extremely impressed by the craft of these people and was very lucky to be able to watch them work.

I was then driven, exhausted, to Cusco. I checked in to my hotel “Torre Dorada” and was so tired I could not even muster the energy to go for dinner. The gracious desk manager “Danny” brought me an omelet and banana and I just about cried. God was that food good, and I did not even need to leave my lovely little hotel.

A little word about Cusco. The original Quechua (Incan language) name for Cusco was Qosqo (pronounced… Cosco… and it means of all things, “the center of the universe”. Makes you wonder if the founders of Costco spoke Quechua or were Incan historians….) Anyway, Cusco was the center of the Incan world and was the home of the Incan kings. It is now a large, city that can become very smoggy because of its location – in a valley surrounded by mountains. I have found my eyes burning nonstop since my arrival. I had planned to spend two days exploring Cusco.

So… Sunday morning. New Day. New me. Refreshed from 8 lovely hours of sleep, David met me in the lobby at 8:30 a.m. for our trip to Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman – seriously ), the Pisac ruins and the Pisac Sunday market.

Sacsaywaman and some smaller stones

Sacsaywaman is a large site comprised of agricultural terraces (as was the Incan custom – although no farming is believed to have been done here), a large grass plaza used for celebrations and a large stone fortress made up of temples and residences. This is the third Incan site I have visited, but it never fails to astonish me how the Incans were able to construct these massive structures with massive stones without modern engineering or equipment. (David put it quite nicely – “The Incans were very hard workers and believed in the community principal (ie working together to accomplish a project). Today, Peru has many modern conveniences and we are not able to construct anything.”)

Sacsaywaman was built on at least three levels on a hillside overlooking Cusco and contained mammoth (and I mean mammoth) stones. The fortress was designed in a zig zag pattern believed to represent the teeth of the puma (a sacred animal for Incans). Although there is apparently no confirmation, it is believed that Sacsaywaman was designed to protect Cusco. Unfortunately, the Spanish Conquistadors ultimately defeated the Incans during a last stand at Sacsaywaman. The Spanish then tore down much of Sacsaywaman. One thing I noticed here as opposed to the Ollyantaytambo ruins or the Machu Picchu ruins … you could actually see designs in the stones used to build the fortress. I saw a llama, a human, a puma paw and a rabbit (although David thought it looked like a turtle).

Big ass stones (one one with a puma claw)

We left Sacsaywaman and made the half hour drive through the Sacred Valley countryside to Pisac along a very winding road and through some beautiful mountain regions. Along the way I saw a lot of damage to buildings and roads that occurred following the horrible flooding in Peru this past February. Nothing has been done by the Peru government to repair the area so the local officials and families were trying to do the work themselves. We actually saw a family by a river downstream from what I presumed was their home working on a retaining wall that had collapsed.

We made a brief stop at a llama farm where I was able to feed some llamas and learn about the different breeds (there are 4 native to Peru: linnaeus, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuna). After the stop at the llama farm, we made it to Pisac and headed to the ruins. I was not prepared for how incredibly large this site was. Holy Crap. HUGE! As I was contemplating the enormity of the site, David turned to me and said he thought we should hike the whole site. Uh are you trying to kill me Inca boy? Despite my doubts, I cautiously agreed to give it a go so we set off and started the hike by visiting one of the few remaining visible Incan burials grounds. The Incas buried their dead in a fetal position and in caves carved into the hillside so the entire hillside was covered with terraces and paths with caves where the dead had been buried. It was not possible to view the caves, but I will see some of the remains at the Inca Museum in Cusco that I planned to visit.

Pisac ruins

We then moved on to the ruins water systems and the crystal clear springs that run through the site. At this point, we decided to take a bathroom break for the hour and a half trek ahead of us. And yes, there it was! My first (of what will be many, many) squat toilets. I first encountered these crazy contraptions in China (think bed pan on the floor). Anyway, it was lovely and clean and numero uno on the list for this trip.

So now the hike to the ruins. And yep, you guessed it… more bloody stairs. (The Incas did not believe in building ANYTHING at ground level). The main citadel loomed high,high high above the agricultural terraces. Below the main fortress are a series of cliff-hanging footpaths and stairs leading to the ceremonial center where the requisite Sun Temple and other temples to the gods, including lightning, were built. David and I set out on the hike to the citadel. We were so high up (I think I may have overcome my fear of heights the past week with all the cliff hanging hikes I have been on) and the path was so narrow, but I charged on. Then… there it was … the first of what I came to find out was a series of stairs … straight up (for those who believe heaven is up… I am here to tell you that is wrong, wrong, wrong… hell is up). After more stairs than I can count, we came to a little (and I mean little) cave tunnel. I squeezed through and walked down a series of stairs and there we were looking down at the ceremonial center. After a walk around the temples, David and I started the hike back. David told me the walk back would be easy as we would be taking the rolling rock pathway well below the hillside we had just hiked. OK. Sounds good. I walked along and then just when I was feeling good about life… there it was … my nemesis… more stairs. Those damn Incas. I looked at David. Gave him the death stare. And up we went. And I counted…. 178 steps. Holy ****. Half way up, I stopped turned to David and said “You lie. You lie. You lie.” We finally made it, and I collapsed on a rock. The thin air was absolutely brutal.

After hiking the stairs (see the path down below)

Once I caught my breath, we made it back to the car and Rosalie, our lovely driver, took us on to the Pisac Sunday Market, which is a market where many of the hill people and people of the Sacred Valley sell their produce and handicrafts. We wound our way through the alleys, looked at some handicrafts, but quickly moved on to what I really came for… the produce market. And it was everything I had hoped for and then some. Woman and children dressed in traditional attire selling, bartering and visiting with one another. Many of the woman arrived at the market with slings over their backs laden with produce, and what a selection it was. More varieties of potatoes than I ever imagined existed. Tomatoes large and small. Oranges, bananas, avocados, melons, spices, meat (a cow’s head!) guinea pigs (of course), roasted corn (mmm and it was good), and on and on. I wanted to just sit there and take it all in. It was one small area, but a microcosm of the centuries old traditions and ways of the Peruvian people. I loved loved loved it. The only downside… it started blowing and when I say blowing I mean a gusting, knocking things over kind of wind. Ultimately, David and I left after hanging out for a couple hours, but not before I got sucked into buying two Peruvian pictures woven by two brothers. Really beautiful, but dammit I was only going to buy a Christmas ornament!

Pisac Market

We headed back to Cusco, had some dinner and I bid David and Rosalie good bye. I told them they had set the bar very high for the rest of my trip. Fabulous people and a wealth of information and assistance. They really made my time in the Sacred Valley an amazing experience.

So I faced down Monday in Cusco on my own with a game plan. San Blas area, the Qorikancha and Igliesia de Santo Domingo, and Plaza de Armas with the the Incan Museum and la Catedral. I got up early and set off for the San Blas area of Cusco, which is known for its narrow, winding alleys and arts and crafts stores. I made my way down the cobblestone sidewalk (barely a foot wide) careful to hug the walls as cars zipped by. I then turned down a small alley and almost ran right into a little boy who was no more than 8 years old holding a bowl with 2 skinned … you guessed it… guinea pigs. WARNING IF YOU ARE SQUEEMISH SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH NOW! The guinea pigs were intact and apparently freshly harvested because there was plenty of blood and the eyes had that “how could you” look. I was so stunned to run into the kid and the kid was so stunned to run into me we kind of just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then the kid did a quick back track through the door he came through. About 2 minutes later all I could do was curse myself for missing a great Kodak moment.

Pisac Market

I moved on and reached the Qorikancha, which is the site of what was the richest temple in the Incan empire and now forms the foundation for the Santo Domingo Church. I wandered around and looked at the ruins and all I could think of was that it was such a shame all that was left was a few meters of outer wall. The Church and courtyard were lovely… but still the Qorikancha was covered in gold…

I walked from the Church on to the Plaza de Armas and spent about an hour in the Incan museum. One of the sad points (of many) in the Incan history is the fact that most of the Incan artifacts were destroyed by the Conquistadors and others. In fact Hiram Bingham, who is credited with uncovering Machu Picchu, took many, many artifacts to America where they now apparently sit at Yale University (a real sore point with the Peruvians I spoke to who raised the issue many, many times.) The Incan museum does contains some pottery, jewelry and pots, but the real crown jewel of the museum is the mummified remains and artifacts found at the Pisac burial grounds. There were six or seven adult remains and one child along with burial urns. And as David told me, the position of the remains were all in the fetal position.

La Catedral

I ended the day with a trip to la Catedral. This is Cusco’s main cathedral and it sits on the site of the former Incan Palace. In fact, stones from Sacsaywaman were used in its construction, which began in 1559 and was completed about 100 years later. I loved this church and was really glad that the fellow at the front door gave me a set of headphones for a walking tour. It turned out to be invaluable. I saw the oldest surviving painting in Cusco depicting the great 1650 earthquake, the black crucifix known as the Lord of the Earthquakes (apparently when it was brought out during the 1650 earthquake, the earthquake suddenly stopped hence the name), the beautiful original wood altar and the unfreakingbelievable solid silver altar (no I don’t have a picture – “no foto seniorita”). However, the pièce de résistance was the painting of the Last Supper. After the Spanish conquered the Incans, the Spanish made an effort to incorporate Incan and Andean traditions and ways into much of the architecture and art. So there I was in the middle of this magnificent holy sanctuary and was gazing at this beautiful depiction of one of the most solemn occasions in the Christian faith and then wait… what’s that I see gracing Jesus’ last feast in the middle of the table, legs up … yep … you guessed it … the traditional Andean ceremonial food… cuy … roasted guinea pig! When I spotted it, I started laughing and I could not stop. I laughed so loud, a guard strolled over toward me. I’m certain he would not be amused by what I was finding so funny so I covered up my laughter with coughing and moved out of there rapido still giggling uncontrollably. (I’d give anything for a picture of that one!)

Street scene in the Plaza de Armas

So I planned to spend my last (or partial) day in Cusco at the morning market before jumping on a plane to Lima tomorrow afternoon. I have really enjoyed my time here, but it will be time to move on to Russia.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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