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The Sacred Valley

 Baby alpaca with a special treat for Teddy
Baby alpaca with a special treat for Teddy
Today we ventured beyond our protective bubble and partook of the sweeter, harder to reach fruits surrounding Cusco. First stop was a small town, Chinchero, where we were taken to observe a weaving demonstration. I have a feeling this was a mandatory stop, and while it was interesting to see where many of the colors of the yarn came from, we were attacked on all sides by Quechua women wanting to sell us expensive, well made woven goods. After carefully extracting ourselves (my mother, the weakest, managed to only buy a pair of socks and a scarf) we hopped back into our trusty van and were off to our first site of the day, Moray.

Not to be confused with the eel, Moray was an Inca civilization on the seque from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Its exact function is still somewhat unknown although archaeologists suspect it was a huge altar to mother earth and may have been an agricultural center. Moray was a colossal circular depression in the ground. It had three levels and each level had seven tiers. All tiers were covered in grass and the walls had flat stones arranged on a diagonal which stuck out and served as stairs. There was another, smaller amphitheater-like structure right next to the main depression. We walked around the outside and partly into the bowl but none of us had the gumption to go all the way down. Climbing back up to the top we were winded and our legs were aching. Some members of the group were getting a little fearful of the hike that was looming ahead of us.

Next stop were the Maras salt mines. I had been expecting a true deep-in-the-Earth salt mine. We were at the top of a deep crevasse and our car slowly snaked down the side of the slope. Below us and on the other side of the gap we could see a bright white spot, spidered with brown lines. The mines were a collection of thousands of small pools of water ringed by light brown dirt. The salty river had been partially diverted to fill up each of these small pools and as the water evaporated it left behind a thick, white salt residue. The mine stretched on for a very long time and the bright colors added flare to the otherwise drab mountainside. Never having been to a salt "mine" before, it was a good stop.

Once on the road again the van went for a few minutes and then pulled off to the side, about 100 feet from the road. We all got out and were told it was our picnic site. We were atop a prominence and below us on the left was a small farm plot and some farmers. Everywhere else we looked there were mountains. It was a pretty stunning backdrop for our picnic lunch. The picnic wasn't too shabby either. Teddy and Julio, our driver, whipped out nine folding cloth chairs and a tent bag. We all pitched in to help put up the tent and then Julio got a little gas stove cranking to heat up our food. It was a windy perch so they positioned the car as a wind blocker and tied the tent to the trunk. In about 15 minutes food was ready and we eagerly piled into the tent.

We had not been expecting a feast but that's what it amounted to. There were colas and Inca Cola, a neon yellow soda that tasted like bubble gum. The meal was a stuffed chicken breast with mashed potatoes and two side salads of vegetables. They also provided rolls and kaka cake for dessert. We were overly full but were pleasantly surprised about the spread.

Once lunch was finished and the tent and chairs had been stuffed back into their respective bags, we hit the road and made tracks down into the sacred valley. While the land was still relatively arid, there were now some green farms and trees sprouting up on the banks of the river. Upon crossing the river, we headed up to Pisac. This was the Easternmost town in the valley and boasted a ruin set high above the river. By the time we got to the site it was mid afternoon and the dipping sun lit the ruins in a golden light. Long shadows ran across the undulating mountainside and got caught in the layers of terraced land. The site was all but deserted and we spent a few hours wandering along the mountainside. There were three clusters of buildings, representing agricultural, religious and dwelling centers. The narrow dirt path connecting the three clung to the side of the mountain and offered spectacular views of the valley below. I can think of few things more enjoyable than prowling the deserted ruins in the dusky winter light.

Modern Pisac housed a reasonably priced market which we got to just as it was closing. I set out quickly, determined to find a rug to hang on my apartment wall, and found a stall with its wares still out. I found a rug I liked which had many earthy colors arranged in a geometric pattern. Speaking in broken Spanish, I asked the seller how much for the rug and he responded 300 sole. This was out of my price range so I smiled and turned away. He was persistent, however, and asked how much I would pay for it. Embarrassedly I admitted I wasn't going to shell out any more than about 180 sole and boom, it was sold on the spot. My father, the money carrier, forked over the cash but pointed out if he had settled so quickly he was probably willing to go a lot lower. I thought it was worth the price and so was happy to pad this man's income, if only by a little.

The drive back across the sacred valley was a long one and it was dark. Many of the vehicles on the road, including the bikes and four-wheeled peddled carts didn't have lights and the street was for the most part unlit so we took our time. By the time we got to our hotel, El Sauce in Ollantaytambo it was about 6:30 and we were tired from a long day of sight seeing. We deposited our bags in our rooms and alighted to the Blue Puppy for dinner. There were a few tourist groups there, most likely enjoying a final night of civilization before the hike, so we were in good company. The cuisine was eclectic with a menu offering salads, wraps, soups, pizzas and burritos. After the huge lunch, I stuck with a soup and even then wasn't too hungry. We were all tired and excited to see what our next day would bring so dinner was kept short and we didn't wander after the meal. I fell asleep with the solemn ruins of Pisac still trailing through my head.

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