We had yet another early morning flight, departing Juliaca (the closest airport to Puno) at 7:30 in the morning and getting to Cusco around 8:30. We were pretty exhausted and the flight was too short to get in a good catnap. When we arrived in Cusco, we dropped our bags off at the hotel we would we be staying in two days later and took with us just a small bag with enough supplies for the next two nights. The reason for this was because we would be taking the train to Machu Picchu the next day and there are luggage limits on the train.
Our tour guide picked us up from the hotel and we began our Sacred Valley tour, driving up into the mountains away from Cusco. The first stop on our tour was an animal sanctuary where rescued animals are nursed back to health. There are lots of really cool animals there, including a pair of pumas and a few condors. The sanctuary is a bit small but they’re in the process of expanding. We were able to walk around and get up close and personal with a few of the animals. The sanctuary is run by a family and relies on donations and I think it’s a very worthy cause.
Our next stop was Pisac, and more specifically, the famous Pisac Market. The market is ginormous and filled with stall after stall of people selling all sorts of wares. We were there on Sunday, which is one of the busier market days. It was pretty packed and there was a lively, festive atmosphere to the place. Before setting us loose to shop our hearts out, our guide took us to a bakery in the market that is famous for its empanadas.
The empanadas were not like the ones we’re used to at home. The outside was more like bread rather than a pastry, and the filling was chunky. There were potatoes, vegetables, and cheese in the ones we had. The bread was a little thick but when we hit the filling, the combination was really tasty and savory. Plus they only cost 1 sol each, a true bargain.
I wish that we had more time to explore the eating options in Pisac Market but we only had 45 minutes to shop and we had a lot of souvenirs to buy. It seemed like a lot of stalls were selling the same kinds of things so basically we just picked the one with the most options and did a bit of haggling since we were buying a lot of stuff. Once we got everything we needed, we only had a little bit of time left to wander around and take a few photos.
After Pisac, we headed to Ollantaytambo to visit an Inca archaeological site. It was our first true taste of Inca architecture, and the site was absolutely fascinating. The main structure had lots of steps and terraces, with alcoves carved into the rock and trapezoid-shaped doorways, an Inca signature. In the more sacred temple areas, the rock is smoothed down and are cut perfectly so that each rock fits into the next without any mortar, and the angles are really precise.
It was super windy at the top of the structure, but we also had a wonderful of the city down below and the surrounding mountains. The town itself still has some of the original Inca walls and trapezoid-shaped doorways, as well as the same water channel that runs through it.
There are Incan storehouses in the mountains where they used to keep their grain, which are still intact. The more interesting thing about the mountain right in front of the large structure, however, is that archaeologists believe the Incas carved the mountain so that it follows the different solstices. At one solstice, the sun bursts out right over the top of the mountain, which has a cradle shape at the peak. At another solstice, the sun appears from behind the side of the mountain, where there appears to be a profile of an Incan face. It’s actually pretty incredible if they really did manipulate the mountain in that way.
There was a fountain at the base of the structure that was also really neat. There was a trapezoid-shaped window behind the fountain that framed the mountain perfectly. And, unsurprisingly, during one of the solstices, a ray of sunlight shines directly on the point where the water starts to fall into the pool.
After leaving the wonders of Ollantaytambo, we were taken to lunch at a restaurant called Alhambra. The restaurant has beautiful grounds and we spent a little time wandering around after we finished eating. Our guided tour was over after this, and we were dropped off at our hotel, the Tambo del Inka. It was by far the most luxurious and beautiful hotel we stayed in our entire trip. We had a king sized bed, a sitting area with a couch and a desk, a walk in closet, and a huge bathroom with separate stalls for the shower/tub and toilet. It was awesome.
The ironic thing was that while we were staying in the lap of luxury, the town the hotel was in, Urubamba, was the poorest town we saw on our trip. We took the short walk to the center of town, and it was kind of run down and nothing appeared to be open. We walked through the Plaza de Armas where there was a church (of course) and not much else.
There is an Inca wall at one end of the town, which we walked to. The wall itself is pretty well kept and if you stare at the rocks long enough, you can start to see flower shapes.
There was supposed to be another Inca ruin to visit in the town but dark clouds quickly started rolling in (we had heard thunder rumbling in the distance earlier but didn’t think much of it) and all of a sudden the skies opened up and it was pouring rain. It got really dark almost immediately and there was thunder and lightening all around us. It was kind of scary, actually, and we started running back to the hotel which was a good 15-20 minutes away by foot. We had no jackets and no umbrella of course so we were getting soaked. While we didn’t care much about ourselves, we didn’t want Josh’s camera to get ruined.
While we were running down the road back toward our hotel, we saw a “taxi chola”, which is kind of like a motorized pedicab. We flagged the guy down and hopped into the back, which is covered in vinyl, happy to get out of the pouring rain. We asked him how much it would cost to get back to our hotel, which was about a mile away. Keep in mind that this was a torrential downpour, with gusting winds and lightening and thunder. He could have quoted us an astronomical price and totally ripped us off because we were clearly desperate. There was nowhere for us to duck in out of the rain since nothing was open. So what price did he tell us? 2 soles. Yes, 2 soles. About 75 cents. Unreal!
The ride itself was kind of fun, with us bouncing around in the back while the moped drove through puddles and over potholes. He dropped us off at the entrance gate to our hotel (I guess they don’t let taxi cholas up the fancy driveway!) and we gave him 5 soles, which was still a bargain in our minds.
Because of the rain and because we didn’t see any restaurants to try (the one our concierge recommended was closed) we decided to stay in and eat at the hotel bar. We actually had a great time eating, drinking, and chatting, and then we went to sleep in our fluffy and comfortable bed. It was definitely one of the best days that we had on our trip, and we were giddily excited for what was still to come (hint: Machu Picchu).