July 10, 2014
We started our day in a van around 7:30 a.m. We had a busy day planned, so we got right to it. Our first destination was a statue that sits high above Cusco. Ray called it “White Jesus,” but it is officially called Cristo Blanco. The statue was a thank you gift from some Christian Palestinians in the mid-1940s after they sought refuge in Peru. Considering that we were about to take a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, it seemed a little strange to be hanging out by a white Jesus but the view was worth it. From there, we were also able to get a glimpse of our first Inca ruin, Sacsayhuaman. Ray told us the correct pronunciation for that word. Then he told us most gringos call it “Sexy Woman,” and that stuck. Go figure.
After our photo-op, we got back into the touring van and descended down the winding road toward the first of our two cultural destinations of the day. We were going to a local village where women still practice the art of weaving as it has been done for centuries. One of the reasons I chose G Adventures for our trip was their dedication to helping the communities they visit through Planeterra, a charitable organization they founded. Planeterra’s mission is to protect iconic destinations from being exploited by partnering with community members and finding ways to support them, help the environment, and encourage local business.
As we pulled up to the village, our van slowed to pick up a diminutive woman in traditional costume who served as our guide for the tour. Lucila explained how they shear the wool from alpacas, clean it using the roots from a plant, and then color it by creating dye from different native plants and minerals. Once the wool is dyed, they spin it and then weave it into hats, scarves, and other textiles that the families sell to folks who visit the co-op. If the women use the ancient weaving process (shown here), it can take a month to make one patterned table runner. If they use the more modern looms provided by the Planeterra foundation, these same textiles take half the time to create. Either way, they’re producing handcrafted, truly Peruvian souvenirs for tourists while sustaining their community and preserving cultural traditions. We bought gifts for everyone on our list and felt good about supporting these families and the Planeterra mission. Total win/win.
Our next stop was to Pisac to tour our first Inca ruin. As we pulled up, we could see the agricultural terracing the Incas had set up. It was my first opportunity to acknowledge that we were actually in Peru and about to experience something I’d only seen in photos. I felt so small in the expanse and could not wait to stand there in the midst of what the Incas had created. Once we negotiated the maze of tour buses and finally reached the entrance, Ray took over. He told us how the terracing allowed the Incas to grow diverse crops depending upon the altitude at which they were planted. The Incas were not only master builders, but they were masters of their environment as well, creating channels and rerouting snow melt water to irrigate their crops from the top down. We toured the ruins and got some practice huffing and puffing our way up the stairs. Ray told us he was going to be evaluating our group fitness. As the oldest person in our group, I crossed my fingers that I would not turn out to be the weakest link.
In the meantime, I needed something more than oxygen. Lunch. Did someone say lunch? We had an hour-long bus ride to reach our lunch destination, another Planeterra brainchild. To foster preservation of native, Peruvian cuisine, Planeterra had worked with one small, struggling community to create a top-notch restaurant that serves traditional cuisine crafted from local produce to weary travelers like our group. Ray assured us that the meal would be excellent. It was. In a state-of-the-art kitchen in the middle of nowhere, Peruvians who had been trained as chefs by Planeterra had spent their morning whipping up delicacies for us. We had appetizers, a delicious green salad (you have no idea how excited I was about that “safe” lettuce), a rocoto pepper stuffed with ground alpaca (so good), and mazamorra morada (spiced pudding made with purple corn and fruit) for dessert. It was probably the best meal we’d eaten yet in Peru. To rest after lunch, we all took turns trying our hand at Sapo, a Peruvian tossing game similar to our Cornhole game where you try to land a beanbag in a hole. Instead of tossing a bean bag, we were tossing heavy, metal coins into holes on a table to score points. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but it was a fun way to interact with our fellow travelers. I found myself grateful that hand-eye coordination is not a skill required to hike the Inca Trail.
Our late afternoon plan included yet another bus ride. This time we were headed toward our last civilized accommodation before becoming ground sleepers. We arrived in Ollantaytambo (oy-on-tay-tom-bo), checked into a super cute inn, and had just enough time to unpack our souvenirs and freshen up before hitting our last destination of the day. Within walking distance of the inn and situated at the junction of two valleys sit the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. The sun was starting to sink behind the Andes and we were losing daylight. Because of this, as we were entering the ruins, most of the crowds there were leaving. Like all the other ruins, this one included an impressive number of stairs. Ray broke it down into sections for us, giving us time to gasp for air while he told us about our surroundings. Of all the ruins we saw on our tour, these became my favorite. The stonework was incredible, and the setting was impressive. Scanning the nearby hills, small ruins were evident all over the place. Maybe it was the setting sun. Maybe it was the excitement of the trek we would begin the next day. Maybe it was the recognition that we were in truly sacred territory. In any case, something that evening made those ruins stand out. What the Incas were able to do in the formidable terrain of the surrounding Andes is awe-inspiring. And despite the cold wind blowing down the valleys and into the site while we walked around, I was getting a warm, fuzzy feeling about where this trip would take me.