Monday, August 29, 2011

South America Adventures – Part 3 (Sacred Valley)

Our group boarded the bus and headed off to view some Inca ruins. Dana and I signed on for an organized tour through Inca territory. The group included a tour/trail guide and porters. You could call us pampered because the porters carried our camping equipment and food, but it was still pretty rugged. We were allowed to give up to 6kg (about 13lbs) of personal baggage to the porters and carry up to 3kg ourselves. Mostly everyone had hiking experience…everyone but Dana. She borrowed hiking shoes from a friend and brought her hilariously humungous Wal-Mart sleeping bag. The thing was left over from childhood camp outs in the backyard. I was surprised there wasn’t a strawberry shortcake picture on the front. Everyone one else had micro foam things with compression sacks that would squeeze the bag down to a soda can. Dana’s was so huge, it took both of us to stuff it into the duffel bag supplied by the tour company.

We were surprised to find Americans in the minority in our group of 14. There were several Canadians, some British and Irish, and even two Swedish girls. The only other American in our group was a 22 year old boy from Puerto Rico (technically US territory). Dana and I set out to be on our best behavior since we would A) be fighting against the “annoying American tourist stereotype, and B) be stuck with these people for the next week.

Cusco was the heart of the Inca Empire. It was the religious and ruling center. The Inca belief centered around a few iconic animals including the llama, condor and puma. Cusco in fact was laid out in shape of a puma. Of course the Spanish Conquistadors destroyed the ancient city (rid them of their gods so they would accept Christianity) and the modern city is built on the ruins.

The first ruins site right outside Cusco is Sacsayhuaman. The running joke is that the name is best pronounced “sexy woman”. This site on the edge of mountains surrounding the Cusco valley, so it was sort of a military fort.

We drove off into the mountains to visit a typical village where inhabitants were keeping up traditions. The men would farm most of the year but act as our porters between seasons. The women would raise llamas and alpacas for wool and meat. The hair would be died, spun, and woven into textiles. Their scarves, gloves, and blankets were vibrant with color and super soft (alpaca…damn your good). Of course the highlight was chasing around the llamas (don’t ask me why but those things are fucking hilarious).

Part of my education was learning to tell the difference between alpacas and llamas. Yes both are extremely goofy looking…and have a bit of an asshole behavior. The llamas are taller with longer necks and longer fur. The alpacas are shorter with stubbier necks and legs, and they are “fluffier” which makes them look a bit round. Of course the group infiltrated a free range flock and tried to get pictures with them.

The tour took us through the Sacred Valley with the Urubamba River running down the center. The valley had pockets of Inca ruins along the way as it eventually leads to Machu Picchu. You can imagine various villages and trading posts for pilgrims traveling between the capital and Machu Picchu.

We hiked the ruins at Pisac high up on the mountain ridges. The Inca stones were perfectly cut and positioned in place. The stones for the temple were rectangular in nature and fit so closely together that a paper wouldn’t fit through a joint. Note these ancient people did this without the use of metal (steel/iron) or the wheel! Some stones were taken from quarries miles away and transported to temples far up the mountain side (again without the wheel). Plus they did it without slaves. Their belief was to have every man and woman pitch in for a certain amount of time. The Incas only ruled for 100yrs or so, but they sure accomplished a whole lot.

The stairs in Pisac were hewed right into the mountain with no modern safety regulations (including a guardrail preventing visitors from falling off the sheer cliff face). This will be the first of many scary encounters and serious safety violations I see on the Inca trails. I was pretty petrified at first (being afraid of heights), but eventually I had to continue on because I was in danger of losing the group.
Thankfully the group went pretty slow as climbing in the Andes took the breath out of most people.

One neat trick our guide showed us was the Inca version of telephone. You could shout on one mountain and hear the echo loud and clear. We tried to wage a shouting match with another mountain group. Fail.

We explored the Pisac market place and grabbed lunch in a locals only eatery with open fire empanadas. It was five star material with two tables composed of mismatched lawn furniture. Plus it had a Guinea Pig pen where you could select your own future entrée. Yeah, guinea pigs are a delicacy here. You have to wait four hours and pay top dollar because the little suckers are pretty tough meat. It reminded me of the lobster tank in seafood restaurants.

I have a habit of collecting shitty art from all of my travels. Each man/artist in the market claimed he was the Peruvian Picasso.

Our next stop further in the Sacred Valley was the town of Ollantaytambo. The ruins are shaped to resemble a llama. You have to squint and tilt your head to the side…but it’s there. The opposite mountain was carved to resemble one of their Gods. The face with eyes, nose and a small mount edge are pretty clear, and the is carrying the grain store rooms on his back. The Ollanta ruins of course were perfectly carved with waterfalls and animal reliefs (an abstract condor). The site wasn’t finished as they were in the process of building it when the Spanish invaded and all the workers left to go to war. There were cut Volkswagen sized stones on the way from the quarry stranded half way up the mountain slope.

The Ollanta town is the jumping off point to the Inca trail, and our last opportunity for a real bed (if you call it that) and a hot shower (well hot then cold then soapy Lindsay complaining to a laughing Dana while wet and shivering in doorway). The convenience store cashed in on the last resort concept by charging $10 for 6 candy bars (like standard kit-kat and stuff) or $2 each. The local restaurant was the Blue Puppy and my burger was Peruvian style (that means beef with peppers according to them).

On interesting thing about rural Peru was the lack of billboards. Granted you really don’t see billboards in rural America either, but the difference laid in how they got their advertising out. There was an upcoming election, so occupants would show their support for a candidate by painting the person’s name and logo (every politician had a logo) on the ENTIRE SIDE OF THEIR HOUSE! Seriously, you’d roll through a village with literally wall-to-wall political propaganda. My favorite candidate was Elvis. Yes, his name was Elvis. He lives…in South America!


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