Tequila Sunrise: Craft distillers use old-school techniques to produce Mexico's signature sprit

Jalisco's blue-green agave fields

It was just past 9 a.m., and already the sun was beating down as we left the cobbled lanes and low-slung buildings in the town of Tequila for a day trip into the Mexican countryside. Fields of blue-green agave plants, their spiky leaves stretching toward the morning light, flanked mountain roads in the shadow of a dormant volcano. With Clayton Szczech, a Spanish-speaking, American-born tequila expert as our guide, we were exploring La Ruta del Tequila, not a prescribed route so much as a meandering drive through lush valleys lined with family-owned distilleries, elegant haciendas, and roadside cantinas dedicated to the production and consumption of the country’s signature spirit. 

Here, in the state of Jalisco, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Guadalajara, lava from the Tequila volcano left mineral-rich soil that’s ideal for growing blue agave, a resilient succulent first harvested by the area’s indigenous people as food and later for a fermented drink they called pulque. Like cognac, a brandy that can only be called cognac if it comes from grapes grown in the Charente region of France, tequila can only be called tequila if it comes from blue agave cultivated in just five of Mexico’s 31 states, the main one being Jalisco. Anything else is just an “agave spirit.”

A focus on craft – slow food, farmers’ markets, craft cocktails, and, as Szczech puts it, “in general caring about how things are made and where they come from,” by U.S. consumers, who account for half of all tequila sales – means microdistillers here are reviving old-world techniques to produce small-batch, premium brands. The area’s biggest distilleries, who rely on more modern methods to meet mass-market demands, offer public tours and tastings, but with Szczech leading us on an outing for Virtuoso Life Magazine, arranged by Journey Mexico, we were were able to go behind the scenes. We met with several smaller, boutique producers during our three-day visit to this less-explored spot, which definitely merits a stop for travelers looking to deepen their understanding of tequila.

Clayton Szczech at Tequila Fortaleza

An outgoing former California punk rocker, Szczech has earned national recognition for his tequila knowledge. Working his industry connections, he arranged private, by-appointment-only visits and a gourmet picnic lunch of fajitas and chicken mole cooked by local women on the grounds of Casa Herradura, a historic hacienda owned by the Tequila Herradura distillery, as well as a tour of the Cascahuín distillery.

Members of the Rosales family, whose ancestors began making tequila 114 years ago, waited for us on the sidewalk outside Cascahuín in the town of El Arenal. At 32, tequila maker Salvador Rosales holds a master’s degree in tequila production, but it’s past generations he looks to for inspiration as he guides the family business in the twenty-first century. His grandfather didn’t finish high school, but he knew a little something about making what was called vino de mezcal, a high-octane spirit made from the juice of the blue agave.

A jimador harvests agave

Then, as they do today, skilled farmers, called jimadores, wielded long-handled, flat-bladed knives to harvest pineapple-shaped hearts from plants that take five to nine years to mature. Tossed like footballs into a wood-fired, earthen pit oven lined with volcanic rocks, the “piñas” would cook for days before being hand-crushed with mallets to release a sweet syrup that was fermented in wooden vats, distilled in copper pots, then rested in containers covered in corncobs.

View from the rooftop of Hotel Solar de las Animas

On the flip side, back in Tequila, La Rojeña – the distillery of the biggest and best-known tequila brand, Jose Cuervo – dominates the town of 40,000, the most popular stop in an area designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 for its distilling heritage. Most visitors arrive in Tequila by bus or tourist train, tour La Rojeña, buy a few bottles of tequila and maybe a hat woven from agave leaves sold by street vendors, then leave by late afternoon, missing out on the delights of a small, safe Mexican pueblo without the crowds.

“It’s an area of Mexico that a lot of people don't know exists,” says Adel, Iowa-based Virtuoso travel advisor Whitney Shindelar. And if you’re like me – a tequila novice drawn here more for the novelty of exploring a town that shares a name with the famous drink – she says don’t be shy. “For people who don’t think they like tequila, I would challenge them to go there and try it anyway. When you sit down to sip it or sample the different cocktails that are difficult to find in the U.S., I think a lot of people could be swayed.”

Best advice: Do as many affluent Mexicans do, and spend a night or two at the elegant, colonial-style Hotel Solar de las Ánimas, built to resemble a typical Mexican house in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with stone pillars and tiled floors. Settle in at the rooftop Sky Bar overlooking the town plaza; order the fresh tuna tostadas and a Smoky Margarita, made with tequila, agave syrup, lemon juice, and a sprig of flaming rosemary, and take in the views of the volcano and Sierra Madre mountains.

 Designated a Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town), Tequila lives up to the reputation, welcoming visitors by day with colorful shops, tasting rooms, and museums, and revealing a lively local scene by night, when the plaza fills with strolling mariachis and push-cart vendors hawking roasted corn and tequila drinks.

Tasting tequila with Salvador Rosales 

Old-School methods

As we sat a long table next to his outdoor bar in El Arenal, Salvador Rosales poured from a bottle of Siembra Valles Ancestral, a 100-proof blanco (white) tequila produced for the U.S. market using his grandfather’s old-school methods. With virtually all new agave plants reproduced by cloning rather than from seed, the family is experimenting with letting bats naturally pollinate the flowers. Akin to the Rainforest Alliance’s work with coffee farmers, the bat project aims to help growers cut back on chemicals and produce healthier, more sustainable agave that’s better able to fight diseases that nearly decimated the crops a few years ago. 

Tasting from a cup made from the shell of a local tree fruit, I pick up notes of smoke and pineapple in my first smooth swallow. Certified “bat friendly” and retailing for around $100 a bottle, this is a drink meant to be sipped and savored.

“The first thing you want to look for on a bottle is ‘100 percent agave’ ” – meaning the plant is the sole source of sugar used to make the alcohol, as opposed to harsher “hangover” blends mixed with cane sugar or corn syrup – Szczech told us on a visit to Tequila Fortaleza, a microdistillery owned by fifth-generation producer Guillermo E. Sauza. After the family business was sold (it now operates as Tequila Sauza, one of Mexico’s biggest distillers), Sauza returned to his ancestors’ hillside hacienda in Tequila and revived an old-time distillery that had been converted into a museum.

Here, the agave steams in brick ovens, emitting a faint smell of sweet potatoes, then is transferred to a circular pit to be crushed by a two-ton stone wheel pulled by a small tractor (in times past, a mule did the work). Men in white rubber boots follow behind, working the mash with hoes and pitchforks before hosing it down, pressing the water out by hand, and pumping the juice into wooden fermentation tanks – a labor-intensive process akin to making a sauce with a mortar and pestle instead of a food processor.

Crushing agave with a stone wheel

Inside a candlelit cave, Szczech leads us through a tasting, pouring from bottles lined up next to a row of Champagne-style glasses. There is an unaged blanco, bottled soon after distillation; a reposado, aged in oak barrels for seven months; and an añejo, aged for two years. “The question I always ask is, are you tasting or drinking?” Szczech says. “There is a right way to taste. When it comes to drinking, do it however you like.” He pours the tequila into the stemmed glasses, telling us that “the glasses really do matter” when it comes to sensing the different aromas. We look for hints of citrus and sweet agave in the blanco, caramel notes in the reposado, and vanilla and butterscotch in the añejo.

For me, acquiring a taste for drinking tequila straight will take more practice. But Whitney Shindelar is right about the cocktails. Solar de las Ánimas draws on its large collection of premium spirits to come up with creative specialty drinks, such as a fiery mango-and-habanero margarita, and riffs on standbys, like its Bloody Maria, a mix of tequila and lemon, strawberry, tomato, and clam juices.

A cantarito 

On our last evening, we joined the locals on the plaza, strolling and listening to mariachi music while sipping cantaritos, drinks street vendors make with tequila, grapefruit soda, lime, and salt, served in little clay cups. Accordion music mixed with the clang of church bells as women in bright dresses and men in suits gathered for a wedding. Kids climbed on big letters spelling out TEQUILA in the plaza. The tour buses were gone, the tasting rooms were closed, but it seemed as if the party was just getting started. The air filled with the scent of agave cooking at the Cuervo distillery, reminding us again that this was no ordinary Mexican town. It was magical.



Colonial-style Hotel Solar de las Ánimas overlooks the main plaza and the eighteenth-century church of Saint James the Apostle in the heart of Tequila. Two pools, one at ground level and the other on the rooftop, offer a respite from the afternoon heat. Garden areas with tile floors and stone pillars surround 93 contemporary rooms and suites. 

Pool at the Solar de las Animas

At the Sky Bar, try the strawberry basil margarita or my favorite, the smoky margarita, served with a sprig of flaming rosemary. Doubles from $130, including breakfast daily and a visit to the agave fields.

This story appeared in the November, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life magazine

Finding your Moment of Zen in Seoul

Neung Hyun serves tea

Seated on a platform behind a curved wooden table, Neung Hyun, a Korean Buddhist monk, welcomes me with a steaming pot of green tea.

Her shaved head framed with black-rimmed glasses, she smiles as I take off my shoes and sit cross-legged on a cushion for a tea ceremony at Seoul's Templestay Information Center
"Appreciating tea takes practice," she tells me, encouraging me to lift a small ceramic cup to my nose, breathe in, take a sip, and feel how the liquid warms my throat, and finally, my whole being.  

For Buddhist monks who first introduced tea to Korea after returning from studies in Japan and China, drinking it is a form of meditation, intended to rejuvenate the mind as well as the body.  "Every glass of tea is different," she says. "Just like life."

South Koreans love coffee, but it's tea they turn to when they want to smooth the stomach, relieve stress or cure a cold. As important as the teas - not just green and black teas brewed from loose leaves, but drinks made with bouquets of boiled dates, ginger, pine needles, herbs and flowers  - are the intimate teahouses in which to enjoy them.

Decorated with low tables, heated floors and windows looking out onto flowering gardens, these hideaways offer an escape in a busy city where peace and solitude can be hard to find. Whether you're wandering the back alleys of older neighborhoods such as Insadong, or exploring the shopping malls in trendy Gangnam, there's a teahouse designed to help you find your moment of zen. While some have English menus, English is not widely spoken, so it helps to ask a Korean companion to join you. I enlisted friends of friends, a volunteer from the Seoul Greeter program, and local culinary expert Veronica Kang, owner of Gastro Tour Seoul

Here are few worth a stop:


Where: Bukchon Village, a traditional neighborhood of low-slung hanoks (traditional Korean houses first built in the 14th century), boutiques and art galleries.  Cha-teul is a family-owned teahouse on a tree-lined street where visiting Koreans sometimes go to have their pictures taken in traditional costumes called hanboks.

Women modeling hanboks in Bukchon Village 

After a visit to Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of Korea's Joseon dynasty, this is the spot to take in mountain views while relaxing in the garden or on floor cushions in a century-old hanok. Signs in English apologizing for a possible wait, English-speaking waiters and English menus make Cha-teul one of Seoul's most tourist-friendly teahouses. Classical music plays in the backround, setting the mood for quiet conversation. No on his tapping on a laptop or talking on a cell phone. 

What to order: A menu lists the health benefits of more than 40 teas served hot or iced. There's jujube tea, a thick, hot brew made by boiling Korean-grown red dates, said to stimulate the appetite; a refreshing  "Five Taste" tea (spicy, sweet, salty, bitter and sour), made with dried omija berries believed to help with headaches and hangovers; and a house-made Ssangwha, an herbal tonic, brewed overnight for 14-15 hours. 

Tea and pumpkin cake at Cha-teul

Like most teahouses, Cha-teul serves snacks and desserts, artfully-arranged  in tiny bowls and on small plates. Its signature treat is a dense and chewy steamed pumpkin cake, shaped into a mound, topped with pumpkin seeds, and served with flat wooden spoons for sharing.


Where: Multiple locations with a flagship store and teahouse in Insadong, one of Seoul's oldest neighborhoods and a popular tourist destination filled with hanoks housing cafes, art galleries and antique shops. Ask a Korean under 30 to recommend a tea house, and chances are he or she will point you to a chic and modern café run by Osulloc, a major exporter of organically-grown green tea started by Seo Seong-hwan, the founder of the Korean cosmetics company, AmorePacific.   

Osulloc in Insadong

What to order: Anything made with Osulloc's premium green tea grown on the Korean island of Jeju. Lines forms on the sidewalk for samples served next to a cooper roaster.  Attractively-packaged teas line the shelves of a busy retail store, while tea and snacks are served upstairs in a modern, two-level tea salon.

Osculloc is popular among young Koreans for its green tea riffs on traditional coffee drinks and desserts. There's a fresh citron tea slushie topped with citrus sherbet; a green tea caramel latte, and a  a tangerine milk tea made with Jeju tangerines. 


Where: Ikseondong, a community of historical hanoks, slowly gentrifying, but not yet as touristed as neighborhing Insadong.

Shops selling mung bean pancakes, perfume and roasted coffee beans draw visitors into Ikseondong's narrow alleyways, but when Kim, Aeran opened her teahouse in 2009 in a former noodle shop, hers was one of the few businesses in a mostly-residential neighborhood. Tteuran is popular with Japanese visitors who remember it as the location of the Korean-Japanese film Café Seoul.  Owner Kim Aeran makes all the traditional snacks and teas herself.  

Kim Aeran

Customers sit at tables and chairs, or on a heated floor overlooking her flower and herb garden. Tea arrives in bowls set on wooden saucers along with house-made sweets such dried persimmon rolls filled with walnuts.

What to order: Tteuran organizes its teas into categories - fermented teas, wild leaf teas, medicinal herbal blends and flower teas - with photos and descriptions on the health benefits of each. I sipped a mild brew made from the roasted leaves of the aromatic mugwort plant, believed to boost the immune system. 

Homemade tea snacks at Tteuran

Crunchy mugwort rice cakes turned up in a bowl of Kim's homemade sweet red bean porridge, a thick pudding found on most teahouse menus in cooler weather. In warmer months, she adds bingsu, a favorite Korean shaved ice dessert.

Shin Old Teahouse

Where:  Insadong, near Osulloc, but tucked in an alleyway off the main street. Housed in a hanok furnished with antiques and polished wooden tables, Shin Old Teahouse this is one Seoul's oldest teahouses, run by the same family for several generations. Guest remove their shoes in a garden with chirping parakeets, then step up onto  heated floors covered with colorful silk cushions. This is the place to go to escape the crowds and noise just a few steps from the neighborhood’s busiest shopping street

 Shin Old Teahouse

What to order: Refreshing in warmer months are the cold punches - pear, cinnamon and ginger; quince, citron; and mulberry. A small snack menu includes rice cakes, red bean and pumpkin porridge in cool weather and green tea and jujube bingsu in summer.

Tea Therapy

Where: Tea Therapy has locations in Insadong and Gangnam. Gangnam is modern, while the Insadong shop is tucked away in a historic hanok with a foot bath outside where customers can relax by soaking their feet and drinking tea at the same time.

Tea Therapy's foot baths

What to order: Consult a paper "road map"  that assesses your state of mind and overall health with statements such as "I worry about getting things gone," and "I have cold hands and feet." Then pick a recommended tea. My choice after a long day of tea-tasting was one called "stress free," aimed reviving tired eyes and tight shoulders. 

The Lounge, Park Hyatt Hotel

Where: Gangnam, Seoul's upscale financial and business district made famous by the music video Gangnam Style. The Lounge at the Park Hyatt is a modern Korean teahouse on the 24th floor, with panoramic views of the city lights at night.  

Tea and snacks at the Park Hyatt

What to order: Soft jazz and comfortable couches invite relaxing with a pot of the Hyatt's signature green tea, flavored with bergamot, and blended by well-known Korea tea master Su Yeon Kim. A menu of traditional sweets includes a black rice cake waffle topped with purple sweet potato ice cream, and a Gangnam-style bingsu  - an overflowing bowl of shaved milk ice, topped with honeycomb, Chantilly cream, a roasted apple puree and pecans. 

If you go:

Spring is cherry blossom season, a good time to take part in festivals with music, street food and see Koreans dressed in traditional costumes.

Koreans attach health benefits to what they eat and drink. Most tea houses and many restaurants offer English menus with explanations for the reasons you might choose one drink or snack over another. 

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism offers cultural programs for visitors including the opportunity to have tea with a monk. Contact or visit the Templestay Information Center, 56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu. 

Veronica Kang leads food-related walking tours around Seoul and culinary tours in other parts of Korea through her company, Gastro Tour Seoul. 

English-speaking Seoul residents volunteer as guides for traveling foreigners. Request a guide through the Seoul Greeter program. City of Seoul volunteers also lead free group walking tours in various neighborhoods.

A version of this story appeared in the November, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life magazine 

Flying overseas? Consider heading north to Vancouver for savings

Native art titled "Cedar Connection" at Vancouver International Airport 

"Where are you going?" the Canadian immigration officer asked me as we stepped off the Amtrak train at Vancouver B.C.'s Pacific Central Station.

When I told him we were headed to the airport, he flashed a knowing smile. "How much are you saving?''

Obviously we weren't the first ones to figure out we could take advantage of lower international airfares by flying out of Vancouver instead of Seattle. 

 "About $250 per ticket," I said, telling him of our plans to fly to Lima, Peru on AeroMexico via a connection through Mexico City.

It was the third time in the past few years that my husband and I have made the trip140 miles north to Vancouver by train or bus to take snag lower fares on overseas flights.

The savings this time was not as much as the $600 per ticket we netted a few years ago by flying Delta Airlines from Vancouver to Rome via Amsterdam and back from Berlin, but it was enough to justify the train fare ($75 for  two) and four-hour ride.

"Differences in supply and demand for individual cities," is likely one reason international fares are often lower, says Scott Mackenzie,  editor of Seattle's Travel Codex, an online site that offers advice on airline pricing and award travel. "There may be more demand to fly in/out of Seattle due to Seattle’s comparatively larger economy and (presumably) wealthy businesses and residents who can afford to pay more for travel."

He notes also that Vancouver has a larger international airport with more airlines competing on the same routes, and relatively relaxed customs procedures which make international connections easier.  

"If some passengers are already flying from Europe to Asia and stopping in Canada, then there is lots of supply for Americans (and Canadians) to take advantage of for at least half the journey."

Whatever the reasons, you'll want to add up the cost, time involved and relative hassle or ease of traveling to Vancouver before making a decision. 

Start by comparing fares to the same destination on the same airline with similar flight times and connections. Search fare quotes for the same type of service: ie: economy coach vs. basic economy (cheaper but with many restrictions). Keep in mind, not all fares will be lower (some could be higher), or the savings might be too little to make it worthwhile.

A few examples: 

A check on Delta Air Line's website for mid-March, round-trip travel between Seattle and Rome, with a connection in Amsterdam, showed a fare of $1,384 vs. $1,069  between Vancouver and Rome, a savings of $315 per ticket for a main cabin economy coach seat. The savings was even greater on a Delta flight to and from Madrid through Amsterdam -  $883 from Vancouver vs. $1,421 via Seattle. 

Lufthansa showed some of the biggest fare differences. Its website showed a fare of $2,295  for a round-trip Seattle-Berlin flight in March, with a connection in Frankfurt, on what it calls a "Basic Plus 1" fare (refundable with a fee) vs. $1,042 from Vancouver.  On the flip side, A Delta non-stop between Seattle and Paris for March travel was $760 on the airline's website vs. $824 in and out of Vancouver with a connection through Seattle on the way over and Amsterdam on the way back. 

Tip: If comparing and booking fares online, be aware that some airlines quote fares on flights from Canada in Canadian dollars, meaning you'll need to do the conversion to figure out how much the fare is in U.S. dollars. Currently, $1 U.S. is worth $1.30 Canadian. 

Next, consider timing. You'll want to make sure you can get to Vancouver at least three hours ahead of your flight. Calculate if the savings is enough to justify the cost of spending the night. Otherwise, book a late afternoon or evening flight so you can get to Vancouver in the same day.

If you are worried about being too tired to get back to Seattle from Vancouver after a long international flight, consider pricing what's known as an "open jaw," meaning you fly out of Vancouver but return directly to Seattle (We did this on our flight to Peru, opting to return directly from Mexico City to Seattle at a slightly higher cost than a Vancouver round-trip).

Getting to Vancouver

There are several options: 

* Amtrak offers operates two trains daily between Seattle and Vancouver and four Thruway buses. BoltBus makes 4-5 trips daily.  All arrive at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station, where there's a SkyTrain light rail stop across the street, convenient for reaching the airport in about 40 minutes with a change at Waterfront Station to the Canada line. Taxis are also available. Both take about four hours. 

The SkyTrain's Canada line has a stop at the airport

*QuickCoach Shuttle travels several times per day between downtown Seattle and Vancouver's River Rock Casino next to the Bridgeport SkyTrain station, three stops from the airport. Travel time is around three hours and fifteen minutes.

*Should you want to drive, Park'N Fly offers long-term parking and shuttle service.

Killing time before the flight

Vancouver International is in Richmond, a neighborhood with a large number of residents of Asian heritage. Many immigrated in the late 1980s from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Make the most of your time by taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate, and the shopping, dining and entertainment options along the SkyTrain's Canada Line. Buy a day pass for $10.25 Canadian ($8 U.S.), drop your bags at the airport, and go out and explore. 

A few suggestions: 

*Relax at the health club in the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel. A $20 Canadian ($15.50 U.S.) day pass buys access to the hotel's fitness center, pool, whirlpool, sauna, showers and changing area. For $50 Canadian ($38.50 U.S.), the hotel throws in workout clothing and a healthy snack. 

McArthurGlen Designer Outlet

*Shop and dine at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet mall two stops away from the airport on the SkyTrain at Templeton station. You'll see signs in Chinese and hear jets soaring over the faux copper roofs of a shopping center designed to look as if it's in Paris or Italy. 
Vancouver's popular Japadog chain has an outlet here (Try the Yakisoba dog topped with Japanese noodles, red pickle, ginger and seaweed). The favorable exchange rate translates to extra discounts at chains such as Columbia Sportswear, J. Crew and Banana Republic. 

Japadog treats

* Try your hand at poker, black jack or play the slots at the River Rock Casino Resort, open 24 hours, three stops from the airport at the Bridgeport Skytrain station. Beer and wine is $5 Canadian ($3.80 U.S.) at Starbucks, Sunday-Thursday from 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. 

River Rock Casino

* Take a trip to Taipei without leaving Vancouver at the Richmond Night Market (Bridgeport station)  Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 7 p.m. The market is closed for winter, but reopens again next May.  

* Finally, reserve time to explore the airport itself. Try out the flight simulator in a public observation area, visit the Vancouver Aquarium's marine exhibits and view the airport's large collection of First Nations art.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on Oct. 18, 2018

On the road to Machu Picchu: food, culture, art in Peru’s Sacred Valley

An hour after arriving in Lima, Peru on a flight via Vancouver, Canada and Mexico City, we check into a B and B a mile from the airport, convenient for a flight the next morning to begin our journey to the mountaintop Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. In search of a quick dinner along a busy street lined with car repair shops and mini-markets, we settle on a seafood restaurant with an English menu. It’s here we meet Louis, a recently-converted Morman waiter from Venezuela who serves me a shot glass filled with “Leche de Tigre,” Spanish for Tiger’s Milk, a liquid marriage of fresh fish, lime juice, hot pepper and Celantro leaves

Leche de Tigre

And so began our “back door” route to one of the world’s most visited destinations. For 95 percent of the people who visit Peru, Machu Picchu is the goal. The less time spent getting there the better. We decided to make the journey part of the trip, veering off the usual touring path, starting with nixing any of the overseas flights on U.S. airlines that arrive in Lima after midnight, leaving people cranky and tired at the start. Instead, we took the train from Seattle to Vancouver, and caught a red-eye with a connection in Mexico City, taking advantage of a fare that was not only $250 per ticket lower, but arrived in Lima in the mid-afternoon. 

Like almost everyone, we made plans to fly out the next morning to Cusco, the historic capital of the Incan empire and tourist gateway via train to Machu Picchu. That meant spending our first night in Lima. Looking for an alternative to the $250-per-night airport Holiday Inn, and found the family-owned Cursing Wasi bed and breakfast for $63 including airport pick-up and drop-off by friendly owner Julio. And instead of starting our trip in Cusco, 11,000 feet high in the Andes mountains, we pre-arranged to hop in a taxi straight away, and acclimate to the altitude gradually by descending to the less-visited Incan valley town of Ollantaytambo, surrounded by mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet. 

Trying coca leaves for the first time

Free at the Cusco airport

Locals recommend chewing coca leaves (available at every hotel and in the Cusco airport above) to ward off altitude sickness. By saving Cusco until the end of our trip, and heading to Machu Picchu via the less-traveled train route via Ollantaytambo, we were able to adjust to the elevation gradually with no problems. The bonus: We arranged for our taxi driver to make several stops in the Sacred Valley- the area between Cusco and Machu Picchu- turning what’s normally a two-hour drive into a seven-hour tour filled with insights into the food, art and culture of the Quechua Indians, direct descendants of the Incas who populated the Andes from 1200 until the Spanish conquered the area in the mid-1500s.

A Quecha woman anther weavings in Chincheo

Our first stop was the mountain village of Chinchero where we had our first glimpse at the colorful textiles the women create using natural vegetable dyes and finely-woven alpaca wool, llama wool or cotton. Alpaca is in plentiful supply, both as a food source and for fiber to produce high-quality scarves, blankets, jackets and sweaters. I loved the color combinations, definitely brighter and more appealing than anything coming out of Mexico or Guatemala. Many of the men in the village carve gourd and pumpkins, using a tiny tool to etch intricate designs depicting Incan scenes. Chinchero at 13,000 feet is actually higher than Cusco, but apart from feeling a little out of breath from climbing a steep hill, we did fine.

Carving gourds in Chinchero

Quechua women always dress colorfully, paying special attention to their hats. Styles vary from village to village. Shaped like a shallow fruit bowl, the red felt hats worn by the women in Chinchero can be turned upside down and worn for sun protection. Women in the rural villages closer to Ollantaytambo decorate their hats with flowers, and attach them to their heads with straps made of beads.

Machu Picchu may be the most well-known of the Andean Incan sites, but scattered through the valley are other impressive ruins. We stopped along the way at Moray, a ruin that appears as a series of concentric terraces, perhaps used by the Incas to test experimental crops and conditions. It was our first experience hiking at altitude, so we took it slow while our taxi driver waited in the parking lot. It was interesting to know that there are usually alternative types of paths at sites like this one. You can walk straight up, or take a zig-zag trail. Some opt to walk trails at the top, while others stick to lower trails that involve fewer stairs. 

Staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol is one way to blunt the effects of walking or climbing at elevation. The Pisco Sour is Peru’s national drink, but we became fans of Chicha Morada, a refreshing non-alcoholic drink made by boiling purple corn with pineapple peels or pieces of quince, seasoned with cloves and cinnamon.

The mixture is boiled and strained, then served cold with sugar sometimes added. Almost every cafe and restaurant serves Chicha Morada, with the best made in-house once or twice a day, and served until it’s gone. Other popular beverages are Chicha itself, a homemade beer made with fermented corn which we didn’t try, and Inka Cola, a yellow soft drink created by a British immigrant in the 1930s, using lemon verbena. The taste is like slightly sweet version of cream soda. The Coca-Cola company co-owns the trademark in a joint venture with descendants of the original founding family.

Ollantaytambo’s grid of narrow, cobbled back streets date to Inca times, with canchas or blocks inhabited by several families during the 15th century, opening into a main courtyard. People get around by walking or via three-wheeled tuk-tuks that climb hills to steep to walk with suitcases or packages. Two main streets lead in and out of town, both patrolled by policeman who flip green and red signs like traffic lights, indicating that it’s OK to proceed one direction or the other. 

We checked into the $80-per-night Picaflor Tambo, a restored Ollantaytambo house with carved wooden doors and window frames over looking one of the canals that carry water down from the mountains into town. For some, Ollantaytambo is the start of a four-day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Our plan was to go to Machu Picchu a few days later by train, and spend our time in Ollantaytambo exploring local sites, notably a massive terraced fortress, defended by the Incas against the Spanish in 1537.

Reaching the upper section meant climbing 200 steep steps, with no shade and few places to rest. Workers carrying bags of sand raced past us as we stepped aside on ledges to let them pass. Most amazing about Incan architecture is that the Incas had no horses or other work animals other than alpacas and llamas, no wheeled vehicles and no written language. They mined plenty of gold and silver, of course, and that’s what the Spanish were after. 

Views over the valley were stunning, but what we enjoyed most about Ollantaytambo just wandering through town, people-watching. Unlike in Cusco where local women sometimes dress up for tourists, the women in Ollantaytambo and surrounding villages wear traditional costumes in daily life. 

These women were participating in a “get out the vote” demonstration. The law requires all Peruvians to vote, or pay a fine, so most do.The women are especially photogenic in their colorful skirts and hats (men less so), and most are willing to be photographed if asked. Buying  something always a good idea. 

Hat fashions

Tom bought a hat band from this woman who sewed it to fit with thread and a needle pulled from her hat

Staying in Ollantaytambo also provided us with an early introduction into traditional foods beyond pizza which nearly every restaurant seems to offer hungry hikers. Alpaca appears on most menus as does guinea pig (cuy), both raised and eaten by the Incas, now considered delicacies reserved for special occasions. Pumpkin soup and quinoa are also staples along with potatoes (Peruvians cultivate 4,000 different types) and large-kernel corn, sold by street vendors with a side of soft, white cheese.

We ended our stay in Ollantaytambo at a pachamanca, which translates to “earth oven” in the Quechua language. Described as an “Andes BBQ,” a pachamanca is a traditional Incan meal of meats, vegetables and potatoes cooked underground on hot rocks heated to 800 degrees by a wood fire.

The "earth oven"

Ollantaytambo’s Hotel El Albergue, a historic hotel near the rail station, runs an organic farm that supplies its restaurant with meat and produce, and hosts a daily pachamanca lunch for $40 per person. Our afternoon there started with a quick tour of the farm. We watched as the crew first heated the red-hot stones, then laid in pieces of chicken, lamb, pork, purple potatoes, sweet potatoes and vegetables. They covered it all with a mound of fresh herbs, a cloth and finally shovels full of dirt, before leaving everything to cook for no more than 15 - 20 minutes.

Tables were set under thatched-roof outdoor huts with vases of flowers and pitchers of ruby-red Chicha Morada. A freshly-picked salad appeared along with platters of the roasted meats, potatoes, vegetables and a zucchini and cheese casserole in a clay pot the crew had buried in the “oven” along with the rest. I don’t normally eat much red meat, and I wish I could say I stuck to a vegetarian diet for the remainder of the trip, but this was Peru. Alpaca steak and guinea pig awaited in the days ahead.

Here’s a link to our complete photo gallery