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

No comments:

Post a Comment