The early morning flight from Lima to Cuzco only takes about an hour, but what a difference those sixty minutes can make. Almost as soon as you’re off the plane, long before you reach the baggage carousel, you start to feel a buzzy sensation in your chest. Well I did at least, as did some of our companions. This was to be the early (very minor) signs of altitude sickness. Fortunately our route was downhill from Cuzco for the next few days so it quickly wore off and never became a problem – at least at this stage of our trip! But I reckon if you were to fly to Cuzco and stay there straight away, you’d really suffer.
We drove from Cuzco along the valley of the Urubamba River. The first place we stopped at, and I regret I don’t know its name, was a little commune where you could see llamas and alpacas, and watch local people continuing to practise the age-old skills of weaving, dyeing wool, spinning, and so on. You feel like you are stepping back centuries; and then you find an elegantly stocked and furnished gift emporium at the back that accepts all credit cards. So much for the romantic notion of yesteryear. Still, we got a couple of nice souvenirs.
After a stop at a very dangerous looking corner on the mountain pass, but which offered fabulous views of the Urubamba valley, we headed on to the little town of Pisac. Pisac is famous for two things – its ruins and its market. If you go here independently, you’ll probably spend more time at the ruins. If you go on a tour as we did, you miss the ruins and spend all your time at the market. Regrettably, some of the market is full of tourist trash, with items about as authentic as the stuff you’d pick up at the Cuzco Cash’n’Carry. However, the food stalls are splendid. Here you will find local people, genuinely wearing the traditional garments (we were surprised how prevalent they were, and not at all just put on for the tourists), going about their daily business of buying and selling, eating and drinking, chatting, telling off their children, snoozing and generally passing the time of day. Every type of potato, corn, grain, spice, fruit and vegetable is available, all very colourful and fresh. We saw the local bread being baked in the traditional ovens; the communal water-taps; the guinea-pig pens (they are a local speciality, the equivalent of our Christmas Turkey); and the funny old model bulls that sit on the roofs of the houses to ward off evil. It’s a feast for the senses and it was great to just wander around and let it all sink in.
After that it was time for lunch and we forgathered at a ranch-type place in the middle of nowhere but which was clearly on the tourist run as it was full of coaches. It offered a pleasant buffet and an opportunity to relax in the sunshine whilst the local parrots (definitely pets as opposed to wild) kept us amused.
The original plan was to go on to Ollantaytambo to see the ruins there, but our guide suspected it would be full of tourists and recommended that we went there the following morning before continuing on to Machu Picchu. So we took his advice and instead headed off to our hotel, the Casa Andina Private Collection at Urubamba. It’s a beautiful luxury hotel, with large comfortable rooms, splendid gardens, an attractive looking bar, first class restaurant and a poncey spa.
After we checked in we thought we’d go for a short walk in the neighbourhood, and the contrast is stark. You come out of this luxury compound and go straight into what looks like pretty desperate poverty to me. There are some very rundown houses, the type you’d think were uninhabited, with just gaps where the windows should be, no sign of electricity, the walls outside heavily graffiti’d, the area generally littered with rubble and rubbish. But the houses are indeed inhabited, and you can see that there are some substantially sized families out the back doing their washing, caring for their kids and so on. If it were me, I would consider the tourists at the hotel as Capitalist Scum. However, we passed a number of groups walking down the road – families, young men, children, all sorts, and without fail they wished us a very polite “Buenas Tardes” or “Hola”. The graffiti on the walls is fascinating, by the way. It’s everywhere in Peru, and it eventually dawned on me that it is the equivalent of putting a political poster on your window – they’re all endorsing different candidates at elections.
We decided to heed the advice for dealing with altitude sickness by avoiding alcohol, dammit. So we skipped the attractive looking sunken bar, and headed for the hotel restaurant – there isn’t really anywhere else one can go for a meal after all. I have to say it was an extremely pleasant experience: comfortable, welcoming, great service and terrific food. We both ate from the “local specialities” section of the menu – as translated by their good selves – the “native potato soup from the community of Pampallacta, rocoto oil and asparagus curdled” to start and the “sautéed tenderloin smoked flavored, accompanied with rice and fried potatoes” (in other words the Lomo Saltado) to follow. They were both excellent.
The area is known for its wonderful night sky and thus the hotel has its own planetarium and observatory. For a piffling ten dollars you can stare at the night sky with their very own astronomer. Mrs C and I decided we would have a go, and so, along with intrepid co-traveller Vicky, we headed out into the darkness in the company of the astronomer lady, who had a rather unfortunate resemblance to Harry Potter’s Professor Trelawney. It wasn’t that bright a night but nevertheless she took us up to the observatory to see what could be seen. There ensued a lot of positive talk about constellations. “Look! Can you see!” she enthused, peering down the lens. “It forms the shape of the wings of an upside-down butterfly!” We took our turns to check out this winged creature. “ Oh yes!” said Vicky. “Gosh how beautiful” said Mrs C. “That’s amazing” said I. Privately we all confessed a few days later we had no idea what she was going on about. Then she confided to us that she has had many nights up there in conversation with aliens who she knows one day will call to collect her and transport her to a galaxy far, far away. “I’ve already said my goodbyes to my family and friends” she admitted, “as when it happens it will be completely unexpected”. Our buttocks clenched slightly nervously. We encouraged her to return to the telescope. We got to see some excellent images of the moon, full frontal and side profile, so you could see its jagged mountains. “Is that the crater Tycho?” I asked, modestly, knowing it was. “Is it what?” she replied, confused, clearly having never heard of Tycho before. Charlatan, I thought. We saw a double star, and a few other heavenly bodies, can’t remember what now. When she was bored with all that she took us down to the “planetarium” for another mini-lecture on constellations. It’s amazing what you can project on a round wall with a revolving lampshade bearing pin-prick holes. I had to nudge Mrs C to keep her awake, whilst Vicky continued with plenty of “Really?” “Goodness!” and “I didn’t know that”’s, I think probably because she thought someone ought to.
We were just about leaving when the astronomer lady looked up at the sky and said “My God! Jupiter! It’s Jupiter! Look! Look!” So we all bounded back up to the observatory and did indeed see Jupiter through the telescope and it was a genuinely amazing sight. “It looks just like an aspirin” she said, and she’s right – it resembles a little pharmaceutical disc with a groove across its middle. And we saw its moons. So although it was a completely barmy experience, it was certainly memorable – we did enjoy it and would have to recommend it if you stay at this hotel!
The next morning we finished our trip to the Sacred Valley with the aforementioned delayed trip to Ollantaytambo. And what a good idea it was, to come the following morning, as it was deserted, so you got the feeling of being rather daring explorers. It has a wonderful hillside fortress, built by the Incas some 700 years ago, comprising temples, baths, walls and terraces, plus a device for calculating the path of the sun. It makes for a delicious starter before the main course of Machu Picchu which was to follow.