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Seeing is Believing

For one day out of the year, Incans from all four corners of Peru journey to the Moray in Sacred Valley and pay homage to Mother Earth, or Pachamama. With the luck of whimsey on our side, we happened upon this annual celebration this past August. After parking in the overcrowded lot and being slightly miffed that we had to pay to pee because there was a special event going on, we walked towards the agriculturally significant site and were delighted by the live music reverberating from the manmade crater. We soon saw ladies dressed in their traditional garments of short gathered skirts and tall hats frying corn and chicken and vegetables under plastic blue tarps that provided minimal protection from the South American winter sun. Our guide regained his authority and informed us that Incans believe they must give back to Pachamama or be punished in the coming growing season. Participants waved regional flags in sweeping motions as brightly clothed leaders descended to the bottom of the terraced pit, thanking Mother Earth for the bounty she had provided and offering her a black llama in return. In past times, Incans believed that without the sacrifice, their crops would fail in the coming year. They no longer hold firm this idea, but tradition is tradition, and the black llama would be temporarily put to sleep as a way of honoring historical practices while protecting the animal’s rights.

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Is that a Llama or an Alpaca?

Llamas grow to be bigger than alpacas, are typically used as pack animals, and have a reputation for spitting. The alpaca’s fur is softer than a llama’s and is the material most often used in high-end sweaters, scarves, etc. Llamas have a longer nose, and banana-shaped ears while alpacas have a pug face and short ears. A restaurant menu may include one or both types of meat – I didn’t try either, but I did buy an alpaca sweater. Alpacas seemed to be the animal most used as a photo pet like the baby I held and the adult my husband had a special moment with.

Baby Alpaca

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Photo perfect alpacas

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Llama getting ready to spit at the tourist who was provoking it.

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Getting Seeds to Grow

Even without the Pachamama ceremony, the Moray is an archaeological site worthy of a tourist’s attention. Chosen for its natural shaped bowl, the area was dug even deeper to create circular rows of terraces that start at an altitude about the same as where crops had already been growing successfully, and end at the current elevation. Over time, the seeds from the lower level terraces are transplanted to the upper terraces where growing conditions are less hospitable until they eventually adapt to the highest elevation. The angled stone walls of the terraces catch the heat of the sun’s rays during the day and deliver it at night to the seedlings, helping them to adapt more easily. This process takes many seasons to acclimate the crops, but the result is worth it – fresh produce for the community, no matter the altitude.

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History Lesson

The Incans are not indigenous people of Peru. This designation would go to the “pre-Incans”. History tells us that Spaniards conquered the Inca civilization in the sixteenth century and are duly resented for the mass destruction of an ancient civilization. But before that, the Incans were the conquerors. On a hill above Cuzco, the capital of the Incan empire, we visited a pre-Incan embalming chamber that was created from naturally formed granite tables and mazes below the surface of the earth. The entrance to the underground mortuary doesn’t look like something worth more than a quick pass over; however, after entering through the boulders guarding the entrance, a multi-roomed chamber is revealed. Peruvian music playing from a street musician is the only sound besides the wind that was heard in this place of afterlife preparations.

What’s more, next door to the creepy caves is both a sacred Incan ruin and the WWII gifted statue of the White Christ from Christian Palestinians. The views are great from this site honoring three eras: pre-Incan, Incan, and current Peruvian.

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It was also here that we noticed many houses with their roofs being guarded by two bulls. These ceramic figurines come from an adapted Incan tradition that promises they will bring good fortune and protection to the house and inhabitants.

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Between Two Valleys

In the Sacred Valley, an Incan site we visited called Ollantaytambo (oh-yan-ty-tam-boe) was chosen for being equidistant between two valleys, creating visual gaps that are the exact distance apart as the trajectory the sun follows throughout the year, like the shape of a “V” with the point being near the sunspot or photo opportunity as it is now.

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The precision of Incan stonework used for sacred areas is unbelievable.

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The site is easily reached on foot from the center of the same-named village which offers every kind of health food craze on the planet including raw, organic, gluten-free, vegan, and even alpaca burgers.

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The village is a hippy tourist’s paradise, offering hallucinogenic herbs for a massive detox.

  1. Traveler’s tip #1: If you have five days to burn in Peru, some tourists choose to spend their time vomiting. Through a pre-Incan magic mix of scary-sounding drugs, a person endures a work-week worth of misery to rid themselves from the nasty build-up from a lifetime of regrettable experiences. Our guide recommended that a trusted Shaman be on hand to administer the “kool-aid” (my term) and an SOS friend is on call for the session. People who have lived through the detox report a lightness of being and a new lease on life that makes the whole ordeal bearable, even worth it. My doubting mind wonders if the relief from stopping the vomiting is the real reason for their newfound contentment, but I don’t want to say this to them and diminish any effort a participant has put into throwing up for five days. I am curious about it though, so if you’ve tried it, please comment below about your experience. And, recommend a good Shaman while you’re at it. 🙂

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In the Pink

“Only five places in the world produce pink salt. Can you tell me where they are?” our guide said as we entered the Maras Salt Pans or Salineras de Maras. The one thing that bothered me about this guide is his incessant quizzes.

We guessed Hawaii, the Himalayas, and based on proximity, Peru.

“Poland and Bolivia are the other two,” he said which seemed less interesting to us since we had already entered into the Maras.

Dennis, a former dentist turned tour guide, continued with his lecture, informing us that certain types of pink salt have better flavor and mineral qualities than regular table salt. The surprising aspect of the Maras is the manual process they use to create their pink salt. It goes like this:

A stream inside the earth dissolves the hardened sea salt and brings it to the surface where it is irrigated across 3,000 small plots of individually owned terraces. These small plots are about the size of a large bathroom in the US. Water from the salty stream fills the troughs where it is dried and then raked. The top layer is gray and not as sought after but still useable, the middle layer is the special pink salt and the lower layer is discarded because its clay content is too high to be used in anything a human wants to eat.

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Regardless of whether or not all the proposed virtues of pink salt are true, I bought a $5 bag to take home just in case I couldn’t find any in the SF Bay Area, a place where you can buy almost anything.

Dancing with Horses

Not only is Peru a foodies’ paradise, but it is also a great place for a dance enthusiast. For one of our lunch breaks, we witnessed a barefooted woman dancing with a horse while we munched on a BBQ buffet served at our table. Peruvian Paso Horse and Marinera dancing is an exotic combination of the romantic handkerchief dance and the naturally rhythmic movements of the Paso Horse. Although I love to dance, I wouldn’t be trusting enough to dance in bare feet with a hooved animal running around me like I was a barrel in a rodeo act. The sure-footed dancer performed her choreography with style and bravery while the horse pranced in perfect rhythm, seeming to swoon over her like he was in love.

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As if that wasn’t enough fun, we also got to see a traditional dance show at the Cuzco Cultural Center as part of our packet of tours which I highly recommend purchasing should you find yourself in Cuzco (this idea should be a Traveler’s Tip).

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But, Why Did We Go?

With all this excitement in the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, it’s easy to forget the real reason we traveled to Peru. We wanted to see Machu Picchu. Although we had seen loads of pictures of the place from every vantage point and under every kind of weather condition, we maintained that it’s not the same as being there.

Hardcore REI types trek into Machu Picchu via a four-day, three-night trip along the Inca Trail where campers sleep in tents previously occupied by dirty, sweaty tourists and use toilets offering the same kind of ambiance. Being fussier hikers, we chose the cushier route and only walked the last 7.5 miles of the Inca Trail. That was more than enough stone steps for one vacation.

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  1. Traveler’s Tip #2: Many tourists who arrive in Cuzco from near sea level spend their first few days with altitude sickness. Since I already know the higher elevations affect me, I was all for a new plan which had us acclimatizing in the Sacred Valley at 7,000 feet before heading to Cuzco at 11,000.

After becoming accustomed to the altitude in Sacred Valley, we started our very long day of hiking into the world’s greatest Incan Ruin (my opinion) at 5:30am which is the middle of the night for my husband. Dennis the dentist had carefully prepped us when we met the night before. He had repeatedly (read annoyingly) instructed us to pack three bags: one for our day hike to carry our packed lunch and rain gear, one for an overnight stay in Machu Picchu Pueblo, and our main luggage to be delivered to our hotel in Cuzco where we would stay two nights from then. This was a complicated undertaking and we had to review our notes several times to ensure we had the right contents in the right bag for each occasion.

We arrived at the Ollantaytambo train station around 7am along with dozens of other eager tourists who were also equipped with daypacks and overnight bags. Once the train was on its way, Andean music that sounded like Simon and Garfunkel’s’ “El Condor Pasa” (I’d Rather be a Hammer than a Nail) played in the background while we peered out the side and ceiling windows from one of Peru’s many luxury trains. A great way to get around while there. We followed Urubamba River as it flowed wide than deep, and rough then smooth as it wound its way around peaks with names like Veronica, Huacay Huilcay, Wayna Willka, and Waqaywill.

  1. Traveler’s Tip #3: To prevent embarrassment and avoid sounding like you just flew in from Texas, it’s important to know the correct pronunciation of Machu Picchu. In the Quechua language, they make a “k” sound before the “chu” in Picchu as in “Peekchu”. Otherwise, the sound Peechu means a penis rather than a mountain. So, you would be saying Old Penis rather than Old Mountain when telling your friends that you climbed a Machu Picchu.

After a couple of hours spent snacking on brownies and coffee, we disembarked the train at Kilometer 104, the trailhead for the short version of the Inca Trail. For reference, the 4-day hike starts at Kilometer 87.

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I was keen to hit the trail fast and furious. It was going to be a long hot day and I wanted to get the bulk of the trek completed before lunch. Our guide was hoping for a more leisurely pace, but Dennis soon learned this was not going be an elderly person’s stroll. That’s okay, he got even with me the next day when he sent us on a grueling trip to Wayna Picchu (Young Mountain). “It’ll take forty-five minutes,” he said to us two hours before we would return.

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Our trail took us through the Sun Gate where the path rises to a flat area with stone pillars that welcome bug-bitten pilgrims to their first full view of the sacred site. This was one thing Dennis the Dentist didn’t prepare us for – the nasty hole drilling insects that you don’t see and that make your bare legs miserable for weeks after quietly entering your flesh.

When we walked through the Sun Gate at about 1:30pm, I realized people can tell you about it, you can read about it, you can even watch videos about it, but you don’t really understand it until you experience Machu Picchu for yourself. I can now say with confidence that the path through the Sun Gate is the way to see Machu Picchu.

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Across the mountainside, resting in the arms of a carved peak carpeted in green and framed by the jagged Andes rests the sacred city the Incas built centuries ago. Just like the those who made pilgrimages to the location in the 1500s, we arrived at the viewpoint, hot, exhausted, and exhilarated. Catching the first site of the sacred citadel from this vantage point made me feel as though we were seeing the city in the way the Incas had meant for it to be seen. From above. My beating heart, my damp eyes, and my arms dotted with goosebumps told me that this place had inspirational qualities that can only be felt from the inside out. Maybe it was the fact that we had toiled our way up the numerous stone stairways that my visceral reaction was a sigh of relief that the trek was near completion. Or, maybe it was something deeper. Perhaps those first few moments of witnessing the awe-inspired setting were the main reason to make the trip. The scene seemed both impossible and incomprehensible, requiring a more profound response than “Isn’t it pretty?”

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As we descended into the ruin, we stopped along the way for photo opportunities that would serve to document a trip we might otherwise not believe we had taken. Our guide pointed out the extreme workmanship, from precise corners and matching stone edges to the effigies created to honor the mountain resting in the replica’s shadow. We took more pictures and breathed more deeply.

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A completely different view of Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu.

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In a show of auspicious welcoming, a condor flew over while a chowchilla wrinkled its nose at us. We had made it to the fabled mountain and the wildlife continued with its daily routine, reminding us we were simply visitors for the day.

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Besides our love for freshly prepared food, the Incas and I have something else in common. We both believe that mountains hold magical powers. And, that if we spend enough time among these overseers of the universe, we too shall inherit their bravery and resilience. We feel the spirits of our deceased loved-ones floating in the watchful sky along with the condors, serving to guide and inspire us.

We are better for having arrived on this mountain top, even if thousands of other awkward tourists did the same damn thing at the same damn time. No matter how manufactured our day became after we joined the hoards, we will always have those first few moments of joyful tears and chills up the spine when it seemed as if we were among the first to witness this holy place. Seeing Machu Picchu is about so much more than seeing Machu Picchu.

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