We started our journey to the Sacred Valley by flying into Cusco from Lima. As soon as we deboarded the plane I could feel the altitude. Cusco sits at 3,399 meters or 11,150 feet above sea level. Our host in Lima suggested we get to Cusco and then go to bed, allowing our bodies to acclimate overnight. I was worried this would not work for the girls so we decided to land in Cusco and then immediately go “down valley” to stay in Urubamba. I am so glad we did. Even at 9,420 feet in Urubamba I suffered a bit of altitude sickness.
I had a headache and was tired for the entire first day. Renata, the woman who runs the hostel where we stayed, gave me coca tea made from steeping the dried leaves. After drinking the tea, I felt better almost immediately. I read about all the symptoms and treatments before we left, but in the moment, I didn’t realize this is what was happening. I am a mountain girl! I should adjust fine, isn’t high altitude in my bones and blood? Apparently, when you have spent the last 2 months at sea level, “mountain-girl” no longer applies.
Urubamba is a wonderful town nestled in the sacred valley. The Andes Mountains tower over it, some at a height of over 18,000 feet. Rio Urubamba snakes its way through hundreds upon hundreds of green farmland planted with maize, potatoes, squash and other vegetables. The decision to stay there was really based on accommodations we could afford. We researched staying there versus Ollantaytambo and noticed there is quiet a debate over which is better. In my opinion, the two can’t really be compared. Urubamba is much less touristed, therefore, you really get the feel of a small, authentic Peruvian town. Ollantaytambo is a picturesque city built in and around ruins and caters to tourists.
We booked a family-run hostel on Air B&B in a district just outside Urubamba called Yanahuara. The description said it was within walking distance to the river but a good hike into town. It seemed like a great opportunity to interact with a Peruvian family and put our Spanish skills to the test so we went ahead despite the distance from Urubamba. Our host contacted us on the day of our arrival to tell us that he had made a mistake and the hostel we originally booked was full but nearby there was a family room at his mother’s “backpacker house”.
“Ok, I guess we just go for it and trust”.
Many of the houses in this district are tucked behind tall adobe walls. Hoping we were at the right location, we walked up to a large wooden door in one of these walls and rang the bell. After several rings, knocks and “holas” our hostess, Renata opened the door and led us into a large green yard lined with flowering trees and bushes, a fire-pit to one side, the three-story-house at the back and a large wood-fired oven on the side of the house. She led us in through the kitchen and up a steep set of stairs to our room that was packed in with three “super-twin” beds covered with fuzzy, white and black tiger stripped comforters. Feeling like we had finally landed, we all took a sigh of relief. The next four days were full of broken Spanish, exploration of the food markets and life in Urubamba as well as the ruins of Moray and the Salineras salt pans nearby.
Our timing for interaction with a Peruvian family couldn’t have been more perfect. Renata’s daughter (also Renata), her son-in-law and grandson also live in the house. In addition, there was a Brazilian couple, their two kids ages 2 and 6 and the Aunt of the kids staying in the house. Young Renata invited us to her son’s 8th birthday party scheduled to be at the house, later in the week. Despite the nervousness of meeting new people with whom we could barely communicate, we were all starving for some social interaction. The girls struggled at times to understand what the other kids were saying as well they sometimes felt frustrated when they couldn’t relay when they were tired of playing. With a little help from us, they learned that language doesn’t have to be a total barrier to connection with others and they found ways to play using words like listo (ready), hola and adios.
There is not much in the way of markets and restaurants in Yanahara. The closest store sold bread and eggs and a few other staples. Therefore, we needed to find a way to get into town without having to hike the 45 minutes by foot. There are seemingly hundreds of collectivos, essentially local buses, which are really just large minivans, that bump up and down the main road from Urubamba to the outer districts. The driver stuffs as many people along with their big buckets of some sort of liquid, loads of groceries and armfuls of grass (still not sure what this is but lots of people buy it by the armload) as he can. You can even strap a live goat to the roof if need be (this came as quite a shock to the girls when the driver hoisted this poor beast off the roof; they watched the action out the window with jaws to the floor). I really don’t blame the driver for the overcrowded conditions since the price per person is only one Sol or about 27 US cents.
Word of caution: If catching a collectivo from Urubamba to a nearby district, you must pick up the collectivo from the terminal in town. If you try to catch it on the road home, it will be too full and the driver won’t stop for you. Hot sun, altitude sick mom and tired kids make this a tough lesson to learn.
We found some great food in Urubamba. Our first full day there happened to be Thanksgiving. We decided to make our way into town and find the restaurant, Q’anela, which was recommended to us by young Renata. After wandering around and around the main plaza, the girls growing crabby, everyone feeling frustrated that we couldn’t find the restaurant that seemed so easy to find by Renata’s directions, we decided we would just scrap it and go into the next place we found. Low and behold it was Q’anela! tip: write the name of the place down to help confirm the restaurant…locals can’t help if you can’t remember the name!
The restaurant is part of a large adobe building with white walls inside and dark brown, wood floors. The owner offered us a spot in the “jardin” which is a green square courtyard surrounded with herbs and flowering trees. We were the only patrons and had our pick of tables. This was definitely a splurge on a good meal. Plates were between 25-30 Soles which is about $7-$10 USD. We ordered a carafe of house made lemonade to start. This lemonade is like no other I have ever tasted. The límon fruit is combined with the perfect amount of sugar. Her secret ingredients are mint and lemon verbena. All this is blended together to create a smooth, tart, herbaceous little bit of heaven. I have been dreaming of it ever since. The rest of the meal followed suit. Jacob and I shared a bowl of Chupe de Andino (quinoa and vegetable soup) and a spicy ensalada of fava beans, onions, tomatoes and rocoto pepper, and Aji de Gallina (classic Peruvian dish of chicken cooked in a beautiful cream sauce served with rice). We finished the meal with chocolate mousse drizzled with a chocolate and baileys sauce and finished with candied hazelnuts. We held our family and friends close in our hearts as we shared the things for which we are each grateful.
The next day we hired a man to drive us to the ruins of Moray and Salineras Salt pans. He took us on a bumpy, dirt road that led up up the mountain, stopping once for a photo op of the valley below and second time to change a flat tire. The ruins of Moray are old Incan agricultural laboratories where archeologists say the Incans experimented with the effect of temperature on various crops. They also may have held festivals here. We were all amazed at the perfect circles they were able to carve into the mountains. The way in which they were designed must have had significance to them in some way. The temperature definitely changed from the top 0f the ridge to the basin. The sun in this area is intense, just like in Colorado. Hot, dry and will burn you if you don’t wear sunscreen and hats.
After hiking down into the ruins and then huffing it back out, we headed out to the Salineras Salt Pans. From a distance, Mackenzie described this as if someone had spilled paint all over the side of the mountain. As you get closer, you can see layer upon layer of individual squares, sort of like a checkerboard up the mountain, filled with water. The Incan and pre-Incan people figured out that the earth here is highly saturated with salt and when it rains, the saltwater runs down the side of the mountain, is captured in these square pits designed by the ancient people and then slowly evaporates leaving the salt behind.
Our driver suggested we walk across these salt pans until we reached a road that would take us down the side of the mountain and to an old bridge that crosses the Urubamba river where he would pick us up. We made our way down to the salt pans where you are free to walk across or go up and down. We followed a sort of path made of salt that traversed the side of the mountain; often very narrow in places. I kept thinking to myself, if this were the US this would a.) not be allowed and b.) if it were there would have been waivers to sign and handrails. As Jacob says, it seems in Peru their theory is if you are clumsy enough to fall off the side of a mountain, it’s your own fault.
As we traversed, I heard a couple of people come up from behind speaking in Spanish. We kept going in a line until we found a wider part to step aside for them to pass. It turned out to be an older Peruvian couple, dressed in the typical clothes of the area. Earlier, our driver had explained that the women wear the tall hats as part of the fashion and the color has significance to where they live and the kind of work they do. This woman was wearing a tall white hat, indicative of the salt mining of Salineras which is still done today. We slowly continued our hike descending back down into the valley and through beautiful ranches and adobe houses eventually making it to the bridge. I am so proud of my daughters. They are amazing little hikers and are driven by curiosity and interest.
We ended our visit to Urubamba with the birthday party. Guests arrived with kids of varying ages, the latin beats of salsa, reggaeton, and cumbia music bounced in the background while we ate delicious sandwiches and drank yummy Chicha Morado (a local drink made from boiling purple corn with pineapple rinds, cloves, cinnamon or whatever flavors you fancy). I fumbled along and did my best to communicate through laughter, smiles and body language and even learned a few more words. The girls were challenged to figure out how to play despite the language barrier, using body language and funny games with the few Spanish words they know. Despite awkward moments of having little to say for lack of vocabulary, I know I am forever changed for having stretched the edges of my comfort zone.
After saying our goodbyes, we moved on down the valley to Ollantaytambo. Our experience at the markets in Urubamba taught us to look for one of these in Ollantaytambo. You can buy fresh baked rolls, 5 for 30 cents, a block of fresh cheese for about $1.50 and a large carrot for .15 cents. The markets are packed with mostly women selling their fruit, veggies, bread, cheese and spices and other staples. It is a bit overwhelming which pile of fruit to stop at: the one at the entrance or the one a few women down? The produce is amazingly beautiful and fresh especially compared to that of Panama and Costa Rica. We learned that we can make a great picnic lunch for the four of us for about $3. The market in Ollantaytambo was sort of hidden down a hill off the main square. By the looks I got when I entered, I definitely felt like not many tourists find nor shop at the market there. Still, I loved wandering around looking at all that was available while greeting the venders with smiles and “buenos días”.
The town of Ollantaytambo is built in and around ruins. The streets are all cobblestone. There is a large canal with rushing water that runs through the town eventually meeting up with the Rio Urubamba. The sound of water along with the picturesque mountains and narrow, cobblestone streets lined with adobe houses make this a feast for the senses. While in Ollantay we visited the two major sites: The Fortress or Temple Hill and the “qolqas” (pronounced colcas) or the storehouses that sit on the side of the mountain. Day one in Ollyantatambo was cloudy and rainy which turned out to be a blessing as we marched up the steep stone steps to the ruins of the storehouses. At the top, there is a magnificent view of the town below and the Fortress ruins on the opposite side of the valley. The qolqas were used to store grain and were built in such a way that by pouring in new grain from the top the old grain is forced to the bottom to be used first. We stopped inside one of these qolqas to enjoy our lunch. Poor Mackenzie seemed to have caught the cold that Quinn was just getting over and was feeling very sick and feverish and so we called it a day.
Amazingly, after some good rest, she bounced back and was able and willing to hike up Temple Hill the next day. From this mountain, you can see across to the qolqas and to the “face in the rock” or the God Wirachoca whom the Incas believed was the creator of all. We explored Temple Hill, marveling at the construction and the HUGE stones that were somehow brought from the quarry 6km away and up this steep mountain. We traversed yet another narrow ridge, not for the person with a fear of heights, to the terraces that were and still are used for agriculture eventually making our way down to the “princesses bath” (this of course was the carrot for Mackenzie and Quinn). Again, marveling at the engineering it took to divert water from the river to create fountains for the baths and for the ceremonial temples. Oh yes, the water still pours from these fountains.
So which place would I recommend staying? Ollyantatambo is an impressive, beautiful city built in the ancient ruins. Over time, it has developed to cater to tourists. Food, water and artisan crafts are more pricey here but there is no need for transportation as everything is in walking distance.
Urubamba is an authentic village and with that comes more grit and character but less options of places to stay. My advice? If one has the time, stay in both places!