Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Peru – Vilcamayo, A once sacred valley?

Vilcamayo, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Valle Urubamba, Sacred Valley... These are some of the names of the valley that hosts one of the world's most famous archeological sites near its winding end.
These days the valley seems to have traded in some of its holiness in exchange for tourist blessings. Although it's not nearly as overrun by vacationers as Cusco... With the exception of that famous site at the end of the road.

We ventured on two overnight trips to the sacred valley to get away from the Gringo crowds in Cusco. It all started very pleasant on our first trip to the town of Pisac. As soon as we boarded the minibus in Cusco's Tullumayo terminal we immediately felt that we had been trans-beamed into the real Peru again. Sharing the crowded bus with locals in their colorful traditional dresses and their loads of baggage was a good sign that the Sacred Valley would be a Sanctuary to cure our overdose of package tour vacationers.

Rubbing shoulders with the locals
The 90 minute bus ride took us through a beautiful landscape dotted with little mud-brick farmhouses and grazing cows and the occasional Llama. We also got to see some of the Inca ruins such as Qenko and Puca Pucara from the "comfort" of our local minibus. We felt "back in the swing of things" on this bumpy ride, rubbing elbows with the locals in their work clothes and sitting on seats that may once-upon-a-time had some sort of padding... This is the authentic Peru, no tourist in sight!

Let's have some "Chicha  Beer"
before we climb to the ruins
Our joy lasted exactly 97 minutes. That's when we stepped foot onto Pisac's Plaza de Armas. Overrun with tour buses that desperately were seeking a parking place near the action, while tourists disembarked with equal desperation to spend money in the market, then return to their bus and move on to the next of many sites on their crowded itinerary. The mood was far from tranquil.

Beautifully decorated houses...
Where in the world have we ended up? It's called Pisac, the home of the Mayan ruins of the same name and the famous artisan's market. We arrived on a Wednesday, one of three weekly market days and had the pleasure to share the town with hundreds of visitors that are bused in to buy the same cookie cutter "handicrafts" that are also sold in Cusco's many souvenir shops at much cheaper prices. Fortunately the masses are just day trippers and since we stay overnight, we had our hopes up to have some peaceful hours in Pisac after the buses depart.

gives Pisac a charming but
touristy appearance
We found ourselves a nice guesthouse called "Willcamayo" in the town's eastern outskirts and set off to explore the local museum. What an impressive museum! The exhibitions are better organized and labeled than in the museums that we visited in Ica and Lima... and to our astonishment the entrance was free, compliments of donations by a number of American museums.

Old Inca warehouses?
We wanted to get a nice viewpoint of the town and decided to climb up to the Citadel Inca ruins above Pisac. But the entrance requires the purchase of the overpriced Boleto Touristico, since it was already 4pm and two hours away from dusk, we hoped that we might be able to slip by. Fortunately for us, only some dogs announced our arrival and the guardhouse was unmanned. So we continued walking up the steep steps past the many agricultural terraces that the Incans had built on the slopes of the steep valley walls.
Intihuatana, the ceremonial center
of the Pisac ruins
As we walked up, a young man came down the hill playing the flute. The notes resonated nicely on the terrace walls and the steep folds of the valley created a pleasant mystical atmosphere. Inspired by the sound of the flute combined with the twilight of the setting sun, we imagined how life could have been for the Incans a thousand years ago. For the first time, we felt that this valley may indeed have been sacred.

Magical sunset atmosphere
Our late afternoon hike took us half way up to the top of the Pisac ruins to the ceremonial center called Intihuatana. There we had to turn back as the setting sun was only illuminating the crowns of the tallest peaks to the east. On the way down, we took a different way, this time passing through the Citadel which is built on a natural rock outcrop overlooking the town below. The structure is said to resemble the Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu.

Reaching Pisac town just in time before the sun retired into complete darkness, we both agreed that the Pisac ruins are well worth a visit – especially if you go there after 4pm when you will be almost alone at the site. After a wonderful 2 hours in the ruins, we were also delighted to see that all the tour buses had left. Pisac's early evening tranquility was very much to our liking. There are also quite a few Western hippies living there and some trendy/alternative restaurants which gave it an interesting twist.

Waterways that snake through
the entire town
Early the next morning, we enjoyed walking through the beautiful streets decorated with many artistic designs in rock patterns. There are also small water channels running down the middle of the walkways. The zigzag shape reminded us of a snake swimming through the irrigation channels of rice terraces. Adobe houses were also decorated with paintings and images.

We left Pisac the next day around noon when the flocks of tourists once again descended onto the central square. Apparently the Pisac market is no longer 3 times a week, but daily... at least in high season.

High altitude landscape near Chinchero
Our second expedition to the Valle Sagrado was after our cancelled Salkantay trek (see previous Blog). Julane's birthday was coming up and since we couldn't celebrate it in the high Andes she wanted at the very least spend it in the Sacred Valley.

Is that a sheep on the roof ???

We decided to spend two nights in Ollantaytambo or simply Ollanta as the locals call it. (Ironically "Ollanta" is also the name of Peru's new president elected on our first weekend in the country)
The trip from Cusco to Ollanta takes quite a bit longer than to Pisac and required to change in Urubamba. The high altitude Pampa landscape en route near Chinchero is even more scenic than the trip to Pisac.

Perfect for people watching,
this is real Ollanta
Driving into Ollanta, we had the impression of arriving in a medieval Roman town. Rough cobble- stone streets, thick walled buildings and water gushing through elevated channels along the roadside... A stunningly charming little town. We headed straight to a guesthouse called Casa de Wow! named after its owner (no kidding his name is Wow; even better: his wife's names is Win... Funny, eh!)
We read rave reviews about this new place on TripAdvisor and were not disappointed, a truly unusual and cozy place. The other guests were interesting, if a bit eclectic, people our age – also a refreshing contrast to the backpackers in their 20's at many of the other places.

One of the reasons why we chose to spend time in Ollanta is the nearby Inca ruins of Pumamarca, which were highly recommended to us by a woman traveler that we met in Pisac. The ruins are a 2 hour uphill trek from Ollanta and rarely visited.

On the way to Pumamarca
(view towards Ollantayatambo)
We set off midday, enjoying the warmth of the sun as we hiked towards the ruins, unfortunately the sun only lasted 10 minutes into our trek and then gave way to a light and freezing cold drizzle.
Despite asking for directions along the way we managed to get lost. We realized that something was wrong when the steep path after 30 minutes turned into a totally overgrown footpath that was hardly passable. Time to turn around... and from this high vantage point we could see the path that we should have been on. Looks like we missed the turn nearly at the bottom of the mountain. We, of course, did not want to go all the way back down and then up again, so we turned on what looked like a shortcut to the main Pumamarca trail...
Overgrown farming terraces from
Inca times
Wrong again, we ended up in thick growth among eucalyptus trees – this time we are truly off the beaten path. Eventually we managed to connect to the main trail which was a very easy walk compared to the cross country route that we initially took. We probably lost a good hour by our detour, but didn't mind much as the steep climb helped us to stay warm and the weather was also improving.

At last! Pumamarca
The main trail to Pumamarca weaves along the side of the mountain passing by ancient terraces that now are overgrown; the scenery is beautiful and we only see two other foreigners on the entire trek. Would Pumamarca really be as quiet as we were told? Nope! As soon as we took the last turn in the path and the view to the ruins opened up, we spotted a campervan and a dozen of tents below the ruins... Bummer!

We didn't mind the tents as much as the campervan, thinking that the only way to reach the ruins would be through some good amount of legwork.

I'm not living here... just visiting
Despite our little disappointment, we continued the remaining 20 minutes hike to the ruins and found it largely empty. We only shared the ruins for 5 minutes, with a group of Americans (the tourists in the tents,) but soon after we were the only two foreigners in the ruins. A couple of local women were at the entrance selling souvenirs. (Why in the world would anybody buy a souvenir up here and then having to carry it back down again? Oh, because they come by vehicle!

Smiley face house?
Tourist shop amidst ruins
Yoga pose or aiming for the perfect shot?
The Pumamarca ruins are larger than we expected and in pretty good shape; in fact, the walls stand higher than in Pisac and there are more buildings clustered together. We enjoyed the tranquility and the incredible views down to the valley.

and this is the end result !
The way back to town was much easier, now that we "found" the real path. In less than 90 minutes, we were sitting within the warm kitchen of our guesthouse sipping a much needed cup of tea. On the way back, Patrick used a bunch of rocks to create an arrow-marker at the confusing path turn-off where we made our big mistake so at least the next hikers might not get lost.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the town, now that the tourists had left. Ollanta is even more overrun by day-trippers than Pisac. Strangely, few people remain to stay a night or two and explore more of the area. Yes, Ollanta is also loaded with restaurants to cater to people enroute to or from the Inca attraction, yet no one sees the charm beyond this focal point: Ruins, souvenirs, food.

Moon setting over the Ollanta ruins
We didn't visit the Ollanta ruins, as they are also part of the Boleto and we continued to refuse to buy into this tourist rip off scheme. There is also no easy way to sneak into the ruins as it is gated and locked although other travelers at our guesthouse said that there is a way through the fields across the river... but we didn't try. We had an alternate "less crowded" plan; instead, we decided to watch the sunrise illuminating the ruins from the ruins on the opposite side of the valley.

The first minutes of the Sunrise
The next morning on Julane's birthday, she surprised Patrick by actually getting up before sunrise to climb to the ruins of Pinkullyuna overlooking the town of Ollanta. (Close friends of ours know why Patrick is so surprised, others will have to guess) ;-) We reluctantly left the warmth of our guesthouse to climb up to Pinkullyuna in the freezing cold early morning dawn... actually another mystical experience. Only one other couple was there as we watched the sun's rays across the valley slowly engulfing the Ollantayatambo ruins in a mesmerizing golden baptism. It was certainly worth getting up so early. But frankly the hot coffee and hearty breakfast afterwards was equally as rewarding.

Pinkullyuna Inca shop-houses
In our opinion, the Boleto ruins at Ollanta are not nearly as spectacular as the ones in Pisac, nor as interesting as the remote solitude of the Pumamarca site either. We figure that the Ollanta ruins are popular due to the easy access. Tour buses stop right at the gate and the only walking required is up the steep steps of the ruins themselves. We call this lazy tourism. It's sad to see that the parking lot for the tour buses is nearly the same size as the ruins. Before you know it, they are building an escalator up the ruins to reduce the effort for tourists even further! We are so happy that we didn't relent and buy a day trip tour to the Sacred Valley as we contemplated doing.

Sun-bath on Ollantas Inca ruins
Ollanta also gets a lot of tourists and vehicles as it is the last town in the sacred valley that can be reached by car. From here everybody needs to take the train to Machu Picchu town or follow the Inca Trail on foot. While we think that it's great that private cars are not allowed in Machu Picchu town we are turned off by the monopoly again. The cheapest one-way train ticket to get to MP is $38, and that is for the train that goes early morning or late at night (in complete darkness). A ticket for a ride in daylight will cost you at least $50. We compare this to Zermatt (Matterhorn) in Switzerland, which also can only be reached by train. There the one way ticket cost $9 – at any time of day. We just have to say it again: the whole pricing here is totally out of whack. There is by the way a much cheaper local train – strictly no foreign tourists allowed!

Why don't local men use the
right side for their "business"?
Before we headed back to Cusco, we took a final stroll through the small streets of Ollanta, although at times "the scent of Peru" was so strong that we had to hold our breath and walk extra fast. This is really sad. The streets here are very idyllic so why in the world do these guys have to pee on the walls when there is a little stream running right down the middle of the road?

Despite the entire daytrip tourist scene that crowds the Sacred Valley during the day, we really liked spending time here, particularly from the hours from 4pm to 10am which are pleasantly quiet. Spending the night in Pisac or Ollanta was a wonderful way to get away from the increasing number of tourists in Cusco. The temperatures in the valley are also slightly warmer as the altitude is nearly 700 meters (2300 ft) below Cusco which helps to cure altitude sickness and chilled bones.