Cusco & the Sacred Valley
Have we been in a country too long when Oscar and Stella have a choice of watching Toy Story on the hotel TV in Spanish or on the computer in English, and they opt for Spanish? I’d like to say it’s because their language skills have improved dramatically but unfortunately no (and their pronunciation of ‘thank you’ has room for improvement). Even though the two of them enthusiastically practice Spanish vocab on their own accord using iPhone flash cards, it is clearly apparent that the appeal of cartoons transcends the language barrier.
Prettiest Town in Peru
Nestled in the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo more than lives up to its namesake, the prettiest town in Peru. Flying into Cusco from Arequipa, the approach with mountain hillsides on either side set the first clues for what our trip into the valley of the Incans would hold….then we waited half an hour for the driver to show up, but the promise offered by a McDonald’s billboard up on a hill kept the kids well behaved. After a picturesque 90 minute drive, a cart met our van to take all our bags down to El Albergue by the train station. Bucolic, with iconic blue and yellow PeruRail trains on the tracks outside; inside, a beautifully restored hotel, exuding rustic charm like an old mill. In the rooms, high loft ceilings bearing wooden beams and a view of snow capped mountains. Tall shuttered pane glass windows cascaded a glow of light onto hardwood floors and crisp white bed linens — heavenly.
We immediately fell in love with the place and within hours had decided to extend our already lengthy 5 night stay to 6, forgoing one of the nights in Cusco, which turned out to be the right move on both sides of the trade. The beautiful grounds allowed all of us, but most importantly the kids, to spread out and enjoy some space. Straight away we upgraded our second room to another premium room beside the first so we had the complete top floor to one of the houses, with veranda as well. We thoroughly enjoyed playing Sapo (Frog), a Peruvian coin-toss game, which had bocce undertones. We finally tried Pisco Sours, reminiscent of marghueritas, which I didn’t take to, but Mart was more than happy to have mine at happy hour. The kids loved the hammocks, and there was even a small trampoline for them, but best of all was another kid to play with – Mayu.
And the food – oh Lordy! Lamb medallions – melt in your mouth with flavor out of this world. Molle pepper steak – pure heaven. Both veg and meat antipasto crushed any I’ve ever had. Unfortunately they lacked consistency, with a couple of mediocre dishes and a couple repeats that failed to live up to the originals. A fantastic stay — Mart even tried out their make-shift sauna with fresh cut eucalyptus leaves. The trains were a bit noisy, but didn’t bother us, nor did the diesel smell from the engines, which Oscar’s acute nostrils actually took a liking to!
The town itself is small but catered well to tourists without feeling manufactured or one-dimensional. Ruins punctuate the scenic hillsides and Incan irrigation channels water throughout the town, a detail also found in El Albergue’s gardens — very cool.
Traveling in the off season eliminates the need to even debate if our kids are up for the three days of hiking in to Machu Picchu as the trail is closed as it is the rainy season. Luck is on our side though and we see little rain. The small amount we do encounter is a short light drizzle that ends almost as quickly as it begins. The morning we board Peru Rail to take the one and a half hour journey to Aguas Calientas the sun is shining. From here we take a 20 minute bus ride that consists of nothing but hairpin turns up the side of the graben to reach the entrance of the Incan Ruins. On both the train and bus we are the only passengers under 65 and have somehow been packed in with the senior tour. Its not until sometime later we have the epiphany that it is actually quite fitting. We are on a bit of a senior’s tour ourselves – up with the sun, eating dinner at 4:30/5:00ish most afternoons to try to ensure that everyone is in the happiest state possible, and many nights in bed by 9:00. What has become of us?
The Lost City
As for Machu Picchu itself — beautiful. The setting is breathtaking and it is hard to imagine how they succeeded in building such a complex massive stone structure without modern day tools. Oscar loved leading us through entrance ways both big and small, some of which led to new exciting areas to explore, others offered only dead ends to which he then would devise a new route to take. In total we spent three and a half hours climbing and wandering the ruins. We had a close to “tear free” day until the last five minutes when it became next to impossible to find our way out. Apparently posting clear exit signs ruins the aesthetic of ancient structures so we traversed what felt like hundreds of unnecessary steps both up and down in search of the elusive exit. When we were finally successful and on our last few meters, Stella broke down. It is unclear as to whether it was sheer relief or true exhaustion. For a day that began at 7:00 am as we boarded the train and ended just after 5:00 upon our return, I would say the Foot entourage was in amazing form, even with the one teary moment.
Cusco was the last stop on our Peru tour. The city’s cobblestone streets and buildings with huge picture windows encased in wooden shutters gives the city an old world charm and brought back many past memories of Nepal. The streets are steep and narrow and much of the spanish colonial architecture is built on Incan stone foundations leftover from what they destroyed. It is a beautiful city and the main Plaza de Armas is enclosed by massive cathedrals and rows of restored restaurants and storefronts. Shoe shine boys patrol the square for gainful customers and Oscar was more than delighted to have his sneakers brought back to their glory one by one.
Most of our time in Cusco was spent wandering the narrow streets and lane ways taking in the views of daily life with Stella always on the lookout for llamas and alpacas. Her keen eye was always rewarded and there was not one outing where she didn’t get to cuddle up to one. Since arriving in Peru, Stella has been an avid collector of flowers plucked from the ground, on bushes, in bathroom arrangements of restaurants or even in the gutter (much to our chagrin). Her enthusiasm for curating took on a whole level when she discovered that the llamas were quite keen to eat these little collections right out of her hands!
A visit to Cicciolina, our favorite restaurant, for our fill of coffee, mini hot chocolates and the cheese and cured meat croissant confection was a daily occurrence and always a highlight.
The Museo Inka was a favourite for Oscar and having researched and watched videos on mummies ahead of time, he was anxiously awaiting the visit. However, apparently eight mummified Incans aren’t a big enough collection for a five year old as after viewing them he continued his search for more asking, “Where are all of the others?” He was later satisfied, though, leading us unguided through the Church of San Francisco catacombs in Lima and their ten thousand human bones.
The days were relatively warm in Cusco but by late afternoon we were layered up and sweatshirts and toques were necessary. Having purchased hand knit hats at the Pisac market definitely proved to be a good investment.
Peru has been a vibrant, amazing tour. We’ve been on the move and changed locations often, which has worn on all of us at times. We’ve proved to ourselves, though, that we are up for this adventure and the dream of this journey is fulfilling our greatest expectations.
We are excited about what awaits us in Nicaragua…
Slideshow: Cusco & the Sacred Valley