The first drive into Sacred Valley after landing in Cusco, is a time to get caught up in a web of magic. This was the land of the powerful and enigmatic Incas. Mystical ruins remained to be explored, mountains called out in their rugged beauty, the simple colourful naiveté of the local people held a refreshing appeal. Plump women in full pleated skirts up to their knees, cottons shirts, straw hats and back packs of multicoloured striped cloth, were yet to become common sights to our eyes. This is what the travel books showed; this is what we had dreamed of seeing in two years of planning an itinerary. The surreal feel of ‘we are here at last’ was slowly sinking in.
After 3 nights in the rainforest, lush and steamy, nights marked by calls of the cicada- the Andes rose in icy glory as our plane approached Cusco. The change of scenery was not unexpected of course, but it left us breathless with the variety and bounty of it all. However the breathlessness was not all overwhelming pleasure, the air had perceptibly thinned. Short walks in slight uphill inclines made the heart beat faster and the breathing laboured.
The plan was thereby to start with a relaxed day. It was past midday as we reached Cusco. We were picked up by our lovely guide Ophelia, a charming Peruvian lady from Cusco with sunny warmth in her welcome and passion in her description of Incan culture. A luxurious van awaited us and our packed lunches of spinach and cheese empanadas, sandwiches, fruit and chocolate were served in quaint eco-friendly cloth bags. As the van got further away from Cusco, the valley and mountains opened up in sparkling splendour.
Our plan was simple- to spend time at the market of Pisac, to stroll the narrow lanes, to shop to our hearts’ content, to try our negotiating skills at bargaining prices and lose ourselves in colour.
Pisac market is a feast - whether you indulge in ‘window’ shopping or fill your bags with bargains. Heaps of local textiles filled the stalls, wall hangings with local motifs, woodwork Incan masks and religious offering statues, silver jewellery, stone studded ornaments, carpets with indigenous designs, woollen garments claiming alpaca origins and in the midst of it all a bakery that looked like it had stood forever. We had arrived at a time when the peak crowds had gone and it looked like we were the only tourists in the area.
One scene will however stick in my memory as the welcome from Pisac. We had read about people in local costumes offering to have their picture taken and ask for payment. Three women in almost identical costumes (like uniforms), ornate blouses and embroidered skirts (which we saw none of the local women wear in their day to day work), a baby alpaca (or was it a baby llama?) skipped out in our path at the same time chattering in Quechua. It does not take knowledge of the language to understand that they were offering their poses for the camera but we were not interested. In the freshness of all the colours and views around, this seemed slightly sad. The way they all hopped in our path at the same moment, almost choreographed to catch our attention was almost hilarious. Yet sad…….There were many more festively dressed women with baby alpacas in their packs in other landmarks around the Sacred Valley. I preferred the dull skirts, the plain blouses, the weather beaten hats, all brightened by a multi-coloured cloth bundle which carried merchandise for a hard working woman or a baby, sleeping comfortably against the warmth of its mother’s body.
It would turn out to be one of the most physically demanding holidays we had ever planned. The Valley and the Inca trail demanding respect with every steep step climbed. The memory of that afternoon would be the only one where we strolled instead of walked briskly. It would also be the time we would do most of our shopping- buy the mementos which stare at me through the glass of my display cabinet as I write this. My favourite is a wooden mask, the hooked nose displaying Inca features, the colours as strong as the carving. A silver matrimonial set of pendant and earrings, with the sun and moon painted in, will have to wait for a special occasion to show off. My daughter cannot help wearing her silver thumb ring all the time now.
The sun was low and mild as we left for our first night at Cusco. When you look back at the main lane of the market, a line of colourful stalls frame a corridor at the centre of which mountains rise majestically at a distance. The Sacred Valley had started with a gentle welcome.
Sacsayhuaman, Quenqo, Tambomachay and Pukapukara. Cycle ride on way back to Cusco. Inca trail briefing.
Raoul picked us up from our hotel near Plaza De Armas. The day started with a demonstration by unhappy labourers which was nevertheless peaceful. We started off by the impressive Sacsayhuaman, our introduction to Incan engineering. Huge stones were set upon one another to form three tiers of structures. Vendors were selling sets of pumas, snakes and condors which Raoul explained to us were the sacred animals of the earth, underworld and sky. Cusco is shaped like a puma. There was an interesting tunnel in the site which we passed through in pitch dark, holding on to each other’s shirts!
After a boxed lunch, Raoul guided us through an easy downhill path which brought up vistas of the Andes, rolling forests and villages where people tended to potato fields and children ran around in their dark pigtails.
Back in Cusco we visited the Museo Historico Regional which contains both Incan and Spanish colonial art. A painting of the last supper shows Jesus breaking a loaf of local bread (chuta), a plate of cuy before him.
At 5:00 pm we had our briefing at the Llamapath office where we met the group we would grow close to in the next four days. It was then time for an early dinner. We would have to be up by 3:20 am for a 4:20 start.