The journey in Peru continued. By day three, I was well acclimated to the altitude, I could walk easily without huffing puffing and totally rocking my traditional Chullo hat like a local. After spending a day in the magical Machu Picchu and another day exploring the Cusco city, it was time to wander further afield and headed to the Urubamba Valley or commonly known as (El Valle Sagrado) The Sacred Valley of the Incas.
The valley is approximately 15km north of Cusco, here lies attractive small villages and colonial towns where many traditions remain. It has become a popular tourist destination where many visitors take a day tour out here from Cuzco to get off the beaten track. Our first stop was at Awana Kancha to say hello to some friendly locals.
Question – Do you know llama and alpaca are actually in the camel family?
I didn’t know either. But here at Awana Kancha you can find out all about it. Located about 40 minutes drive from Cusco, Awana Mancha was an ideal pit stop, a nice break from the long drive to Sacred Valley. This place is a small camelid farm dedicated to the animals and intricate textiles produced from their wool. Behind the traditional adobe hut is a patting zoo, we got to meet the resident animals – alpacas, llamas and also the endangered Vicuñas. Visitors get to feed the animals as they are afraid to get close to you for some snacks. There were also live demonstrations by the women from the local community on traditional weaving techniques. Further back was an impressive display of all the varieties of potatoes and corns available in this region.
The varieties of potatoes and corns are simply mind boggling. They come in all different shapes, colours, textures and sizes. The Chuño freeze-dried potatoes from high altitude are very popular in Peruvian cooking. Our tour guide also showed us the most difficult to peel potato which often used to test one man’s true love to see whether he is able to peel the skin in one long strip without breaking off.
Of course as you would expect there is a shop selling all the hand made products. There are beautiful intricate woven fabrics that took months to complete, but also come with hefty price tags. I would suggest you to hold off any shopping temptation as you will get on chance to shop till you drop at the outdoor market in Pisac later on.
Before arriving at the town called Pisac, we made another quick stop by the side of the road with the panoramic view of the Sacred Valley down below.
Pisac is a popular village in Sacret Valley, internationally well known for its artisan market where you can get all your souvenirs here. Although held every day, the market held on Sundays, Tuesday and Thursdays are the biggest. There are literally hundreds of individual vendors, whose market stalls engulf the streets of the town in a blanket of tables, knitted products and plastic tarpaulins. You can find local hand made products like knitted scarfs, trinkets, jewellery, alpaca jumpers, ceramics and our group particularly interested in the Panama hats. It’s time to put your haggling skill on and negotiate your purchases down a few Soles, ensuing that you get the best price for product.
Pisac was surprisingly lively when we were there. The locals were out baking in the sun, kids were playing on the streets and of course tourists were everywhere. We were particularly fascinated by the bowler hats the ladies were wearing as we’ve been told each hat tells a different story. The hat pin or the ribbon can tell you which region the wearer came from, whether she is single, married or a widow.
One place not to be missed in Pisac is Horno Colonial San Francisco. It is tucked away unobtrusively in a courtyard on Marshal Castilla street and here you will find tasty empanadas baked in a dome shaped clay oven that is over 200 years old! As we walked in, there was also a cage that looked like a dollhouse but not for dolls but with cute guinea pigs inside. You may not be aware that guinea pig is actually a traditional delicacy around this part of town. Yes, you’ve guessed it right, you can actually pick your own guinea pig from the cage and have it roasted along with a selection of traditional potatoes. The oven is also used as a community oven, so don’t be surprised to see locals popping in to cook cakes or plates of guinea pig alongside your empanada.
Further up the street from the market is the main plaza where you will find more gift shops and also restaurants. We went inside a shop called 100% Peru, it specialises in local food produce from coffee beans, quinoa and maca. Maca is another Incan superfood from the radish family native to the high Andes of Peru, it has revitalising and energy lifting benefits. Our tour guide jokingly named it as the natural viagra. I was super intrigued of the natural colour dye powder, they were all made from natural ingredients, not chemical. The shopkeeper told me to rub some of the green powder between my fingers and like magic, my fingers were instantly stained in not green but purple colour because it reacted to the salt in the sweat on my hand. Fascinating stuff.
Eating Guinea Pig at Lamay
Not far from Pisac in a nearby town called Lamay is where we tried one of the most unusual food in Peru – the guinea pig or Cuy (pronounced “kwee“). While these furry critters better known as domesticated pets in the West, this indigenous mammal has been a staple in Peru’s Andean diet for around 5,000 years. I simply don’t think there’s any other way to make this animal taste good except fry it or like how we had it, cuy al palo, spit roasted over charcoal.
Vegetarians look away now!
These gourmet cuy were fed an alfalfa diet to ensure the meat is as tender as possible. The guinea pigs are usually marinated and stuffed with herbs and spices, lots of salt and garlic overnight then roasted over a spit. Can I just say, they smelled amazing!
The guinea pig was served whole, head, teeth and everything. It came with a plate of side dishes of roast Andean purple potatoes with melted cheese, corn and an addictive hot and tangy salsa criolla chili dressing. There wasn’t much meat on the little fella and quite boney, it tasted like a cross between chicken and rabbit. But the skin crisped up like pork crackling, it was so delicious.
I think our tour guide was being nice to let us had the meaty part while she tucked into the cuy heads. She absolutely loved it, pulled the whole thing apart and started sucking the brain and everything. I also took one and started gnawing the crispy skin around the cheek. She also told us that if anyone eats the head and found the tiny bone from the guinea pig’s ear is considered very lucky. We did eventually found one.
Lunch at Hacienda Huayoccari in Urubamba
Our next stop was Hacienda Huayoccari at Urubamba which is about an hour from Pisac. We were honoured to meet the Lambarri-Orihuela family, who is the current owner of the estate. They even treated us to a spectacular Peruvian Paso Fino horses performance. I have very little knowledge about horses, but Paso Fino is prized for their smooth, natural, four-beat, lateral ambling gait. The horse seem to ‘trot’ a little bit faster but very small steps. If you don’t know what I mean, just go watch “Narcos” on Netflix.
The show continued with the traditional Peruvian dance of Marinera Norteña performed by one of the best female dancer in Peru apparently. Marinera is a graceful and romantic couple’s dance that uses handkerchiefs as props. The dance was an elegant and stylised reenactment of a courtship, it also shows a blend of the different cultures of Peru. In the beginning the dance was a typical romantic story where a boy chasing after a girl, lots of teasing and flirting back and forth. And then thing got heated up, the man had to fight for the girl…… with a horse!
Triangle relationship is always complicated and a mess. Lots of circling, twirling, more flirting, more teasing and more challenging manoeuvres. Eventually the boy was defeated and the girl won over by the handsome four legged stud. Who doesn’t like a good happy ending eh?
After the horse performance, they also invited a group of indigenous Quechuan weavers from the local community to demonstrate the traditional Peruvian weaving. Led by Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, founder and Director of The Center for Traditional Textiles in Cuzco, who learned skills and knowledge from my Chinchero grandmothers and their ability to lay out and weave complex designs, carrying on ideas passed from their mothers and grandmothers. She said she learned how to spin yarn when she was only five years old and wove her first patterns when she was six.
Weaving plays an important role in every Inca family, every village has its own weaving patterns and traditions. The Peruvian weaving has over 2000 years of history, with thousands of techniques, layouts, styles, and practices. You can now understand why they are normally highly priced for the time and effort putting into each piece.
Of course we were not here at Hacienda Huayoccari just for the horse performance and weaving demonstration, we were also here for lunch at the manor on top of the hill. The best way to get there was on the horseback of course.
The estate was founded in the 17th century, it has its own private collection of Peruvian art, from pre-Incan, Incan, Viceregal to Republican all on displayed in different rooms. We were then invited to the opulent dining hall for our lunch, Pisco Sour miraculously appeared at the table as soon as we settled in. The menu featured authentic Peruvian cuisine prepared with organic ingredients homegrown on the estate. Their Causa, the classic Peruvian mashed potato salad (more like a pie) was a beautiful and delicious starter. I had my eyes set on the Chiccarones for my main course. There were big chunks of pork belly that had been deep fried to a dark brown, it looked dry but surprisingly tender with the layering fat.
If you are planning to go to the Sacred Valley, the Hacienda Huayoccari is definitely worth a visit if you can get a tour operator like South America Travel Centre to organise it for you.
Visit a local dwelling in Ollantaytambo
Our excursion continued on to the final stop at Ollantaytambo, a significant Inca archaeological site in souther Peru some 60 km from city of Cusco. This town is also one of the most common starting points for the four-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. We had a wander around the narrow streets and submerged ourselves in the daily life of the neighbourhood.
There are a few interesting sites on the hill that is worth visiting if you have the time. On top of a steep hill where the Incas built a ceremonial center with impressive terraces of Pumatallis. Due to impressive character of these terraces, the Temple Hill is commonly known as the Fortress, however, this is a misnomer as the main functions of this site were religious. The Incas also built several storehouses out of fieldstones on the hills surrounding Ollantaytambo.
Our tour guide managed to show us one of the dwellings so we can witness what a normal daily life is here in Ollantaytambo. Despite this dwelling is opened for tourists, we still had to be respectful that it was actually someone’s home. We walked through a stone gate into a courtyard shared by many dwellings. Most of the dwellings had been handed down through generations and the same families are still living there.
The little girl who was minding the house invited us in. As soon as we stepped inside the house, we could hear the squeaky noises at the far end corner. She grabbed some grass and threw it on the floor, immediately we could see a guinea pig came running out! Then another, and another, and another…
Suddenly there was a mob of cute fluffy guinea pigs in all different colours and markings on a feeding frenzy! They were quite shy and ran quick to hide when we tried to get close to them. We were told that guinea pigs play an important role in their lives not only as a food source, but also keep them warm during winter time. Imagine snuggling up to a hundred guinea pigs under the blanket, it would be better than an electric blanket!
Inside the dwelling was simple but sufficient, they had everything they need in one big space. There was a bed, next to it was the dining table, a small wood fire kitchen at the other corner where they also grind their own maize from dried corn kernel using big round rock on a big slab of stone. There were dried corn cobs, herbs and dried fish hanging from the roof. Next to the kitchen is the shrine where they pay respect to their ancestors and still follow the tradition religious ritual. We didn’t ask but we believed that the skulls on the shrine were actually their ancestors’ skulls. There was also some mummified animals hanging on the wall, seashells and an armadillo shell.
The life is a lot simpler here at Ollantaytambo. We saw this little boy playing with not a mobile phone but happily bouncing a football on the wall and having a good time. It is the fact that this little town hasn’t been fully modernised and many of the old charms are still remain untouched makes Ollantaytambo so very special.
It was time to head back to Cusco and called it a day. A perfect day to wrap up our journey in Cuzco before we heading to our next destination – Lake Titicaca.
How to get there – LAN Airlines now operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in a codeshare partnership with oneworld partner airline Qantas.
- Make sure you have your vaccination for Hep A & B, Typhoid and Yellow Fever prior to departure.
- Get some US dollars and then exchange it to local currencies when you get to South America.
- Drink Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Camenere, Syrah from Chile; Malbec from Argentina
- Best to get bottled water rather than drink from tap
- To create your own holiday in South America, please visit South America Travel Centre.
- Around Peru – Part 1
- Eat my way around Peru – Part 2
- Travel guide – How to get to Machu Picchu, Peru
- LAN Airlines Business Class to Santiago, Chile
- A feast in Lima, Peru – Part 1
- Art & About in Lima, Peru – Part 2
- CENTRAL – The best restaurant in Latin America.