We had no idea we would be in Ollantaytambo exactly when they held their annual town celebration. We stumbled upon a wonderful folklore parade and dance contest in the town square. The carnival had school children of all ages performing traditional dance, in traditional dress. Adorable!
The people here are proud of their heritage and keep their customs alive. Ollantaytambo is a small town, with narrow cobblestone roads and a charming market. It reminded us both of Spain or Italy. We stayed at a hostel, and met yet another travelling family who have been on the road for 4.5 years; modern day nomads (hello Marie-Claude and Richard!). Our boys bonded with their son Raphael and we enjoyed lunch and dinner together. We did not see the boys all day as they were playing card games and exploring town. The fiesta off course went on till deep into the night – for 3 consecutive nights – complete with fireworks launched from below our bedroom window. Yawn :).
The Ollantaytambo ruins was our first up-close-and-personal with the Inca’s building skills. The fortress is built into the mountain slope, above the agricultural terraces. The temple clearly was most important, with perfectly fitted and perfectly smooth stonework. After the usual “we don’t want to go”, the kids changed their tune into “wow, cool!!”. They played hide and seek, and imaginary battles. We got a good walk out of it, but did not escape souvenir shopping… Elyse now drags a little bunny around made out of sheep wool (so soft), Vincent has a ceremonial dagger wrapped up to decorate his future room, and Matthias picked out a necklace and a gem stone.
But without a good guide, it’s hard to bring the ruins the life. So the next day, we set out with our local guide Rohny for a day of sightseeing in the Sacred Valley. We started in Chinchero. The Spaniards built a Catholic church on Inca temple remains. The little church is very charming – with nearly untouched artwork. Afterwards, we visited a small local store where friendly women demonstrated their traditional weaving practice. They showed how they clean wool with natural soaps (made from a certain plant root), how they hand-spin the wool into thread, and then use natural dyes to color the wool. Red for example is made of a parasite that is found on cacti; a white little creature that when squished produces a bright red sap. Green was made from the mosses we found all around. Oker from a certain flower you see next to the roads. And then the weaving! A small traditional table-runner takes them a month of weaving, for 6 to 7 hours a day, and is sold for 250 soles or about 60 USD…. They weave traditional patterns typical to their town into each piece. Those patterns are not written down anywhere still today, but handed down from generation to generation. Young girls start to learn how to weave around age 7 …. Our kids were fascinated. Off course here too, we could not leave without buying a beautiful blanket of alpaca wool ….
Around the corner, we found a man carving the most exquisite scenes into a dried squash. We enjoyed a simple empanada lunch, and tried chicha morada, a typical Peruvian, sweet drink made of purple corn and spices.
Over dusty roads we then continued to Moray. Our kids could not get over the fact that homes were being built with hand tools. A herd of sheep blocked our way as they crossed the road. Alpaca’s, pigs, donkeys, and dogs everywhere. Moray was a laboratory for the Incas, where they experimented with seeds and crops at different altitudes, temperatures, and humidity – to help them increase productivity in this harsh mountainous environment.
Finally, we drove to Maras to visit the salt mine “Salineras”. A gift from mother nature … A well brings up salted water and throughout a myriad of shallow pools, the water evaporates for salt to crystallize. We all took a sip from the water at the source – saltier than the sea! The kids so enjoyed putting their hands in, and watching their hands dry full of salt. They felt like mummies. We hiked down through the salt-mine, balancing over the ledges – lots of fun again for the kids. We walked a good hour downhill. At the bottom of the valley is a small town. It continues to be hard to accept that people live in such conditions still today…
Salineras (salt mines) in Maras:
Did you know that 95% of the rain that falls in the Andes flows to the Atlantic Ocean? So on the other side of the mountain, we descended in lush, green, wet, cloud forest. We stayed at Julia and Jose’s farm. They were incredibly welcoming, and allowed us a peak into their lives. Julia had been a driving force in the community to open up their farms to tourists, as a way to generate extra income for their families. A farm is typically only 1 to 2 hectares, and generates about 200$ a month. Not enough to sustain a family. The tourist visits allow them to significantly improve their living conditions. Even then, their quarters are very basic. We took the tour with a co-operative, to ensure we directly supported the family. Jose proudly took us through his farm – which does not compare to any notions of farm I had previously. Through our eyes, this was just more jungle. But organized jungle! The most interesting was to learn about coffee farming, from seed to cup. We got to roast some beans, grind them, and then … drink the black gold. At 6pm. I lay staring at the ceiling for hours that night! None of us liked the hundreds of mosquitoes swarming around us though – tiny mosquitoes whose tiny bites had my underarm badly swollen for 2 days straight.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our host family, to finally, finally, make our way to Peru’s crown jewel – Machu Picchu. We drove along a dusty mountain road to Santa-Teresa, and took the train there to Aquas Calientes.
It was foggy and rainy … We had tickets to visit the Citadel, as well as to climb the Montana. Everyone we told of our plans declared us kind of crazy – the mountain climb would be way too hard for the kids. It made us hesitate … We kind of decided maybe only Steven should make the climb, and if it was foggy, to skip the climb all together.
We met with our guide Jessica bright and early. Arriving at Machu Picchu is magical, and every bit as special as it’s acclaimed to be. There was not a cloud in the sky that morning. Not only is the city/citadel of Machu Picchu impressive, even more impressive is its location. Green steep mountains tower around the site at every angle. The river far below. The Inca trail comes in on one side, and Wayna Piccu’s star observatory sits seemingly unreachable on the next mountain over.
Jessica took us through the site for a good 2 hours. Our kids loved the llamas walking around; natural lawn mowers. The Incas’ agricultural society was all built around the seasonal cycles, mastering irrigation, and cultivating crops at all altitudes. They domesticated many varieties of plants and herbs. The Temple of the Sun is oriented to precisely measure summer and winter solstices. The craftsmanship in building homes and temples is simply marvelous. It is difficult to understand they carved the stones to match perfectly, and I mean 100% perfect. The buildings were built to withstand the region’s earth quakes, and so my kids now know their trapezoids! After roughly 90 years of building, researchers believe the city was unfinished when the Inca’s deserted it to retreat further into the jungle and escape the Spaniards. It is believed 500 to a 1000 people lived in the city, which was royalty’s winter retreat. I could go on and on about what we learned that morning. The Inca’s did not master the skill of melting and casting iron, nor did they have enough of the type of straight, tall and strong trees around to use wooden beams for transportation or wheel/carriage building. Most was done stone on stone. In the Inca museum in Cusco a couple days later, we did see bronze artifacts and jewelry. So now we are confused about the skills they did and did not master :).
Touring Machu Picchu Citadel:
The day was so warm, and so beautiful, that we decided to give the Montana a go, even if everyone advised against it. It helped that we had friends who conquered the trek with their young boys, so we knew it was not impossible (right, Raphael and Yanick?!). We signed in, and off we went. We told ourselves we could turn around at any point. The climb was basically the longest set of stairs … with very very tall steps!! At every turn, when I thought we had to be almost, almost there, there were more stairs. It would be a 600m climb, taking us to the peak at 3061 meters where we had the most spectacular view over the mountains and the citadel far below. For the final part, the path was fairly narrow, with a deep cliff on one side and the mountain on the other side. Honestly, it was difficult. At multiple points I thought we had to turn back. Nothing to do with the kids – they did amazing that day. But more because I felt we were pushing it too hard, and it was too dangerous. But Steven had everything under control and coached us up. We took regular breaks, and Steven carried Elyse for about half the way. Which still means her little legs conquered the other half! Imagine some stair steps were up to her hips essentially.
Climbing Montana Machu Picchu:
And then … I turned a corner, and a small group of people was coming down with a guard. None of them spoke English, but I understood he had just closed the final section to the top. (Later I would learn the top closes at 1pm. Tripadvisor knows. We did not.) I turned my back on them to hide the tears that sprung to my eyes. Nooo!!! We were so so close – only 15 more minutes to go. We had climbed for 2 hours and 45 minutes. I did not know how to bring the news to the kids. When they turned the corner too, they could tell I was upset. I blurted out that the top was closed. All 3 of them exclaimed an enormous No!!!. The guide let us take a picture, but was determined to take us back down. The boys cried; honest, thick tears of frustration. I think that softened the guide’s heart. He asked us when we left (I still don’t know how I understood his Spanish). We said 10.05 am. He looked at this watch, seemingly calculating how long it had taken us to get up. He hesitated. He seemed satisfied. We must have had a decent enough pace, as a family. And then, out of nowhere he signaled: Go. You can go. But march fast. He gave us 10 minutes. We almost ran to the top … I thought I would fall over, and my heart would beat out of my chest. It was still a nasty climb, those final meters. And then … …. there it was! We re-grouped to cross the finish line together. It was an incredible experience. We were up there all by ourselves. The kids spread out in the shade of a small cover, on their backs, catching their breaths. And then, we let out the loudest family victory scream over the mountains. Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!! We made it!!!!! This was undoubtedly the most difficult hike we ever did together. On the way up, we had talked about how this experience builds perseverance, determination, stamina and endurance. Critical life skills.
How it’s important to decide in your head to push yourself, beyond what you thought you could accomplish. The kids were so pleased with themselves. And so they should be! They snapped a “traveling trio” video for the blog (check it out!). We hiked down without pause, escorted by the guard, our legs trembling. We even caught up with another pair of hikers in the process :). The hike down was even more scary to me; those below you seem to be on the edge of a cliff. Optical illusion. An hour later, we were back at the entrance booth. Proudly signing out. Our names forever captured in the Montana visitor log!
It made for an unforgettable day. A memory to treasure. I try to breathe in every step of our travels as deeply as I can – knowing this is a “once in my life” kind of thing. Our kids however … Matthias on the way down said he would return and take his wife there one day! We returned to Aquas Calientes, blissful.
We had a handful of days left in Peru. We took the vistadome train, which frankly I found a tad over-priced. On our way to Cusco we spent a night in Pisac, and found 2 fantastic restaurants there. We did not do much else but “hang” and read, write and play. Once in Cusco, we stayed at the Niños Hotel, another recommendation by our friends. What a gem! The owner, Yolanda, is Dutch and came to Peru 20 years ago because she was struck by the homeless street children and wanted to do something about it. Today, her organization supports 600 local children – providing nutritious meals, medical and dental care, a place to do homework and play sports. Proceeds of the hotel, restaurant and on-site shop support the projects. We visited one of their locations and were impressed. All staff is local, and earns a salary to support their families. We used the opportunity to donate items we were not using, and the kids actually contributed most with crayons, paints, coloring books, fidget spinners and other toys. It made them proud to contribute.
In Cusco, we visited the Museo Inca, to get a feel for how the Inca’s lived inside the ruins we visited. It’s a small, clearly not very well funded museum, and for sure not the most popular or well known, but it lays out the pre-Inca, Inca and Spanish colonization periods well with various artifacts. Our kids pulled out their notebooks (without us even mentioning it – whoaa!) and made pages and pages of notes. They were so fascinated and serious. I swear Matthias wrote up every single exhibit. (OK – as much as I was proud, that was a bit too much!) As usual, we overstayed the tripadvisor average visit time with a factor 4 :).
We didn’t visit any other museums in Cusco (although we had planned it). We did walk around the city a fair bit (the San Blas district is fun!), and arranged for another box of souvenirs to be sent ‘home’.
Now on our way to Lima. Vincent decides he wants to paraglide too. Elyse has cried many tears over the fact that we won’t allow her to paraglide just yet … Tonight, we’ll have dinner with a Dutch international family who live in Lima (can’t wait!!), and then, onto Santiage, Chile – our next destination.
We fell in love with Peru. I think we’ll return one day, There is so much more to discover …
As usual, listing the places we enjoyed to stay, eat and play (and skipping the one’s we didn’t like that much :)):
* Ollantaytambo: Hostel Andenes – Hubert and his family are wonderful and hard working hosts.
The family room was spacious, nice, clean, and affordable.
* Pisac: Hospedaje Chaska via hostelworld.com. Simple rooms but nice courtyard with a colorful patio to enjoy.
* Cusco: Hotel Ninos – By choosing Niños Hotel, you support the Niños Unidos Peruanos Foundation.
– Apu Veronica. Traditional Peruvian. Aji de gallina was so good (spicey creamy chicken), as well as the Lomo saltido (beef stew)
– Heart Cafe. Great for breakfast, juices, coffees etc. We lunched here too 🙂
– Puka Rumi. Immense portions. The alpaca with spinach mashed potatoes was fantastic.
– Blue Magic Cafe. Cheap eat. So good. Traditional quinoa soup was great.
– Ulrike’s cafe. Great place to hang out. Colorful. Play corner for the kids and good wifi.
– Mullu cafe. Oh my! Food to die for. Fusion kitchen. We had be celeng base manis (lamb leg stew), and carre de alpaca (ribs).
– Niños hotel. We ate all our Cusco meals here, because it supports the projects AND because of the Dutch recipes
(pea soup, tosti’s, …). We also read every Dutch magazine they had!
* Machu Picchu and MP Mountain … without a doubt!!! No need to add a link, I think.
* Moras, Chinchero, Maras/Salineras
* Pisac: souvenir market.
* Vistadome train to/from Machu Picchu. While nice, we found it a bit overpriced…
* Museo Inca in Cusco