Sunday, January 21, 2018

Peru's Sacred Valley on Four Legs

Whenever we're planning vacations we seem to be inundated by offers and recommendations for guided tours. There isn't anything especially wrong with guided tours per se, but climbing out of the back of a minibus and being herded around with other English speakers - as is typical on many tours - is decidedly ungraceful and conspicuous. 

When we were planning our trip to Peru S and I decided we wanted a different experience. No minibuses for this couple, not on this trip.

I don't even remember where I found Hacienda del Chalán (probably on another blog or TripAdvisor), but I am so glad that I did. 

A tour of the Sacred Valley on horseback? Sign me up!

We booked a 1-day ride that would take us around the Sacred Valley and past the sites of Salinas, Maras, and Moray. 

Our group consisted of our guide, S and I, and a mom and daughter from the Netherlands. The ride began by roughly following the Vilcanota River through the fields at the bottom of the valley. We crossed over the “Tarabamba” and “Paucarbamba” suspension bridges and it wasn't long before we started the climb to Salinas.

Another special aspect of this tour? We would get to ride Peruvian Paso horses - a special breed that isn't too common everywhere - and known for their smooth, four-beat gait.

After climbing steep and sunny hills we could see the blinding white of Salinas in front of us. 

Our group was alone on our approach to Salinas. More and more of the terraces revealed themselves to us as we climbed the quiet hills.

We tied the horses at the top of the hill and walked down toward the pools. 

As we made our way through the gift shop that you have to walk through to get up close to the salt ponds we were also met by groups of other tourists. 

We were here in the off/shoulder season. It doesn't look that busy in these photos, but I had to wonder: how many people are pushed off the narrow path into the salty ponds during the crowded high season?

There are 3,000 pools owned by a collective of 300 families. The terraced pools are flooded with water from a spring in the hills. As the water evaporates the salt stays behind to be harvested by the families who own them. 

These pools have been in use for hundreds of years and there are no signs of stopping.

We had lunch at a restaurant near the entrance to the salt ponds and then mounted up to continue our ride.

We had seen photos of Salinas and Moray before leaving on our trip. It was the riding through towns, villages, and the fields around Moray that surprised us with their beauty.

My photos don't do justice to the colors of the hills. I knew Peru was beautiful, but I couldn't stop looking at the hills and mountains as we rode through the quiet fields. 

It was on this ride that I first noticed how gorgeous the sky in Peru was.

These are the kinds of things we would have missed if we had just signed up to be shuttled around in the back of a minibus.

We arrived at Moray and our group were some of the only visitors. Again we tied up the horses and explored on foot.

The exact purpose behind the terraced ruins is unknown.

The leading theory is that these concentric rings served as an agricultural laboratory. Plantings were made at the bottom of the pits and gradually moved up the terraces to observe how they handled the changes in altitude.

It was windy and chilly at the top of the terraces and warmer and still at the bottom. In fact, temperature can vary as much as 15*F from bottom terrace to the top.

As we explored further we noticed the same ingenious staircases in the terrace walls here at Moray that we had seen at Ollantaytambo.

Again, we were here in the off season and arrived later in the day so we had Moray mostly to ourselves and a few small clusters of other travelers. 

We mounted our horses again and headed back down the valley toward Urumbamba where we had started.

This was an amazing experience that got us beyond the minibus, which was exactly what we wanted. Sometimes, I still daydream myself away from my desk at work back into the saddle in the mountains of Peru.

That being said, this is a full day tour designed for intermediate to advanced riders. This is not the right tour for you if your riding experience consists wholly of a one-hour trail ride you took that one time. The length can also be challenging physically.

I don't say these things to scare anyone off, but to hopefully help you see if this is right for you or not.

I hope this post inspires you to get off the bus and get out there in a different and unique way!

Tour details:

Our all-day tour cost us $95 each (in October 2015) and we added on extra for pick up/drop off at our hotel and a boxed lunch. 

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Ollantaytambo: Intro to the Sacred Valley

I started worrying about the altitude from the first day we started planning our trip to Peru. S was less concerned. In his experience, the people most affected by altitude were the uber fit, not the moderately fit like us. I was still worried. I didn't want to get all the way to Peru only to end up spending days in bed with nausea and dizziness. 

One of the blogs I read in preparation for our trip recommended seeing Cusco last. Of all the typical sites people visit in this area of Peru, Cusco is the highest at an elevation of 11,152 feet. Ollantaytambo sits at 9,160 feet, with other Sacred Valley destinations also in the 9,000 foot rage, and Machu Picchu the lowest at 7,972 feet. Their suggestion, visit these other areas first, allowing your body to acclimate. By the time to get to Cusco, you should be fine.

We planned our itinerary in Peru with this in mind. After spending two nights in Lima we flew to Cusco and then immediately took a cab to Ollantaytambo in the Valle Sagrado. 

We booked one night at El Albergue Ollantaytambo. We paid $99 US in October 2015 booking directly through the hotel via email. El Albergue is literally at the train station that will take you to Machu Picchu/Cusco. Instead of showing a train ticket, tell the guy at the gate that you're staying at the hotel and they'll let you onto the platform. Not just a hotel, there are beautiful gardens, and an onsite restaurant that serves produce from the on-property farm. 

Looking up the stairs to our second-floor room.

The garden at El Albergue.

There are cheaper options in Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley for sure, but we felt El Albergue was a great value. The hotel is a beautiful white stuccoed building with a tiled roof, and charming, creaky, wide-planked wood floors. Our room was exceptionally clean and the bed very comfortable. Water for the shower is exclusively solar heated which means it can be scalding hot in the late afternoon or frigid in the early morning. The hotel prides itself on this and other eco-friendly aspects of it's operation. We ate dinner in the hotel's restaurant and it was one of our favorite meals of our trip. 

Bedroom area of our standard room.

We dropped our bags in our room and spent a little time shoes-off, consulting our guide books before heading out on foot to the ruins at Ollantaytambo. El Albergue is at the train station and next to the Urubamba river, but only a 10-15 minute walk from the ruins at Ollantaytambo and the center of town.

S on the walk into town from El Albergue.

Walking from El Albergue toward town and the ruins.

Originally built for religious purposes, Ollantaytambo was important in the resistance against the Spanish. In fact, Ollantaytambo was the site of one of the only Spanish defeats by the Incas. It's not hard to see why the steep terraces would have made an ideal military stronghold. 

View of the terraces from the ticket line at the entrance.

From the top of the ruins you also get a sense of the shape of the valley and the Urubamba river that flows through it. During the Inca's successful battle here they flooded the valley, forcing the Spanish to retreat and giving the Inca time to escape to the stronghold of Vilcabamba further in the jungle. 

View from the top of the ruins over the town of Ollantaytambo.

Ollantaytambo is a great first site to get a sense of the scale, engineering, and impressiveness of the Incan building projects. Climbing the massive terraces shortens your breath and reminds you that even though this is lower than Cusco, you are still at altitude. 

Getting close to the walls lets you see first-hand what your guidebook means when it says that the stones are laid so precisely that a piece of paper can't be forced between them. 

The wall of the six monoliths in the Sun Temple.

While there was a good sized crowd when we visited we were able to get away from the groups of people and find some quieter spots on our own or with just a few other visitors. We were here in October, shoulder season, and I was glad. I can only imagine how crowded this place must get in high season. 

I was also thankful that we weren't with a guide. While we probably missed out on insights and information only available on a guided tour I enjoyed wandering on our own, stopping to read our guide book and reference the map to see where within the complex we were. It was a good chance to feel out how we wanted to explore the other ruins to come on our trip. 

A simple solution for a staircase.

Ollantaytambo also has an underground water system that for whatever reason went mostly unnoticed by the other tourists here. We tried to follow the open drain vents to the edge of the complex where we saw the stream we assumed fed the underground irrigation system. 

On our walk to the ruins we had seen stone structures on the hillside across from the main complex. The view from up closer was even better. These are open air granaries that take advantage of the winds that whip down the valley, funneling them into these structures to keep them cool. It is possible to climb up to these for a view down onto the rest of the ruins, but we ran out of time.

You can see the granaries on the hill opposite the ruins.

Racing against the setting sun, we quickly visited the main town area of Ollantaytambo surrounding the Plaza de Armas. Ollantaytambo is one of the best surviving examples of Inca city planning with these cobble stone streets having been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. The system of irrigation we saw at the ruins continues in these narrow streets offering a quiet background noise of running water. While there were still tour groups at the ruins when we left, we didn't see any of them walking the streets of town. 

Looking back toward the entrance to the ruins.

Looking toward the center of town, heading away from the ruins.

We only spent one night in Ollantaytambo, but we definitely could have spent more. At the far end of the Sacred Valley (from Cusco) most people only see Ollantaytambo from the window of a train or bus. The ruins here were impressive and the pace relaxed. It was an interesting contrast to other stops on our trip with a more hurried and crowded atmosphere. 

We loved it as a first stop on our tour of Inca sites over the next few days. If we get the chance to return to Peru I think Ollantaytambo might make the list of places to revisit.

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