Late last year, I followed a link in a tweet to the website TravelByU.com, and won a contest they were sponsoring. The prize was two tickets to do an Urban Adventures day tour anywhere in the world! As we were planning our trip to Peru, we looked at the tour company’s offerings there and were intrigued by the description of their Sacred Valley In Depth Tour: Take a break from Cusco and explore real Quechua community life in the sacred valley with Cusco Urban Adventures.
The website promised a traditional craft market, visits to a Quechua village, a chance to eat lunch with a family, and visits to Incan archeological sites. I was concerned that, on our own, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn much about modern life in the indigenous rural communities outside of Cusco, so it seemed the ideal tour for a trip of this sort.
The tour starts at 8:30 am, and the company will pick you up at any centrally-located accommodation in Cusco. So at the scheduled time, we were waiting outside of our hostel (Marlon’s House) for the van to pick us up. Instead, Maritiza, our petite guide, along with a dedicated driver showed up to meet us at the door. We were the only two people on the tour!
As the driver weaved through the narrow and congested city streets, we watched the city pass away and Maritza started to rattle off interesting things on either side of us. She pointed out the entrance for the Sexy Woman ruins… wait a minute, the what?!? She laughed and explained that Sacsayhuamán was a fortress used to keep watch over Cusco when it was the capital of the Incan empire.
Later on she pointed out more interesting things like these tiny statues of two bulls with a cross that on it that are mounted on the roof of rural houses for good luck. I started to see those things everywhere!
The Town and Ruins of Pisac
The first stop was to an empanada stand in the town of Pisac. The cook was baking the empanadas (made from a mix of quinoa, kiwicha, corn and wheat flour) in a giant stone oven. The traditional empanada was filled with onion, tomato, cheese oregano and rosemary. It was slightly crispy on the outside, but the crust just melted in my mouth. It was the best empanada I’ve ever had and cost less than $1.
The second stop was at the Pisac ruins, a mountaintop city with terraces and water cut out of solid rock. Maritza walked us around and explained the architectural elements of the city, which were similar for all of the Incan villages as we would see later in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. As we were leaving the ruins, we witnessed the parking lot packed with tour buses and 20+ person tour groups, I was so grateful we had Maritza all to ourselves!
After that we made a brief stop at the Pisac craft market, which wasn’t that different from the tourist shops we had seen in Cusco. There were lots of hippie wool sweaters and winter hats a la Manu Chao, paintings of Machu Picchu and carved gourds. I’d heard that on Sundays, the market is a produce market where indigenous woman come to sell native foods, and I thought that would be more interesting.
Agroturismo in Chichubamba
Next, we headed off to Chichubamba, a town so small it wasn’t on my map. This tiny village was home to an Agro-tourism collective dedicated to promoting job opportunities for local people and promoting tourism to the village. We stopped for lunch at the house of a woman who made us a delicious sopa de quinoa (quinoa and potato soup), saltado de lisas (Peruvian stirfry) and chicha morada (sweet drink made from blue corn).
After this, we went down the street to visit a family that made hand painted pottery. We got a demonstration of the whole process—from making the clay to finishing them with natural paints, and had the opportunity to purchase any of their varied work displayed in the front room of their house.
The City and Ruins of Ollantaytambo
The tour typically returns to Cusco at the end of the day, but because we wanted to stay in Ollantaytambo for the night, Maritza agreed in advance to let us bring our bags and leave us in town, so our first stop was to check into our hotel and drop off our bags.
The final stop of the day was Ollantaytambo where we visited the impressive terraces on a steep hill overlooking the town. This was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti during the Incan Empire. By the time we arrived, the late afternoon light over the town and the hills caused the ruins to glow. I was glad we had decided to stay the night so we would have more time to explore the city. It was here that we bid farewell to Maritza and spent the evening enjoying the sunset over this spectacular valley. I just re-read the update we wrote from the road and remembered how exhilarated we were to be in Ollantaytambo.
We did receive this tour for free but I do think it would have been worth the price for the personal attention we got. Maritza was funny and great to spend the day with. She answered all of our questions, which just wouldn’t have happened if we were packed on a tour bus with 30 other people. From our visits and discussions about Pisac and Ollantaytambo, we learned enough about the Incan empire and archaeological history that we understood the basic layout of and Incan cities and didn’t feel the need to hire an English language guide when we went to Machu Picchu. The day was really one of the highlights of our trip to Peru.
Find out more about the “Sacred Valley Community Tour” by contacting Urban Adventures Cusco. Ask for Maritza, she’s awesome!
Have you visited Cusco or Peru’s Sacred Valley?