A Day out in The Sacred Valley

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Sunday, August 17, 2008

One morning in the taxi on the way out to San Sebastian for our Spanish lessons, we got chatting to the taxi driver, who, unusually, spoke excellent English. He asked whether we had been to Pisac to see the famous market. When we said we hadn't he began describing some of the other places we could go in the Sacred Valley and, to cut a long story short, we agreed a price of 80 soles and that he would take us there on Sunday and visiting a number of sights along the way.

We met up as arranged on the Sunday morning at 8.00am and set off on the drive to Pisac aiming to get there before the tourist buses arrived. On the way Caesar, as he was named began telling us all about himself (aged 68) and his family, 4 sons, all professionals and 2 grandchildren. We stopped along the way and visited a small local village market and then continued on to Pisac itself. The drive, as most seem to be in the Andes was along roads winding through the valleys and the ever spectacular scenery, often including Inca ruins on the mountain sides. Caesar parked up in an alley for his morning siesta whilst we explored the town of Pisac and its market. During the week Pisac is pretty much an ordinary town but on Sundays it transforms itself into the biggest market in the region. The range of goods from jewellery to live guinea pigs is mind boggling! The quality of the stuff for sale also seemed very high (can't speak for the guinea pigs!). After wandering around the stalls for an hour or so we found Caesar and bought him lunch in a local restaurant.

After lunch we headed up to the Inca ruins in the hills above the town. These ruins are considered second only to Machu Picchu in their grandeur and from a distance they looked impressive. Up close they were amazing. How did the Incas manage to builds such places and always in the most difficult of locations? Caesar drove us to the top car park above the ruins (a 2 hour walk uphill from the town) and we agreed to meet him in the lower car park after walking through the ruins). The ruins themselves seemed in excellent condition although the signposting was awful and we managed to get lost a couple of times but managed to get back on track eventually (utilising our currently pathetic Spanish abilities!). I have to say that whilst the ruins were indeed spectacular, the precipitous paths and abundance of sheer drops into gaping chasms (or so they seemed to me), did nothing for my vertigo. The small children running around, clambering over rocks within inches of, what seemed to me, certain death did nothing for my ego!

Eventually we found our way down through the ruins to our meeting point and we then headed off to the Maras Salineros (salt mines). The drive to the mines was through different scenery again. We drove across some high plains through mostly agricultural land and one or two small settlements. The only town of any size was Maras and as we drove into the main square it was like being on the set of a spaghetti western. There was absolutely no one to be seen. The only life we did see was a large pig wandering across the street (a one pig town??). We didn't see any tumbleweed, but there were a few plastic bags blowing around in the dust. We half expected to see Clint Eastwood in his poncho pop out of the saloon doorway as we passed!

The sight greeting us as we drove down to the Salinas was like nothing we had seen before. A vast series of terraces apparently more than 500 years old, are built into the side of the hillside and a small hot spring which flows through massive underground salt deposits is diverted into a series of evaporation pans all along the terraces. A complicated arrangement tiny canals and sluice gates enable the workers to fill the pans with salt water which is then left to evaporate of about three days. The process is then repeated and the salt is dug up and shipped off in sacks.

Our next stop was to be at Moray, a series of concentric circular terraces cut into the mountains that the Incas used as a crop laboratory as each level has its own micro-climate. Caesar tells us that the Incas had over 1000 different varieties of potatoes and over 600 varieties of corn and that most of these are still grown today locally. At the widest, I would guess the diameter Moray of the main set of terraces would be about 300metres and about 150 metres at its deepest. Each terrace wall has stones jutting out to provide steps to the next level. Each level looks to be about 10 feet high. Overall the whole thing looks like a Roman/Greek amphitheatre. Apparently, the terraces are still sometimes used by the Peruvian authorities to test the performance of different crops in differing position etc.

Time is moving on so we head off to our last stop of Chinchero, famous for its hilltop colonial church and surrounding market. We arrive at sunset and the scene is impressive with the church tower and market set against snow capped mountains. We enter the church itself and it is absolutely packed firstly with worshippers attending a service (it is Sunday!) and secondly the contents of a couple of recently disgorged tour buses. The murals and frescos were really something to behold. We have a very brief wander around the market as we are pretty much marketed out by now and head back to the car and the drive back to Cusco. On the way back the police are out in force and we get stopped a couple of times at road blocks. At one of the road blocks a man tries, unsuccessfully, to get into the car. For some reason Peruvians see an empty seat and think it's theirs.

Caesar drives us back down into Cusco through, as he points out, some of the more dangerous areas of the city, to San Blas and our Hostal. I go to pay him the fare we agreed of 80 soles plus, as we have had a great day, a generous (I thought) tip of a further 20 soles. Caesar has a blank expression on his face and eventually, in English which has suddenly taken a turn for the worse, says "is not enough". When I ask what he thinks would be enough he replies "300 sole". After we have stopped laughing we point out that we have a deal. Take it or leave it. Any way after a lot of arguing (there are a number of Spanish phrases I am now determined to learn when we continue our lessons!!) we pay him 120 soles and leave. So if you happen to be in Cusco and meet a taxi driver called Caesar who looks a little like a downmarket Omar Sharif, be very wary, he will try to rip you off!
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