On my recent 4-month volunteer trip to Peru I decided to spend 6 days backpacking the country’s beautiful Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley lies in the mists of the Andes mountains, starts from the Incan capital of Cusco and includes everything between Calca and Lamay, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo. The ancient ruins of Machu Picchu top off the valley and keep a watchful eye over the sacred land.
Surprisingly, I had never been backpacking before. I camp, hike, get lost in the jungle, etc, but have never taken my 10 most essential items, stuck them in a bag, and walked off into the mountains with only ideas to guide me. Well, that’s exactly what I did, because I figured, what the hey, I’m in Peru and I tend to be braver in South America than I am in the states. That doesn’t make a lot of sense but it’s worked for me so far.
Into a tiny school-grade backpack (hey, big ones are expensive), I packed a toothbrush, one change of clothes, some bug spray and sunblock, toilet paper (it’s scarce in South America!) and a towel and went on my merry way. Luckily, a friend carried a huge backpack with the tent, sleeping pads, blankets and extra food we would need.
I never lived on so little for so long. This was an eye-opening experience and made me realize just how little I really need to live. We started out from Calca where we had been doing volunteer work on a WWOOF farm. It was difficult to leave this beautiful place, but I knew even more wonder was in store. It helped that many of the volunteers were getting giardia (including myself) from the tainted water there and flea bites from the tainted dogs!
Casa Girasol, the WWOOF farm in Calca
Lares hot springs
Our first stop was the tiny town of Lares, which hosts natural hot spring pools that come right out of the Andes mountains. After a collective taxi ride to Laures, over green rainy hills dotted with llamas and cute Andean sheepherder women with red cheeks and top hats, we walked an hour up the mountain to get to the springs. This is a popular spot for locals with a number of different temperature pools and waterfalls. We set up our tent in the camp area and spend the rest of the evening pruning up in the hot, gorgeous water. After dark we had the place to ourselves and nothing stopping us from skinny dipping in the Andes. That way I could now say I had skinny dipped in the Andes.
Hidden ruins in the hills of Urubumba
The next day we made our way to Urubumba. This city is quite boring, but we decided to follow it’s main road and to not stop until it ended. I’d always wanted to follow a road to its end. We chose wisely, and soon were in high green hills above the city, with lush pastureland, flowers, and a view of snow-capped mountains. We walked through fields of cows, secret gardens, and flowing streams to end up at some hidden ruins. These weren’t very big but still made us feel like we had gotten somewhere. We could have been the only foreigners to have seen and sat on these ruins. Who knows? We walked back down via the small dirt road that we had bypassed going up, handing out chocolate to smiling children we met on the way. We snuck an apple from a small orchard and agreed that it was the best damn apple we’d ever tasted. Well, it’s Peru, it’s beautiful, it’s an enchanted evening, and we’re in the fucking mountains, what do you expect?
Following a mountain stream
Secret gardens and beautiful views
The way back down
After enjoying a night in Urubumba and a banana pancake breakfast at our favorite tourist restaurant, Misky Sona’s, we set off for the ancient Incan city of Ollantaytambo. This city has kept its Incan foundations, and is
built inside rock walls with streets made of stone. It’s my favorite city in the Sacred Valley, and is home to many ruins – both free and pay ones. I had paid to see the ruins on a previous trip to Ollantaytambo, so after walking through the city a bit and finding the cheapest hostel to stay in for the night (which still boasted a lovely view of a mountain full of ruins), we planned our trip for the next day up that mountain to see the free-standing ruins available to anyone who can make it there.
hostel with mountain ruins view
View of the Andes from an old Incan cave
We set off in the morning after a lovely breakfast overlooking the ruin site, filled up our water canteens at my favorite bakery in town (run by a gringo couple who do everything organically and eco-consciously, and offer to fill water bottles as an alternative to buying and throwing away a bunch of plastic bottles), La Esquena. We grabbed a PB n J to go (the only place in Peru that serves them, I swear!) and headed up the mountain. There are a series of ruins on different parts of the mountain. The Incans used some of them as houses and schools, and others as graineries. But my eye was set upon the tippy top of the mountain, where I could see two tiny towers that looked mightily inviting. But the mountain was steep and long, and it was hot hot hot with no cloud cover. After walking straight uphill for 3 hours, we had lunch near a small cave that had long since collapsed but showed signs of Incan history. I voiced my desire to reach the top of the mountain, but didn’t take myself seriously. My good
Mountain of ruins
friend encouraged me, telling me we could do it, and would feel great if we at least tried. I sighed, made a mental note of my sore legs and winded body, and turned toward the slope with my pack. You’re right, let’s do this! Another steep 3 hours later, we looked down upon a very tiny Ollantaytambo, standing in the midst of an Incan lookout tower (or what was left of it) and surveying the mountains around us. It was beautiful and triumphant. My friend braved a bit of rock climbing even higher than the ruins, but I was content that I had reached my original goal and sat down to take in the wonder of the Incan spirits and history that I was surrounded by. It was awesome.
Mountain with the face of the Quetchua God
View from mid-mountain ruins
I want to get to the tippy top!
A closer-up view of the topmost towers
Made it! Hangin out on the top of the towers
After a trip down the mountain and a totally random fight between a baby goat and my friend, we returned to the hostel to change and shower. We found a bar called Gonso’s with great reggae music, good cocktails, swings on the second floor, couches, a fire pole, and an adobe stove with which to stay warm on those cold sacred valley nights. The next morning, after stopping into La Esquena again for breakfast and tea and another PB n J, we set off to find the elusive and majestic ruins of Pumamarka. I didn’t know much about them, but had heard through the grapevine that they were a must-see. These ruins can be reached via a day-hike through the Andes. I had never hiked a full day before, but I braved the mountain pass and the confusing mish-mash of trails, hoping that I would somehow come out at the right spot.
On our merry way through the Andes
The Andes are beautiful. High, misty, very green that time of year (mid-April), and endless. It was a breathtaking walk, and walk, and walk. I loved every minute of it. About 4 hours into the hike, we came upon an ancient Incan gravesite. Something like a mausoleum, but inside the mountain. These sites are dug
Ancient Incan mausoleum
out high up on the mountainsides, so you have to look up to see them. The door looks like the entrance to a cave, and inside is where the Incas placed their regal dead. The regular people went somewhere else a lot less fancy. This was very cool, and I climbed up to the entrance to peek inside. The climbing was more difficult than it looked, and there was somewhat of a rock-fall, so I didn’t get quite as high as I would have liked. I was content just to pose for pictures right below the entrance.
Pumamarka lookout view
A few hours of walking later, the mountain opened up into the green grassed terraces of the Incan agricultural system. We had reached our destination! And we had it all to ourselves! We excitedly ran uphill towards the towering ruins, and then stopped to hack out our lungs (running uphill at an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level is a blasted chore!). We more slowly made our way to the ruins, set our bags down, and danced and hopped around the soft short grass inside the circle made of ruins. Though there are cattle, goats and horses grazing the area, there is a gate that closes the ruins off from the animals and their poop. It’s just a clean swath of perfect tent-pitchin’ grass inside those ruins, and that caused us deep and satisfactory happiness. As did the oncoming sunset and the quiet, misty air around us. We lay most of the night looking up at the clear, starry sky, being protected and watched over by the rocky face of an Incan warrior outlined in the cliffs above us. The morning came on misty and beautiful. The flowers burst forth around the ruins, and the photo opportunities were endless. We pranced and played around the walls, on top of the house foundations, and inside the watchtowers. Next to Machu Picchu, which I had seen previous to the backpacking trip, this was the most beautiful spot I’d ever been.
Misty morning ruins
Campsite at Pumamarka
Flowers and mist, flowers and mist
Later that day we walked down the mountain to the small town under the ruins and hitched a ride back to Ollantaytambo.
Ollantaytambo’s mountain ruins
I wanted to visit the famous handicraft and textile markets of Chinchero, so on Sunday morning we made our way there. The sellers wear traditional Andean gear, and boast an array of gorgeous hand-made textiles, clothing, blankets, purses, scarves, antiques, and lots of other stuff. I tried not to look as I marched quickly past the roasting guinea pigs that are a delicacy in Peru and other parts of South America. One thing the Peruvians do know how to do well is use natural plant products to heal different kinds of ailments. At most markets and Peruvian towns you can find a number of different mates, or tea-like mixtures of different herbs, roots, veggies and plants, to heal stomach problems, headaches, period pains, and many other ailments. Although Peruvians will tell you that the best way to heal yourself is by drinking your own urine (a fact that is actually backed up by recent studies here in the US), I’m not quite ready to take that step.
We returned to Calca to spend one last night with friends we had made at the WWOOF farm, and then I was on my merry way to the jungles of Ecuador to work with wildlife rescue there.
Meditating at the ruins of Pisac
Pisac is another city in the sacred valley that I had visited before my backpacking trip. I signed up for a 3-city tour through a local travel agency in Cusco (there are many of them all offering slight variations on the
same theme) which included lunch in Urubumba and a visit to the ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo. The ruins at Pisac are quite beautiful, buried in the hills above the city with lovely views, and well worth the 70-soles entrance fee (which gets you into Ollantaytambo as well).
Since I usually like to live in a country’s culture and experience what the locals experience, I wasn’t planning on being all touristy and visiting Machu Picchu. But at the last minute I did decide to take this trip, and boy am I glad I did! Machu Picchu is perhaps the most beautiful and awe-inspiring place I’ve ever been. It’s only about $150 total for the trip, which can either include a 4-day hike up the old Inca trail, or a simple bus ride up the mountain. Since I was short on time and didn’t have my own tent, I opted for the bus ride up. I walked a couple of hours down the Inca trail on the way back, however, and it was worth getting a glimpse of how the Incas used to do it.
Machu Picchu sits on the tippy top of a series of forested mountains surrounded by clouds and mist, so that it felt as if I was in what the Incas referred to as the “higher world”. They believed in 3 worlds; the lower world, located within the earth’s surface, the world in which we live, and the higher world, which is the world above us where the sun and moon live. Machu Picchu is like being in a whole different world than the one here on earth, and everyone should experience it.
Best place to do yoga, ever
Cusco offers many tours to Machu Picchu, which include guides. Guides are great because they describe what went on in each structure, how the Incans lived, and interesting facts about the forms and buildings within the ruins. If you do not travel with a guide, make sure to step in with another group that is being guided and listen in on what the guide is saying. The guides speak both spanish and english.
Resting at the top of the world