After the steaminess of the Amazon jungle and the rugged accommodations therein, I have to say the cool mountain air of Cusco and the luxurious hotel we stayed in were even more appreciated than ever. This colorful mosaic was just outside our Cusco hotel.
And these ladies and others were hanging out at the hotel entrance, selling trinkets and postcards to the tourists. I had to snap a quick photo...I thought at first that was a dog but it's a dressed-up lamb! And the other lady is holding a lamb as well...and I'm guessing that's the behind of mommy ewe.
We were in the land of the Incas, an ancient civilization that met its demise when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the area in the early 1500s. And today we would spend in what is known as the Sacred Valley, the heart of Inca territory.
The Incans worshiped Creation, not the Creator...the sun and moon and constellations, the Andes Mountains (where the apus, "powerful" mountain spirits reside), and Panchamama (or Mother Earth, the Andean goddess of fertility and life) among other created things. They definitely missed the way to Heaven, but at least they did acknowledge God's creation. We found religion in Peru to be a strange mix of Catholicism (brought in by the Spaniards) and earth worship, and most people we talked to fell in one of those categories or in between. Although our conversational encounters with people were mainly limited to our guides, sadly we met no one who shared our belief in the saving grace of Jesus.
Our guide Rosa and her driver met us at our hotel that morning and our first stop was the Awana Kancha Llama Preserve. When I think of Peru, I picture llamas roaming freely around every turn. We had yet to even see a real live llama, only drawings of them on homes and buildings (supposedly to bring the inhabitants protection and good luck).
Kim and I immediately LOVED Rosa! She was a beautiful 30-something single gal that spoke perfect English and had her college degree in tourism. Rosa grew up in a poor mountain family, mostly with her grandparents who had a guinea pig farm. (Roasted guinea pig is a culinary delight in Peru!) Rosa was familiar with the Manu area, both the highlands and the rainforests we had visited. She was fun and energetic and a spunky gal!
Awana Kancha was definitely a touristy place, but a nice change of pace. Who knew there were so many different breeds of llamas and alpacas? And they are part of the camel family?
We fed the friendly beasts...Rosa warned us that if you wave the greens before them and don't deliver, you will get spit at!
The brown ones are vicunas, known for the finest, softest, and lightest wool in the world. I kinda wanted a pure vicuna sweater, but when Rosa told me I'd pay about $4000 for one, I decided I didn't need one that badly.
Instead, Rosa said, what I really needed was the next best thing...a 100% baby alpaca sweater, like wool that would come from the first shearing of an alpaca like this baby one. The first shearing is the softest and best, second only to the vicuna wool. Of course, right then and there I decided I couldn't leave Peru without baby alpaca souvenirs.
By the time we left the farm, I knew I needed not only a baby alpaca sweater but also a baby llama or alpaca itself! How fun would that be?! I can just picture my grandbabies riding around on it...we'd get a cute little saddle and halter and train it to be gentle and friendly and sweet (no spitting!). Then Kim reminded me that I'd have to get out in the snow and cold and take care of it and I quickly changed my mind...
Also at the farm were beautiful displays of how the wool becomes colorful yarn...
...and demonstrations of the ancient tradition of weaving.
Not only is there mind-boggling artistry and skill involved, I couldn't imagine how these ladies were sitting straight up, legs flat on the floor, with only a llama blanket between them and the hard ground. I'd last about 5 minutes doing that....
This adorable little girl was helping her mama mix pigments for dying the wool.
What a beautiful child!
Peru is also the native birthplace of potatoes. Over 4000 (yes four THOUSAND!) varieties of potatoes grow wild in the Andes highlands, and it was in this area that potatoes were first grown as domestic crops. Every single meal we ate in Peru included potatoes of some variety.
The other staple is corn, also included in every meal. Corn of all colors, sizes, and shapes are grown and eaten in Peru. As much corn as we had there, though, none of it even came close to comparing with Kim's sweet corn.
Some of the most fertile soil in the country is right there in the Sacred Valley, a relatively small area of FLAT ground surrounded by towering Andes mountains. Plenty of water from rain runoff and snow melting from the high elevations, it is heavily farmed just as it was in the ancient Incan days, mostly by families descended from generations of those Incans.
Since flat land was limited, the Incans developed very sophisticated terracing on the sides of the mountains, many of which are still used for farming today.
It's hard to even comprehend the manpower and labor needed to build these terraces, carrying stone either up or down the mountains to construct the support walls.
Do we look like tourists, or what?!
And into the sides of the walls, you can see angled marks. Those are holes for the water to flow all the way down the mountain in an incredible irrigation system.
Rosa took us to see the Pisac archaelogical site with many Incan ruins. Now THAT is a city on a hill!
The stone wall are the same as in Incan times. The thatched roofs are obviously reconstructed as they only last several months at best.
Knowing I had my heart set on baby alpaca stuff...besides a sweater, I wanted some chullo hats for my grandbabies and some blankets for my kids and Mama...Rosa took us to an artisan market.
Color overload! But Rosa wouldn't let me stop and look at the vendor booths advertising "100% baby alpaca" as she said they are lying and are not baby alpaca at all.
Instead she led us to a fine up-scale shop where everything in it is guaranteed baby alpaca or vicuna, and she demonstrated the difference in feel to me. Rosa knows her wool!
And, for the record, my grandbabies do look pretty adorable in their chullos we brought them!
After we spent a small fortune on baby alpaca stuff, we walked back through more of the open-air market...
...where you can find pretty much anything you can imagine.
Street vendors were selling guinea-pig-on-a-stick!
Uh, no gracias....
Lunch was at a beautiful monastery-turned-hotel...
Yummy buffet in gorgeous surroundings!
It was located in the village of Ollantaytambo, an ancient Incan city where people still live and work.
That's not sewage running along the streets...that is fresh mountain stream water that the locals use to drink.
The obligatory Catholic church was erected in every village after the Spanish invasion.
A few more Incan ruins to see before we call it a day.
Do you see the face on the mountain?
Perhaps it is a natural rock formation, but most believe this is the face of a mountain god carved by the Incans. And above it are buildings!!! Quite a climb!
But this was just a preview of the ultimate in Incan ruins, which we would see the following day...
After a wonderful day, Rosa dropped us off at the train station where we boarded for the 90-minute ride up through the cloud forest...
...to the town of Aguas Calientes. Another guide named Joel met us there and led us through the labyrinth of bridges and crooked streets to our hotel, the El MaPi, a very nice and modern inn.
A nice way to end a spectacular day in the amazing...
...Sacred Valley of the Incas.