Trip: Valley of the Incas

This trip was billed as "Sacred Valley of the Incas", and would take the fullest part of a full day. Different country or not, I would need some very strong coffee to begin that day. One might argue that this country was different because of its history, because of the economy, because of technology. I'll argue that the biggest difference was that there was no concept of takeaway. If you ordered a coffee, it was sit-down or nothing.

This morning I went early to the usual café, which was down the road from the travel agents and right behind the Plaza de Armas. The menu wasn't extraordinary, but the place certainly was convenient. I take that back. The menu was extraordinary, but only in the typographical sense. The word they used for "pie" was "pie", which in Spanish means "foot". "Pie de limón" comes back as "lemon foot", which I found mildly amusing. In any case, I had a bus to catch, so I skipped the feet and ordered a coffee.

Another difference between the countries was that here, things tend to take as long as they take. I waited, and the coffee didn't come. I asked about the coffee, and I was told it was coming in a minute. I waited some more. Which minute? The café was almost empty. I asked again, and told the waitress that I had a bus to catch. The coffee was coming in a minute. After about a half-hour of this, I really did have to go or I was going to miss the tour. I wasn't angry, but I had to do what I had to do. This was the only time I've ever walked out on an order, and believe it or not, I felt a bit guilty. "Wait, wait", this girl yelled after me, "it's almost ready!" I just made it to the bus.

Having just engaged in urban, confrontational behavior, it was nice to be driving in the country! The scenery was gorgeous. It looked a lot like New Mexico. There were a lot of similarities, especially the construction, which made use of adobe bricks. We passed a lot of places where they were making the bricks out of mud and straw, and there were many more bricks drying in the sun. After the buildings are built, they're painted with lime.

We followed a river called the Urubamba, and came to a market town called Pisac. The guide informed us that ever since the discovery of Machu Picchu, local artisans have thrived. Pisac had a Sunday market for the locals, and there were all sorts of things for the tourists. All the sellers were in local dress, and there were all kinds of fruits and vegetables that I had never seen before.

Sensing correctly that I wasn't a local, the women with the tourist stuff started howling at me, "Comprame algo, compra me!" in very Quechua-accented Spanish. ("Buy something from me – buy from me!") I hate buying tourist stuff, but I ended up getting a carved gourd. The price was right, it was even more right when I bargained a bit, and the workmanship was more than worth the price. I forgive myself.

We drove some more, and around noon we pulled into a small village on the side of the road where we would have lunch. I had been talking on the bus with a black Peruvian couple from Ica. We got off the bus together, liked the village, and decided that this restaurant had a cozy deal with the tour guide. We'd rather explore the village. This was a beautiful, idyllic alpine village, with snow-covered mountains in the background, picture-perfect houses and dense, shady trees. As we walked up the road there were wooden sculptures that resembled totem poles. Up the hill we found a small restaurant and went in. We were the only customers. The walls were adobe, and there were rusted metal signs advertising things that probably hadn't been sold there since 1948. In back of the restaurant there was a large turkey chasing two children who were screaming with glee. The proprietress, a woman in her fifties, wore traditional dress, with black braids and coke-bottle glasses.

When it finally came, the food was pretty good. We had pork chops, rice and salad, and we fared a lot better than the rest of the group who got suckered in to the recommended place. The couple I was with of course had a lot of questions about the US. He was an accountant and she was a nurse. They wanted to know whether it was easy to go to the US. I told them I wasn't sure, but it would make life easier to learn English if they were thinking of making a move. They told me a bit about Ica, and other places that they'd been in Peru. They were much worldlier than the couple from Lima I'd met the day before.

The attraction of the day was Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a gigantic site arranged in a semi-circle, with large terraces and thousands of steps. There are structures on the top. In its day this was probably an important temple. At the end of its days, it was the last stronghold of Manco Inca. Manco was a puppet king placed on the Inca throne by the Spaniards. Everyone has their limits, and Manco had finally had enough and started a rebellion. He was pushed out of Sacsayhuaman, and fell back to Ollantaytambo, which he used as a fort. He was finally defeated here by Pizarro after almost winning.

This is the version of history I read in the books. The story that the tour guide told us, however, was that "Ollanta y Tambó" are the names of a Spanish general and an Inca princess, who against all odds, fell in love and had a sad-but-sweet affair. "Against all odds" has to be one of the great understatements, even in the greatly understated tour industry. If someone were pillaging my country and killing everyone in sight, I think I'd find it kind of hard to get in "the mood", if you know what I mean. Why the tour guides feel they have to make up these moronic stories is beyond me, but I've heard this same one on four continents. It makes me worry about the other three.

Misinformation aside, the site was beautiful. The sun was in a position where it threw big rays through the mountains, and the light and shadows brought out the sheer size of the place. It was spectacular. We climbed to the top and admired the view. Whoever made this place used thousands of laborers, and the scale of the place showed that it had been very important. It's a shame that the Incas didn't use writing – even though the site is so large, not a lot is known for sure.'

After Ollantaytambo, we drove some more. This tour was much more orchestrated, more commercial than the one the day before. We stopped at a rest stop, where, by coincidence, there was more tourist shopping. It was here I got into a conversation with a tourist from California who was, let's say, a bit overbearing. There were some young girls, who he insisted on labelling. Rather than calling them "girls" he called them "Indians", which in Peru, is a pejorative term. I mentioned that you shouldn't use this term, so he switched to "campesino", which isn't a whole lot nicer. They didn't know English, but could tell that they shouldn't be thrilled. The black couple from Ica heard him too, and suggested that maybe I should sit with him on the way back.

Unfortunately, this is what happened. He was an obnoxious Californian trying hard to become an obnoxious New Yorker. He regaled me with his sense of humor. He told me he loves to go to Mercedes showrooms and take the cars out for a drive, even though he has no intention of buying a car. He also likes to make fun of earnest car salesmen:

The scenery was beautiful and the sun was starting to go down, so I was able to ignore him pretty well. We stopped a few times to take pictures, so I also managed to interrupt him. I finally managed to lose him completely when we got to Chinchero.

We pulled into Chinchero at dusk. In this part of the world, "dusk" means a deeply vibrant blue sky, bright yellows, reds and greens. Even though Chinchero was in the process of being dug up, it was absolutely gorgeous. There was one more chance for a wild, tourist spending spree, but I preferred to skip the market and look inside the church. There's no shortage of idyllic towns in this part of the world, nor any shortage of stunning sunsets.