Saturday, May 5, 2018

Urubamba, Peru










Not going to lie, I was very doubtful of the soundness of my decision to book a few nights in Urubamba earlier on.  As we rode away from the bright and cheery city of Cusco into the dust, my apprehensions were confirmed when our driver mysteriously got pulled over by two policemen.  It was entirely too easy to fall in love with cutesy Cusco, but Urubamba was a place that we had to figure out.  Maybe it wasn't quite as raw and rugged as the wilderness where we were trekking, but we had nobody to lean on this time around.  Soon, though, we realized that the rhythm of life here is just as real as it gets.  It's a small town.  There were no coffeeshops, English menus, or people dressed in traditional garb walking around the plaza with llamas like Disney characters asking you to pay to get your snapshots.  We drank chicha in somebody's house, not in a picanterĂ­a.  We stayed at a quinta with Peruvian families, not a hostel with young globetrotters.  We ate food that was cooked using methods passed down for centuries, flavors intact, untouched by Westernization or mass production.  We actually didn't meet any other tourists here - it is always fun to talk to other tourists about their travels or about their countries of origin, but for these few days in Urubamba, we were talking only to people who live here (thank goodness I speak some Spanish).  Some people came from different parts of the world and found their hearts at peace here, building a new life off the beaten track.  Others are native to this land and follow the same traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.  Everyone showed us through their beliefs and warmheartedness that they are extremely proud to call this place home.




Known as the "Sacred Valley," the Urubamba Valley was formed by the Vilcanota River, which was (and still is) worshipped as the wellspring of life by its inhabitants.  But we think that it's the inhabitants themselves who make this valley sacred and special.  We didn't know what to expect, coming way out here for a few nights, but we left feeling that we had been touched by the true spirit of Peru.  People were kind, and not just pleasant and polite, but so eager to share and wanting to include us.  There weren't a lot of foreigners around, so maybe people were excited to have us, even if we were just a pair of sorely clueless foreigners.  Here, we never got the sense that we were being looked down upon, or looked up to, or treated with any kind of bias or reservation.  It was amazingly easy to bond with people, even though my Spanish was not good.  It's no wonder that people from different parts of the world fall in love with Urubamba and settle down here.  I wonder if people all come back from the Sacred Valley in Peru still dreaming about it at night or secretly making plans to move out there to start life afresh.  We did, for a little bit.

So, back to the beginning.  I  am embarrassed to admit this, but I was so not ready to leave Cusco when we did.  I only had one thing booked in the Sacred Valley, and that was our pachamanca feast.  I knew we wanted to see the great salt mines of Maras and the circular ruins of Moray, but nothing else was really planned.  I think we were so pooped from our trek that we figured we'd be cool with laying low and not doing much, but then the day came for us to leave for Urubamba, and I was pretty nervous about it.








The in-house tour operator at our hostel in Cusco had hooked us up with a driver who would take us out to Urubamba.  This dude shows up in baggy jeans and a chic hairdo.  He coolly helps us get our luggage into the trunk and then we drive off into the mountains.  Ten miles out of Cusco, he gets pulled over by the cops and ends up having a little chat with them outside of the car, leaving us in wonderment.  He got back into the car after a little while as if nothing had happened and continued driving.  I asked him what that was all about, but he didn't really explain (or, my Spanish wasn't good enough for me to understand).  It was dark by the time we arrived at our accommodation, the Quinta Yabar, which was at the end of a very empty alley, surrounded by high stone walls, and eerily quiet.  Nobody else seemed to be staying here except for us.  Even the complimentary coca tea in the lobby looked sad and lonely.  I felt almost stranded.  There was no sign of any restaurants or retail anywhere, and not much information online either.  Heck, I even silently wished that some annoying person would try to sell me a crummy massage right about now.


Wes was still very optimistic about everything, even though I was kicking myself for steering us in this direction.  He commented on how huge the bed was, and how nice the bathroom was, and how clean and wide the hallways looked.  Of course, the amenities were just like what you'd expect of an average hotel room in the U.S., but compared to what we were sleeping in for the past week and a half, this was definitely "grand."  He grabbed his camera and went out to the porch (yes, there was even a large porch attached to our room) and looked up.  There were so many stars, and the Milky Way was right above us in a long, bright streak.  Just like how it looked during our trek earlier.  I thought of how Edgar told us that the Milky Way runs parallel to the Urubamba River, and that the Incan considered the Urubamba River a sacred reflection of the Milky Way. We looked up for a little while, and with raised spirits, we went down to the lobby and asked Hilda, the only other human around, how we can get into "town" to eat something.  She spoke not a word of English, but luckily I can get around with a bit of Spanish.  She was the most gracious person.  She could tell that we were sort of out of our comfort zone, and was very patient.  She told us that we could easily walk ten minutes to get to the Plaza de Armas (the central square of the city), or that we could take a mototaxi for 2 sols.  She unfolded a map and showed us.  We stepped outside and saw a mototaxi puttering up the alley, so we ended up riding that rickety little thing to town.



I guess the mototaxi is the Peruvian equivalent of a tuk-tuk in Thailand or a rickshaw in India. We didn't see them anywhere else on our trip to Peru--not in the bigger cities and not in the super mountainous areas either.  It was an exhilarating little jolt, riding that mototaxi.  We felt like a couple of kids on a go-cart.  It didn't feel like the safest mode of transportation--especially not in the dark--but it was super cheap, novel, and got us where we needed to be.  The Plaza de Armas was nothing like Cusco's...it was sort of like a circular park with a modest colonial church, a fountain in the middle, benches, stone walkways, and some people selling snacks from their carts.  Mototaxis zoomed by and people were walking around with their kids, probably going home after a long day.  No tourists, no businesspeople, just your average neighborhood citizens.  We went down some side streets and soaked in the new atmosphere.  It didn't seem like there were many establishments that we would take advantage of - saw lots of barbershops and liquor stores.  Then, we stumbled upon familiar words: Los Angeles.  Hmm?












Originally, we decided to just take a picture under the sign, laughing that our city name was somehow in this random corner of the world. Yeah, I know it means "the angels" in Spanish, but at this point, anything mildly familiar was funny. Upon a second look, we realized it was a pollos a la brasa place. We Angelenos didn't need to see a picture to know what that meant - rotisserie chicken! We thought about whether we should just end our little journey to find food and eat here. I am really glad that we did!










We were a little confused about how to order/pay/sit down versus sit down/order/pay versus pay/sit down/order...but after some silly communication blips, we managed to order a half chicken and it came with two chicken rice soups, a mountain of golden thick-cut fries, fried rice that tasted almost like Chinese fried rice, and unlimited salad at the little buffet bar, which could have been rife with food poisoning but we didn't care. There was even a dog running through the restaurant and little kids being quite rambunctious. It was an upbeat and delicious dinner to be sure.  Oh yes, and the dipping sauces were all bomb.  Even though we hadn't seen much of Urubamba yet, this first dinner got my spirits up.





The next morning, we woke up sans alarm to the comfort of our gigantic room in Urubamba. The hotel was on a big compound and it looked a lot more inviting in the daytime.  It had felt like we were the only ones staying here last night, but we ran into two other families at breakfast.








BREAKFAST.  Ohhh, those quinta breakfasts.  We had no idea that we'd be in for such a treat!  We never had breakfast at our hostel in Cusco because it would have just been a little omelet with toast.  Here, it was simple, but awesome.  Wholesome.  We walked into a large, airy dining room and saw that Hilda had prepared a plate of cut avocados, a hand of small bananas and some tangerines, sliced white rustic cheese spread out on a small tray, a little bowl of strawberry jam, a dish of cubed yellow butter, a plate of their typical round breads, and a pitcher of pineapple (Wes thinks it's pear) juice, coffee, and local milk. We were happily eating all of this when Hilda re-entered with a big bowl of beautifully scrambled eggs.

These eggs are the reason why we now buy only pasture-raised.  In Urubamba, though, pasture-raised is simply the standard.  Things just tasted really fresh - all of the dairy, eggs, and fruit, were probably from within a mile from here, if not from here.  We wouldn't be surprised if there were chickens somewhere on this compound, since many families raise their own.  These simple eggs, in combination with the perspectives that Gabriel shared at the organic farm in Ollantaytambo, inspired us to be more informed consumers.  



It was 9:30 AM sharp when Manuel showed up.  He looked very put together, in his collared shirt, neatly tucked into jeans, glasses, big smile. His car had a little flapping Peruvian flag attached to the back.  Hilda had arranged for him to take us around when we told her that we wanted to see Moray and Maras.  We jumped into Manuel's car and we relieved that it was so much more legitimate than the guy who drove us over to Urubamba the day before.  He was immediately very easy to get along with, even though he too spoke no English.  He took us up above the Sacred Valley and pulled over to show us a really nice vista point.



After that quick stop, we reached Maras, our first destination.  It was much further than I had expected - we were going into the middle of nowhere!  We chatted the whole way, though, and learned a lot about what life was like in Urubamba.







These salt mines were awesome. Our first view of the Salineras de Maras was from the top, and it was just a weird, white mass sprawling beneath us. The little cubical posas (salt ponds) became more apparent as we got closer and lower. So basically, Manuel drives visitors from destination to destination and waits for them in the car while they explore.  It felt really odd to us to make him wait, but apparently this is just the norm, since it is literally not possible to hail a cab or any other trusted car from way out here.  We agreed upon 45 minutes here, which was just enough, because the first big caravan of tour buses of the day was just arriving when we were finished.















We jumped out and walked over to the mines and got actually inside, right up to where you can dip your hand into the posas. It made my hands super dry and it tasted, well, very salty.









On the surface it was a spectacular view but once you get close you start to see the faces of the workers and their gender and their age and the conditions.  It was extremely bright, like staring at snow, but nobody had sunglasses, elderly and children alike, all salt is sorted and carried out by hand and on their backs.  One of the workers stopped to talk to us and told us that he had been there working for 50 years but he didn't talk about it with any regret- only with pride and with optimism.  I didn't want to bother him with too many questions, but he didn't seem to be in any rush and was really generous with his time.  He smiled for a picture too.  I was touched by his good-naturedness in such hard labor and old age.  This little girl was also a worker; I wonder if she will be doing this for 50 years too, and if she would have his attitude as well.  I used to feel sorry for these people, but maybe they feel sorry for us.







We were admittedly a little bit late getting back to the car, but Manuel was really cool about it.  Our next stop was Moray. Moray was an unsuspecting place. The whole drive up was very typical of the Sacred Valley- farmland, flat plains, wheat growing. You could be walking up to this major Inca ruin and still not be able to see it, if it weren't for the signage. 








 Right when you get to the edge, it hits you how deep these terraces go. Then, you walk around the full circumference at the top and loop around the back to the other two concentric ruins. We stopped to appreciate how symmetrical everything was- even the placement of the stone Incan stairs was uniform, going up the walls of each terrace. The scale of the size of these ruins is jarring- what was it used for in the past? It could have been an amphitheater for thousands of people, or maybe it was meant for agriculture. We don't know. It also seems like the location is a little random- how deliberate was its placement? It wasn't as crazy or crowded as we thought it would be- a lot of people stick around the top perimeter.  We were really glad that we weren't squeezing this in as a part of a tour because it was amazing to be able to take it all in slowly.  Thanks again to Manuel for waiting for us.

Manuel told us that actually the next day, there was to be a yearly celebration here.  In 2017, August 1st happened to be the Dia de Pachamama - a day to pay respect to Mother Earth.  The Inca traditionally worshipped many aspects of nature and constantly showed their gratitude (using grand gestures, such as sacrificing humans...).  The overall devotion to the Earth and sky was very inspiring and magical, something that seemed to be unique to the Sacred Valley based on everything we were hearing over the past week during the trek and while on tours from Cusco.  We didn't have any plans for the next day, so we asked Manuel to take us back so that we could witness this festival.












We heard mixed reviews about this festival from the locals - Gabriel at El Albergue said that it was not that great, Manuel said that it was worth it to see, and Juan Carlos at our hotel said that it was beautiful and glorious.  We later found out that Juan Carlos was one of the main drummers - no wonder he thought so!
































As for us, we found it to be a rollercoaster.  It was colorful once we got up close and personal, but from afar, it was confusing and a little disorienting.  We spent a good 70% of the time waiting around for things to happen.  The interesting part was that we were almost the only people there who were not locals, but even the locals seemed confused and mildly impatient.  Edgar, our Salkantay Trek tour guide, did mention that "Peruvian time" was a thing.  We would definitely have to agree.  We even gave up on waiting and left before Wes got any of these shots, but turned back because I thought we'd regret it if we didn't at least see one group dance.  The dancers were mediocre at best, but I think that it was worth it to go back up in the end.  These were simply people living in the area carrying on a centuries-old tradition, and we are fortunate to have partaken.






The regional food that we ate at the festival was really great and of course very cheap, since there weren't many tourists around.  We tried some yuyo jaucha (turnip greens from the highlands of Cuzco), which tasted a lot like Chinese mustard greens to me.  Traditionally, the dish is associated with water and growth and not commonly seen outside of the highlands.  It is cooked over a wood fire and commonly served with mote (cooked corn kernels).  The people who were serving it also were really friendly, giving us really big samples and telling us what things were.



Trucha - trout.  It's seen everywhere and we ate it in Cusco and also during our trek.  Here we are having it lightly battered and fried, over noodles and potatoes.  Apparently, trout was introduced to Peru from Canada.  The fish has thrived here, so now everybody eats it.  It's much cheaper to get here than in Canada, that's for sure!










Rocoto relleno - stuffed pepper.  It's one of those things that you don't see much elsewhere, and it was so good that I had to order another one. It's basically an Andean pepper stuffed with ground meat, peas, carrots, raisins, and who knows what else...battered and then fried.  I don't know what batter they use out here but it's so light and fluffy!  These came with a side of potato and carrots.  Green sauce was on the tables, and we helped ourselves wholeheartedly.



Even though it looked really good, we were glad that we didn't eat the pork that we saw people cooking in vats on makeshift fires.  Apparently, we heard from Hilda that Manuel got food poisoning the next day from eating it!  We felt so bad for him!!





We really loved seeing this display, which showed off just a fraction of the 55 different kinds of corn and 3,800 types of potatoes native to Peru.  I wish I could try a bite of every single one.  We did get a fair share of different potatoes during our time in Peru, though.  And although we didn't necessary eat much corn, we did drink it often.






The official drink of Peru is definitely chicha, which comes in many flavors and is made from fermented corn.  Of course, given the many varieties of corn and the changing seasons, one cup of chicha is never like the next.  On our first day out with Manuel, he offered to bring us to try some homemade chicha de jora when he found out that we were open to eating anything and everything.  He drove off the paved road and into the dirt roads bordering the fields, seemingly aimlessly, pulling over to ask local people where to get chicha de jora, and finally we stumbled upon a small house with a painting of the emblematic drink on its yellowed walls.  We were in what looked like a small farming village.  There were still little Peru flags hanging over the streets from Independence Day a few days prior.  There were small murals on many of the walls, it was a sunny and quaint street. Manuel asked a woman inside for chicha but she only had chicha morada, not to be confused with chicha de jora.  She directed us to another little house.






We were really excited at this point, because it seemed like this was definitely not something that your average tourist was going to get to do.  We walked a few doors down after Manuel and watched as he ducked in through the low doorway (which was open) and asked about this elusive chicha. A woman appeared and ladled gigantic portions of foamy pink chicha de frutilla for us all.  It was made with strawberries, corn, a dusting of cinnamon, and well, saliva.





So, chicha morada is a purple corn juice, flavored with other fruits and spices.  Chicha de jora is the alcoholic version--a corn beer traditionally made by chewing corn kernels and spitting them out (human saliva converts corn from a starch into a fermentable sugar).  That woman's spit was in our cup, basically.  Haha, but really it's not so bad.  The corn that she spit back out had to be boiled before it can be used to make the beverage.



As if we weren't tipsy enough already, Manuel showed us a little cervezeria (a craft beer shop) that is well-known in the Sacred Valley.  Unfortunately--or maybe fortunately--it was closed that day.  We did feel sad that we couldn't buy Manuel a beer for his troubles, though.  We were touched that he went so far out of his way to give us this one-of-a-kind chicha experience!






Urubamba is somewhat sleepy during the day, but a different world at night.  Wes was excited to go out on our last night here to walk through the streets.  We felt extraordinarily safe and comfortable, despite sticking out like two sore thumbs.  It was also sort of bittersweet, because we had just gotten our bearings in this part of town.  There are lines of barbershops (with queues of late-night customers), pollerias, cena blackboards. Side streets are flooded with food vendors offering everything from anticuchos, piles of pan, broasted chicken and fries, fresh raw milk that you can get in a plastic bag, carts laden with fruit, bakery carts with turnovers and empanadas, and even piscos on carts. These street vendors line the streets next to local businesses such as TV repair shops, manufacturing, hardware stores, toy stores, thong stores, liquor stores (that sell open water jugs lol).  People are talking everywhere, dogs abound leashless, and mototaxis zip by.  On top of everything, we could look up and see the Milky Way directly overhead, as the low city lights fade in comparison to its brightness here.








































I was sad that we were going to miss the big Urubamba farmers market the following morning, but come to think of it, this was essentially the same thing, but better.  It was super low-key but just as gripping, possibly more raw, and full of surprises.  Plus, we had good conversation with some interesting characters.



We were just walking down the street when something especially intriguing caught our eye: a white person selling food!  We approached him and he spoke English.  He wasn't busy with customers, so he talked to us about how he came from Holland five years ago and decided to stay.  He also told us that setting up shop in the street isn't really legal but all you need to do to appease the police is to pay 1 Sol (33 cents).  His wife later showed up, and she was a young Peruvian woman who spoke a little English. Of course, they communicate with each other in Spanish.  Then, we noticed that sitting on one of his stools was a Japanese lady, who turned out to be from Los Angeles.  She was sipping on some api, a thick hot purple corn drink traditionally from the Lake Titicaca area. She works at a place that organizes yoga retreats nearby, she has an 8-year-old daughter who goes to an unconventional school in Urubamba, and recommended only vegetarian places when we asked where she liked to eat.  I guess there's some things about LA that you take with you!  She's lived here for 15 years already, though, and parts of Urubamba seem to be pretty progressive based on what she shared.  According to them, there are many others who have found a home here and some of them blog about their experience.  I thought of Gabriel from the farm the other day - he's also from Southern California, grew up in a privileged community but never measured up, then moved around to various other places including Australia.  He worked for a cruise line as an office worker in Lima and hated it.  He eventually did culinary school in Hawaii and came back to Peru- first Lima, then found himself in Ollantaytambo (right next to Urubamba in the Sacred Valley) and by the looks of it, he will remain here.





After a cup of api and a few bites of kachanga from the Dutch guy's cart, the Japanese lady disappeared into the dark to get her lasagna (probably vegetarian) and we in turn followed her direction to La Mariscal Castilla where there are various restaurants that are NOT necessarily veggie. We walked up and down, declining food from a fusion restaurant and spending an eighth of the amount on cena (set-menu dinner) at a little place without signage.



I just saw that they had tongue on the set menu, and it looked busy inside, so we went in.  The portions were small, but we paid less than $5 total for the two of us.  It was a cool experience, and we weren't that hungry anyway.






After dinner, we walked a little ways to a bakery that looked pretty nice.  Apparently it is run by Italian expats. We didn't meet the owners, but the girl working there was really nice.  She was feeding her ten-month-old baby mashed potatoes behind the cash register when we were there.  We bought some cookies for the hotel staff and shared an alfajor.  This bakery was pretty hip- they had vegan and sugar free cookies made with all local ingredients like stevia plants (green, not white!) and grains from the region. We finally left and just as we were about to call a mototaxi, we saw another one across the road get into an accident with a parked car. Oh man.... we still called one anyway, even though I could hear the warning voices of all of our taxi drivers in my head!




We were actually surprised that we hadn't yet seen an accident until the one just now.  These mototaxis have lots of obstacles to avoid, like running dogs, uncovered manholes, other mototaxis. At any rate, we got back safely and packed to leave for Lima.








Last breakfast...






Ew!!









We were sad to leave the Quinta Yabar hotel, which is funny to think that I really didn't like it the night we had arrived. Every morning when we left and every evening when we returned it was like coming back to family. Despite us being the only guests, they still swept and mopped every day, greeted us happily, made sure that there were fresh flowers in the pots, and laid out the most impressive (yet simplest) breakfasts.  Everything seemed very well taken care of and the workers seemed to have pride in the place. Even the seesaws in the playground were clean, says Wes.  And the resident bull was peaceful and content.  What a place.  I have to thank Wes too for being a positive influence, drawing me in and helping me to slow down, notice, and appreciate.

Just before 5:00 AM, we bade farewell to Juan Carlos (he works nights and Hilda works days) and gave him the rest of our Huggies that we never used up on our trek, as he has a five month old daughter at home. He was really happy to have them and gave us a little magnet in return that looks like a promotional magnet from some local organization -- not something we would have acquired any other way, but now we keep it on our fridge at home.








So, yeah, Urubamba really grew on me fast.  We were only there for three days but it felt like longer, because of how included we felt in the community.  I felt like we were outsiders who were let in.  Wes was saying that big tours never do justice to Urubamba, stopping here just so that groups of tourists can eat buffet lunches before heading to the next Inca ruin.  After soaking in the neighborhood and getting to know a few residents (native and expat alike), our eyes were opened to the draw of a place like this. It's pristine, authentic, safe, somewhat of a melting pot, and full of history.  We could taste it in the food, too.  Nothing that we ate was fancy or particularly adventurous, but everything hit the spot in a very real way.  We gained new perspectives in an unassuming place, and it reminded me that this is what travel is all about.

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