El Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley)

25 05 2009

I took my first trip out of Cusco to the Sacred Valley on Sunday. Once out of the city, I felt like I was in a completely different world. The landscape was beautiful, and it didn´t smell like car exhaust!

The Sacred Valley is only a short distance outside of Cusco, and it has several incredible ancient Incan ruins.

Not only was the architecture amazing (They used four different techniques for building), but what really amazed me was how they were able to build their fortresses on such steep mountains.

At the end of the day, women dressed in traditional garb demonstrated how the natives make clothes out of Alpaca. They use seeds and natural elements to dye the clothing. I bought a really warm reversible beanie.

Finally, we visited an old church built in the 1600s. It was full of old paintings and ornate decorations. All in all, it was a long but  great day. I slept very well last night!

Incan ruins!

Incan ruins!

Children in traditional clothing

Children in traditional clothing

Peru – Week One In Review

25 05 2009

This is going to be a long post, but I´m dividing it into sections, so hopefully it´s easier to read. I have so much to say, but I´m sure I´m forgetting to include some things as well.

My pictures take forever to upload. They´re uploading as I write this, so just visit my pictures tab to take a look at the new ones. Hopefully they´ll be done within a couple hours after I post this.

Cusco in General

After being here for about week, the words that come to mind right now are simplistic, authentic, inexpensive, real, poor and dirty. The streets either smell like dog urine or car exhaust. Usually the car exhaust overpowers anything that might smell remotely good.  Clearly, there are no emissions standards here.

There are lots of street vendors selling food ranging from candy to cooked eggs to knitted hats. Pollerias (chicken restaurants) seem to be very common here. I have yet to try one, but I am sure I will.

I was struck by how much poverty there is here. I had no idea it would be this bad. For example, a few volunteers who live in my house work at a clinic for mentally and physically disabled children. The diapers get changed once a day, and there is only one sponge to clean the children after they soil themselves. The thought of using the same sponge for all of the children literally makes me want to puke.

Cusco itself is quite dirty, but 0nce you get out of the city, the countryside is beautiful. Fortunately, it´s easy to take day trips.

The Climate

It´s cold and dry here. I struggle to get out of bed each morning because it´s cold in our house! Thankfully, I brought my thermals. Once I start walking outside, it´s not so bad. It´s nice in the sun but cold in the shade, a little bit like San Francisco without the rain and more sun.

You can really feel the effects of the altitude here. I get winded just going up thirty steps. My friends who are runners tried running and didn´t get very far before they had to stop.


Peru is so cheap!!! There are street vendors and markets with authentic Peruvian items everywhere. I bought some really cool earrings and a warm reversible Alpaca hat for low prices. It´s also fun to bargain.

As for trendy clothes, Cusco has trendy stores too. You can´t bargain there, but they´re still cheaper than in the U.S.

Construction Work

I´m working with several other volunteers to help build a battered women´s shelter. The guy in charge is Marco, who is very dedicated and speaks very little English. Marco has a radio at the worksite, so we all listen to music when we work.

We´re painting, plastering, lifting and cleaning with VERY antiquated equipment. The other day, I stood on an unstable scaffolding six feet in the air to do final touches on the wall (Pictures to come soon!). It was pretty scary at first because all I was standing on was a 10-inch piece of wood!

My pants got incredibly dirty. Surprisingly, the lavanderia (laundry place) was able to get out most of the paint stains. Did I mention they washed, ironed and folded my laundry for $1.25?

Food and Drinks

I feel like I´ve won the volunteering lottery with my food situation. We have cooks who make us delicious meals three times a day.  Lunch and dinner almost always has some sort of rice, patatoes or noodles. Our cook, Rodolfo,  used to cook for a prestigious restuarant near Machu Picchu.

I´ve been talking to him and the rest of the staff every day to help improve my Spanish. They were so excited to see my pics of friends and family, especially Eliza!

I did happen to venture out to a restaurant overlooking the main plaza, and I tried some ceviche and a Pisco Sour. Both were delicious. I still have mixed feelings about trying cuy (guinea pig). I saw some live ones in a pen yesterday, and they´re just so cute that it´s hard to imagine eating them!

The altitude really affects me when I drink. I only had three drinks a couple days ago, and I had a splitting headache the next day. It´s very important to stay hydrated here. I honestly don´t think I´m going to be drinking very much alcohol here.

Stores here sell lots of the same food as in the U.S. The ¨supermarket¨even sells macaroni and cheese. I can´t seem to find any healthy snacks except fruit.

Living Quarters

The family house feels a little bit like a mix between a hostel, university dorms and home all mixed into one. We had people over a few days ago, and three of them said that it reminded them of a house that would be on the MTV show ¨The Real World.¨

The water gets turned off usually sometime between 9 and 10 every night, so if we want to take a shower, we´re out of luck. Since the water is off at night, the toilets don´t flush. Let´s just say I came home to some really nasty toilets the other night.

The People

For the most part, the people here are very friendly. My tandem exchange partner helped me buy my cell phone because the vendors were talking really fast, and I didn´t understand them.

I find Peruvian women more attractive than Peruvian men. Most people are darker-skinned and short. Actually, I feel taller than most people.

We have to be careful everywhere because there are pickpocketters and people who bug you incessantly to buy their products, including small children.

Night Life

The night life is really fun here. The clubs and bars are open until about 5am. There´s salsa dancing in many places, which I am determined to learn. Some Peruvians were trying to teach me the other night. Maximo Nivel offers free salsa lessons every Saturday.

There are also typical tourist bars where tourists will often get free drinks. Those are fun too. They play good dance music, but foreigners mainly frequent these bars.

One bar has an English trivia night twice a week. I think I may go this week or next week because people from the program seem to really enjoy it.

Health and Sanitation

More than half the people in my house have gotten sick already, mostly with stomach/digestion issues and altitude-related problems. For many, the ¨Gringo¨stomach does not do well up here. I haven´t had any problems yet.

I am a little sick right now with a sore throat and congestion. I´ve been around a ton of sick volunteers, so I guess I had it coming. My fellow house mates have been super nice and have been offering me different remedies they brought. One remedy was liquid oregano– Wow, that stuff is potent! It´s probably one of the nastiest liquids I´ve put in my mouth, but I started to feel better after taking a few drops.

Side Trips

My first side trip was the Sacred Valley. I´ll elaborate more on this in my next post. Basically, I saw a bunch of incredible Incan ruins.

My next side trip will be Lake Titicaca in two weeks perhaps. I´ve only heard great things about this trip, and you can go for a really cheap price.

I´ll probably go to the jungle at some point too. Of couse, Machu Picchu is on the list.

Other cool day trips are river rafting, mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding.

Stay tuned for my next post on the Sacred Valley and the pics!

Painting up high!

Painting up high!

Plaza de Armas at night

Plaza de Armas at night