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High in the Sacred Sky: Ollantaytambo to Cusco

The route to Cusco takes us up over 15,000 feet through the Peruvian Andes, where small villages of herders occasionally dot the landscape. It seems an inhospitable place to live, so far up in the sky. But we begin to see green, not just brown, and we are finally in the mountains.

Here we also finally see the rare vicuña, a wild South American camelid that lives in the high alpine areas of the Andes. Their long necks, gentle eyes and downy coats instantly draw me in. We drive slowly past the herds, watching them watch us.

Their wool is an incredibly soft and light - and very expensive. An off-the-rack sport coat costs at least $21,000. Throughout the Andes, the vicuña are hunted mercilessly by poachers who kill them for their pelts instead of herding and shearing them, as indigenous families here have done for centuries. In Peru, the vicuña population had fallen from an estimated two million in the 16th century to roughly 10,000 in the 60's. Peru took measures to protect vicuñas from extinction, banning the killing and trade of the animals. An International Vicuña Consortium allows several companies to work with local villages throughout the Andes to humanely process and export vicuña wool, but demand from Europe and China has escalated the poaching recently. Last January, two Chilean police officers were killed at the Peruvian border when they stopped vicuña traffickers.

New roadside animals. The rare vicuña.

New-born frozen in the middle of the road. We had to drive around him. Adorable!

Shearing corals. The local herders form a circular human chain around the animals and then slowly close in on them, before taking them into small tents where they're sheared.

The driving distances in Peru are so much farther than we experienced in Central America. It takes days, not hours, to reach the next region. The 14 hour drive to Cusco took us three days. It was slow going through the mountains and the quick altitude change drained our energy. At a pee stop, we were over 14,000 feet and I felt dizzy and breathless, causing me to walk slowly and gingerly back to the truck. We camped the first night high in the mountains along a river with a few alpacas and llamas at the Hotel Tampumayu.

The second night we spent in the town of Curahuasi, on a property owned by a Pervuvian/Belgium couple with a little school on site. Stefanie and Gilder founded Casa Lena, an educational project for children. Every morning the project works with kids with special educational needs and every afternoon with toddlers from underprivileged families. We had a tour and met some of the kids. It was a peaceful night and the views were amazing.

For a few miles before we got to into town though, we saw large rocks and debris in the right lane. Apparently the day before the locals had staged a protest against the privatization of the town's water supply. At times, the town only gets 2 hours of water as it is. We have experienced water protests and shortages throughout Ecuador too, once with the water shut off on us in mid shower. And It's often been difficult to find enough 20 gallon jugs to fill our water tank for the camper.

From Stephanie we learned that here the protests also involve throwing rocks through the windows of cars and trucks. We asked her if the protests do any good, if anyone listens to them. She said no, but that if cars are damaged or someone gets hurt then it makes the newspapers and that's the reason for the rock throwing and baseball bats. Our takeaway from that conversation was that we would turn around immediately if we come upon another protest in Peru.

Water struggles in Peru, and across much of South America, are a serious threat to daily life. In Peru, as glaciers decline and droughts increase, conflict and tension rise. Rising demand for irrigation and drinking water is draining the aquifer faster than it can recharge, and a scheme to channel more water from the Andean highlands, which receive seasonal rainfall, is pitting big agribusinesses on the coast against Quechua-speaking llama herders in the mountains. With cities growing and agriculture expanding throughout South America, experts predict that climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, increasing conflicts between competing users.

In the high plateau towns of the Andes, climate change is real and it is here. At this latitude, between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, climate change is not some distant threat but a very real problem with which indigenous communities, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to cope. It means less rain, more wind, increasingly large variations between the biting cold of the morning and the baking afternoon sun. Above all it has become completely unpredictable. An article in The Guardian reports that “The changes impact the life of shepherds, despite them being used to extreme conditions. There is no longer enough water to keep the pasture in a decent state all year round nor to allow subsistence crops. With shorter, more violent showers, the degraded soil no longer stores the moisture”. Often, the little water that is available is polluted. Three-quarters of wastewater in Peru is dumped untreated into rivers, lakes and the Pacific Ocean, and the Health Ministry has identified dozens of rivers polluted with lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and other metals from mining operations. In the Andes, these problems are exacerbated by demand for water for irrigation. About 80 percent of Peru's water goes to agriculture. It makes the 400 gallons an average U.S. family uses a day just by turning on the tap seem like a huge luxury.

The day after the protest the rocks were still in the road. With only one lane clear, we shared the road with oncoming traffic.

Our camp spot at Casa Lena

From there, we headed toward the Sacred Valley, stopping along the way to visit the ruins of Moray and the salt ponds of Maras. We hit the salt ponds first. These ancient Incan salt pans are set on a cliff, cascading down the steep mountainside towards the valley floor below. At an altitude of 13,000 feet, it’s a long way to the ocean, but this mountain range was once part the sea floor and the movement of tectonic plates pushed the seabed up to form the Andes. The sea salt was locked into the rocks and filters out through the Qoripujio spring. Each one of these pools belongs to a local family that tends the salt as a parcela - plot of land. The ponds date back at least to the time of the Incas and possibly before that. The intense sun of the Andes slowly evaporates the water after little dams fill the ponds. The pools themselves create a zigzag of different shades of white due to the lengthy evaporation process. Looking at them from the hills above shows a beautiful mosaic. When completely dry, the salt forms light pink crystals which are later harvested.

We roamed around, picking our way carefully around the "plots" of ponds. Renowned Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio put Maras on the map a few years ago, when he raved about the salt and began using it in his dishes. We bought two containers of the precious pink sea salt for the camper - which will hopefully help some of our camper meals.

Moray is an archaeological site just west of the village of Maras. The ruins consist of several large bowl-like depressions, each a series of concentric terraces that look like an ancient Greek amphitheater. They are enormous in size, and descend to a depth of approximately 150 meters, leading to a circular bottom The concentric terraces are split by multiple staircases that extend upward like spokes of a wheel and enable people to walk from the top to the bottom of the bowl. Six more terraces, in connected ellipses rather than perfect circles, surround the concentric heart of Moray. Their purpose is uncertain, but the most accepted theory is they were used to serve as ‘agricultural research station’.

We arrived here late in the afternoon, after getting hopelessly lost driving in circles on the roads leading in and out of the village. The drive however, was beautiful.

We circled in an out of this village a few times before we finally found the ruins.

At the ruins, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was so peaceful roaming around the terraces, imagining Inca men farming the circles with different crops.

Ollantaytambo was our destination in the Sacred Valley. We wanted to acclimate for a few days under 10,000 feet before pressing on to Cusco which is well over 11,000 feet. The drive winds up and around the green mountainsides, with cultivated farming plots reaching all the way up to the peaks.

The Sacred Valley and the Urubamba river

Terracing ruins in Pisac

In Ollantaytambo we found great camping at the Tunupnu Lodge at the base of soaring mountains and views of the Inca ruins. We could walk everywhere, had a nice bathroom, warm sunshine. It was really peaceful camping, so we stayed a while.

Cobbled streets guarded by massive walls. Mountain water flows down ancient Inca irrigation channels just as they have for 600 years.

Exploring the ruins of Ollantaytambo


All around the villages in Peru we see two bulls on the roofs of houses and businesses. We learned they provide protection from evil sprits and they must always be in twos. So we bought two for LoJo. (hey...why not, right?)

We camped next to our friends from Vilcabamba, Stefaan and Kristin, who were participating in a mountain bike race here called the Inka Avalanche. The race is nuts. Two hundred riders, mostly from Peru and Bolivia, fly down the face of a Andean mountain, through fields, rocks, and old Inca trails before finishing along the banks of the Urubama river. Stefaan and Kristin rode all week to prepare for the race, which starts at 14,400 feet. We rode our bikes to and from the finish to watch them, and the measly 7 miles we rode that day had my lungs working overtime. That was enough for me. Unfortunately, they both didn't finish because Kristin crashed and was taken away in an ambulance. She hurt her knee pretty bad but thankfully no breaks. The next day we all made our way to Cusco.

Biking around Ollantaytambo

Stefaan and Kristin pre race

And post race. She was in first place before she crashed too...such a bummer.

Racers barrel down all at once - just nuts.

A local woman earns money pushing one racer's bike up the mountain to the start.

Mountain resident

John and I did make one stop on the way to Cusco in the small village of Huchuy Qosco ("Little Cusco" in Quechua). We had lunch at the Pawra Community Restaurant. This was one of my projects while at I was at Planeterra, and before our involvement, the village lacked any real opportunity to benefit from sustainable tourism. We supported the construction of this community owned restaurant, brought in a chef to train the locals on how to amplify their delicious cuisine and train most of the town on how run a restaurant. Now instead of only a few visitors each month, the village gets a consistent stream of groups that provide income to the whole village. The food is sourced locally using village farmers or grown on site. Environmental education and sustainable practices are now part of the restaurant's operation to ensure quality and improve health for the community.

I worked with my team on the project for over a year and to finally see it in person, to taste the food and meet the community, was really special. And we drove here! It was a great afternoon for me.

After lunch, we made our way to Cusco and camped just outside the ruins of Saqsaywaman. There is only one camping spot in Cusco, which funnels all the overlanders into the same spot. We met up with Kristin and Steffan there, along with Gert and Claudia from Vilcabamba, and camped together for a few days. Days were warm and sunny but nights were cold, dipping down below freezing.

Drive into Cusco. The city of more than half a million people in the distance.

Our time in Cusco consisted of getting ready to leave for our trip to Europe. The camper needed to be cleaned from top to bottom, as well as the bikes since we store those inside the camper while we are gone. We hadn't done laundry in almost a month so we jammed all our clothes, sheets, and towels into backpacks and set out to find a lavandería in town. It was a several kilometer walk into town and we could really feel the high altitude. Our errands sometimes take up our whole day.

Looking for laundry service in the streets of Cusco..

On the way down the steep cobblestone streets into town, we saw a woman bundled up against the cold, hat perched on her head, struggling with her mule. The mule would not stand still as she tugged and tugged on his rope. When we got close she looked up and asked John for help. As I watched them struggle to lift her heavy, awkward bundle onto the mule, I realized our laundry schlepp was really not a big deal. Our load was not as heavy as hers on so many levels. Even when it's difficult, we have it so good. These are the moments that I hope stay with me after we get back to the real world.

It took us a couple of full days to get things ready for the 5 week hiatus we are taking from LoJo. We cooked at the camp site with the group in the evenings, usually on the early side since it turned freezing cold once the sun set behind the mountains.

Morning thermometer reading 35 degrees. First thing - turn on the heat and then hot coffee!.

Right now this field in Cusco is LoJo's home until we get back.

Next up...a small chapter in OBP called "Our Dutch Life".

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