By this point, leaving at 8am was considered ‘late’ and I had a very leisurely morning as I showered, ate breakfast, and packed for our next departure. It was an exciting morning because Victor met us and rode the bus out with us to the Urubamba Valley. This kicked off the cultural portion of the program and our travels would take us through the cultural history of the Andes, instead of the natural history of the Amazon Rainforest.
Our first stop was at a school called Tikapata, which is what is known as a ‘free school’, not because there is no tuition but because the students (ranging from age 7 to 17) are free to choose how their education goes. The original model came from Barcelona, where it is known as “la casita,” or ‘little house.’ As someone interested in innovative approaches to education that work for everyone, I loved hearing Marlise, the woman running the school, talk about the methods and ideas behind the ideology.
But our visit wasn’t just educational (pun intended), we were all given different projects to work on around the property, which traditionally is what our group does at the school every year. I chose the task of digging holes so that they could hang four hammocks beneath a tree. Everyone said this would be the hardest job, but I really liked the idea of digging. What I and the other diggers didn’t know is that we would have Victor on our team! I swear that man is part machine–he would come by and finish a hole we had started on in minutes. I was glad to get to work with him and was able to talk with him and hold a minimal conversation in Spanish. I learned that to say ‘big rock’ in Quechua is “hato rumi!” Anyway, we finished first and us hole diggers went around and helped/chatted with the other groups doing their jobs.
Right before lunch, a group of the younger girls begged us to watch their dance routine which was choreographed to One Direction. It was adorable. We then all ate a lunch of sandwiches (I also ate the last piece of the giant pizza from the day before) and watched some of the boys in our group play basketball. It got real when Tim jumped in–he and Luke made a great team!
After lunch we continued on our way and stopped at the site of an old Incan castle courtyard where Victor would perform an earth-blessing ceremony. Watching Victor conduct the ceremony was an honor; my favorite part was when he went to every person and jingled a bell over their heads and said Quechuan words of good blessing and fortune. The whole ceremony took about 40 minutes, which was a shortened version, as Victor explained.
The offering to the ‘apus’ (sacred mountains)
We then continued to another town where Victor disembarked back to Cusco and we all got checked into our hotel. The Urubamba Valley is a big tourist attraction and the hotel we stayed at was nice. So nice, in fact, that I could never figure out at dinner what to do with all the plates and utensils that were on the table. We used our time here to do a quick analysis of our data to present to the group, and also 3 groups had to lead discussions (mine included) so a lot of free time was spent preparing for that. The way the rooming situation worked out, I was sharing a room with 2 of the boys, which was actually a ton of fun because I’d felt like I’d mainly only gotten to know the girls so far (which is understandable considering there were 10 of us girls and only 5 guys, TA’s not included). We were out of the hotel most of the day anyway but it was certainly a nice place to go back to in the evening. The breakfasts in the morning actually immobilized me momentarily because of the shear number of options to choose from. I wasn’t the only one–we were all used to living on the minimalist side of things.
The second day, we started by visiting a traditional women’s weaving co-op, something I had been looking forward to since applying for the program. I have always been fascinated by weaving and tapestries yet know absolutely nothing about how it’s done. We didn’t learn that, but we did spend the morning learning about the natural dyes they use to color the sheep and alpaca yarn, and we spent most of the time actually preparing the dyes themselves. Whether it was from pulverizing twigs for peach dye or lifting the huge quantities of colored yard out of the boiling water, I used enough muscles that my shoulders were sore for the net two days. Experiencing the process of dying wool gave me a lot of respect for the Quechuan women who do this for a living to help support their families.
All of us making dyes
Nilda, the woman who created the co-op, is actually world renowned. She has published three books and led weaving workshops as close to home as Whidbey Island. I’m going to keep my eye out for those because they sent each of us home with a skein of dyed wool in each of the 7 colors we made. We were also given the opportunity to buy textiles from the women there and I bought the most beautiful table runner I’ve ever seen. It was 100% alpaca, hand-dyed and hand-woven, and probably the most expensive thing I purchased on the trip, but I couldn’t be happier.
Our finished products hanging to dry
Lunch was provided for us and it was the most diverse and abundant collection of dishes we had seen yet (in ecological terms, it would be considered to be a very rich composition of foods). This was also our chance to try cuy, or guinea pig. If they hadn’t brought out the whole, roasted animal first I might have been more receptive, but as it was, it was incredibly salty and I didn’t care for it much. Others, however, did enjoy it a lot. Good for them.
It started raining just as we were leaving so we said goodbye to the women and made our way to our next destination: the salt mines, or salt ponds. Tim told us about how the Incas, or even pre-Incas, were the first to divert the naturally salted water coming out of the mountain into ponds to evaporate and leave salt. The two amazing things about this water is that it is something like 60x as salty as the ocean and that it comes out of the mountainsides warm to the touch. The tourist trail walks along the top ridge of the expanse of over 7000 ponds and turns into a trail that goes all the way down to the Urubamba River. Needless to say, we walked down seeing some nice views along the way and becoming friends with a stray dog and the local children of the little village at the end of the trail. The bus was waiting for us there to take us back to the hotel where we had dinner and also those data presentations to do.
The salt mines reminded me of the Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park
The next morning was my group’s discussion so we met after breakfast to prepare for that. I also took my last shower at the hotel whose water pressure and fine temperature adjustment made it hands-down the best shower of the trip, and definitely up there in all-time best showers of my life. Others agreed. We also were getting on a train that night so we packed up and took everything out to the bus in what was by then a very familiar ritual.
The first stop of this day was at a ceramics shop/workshop/museum which followed designs and practices inspired by all of Peru’s ancient cultures. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy my time there that much because, big surprise, I was dehydrated, and after drinking powdered Gatorade I was feeling better. I forgot what lunch was that day but I do remember we next stopped at a chicharia (where they make chicha, the traditional fermented corn drink). We received a very quick description of the process, tried some chicha, and received dinner in our Tupperwares to eat later. We quickly headed off to the town of Ollantaytambo (“oh-JON-tay-tom-bo”) which is where we’d be catching the train that evening.
Ollantaytambo is a town built between the mountains with a significant role in the Spanish conquest of the Incas. As it is now, there is one road into and out of the town, paved in stone, and the town itself flourishes around tourism because it is a main stop on the way to Machu Picchu. We arrived with several hours to spare and the group went together to do a short hike up the mountain, but when we got there we weren’t allowed to go up because the trail closed at 4:30pm. Ursula was very surprised because it wasn’t that way last year but we learned that just a month ago, a woman hiked up at dusk and slipped and fell to her death, and that’s why they close the trail at 4:30pm now. So I guess that’s fair.
View of Ollantaytambo
After that, we all wandered and a group of us found a cafe with upper balcony seating and we stayed there until it was time to meet to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. For most of us, the train left at 7:00pm, but four people had to catch the 9:00pm train, due to our “last minute,” 2-month in advance booking of the tickets. The ride took 2 hours, and I slept most of it because the night before I drank too much coffee and couldn’t get to sleep very well. The train to Machu Picchu is all windows but since it was dark out we didn’t see the amazing landscape to which we were entering.