Pisac and Piscos and Pig...Guinea Pig

The day after adventuring in Maras, I returned to the Sacred Valley.  

I was determined to tackle two things on my own:  asking for directions and the colectivo.  Prior to coming to Peru, I had never heard of a colectivo.  The concept doesn't really exist in the US, but I can make a loose comparison to car pooling.  You may laugh at my admiration, but if punctuality is not a concern (ha, this is the reason why it doesn't exist in the US), the colectivo is a pretty neat way to get around.  For me, it worked a little like this:

  1. Decide to go to a relatively popular destination in the Sacred Valley.
  2. Ask awesome Airbnb host to point out the departure spot of that colectivo on a map.
  3. Armed with a map and new Spanish words (dónde está...calle Puputi...derecha...izquierda), start walking.
  4. Get lost.
  5. Forget Spanish words.
  6. Panic.  *think, Aimee, think!*
  7. Remember Spanish words.
  8. Ask a kind-eyed man for directions.
  9. Find the man screaming Pisac!
  10. Pay the man 4 soles (~$1.30)
  11. Sit in the van.
  12. Wait for an hour while the van slowly fills up with people who also want to go to Pisac.
  13. Once the van is full, the driver drives the group to Pisac.  Trip takes about an hour.
  14. Arrive in Pisac and go on your merry way. 

Once I arrived in Pisac, I still had to get up to the ruins. The ruins are nestled in the mountains so unless you're flat broke or looking for misery, I don't recommend hiking up there (it would take ~3 hours).  I took a taxi up the mountain to the hut selling the boleto touristico.  The boleto touristico, or tourist ticket, is a fixed-price ticket to many of the archaeological sites in and around Cusco (but not Machu Picchu).  Although I'm not an expert on the topic, I can tell you that there are two options:

  • A pass valid for 10 days // 130 soles or ~42 USD // covers all of the sites
  • A pass valid for 1-2 day (depending on the site) // 70 soles or ~23 USD // covers just one circuit of sites.

I opted for the 1 day pass since I was leaving on the Incan Trail the next morning, but I do think that the 10 day pass is a great value if your goal is to hit up more than one site in the Sacred Valley.

Boleto in hand, I walked toward the entrance of the Pisac ruins.  I was approached by a guide offering a full tour.  Normally, I'm not too keen on paying for a guide; I prefer exploring on my own.  This time, however, I welcomed the thought of walking through the ruins with someone knowledgeable.  We negotiated a bit, agreed on a lower price, and started on our way.

My guide (my God, I'm mortified...I've waited too long to write this post, and I've already forgotten his name!  For shame.) shared some interesting facts with me, as we wandered throughout the ruins.  

One of the first things I noticed about Pisac were the curved terraces.  This is Incan farmland.  Knowing that mountains are exposed to more direct sunlight than the valley and that the terraces actually increased the amount of available farmland, the Incas grew potatoes and other crops on the mountainsides.  The Incas are also credited with doing some experimental farming on terraces such as these (most notably in Moray), since the climate varies ever so slightly with each shelf on the mountain side. 

Hurray, made it to Pisac!

The Incas spiritual beliefs were heavily rooted in nature, with particular significance placed on prominent mountain peaks (each had their own apu, or mountain god) and animals, particularly the puma, snake, or the condor.  My guide told me that the mountain in the photo below was the side view of a frog sitting on its hind legs, face tilted toward the sun.  Can you see it?

Can you see the frog in the mountain face?

We stopped for a some muña along the way, which is an aromatic herb known as "Andean mint".  It helps with digestion, and respiratory problems  On the Incan Trail, we drank many-a-muña teas.  My guide crushed it in his hands and then cupped his hands around his nose and mouth to breath in the aroma.  "You try it", he said.  "It helps with the altitude."  

muña - the Andean Mint

One of the most interesting things I learned from my guide was the Inca's  belief in reincarnation.  In the picture below, you'll see little holes in the mountain side.  These are tombs, in which the Incas buried their dead in the fetal position, facing the sunlight that streamed in from the outside.  The cave tombs dotted the mountain side that received the most amount of direct sunlight.  Since the Incas believed in the sun god (Inti, male) and pachamama (mother earth, female), the combination of the two gave rise to new life.  The wind was strong that day and howled through this part of the ruins.  Pretty eerie!

Incan tombs

My guide!   *sniff* I'm so upset that I'm blanking on his name.  He was quite the character, as you can see from the pictures below.  As he prepared to play some traditional instruments in the temple and asked me to just "sit and listen".  I snapped a sneaky picture and then obeyed.


Private Concert

Before we parted ways, the guide pointed out the following vista.  "Look", he said.  "If you stand right here, you can see evidence of three civilizations.  To the left are the broken buildings of the pre-Inca time.  Straight ahead are Incan buildings.  to the right is the current town of Pisac."  

Evidence of the three civilizations

After more than 2 hours of wandering through the Pisac ruins, it was time to say goodbye.  When I'm abroad, I enjoy a good round of bargaining (as he and I had done before departing on the tour), but after the tour I placed a higher value on the time he had spent with me.  To his disbelief, I paid him what he originally asked for.  He was good people, and the money was better spent on him than on an overpriced item at a tourist market.

As I made my way down the mountain, I ran into two Italians who had also just come from the ruins, Federico and Giulia.  We got to chatting about our travels and enjoyed the conversation so much, that we stopped for a round of pisco sours when we reached the town of Pisac.  A pisco sour is a common drink in Peru made with egg whites, lemon juice, and pisco, a style of brandy that is basically tequila in drag.  It's chilled, tangy, and only slightly sweet.  One of the things I absolutely love about travelling alone is that it allows for moments like this. It's as if those travelling in pairs or groups recognize that solo traveling can get a bit lonely and invite you into their lives, even if just for an afternoon.  I'll never forget that afternoon on the balcony of a bar in Pisac, looking over the town's tourist markets, sipping on an ice cold pisco, and laughing at each others wild stories.  When the picso ran out, Federico, Giulia, and I found the colectivo back to Cusco and parted ways.  Maybe someday they'll make their way to Chicago.

Later that night, I treated myself to a nice dinner at Pachapapa, a restaurant in the picturesque Plaza San Blas.  I was going to dine alone, but a dynamic mother/son duo from Atlanta, Georgia invited me to join their table when they heard my stuttering Spanish.  The three of us had had a wonderful evening swapping travel stories and sampling cuy (guinea pig).  Yes, it's a bit unsettling to see a common household pet in America barbecued on a spit and served whole, but I knew I couldn't leave the country without trying the Peruvian staple.  

How did it taste?  Like extremely bony pheasant. 

I needn't try it again.  

Cuy, aka guinea pig

After saying goodnight to my new friends, I walked back to Bill and Nic's to pack for..duh duh duhhhhhh...the Incan Trail.  

Of Possible Interest:

Tip: visit the Pisac ruins in the afternoon.  Most of the AM crowds had cleared out by the time I had arrived.  I had the ruins largely to myself.

Official site on the Boleto Turistico

General overview of the Boleto Turistico (in English)

How to make a Pisco Sour

National Geographic top 10 things to eat in Peru