By day 3 of our trip we were feeling great! We did find ourselves way more winded than usual after a few flights of steps due to the higher elevation, but other than that we didn't suffer from altitude sickness. We got up early to check out of our room in Cusco and make our way to the Sacred Valley. We knew we wanted to find a colectivo to take us all the way to our hotel in the Sacred Valley's small town of Ollantaytambo. A colectivo is basically a hired van that fits about 10-12 passengers (it won't leave until it's full) and makes a few stops along it's route. The cost for a colectivo is significantly less than a private car. The only problem was that everything I read was super vague about where to find them, although they all suggested and recommended them. During dinner the night before we asked where to go to catch a colectivo and were given two cross streets that were about a 10 minute walk from our hotel.
So, Saturday morning we took off in that direction. Not really knowing what we'd find, I was hoping for a sort of bus staging area or even a bus station. Boy was I wrong! First off, the walk took way longer than 10 minutes with our big backpacks and steep streets. Then, when found the cross-streets there was no actual sign or building, just a bunch of vans and cars parked alongside the road, so we assumed we were in the right area. Either the drivers or their assistants were walking up and down the sidewalks asking you to come with them, where were you going, practically taking our backpacks off our backs to get us on their vehicle and not the next guys. It was very overwhelming for me and I speak fluent Spanish. I can't image how it must feel if you don't speak the language. So, just be prepared to be bombarded by drivers! We found a van that wasn't full yet, ensured the negotiated rate, and sat inside. We got 2 seats that were together and by a window, YAY! It didn't take long to fill the van and off we went. Most were locals from Cusco traveling to the Sacred Valley, but there were a few other tourists like us.
Once we made it to the town, we dropped off our luggage, found a place to eat in the small plaza, then it was off to find another van to drive us to the sights. Again, we didn't know exactly how we'd find a driver, as we weren't part of any actual "tour group". But, drivers could figure out we were looking for a car, so they mostly came to us to try to negotiate a rate. This is how we found our driver for the day. He was looking for 2-4 other passengers to fill his van. We negotiated our rate (always negotiate beforehand) and off we went for our adventure through the Sacred Valley. We shared the van with 2 other guys and along our stops picked up another person. Keep in mind that doing it this way, saves you money but it is not a tour and the driver is not a tour guide! He takes you to your stop, parks, and we settle on a time to come back to meet up at the van and go to the next stop. Totally no frills and this is how we like. We aren't big on waking with big groups of strangers and following someone around. We prefer to do our research beforehand and have the freedom to go explore the sights ourselves. If you want a tour guide, you can definitely make arrangements in Cusco or in the towns of the Sacred Valley.
Our first stop was the ruins of Moray just outside the village of Maras. This place was so impressive! There are several terraced circular depressions, the largest is about 98 ft deep. Although the exact purpose of the site is unknown, like most Incan ruins, it's believed to have been a sort of agricultural test lab. Due to the circular shape and depth of the terraces, they could study who different temperatures, wind, and sun direction, affected the crops and they were even able to create various types of potatoes!
Our second stop was the Salineras de Maras, salt mines located along the slopes of Qaqawiñay mountain. There are nearly 3,000 salt pans, shallow pools that are filled by a hypersaline underground spring. It is believed these salt mines have been around since before Incan times and are still active and hand-harvested by local families to this day. We even saw some men tending to their plot. This was my favorite from all the sites we saw in the Sacred Valley and of course, we brought some salts with us! I loved that we could walk on the edge and get up close to the pans, careful not to disturb them of course :)
The next stop was at a local artisan shop where we learned how the alpaca wool was cleaned, dyed, and turned into beautiful blankets and scarves using ancient techniques. I'm sure the ones we purchased were not made this way, of course! But they were still beautiful and made great souvenirs to bring back home.
Our final stop was to Chinchero, a small town with more ancient ruins, terraces, and a adobe church built by the Spaniards in the 1600s. As you can imagine, by this point we were exhausted from our long day of traveling and sight-seeing! The views from the hillside were beautiful, but we were pretty much done! After grabbing some snacks from a vendor, we made our way to find a bus to take us back to Ollantaytambo. And so began another adventure in public transportation! The sun was about to set, we were cranky, hungry, and tired at this point and just wanted to get back to town to rest. We managed to figure out which bus to get on, but it only was taking us as far as Urubamba, from there we had to figure out what to do. By the time we arrived at the bus station it was dark and we weren't sure what to do. I asked and was pointed to the side of the station I needed to be in to catch a bus to Ollantaytambo. We ended up in a small van cramped with too many people. We were the only tourists in the van but we didn't care. The ride took a lot longer due to the many stops along the way but we finally made it and couldn't have been happier for the fresh air!
Once we were back in Ollantaytambo we found a small restaurant for dinner and enjoyed a nice! After we picked up some waters and snacks for Machu Picchu the next day, then took some much needed showers back in our room and got to bed! I was so excited to finally be heading to Machu Picchu the next day. Stay tuned....