Anti-Touring The Sacred Valley: Cuzco, Peru

Several miles outside of Cuzco, Peru’s tourist mecca and the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, lies the Sacred Valley. Of course, you can tool around its breathtaking mountain-hugging curves in a tour bus, where, upon hitting certain vistas, you’ll be ordered to climb out and take photos. (Picture a tour guide barking “SACAR FOTOS! SACAR FOTOS!” to a van full of people.)

Alternatively, you can experience the Sacred Valley’s dramatic landscape from within your very own VW Beetle.

We found the rental place in Cuzco’s bustling Plaza de Armas, nestled between your typical Machu Picchu tour operators and countless massage parlors. We negotiated for a price of 30 soles for the day, or around $10.

It was all quite simple until we realized, out of four people, two were without a drivers license, one refused to drive a manual, and the last remaining candidate–a Brit–had only ever driven on the left side of the road. We decided to take our chances with the Brit, and he passed the round-the-block driver’s test.

As the four of us crammed in to the 1984 model with our picnic and cameras, we were instructed over and over “never faster than 70!”  Converted into miles per hour, I believe that amounts to a whopping 40. So we didn’t exactly fly through the valley. The car was rickety enough that we may have topped 70 once on a massive decline; I blame that on the shoddy brakes. We also  stalled five or six times. No big deal.

Within the first 10 minutes outside of Cuzco we encountered countless brilliant vistas, both of the city and of the various ruins surrounding the city. We almost ran the car off a cliff at one point when “reverse” got stuck in “first.” At each pull-over point, we admired the terraced mountains, often worship points for indigenous people, we ogled at the damage from Peru’s January mud slides, and we marveled at the tough-as-nails Peruvian women we encountered on foot (How long have they been walking? Where are they going? What do they have in those massive packs on their backs?). We snapped glamour shots on the hood of our road beast, snacked on Peruvian chocolate (not amazing, for the record), and argued over the limited CD selection. (Choices: Fugees, the Beatles, Elton John, and Shakira,; all of which were exhausted quite quickly.)

We eventually reached the town of Pisaq, a sacred town where lots of gringos go for spiritual shaman experiences that involve fasting and drug taking and vomiting. We opted out this time. After parking our chariot among autorickshaws and mules, we wandered through another in a very long line of artisan craft markets. After some  thick banana smoothies and haggling over panflutes, we embarked on a long, curving journey back to Cuzco. After several hours, with pollution and altitude clearly increasing, our Beetle sputtered back into town, just in time for me to dive out and puke on the sidewalk. Sudden altitude, plus curvy roads, plus two hours of pollution intake, does not equal a happy stomach. (The solution, I learned, is Agua Con Gas: you’ll be farting for days, but your stomach will never be happier!)

By: Erin Griffith

Peruvian Wine in Ica, Peru – Bodega San Martin

I don’t know if you all remember this, but in the summer of 2007 a city in the Peruvian desert called Ica was partially destroyed by an earthquake—I have to say, though, when Ica is not being destroyed by an earthquake, it is a fantastic place to visit. Luckily I was there about a week before the earth started shaking so I got to enjoy some delicious Peruvian desert food and weather without being buried by rubble—always something I try my best to avoid while on vacation.

Ica is not really a destination place. It’s not particularly beautiful, kind of a hot and crowded city packed as full as it can get with motorcycles and orange sellers, but it is cheap, the people are nice, and it is close to several bodegas, or Peruvian wineries. We actually stayed in a hotel rather than pitching the tent outside somewhere, a rare luxury for us, and it was about $9 a night for a large double with hot showers, a TV, and free porn. It was an easy sell. It was twice as much as the hotel next door, but that one didn’t have glass in the windows or running water, so really, a no-brainer.

There are a number of wineries close by, so oenologists and alcoholics will be interested to learn about Peru’s wine- and spirit-making processes. It’s easy to take a tour of one; a cab from Ica will cost a couple soles or you can just hitchhike, but bear in mind the driver will probably ask for a little money for the trouble. I’m sure that any of the bodegas are worth seeing, but we went to Bodega San Martin. There’s a free tour and they walk you through the whole process. According to my friend, who is a sommelier, the way they make the wine is unique to Peru: among other things, the wine is aged in small clay vessels rather than large wooden or steel barrels, and the end product is surprisingly sweet. It was too sweet for me, so I moved right on to pisco, which is just distilled wine, kind of like an un-aged brandy. I’m not sure if our waitress was new or just generous but she served me a full pouring of this 80 proof liquor in a large wine glass so I don’t really remember much about getting back into town, but back at the hotel I found that I was carrying a whole bottle of it. At first I debated the wisdom of carrying a fifth of liquor in a heavy glass bottle on a backpacking trip in the wilderness of Peru, but it worked out for the best in the end: we found ourselves in the back of a vegetable truck with some hostile locals while hitchhiking to Machu Picchu and they were pacified only by my alcohol and cigarettes.

In fact I recommend keeping a healthy supply of both at all times in case of an emergency, whether you need it to sweeten deals with savvy bargainers or if you just have one of those days and really need to get your drink on.

Peru’s claim-to-fame in the world of drinking is their Pisco Sour, a fine contribution to the cocktail canon whose fame is inhibited only by the fact that no one ever has pisco. Delicious and refreshing, it is sure to liven nights and elevate the spirit.


2oz pisco
1oz lime juice
some sugar or simple syrup
1/2 egg white

Shake it vigorously with ice, and then party!

By: Ben Britz

Belem to Manaus on the Amazon River

The Amazon is a notoriously difficult place to get around in.  There are only a few highly inaccessible roads, and if you want to catch a flight to the jungle’s interior it’s Manaus or bust, an option that’s too pricey for most jungle residents and backpackers alike.  But who cares about these dull and isolating modes of transport when you can catch a ride on the river.
Starting in Belém, one of the easternmost port cities on the Amazon River, my travel partner and I bought our tickets for the trip to Manaus one day in advance, plenty of time to ensure a spot.  Of the many options offered by the “travel agents” who’ve taken up residence at the docks, we went with a boat oh-so salaciously titled “The Clivia,” a vessel of the cheaper, older, and more battle-worn variety.  For about $200 US each the fare included a spot to fling our hammocks (don’t forget to pick one of these up before boarding!), three meals a day, and five of the most awe-inspiring days of my life.
Since traversing the Amazon via the river is really the only practical way to go, and because we’d opted away from the cushier and ludicrously more expensive “tourist” boats, our traveling companions ranged from Peruvian farmers, to families returning to their homes in the jungle, to a bevy of chickens that settled into the lower deck. Continue reading