Cusco, Floods, Rice, and a Puppy

Just when I was starting to settle into a routine here, the weather decided to shake things up a bit. Last weekend started out pretty normal, and ended up a complete fiasco. On Friday we went for a five-hour hike to Pumamarca, a complex of Incan Ruins on top of a nearby mountain in the shape of a puma (pictures forthcoming!). It was a pretty standard hike except for the fact that since it’s been so rainy this month, part of the trail was completely washed out and we basically had to walk in a stream for half an hour, and cross over some other rivers of questionable safety.

Then on Saturday a few of us went to Cusco to hang out, explore the city, buy a few things you can’t get in Ollanta (ie, most things you need in daily life), and go dancing. We had a great time dancing at the discoteca and then at a salsa bar, and then made our way back to Ollanta on Sunday morning. But just in that 24-hour period of our absence, a lot of things happened – heavy rains caused massive flooding of the Patacancha river upstream of Ollanta, devasting a few Quechua communities, some houses along the river here in town, and completely knocking out our power and running water. The river probably rose at least ten feet, bringing a surge of mud and rocks and water into town. A huge portion of the street and riverwalk were completely washed out (some parts very close to my house on Av Ferrocarril), and I heard that our water pipes were completely filled with mud and had to be replaced (aka: we have had no water for five days). It’s been nuts. There has been flooding all over the place, apparently Arequipa is basically one giant river now – but it’s hard to find information, everything here pretty much travels by word of mouth, so there’s been a lot of confusion this week. They brought in trucks of water from Cusco for people to cook with, but no one can shower, so we’ve all just been stewing in our filth waiting for the water to come back on. A few parts of the city got water back this morning, but most are still without. Yesterday I couldn’t take it anymore so Lindsey and I went to Cusco in search of a shower (I hadn’t showered since right after our hike on Friday), and luckily found a hostal that would let us shower for five soles. It was glorrrrious. Then Laura, Awamaki’s programs coordinator, asked us to pick up some rice and cooking oil so that we can carry it up to Patacancha, which got way more damage than Ollanta. Sorry, let me clarify: she asked us to pick up 200 KILOS of rice and additional cooking oil. That’s a lot of freaking rice. Luckily Rob, another Awamaki staff member, was there and helped us out, so we ended up coming back to town with about 350 pounds worth of rice, sugar, oil, and other supplies, after a very scary, heavy car ride.

We’re planning on bringing up the supplies to Patacancha pretty soon, and also helping out with the recovery effort, but everything is still in planning stages right now. I still don’t have water at my house, but the shower in Cusco will hold me over for a few more days. On a side note I found an adorable starving puppy in the street on Monday and took her back to the office with me, but my host dad informed me that she does in fact have a home and I cannot steal her, so I had to set her free. But if she finds me again I’m totally taking her back to the States with me. I already named her Laqha, which means darkness in Quechua, because she is a tiny black ball of cuteness. (pics of her coming soon too!)

Hikes and Treks! (Part 1)


 Mt Pinkuylluna is home to the ruins of the Incan granaries – storehouses where the Incans housed excess crops for storage. Building the storehouses into the side of the mountain kept the crops safe from floods on the valley floor and from any prospective raiders. Winds at the higher altitude probably helped keep the crops dry and prolonged their shelf life. The hike is pretty short – you can reach the main storehouses from old town in about a half hour, but it’s incredibly steep and at some points you can barely discern the path from the surrounding rock. How the Incas carried crops up there I’ll never know. 


the view of pinkyulluna from intiwatana


on our way up…




La Forteleza y Intiwatana 

The Incas seemed to like two things: trapezoids and terracing things. All the doors and windows (they’re not actually windows, but more like alcoves built into the wall for offerings to the gods) are trapezoids, and even the layout of the original city was a trapezoid, with the main plaza situated at the wider, lower end. As for terracing, it seems that the Incas terraced pretty much any slope they could find, which is a lot when you’re in the middle of the mountains. The largest set of terraced fields are adjacent to the temple and fortress, right outside of town. You normally have to pay to get in to see these ruins, but there is a way you can sneak in to the site by trekking through some cornfields and crossing a smallish stream or two. VIctor, my host dad, snuck me and Nicki in to the ruins this way and basically gave us a private tour, because he seems to know everything about this place and how things were in the time of the Incas. He told us how terracing the mountainside actually allowed the Incas to take advantage of the different altitudes and grow different crops at each level. We walked up the stone steps adjacent to the terraces to the main fortress, which also housed a temple, ceremonial baths, and residences. Here is the wall of the six monoliths (six gigantic stones the Incas somehow sanded to a perfect smoothness), which made up the Temple of the Sun, and also slightly lower down is the Temple of the Moon. 


view of ollanta, the fortress, and terraced fields from pinkyulluna


me and victor at the base of the ruins


view of the terraced fields from the fortress


Higher up the mountain, above the fortress and temples, are the Intiwatana ruins. Intiwatana means “sun fastener,” and it is assumed that these structures were at once an astronomical observatory and altar for sacrifices, but it looks suspiciously like a place to hold prisoners. 


me and nicki at intiwatana

From here you can see how the building of Ollantaytambo at this location was no accident – it was strategically positioned at the place where the Patacancha River empties into the Urubamba River, at the crux of these two river valleys, giving its residents access to and control of the mountains to the north (and the jungle beyond), Machu Picchu to the west, and to the rest of the Sacred Valley and Cusco to the south and east. 


view of ollanta from intiwatana – straight ahead is the urubamba valley (sacred valley) and to the left is the patacancha valley. 

next: salineras!


Updates and daily life

My Spanish skills seem to be improving, but there definitely still are times when no one can understand me. This happened the other day when I took Nicki, John, and Rosie back to my homestay and showed them where the cuys live (the guinea pigs). Afterwards I asked Victor if the cuys are afraid of people, because when I tried to pick one up, they all ran away from me making this strange high-pitched warbling noise. But all he said was that the cuys right now are very small, and when they get big and fat it’s time to eat them. Guess I’ll have to come back to that one later.


Fiesta de Bautizo

Saturday night Victor and Deni took me to a party for a baptism – actually, three baptisms in one. It is a tradition in Peru that for a child’s baptism, they get their hair cut for the first time, and then they have a big party and people come and give a gift of money, and in return you get a lot of food and beer. Pretty much all of Deni’s family in Ollanta was there, including Mama Raquel (mi abuelita), who, by the way, was punishing more beer than I was. After a while people started dancing to Huayno, this traditional Andean music. I danced with Deni’s younger brother, and it was actually really fun except for the fact that he is much shorter than me (Peruvians are a very tiny people), and the whole time Deni’s brother in law kept bringing fresh beers for everyone even when we didn’t need them. This morning Mama Raquel came over for breakfast and wasn’t even the slightest bit hungover – I think she is my idol. I may have told her I want to put her in my pocket and take her back to the States with me. Oops. 


Work and Play 

 Here is a rundown of my daily work schedule. Monday and Wednesday mornings John and I go to Yachay Wasi from 9 am until 12:30 or so, playing with the kids and mostly admiring their cuteness. Then we have lunch and head back to the office to lesson plan until our first english class at 6. Then we teach class from 6 to 9 and pretty much pass out right after. Tuesday and Thursday mornings we have our third english class from 10 – 11:30 am, then we lesson plan like crazy again for our computer class at 6, which grew so large that we had to split it in two. Then there are the weekly education meetings and volunteer workshops and a full staff meeting. So needless to say, it’s freakin nuts. We used to go to Yachay Wasi on Friday mornings too, but now we use Fridays for lesson planning, so that the rest of the week isn’t so crazy. On the weekends all of us volunteers will go on hikes and treks, work shifts at the Awamaki store, and hang out at one of the cafes in town to use their internet. We usually go out for drinks on Friday and/or Saturday nights, to the one bar in town, Quechua Bar. In actuality there are 3 bars, but two of them are closed at the moment, so Quechua Bar it is. Mostly we just sit around and drink beer slash mojitos, but we also get to play with the gatitos! (The owners of Quechua bar have a cat, and about two weeks ago, she gave birth to four adorable little kittens, and they are nice enough to let us hold the kitties for a bit while we drink our beer.) Side Note to any future travellers: hangovers increase exponentially in severity the higher up in altitude you go. Beware. 

Soon to come: pics of the hikes and treks around town! 


Mi abuelita

I met my host grandmother the other day, aka my host mom’s mom. She is without a doubt the smallest and cutest person I have ever seen. She wears the typical outfit of old Andean women (minus the bright colors) – knee-length skirt, several layers of sweaters / ponchos, hair in two long black braids, and sun hat. Talking seems to be a huge effort for her and she looks about a thousand years old, but I guess popping out a dozen or so children in between doing hard physical labor will do that to you. The only part of her that seems young is her hair – it’s still incredibly thick and shiny and she doesn’t have a single gray. Last night she stopped by to talk to my host mom and stayed to watch the novela with us (more on that in a minute). She fell asleep after about 5 minutes, and it was the cutest thing ever. I am dying to take her picture, but the last thing on this earth I want to do is offend this woman, so it will have to wait, but the world deserves to see her cuteness, so I’ll try soon. Deni (my host mom) tells me that her grandmother is alive too, and I cannot even IMAGINE how much cuter she will be.


Things with which I have become slightly obsessed

  1. Corazón Valiente (the telenovela my host family watches). I’m totally sucked in, despite the fact that I can only understand about one word in ten.
  2.  Combate, this game show where they have contestants go through crazy obstacle courses and insane challenges / dance-offs. One time the contestants had to play the telephone game while wearing scuba masks. It’s pretty freakin awesome.
  3. Sublime – this candy bar that the Awamaki staff told us about. It’s just chocolate and peanuts (aka a Mr. Goodbar), but I eat two of them pretty much every day.  


La comida

Food here is… interesting. That’s really all I can say about it. One the one hand, everything is fresh and local, and nothing is stored for a very long time, which is great. Most people don’t have refrigerators, and if they do, they don’t refrigerate most things that you or I would. I think part of the reason is that the people here don’t like to eat or drink things that are cold. They don’t drink cold water, only mate (herbal tea), and even beer is served at room temp. Since the water isn’t safe to drink straight from the tap and it’s so chilly at night, most people here agree that putting cold things into your body is guaranteed to make you sick in some form or another. My host family, however, has both a fridge and a freezer, so I think they must be pretty rich in Peruvian terms.


Now, I can eat pretty much anything, but when I am on my own, I pretty much stick to the basic food groups, which I have outlined below:


  1. Cheese
  2. Sandwiches (with cheese)
  3. Breakfast food
  4. Avocados
  5. Bacon
  6. Pierogies (filled with cheese)
  7. Butter
  8. Various fruits and vegetables (usually eaten with cheese)


Clearly I have a very sensible diet. Also, you can see that the common denominator here is cheese. Ironically, the cheese here is amaaaaazing (Libby and Joey – think quesillo from Mexico), but unfortunately my host family doesn’t eat too much of it. As for the rest of my food groups, they have been replaced by starch – most of my meals now consist of rice, potatoes, or corn, or any combination of those three. I do get to eat egg sandwiches pretty often for breakfast, but other than that, I am SOL. Except for the fruit – fruit here is fantastic. Every Tuesday, the fruit truck arrives from Quillabamba (the closest jungle town), bringing fresh oranges, limes, bananas, mangoes, papayas, and plenty more (see below!). On these days my host mom will squeeze me fresh orange juice, and it is absolutely out of this world. The bread is also delicious – every day or two, they will send me to the oven to buy fresh bread. I say oven because that’s really all it is – not a house, not a store, just a door a little ways down from our house with the word horno carved into the molding above it. Through the door there is a giant oven, a man with a long paddle to shovel the tiny loaves in and out, and a girl who takes care of the money. I give her two soles (about 80 cents), and she gives me a bag full of the tiny round loaves. I’d like to get a picture of this place too, but I have a feeling that that would not bode well for my bread-buying capabilities in the future.


the fruit truck from quillabamba!

Photos of town

Right  now I’m at a cafe near my house with pretty good internet, so I’m going to upload some photos for you all, so that you can see a little bit of the town and the people.


the view from outside my bedroom


outside my bedroom – mine is the door on the left


one of the old inca streets


the incan granaries – i hiked up there yesterday


a lady and her daughter wearing the traditional andean clothing

La Ciudad

I can see why people come here and never leave.

The Andes are stunningly beautiful – a gorgeous emerald green. It’s impossible to walk anywhere in the city and not see mountains, and I am humbled each time I look up at them. I wonder if the people who live here even notice the mountains anymore, or realize how lucky they are to live in such a beautiful corner of the world. While this is a relatively underdeveloped place, income from the thousands of tourists that stop here every year on their way to Macchu Picchu has allowed Ollanta to develop more than many of the other towns in the Sacred Valley. There is a large main square (la plaza de armas) with many cafes and shops that cater to the town’s western visitors, and the town is very well kept – most of the public spaces are incredibly clean, and it just has a certain natural charm. The city was built around the original Inca settlement here, so some newer buildings incorporate the Incan architecture within them and others just sprung up around that old part of town until the city reached the river. The streets the Incas built are all cobblestone, and although they are pretty narrow by modern standards, they are really beautiful. The Incas also built tiny connecting waterways throughout the entire city – basically 1 – 2 foot-wide channels in the cobblestone that took water from the river to irrigate the crops. Not only are they a feat of engineering, the channels are great because no matter where you are in the city, you hear the soothing sound of flowing water.

This place makes me laugh a lot, because back home in the states, there are so many city rules and official things that just don’t exist here, and the funny part is that it really doesn’t matter. For example, I have not seen one address since I’ve been here – not on any house or store or municipal building. Even the official “address” of the Awamaki office just states the neighborhood (Pilco Wasi) and city (Ollanta). There is one post office in town where all the mail is delivered, and if you are expecting a letter, you go there and tell the post lady your name, and she will sort through a giant pile of mail to find it. Also, while the streets do have official names, most of these names are not publicly displayed (especially not in the old part of town). There might be one street sign along the entire length of the road, if you’re lucky, but since the town isn’t very big it’s easy to find your way around. And people don’t seem to be very creative when it comes to naming them, either – Ollanta’s train station is located at the end of the street where I live, and so my street is just called Av Ferrocarril (aka Railroad Street).

Here is a map of Ollanta. The blue circle is my house on Av Ferrocarril (this is where we sleep), and the red circle is my house in the old part of town, where we eat. My house on Av Ferrocarril is awesome for several reasons – first, I am on the top floor, which is basically an open terrace, so right outside my bedroom I have a clear view of the mountains (which I stare at thoughtfully pretty often), and second, Av Ferrocarril runs right next to the Rio Patacancha (small stream that runs through town and empties into the Urubamba), so I can constantly hear water flowing and birds chirping and wind rustling through the trees. It’s pretty freaking awesome. The only downside is the roosters who live on the roof right next to me. Right now, it’s about 3 in the afternoon, and they are sleeping, no doubtedly resting up so that they can wake me up at 5 am tomorrow morning.


The Awamaki office is the green circle, where we hold our english and computer classes, and Yachay Wasi isn’t on this map, but it’s east of the Awamaki office. This is the preschool where I will be working. Right now it’s the Peruvian summer, but Yachay Wasi has a small, informal summer school program, and we currently have about 8 students, but we are hoping to recruit a few more. The kids are mostly around 2 years old, and they are freaking adorable, yet I can’t understand a word of what they say. John and I are volunteering there, and we just started, so until now we’ve basically just been playing with the little kiddies, but soon we’ll plan some fun games for them so that they can learn while they play.

My host family

ok, so it takes forever to upload pictures, so i’ll have to do that later, but for now i’ll tell you all about my host family and my homestay. 

my host parents are victor and denise (at least i think that’s her name, it’s hard to understand her), and they are native ollantinos who speak fluent quechua. they are incredibly nice, and are very good and speaking slowly and clearly to me and making sure i understand everything (which is good, because everyone seems to mumble and i can’t understand half of what anyones says). they are also very patient with my rudimentary spanish skills 🙂 the family actually live in two houses – there is one house where we sleep and shower, and another house about five minutes away where eat our meals and hang out (the kitchen and the living room). the house with the kitchen is actually built around the original inca city walls – it is incredible how much of the original architecture remains. outside there is a little courtyard where doki (the family dog) lives and also some ducks and their ducklings (i’m not sure what the ducklings do or what they are there for, but they are extremely cute and i hope they are not for eating). this house is sort of a compound – some of denise and victor’s extended family live here as well, but i haven’t been formally introduced to them yet. however, i was invited into the room where they raise and keep the guinea pigs – and these are most definitely for eating, according to my peruvian family. i’m a little nervous about eating guinea pig but denise told me the meat is fried, so i should be able to stomach it. also since i’ve been here she’s fed me some other meat and i definitely couldn’t tell what it was but i ate it anyway, so i’m sure the guinea pig won’t kill me. 

victor and denise have a daughter, coralie, who goes to the university in cusco but she is on break now and staying with us in ollanta. they also have a son, victor junior, who is 11, and two of their nephews are staying with us too right now, angelo and rodrigo. i think the boys think i am the funniest / most interesting person they have ever met, and i’m ok with that. i don’t have any pictures of the family yet (i don’t want to be rude and ask), but i’ll try to take some soon. in the meantime i’ll post some photos of the two houses of victor and denise, and my little landing. i have discovered that my homestay seems to be the lap of luxury (for peru) – i have a private, tiled bathroom, and a cute little room that is (guess what!) painted green!! the only downside is that there are roosters outside who start to crow at the most ungodly hour of 5 am. also there are no windows, but a skylight (sort of), so it is pretty bright during the day, and it’s not very well insulated, so whatever temperature it is outside, it is inside my bedroom. i do actually have hot water, but it only lasts for about 4 minutes, so i’m going to have to make some adjustments to my shower routine (aka no daydreaming and wash myself as fast as possible). 



I’ve arrived!

I’m here! I landed in Cusco around 9:15 am yesterday, nearly exhausted from a day of travelling but excited to get to Ollantaytambo. Surprisingly there were no hitches along the way, both myself and my luggage arrived in Cusco without any issues. Nicki, another Awamaki volunteer, met me at the airport, and we eventually found our driver, Jaime, who took us on the nearly 2-hour trip to Ollanta (the length of the drive will vary based on what roads/bridges are open and closed, and this route was definitely the long way around). The drive was scary, since we had to first wind our way up into the mountains surrounding Cusco and then wind back down into the Sacred Valley, driving on small two-lane roads in the mud and rain. We drove north from Cusco and eventually wound our way down to the floor of the valley at the town of Pisac. The view of the valley from the road was simply stunning – the green hillsides of the andes overlooking the lush valley floor and the muddy Urubamba river flowing through it. Once we got down to the base of the valley, we drove west from Pisac through the towns of Calca, Tacay, and Urubamba, following the course of the river. I was desperately tired but somehow managed to stay awake through most of the trip. Once we got to the city limits of Ollantaytambo, the paved roads gave way to cobblestones, and we continued there through the center of town (la plaza de armas), and a few blocks over to the Awamaki office. Ollanta is a gorgeous little town, surrounded on all sides by green mountains which are dotted with numerous Inca ruins – check out my pics below! 



About Ollantaytambo

Nestled in the stunning Sacred Valley of the Incas, Ollantaytambo is often called the living Inca city – the only city where the original Inca architecture is still inhabited and used in daily life. The sacred valley itself was carved from the Andes by the Urubamba river, which flows north-northwest from its source high in the mountains to join the Ucayali river, one of the main headwaters of the Amazon, and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean. Ollanta is situated at the far end of the valley – in fact the last town you can visit before the Urubamba plunges through the steep gorges that line the way to Macchu Picchu. This is by far the most remote and distant place I will have ever travelled in my 28 years. Surprisingly, though, I’m not at all nervous – especially considering the fact that worrying is wired into my brain by all those generations of crazy Italians. At this point the excitement has far outweighed any fear I might have – but, alas, there are still five days to go, and I’m not totally convinced that I won’t have a full-blown anxiety attack on the plane ride down there. But for now, I’m super excited, and just hoping that my Spanish is at least good enough to keep me from sounding like a complete idiot. 

Here is a map of Peru and of the Sacred Valley. You can see Ollantaytambo situated on the Urubamba (Rio Vilcanota), about a 20-minute drive to the town of Urubamba and about an hour and a half from Cusco. 



I have absolutely no idea what to expect upon my arrival in Ollanta. All I know is that someone from Awamaki will be picking me up from the airport in Cusco and taking me to the volunteer office in the center of town. What will happen after that? Who knows. And so the adventure begins!!