Alison Wanders // Of Markets, Quarries, & a Skeleton or Two

Welcome to the second installation of Alison Wanders, the new column on Of Revolt! Alison Nabatoff recently graduated from Princeton and has set off on an incredible journey through South America.

Hello again from Incan rock quarries and the Pisac Market!

In the past two weeks Claire and I have strayed a little from our typical days and weekends filled with hiking around the Sacred Valley, and have instead ventured to one of the more mainstream sights. This change might have to do with the fact that after our last hike we were absolutely physically and mentally exhausted. Thankfully, the difficulty didn’t take away from how incredible the hike actually was, leaving me wondering how the hell did the Incans did it.

This last hike, like many others, started in Ollantaytambo, and led to Las Canteras, which is an Incan rock quarry two hours uphill from town. The two quarries are where the Incans went to carve and ultimately carry the rocks that they used to build the town of Ollantaytambo. After having done the hike up and down, seen the unbelievable size of these rocks, and realized that this was all done thousands of years ago without modern technology, I might be starting to believe in aliens – I mean, I could barely walk at a leisurely pace there and back carrying a padded backpack containing my camera and water bottle.

While the rock quarry was eye-opening to the astonishing technologies and work of the Incan Empire, the real draw to this hike is definitely the small cave hidden within the quarry containing ancient Incan skeletons. On one hand it’s a little creepy . . . but on the other hand, there are very few places in the world you can find such an authentic, natural scene. Here, almost 800m above the town of Ollanta, lie these remains that you can get as close as you want to without paying an entrance fee, looking through a glass screen, or having crowds push for the best view (though to respect the site you are asked to not touch or move the bones. But who really wants to test their luck with the spirits of the Inca Empire anyway?). For the anthropologist in me, this was a dream. As for the mental and physical exhaustion, Claire and I decided to ignore all advice to camp at the top, and instead hiked up and back all in one day. Turns out the advice to camp and return the next day rested really should have been taken. Live and learn, friends, live and learn.

Changing our ways a bit, we decided to check out the world-famous Pisac artisan market. While the official market day for tourists is Sunday, we went on Saturday to look around town and stay the night. Given the status and popularity of the market, we assumed there would be some other things to do around town to occupy our Saturday. I’ll tell you right now, our assumption couldn’t have been more wrong. There are ruins that you can hike to, but they don’t offer day passes. Instead, you either have to pay 70 soles for a pass that allows entrance into 4 “Sacred Valley Sights,” or 130 soles for access to 10 tourist spots in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The problem was that the first expired within two days of purchase, and the latter within 10 days. For the traveler short on time who wants to see the main tourist attractions, this isn’t a bad deal, but for two girls who like to wander without a time table and are quickly learning the less-traveled, less popular paths are much more worthwhile, this wasn’t the way to go.

Instead, we drank a few Pisco Sours, the prided drink of Peru which is made up of the local liquor Pisco, lemon juice, sugar, and egg whites (strangely tasty), overlooking the much less popular Saturday market. By 5pm Pisac was a ghost town, replete with black cats, deserted stores, and a central plaza of abandoned market tables. Finding a place for dinner was a strangely impossible task, in which we had to walk four blocks out of town to a local chicken spot.

The next morning everyone came out of hiding and the plaza was completely packed with tents and tables that stretched down numerous side streets from the Plaza de Armas. After walking for a bit you begin to notice that almost all of the tables are selling the same products: scarves, bracelets, bags, local clothing, alpaca goods, ceramic works, and of course, silver jewelry. The main attraction at the Pisac market for me was the silver jewelry tents, where I made out with a beautiful coca leaf ring and a pachamama (mother earth) necklace. While both are beautiful, they were being sold by about 50 different shops, so the unique artisan aspect of Pisac was somewhat nonexistent in my opinion. Nonetheless, Pisac has been the first market I have been to where you can find such an abundance of jewelry.

Pisac is also one of the few markets where bartering occurred at extremes. For example, at the Urubamba and Ollanta market you may find a 50-cent difference after talking to the store owner; in Pisac, the ring I bought was originally priced at 90 soles and I made the final purchase at 50 soles. While some people may appreciate the art of bartering, I felt as if everyone was trying to scam me out of money. At one point I just wanted to scream, “what is the actual price of this because I’m willing to pay.” Maybe I just need a lesson in patience though, who knows. Overall, Pisac has both pros and cons, and while I don’t recommend going for two days, checking out the market for an hour or so is definitely worth it.

If not to buy merchandise, it’s worth a trip to stop and try the storied empanadas. Made in huge, dated ovens, I bought three empanadas, vegetable, chicken and cheese, for 10 soles, and wanted an endless supply once I finished. There are tons of different places to buy empanadas, so stop in anywhere and then walk around eating an empanada to look like a local and get some street cred. I leave you with a warning though – you will get addicted. If you think you can pass on the empanadas or simply fear the addiction, the Urubamba market is much more authentic and avoids the touristy feel. Urubamba sits between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, and every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday boasts a huge market that spreads over five blocks and is where locals go to do their purchasing. While it doesn’t have the jewelry, it is worth a trip for those who are looking for a taste of a true Sacred Valley market. Here the people wearing traditional garb aren’t looking to take a picture for money as is the case in Pisac, but instead are simply grocery shopping or enjoying a meal.

In the next two weeks I will be moving into an apartment and venturing to Bolivia for a few days to visit Lake Titicaca, so stay tuned!

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