Cusco and the Sacred Valley Travel Guide

The next must see in Peru is the city of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. A vague recommendation but there are months worth of Incan ruins, colonial highlights, museums, adventure activities, restaurants, spas, and nightlife to soak up. This small city is one of the most beautiful cities in South America with a small Spanish colonial historic center and fashioned with clay tiled roofs for a uniformity that makes every picture turn out perfectly. Remnants of the Inca can be found literally all around you with much of the historic center built with or on top of Inca stone foundations.

It is best to start your time in Cusco with a half day city tour. You will be given a guided tour of the ruins of Q’enko, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay all of which lie just above the city. Your guide will explain the significance of each set of ruins before taking you to the fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Sacsayhuaman not only provides breath-taking panoramas of the city of Cusco located in the valley below, but it is also an impressive display of Incan architectural superiority. The stone work has yet been matched by modern technology, let alone by manual laborers.

Returning to the city center and traveling forward in time, you will visit the main Cathedral located on the Plaza del Armas, or main square of the city. You will also venture a few blocks from the main plaza to the stunning Convent of Santo Domingo, built on the Incan temple of the Sun, Korikancha. In the matter of hours you will have a true sense of why this entire city was given the title of a UNESCO world heritage site.

After you have thorough enjoyed the city of Cusco, it is essential you explore the Sacred Valley. Start with the town of Pisac’s artisan and local market before visiting the spectacular ruins lying a few kilometers above the city. The views from the ruins alone are worth the effort. Next, make your way to Ollantaytambo, where the Inca lost their last effort against the Spanish in the 16th century. Time permitting it is suggested that you stay overnight in the Sacred Valley and visit the salt pans located near Maras, the amphitheater-like terracing of Moray and the small textile village of Chinchero before you leave.

You will not regret spending a little extra time in this enchanting part of the Andes Mountains. For outdoor lovers there are hundreds of activities to enjoy – trekking and white water rafting are among the most popular although there is plenty of horseback riding, mountain biking, ATVing, camping, bungee jumping, rock climbing and more to be enjoyed as well.

Tequila Valley: Charm and Character Built This Margarita Region

It was just last night I was having fajitas and margaritas in my local Mexican spot, Las Mananitas in Katy, Texas. We all have a Mexican place like this. We get the same waiter every time, he knows our order, remembers we don’t like salt in our margaritas, and orders us a special Tres Leches cake at our kids birthday parties. Now I’m in a car driving toward San Martin de las Canas, a tiny village one hour west of Guadalajara and just a few minutes from my ultimate destination, Tequila.

We arrive and are greeted by a Dr. Jaime Villalobos, a magnanimous personality wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. He speaks good English and immediately makes us feel welcome in the high desert area surrounded by mountains.

We’re 4,000 feet in the air at Casa de Carmen, a blue agave estate home to Jaime and his wife Carmen, a fifth generation Sauza who smiles beautifully and offers us little bottles of Corona to quench our thirst. It’s hot and dry and the sun is blazing as we walk to the fields and meet Jaime’s jimador and caretaker of the estate.

The jimador, a skilled agriculture craftsman, quickly goes to work showing us how he slices the sharp leaves of the agave off in seconds trimming it down to the 50-pound pina, the heart of the agave. The process of harvesting is called jimas. It looks like a giant pineapple but the taste isn’t sweet. It has a wood-flavored chewy texture with a clean taste. This is the fruit that will become tequila in just a few days.

Underneath he shows caterpillar worms burrowed inside the ball and offers them for a barbecue. We react in disdain, but hours and a few sips of tequila later, I would eat one. It’s was crispy and salty but one was enough.

We stroll through the fields admiring the tall plants. It takes about 7 years for a blue agave to mature enough to be harvested. At this level of age, the plant leaves can reach up to 8 feet tall and the jima can weigh as much as 70 pounds.

We return to the estate and settle in for a tasting of Carmen Sauza’s Tequila Realeza Mexicana Anejo which just recently arrived in the U.S. market. Jaime serves a small amount in a champagne-style tequila sipping glass. It’s elegant, smooth, and rich in flavor. While we sip and attempt to make conversation each botching the other’s language, the jimador now grills skirt steak which will soon be served with verde sauce and homemade tortillas.

Unfortunately we can’t stay the night as we have return to Tequila to rest for a big day. We exchange goodbyes as if we’ve been friends our entire lives and head down the winding road 10 minutes to Tequila. We arrive at the beautiful Hotel Abolengos. This 21-room historical hotel is graced with dark wood, stone, stucco, iron, and period Spanish furniture. We’re exhausted so we retire early in the cool comfort of the only air conditioning we’ve felt since leaving the airport.

The next day we spend in Tequila walking the village streets. It’s Sunday and the political parties are out promoting their candidates for upcoming elections. People fill up the cathedral steps, many stand just outside the doors hoping to catch a few brief words of the message. Tourists and visitors from the area float around the market shopping for goods, eating tacos, and visiting with friends. It feels more like a Saturday here rather than the sleepy Sundays I’m use to in the U.S.

We hire a guide to go on a tour of the town visiting all the old dilapidated distilleries, estates of Cuervo and Sauza, and the old public washateria where all the locals brought their clothes and cleaned them using stones. She told us the story of a monk who owned a small distillery in town that fell into disrepair so he allowed the homeless to stay there. In the morning, the sleepy and smelly guests would emerge from the distillery – locals called it the Monster House. She shared the Romeo and Juliet style love affair that pitted the Sauza family against the Cuervo family years ago. Sauza is now owned by Beam Global, but Cuervo remains a family business.

We wrap up the day at Esmina’s Counter where we eat chicken fajita stewed with peppers on a plate of fluffy rice and refried beans. The tortilla maker brings a fresh hot tortilla every few minutes. The locals float in and out grabbing food on the go and enjoying conversation at the counter. This place was recommended by our tour guide and it is the “hole in the wall” that every off-beat tourist hopes to find in their travels.

We’re on the road early travelling to El Arenal, another village about 15 minutes from Tequila. We visit an artisian cheese maker, a tortilla factory, walk the courtyard, then wrap up our visit to this town at Tequila Cascuin, where third-generation tequila maker, Salvador greeted us and walks us through the entire process of turning blue agave into tequila.

The giant pinas are split and then loaded into a large oven that can hold 2 tons of plant. Once loaded in, a worker packs the door edges with a concoction of ground up pina and mud that will seal the doors while the pina steams for 72 hours. Once the door is opened and the pinas cool, he grabs a piece for us to taste. It’s similar to a sugared sweet potato and the fruit just melts in your mouth.

We next see massive steel tanks full of fermenting agave juice. This brown and amber liquid is bubbling on the top, a reaction as the sugar turns to alcohol. Salvador measures the sugar and tells us this won’t be tequila for another 48 hours, but rest assured he has some nearly ready to bottle. At a smaller tank, we can see the crystal clear liquid as it makes it’s final round of filtration before going into the bottle. He pours the liquid into a tiny plastic tasting cup and shares with us. The mineral, smoke, and silky flavor come alive in my mouth. Now that’s artisan tequila!

We return to the road and make stops at Herra Dura, Jose Cuervo, and Chohola for dinner. These big brand tequila distilleries and restaurants make for good shopping for t-shirts and admiration of all that is big tequila business but nothing compares to being able to speak to the maker of the tequila – perhaps this is what it was like in Sonoma in the mid-sixties.

I’m home now and back at Las Mananitas sharing stories and pictures from my trip. Most of these guys have been to Tequila and can relate to what I’m saying. I sip the familiar margarita but somehow it tastes a little different. I correct myself knowing it’s not any different – what’s different is the way I think about how it tastes. I can taste the pina, the candied blue agave, the unfiltered tequila and remember all the charming people of the Tequila Valley.

Nepal’s Cultural Heritage – Exploring Kathmandu Valley

The early morning sun reflects the brilliant white of the spectacular snow-capped Himalayas, as we start out on this day’s adventure. We are in Kathmandu. Today, we go beyond the city to explore the surrounding Kathmandu Valley. We’ve been told this is another world.

Ganesh, our guide, already awaits us this bright early morning. We cross the Baghmati River, bordering the city, and reach charming Patan. A mere twenty minute ride from the city, this is, indeed, another world. Lalitpur, as it is known locally – has an aura of tranquility and peace about it, so unlike that of frenetic Kathmandu. This is a town renowned for its excellent craftsmen and crafts. Walking down the narrow lanes, we come across the exquisite temples, traditional buildings and tiny shops and stalls of metal and wood artisans and stone cutters. We reach Durbar Square in the heart of the city, where we are mesmerized by the palace buildings, artful courtyards and graceful pagodas. The three main courtyards here are punctuated by wood and stone architecture, the crowning jewel being the Tushahiti, the Royal Bath, a masterpiece of stone architecture.

Hindu temples and Buddhist pagodas dot the city throughout, enhancing the peaceful ambience. We stop at Krishna Mandir, considered Nepal’s finest stone structure. Despite its solid stone construction, this Hindu Temple is delicate and light – magnificent in its form, with scones and friezes depicting holy Hindu scenes. We continue to the Mahabouddha Temple, a Buddhist shrine, its architecture in stark contrast to the Hindu temples. This terra-cotta monument, a work of art of 14th Century Nepalese construction, is made of clay bricks engraved with thousands of Buddha images.

On towards Bhaktapur, we stop at the Tibetan Refugee camp, where beautiful Tibetan carpets and other crafts captivate us. We pass through enchanting Newari towns where life continues in ancient traditions much as it did in former times.

Reaching Bhaktapur, we are struck by the bewitching beauty of this remarkable city. Known as Nepal’s cultural gem, a sense of timelessness prevails. More like an open, living museum, its opulence, ancient art and culture transports us to another era. The crowning jewel of the city is its Durbar Square – a UNESCO World Heritage Site where works of art in the form of unique palaces, temples and monasteries are set to the backdrop of the magnificent Himalayas.

Perhaps the most fascinating structure in the square is the 55 Window Palace, originally the seat of Newar royalty, which now houses the National Art Gallery. We admired the elaborately carved windows and doors of the building, and were left gaping at the breathtaking stone artworks and paubha scroll paintings housed in the museum. In Tuamadhi Square, we come across the Nyatapola Temple, a colossal five story pagoda, the country’s tallest Buddhist temple.

Though founded in the 12th Century as the capital of the Malla Kingdom, Bhaktapur really took on its present shape in the 18th Century, when most of its greatest monuments were built. Mostly terra-cotta masterpieces along the rich artistic Newar tradition, the buildings are supported by carved wooden columns, elaborate windows and doors, gilded roofs and spacious, surrounding open courtyards. The fascinating divine images portrayed reflect the religious beliefs and social outlook of their Newari craftsmen. The clusters of monuments that embellish the city’s brick and stone squares reaffirm Nepal’s tradition of social harmony and religious tolerance, where Buddhist temples rub shoulders with Hindu shrines.

Besides the many temples and shrines that preside over the city, Bhaktapur is renowned for its long history of Newari craftsmanship. At the Pottery Square, we encounter Newari potters busily shaping lumps of clay on their wooden wheels and skilled artisans creating everything from indigenous paubha scroll paintings and papier-mâché masks to woven cloths, wood carvings and metal works. Chancing upon the Gai-Jatra festival, however, was the highlight of our day. The tantrically inspired dances include images of the city’s protectress deities and are unique to Bhaktapur. As they were centuries ago, the festivals and dances are enthusiastically observed here. The day was a real treat for us and the younger family members, who were mesmerized by the spectacle.

In the Kathmandu Valley, we were transported to another world – a world of culture, art and heritage- a day where we were afforded easy sightseeing, rest and relaxation after our intensive trekking and rafting adventures.