ATV Ride Among the Andes

Doug and I’s ATV tour around Sacred Valley in Cusco, Peru had as many ups and downs as the surrounding Andes Mountains.   It all began on our fifth day in Peru, a day after exploring Machu Picchu, when Doug and I decided we wanted to explore so much more of the Peruvian countryside’s beauty, history and culture.  Walking around Plaza de Armas del Cusco, we finally found a reputable looking (key word: looking) touring company that offered a plethora of tours, including a 5-6 hour ATV-ride throughout Sacred Valley, visiting sites such as: Salinas de Maras and the Moray Ruins.  Those two places were on the top of my list to visit and we were instantly sold!  We payed $40 USD (129.32 Sol) per person – SO CHEAP!  Here, in the states, we paid $200 + for 2 hours on ATVs on the Oregon Sand Dunes.   Crazy difference!  We were stoked and ready to explore!

 

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Plaza de Armas del Cusco

A mini van picked Doug and I up at the tour company’s little shop, along with four other people: two girls from Kansas and another young couple.  We became fast friends with the two girls from Kanasas, Tiffany and Amanda, and the four of us chatted as the mini van (old and run-down) whizzed around the mountain bends at an uncomfortable speed.  This was sketchy happening numero uno.   The dirt road was narrow and winding and at several points along our journey, the van’s right tires were less than a centimeter from the edge of the steep cliffs.  Literally.  Doug even peeked out his window at one point and, with wide eyes, looked at the rest of us in terror.  I knew better than to look myself.  If I would’ve seen how close we were to tumbling thousands of feet down to our doom, I would’ve panicked.  Thus, I kept my eyes forward in deep conversation with Amanda and Tiffany, refusing to acknowledge the insaneness of the moment.  I also need to tell you that this is NORMAL in Peru – the way our driver was zooming along on the skinny, unpaved, mountain roads is the NORM.  That’s how everyone drives there – which is why I’m so thankful we didn’t rent a car and drive ourselves.  Sheesh.

Surviving the hour long ride, we arrived at a little village where our ATVs sat in a row, lining a dirt street.  The small village was not at all like the city of Cusco – the buildings and homes were all mud-huts with dilapidated roofs, scarce to no technological advancement present, and there was no plumbing (which I quickly found out).  It was clear that this was a poor, farming village.

Immediately out of the van, Tiffany, Amanda and I asked to use the restroom and were guided to an outhouse through a doorless doorway from the street.  The second we neared the outhouse, we smelt a foul stench emanating from the structure.  Then, reaching the outhouse, we saw piles of feces and flies surrounding it.  NOPE.  We were holding our pee until further notice.  I would’ve preferred pee-ing my pants than to squat over all those bugs and gross-ness.  The smell alone was producing an intense nausea in my stomach.

Making our way back to the ATV lined street, the tour employees (of some sort) proceeded to greet us, along with a parade of piglets.  Now THIS brought excitement and joy abundant to my soul because, for those of you who don’t know, I am OBSESSED with pigs.  This was the cutest thing ever and I was thrilled.  I treated this as a sign telling me, “yes, girl..this is sketchy but it will be worth it.”   I grabbed a quick video on my phone of the pig parade so that I can always watch it when having a bad day (it works!  it immediately brightens my mood, always.)  Take a look…

 

 

However, my joy soon faded as the tour men began asking us for our passports.  They told us that they needed to keep a hold of them throughout the duration of our 5-6 hour tour, until we returned.  Not only did Amanda and Tiffany leave their passports behind (because they were told they were NOT needed), the other couple along with Doug and I were NOT about to hand over our passports – our life line in another country – to strangers.   This is travel rule number one.   All six of us refusing to budge, the tour men (after a long back and forth) finally caved and allowed us to hang on to them and still go on the tour (weird, right?).

Continuing on the sketch trend, we were informed that these are manual rides NOT automatic (even though the tour company back in Cusco told us they’d be automatic).  Soooo… what on earth was going on here?  Why was it all so backwards?  I didn’t like the feels of the whole situation and, for the first time, began to rethink our decision to go forth with this tour.

None of the four girls present on this tour were comfortable driving a manual ATV up and down mountains and, therefore, began to ask a lot of questions.  One question being: “Is this a dangerous trail?  Will we be going up and down steep slopes with steep cliffs on the sides? (like the roads we arrived on)”.   The one tour man answered (in a harsh Spanish accent),  “Yes, yes…very dangerous”.   Um, excuse me?  1) Why were you telling us that vs. comforting us?  and 2) I’m certainly not comfortable riding these old, MANUAL ATVs with VERY worn out tire tread, up and down steep mountain cliffs with death drops on either side.  Great.  This was all just lovely.   That second-guessing feeling – the one rooted deep in my gut – began to strengthen, warning me this may not be the best idea to follow through with.  I did not wish to die in Peru.

The other guy in our group (part of the young couple) spoke Spanish and was better able to communicate with the tour man.  After further discussion with the tour man, he and his girl decided to forgo the tour.  Yikes!  Now there were only four of us:  Tiffany, Amanda, Doug and I.

After a difficult deliberation, the four of us (strong willed and determined), decided we would DO THIS.  We all came so far already: surviving the scariest drive, paying money, holding our pee, arguing to keep our passports etc, that we were not about to leave behind what we came for – the chance of a lifetime to explore Sacred Valley and all her wondrous sites.  After all, adventures aren’t always comfortable and easy,  right?  And by golly, we are adventurers through-and-through. 🙂

So, we hopped on our ATVs (Doug and I doubled up for safety measures) and began our ATV ride among the Andes …

(Oh, did I mention that our guide for the 5-6 hour tour was a 13 year old boy?  No joke.  Can’t make this stuff up).

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The ATV ride began with a drive through nearby, similarly poor villages – complete with adobe homes with crumbling roofs.  As we made a slow, 90 degree turn down a street in the one village, a stray dog lunged at our legs, viciously barking.  Our 13 year old tour guide had to kick at him, revving his engine, to shoo him away.  So, at this point, we just almost contracted rabies.  WOWWW.  What will happen next?

Actually, after that incident, the tour turned from sketchy to utterly amazing.

 

 

Leaving the villages behind, we journeyed onward amidst the most breath-taking country scenery I’ve ever feasted my eyes upon.  Scenery more beautiful than my ATV ride through “Jurassic Park”, Hawaii (which I never thought possible).  It was late afternoon, and the sun was beaming – illuminating the whole landscape with golden hues.   The immense Andes surrounded us on every side.  Farmers worked in their fields.  Farm animals grazed among the expansive openness.   The cool, mountain breeze brushed our exposed skin.  There was nothing but perfection now.  This experience turned from potential horror movie to a dream come true with the snap of a finger.  It was surreal.   I vividly recall every detail of this moment and I even remember thinking “life is insane.  this is heaven.  I’m in heaven.  how can this be real?” while on the back of the ATV, arms wrapped tightly around the love of my life.

After a purely blissful, hour (ish) ride, we arrived at our first destination: The Moray Inca Ruins.

 

 

These circular ruins were so fascinating!  At the bottom of the largest circle, it is approximately 27 degrees warmer than at the top.  People believe that it is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of various climatic conditions on crops.  Genius!  Even more, Doug and I found seashells everywhere at this particular site (second photo).  Seashells at 11,000+ feet elevation!??  SO ODD.  Even odder, no one seems to be able to explain this.  Curious.

(If you’re able to provide some insight as to why these seashells exist here, please share in the comments.)

After being stunned and amazed by the Moray ruins, we journeyed to stop number two: The Maras Salt Mines (Salinas de Maras).

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These 1000 some salt pools, seated among the Andes amidst Sacred Valley, predate the Inca and are still mined today by local families – each owning a specific amount of these approx. 13 square feet, 1 foot deep pools.  As you can see (above), there are different colored pools which produce differing salts.  Pink salt, for example, is considered “gourmet” with a rich, complex mineral flavor.   We were able to walk all around the mines, weaving around all the pools and, to my surprise, were even permitted to touch the salt pools and taste them – our little guide was the COOLEST and CUTEST.  We were happy to have him.  So much so, we even grabbed a photo with him (lower left photo in the above collage).  After exploring all around the salt mines, Doug and I bought some pink salted dark chocolate from the local farmers onsite, encouraged by our guide.  It was, indeed, delicious!   I’m a big fan of pink salt now.  It lives up to its hype.

Here is a quick clip of me touching the salt pools, up close:

 

 

Even though, at this point, we were running out of time (and out of daylight), our little guide being the awesome dude he is, offered to take us to one last spot to watch the sunset.  We are unbelievably thankful for this because he took us to a breath-taking lake – looking as if it belonged to another planet.   For the life of me, I can’t remember the lake’s name – our guide told us but I could hardly understand his English pronunciation anyways (however, for being so young and knowing as many languages as he did, he was highly impressive).    I also can’t find this lake anywhere in my online searches – so, it’s a mystery destination that you can discover if you take this tour yourself! 🙂  With that being said, the sunset at this lake was MAGIC.

 

 

In conclusion, even though this whole experience began rocky to say the least, it ended up being one of the best days of my life.  Not only did we make new friends, we saw countless unforgettable places, experienced rich Peruvian culture, saw a different side of Peruvian life – the side that enables you to really realize the fact that Peru is a developing, third-world country.  I wish more people would push themselves out of their first-world comforts and experience what we were fortunate enough to experience and learn this day.   It was truly life-changing and I was reminded to not judge a book by its cover – a lesson we all need to be continually reminded of.  Initially, I judged the poverty and lack of communication and cultural differences as being “sketchy”, when in actuality… it was nowhere near sketchy.  I ended the day feeling more at ease and at peace than ever, not wanting to leave the small village quite yet – wanting to continue getting to know its residents.   These 5-6 hours were everything I needed, yet left me yearning for more.   I’m not done with Peru – I will be back, and I will be back to Sacred Valley.

I would 100% recommend taking an ATV tour among the Andes to everyone venturing to Cusco, Peru!  It’s the perfect way to explore Sacred Valley.  We were blessed to have such a small tour group, too!  It allowed us to form a camaraderie with our guide who, in return, allowed us to explore and take photos whenever we wished, even taking us to extra destinations and allotting us more than the usual time.

I can’t stress enough just how perfect and unreal this day was.

Also, for those wondering, I can’t remember the name of the tour company (I took a photo of it that must’ve grew legs and walked off my phone?).  However, I do know that it was the touring company located beside “Don Marcelo Restaurant” Pizzeria – it’s to the far left in the photo below – located in Plaza de Armas del Cusco.

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The only part of this tour that remains sketchy  – that mini-van ride to and from the ATV locale.  Yeah, that’s scary as hell FOR REAL!  My advice:  Say a prayer beforehand, then ignore the fact you’re riding the edge of death.  It worked out for us. 🙂

Oh, and the fact that they wanted to keep our passports and lied about the ATVs being fully automatic – those are questionable as well.  However, I just chalked it up to being a miscommunication?  They were super friendly, generous and kind – after getting to know them, I can’t fathom that they were intentionally trying to lie/steal/cheat us.  Either way, it was the experience of a lifetime, so just do it!

Also, the ATV paths/trails/road we took were NOT scarily dangerous.  There were ups and downs, of course, but nothing death-like (as the one tour man oddly implied?).

Furthermore, we were finally able to pee at a clean, public restroom located at the entrance of the Maras Salt Mines.   Which, at that point, I had forgotten about my full bladder.

As always, thank you so much for reading and Happy Travels! xoxo

-Mindy

 

 

 

 

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