Perú 2015: Ollantaytambo

On Wednesday, I somewhat reluctantly left my beautiful apartment in Barranco, where I had fully enjoyed my first two weeks in Peru. For the remained of my trip, I will be spending four days in Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley and three days in Cusco, after which I will return to Lima for about a day and a half before returning to Iowa. About a week remains. I wish I had one more.

Upon arriving to the Cusco airport on Wendesday afternoon, I took a cab to the Municipal Culture Office in the city center to buy my entrance ticket for Machu Picchu (that will be happening on Saturday). The driver and I made small talk as he drove, and when he asked me how long I was staying in Cusco, I told him I would be going to Ollantaytambo first. Uf, he said, making a face. “Not for too long, I hope. There is so much more to do in Cusco.” When I told him four days, he was incredulous. “Four days?!?! No no no no. You’ll get bored. What will you do for four days there? You’d better change your plans. One day in Ollantaytambo, the rest of the days in Cusco. So many things to do. I can help you.” When I told him I wasn’t worried about being bored, he laughed again. “Oh, you will be. Four days! Ha!” I told him that if he could be bored in the Sacred Valley, he must have forgotten how to appreciate the immense beauty that surrounded him. He looked at me hard in the rearview window for a few seconds and then said, “Maybe you’re right, miss. Maybe you are.”

After purchasing my entrance ticket, I slowly made my way through the uneven streets of Cusco to find Pavitos street, where I had been told the colectivos to Ollantaytambo left from as soon as they were full. A colectivo is an alternative to cabs and buses; essentially, they’re privately run, typically by some guy with a minivan who is willing to spend his days driving certain routes back and forth. The benefit of a colectivo is that they’re much more comfortable than a bus – almost as much so as a private car, in some cases – and much less expensive than a taxi. I paid 12 soles for the ride (about $4 US), while a taxi would have been 70 (about $25). It took me a while to find my way to the departure spot, as I was definitely feeling both the altitude and the steep Cusco inclines, but I finally found a colectivo that was just two passengers short, and soon we were off to Ollantaytambo.

The ride itself was vertiginous, as we wound down into the valley. The sites, though, were spectacular: mountains surrounded us from nearly every angle, and they were incredibly close. The four women I shared the ride with were quickly asleep. There was a young woman with a baby in the back with me, and as she slept her head kept nodding onto my shoulder and then jerking up when she realized what she was doing. After a few minutes, I told her it didn’t bother me, and that she should sleep however she was most comfortable, so she and her baby cozied up next to me and slept all the way into the village, which is about an hour and forty-five minutes from Cusco.

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Ollantaytambo is known as a living Inca village, populated (I’m told) by Incan descendants who maintain ancient traditions that have long since been forgone by most other Peruvian communities. It is also a common destination for those headed to Machu Picchu, or those who wish to acclimatize themselves to a slightly lower altitude before spending time in Cusco (many advise it, in fact, as a means of avoiding true altitude sickness). This makes for an interesting scene in the plaza de armas, or town square, which is full of international tourists from virtually everywhere around the globe, residents in traditional garb, many of whom sell goods such as handmade jewelry, food, or alpaca (llama) textiles, restaurants and shops in every storefront, and dogs, dogs, everywhere (I have never in my life seen as many dogs roaming the streets as I have here, and that’s saying a lot for someone who has traveled quite a bit in Latin America, especially after last summer in Costa Rica). I’ve been snapping photos with the vague intent of creating one post dedicated just to pictures of the dogs of Peru. Until then, here are a couple of my favorites so far:

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Having gotten in around 6pm, I dropped off my things in the bed and breakfast I’m staying at here – La casa del abuelo, which had rave reviews on Airbnb, and rightfully so – and the took a short walk around the plaza before getting some dinner at a local restaurant. Grilled trout with spicy, creamy garlic sauce, plus avocado, sliced tomatoes and boiled potatoes on the side. Have I mentioned how much I love Peruvian food?

As I left the restaurant, I heard the band that had come by the B&B earlier playing in the plaza outside of the chapel, and so I went to watch them for a while. Catty, the women who runs La casa del abuelo, had told me that May 23rd is the day of Ollantaytambo’s patron saint, and that the date is celebrated every year for a span of about two weeks surrounding that day. “You’re here at the perfect time to enjoy our festival!” she told me. While the band played, young men came through the crowd passing out hot, sweet tea (it’s freezing here at night, if I forgot to mention that) to those of us gathered there. I stayed for about half an hour, enjoying the music and the antics of three young boys whose dancing and shenanigans were entertaining the entire crowd.

The next day, I woke up to the Andes right outside of my window, which is something I haven’t done for over a decade now.

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I also had my first breakfast at the B&B, which made me understand why all the reviewers raved about the complimentary breakfast there. Eggs any way you like them, great bread, butter, jam, fruit, orange juice, coffee… it was wonderful. I got to meet Michaela, Catty’s daughter, who I wish I could put in my pocket and take everywhere with me. She’s really that cute. Then Catty gave me some tips on exploring Ollantaytambo, which I soon set off to do.

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I spent the rest of the morning and the first part of the afternoon mountain climbing to visit the ruins of Pinkuylluna, up in the mountains just a few blocks away from the plaza. I was a little embarassed at how long it took me to do the climb, which really wasn’t that terribly high – I realized then just how much the altitude was affecting me. I was careful to drink lots of water and take breaks as needed. I didn’t want to push myself too hard, but I also didn’t want to miss out on all the things I wanted to do and see during my time here. It was well worth the effort; the ruins are gorgeous, and the view of the valley is just incredible. About midway through my climb, I came across a hummingbird flitting around a cactus bloom, and watched it for a while. SO much beauty here.

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After climbing back down, I stopped in the plaza for a coca tea (which helps with altitude sickness) and a light lunch. I opted for the stuffed avocado, a small vegetarian dish that was just what I needed. Then I went back to the hotel for a nap. I was beat! I slept for almost two hours, and then got up and headed out again. This time, I set out to explore the pueblo viejo (old village) that lies behind the square. It is a seeming maze of Inca-built walls and streets, constructed entirely of stone and mortar. It is primarily a residential area, although some businesses have set up shop at the ends closest to the plaza.

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At one point during my stroll, I walked past an open door and saw an old woman sitting on the ground inside, shucking dehydrated choclo from an enormous pile that covered the entire enclosure. Since she greeted me kindly and gave me a smile, I asked if she was shucking choclo to sell at the market. She said that she was, and I told her that I came from a place where corn was very important, and that it made me think of home to see choclo almost everywhere I went. Because she was so open and kind I asked if I might take a picture of her and her choclo to remember her by, and offered her a sol for the privilege. She obliged, telling me to take as many pictures as I wanted. I took two, both of which are below:

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Next, I found the main road out of town, the Alameda de Cien Ventanas, and followed it until it gave way to a set of stone portals leading to a simple path that took me out of the village. Catty had told me it was a nice walk that would eventually lead to more ruins, if I followed it long enough, and that it was one of her favorites because so few people visited it. I am so glad that she recommended it. It was one of the absolute highlights of the trip so far, and a walk I am sure to take again tomorrow.

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I told Adam last night that this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and one that I am already looking forward to returning to. Just being here is such a privilege. The sense of history is truly palpable, and with so many residents still practicing ancient traditions, it feels a little bit like a step back in time at moments. Or as I was telling some new friends at dinner tonight (more on that next), a sense that you’re existing within the present and the past at the same time. There is something about being surrounded at almost every turn by the Andes makes everything feel just… magical, somehow. How can you not feel awe in the presence of this?

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Today (Friday) I did a little people watching the plaza after breakfast and then hit the archeological site on the edge of town. It made for a beautiful hike, first up and up and up through stone stairs, and then through some beautiful stone paths before heading back down again. Maybe I’m tired, or maybe I’ve just seen too many ruins recently, but I don’t have a lot to say about this one. Here are some photos to visually lead you through a bit:

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After finishing the hike, I was ravenous, and was about to go find some lunch when I ran into a friendly traveling duo – a father and daughter who had just done the Inca trail and a culminating tour of Machu Picchu. They were very friendly and open, and we quickly made plans to meet in a few hours to walk around and see some sites together. So after a wonderful lunch of chicken and sweet potatoes at Puka Rumi, I met them at my B&B to point out some things they might want to check out while here and go on a scenic walk leading out of the village. First, I consulted with the co-owner of the B&B to make sure I wasn’t leading them on some sort of wild goose chase. Yesterday I had started this walk but was soon turned back as the evening grew dark. There were some interesting looking sites a ways off, but I couldn’t tell how far, exactly. When I asked him about it, he said that there really wasn’t anything to see there – that a much better route would be to follow this other road past a school and then a soccer field and then through some farmland and finally to these ancient ruins… okay, he knows best. We all know how this one ends, right? Yes, with us lost in a field co-habitated by two (luckily very peaceful) bulls. Such is life.

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They were cool, though, and didn’t point fingers or ditch me, which they very well could have. Instead, we took a stroll through pueblo viejo, stocked up on some gluten-free treats at a cute local bakery in the old stone streets behind the plaza, and then set off on the walk I had initially had in mind. You know, the one where there was nothing to see. Well, it was gorgeous. We followed it until we came to some huge bluffs, and then climbed part way up to get a better view.

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As dusk started to fall, we headed back into Ollantaytambo, talking about travel and how we felt about putting ourselves into certain places and contexts. Lindsay is embarking upon a six-week journey unlike any other trip she has taken before, and we talked a little about the inevitable ups and downs of those kinds of trips. We also laughed and shared stories and just generally had fun getting to know each other. It’s so nice to meet people who are so engaging and so open, and whose company is immediately so comfortable. All in all, it was one of the nicest days of my trip so far, and I feel lucky to be right here, right now, just exactly where I’m supposed to be.

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