Published: July 23rd 2010July 16th 2010
Mountain runoff rushes through Ollantaytambo...
Cusco is the launching pad for the Sacred Valley, which earns its name by having reached the swerving heights above Urubamba. The Andes crash from the heavens at a sixty degree angle into the Urubamba River. The massive ridges crisscross every few kilometers forcing the river to make wide loops for most of its course. From the drab and uninspiring urban grid after which the river is named, I haul my backpack off the van’s roof and take a passenger’s advice on how to move forward. In thirty minutes, another bus deposits me in front of the central market of Ollantaytambo, and absolute jewel of a spot. Ollantaytambo is what you make of it. Tucked into the west end of the Sacred Valley, it can entice, overwhelm, and enchant - or simply be a bland transfer point for the grand prize, which is forty-five kilometers away. I prefer to see this an ancient stone village the in the former as opposed to the latter.
Even while seeking accommodation, it is impossible to resist looking up and spinning three hundred sixty degrees to marvel at the surroundings. I check in, drop off my belongings, and hurry back to the ancient stone village
A Place to Wander
It is easy to get away from the bustle of the main square...
completely energized. I do not know where run off to first. Ollantaytambo is ancient stone village that easily predates the Spaniards’ arrival. Swift gurgling mountain runoff rushes through aqueducts alongside residences and at times underground. The villages’ narrowest of back streets amble by internal farm patios and homes whose entrances are of Incan construction. Their foundations are of massive stone blocks placed together to fit precisely. They hold together under their own weight. Some of the entrances are also of two thick lateral stones connected overhead by a cross piece not that much smaller. The deeper into the town I walk, I get the sense that Ollantaytambo is not a question of where, but when. Mountains from which roofless ancient Incan dwellings impossibly cling block out a great deal of sunlight. Never have stone, mud, and ceramic tiled roofs come together so elegantly.
All of a sudden there is a snack bar sign with Paris Hilton’s bony body in a black swimsuit. Hmm. I wonder if Atahualpa would have approved.
It is all rather curious because the village leads a bipolar existence. The Plaza de Armas is under construction at about the same halfway point as the one in Huancavelica.
A Question of When
Ollantaytanbo's back streets of stone...
On all four sides are shops and restaurants to support the tourist trade, without which Ollantaytambo might just assume the same characteristics as several hundred years ago. As in Cusco, most of the signage is in English. There are a few bars that cater to twenty-nothings here for only a night or two. Vans trudge around with nine to ten muddy mountain bikes tightly locked onto roof racks. Europeans and Americans in Nike trainers and North Face insulated jackets walk by Andean women who have their offspring securely wrapped behind them in colorful blankets. Fire oven pizzas are all the rage to lure the recent Duke grads in for a meal four or five times out of the price range of a local resident. Dozens of tour coaches and vans with “Servicio Turísitco” painted on the sliding doors crawl to the train station to collect or drop off hundreds of tourists whose only glimpse of the town may be from their comfy velour seats. It is a delicate balance. The Incan ruins by the same name simply dominate and survey the village from above. Vendors set up the same mediocre “authentic” merchandise available anywhere within one hundred miles of Cusco.
Out of Place?
Even Ollantaytambo cannot escape Paris Hilton's bony figure...
Oddly enough, Ollantaytambo still manages to preserve its appeal and serve the likes of us successfully.
There is no avoiding that most foreigners, such as myself, have come to shorten the ride and reduce the train fare to Machu Picchu. When trying to get to Macchu Picchu from either Cusco or Ollantaytambo, grab your ankles. The soaking starts here. It will be the only time when visiting Peru we get absolutely fleeced and have to sit there and take it. PeruRail monopolizes the route to Aguas Calientes, unreachable by any other means. While they charge a modest fee for Peruvian nationals, about four dollars, it is a thumping thirty-one dollar fare each way for foreigners. For the same amount of money, it is possible to travel halfway down the coast from the Ecuadoran border. Upon arriving at Aguas Calientes just below Machu Picchu, the extortion continues. Rates for a basic room at a guesthouse run triple what they do in Ollantaytambo. The five mile trip to the ruins will set a passenger back seven dollars each way. There are no other options.
Well, yes, there is another option. Thousands each year opt for the four-day Inca Trail hike out of
Ollanta's ruins from the highest point possible...
Cusco. I am sure it is rewarding, as I have heard from those who have completed the trek. The minimum cost to sign up starts with a bare bones $170. The question I have is where does the money go? At $31 each way on trains running at capacity, someone’s pockets are getting lined well enough to build a villa in Southern France within a very short time.
Tourists, both Peruvians and Europeans, lazily stroll around the ticket window without actually approaching to make a purchase. I slowly study the options to and from Ollanta. Ideally, two days at Macchu Picchu would suit me. It’s not like I can come back anytime soon. Still no one is at a window. I smell the opportunity and jump up to see if I can grab a ticket and go, which is wishful thinking.
“Señora, Buenos días. Yo qui-“
“I am sorry señor, but the system is down right now. I cannot help you.”
“I cannot get a ticket?”
“No, señor.” Then I looked behind me at the dozen and a half frustrated folks with their hands in their faces.
“OK, but can you please tell me which—“
“Señor, the system is down.
Squeezing Through the Walls
Ollantaytambo viewed from lofty heights...
I cannot help you.” Translations: “Even though your question does not require me to stare at a computer screen to answer, get lost…this is a break for me and you’re interrupting.”
“I know. When will it be back up?”
“In about thirty minutes, señor.” Translation: “I have no f - - -ing idea! How should I know? Why should I care? (Is my afternoon soap opera on?) Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. Why are you still talking to me?” I could not actually see her. The outside of the ticket window is encased in a translucent film. With a security guard outside, though unarmed, my guess is that it allows no one to peer in to see where the money goes. At $31 a pop each way, that adds up. I hope my contribution pays for a red tail light on one of the top executives’ numerous yachts.
I spoke into a microphone at an angle, placing my elbow where she may hand me my ticket sometime before I go for elective hip surgery. “Do you take credit cards?”
“No, señor. Cash only.”
“Oh” I paused. “What’s your favorite color?” I was doing this on purpose. The more I stayed there
Ruins at Ollantaytambo
Very imposing site when coming into town...
the more annoyed she became. I finally backed off when I realized in order to get a ticket I would have to hand over a crisp $100 bill and my passport to her. I took a seat near two French trekkers and behaved.
I eventually got my ticket. It being the high season, I was none too pleased with the arrangements. I am lucky. I am alone. Little Miss Sociable can get me there, but not for two days. The problem is that groups have booked months in advance, particularly the return. It seems as though those who walk the Inca Trail are nowhere near in the same mood to go back the same way they came. They take the train…losers. The result? Depart Ollantaytambo at the ass end of five in the morning, overnight in Aguas Calientes and leave for Ollanta somewhere before six am the next morning. I’ll take it and make the most of it.
I planned to get up this morning rather early anyway, but my internal clock has me rolling out of bed just after six. During any other month besides July or August on a day off, I would purposefully cling to my
A construction as marvelous as it is mysterious...
pillow until eight before moving anywhere. Through the curtains of my clean but chilly room, I take note that clouds have lowered their boom on the Sacred Valley. The gates for the Ollantaytambo ruins open at seven and I am juiced to get there fifteen minutes before the gates open. I do not want to share any of the grounds with anyone but the maintenance crews, especially until the tour buses arrive. Then I think to myself, what’s the rush? No tourist will move at this hour.
The gates opened at seven. Only support staff arrived, men who mumbled to each other in Quechua and shook each others’ hands. I dove into my backpack and devoured two tangerines, a banana, and two plums. I didn’t wash off the plums beforehand. Mónica didn’t put her cute little self in the ticket booth until she arrived at seven fifteen, or as they say in Peru…right on time, even a bit early. The security guard found me tossing away the rinds. “Señor, go ahead.” He pointed to the booth.
Mónica was there fixing her eyelashes. “Buenos Dias.”
“Buenos Días.” She threw at me a smile as stunning as it was insincere. She pucked
Massive Stone Blocks
Questions is...how did the Incas move them to that spot? No one knows...
her lips to ensure the ruby red application had taken full effect. It had.
“I’d like to buy a tourist ticket.” A “boleto turísitco” allows admission into about a dozen sights around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It is valid for ten days. If you hit all the sights, it holds its value. Without it no admission is permitted on a single sight. Initially it is a painful forty-six dollars to fork over.
“One hundred thirty soles, please.”
I had in my hand one hundred fifty. There was no way I was getting any change at this hour in Peru, or anywhere else south of the Río Grande. “You wouldn’t happen to have a twenty for this?”
“No,” she batted her eyelashes at me. “Also, I cannot give a ticket right now. They do not arrive until eight.”
“Wh- What? But can I go in and you can-“
“Oh, ¡sí! I will be here this morning. When you come back, I’ll have your ticket and your change.” She did. I bet on only seeing the ticket and my having to eat the twenty soles. The security guard waved me through and I walked briskly into the ruins along the flat
River Valley Beyond the Ruins
The source of Ollanta's water is up in those hills...
river plain among homes and ceremonial fountains. Wherever I stepped, I turned around to look up into the sky. Ethereal clouds float among the terraces that rise and disappear in gusts of wind. The cool and misty morning creates a solitude that sunshine simply fails to reach. I cannot wait to get up there. At 9,000+ feet, it might take me a while and it might cost me my left lung, but I cannot wait.
Ollantaytambo’s ruins are an imposing collection of deep concave terraces carved into mountain rock. It was still under construction when the Spaniards arrived. Francisco Pizarro sent his brother to conquer Ollanta. Naturally, not too many more additions were worked on afterwards. I start the climb. It is a compassionate and gradual ascent. Every dozen or so steps, I turn around to see Ollanta smaller and more compact. The flat fields of the terraces are long wide strips of land covered in trampled yellow grass. The walled supports are of quarried stone about four feet high. There are more than thirteen levels to the concave, amphitheater-like staircase of terraces. Other groups of smaller terraces also are reachable along a lofty but safe trail.
I find a
All you have to do is turn around...
path through empty cold rooms and through a thick but exposed doorway to the rear of the complex. There is a rupture in the walls and I exit the ruins at their highest point. On the back side of the walls seen only by sheep, I follow a well-defined but tricky and steep path up to where the walls connect to the craggy mountainside. The path is very rocky, allowing me traction. Back in Huancayo at Torre Torre I backed away, unwilling to take the risk. I deemed this one worthwhile and I grabbed solid stone outcroppings to help me up the zigzag trail. Some brush has covered its width at the top where it levels off. I walk through the bristly and dense vegetation to a wall about the height of my hip. From here I can go no higher. I breathe heavily and peer over the wall. Below me are the terraces, ceremonial stages, chambers, and footpaths that have lead up to where I am. The view is beyond spectacular. I squint my eyes to find where Mónica is incarcerated in the ticket booth. The first wave of tourists has arrived and is checking in. I have had
People were just starting to wake up down below...
the entire ground to myself for the first hour. I will not be able to say that about Machu Picchu.
Only from this vantage point do I grasp a true sense of the Sacred Valley. So much is audible from these heights. Roosters call out. Children scream for a pass at a schoolyard over a half a mile away. Cowbells chime. A brass band is practicing in a village behind me, but I cannot tell exactly where.
A frigid wind rips into me. Having exerted much on the climb, it strips my damp torso of vital heat. I dive into my backpack and put on my coat. I acknowledge aloud that I would be in trouble without it. My mind races thousands of miles north to Mount Washington in New Hampshire where trekkers set out on a fine seventy-five degree day and run into a cold front on the mountain. The temperature plummets. Now I know how it feels and can imagine how quickly hypothermia can set in. Behind the ruins soar Andean peaks enshrouded in an opaque mist and a fresh thin blanket of snow. I face Ollantaytambo and am looking down on all others and on the astonishing remains of an advanced and organized civilization conquered hundreds of years ago. It is hard to imagine how far from Connecticut I am at this very point and time.