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Published: November 26th 2013
Sun Temple of rose rhyoliteAt the end of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, lies Ollantaytambo, a travelers' dream. Small and peaceful, with only 2000 people, it lies along two rivers and is tucked between mountains covered with Incan ruins. The old town is unique--the best preserved, still-inhabited Incan city with its original layout, stone walls and houses, and cobbled streets with their water canals. Truly a walk back in time.
and quarry across the mountain
There were also indigenous communities nearby whose people, dressed in traditional clothes, came to barter, sell, shop and hang out in the plaza. While there were tourist services, this town had the most indigenous look and feel of any in the valley. And in June, there was a wealth of festivals. I stayed in the old Incan part of town where streets were too narrow for cars, and I awakened to the sound of birds--just like home! I enjoyed my morning coffee and oats on the wild, flower-filled patio with Otie the pug and the mama cat. Heading out for adventure, I passed through the hostel's portal, built by the Inca 500 years ago, up our street of chunky stones, also built
by them, to the base of the mountain that looms over and seems to protect the town. I climbed Incan stone steps to ruins overlooking the Urubamba River, then further up to my favorites--massive granaries.
A Sweet Retreat The Inca built their tall granaries high on mountainsides where it was cooler and out of the way of thieves. The graceful, stone structures had windows high on one side to pour in the grain and low on the other to remove it, which also maintained air circulation--so clever! They stored quinoa, amaranth and thousands of varieties of corn and potatoes--so much healthier than the white bread and white rice consumed in Peru now. Sadly, the Incan grains are expensive here and mostly for export to the developed world. The granaries were a sweet retreat--a quiet, shady place to read and survey the town below with the morning sun illuminating the towering temples and terraces on the mountain opposite. Further up were tall, cylindrical structures, possibly pre-Incan tombs such as I'd seen at Puno and in the Colca Canyon.
Walking on the Earth Ollantaytambo is the last town
in the Sacred Valley; after that the valley narrows to a gorge as the Urubamba River plunges deeper in its descent toward Machu Picchu and the Amazon. There were Incan ruins all over the mountains and infinite options for hikes. It was so lovely to be walking on the earth after months on Cusco' sidewalks. Sometimes I crossed the Urubamba on a pedestrian bridge whose foundations were built by the Inca, then either up a difficult trail to a high Incan quarry or along the river, passing ancient watch towers and meeting goats. Yet some walks were tricky as the rainy season had lingered. From the river trail, I could see ruins hidden from the town, reputed to be the palaces of the emperor. However, I never managed to reach them as the trail leading there had become a stream. Ditto my attempts to walk to villages and ruins up a side canyon. I got only so far before I was stopped by about three inches of water cascading down the trail; this didn't stop the villagers in their sandals who had no other choice.
Incan Town Ollantaytambo's old Inca layout was in blocks of houses arranged around courtyards. Looking through open doorways into these courtyards, I saw chickens, llamas, dogs, and drying corn--all as it would have been five centuries ago. Some roofs were still thatch as they had been in Inca times, while others were either red tile or zinc. Doors retained the trapezoidal shape favored by the Inca, and stone slabs bridged the streets' water canals to the houses' entrances. Along the river, the nicest blocks, now housing boutique hotels, were built in the Imperial Style--perfectly cut, evenly sized stones with a double door jamb and single stone lintel indicating fancy dancers lived within. I stayed on a more humble street with walls of field stone and mortar, in the hostel where Hirum Bingham, the "discoverer" of Machu Picchu had stayed in 1911. The sense of history was palpable in the old town. With no kitchen, I often went to the mercado/market for a yummy, one dollar lunch. I always ate at Rosa's stall, so I got to know her, her family and other customers, generally women with
good-natured babies strapped to their backs. We sat on long benches, chatted and savored lentils or split peas with rice, a fried egg and a herbal drink promising to cure any sort of problem.
Colorful Processions and a Bull Stare-Down I was there in June, harvest season, when all the towns in the Sacred Valley have week-long, very non-Christian celebrations for their individual patron saints--a disembodied, bloody head of Our Lord of Whatnot with an indigenous name, here El Senor de Choquilika. Each day brought late afternoon processions, and the weekend had a bull fight/encounter, a fish fry of trout from the polluted Urubamba and few tourists. Dance groups from town and the surrounding pueblos wore wild costumes, generally with masks (page 2 photos). The hostel owners' young son was in a group with white woolen masks, elaborate hats and llamas tied to their belts. I asked him and his mother why he wore a mask, but neither knew. How sad when the dancers only know the form but not the meaning of the costumes and dances. What of the old traditions is being retained? It seemed young Carlos
was doing this as a fun, social activity rather than as a tribute to his Incan heritage or the Catholic Lord. Yet we have the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and Hannakuh bushes--all traditions change. I'd seen posters for a bull fight and told a friend I'd never attend one. She laughed and said this was more of a stare down. That Saturday, a succession of about twenty bulls were led through town and to a field ringed by spectators. The bulls hung out grazing until, two by two, they were brought into the center where they ignored each other. The trainers hit their butts to anger them, and finally, they'd get close, stare or push heads for about five seconds until one would run away--pretty funny!
Archaeological Site--A City on a Hill As with Pisac, I'd first come for a day to visit the impressive archaeological site. Arriving in Ollantaytambo's little plaza, it was easy to spot the massive agricultural terraces topped by the archaeological complex above the town. I set off on the cobbled streets, crossing a bridge over a river, passing a low-key artisan market to the
original gateway with double jamb door
and curious lobes at sacred ceremonial site
looming terraces. Looking up at the hundreds of stone steps, I was glad I'd brought my walking sticks though I ended up lending them to a French woman whose knees were worse than mine. It was easy to see how these tall, deep terraces would not only provide food, but also slow down an invading army. In fact, Ollantaytambo was one of the few Incan sites to have triumphed in an attack from the Spanish, and thus it's often called a fortress. However, this isn't accurate. as most of the buildings were ceremonial, residential or for storage though the terraces did form a fine defensive wall (and a good huff and puff to climb).
Unfinished, Unique Site As all Incan sites in the valley, this was a private estate of the first great Inca, Emperor Pachacutec, in a spectacular location atop a spur of a mountain with sweeping views. Although the sacred ceremonial sector was unfinished when abandoned, it had several unique features.
Shining brilliantly in the rising sun was a wall of the unfinished Temple of the Sun, of polished, pink rhyolite composed of six,
huge, upright monolithic slabs (rather than the unusual polygonal ones), separated by thin spacers, all fit with the usual Incan perfection, and with unique carvings. It was the most beautiful of any Incan stonework I'd see.
Since the site was unfinished, there were many carved, but unplaced stone blocks providing an insight to construction techniques. While it appears that Incan blocks are simply stacked (and that may be the case generally), there were all sorts of grooves and notches carved into the stone. Also, there were blocks with a small T carved in them that would have been set across from a similar one and molten bronze poured in to fasten them together (page 3 photos).
From the temple area, one could see the quarry 6 km away, high on a mountain across the river. Using levers, rollers and lots of brute (forced) labor, the Incas quarried huge stones weighing up to 52 tons, and maneuvered them down the hill, across the rushing river and along a long ramp up to the site. A impressive feat.
There were so many places to explore--a residential area, watch
towers high above along a funky, tricky-to-find trail and granaries. On the valley floor were more ruins of high-quality stonework--water channels, ceremonial fountains and baths, and lots of carved stone shrines. It provided a full day of discovery.
After this first visit, I returned again for a day, traveling the length of the Sacred Valley from Pisac, to drop off my bag, so I could travel light to full moon Machu Picchu. After that adventure, I stayed in Ollantaytambo a week before returning to Cusco. Cusco was my true home, yet I'll always hold sweet Ollantaytambo in my heart--there's room for more than one love.
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