Ruins, more ruins and Machu Picchu

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November 27th 2015
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: -8.11237, -79.03

Ollentaytambo to Trujillo 18 - 27 November


After Puno we wanted to visit Mach Picchu but without the discomfort of being too high so we opted to stay in Ollentaytambo (shortened to Ollenta by everyone) which is about 2,500 metres high. I need to explain the access to MP otherwise the route is difficult to understand.

MP is on the top of a mountain. There are 2 ways to reach it, the first being a 4 day, 3 night trek and the second being a bus from Aguas Calientes. Obviously we took the bus! However that is not as easy as it sounds. Aguas Calientes cannot be accessed by road so if you don't want to trek you must take the train either from Cuzco (4 hour train journey to MP and altitude 3,400 metres) or Ollenta (2 hour journey to MP and 2,500 metres high) which is why we chose Ollentaytambo.

When we arrived we were astounded by Ollenta. It is an Inca town built on a grid system with very narrrow streets which have fast flowing water channels down them. It is the only Inca town still lived in. It controls access to the upper valley and the Incas positioned a fort on one side of the valley and lookouts on the other. It is the only site where the Spaniards were defeated in battle by the Incas. The Spaniards swept along the valley but when they reached Ollenta the Inca King, Manco Inca, released water into pre-planned channels. This soaked the bottom of the valley making it impossible for the Spaniard's horses to move and they had to retreat as best they could, losing many men and animals. As you might expect given the unequal forces, the Spaniards returned some time later with many more men and guns and over-ran Ollenta.

But back to access to MP. As I said you can take the train from Ollenta but obtaining tickets for the outing is like a weird treasure hunt. To be fair it has been made a little easier this last year and the fact it was low season helped us. The advice is not to buy a train ticket (which must be purchased in advance from the train station in Ollenta) until you have the MP entrance ticket. When we asked how to buy the entrance ticket we were told that it must be done online but you cannot pay for it online. Once reserved you must make a round trip of 36 kilometres in a taxi to the next town and go to the bank to pay for the ticket. This is because there is no bank in Ollenta. However the advice was a couple of months out of date as it has just changed and in fact you can now pay online! But because of the inconvenience of printing out the ticket we decided to risk arriving in Aguas Calientes and buying a ticket from the Municipal Offices there. As it was low season we were told that was a safe strategy.

The train is very expensive and has 3 different standards ranging from the exclusive 'Hyram Bingham' service, akin to the Orient Express but only one carriage which travels alone (with an engine of course) in splendid isolation, through the 'Vista Dome' to the backpacker 'Expeditionary' service. There is a fourth standard which is very cheap but only locals can use it. Any tourists or non residents found in those carriages are fined heavily.

The day before our trip was spent sorting all this out and then relaxing and enjoying Ollenta and it's ruins. We took the 5.07am train to beat the rush to MP but so did everyone else! Before we entered the gates of MP we had had to show tickets and passports 5 times. Even on the bus up the hill from Aguas Calientes we had to show them to purchase the ticket AND to board the bus.

Finally we made it. Machu Picchu was spread out in front of us - briefly! We climbed to the highest point to take the classic photograph, and the mist came down. In fact it was just the clouds surroundiing the mountain as you might expect at that height. After waiting some time for it to clear without success we descended to lower levels. We thought we might be disappointed as we had seen so many picture of MP but that wasn't the case. Although we have seen similar ruins before, and in fact more interesting ones in Mexico, it is the position of MP that is breathtaking (literally and metaphorically).

You have to ask yourself, how did they manage to build it, and the bigger question, WHY?. Although the guides talk a lot there is almost no verified information about it's purpose, or clear understanding of it's features. It is all guesswork and opinion. It is suggested that about 500 people lived there and it was a 'country estate' for a member of the elite, but no-one can be sure. What is clear is that an awful lot of effort went into building it. There was no train then! The surrounding emerald peaks which seem to rise vertically from base to summit enhance the sense of isolation from the world. The area has it's own microclimate and is greener and more humid than the rest of the Sacred Valley. What is certain is that they liked steep paths and high steps. Spending hours climbing up and down left us with aching legs but it was worth it.

We were happy to rejoin the train for the homeward journey and found it more entertaining than expected as a traditional dancer in fancy dress joined us and then the staff put on a fashion show of Alpaca outfits. We were sitting chatting with a local man and asked him about the constantly advertised 'Baby Alpaca' clothing. He said locals call it 'Maybe Alpaca'. I asked how to check if it is genuine and he told me to wet a small area and then smell it. It should smell of Alpaca. That did not help me much! However he did warn not to get caught in the rain wearing it and then go on a bus or metro because of the smell. From his grin I could not judge how useful his advice was.

After a couple of days lazing in Ollenta we braced ourselves for a quick visit to Cuzco en route to Nasca. Cuzco was the Inca capital before being taken over by the Spaniards. The temples and buildings there were reputedly covered in plates of decorative gold but within a couple of years of the arrival of the Spaniards it had all been stripped and transported back to Spain. Because it was the capital the buildings were on a totally different scale to Ollenta and MP. Mostly it is only the walls that are left but the stonework (huge blocks carved so smoothly there is no need for mortar) demonstrate the skills of their engineers. The walls tilt inwards slightly to survive earthquake shocks which of course are common in this volcanic area which is part of the 'Fiery Ring of the Pacific'. The main plaza is huge and the buildings mainly from the colonial period but the Inca walls and narrow streets are evident everywhere. We enjoyed our exploratory walk despite being breathless but because of the altitude we were pleased to get on the night bus little knowing what was in store.

We should have looked at a large scale map of our route but we were just hoping to go downhill quickly and both of us fell asleep immediately. In fact we had to cross 3 mountain ranges with high passes. To say the ride was rocky is an understatement. It was like being on a waltzer ride at the fairground for the whole night, being spun, twisted and thrown from side to side, with difficulty breathing added in for fun as we went over 5,000 metres. Deep sleep was impossible. I used to love the waltzer but you can have more than enough of a good thing. A beautiful dawn came eventually, lighting the desert mountains with colours from cream and gray through yellow, orange and finally to deep red. Then we saw the road and the precipitous drops. Thank goodness I had not seen them in the night, not only would I not have slept, I would probably have jumped off the bus. Perhaps that is why they only run night buses on some of these routes.

By 8am we arrived in Nasca. By 10am I was in the air in a 6 seater plane trying to photograph the 'lines'. It is difficult to take photographs as the pilot tells you when the shape is coming up under the wing, then he drops that wing down so you can take a quick photograph before turning round and carrying out the same manouevre on the other wing. He told us to note where the lines were then take a quick shot but not to try to focus or look through the viewfinder as it makes people vomit. It seems that 1 in 3 people are ill. We did well as we had 4 passengers and all remained healthy if slightly green in some cases. Jim had decided not to come when he heard the statistics, plus the flights have a very poor safety record. I think they have tightened up procedures since they had a number of fatal accidents between 2005 -2009. However, I was pleased that Jim decided he did not want to fly as I did not like the idea of both of us being in the same plane. Instead, he went to the roadside tower which gave a view of a couple of the 'animal' designs. I managed to get a few photographs but apologies for the quality. I had a wonderful view of the monkey but missed most of it with the camera. Have a look online if you want to see better photographs.

Then it was on the lunchtime bus to Trujillo, a stop half way to our next destination of Mancora, but also near other ruins. Just before we reached Trujillo, where we had booked accommodation for 3 nights, Jim said, "Do you realise we are a day early?" I had not as I had forgotten we had allowed a day for 'slippage' in case we could not get a bus when expected. Luckily when we reached the hotel they had a room so it was not a problem. We have met others who have made the same mistake so we reckon that it results from long overnight journeys and not senility yet.

We decided it was easy to take a group tour of the local ruins even though they are close to town. We were glad that we did as we met some lovely people in the mini bus and I worked hard with my Spanish as the guide did not speak English. There are 2 groups of ruins, those from the Moche people, from 100AD to 800AD, and the Chimu period which followed on in another area, and lasted until approximately the14 Century when the Inca Empire overtook them.

Both groups had elites (usually priests) who maintained their power by interceding with the gods for good fortune which in this case usually meant enough water to survive and no volcanic explosions or catastrophic earthquakes. They used human and other sacrifices to achieve this. The irony is that these and other groups, including some of the Incas, where wiped out during periods of extreme El Nino activity where ferocious rains washed their communities away. Chan Chan is a huge Chimu settlement covering about 20 square kilometres which housed some 30,000 people but as it was all built of adobe much of it has been washed away. It is only the parts covered by the desert which have partly remained and are now being excavated.

The Moche sites we visited showed more evidence of worship, with their temples to the sun and moon. They were sophisticated in their ceramics (some of the best I have seen but unfortunately no photographs allowed) and gold work. Their pottery is recognised as being some of the most varied in the world with fascinating designs and using mould technology. The moon was of most importance to them as it gave light to the fishermen. They were agriculturalists who used irrigation successfully which allowed them to develop these other skills as they could produce a surplus of food. There is some suggestion that women were the rulers, but not priests.

Tonight we are moving to Mancora where we are going to stay by the beach for a week to rest and research the next stage of our trip which is hopefully to parts of Ecuador to visit sights we missed in 2009 and then on to Colombia where we have booked accommodation for Christmas in Cartagena, another Colonial city. I hope to post this blog today before we move on as with wifi availability it is always best to assume that it might not work in the next hotel.

But before I sign off there were a few odd things I forgot to mention about Bolivia, and at risk of lowering the tone of the blog I will add them now. The first is the toilet seats which seem to be the norm in Bolivia if there are any seats at all! They look normal, the lids are normal, hard plastic, but the seats are made of a different material from the lid and in fact are slightly soft and when you sit they act like whoopee cushions. Disconcerting and probably unhygienic! The second point which is related is that the toilet on the long distance buses are always locked and they are never used. If you are lucky the bus might stop in the middle of nowhere and let everyone jump out. That is the best you can hope for.

Peru is more sophisticated. They leave the toilet door unlocked but there is a sign saying it can only be used as a urinal. It took me some time to work out (as it is a normal toilet bowl) what this meant - liquid waste only. If you need more then you have to warn the driver who will timetable in a stop when appropriate! I have never seen this happen.

To quickly change the topic before I finish I will mention security. There was very little in Bolivia. Here in Peru it is obsessional. Passports have to be shown all the time and when queueing to board a bus everyone is videoed as they are frisked, then once seated all the passengers are recorded on camera again while the camera person says their name and seat number. The onboard attendant knows everyone's destination and ensures you disembarque at the right time. It is reassuring at one level.

All for this blog, we will catch up with you again probably from Ecuador.

Additional photos below
Photos: 80, Displayed: 32


Central area looking across to Waynu PicchuCentral area looking across to Waynu Picchu
Central area looking across to Waynu Picchu

WP means young mountain and can be climbed if you are fit enough. Takes about 3 hours.
During a shower this Alpaca came in to shelterDuring a shower this Alpaca came in to shelter
During a shower this Alpaca came in to shelter

I think it is an Alpaca, not a Llama but not certain.
Temple of the 3 WindowsTemple of the 3 Windows
Temple of the 3 Windows

Obviously positioned deliberately and thought to be connected with astronomical positions but no-one too sure. Three ton lintels framing windows.

27th November 2015

Wonderful place, all those steps look like hard work.
27th November 2015

Spectacular tree in the midst of it all.
27th November 2015

Looks like a giant ape behind it.
27th November 2015

Amazing views.
27th November 2015

They would probably cringe at the way we strap our babies up all the time in buggies, car seats, walking reins, high chairs etc.
28th November 2015

Enjoyed your blog and glad you finally made it to MP - see you in Ecuador.

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