Day 1 – October 1, 2016
“Do as the Romans do, right?” I said, as I handed over the backpack containing all of my worldly possessions for the next year and had it strapped on top of an old van.
“The Romans don’t have huge backpacks.”
Tyler had a point. I got nervous our backpacks were going to fly off the roof every time our colectivo took a sharp turn, which was about every 30 seconds during the 2-hour trip from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Colectivos are shared taxis – large vans or minibuses that will transport you quickly and inexpensively (about $3 USD) throughout Peru, along with about 15 other passengers.
In the rush of disembarking the plane in Cusco, grabbing a taxi to where colectivos wait, and then clambering into a colectivo, Colin and I hadn’t thought to put our rain covers over our backpacks. About 20 minutes into our journey, the rain started coming down, and we couldn’t do anything but look at each other, accept our fate, and laugh.
The driver had offered to let us pay for extra seats in the colectivo for our backpacks – 10 Peruvian nuevo soles or $3 USD each – and in our budget-conscious state of mind, we had refused the expense; our situation was no one’s fault but our own. In hindsight, the extra $3 would definitely have been worthwhile.
After a long, bumpy two hours, we made our way to our bed & breakfast for the next five nights, Casa de Wow. We were immediately made to feel at home by Winn, one of the owners, and Turtle, a volunteer helping to manage the hostel. (And by some stroke of luck, our belongings were fairly dry)!
Ollantaytambo is a small village in the Sacred Valley of Cusco. While previously often overlooked in many tourist itineraries, it is becoming increasingly popular, and I can understand the draw. It is a magical place to spend some time, and the owners of Casa de Wow really help their guests to see that. They gave us a one-page informational sheet listing all of the best places to eat and main things to do around town, along with a bit of history about the village. Ollantaytambo is known as “the last living Inka village” or Inka Viviente. The buildings and streets are all authentic Incan stone construction, and there are small streams of water running alongside the paths and sidewalks. As they wrote on their info sheet, “We tell people it’s like when you go to visit Machu Picchu, imagine if the people still lived there… that’s Ollantaytambo.”
After being warmly welcomed into Casa de Wow, we got settled in our room with its tree-bunkbeds (handmade by Wow himself!) and talked about all the things we wanted to do with our first hours there … and then we fell asleep for about three hours.
We all woke up in time to grab some dinner, but that just about sums up Day 1.
Day 2 – October 2nd, 2016
Our first morning there, we had a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh bread, and local organic jams. We all had coca tea, the natural medicinal aide to help newbies like us adjust to the altitude.
After breakfast, we wanted to start taking advantage of the nearby hikes, so we headed to Pinkuylluna. There was an extremely helpful book at our B&B that gave us information about each hike in the area, but we learned quickly not to trust the listed time estimations. Pinkuylluna had an estimated time of about 1 hour roundtrip, and 1 hour into the hike, we had only seen half of it. We took an extremely necessary break to go back to Casa de Wow and stream the Pats game, and then we returned in the afternoon to see the rest of Pinkuylluna. We got to the topmost ruins, and we some pretty incredible views of Ollantaytambo.
Pinkuylluna is estimated to have been constructed in the 15th century, and we were told by a local guide that the structures were used as storehouses for food. The storehouses were intended to preserve food through colder weather, and protect their rations during an attack.
When we returned to Casa de Wow, Roberto (aka Wow) was there to give all his guests some more information about the Apus (mountain spirits) surrounding the village. Wow is a native quechua of the area, and his family has long resided in Ollantaytambo. We went up to the third floor of the B&B to get a panoramic view of all the mountains. He gave the tour in Spanish, so I did my best to translate for the group as he showed us the shapes of the Condor, the God of the Moon, Pachamama (Mother Earth), and the Grandfather in the mountains, holding up the sky. He even showed us the shape of Jesus in his tunic, an interesting fusion of local beliefs with the Catholicism brought to the region by the Spaniards.
He pointed out the Temples of the Condor, Serpent, and Puma, an important trilogy in indigenous spirituality. From my understanding, the Condor symbolizes the spirit and all things heavenly; the Puma is representative of our path here on earth and the wisdom we need to survive, and the Serpent is representative of the subconscious or our inner self. I’ve heard and read a few variations on the meanings of this trilogy (i.e. that they signify the future, present, and past), but regardless, the symbolism is something quite beautiful; it shows the Incan connection with Pachamama and their ability to align their lives with the forces of nature surrounding them, something often lacking in today’s rapidly modernizing world.
Day 3 – October 3rd, 2016
On our third day there, we took a long hike down to the train tracks and along the river. We were aiming to get to the Cachiccata Quarries and the Sun Gate that we’d been told about, but we got a bit lost. We walked for a few hours, and we weren’t sure if we were going in the right direction or if we’d missed a turn along the way. We hadn’t seen any signs in quite a while, and this hike brought us to our highest elevations yet. Since we didn’t have any indication that we were going the right way, we eventually decided to turn around and hike back down. After talking to some people when we got back, it seems as though we may have been on the right track, and we probably would have gotten to our destination (or some kind of destination) if we had kept going a bit further.
That night, we treated ourselves to our first pisco sours for our efforts; pisco is a popular white brandy made from grapes.
Day 4 – October 4th, 2016
On our fourth day in Ollantaytambo, we decided to make the trek up to the Pumamarca Ruins to see the Temple of the Puma. Four of us went on the trip; we’d made a new friend from New Zealand at breakfast that morning. We all took a taxi from the center of town for 10 soles each. From where the taxi dropped us off, it was a steep 10 minute walk up to the Temple of the Puma. There was a guide at the top who told us that part of the ruins were constructed by the Incas, and part of the remaining ruins were from a pre-Inca civilization (very, very old). The site was really well-maintained. It is said to be in the shape of a puma, and historians believe it was used as a control checkpoint for people entering Ollantaytambo, as well as a storehouse for crops.
Since we taxi-ed up to the ruins, we wanted to hike back down. It took us somewhere between 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The path wasn’t always clear (we crossed through a few small brooks and very muddy sections), but we made it back to town.
Day 5 – October 5, 2016
With our last full day in Ollantaytambo, we first stopped by a local school – the Kuska School – to visit a friend we’d made (who happened to also be from South Windsor, CT, my hometown). He showed us their farm and took us to see a local distillery, Destilería Andina, and we sampled the alcohol they make from sugar cane.
After, we set out to hike the Intiwatana ruins. They are set on a hillside above the village’s main attraction, the fortress. To enter the fortress, we knew there was a fee. Peru has what they call a tourist boleta, a ten-day ticket that covers your entrance into most of the major historic sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Since we planned on buying the boleta in Cusco, we decided to hold off on visiting the fortress for the time being. That was the day’s plan, at least.
We climbed up a steep hill and began following the path up to Intiwatana when we noticed a side door to the fortress was open. Being the curious travelers we are, we decided to saunter in… and then further in, until we were checking out the whole area for free. We took that open door as a sign that we were meant to see it that day, and we let our consciences rest easy with the knowledge that we’d be buying the boleta anyways in the very near future.
We had been staring at the fortress from our window at Casa de Wow for the past few days, so walking around it was truly impressive. In addition to protecting the Inca from the Spanish conquistadors, at least for a time, the fortress was also a temple. The Wall of the Six Monoliths (pictured above, with Tyler in front) is situated alongside the Temple of the Sun. Archaeologists determined that the large stones came from a quarry about 2.5 miles away, and they weigh between 50 and 100 tons each, making this construction a seemingly impossible feat.
As our fifth day in Ollantaytambo came to an end, we packed our bags and prepared for the next day’s colectivo ride back to Cusco – this time, we knew we’d be much more prepared.
The next morning, we said our “see you laters” to Casa de Wow and the beautiful village where it resides. Over the past 5 days, we got a little lost, met some incredible people, saw some impressive views, walked a lot, and couldn’t have asked for a better start to our journeys.