Exploring Machu Picchu

Immersive Travel Destination Ollantaytombo

Exploring Machu Picchu starts in Ollantaytambo, the gateway to Machu Picchu. This is the first destination of three in the Peru itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Peru circuit are described in The Peru Travel Planning post.

Arrival in Lima

The direct flight to Lima from my home base in Atlanta was a six hour affair, with no timezone change. Rather easy as compared to most international flights. Passport control and customs were a breeze, as was the security check for the domestic flight to Cusco. I had a  four hour layover at the Lima airport waiting for my connecting flight to Cusco. And with only one real objective – find an ATM, get local currency. I spent the rest of the time slipping in and out of a light sleep.

We had a smaller aircraft for the flight to Cusco, an Embraer 190 with Avianca as the carrier. Also an uneventful flight (the very best kind). I did note that the left side of the plane inbound to Cusco had the much better views of the Andes on descent. As we exited the airport to the ground transportation area, I kept my eyes peeled for a taxi service. My intent was to hire a taxi to take us immediately to Ollantaytambo. The need for a taxi must have been very common, because there were plenty to be found as we exited the airport.

Taxi to Ollantaytambo

Our taxi driver was named Jose, and he was quite helpful with questions, and descriptions en route to Ollantaytombo. Past its center, and towards its outskirts, Cusco was quite the mess, resembling the disorganization, uncleanliness, disrepair, and poverty I had previously experienced in third world nations.

 

It was very difficult to ignore the 11,000+ foot altitude, as it gave me a low grade headache within an hour of landing. Just for kicks I monitored our altitude exiting Cusco, as we kept climbing until we reached 12,280 feet before we started a descent on our way to the Sacred Valley.

The scenery on the two hour drive from the Cusco airport to our hotel in Ollantaytambo grew increasingly more interesting the farther from Cusco we got. The road to Ollantaytambo was congested and slow going because of its twists, turns and undulations. I don’t get motion sickness, but I could imagine how someone might on that drive. Our taxi driver, Jose explained that the road we were on used to be the Inca trail. It was paved over some seventy years ago before the Peruvian government had enacted preservation laws, per Jose.

 

Ollantaytombo itself was very compact, built around the ruins of an Inca city, with much of the settlement walls still standing and forming the foundation for the current city. Jose dropped us off in front of our hotel, Sauce, in the center of town. We were the only guests in this tiny boutique hotel. The lady that ran the front desk spoke zero words of English, in spite of the fact that the majority of her guests were typically English speakers. We had a room with multiple views of the Inca ruins several hundred yards in the distance. Our room was on the small side, but clean and comfortable.

Discovering Inca History

Ollantaytambo Walkabout

Ollantaytambo has a main square, called Plaza de Armas, which translates to “parade square”, because traditionally military parades were held on the square. The literal translation is “arms square” which makes less sense, per my guide Jose. Beyond the main square, Ollantaytambo is at the intersection of two main roads, with the modern town built around them. The primary road runs along the Urubamba River through town.

The old part of Ollantaytambo was built around the surviving walls of an Inca community which dates back to the 14th century. The walls form narrow lanes and define the grid upon which the ancient Inca city was formed. The Quechua People, descendants of the Inca, live in this older part of Ollantaytambo.

The ancient part of the city has a built-in water channeling system that brings fresh water down from the mountains, and funnels it through town. Built by the Inca, it still survives and is in continuous use to this day. The channels carrying the water are pretty narrow, rarely more than 2 feet wide, but they’re everywhere, coursing through most of the streets in the old part of town.

Temple of the Sun

There is a large complex of Inca ruins in Ollantaytambo, highlighted by the Temple of the Sun. These ruins are interesting because they have very large, monolithic stones comprising the Temple. There are no such stones in Machu Picchu itself, calling into question whether the monolithic stones are from a pre-Inca civilization which the Inca incorporated into their own architecture.

These were the most impressive collection of Inca ruins next to Machu Picchu itself, and warrant a visit if staying in Ollantaytambo.

Chinchero

There are two interesting things in Chinchero. The first is an opportunity to see a textile processing demonstration by the local Quechua people. The young ladies describe (in reasonably good English) how the varieties of wool are gathered, washed, spun, dyed, and finally woven into the various blankets, clothing, and other finished products. Naturally, there’s an opportunity to buy the high quality finished product at the end of the demonstrations.

The second was the collection of Inca ruins amid a 16th century colonial Spanish church, which was constructed upon the foundation of an Inca temple that the Conquistadors demolished. The temple had to go to make room for the church. The Spanish introduced Catholicism early to the Inca.

Moray

This Inca site is likely a source of alien visitation theory. There are multiple terraces here, but not the ordinary variety found elsewhere. Not cut horizontally into the hillsides, but cut in concentric circles on flat ground. My guide offered that this site was used by the Inca to experiment with agriculture. The ringed terraces offered different microclimates at different depths. The theory was that the Inca were trying to determine the best microclimate to grow their crops. Of course, the alien theory would be more appealing to those so inclined.

Machu Picchu

I wanted to avoid the crowds at Machu Picchu as much as possible. I had already planned the visit for their offseason, which helped. But I also needed to arrive as early as possible to improve my chances. And that called for the earliest train out of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the base of Machu Picchu.

I departed Ollantaytambo at 5:00 AM on what the Peru Rail website called a panoramic luxury train ride through the Sacred Valley. It was a very rough ride, with a side to side lurching that made consumption of the complimentary drinks impossible. The staff were trying to go about their duties through all of the commotion. It was evident that they were used to this caliber of train ride. But the ninety minutes eventually passed, and we arrived at the Aguas Calientes shaken, but unharmed.

As if to compete with the train trip for unnerving their passengers, the thirty minute bus ride to the entrance of the Machu Picchu complex was on a hairpin curved, narrow gravel road with vehicles going in both directions. The gravel road was too narrow in most spots for two buses to pass, so the downhill-bound bus had to yield by backing up, or whatever was possible, to allow the uphill-bound bus to pass. Add to this the precipitous thousand-foot drop that was visible as the bus closed to within a few feet of the cliff at its maximum speed of 42 KM/H, and you have the final ingredient for achieving a maximum passenger pucker factor.

Discovering the Park

Having survived both the train and the bus, I was feeling lucky as I entered the park. I plucked the first guide as he introduced himself, and we headed into the park for a two hour tour. There was a light drizzle with low hanging clouds obscuring most of the views across the valley. The crowds were light compared to high season, when over 3,000 visitors are expected daily.

Our guide, Wilfredo, did a good job of highlighting the history of Machu Picchu, from its discovery by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, to its present visitor saturated day. He also covered its Incan history. The complex is called Machu Picchu in Quechua, which translates to “Old Mountain.” Because the Quechua language – the language of the Inca – had only an oral tradition, no one knows the true ancient name for the complex.

 

Archeologists do know that about six hundred people lived in the complex, and more than half were servants and laborers. The complex was reserved for the Inca – which translates to “king” in Quechua – as his personal retreat from the capital. The king and his entourage, the priest class, and selected elite were served by more than half of population of Machu Picchu.

 

Trek to the Sun Gate

It was still foggy, although it did stop drizzling, when we completed our Machu Picchu tour with our guide. We had the option of climbing to the top of Machu Picchu mountain because I purchased that option with the entry ticket. The end of that very steep and difficult climb would have brought us wonderful views of the ruins, if the weather cooperated. The alternative was to hike to the Sun Gate, which was a much more moderate effort, requiring just under two hours of time.

 

We decided to hike to the Sun Gate, which took just enough time to allow the fog to lift. We took some wonderful photos, and experienced some beautiful views of the Machu Picchu ruins as we descended from the hike back to the main part of the park. I was indeed lucky because the weather could have just as easily stayed densely foggy with minimal visibility, dashing all hopes of good photography.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is the proper name of the little village at the base of Machu Picchu. Although for tourism purposes they call it Machu Picchu Pueblo. Just as we exited the bus, we experienced a sudden cloudburst of rain. We were fortunate to find a restaurant with a fabulous view over the river and the little village. We spent nearly two hours at this restaurant, sheltering from the rain, and enjoying pizza and beer while waiting for our return train to Ollantaytambo.

 

 

Food Scene in Ollantaytambo

Caminos del Inka

We found this restaurant on the main square in Ollantaytambo as we wandered around exploring. They offered a menu similar to most of the restaurants on the main square, having discovered this from browsing the available options. And the food turned out to be OK, but not much more. It was food.

Apu Veronica

After the disappointing experience of trying a random restaurant on the main square, I tapped TripAdvisor to help find a restaurant worthy of a dining experience. Apu Veronica was rated the 2nd best restaurant in Ollantaytambo. And they had very good reviews. We were not disappointed. We had the quinoa soup to start, with grilled alpaca steak, and a mixed grill of lamb, alpaca, and beef as our main courses. The food was very good, as was the service.

La Casa de Barro

This restaurant was recommended as a good option for a lunch break. It was en route to the Inca ruins, and the local textile demonstrations in Chinchero. The interior was nice, and the restaurant looked high-end for tiny Chinchero. We went with spicy chicken, and grilled salmon for our entrees. The food was pretty good, as was the service, but the prices were a bit high. And we had the restaurant to ourselves.

El Albergue Ollantaytambo

The highest rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. Also ranked well on several other travel web sites. It was smaller, more intimate than I had expected. We opportunistically sat outside where it was much cooler – there’s an open oven at work inside which made the dining room hot. We started with an appetizer plate, which included some charcuterie, cheese, and a variety of vegetables. I couldn’t resist the lechon for the main course, and my wife tried the grilled trout. The appetizer was fabulous, the lechon was very good, and my wife thought the trout was “meh”.

Uchucuta

This restaurant was just across the street from my hotel, and highly rated on TripAdvisor. So I gave it a try for our last dinner in Ollantaytambo. There was a 15 year old waiter who spoke zero words of English. So, I am not a fan of Pisco Sours, nor any other Pisco mixers, but I am a fan of Pisco. So I ordered a “Pisco Solo”, and a cerveza. The young waiter brought a wine-glass full of Pisco along with the cerveza. And it was 4+ standard shots. I believe I had grilled alpaca, and the Pisco was fabulous.

Epilogue

Reflections on Machu Picchu and Ollantaytombo. Ollantaytambo truly is the gateway to not only Machu Picchu, but a variety of Inca archeological sites. All were within a reasonable taxi ride. It’s a great place to spend a few nights, and use as a base of operations for exploring the Inca sites in the region. The town itself is worthy of exploration, with its own impressive Inca ruins within the city limits. And beyond that, the old part of town was architecturally based on an Inca foundation. Narrow lanes, water channels, and walled ramparts inherited from a thousand years of Inca history, defined the core of Ollantaytambo. So the motivation to visit Ollantaytambo was the proximity to Machu Picchu. But once there, the village had a vibe of its own. And it was an enjoyable experience being there, independent of its gateway status.

Related Topics

Peru Travel Planning

Peru Travel Planning

Why Go to Peru –  Peru Travel Planning

Peru travel planning can be tricky because there’s tremendous variety for the first time visitor. Options include the vast, arid Pacific Ocean beaches, the steamy, and exotic Amazonia, Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable Lake in the world, the high Andes with ancient Inca secrets like Machu Picchu, and the beautiful 16th century Spanish Colonial cities of Cusco and Arequipa. Peru could easily be a traveler’s first country to visit in South America.

I had nine nights to work with for this particular itinerary, my first time to Peru. I needed to choose from all that Peru has to offer with the intent of having an immersive travel experience there. Too many destinations with insufficient time spent feels rushed, rarely leading to a memorable experience. And rushing it in Peru may have other consequences as well. Many destinations around my points of interest in Peru are at high elevations, between 7,000 to 11,000 feet. A steady pace would benefit the immersive travel experience, as well as help to avoid altitude sickness.

Where to go in Peru – Peru Travel Planning

The selection of itinerary is as much about where not to go, as it is about where to go. For example, I avoided spending time in Lima on this trip. And I also discounted visits to Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca. It simply comes down to choice, and personal preferences. I elected to go with the major themes of the great outdoors, discovering Incan heritage, and exploring 16th century Colonial Spanish cities and architecture.

With 9 nights of calendar budget over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I chose to spend 3 nights in Ollantaytambo to focus on Incan heritage sites, like the massive site in Ollantaytambo itself, and Machu Picchu, of course.

I wanted to spend 3 nights in Cusco because it was a great combination of Incan heritage, and Spanish Colonial history. Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire, situated right at its center when the empire spanned from present day Colombia to Chilean Patagonia. It was also the capital of Spanish Colonial Peru until they moved the capital to Lima, so the city is steeped in 16th century Spanish Colonial architecture.

And finally, 3 nights in Arequipa – The White City, so named because of its white volcanic rock buildings – surrounded by 80 volcanoes in the region. Still touched by Incan heritage, but to a lesser extent than Cusco and its surrounding cities, including Ollantaytambo. This destination is more about Spanish Colonial history and architecture, but also about the great outdoors with a side trip to the Colca Canyon. I expected to have an immersive New Year’s Eve celebration in Arequipa with the locals.

Ollantaytambo – 3 Nights

Machu Picchu – Day Trip

Cusco – 3 nights

Arequipa – 3 nights

Logistics – Peru Travel Planning

Airfare to Lima from my home base in Atlanta was very straight forward, with non-stop flights available. Connecting flights to both Cusco and Arequipa from Lima were not scarce. The only real decision was whether to start in Cusco, and work my way to Arequipa, or vice versa. I would have much preferred to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then work my way to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, and end the trip in Cusco at 11,000. This would have been the ideal itinerary to gradually acclimate to ultimate altitude of 11,000 in Cusco. Alas, I could not make the airline schedules accommodate my personal timetable around the holidays and had to opt for a Cusco/Ollantaytambo/Arequipa circuit.

While I tried to find apartments for each of the three destinations, there simply wasn’t any quality inventory in either Ollantaytambo or Arequipa. So I settled for hotel rooms accommodating my requirements.

Hotels and Apartments

I booked the Ollantaytambo hotel room through Booking.com. The interestingly named hotel, Sauce, was as boutique as could be, with only 7 rooms under management. It was very centrally located, just steps away from Plaza de Armas. They had a complimentary breakfast buffet included in the price of the room. And it was actually worth getting up a little earlier to hit the breakfast buffet.

I booked the Cusco apartment through Booking.com about 7 months in advance of arrival. The photos speak volumes regarding the apartment. It’s all about the views. Stunning views both day and night, which include the old part of town, and the Plaza de Armas. The apartment’s location had a minor drawback being several hundred steps above Cusco street level, enabling the spectacular views. Several hundred steps is trivial downhill, but not so much going back up at over 11,000 feet of elevation. I am glad to share that I never did take the stairs up, as Uber was so incredibly inexpensive (less than $USD 1.50) to get from the center of town back to the apartment.

I also booked the Arequipa hotel on Booking.com, making it a trifecta for this particular itinerary. The boutique hotel was centrally located right on the Plaza de Armas. It had a high quality restaurant attached, which served a fabulous New Year’s Eve menu to its guests. This was the best place to stay in Arequipa given my Immersive Travel principles.

Driving in Peru

I did not rent a car in Peru. And I am so glad I didn’t. They drive maniacally as if immortal in Peru. I personally love to drive, and have driven on travels in some places known for aggressive, if not chaotic driving – but nothing like this. I saw people passing uphill, around a hairpin turn, on a narrow mountain road, for example. No thanks. I wouldn’t recommend driving in Peru, unless you’re a daredevil with a death wish.

How get Local Currency in Peru

My approach when traveling is to use local currency for cafes, restaurants, and incidental spending. I use credit cards for major spend, for example, hotels, car rentals, and other transportation, like rail. I’ve adopted this approach over the years of traveling because it’s the most convenient, both for myself, and the various little restaurants and cafes I like to patronize.

The best way to get local currency, everywhere I’ve traveled, has been to use ATM machines associated with major local banks. They provide a very good exchange rate, and with a little planning, a minimal transaction fee. By planning, I mean that the traveler must select a financial institution in their home country that provides an international travel-friendly debit card, charging no transactions fees – and even reimbursing transaction fees other institutions would charge. I personally have two for this purpose: Fidelity Investment Services Visa debit card, and Capital One 360 Mastercard debit card. I use the Fidelity card exclusively because they reimburse other bank ATM fees, and keep the Capital One card as a backup.

Based on my previous travels, I’ve found the effective ATM currency exchange fee to be 1% or  less.  I withdrew Soles from all four of the Banks represented near the food court on the second floor of the Lima airport. Three out of the four had effective exchange rates below 1%, and were competitive. The fourth was a bank called BCP.  It was interesting that they allowed for a larger withdrawal of 700 soles versus the 400 soles the other 3 banks allowed. And moreover, they charged less for the transaction fee. But, they rob the consumer with an effective 4.5% exchange rate fee. I will never use a BCP bank ATM again, and neither should anyone with a choice.

How to Avoid Food Sickness in Peru

I have never commented on traveler’s food survival strategies previously because I had never written about any place where such a thing would be a worry, until now.

Do not drink the water. It has both bacteria and parasites that will ultimately make the unaccustomed very ill. Do not drink anything that comes with ice, either cubed or crushed. You can take the risk and ask if the ice is made from purified water, or you can be sure and simply avoid iced drinks. Do not eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re washed with the local water. Avoid anything that has not been cooked, and preferably eat cooked food served hot.

Do not buy food from street vendors, including ice cream.

And here’s the toughest advice: do not eat the ceviche. Are you kidding, Peru is famous for its ceviche? Fresh fish bear a variety of parasites that are only killed by proper cooking, and ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices. Uncooked fish need to be frozen for a week or more to an internal temperature of -4°F to be considered safe. I wouldn’t trust a nation that cannot deliver drinkable water to have that level of responsibility in preparing raw fish for ceviche. Furthermore, I personally know someone that came down with a parasitic infestation after a trip to Lima – the cosmopolitan city of Peru, where you’re more likely to have better hygiene, and adherence to best practices for food preparation.

And last but not least, do not brush your teeth with tap water. No I am not paranoid, I just want to improve my odds for having a healthy, if not immersive travel experience.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru

The altitude at the Cusco airport is 11,000 feet at landing, and the taxi ride to Ollantaytambo takes you to over 12,000 before a descent down to 9,000. People not acclimated to this type of altitude may pay a price. Altitude sickness has a variety of symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and a variety of others.

It’s best to acclimate to high altitude by starting at the lowest altitude planned for the trip and work up to the highest. For this trip it would have been best to start in Arequipa at 7,000 feet, then to Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet, then to Cusco at 11,000 feet. I simply could not make the airline flights available work for my schedule, but would highly recommend this itinerary because it is altitude acclimatization friendly.

How to Acclimate to High Altitude

Even with the altitude acclimatization friendly itinerary, I would highly recommend staying well hydrated. The high altitudes make for drier air, which is dehydrating and makes worse any altitude related symptoms. I would recommend a slow, acclimating pace upon arrival at the first destination, even taking a nap first thing. I would recommend taking it easy with alcohol as high altitude heightens the effects.

My full altitude sickness symptoms for 3 days in Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet were a low grade headache, a bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, and a feeling like I was hungover – a little fuzzy around the edges. All wore off in due time, and by the way ibuprofen did not help with the headache. The local remedy for altitude sickness, among other things, was Coca tea. And I tried it, but alas it had no effect on any of my symptoms. And moreover, I found it to taste like like tea brewed from barnyard straw, so I didn’t try this remedy a second time.

It is possible to get preventative medication from your local doctor before departure. My own research showed that the medication may have more harmful side effects than the altitude sickness itself, so I didn’t go this route. But it may be worth considering for those prone to severe altitude sickness.

How to Stay Healthy in Peru

Vaccines and mosquito preparation are necessary for a trip to Peru. The short list of vaccines recommended by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control for a visit to Peru include Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A & B, and Rabies. Vaccination should be an integral part of travel planning for Peru. There are no mosquitoes at higher elevations, like Cusco, for example. But elevations of 8,000 feet – Like Machu Picchu – and below can be mosquito breeding grounds. Long sleeves, long pants, and mosquito repellent with Deet are strongly recommended. The Deet should be applied to clothing to deter the aggressive mosquitos.

Resources – Peru Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them. All hotels and apartments for this trip were booked through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy. It’s also very necessary for non-Spanish speakers because the locals speak little English.

 

Epilogue – Peru Travel Planning

Reflections on Peru. Peru is definitely a highlight of South America, and bucket-list worthy. The premier reason for going, and my personal highlight, was the great outdoors. From the Andes cradling Machu Picchu near Ollantaytambo, to the beautiful ruggedness of the Cola Canyon, the great outdoors were both breathtaking and memorable. The next most compelling reason to go, for me personally, was the 16th century Spanish Colonial history and architecture in the cities of Cusco, and especially Arequipa. And the last, but certainly not the least, reason is the Incan history and heritage peppered throughout the country. I should note that Peru would require a much longer visit to see the attractions I bypassed, like Lima, the coastal beaches, Amazonia, and Lake Titicaca.

 

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