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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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.
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”.
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.
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.