Sunday, 2nd November
Today we had a plan to go to Ollantaytambo via a couple of other towns so we got up, packed and had to check out by 9:30am, the earliest for a while. I had the hostel breakfast but then we also went out for a cafe breakfast. Cusco is a nice place to hang around cafes and we had a nice breakfast in a place off one of the many town squares. It is Sunday today and it has the feel of a Sunday with shops shut around about. With breakfast out of the way we caught a cab to where the collective vans leave for Pisac from. We paid the five Soles to our cab driver and got dropped off at a corner where the collectivos go past, not where they actually leave from. We didn’t realise this until we were out of the cab though. This meant that when the bus came past we didn’t get a seat and had to stand in a crowded bus for around 45 minutes. Another cabbie short-changing us.
Pisac is a town in the ‘Sacred Valley’ on the way to Ollantaytambo and has a market on Sundays. The setting is stunning, set in a valley, with mountains all around, literally everywhere you look. Some of them have terraces cut into the sides and there are some ruins on one of them. After getting off the bus and getting the feeling back into our legs and arms (from standing and carrying our bags) we found a cafe to have a cup of tea and a delicious slice of carrot cake at. This town is clearly set up for visitors, with cafes and hostels everywhere and the typical travellers walking around in baggy colourful trousers, Andean wooly hats and possibly carrying a flute in their backpack. We don’t really fit that mould of traveller but acknowledge we are one of the crowd nonetheless. Feeling refreshed we walked towards the market and found it to be a mixture of food and vegetables and handicrafts but mainly handicrafts for the tourists. We don’t normally spend much time in these kind of markets wit most of the stalls looking the same but this one was a good one and we set about buying some Christmas presents for back home. Some of you should be prepared for a Peruvian Christmas present. Having added to our luggage, we found another cafe for refreshment before we set off in search of our next bus, this time to another town in the valley called Urubamba. We waited on the roadside until a minivan came along shouting the magic worlds ‘Urubamba’ and we jumped in. Urubamba is around half an hour from Pisac. We couldn’t get a direct bus to Ollantaytambo so had to go through Urubamba. The way transportation is set up here though is that there are buses all the time, it’s just a matter of finding one going to your destination with seats available. The two buses combined only came to 12 soles, around US$4. In Urubamba we caught another minivan to Ollantaytambo, this one only cost 3 Soles for both of us (US$1).
We arrived in the centre of the small village of Olltantaytambo around 4pm and easily found the hostel we had booked – ‘El Tambo’. We have a lovely room with views out across the rickety balcony and through the windows of the surrounding mountains and Inca ruins. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region, built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance. Ollantaytambo has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America and some houses still have Inca design constructions evident.
I left Kirsty to rest a bit at the hostel and had a look around the village. It’s the most cobble-stoned of all the villages we have been to so-far and has a very distinct traveller feel. It is a base for hikers and also a popular place to stop on the way to Machu Picchu though so this is to be expected. The main town square is lined with souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants and has tour buses parked up. There are some major ruins here so I walked to them to see how much they would charge for a look. It turns out they are more expensive than Machu Picchu so we might give them a miss. You can see them from the town although not up close. I came back to the hostel for a sit down then shortly afterwards we went our for dinner. We looked at a few places to eat and it’s clear that we would have to pay more for a meal here. We found a nice cafe called ‘Hearts’ which we found is run as a way of creating income for a local charity run by an English lady set up to support local families. Our meal was delicious and just what we were in the mood for, I had a pasty and Kirsty a chicken stew, both served with mashed potatoes and vegetables. We had our first rain for a while whilst we ate but it cleared for the walk back to our hostel. We had an early night with all day tomorrow to explore this village. We aren’t going to do much here as the main purpose of the trip is to visit Machu Picchu, but it seems like a very nice to hang around for a day.
Monday, 3rd November
We had a bit of a lie-in today and once I got up the energy I went out to bring back a coffee and tea to have whilst we sat in and around our room and admired the views. This hostel has the most amazing views, a definite contender for views of the trip. As I sat on the porch of our room I could see up to the surrounding mountains and remains of some Inca buildings. The ruins are in such good condition that you can clearly see how the building would have looked over 500 years ago. The main structures are there, just the roofs are missing. I assume the roofs would have been made from vegetation hence why they aren’t there anymore. We skipped breakfast today, just having a couple of handfuls of nuts. Around 11am we went out for a coffee and cup of tea on the main square, making sure to get a table in the shade with views of the magnificent mountains looking up over the village. We made good use of the wifi and I found a website with a full description of Machu Picchu so we can try to make our visit without a guide. It’s an already expensive trip so adding a guide into the mix wouldn’t help our budget. I figure I can guide us around and tell us interesting facts and titbits. For lunch we went back to the ‘Hearts’ cafe where we had a soup and salad. This is one of our favourite eateries of the trip so far. All the food is fresh, healthy and tasty. We had a booth with a view of the main ruins of Ollantaytambo, Temple Hill (‘Araqhama). After lunch we went for a wander closer to the ruins and took a look in the Coca Museo, this is a chain of ‘museum’, cafe and shop, all in one. We made sure we got some samples but we also bought a slab to have later on. We then went back to our hostel for a sit down with more magnificent views and a relaxing afternoon of reading, myself about Machu Picchu and Kirsty some crime novel. She’s getting through about a book a day out here. Our hostel, El Tambo, has a variety of wildlife living there. A cat, four kittens, dog and rabbit. The kittens are very playful and fun to watch. The cat, dog and rabbit, less so.
We lazed around the hostel for a bit, taking a stroll for some crisps when I got peckish. It’s such a lovely hostel to be around with colourful flowers and amazing views of the surrounding mountains. I set about trying to remember all the hotels we had stayed in on our trip, quite a task. I plan on making some kind of map so wanted to try and remember whilst my memory was fresh. I can’t quite believe just how many places we have stayed in so far, over 90 hostels, hotels, motels and B&B to date. By the end of the trip we will be over one hundred different beds. No wander we are feeling fatigued. At around 6pm we went out for dinner. We didn’t want to eat too early so we had a hot chocolate on the main square first. Due to the service this actually took quite a long time and we were looking for a place for dinner around 7pm. We opted to go somewhere different to eat this time, having eaten at the same ‘Hearts’ cafe for our past three meals. We found a place down by the river which was empty but sounded good. This town is very busy during the day with tour groups all around but at night it seems to quieten down a lot. We were the only ones in the restaurant but that didn’t mean it wasn’t good. Kirsty had a stir-fry beef dish and I had a shredded chicken in sauce dish. Both traditional Peruvian meals and very tasty. After a slow start I think we have found the good Peruvian food that everyone talks about. We finished up dinner and walked the cobbled streets back to our hostel to head to bed. There’s not an awful lot to do here at night so we just went to bed and read. I am reading a bit about Machu Picchu so when we get there I can guide us around a bit. There’s a lot of conjecture about this place, it’s uses, spiritual meaning etc. It will be interesting to finally see it.
Tuesday, 4th November
Today we checked out of our lovely hostel, one of my favourites yet, and headed to Aguas Calientes. This is the final village before Machu Piccchu and is sometimes referred to as ‘Macchu Picchu Pueblo’. We had a train booked for around 3pm which would get us to Aguas Calientes by 5pm, where our next host would meet us at the railway station. After getting up and showering I went out for a takeaway coffee and mint tea and found the main square a hundred times busier than it was yesterday. Over ten large tourist coaches at least and lots of mini-vans shuttling tourists in for the day. The ruins here are spectacular but knowing that we are going to Macchu Picchu tomorrow and the additional cost has meant that we were quite happy to see them from the town. You can buy a ticket which covers all the Inca ruins in the area but there were too many ruins we wouldn’t get to not to make it worthwhile. Perhaps another time, for now Machu Picchu will do. I went to the same place I got my coffee yesterday and the owner wasn’t there but his friend stepped in to try and help. She was eating breakfast but obviously didn’t want him to miss a sale so she tried to use the coffee machine unsuccessfully. The owner turned up a couple of minutes later though to take over. It’s really nice here how neighbours and friends step in to mind each others businesses whilst they aren’t there. At the Pisac market the other day we went back to a stall to buy something we had seen easier to find the owner wasn’t there. We would’ve been happy to wait but someone passing by stepped in and asked us how much we were quoted for the item which we paid. A lot of trust there. With our hot drinks we lounged around at the hostel, enjoying the spring morning in the sun.
We packed up and checkout of this hostel, still having a few hours to spare before our train would leave to Aguas Calientes. We found a cafe on the main square, one that we were at the other day, and had breakfast and a couple of hot drinks. We stayed here for a good couple of hours, in that time I went off briefly for another stroll of the village, taking some photos. It’s such a nice little village, all stone buildings and cobblestone streets. Some from Inca times apparently. When I got back I had a hot chocolate which got covered in dust when a gust of wind picked up dust and dried grass and sent them in our direction. It’s very windy today and in the main square there is a lot of dust flying around. We opted to move on to another cafe, the ‘Hearts’ cafe where we could have an early lunch and sit down some more, this time indoors. We spent another couple of hours there and at around 2:30pm we walked down the road to the railway station. Our train would leave at 3:37pm but we had to get there early and in our case that always means super early. The train station is a low-key affair, there are two classes of trains here. The tourist trains for us tourists and the local train for locals. You are only allowed to ride the local train if you have Peruvian identification. These trains are a lot cheaper than the tourist trains and I have read somewhere that the tourist trains subsidise the local trains. We paid about US$250 return for the both of us, the local trains are about US$5 return. Our train was made up of three carriages and all very fancy, this is run by the same company as the Orient Epress. The train we are in is called a ‘Vistadome’ which means it has windows all around and some in the roof. The ride from Ollantaytambo to Augas Calientes was spectacular, cutting through the Sacred Valley alongside the river, ‘Rio Urubamba’. We passed through various villages, saw where the Inca trail starts, and also many Inca ruins in the valley. The ride took around one and a half hours and we arrived into Aguas Calientes at around 5pm. We were greeted by our host from the ‘Varyoc’ Hostel (Edison) who held up a sign with my name. We then walked across the river and our hostel was just on the other side. It’s a small but nice room with ensuite and cable TV which I am sure we will enjoy after the extortion of visiting Machu Picchu.
I have been constantly trying to book tickets for Machu Picchu for a couple of days now and now we are here can go directly into the office to buy them in person. This I did straight away after checking into our hostel worried that they may sell-out. I paid PEN140 each for tickets which also included entrance to the Machu Mountain (limited to 400 people a day) and also our bus ticket to get up there (US$19 return, each, for a 20 minutes ride). There were less than one hundred tickets left when I bought ours. Aguas Calientes reminds me of a town on a Thai Island. Seemingly only existing because of tourism, there are restaurants everywhere, places to get massages everywhere and little convenience stores everywhere. It’s a pleasant enough town though, not at all what we expected from the bad reviews we read. However, we are only here for Machu Picchu so aren’t fussed by the town. For dinner we found a place along the main drag in town and had a set menu which was decent enough for a reasonable price. There are many mischievous children around, playing in the pedestrianised street and generally having fun. After dinner we called it a night, with breakfast set for 6am the next day, our day of exploration.