Please tell me you enjoy saying Ollantaytambo as much as I do. Don't forget the double L turns to a y sound in Spanish. Now try it again: Ollantaytambo. It is fun to say fast or slow, although fast can result in a tongue twister.
Ollantaytambo was our daytime touring destination on our journey to Machu Piccu on New Year's Eve and is one of the treasures we would have missed had we made the trek (positive spin work right there). There were a lot of tricky logistics about our overnight adventure away from Cusco. We were picked up from our hotel in Cusco at 9 am and our driver took us to our next Cusco hotel where we would be checking in on the 1st when we returned from Machu Piccu so we could drop off our luggage. This second hotel was actually our original hotel where we were scheduled to stay on the 27th to the 29th prior to our trip but when that shifted to the 30th, they didn't have any rooms so we ended up at the other place with the cute blue doors and trim. Dropping off our luggage at hotel number two meant packing everything we needed for the day, for a trip to some hot springs, for an overnight stay and exploring Machu Piccu in our small day packs. In my case, my much-smaller-than-anticipated-when-I-ordered-it-online daypack. So I crammed in the bare essentials: a swimming suit, change of underwear, fresh t-shirt, toiletries and rain gear along with the camera, snacks, water, guide book, etc. I was already hauling around. And since Cusco was cold the night before we were both worried about getting cold and I think we each tossed in the long johns we had packed for the trek - just to try and get some use out of them. My pack was nearly bursting. Erin's backpack was larger than mine but she also has a much nicer and larger camera as well as a video camera. We dressed in layers that would be re-worn and strapped fleece jackets and rain jackets to our packs "just in case." Neither of us had any desire to haul around a lot of extra stuff for the next days but Erin was pretty startled when she caught a glimpse of my "essential" overnight toiletries:
I don't blame her because I was a little frustrated by it all myself: the toothbrush and toothpaste are obvious needs as are the contacts if you need them (I did not pack glasses but I did bring the spare contacts because my eyes had been really dry and the current contacts were old and I had a fear of being stuck at Machu Piccu without the ability to see), but I did not bring extra solution - only what was in the lens case, the Olay thing is a pack of face cleansing wipes that worked well throughout the trip, bug spray and sun screen seemed pretty essential given the warnings we'd read and heard (but did not ultimately need either there), lotion, face moisterizer and lip balm were very important with the dry climate in Cusco and no one should skip the deodorent. The puzzling part for her since she simply showed up with a toothbrush and lotion were all my blasted medications. It all took up far more space than I had which meant things were left behind. Important things I later longed for such as: my ipod. Why oh why could I not have slipped my ipod into my jacket pocket and zippered it into place? Why did I find bug spray more important than an ipod?
More on all of that later.
After we returned to the van with our considerably lighter loads, our English speaking guide bid us farewell and we were left with a driver who did not speak a word of English. Okay, maybe a word or two but fewer words than I speak in Spanish which is pretty bad. Since he knew more where we were going than we did this should not have been a problem. And it wasn't exactly a problem, just a little confusing. Like when he wagged his finger at us at one point and we interpreted that as him not liking us taking photos . . . maybe. We did understand when he asked if we are sisters - hermanas or amigas as pretty easy to catch. But when he tried to comment on towns and scenic vistas we were passing as we drove through the Sacred Valley, it would have been really nice to understand what he was saying.
At one point he told us we were driving through Chinchero. It was a lovely little town that was obviously going through a growth period and appeared to be turning into a sort of resort destination. Our driver asked us something, we didn't understand and kind of shook our heads no and we kept driving. Then I realized he was asking if we wanted to look around the town a bit. We probably should have said yes because we probably would have had a nice time there. Learning our lesson, the next time he asked about stopping we said yes and were rewarded with a brief stop at a beautiful scenic overlook where we were able to get out and wander around and took photos.
Our next stop was not planned. Shortly after driving into the town of Urubamba - again, another very fun name to say that makes me think of the song La Bamba - there was a police check point of some sort and we were waived over to the side of the road. A policeman came to the driver's door and the driver handed over all his paperwork. The policman was not entirely pleased with everything he was given and asked the driver to get out of the van. We sat in the back and wondered what was happening. Cars all around us were pulled over, chatted with the police and then moved on. Our driver was the only one to leave the vehicle to huddle with a group of police in the plaza behind us. The policeman in the middle of the road continued to signal drivers to pull over - most complied, others continued without any appearance of consequence. I wasn't terribly worried but I didn't exactly feel comfortable about getting out of the car either. I took pictures out the van window but tried not to be too obvious about it because I really had no idea what was happening. We had dropped significantly in altitude from Cusco and Erin and I were questioning our decision to wear and bring so many additional layers of clothing as the sun beat in through the windows. We took off our jackets and cracked the van windows open and I watched a guy walk his pig. But mostly Erin and I just sat in silence, choosing not to speculate why the police were detaining our driver. Eventually our driver came back and from what we could understand, we think he had to pay a bribe.
We reached Ollantaytambo not long past 11 am. The sun was shining brightly and we were ready to get out of the van and do some more exploring. Our driver was sweet and gave us each a hug and said some words we didn't understand but sounded lovely as we repeated muchas gracias over and over. We were deposited in a square directly below the Incan fortress. We used the bathroom in a store, ate a quick snack and rearranged our packs (a never ending ordeal when you must carry everything in a too small bag), then went into the Parque Arqueologico de Ollantaytambo. It was far pricier than we anticipated. The frustrating thing about admission prices was that our guidebooks told of some mythical Cusco pass that you could purchase that for one price gained you admission to multiple tourist sites. We hunted for the place that allegedly sold them in Cusco with no luck - despite a Spanish speaker doing the inquiring. We handed over the bulk of our soles budgeted for the overnight trip and hoped we could find somewhere that took credit card for lunch and dinner so we wouldn't run out.
It was worth the admission price. The sun was bright but not too hot and the hills were lush and green and the whole hillside was beautiful. We didn't bother with any kind of guided tour and about half-way through we realized we must have started at the end of the trail because we were always going the opposite direction of the blue arrows (although there was no clear starting point at the bottom). But as you can see from the photos below, we had a great time exploring and taking photos. And climbing stairs. Lots and lots of stairs which reminded us of the altitude.
After a couple of hours we were ready for lunch and decided to check out the pizza. This was our fourth full day in the country and despite being inundated by pizza, we had not yet succumbed. We tried a place that promised a "wood fire oven" pizza. It was empty but for two other tourists but we loved it. Not really thinking and without inquiring about the size, we each ordered our own pizza. They were huge. And delicious. We easily could have split just one.
After lunch we wandered around town trying to find the non-existent blue heritage trail my guidebook promised and looking for a path up to the other ruins on the hill opposite the fortress. We were unsuccessful on both counts but still enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets, admiring the stonework and the water drainage system which were designed by the Incans. Supposedly the town was originally designed like a cob or ear of corn or something like that. I didn't get it. But I loved details like planting cactus on the top of a fence to keep birds away or people from climbing over. Also, locals who brew their own home corn beer put red plastic outside their doors to let people know they can drop by. We found one but did not sample the local brew.
We were scheduled on a 4 pm train to Aguas Calientes and I grew restless around 230 which drove Erin nuts. I realize I should be able to just sit in a public square and watch people and be content but . . . that is hard for me. I need a book or conversation or something to keep me half occupied. I kept making us move from one place to the next when I got bored. At one point we were sitting near the river under a pretty flowering tree and I was entertaining myself by taking dumb photos: of the flowers, the tree, my feet, Erin's ear . . . when a dog walked toward us. He was a small mop of a dog that was dusty and working on some dred locks. I don't touch dogs in developing countries but that doesn't mean I don't watch them or admire them. He was scruffy but still cute-ish. Until he walked right behind our park bench and emptied his bowels . . . and he had not been eating right. So we moved benches for the 3rd or so time and I anxiously looked at my watch and wondered if we should start walking toward the train station now that it was only an hour and a half rather than two hours away. I was irritating my sister. Sometimes on purpose, just to entertain myself I'm guessing. So by the time we were sitting on yet another bench outside the train station, we were no longer talking.
At 3:30 we finally went in the train station and it was very cute. Everything was a bit old fashioned and the train was painted bright blue and yellow and the bright sunshine and the verdant hills rising above the swiftly moving muddy Urubamba river opposite the tracks painted a beautiful picture that improved both of our moods.
The train ride was fantastic. I was initially irritated by the cramped benches but just before we pulled away from the station we - and other passengers - discovered the benches could be adjusted so the bench in front of you would face you. If you ride trains much I think you understand this concept if I describe it properly. Essentially, instead of all of the seats facing forward, the back can be pushed forward so passengers can face each toher. Or, in our case, we were able to find two unoccupied rows, adjust the bench, and stretch out. The railroad winds through a narrow canyon following the Urubamba River which became a very aggressive river at varying points. We also passed the starting point for the Inca Trail to Machu Piccu which gave me one more twinge of regret at missing that opportunity as I watched the trail wind up into the mountains on the opposite side of the river. The train served a little snack that wasn't too bad except for what they tried to pass off as dessert. Apparently Peruvians are big fans of fruit cake. While I cannot say I have ever tasted fruit cake, I am 99.9% certain I would hate it. Which is why the strange little fruit cake muffin/cupcake did not appeal. I went so far as to peel back the wrapper but when I saw the bits of festive "fruit" scattered throughout, I couldn't bring myself to take a bite. Shortly after backing away from the temptation to try it, the train was stopped and a little boy outside Erin's window was signaling for food. So Erin, along with other passengers tossed out a couple of the fruitcake muffins to him. Then the train workers got mad and everyone stopped and just felt bad for the little boy begging outside the train.
It was about 6 pm and raining when we reached Aguas Calientes and a man from our hotel was there to greet us. We discovered some other passengers from the other car in our train were also being escorted to the same hotel and that they were traveling with the same touring company we had used. While everyone was waiting to check in, I sought out their group leader who was wearing a shirt with the company's name. I explained our situation and how we are supposed to meet our trek guide at Machu Piccu in the morning for a tour but was wondering if we could follow his group to the bus in the morning. At the time I had no idea how easy it would be to find the bus. He said no problem and explained they were meeting for breakfast at 5 am and taking the 530 am bus, he would be there to pick us up at 520 am. I thanked him and Erin and I went to settle into our room. As I explained here, our short stay in Aguas Calientes was not exactly the highlight of our trip.
After we arrived, we put on our swim suits and got directions to the hot springs and a recommendation from the front desk for a good place to eat. The hot springs were at the very end of town up lots of stairs and hills. We really did not know what to expect as far as facilities so we didn't even bring our backpacks (it was nice to leave them behind for a few hours), just the clothes we were wearing and some money for dinner and I had my camera. As we got closer we noticed all kinds of stores renting towels for a couple of soles, so we decided it was better to be safe and rent one in advance and when you are paying less than a dollar it is hard to feel you are being ripped off. The canyon became very narrow and essentially ended at the hot springs and after we paid admission we wandered up higher and higher, trying to pretend we weren't getting winded. As it turned out, the facilities were quite nice and roughly equivalent to what you might find at a local pool. There was an attendant where you could rent a locker for your stuff and there were changing rooms. We slipped out of our clothes in the changing room, wished we had flip flops and put all thoughts of fungus out of our heads and paid another sole or two for a locker and went down to the hot springs. There were several pools on varying levels but the first couple were empty and when I dipped a toe in I discovered why - cold. We decided to try the one with the most people and deposited our towels on a nearby shelf. As I was stepping into the pool a vaguely familiar face in the dark sea of heads waved and gestured for us to join him. As we grew closer we realized these were some of the people from the hotel. We chatted with them and found out they were finishing an alternate three day trek that ended in Ollantaytambo where they took the train with us and in the morning they were finishing their trek with a tour of Machu Piccu. Three of the four were law students so we had ample conversation fodder. Before too long they were off to join the rest of their group for dinner and we said we would see them in the morning. They were a nice group and Erin and I were both pretty convinced one of the law student's was Mormon. He was from Idaho and he just had that certain something . . . maybe it was his eagerness and enthusiasm, I don't know what but it was more than a hunch. He went to college at Utah State and had we spoken longer, I am sure it would have come up. I told her if we found out he spoke Spanish then it was definite. My favorite part of our conversation with them was when they thought I was a second year associate at my law firm. . . love being mistaken for someone six or so years younger.
After we had our fill of the not quite caliente aguas, we patted ourselves dry with our towels and headed to the locker room to change. Only we didn't exactly have anything to change into so we faced the dilemma of wearing wet swim suits that would soak through our pants and shirts (our only pants and shirts incidentally) or remove the suits and finish the night commando. I'll just say we finished 2008 a bit differently than I normally choose to and went straight to dinner. Unfortunately the place we were hoping to go to which was recommended by our hotel had a 20 minute wait and we were (or at least I was) starting to get anxious about getting to bed since a 5 am breakfast would be very early. So we made the mistake of not waiting for a table at the lively and festive balloon be-decked restaurant with the live band and went next door where we were hustled to a table on the street where we could watch people. The waiter inquired as to our nationality and enthusiastically placed a small American flag on our table. The service was slow - but that is the same all over Peru - but the food was not good. Erin liked her alpaca so much that I decided to try it. Mine was tough and dry and I was really getting tired of dry, bland french fries. It was around 8 when we sat down for dinner and the streets were pretty empty but by the time we left at 930 people were starting to come out to prepare for the festivities. Despite the occasional sign or 2009 glasses, it wasn't really sinking in that it was new year's eve since we needed to go to bed so early.
We wandered the main square a bit and admired the beautiful Christmas tree in the center made out of green plastic bottles. Then we turned back toward our hotel for showers and bed and the sleep that never came.