Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
This is the third article in a series entitled “Road to Machu Picchu.” My wife and I thought our visit to Peru was a once in a lifetime experience but the experience may have changed our minds. We began our visit to the Inca Sacred Valley in Cusco. While there, we went to the COSITUC main office and obtained tourist tickets to all 16 archaeologic sites and museums including the ticket needed to gain entrance to Machu Picchu. In the first article (Cusco to Pisac – Part One) we talked about our drive from Cusco through Chincero and Urubamba, to reach our destination for the night in Pisac. In Part Two we experienced the high Andes culture in Pisac’s Sunday market and explored the Inca Intihuatana and gateway to the Amazon at Kantas Ray. In this final article I cover our journey by car to Ollantaytambo and from there by train to Aquas Calientes which lies in the river valley directly below Machu Picchu. It is the departure point for buses to Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo (elevation 9,160 ft/2,792 m): Just 45 miles northwest of Cusco, Ollantaytambo is strategically positioned at the narrow end of the Sacred Valley where the Patacancha and Willkanuta Rivers meet. It is a departure point for a train ride to Aquas Calientes and also for an Inca trail hike to Machu Picchu (elevation 5,905 ft/1,800m.) The train follows the Rio Urubamba River valley to Aquas Calientes (2 hrs.) The trail follows the Inca stone highway in the sky (4 days; 3 nights, 26 miles; with a peak elevation of 13,828 ft/4,215 m on day 2.) The small town of Ollantaytambo is today on the tourist map because of Machu Picchu, but, in Inca times, it was a thriving mecca and estate for the family (panaqa) of Pachacuti, a 15th century Inca emperor who put the Incas on the map with dramatic expansion of his empire. He remade Ollantaytambo into his personal estate.
The small town was also a historic turning point for the Inca. It was here in Ollantaytambo that Manco Inca Yupanqui, the last puppet emperor, came to escape the pursuit of the conquistadors after the fall of the Inca capital in Cusco. The nearby fortresses were perhaps the only ones that did not fall to the Spanish and were the only battles won by the Inca. Steep narrow stone staircases finally gave Inca stone-throwing warriors a strategic advantage over the armor-clad Spaniards on their war horses. Today, the living town sits amidst the remains of its glorious imperial heritage. The grandness of its past is on constant display in the surrounding terraced hillsides, Incan public street water aqueducts and ancient stone dwellings. Those dwellings are the oldest continuously occupied homes in all of South America.
Imperial buildings are still easily recognized by the extremely high quality of their tightly fitting large stones, now more than four centuries old.
Extensive high stone terraces allowed the Inca to create different agricultural zones. Terraced stone walls trapped and radiated heat, thus allowing growth of plants that otherwise would not withstand the high cold altitude. Like other imperial stonework in Ollantaytambo, the terraces are amazing works of stone artistry.
Cerro Bandolista: Imperial Inca ceremonial temple is perched on steep terraces of the Cerro Bandolista hillside. Accessible by a series of stairways that climb to a main terrace, the views are worth the climb. Spanish conquest brought construction to a halt but the unfinished ruins are very impressive both for their size and quality of workmanship.
Patacancha: In late afternoon we opted to arrange a quick side-trip. After our wonderful experience at Pisac Sunday market, we hoped to add another view of Andean cultural life by visiting a hill village of weavers and woodcarvers. Through our hotel we found and hired a van, driver and guide (required) to take us up the valley to the Patacancha cooperative above Ollantaytambo. Our driver negotiated a narrow dirt road with panache; up the beautiful rushing Patacancha river, with frequent stops for sheep, cows and humans herding them home before nightfall.
When at last we arrived in Patacancha, we were thankful for the long Peruvian days. We found the small hill town long in shadows, but still with fading daylight. Locals were busily wrapping up their daily chores in preparation for another cold night in the Andes. We felt extremely fortunate to experience a little of their daily life: groups of children returning home from school chatting with friends; livestock being herded obediently into family compounds for the night by young children; grandmothers sitting weaving with grand daughters; brothers helping sisters; families all pitching in to prepare for nightfall. Their lives seemed basic, but highly fulfilling: warmth from handwoven clothing; food from their own garden terraces; ancient family dwellings made of thick mud-brick to raise their families and keep out the elements. Life was good. Smiles were warm and engaging.
We enjoyed seeing the fine traditional homespun Alpaca bags, belts and capes, but also especially appreciated seeing interactions of the families and their daily lives.
Train to Aqua Calientes: We stayed that night at El Alberque Ollantaytambo Hotel. It is in the Ollantaytambo train station complex. Our dinner menu in the hotel’s Café offered not only basic Peruvian food, but well-prepared Italian food complemented with organic produce from the hotel’s garden. (We recommend the hotel and café for their international flavor and quality of service and rooms.)
Peru Rail and Inca Rail trains depart from Ollantaytambo station for Aqua Calientes, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. Schedules and prices vary greatly depending upon the time of day and class of service. Peru Rail offers Expedition, Vistadome and top of the line Hiram Bingham classes. We chose the Peru Rail Vistadome (mid-range) service and window seats, but with all morning tickets sold-out, our earliest departure was mid-afternoon. The train ride follows the scenic winding Urubamba River down a narrow valley past small hamlets and Inca ruins, so unless you’ve seen it all before, be sure to take this journey in daylight.
Agua Calientes: Arriving in Aqua Calientes at dusk we quickly checked into our hotel. Our plan was to get an early start the next morning for Machu Picchu, both to dodge crowds and to experience sunrise from the Huaynapicchu peak. Buses begin boarding at 4:30AM with a 1st entrance to Machu Picchu at 5:30AM. Rules put in place in July 2017 limit visitors in each of two different entry groups to a total of 5,940: 1st entrance group from 5:30AM to 12:00 noon; 2nd entrance group 12:00 noon to 5:30PM. (New rules also require a certified guide to tour the citadel.) We managed to get on a second bus and when we arrived we only had 30-40 people ahead of us in line. As the sun began to rise we were inside the Lower Gate and headed for a waiting area at the trail head for Huaynapicchu. Much to our chagrin, our planning was flawed as the trails don’t open until 7:00AM. The new rules also limit the number of hikers on the trails to 250 visitors, so your place in line determines whether you can make the hike. We were early and didn’t have a problem. While one of us waited, the other had time for some photo exploration. (The Peru Travel Blog has more on new entrance requirements and trail options.)
Considering our limited time for exploration, we decided that, rather than climbing Huaynapicchu, we would opt for a shorter and faster lower peak at Huchuypicchu. Despite our initial planning glitch, the revised plan worked well and by 8:30AM we were alone on top looking down at a cloud enshrouded Machu Picchu. Sunrise under these conditions was less than optimal, but quiet solitude and views from atop Huchuypicchu were spectacular and well worth our early bird hike. As we came down and met more and more hikers going up, we were glad we went early. After exploring the main site, citadel and sun god worship stone, noon found us wearily having a bowl of soup at the café outside the lower entry gate, as it turned out, our first meal of the day. More time would have been nice, but under existing time-limitations we were satisfied with our overview of this spectacular well preserved Inca site.
Did we see everything at Machu Picchu? No, but enough for us until next time.
Does Machu Picchu live up to the hype? Yes, but we found other less crowded Inca sites in the Inca Sacred Valley equally interesting and picturesque (see other articles in this series, i.e., Part One and Part Two.)
Would we go back? Yes, but in this present trip we spent 9 days exploring the Inca Sacred Valley. Next time would be more targeted; undoubtedly with more visits to high hill country hamlets and also exploring South from Cusco into the Puno, Lake Titicaca and Arequipa regions; or alternatively, to the North into Trujillo.
In Part Two of this series we described meeting a senior trekker from Germany, Gretchen, who related that somehow no matter where she hiked in Switzerland or Patagonia, the Andes inexplicably drew her back every few years. After our brief encounter with the Inca Sacred Valley, we can fully understand why she makes these pilgrimages. The shear majesty of the Andes, clean clear mountain air, amazing Inca archeology and robust vibrant culture in high hill communities is all unique and invigorating. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you’re missing a once in a lifetime experience. For us, like Gretchen, once in a lifetime may not be enough.