Urubamba, Ollantaytambo & Machu Picchu

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Thursday, September 18, 2008

At the end of our trekking, we are in the village of Ollantaytambo, which is allegedly the best surviving example of Inca City Planning.  Much of the town is built on the original foundations/walls.  The water is still distributed through the village using the original Inca method.  The Temple ruins sit on the hillside overlooking the village and it was here that the Inca won their only victory over the Spaniards. 

However, we needed a place to sleep.  Having viewed a number of hostals and their rooms we settle upon the Inca Wasi right on the main square. At 70 soles a night it is in the mid price range and does not offer tremendous value for money but it does have gas powered hot water ( as opposed to the electric showers prevalent in town which usually have the added excitement of bare electric wires dangling around in the shower!!). After three days without a wash the hot water is extremely welcome, probably as much by everyone with whom we come in contact, as ourselves! After a shower we have a wander around the town to find a place to eat - never seen so many places selling pizza!

The next afternoon we are due to catch the train to Aguas Caliente, the town below Machu Picchu. We leave our bags in the hostal and go sit in the town square for a while and watch the world go by. The world here mainly consists of local Quecha men hanging around waiting to be hired as porters on the Inca trail. It is pretty terrible to see the way these guys are exploited by the tour and trekking companies. The Inca trail supposedly limits the amount each porter can carry to 20kgs. This limit, is however routinely ignored and many must carry at least twice the permitted loads. These men are desperate for work and some cash and are easily exploited. This really is something that is in the hands of the tourist. They could simply use only those companies who employ fair work practices and not insist upon going for the cheapest option. This is one of the things we liked about Miguel Joven's approach. He employs local people, pays them a fair wage and intends to expand his business by training local people as guides and by engaging with the local communities wherever he takes his clients ensuring that the local communities are not excluded from sharing in the prosperity that responsible tourism can bring.

Whilst sitting under the tree in the centre of the square, Juan's mother suddenly appears and stops for a chat. This proves a little problematic as she speaks only Quecha and no Spanish and we speak English and only a little Spanish. For a few minutes we converse in our respective languages plus a little sign language until we are "rescued" by a Peruvian lady who was selling paintings in the square. This lady speaks Spanish plus a little English and a little Quecha. Between the four of us and, with a little help from a passing school girl, we manage to have a reasonable conversation. It turns out that Juan's mum had just walked the 15 or so kms. from Patachanca to try and sell some of her handicrafts and was about to walk back that afternoon, a round trip that she apparently does regularly. Assuming that we will be walking all the way back to Lares (where we started our trek 3 days ago) she invites us to say with her family in their house. Incredible hospitality that we are reluctant to decline. Much as we enjoyed the trek we intend saving our feet for another hike in a different location.

Exchanging farewells with Juan's mum, we arrive in Ollantaytambo train station in good time for good our 4.00pm train to Aguas Calientes. We have booked the Vistadome train on the outgoing journey and the backpacker train for the return. The main difference, apart from price, is that the Vistadome has windows in the roof providing a better view of the mountains and provides a drink and sandwich along the way.

The journey takes about two hours, not because it is any great distance, but mainly because it rarely travels at anything more than walking speed, plus it is single track so the guard/driver has to jump out to change the points every time we meet a train coming in the opposite direction (which is fairly often!).

We arrive in Machu Pueblo station in Aguas Calientes and step off the train to be greeted by the sight of the "Hiram Bingham" train which, complete with white linen table cloths, bone china dinnerware and crystal glassed services, is the luxury train run by Orient Express. Very nice, but probably not worth the 30 fold increase in fare when compared with our train even if they do have a resident band!

We have booked a hotel for two nights and see a couple of their staff holding up a placard at the station. We struggled through the crowds to try and get to them hampered by the fact that there is only one small gate out of the station and that is occupied by one guy who is trying to force his cart through! However, we do eventually get there and find that our names are not on the card! Never mind we walk through the streets to the hotel and make sure that we get to the desk ahead of the other guests only to find that our names have been Tippexed out. So much for me feeling pleased with myself for having booked the room over the telephone in my fledgling Spanish. Never mind after a brief conversation (part Spanish, part English, part sign language) we manage to sort out a room, dump our bags and then, at the suggestion of the hotel manager, head off to purchase our bus tickets to Machu Picchu for the next day. As soon as we get out of the hotel there is a power cut and the town is plunged into darkness! We follow our directions to the bus station and as we walk through the market it gets darker and darker and just as we are convinced we are lost we happen upon a policeman and ask him how to get to the station. Probably fearing for our safety of these "stupid gringos" in the pitch black market, he goes one further and leads us out of the market with his torch, to the station. We buy our tickets and head off in search of something to eat. The power returns and we are able to explore a little of AC. Now, I appreciate that ACcwas created solely as tourist stop off point for Machu Picchu, but even so it really is a dreadful place. Machu Picchu may be one of the wonders of the world but is god was going to give the world an enema; this is surely where he would stick the tube!

Having been forewarned by a restaurateur of the food hygiene standards in the town, we seek out something that looks reasonable safe and settle on a clean looking Pizza joint complete with wood-fired oven. How wrong could we be...?

We get back to the hotel and get to bed and in the early hours it starts! I have a fever, I am shivering and I start the first of many dashes to the bathroom. This is not good news as we have to get the bus at 5.30 to catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu. We hum and hah as to whether we should leave Machu Picchu until the following day but, having swallowed a few Imodium, Paracetamol and started a course of antibiotics, I feel a bit better so we head off to the bus station to find the biggest queue for a bus we have ever seen. There were at least 200 people ahead of us in the queue and within 15 minutes, another 200 behind!

Mile for mile the bus ride up to Machu Picchu, at $12 must be one of the more expensive in the world, but better than the 2 hours walk which some people had chosen to do (we even saw two lunatics jogging to the top in darkness!).

So much for the sunrise! Although we were amongst the first on the buses, we arrived after dawn, not that it mattered much as we were in thick cloud and could hardly see the ruins anyway. By this time I was feeling really bad; aching all over and shivering but at least the Imodium had taken effect! Carolyn diagnosed a severe case of "man flu". The clouds briefly cleared once or twice and we got a slightly better view of at least apart of the ruins. Although they were undoubtedly both extensive and impressive we were perhaps not visiting in the best frame of mind and, quite honestly, I was more impressed with the Inca ruins at Pisac and after a couple of hours we decided to return to Aguas Caliente and bed for the rest of the day and, in my case night.

The next day we have yet another early wake up call. We rise at 4.30 to get the first train out back to Ollantaytambo at 5.30 arriving at the station around 7.30 from whence we return to the hostal and back to bed. On the bright side, at least I am losing weight!

Hearts Café

The next day I am feeling a lot better and we visit Hearts Café to meet up with the owner, Sonia Newhouse. In March 2007, aged 76, Sonia, a well respected nutritionalist and food writer gave up her life in England to move to Ollantaytambo to found Hearts Café and the Living Heart NGO. The sole objective being to alleviate poverty amongst the Andean women and children in the Sacred Valley, some of the most disadvantaged people in Peru. All profits from Hearts Café are used for the benefit of the communities.

The Andean families in and around the Sacred Valley, whilst living in what for some may seem an idyllic location, are poor, very poor. Their diet can often consist mainly of potatoes, which over time leads to problems of malnutrition and consequent poor health. They have little access to the most basic medical care, contraception or even clean drinking water. It is to alleviate this type of poverty that Living Heart was formed.

Inspired by Sonia and, interested in what she is trying to achieve, we decide to stay for a few weeks and help out as best we can, with organising office administration, IT and marketing and so on. We take up Sonia's kind offer to stay in the bungalow in the grounds of the house she is staying in, in nearby Urubamba. Although basic, the bungalow is comfortable and is set in lovely gardens on a hill above the town. The gardens are alive with humming birds and, as the rainy season approaches they are joined by lots of parakeets and other exotic birds arriving from the jungle. A major advantage of staying here is that we can shop in the markets and cook our own food, albeit on a two ring gas stove. If I do say so myself, the alpaca chilli is delicious, almost up to the standard of our goat Bolognese in Sierra Leone!

Apart from the birds in the garden, there are also a lot of cows which are grazed in and around the gardens. On one occasion, whilst walking down the drive to the road into town, we were confronted by a bull, who, completely ignored Carolyn but, judging by his "state of arousal" had taken quite a shine to me! Fortunately, we managed to escape! Still got it after all these years! Even if it is the wrong sex and species!

Our daily commute to Ollantaytambo takes and hour, half of which is the walk of 3 kilometres down the hill and through the town to the bus station where we pick up a "collectivo" (clapped out minibus) for the 30 minute drive along the valley to Ollantaytambo. The daily journey is not as long as my previous commute to London plus the scenery as we travel along the Sacred Valley is way more impressive! The collectivos however, are not quite as luxurious as Virgin trains and a tad more crowded even the London Underground, but they do have a wider variety of passengers, chickens, ducks etc! The maximum we have had so far is about 25 (people not ducks!) in one minibus but at least it is cheap at 1.20 sole (35cents) each way.

For more information on Hearts Café, Living Heart and their activities please visit their websites at www.heartscafe.org and www.livingheart.org If you are visiting Ollantaytambo anytime then please visit the Café, the food is excellent and you really will be helping some desperately poor women and children.

As well as helping out at Living Heart, we arrange some more Spanish lessons, this time with Guillermina , an Argentine kindergarten teacher (about our current level really!). We spend two hours a day with Guille in the kindergarten for our lessons. Guille is new to spanish language teaching (we are her first pupils for this) but clearly has a natural aptitude and really is a great teacher. Unlike our previous teachers Guille speaks great English which is really helpful when we really do not understand something she can revert to English to explain. Hopefully, by the time we leave Ollantaytambo, we will have learnt enough Spanish to smooth our path for the remainder of our travels in South America.

If you are looking for Spanish lessons in the Sacred Valley then Guillermina comes very highly recommended and can be contacted on:

Email:    Guillermina_sanchez@hotmail.com
Telephone: (mobile)  984874185

After spending nearly a month here, we feel it is time to move on, but where too? We have read reports of riots in Bolivia which was to be our next destination. Not sure what it is all about, but apparently it is something to do with George Bush and a pipeline? Probably his last attempt to screw up the world before he leaves office!

Anyway, we have spent more time than anticipated in Peru so we may well head off to Chile via Puno and Lake Titicaca.

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