Ollantaytambo’s Hotel Sol offers breakfast in a room with a view. From the Florida room, a room that has glass windows all around, one can look down upon the street to watch the people heading to the market or look up in wonder at the ruins a few hundred yards away. After mate de coca, bread, fruit and eggs, the Huffords and Lezovi stroll through the village to the ruins long before the tourist buses arrive.
Geoff and the kids explore the uppermost reaches of the ruins. Mike, Michelle and I move around like colorful Pac Men in the early morning quiet. Below us, the village appears to be still, but we know that Ollantaytambo is a busy place. The Plaza de Armas, the standard name, it seems, for every public square in Peru, has pulled in farmers selling produce, vendors selling meat skewers from carts, and taxi drivers hawking rides to Cusco. The Peruvian women who travel the village’s cobblestoned streets with bundles on their backs may be carrying infants inside or produce. It’s hard to tell.
Beyond the village stand more ruins. These seem less formal and organized, yet they have attracted the attention of a few hikers who roam about the hills opposite our location. We plan to explore these outposts on our return.
Ollantaytambo, also known as Ollanta to the locals, was built as a fortress and temple. The stones were cut at a quarry nearly six kilometers away. The workers did not attempt to transport the massive stones across the river to the site. Instead they left the stones in place and diverted the river Urubamba around them exactly as they desired.
Manco Inca retreated to Ollanta after his defeat at Sacsaywaman, a fortress that seems impenetrable. Ollanta turned out to be the perfect place for him to foil his enemies. It had a series of more than a dozen steep agricultural terraces. Below them lay the flat Yucay Valley through which coursed the Urubamba River. As the Spanish conquistadors approached the fortress across the grassy fields at the foot of the mountain, Manco signaled his men to open the canals. They loosened a volley of water that bogged down the conquistadors’ greatest asset, their horses. The 170 soldiers of Hernando Pizarro’s army fled.
The area’s steep mountainsides were a blessing to Manco. Today they hold potential risks as the rainy season causes occasional mudslides. When we arrive at the station to take the train to Aguas Calientes, we learn that a recent rumba has delayed all trains. The railroad station, mostly a dead-end street lined with vendors, is filled with backpackers and travelers of all ages. The latter dart among the railroad employees to inquire about departure times and often get a head shake saying no. The cafés try to capture as much business as possible from the crowd. They stand and wave their menus in the air and shout the prices of special offers. Then word travels through the crowd that the 4 a.m. train has just left. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon. A collective sigh of relief blows out as the next trainload gathers its bags.
Our train departs from Ollantaytambo about an hour late. We’ve whiled away the time by playing cards, eating, of course, and drinking another cup of coca tea. When we finally board, we’re pleasantly surprised at the train’s glass windows that work their way up to the ceiling, offering great views of the nearby cloud-covered mountain peaks.
The train rumbles beside the muddy Vilcanota River, or Urubamba River, a wide expanse that gushes gallons of brown, muddy liquid. On the other side, there’s little to see as the mountainside tumbles down close to the edge of the river. The dozen or so blue cars amble along at a modest pace, giving the passengers plenty of time to rubberneck at the trees, rocks, shacks and wildflowers.
As the train pulls into Aguas Calientes, Michelle looks up and sees a glass-less window frame on the second story above us. “Look!” she says. “That’s where we’re staying tonight.”
Michelle was closer to the truth than she realized. We had arrived in Aguas Calientes without room reservations, because we didn’t receive a response from our chosen hotel. When a gal at the train station waved a four-color brochure in Michelle’s face, we decided to check it out. We ended up spending the night at the Hotel Camino Real. We couldn’t pass it up because it was so cheap. The Huffords spent only 37 soles on three rooms (less than $2US per person with their five), the least amount of money that they’d spent on lodging in Peru. Of course, there were a few strings attached that we didn’t learn until later, such as the three-sole charge per towel when the kids needed towels to take to the thermal springs. Oh, well.
Mike and I took the roaring river room, named for the Vilcanota River at flood stage outside our room. Michelle and Mikayla shared a room as did Alec and Jerome. Miles and Geoff shared a room that was so special that it came with its own petri dish—a healthy collection of black mold on the walls that grew overnight. What do you expect for 37 soles?