Sunday, August 6, 2006

My journey through the Sacred Valley: Cuzco to Pisac to Ollantaytambo.

....that´s pronounced "Oy yan tay tahm bo" and it was to be my final destination on this day of travel. Along the way, I would get to see the Incan ruins at Pisac.

The game plan was to leave the hotel, in Cuzco, at 8am so I awoke early and had my "traditional" breakfast of eggs, roll, ham, cheese and coffee. With time to spare, I got on the internet (free on the hotel pc) and updated the blog. Simon showed up at 7:45am (on the dot) as he said he would. As we had discussed the previous day, all I would be taking with me would be my daypack so I handed him my backpack for safe keeping.

Simon then gave me the good news that I would, in fact, be ditching the motorcoach and going to Ollantaytambo via local transportation!! Yay!! I gave him a big smile and thanked him. It was then that I found out that in all the years that Simon had been conducting this particular tour and with the over 2000 travellers that he´s had to look after, that I was the first and only one to ever ask to travel by local transportation! It was no wonder he seemed so caught off guard by my persistent request. I assured Simon I was a seasoned traveller and that I would be fine though the look on his face did not show me he was convinced of my words. ...and I would find out just how much so later in the day. A few minutes, Rolly showed up. He was going to be my local guide for the day and would be escorting me all the way from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo. At the moment, I realized just how lucky I was to have my own "personal" tour guide and I decided to make the most of it.

Rolly handed me my boleto touristo for entry to Pisac and Ollantaytambo and we headed out of the hotel to face the day.



Rolly and I walked up to the nearest intersection to try and hail a taxi. Our first stop of the day would be the town of Pisac and with all the stops along the way, taxi was the best form of transportation. I asked Rolly what he was offering as a fare and he said 50 soles for the one way trip for the both of us. It took 3 tries before a taxi would agree to take us on the 35 km trip to Pisac. The taxi wound its way up through the northwest hills that surround Cuzco and once we got out of town, Rolly had the taxi pull over at a vista point where we could see the town from high above. It was quite a view! I also snapped a photo of an Andean woman walking her llama to a nearby vista point - no doubt that she and her llama would soon be the focal point for a tourist photos!



I looked out my window to see an arid, mountainous land with very little vegetation. Eucalyptus trees, brought to Peru by Australians, dotted the landscape.



Our next stop was a factory where many of the alpaca goods, that are sold in the handicrafts market in Cuzco, are manufactured. Rolly introduced me to the owner who kindly gave me a 5 minute lesson on how to tell "real" alpaca from fake. It´s all in the feel of the materials and while it was easily to tell the difference with real and fake goods side-by-side, I wasn´t sure that I could it do with just one item in hand.

We left the alpaca factory empty handed, got back in the taxi and continued on our journey. The next stop was at a farm to learn about llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicunas - the four members of the South American camelid family. Here´s your paragraph long lesson.

Lllamas and alpacas are the two members of the family that are domesticated. Lllamas are the pack animals and also used for their fur and hide. Alpacas are raised primarily for their fur and meat. Baby alpaca i.e., the first shearing off a young alpaca is prized fur. Guanacos roam free for now. Vicunas are prized for their fur which is as expensive as cashmere.

I handed Rolly my camera so I could do the usual obligatory petting and feeding. I think Rolly got a bit carried away snapping photos!



We then we stopped at a place where Rolly explained to me how how the animals are sheared, their fur spun into thread, the thread died (with all naturnal animal and vegetable materials) and then woven into the textiles that are sold in the markets all across Peru. The picture on the left shows the pot of dyes being heated by a fire fueled by corn husks and (you can't see it in the picture) manure from the animals. The picture on the right shows the vivid colors that can be achieved using the natural dyes - the vibrancy of the colors is absolutely astounding!



On the way out, we encountered a little Andean boy who was learning how to knit. His mother is sitting next to him in the photo below. His voice was so soft that Rolly had to kneel down to ask him questions and hear his answers. He was so cute and his mother was beaming with pride!!



We ended our visit with a stop at a shop that serves as the distribution point for textiles woven by a cooperative of villages. Without a doubt, the shop offered the nicest and most impressive set of textiles I had seen anywhere on my trip.

Back into the taxi and we continued our journey to Pisac. The Urumbama Valley soon came into sight and the landscape got more spectacular in view.



We soon arrived into Pisac and headed straight for the Incan ruins outside town.

The taxi dropped us off at the base of the ruins and Rolly and I made our trek to the top. At an elevation above 12,000 feet, I initially had to stop quite a bit to catch my breath. Once acclimated, the rest of the climb was much easier.



The ruins at Pisac occupy quite a bit of ground and so there was lots to see. We stopped at various points along our climb up and around the site. Rolly explained the ruins and also gave a bit more insight about Incan day as well as present day in the Urubamba Valley itself. We then made our way down to the base - Rolly taking each step with ease, me watching my feet and ground to make sure that every step I took was a solid step.



We then got back into the taxi and made our way to the town of Pisac which was to be our stopping point for lunch. The taxi dropped us off, Rolly paid the driver and we made our way to the restaurant where Rolly ordered trout (caught in the Urubamba River) for both of us. I then had about an hour to wander the market which was selling the same stuff as the handicrafts markets in Cuzco. Despite the fact that I was getting really tired of seeing the "same old stuff" from one vendor to the next from one town to the next, I did buy a few trinkets. One thing good about travelling with a back pack - it does limit you to what you buy! When my hour was up, I went back to the restaurant to join Rolly for lunch.



The food came, still steaming hot. The food portions are BIG here! I asked Rolly if it was because the restaurant catered to tourists or because that´s the volume of food Peruvians eat and he replied that it was the latter. According to Rolly, lunch is the big meal of the day here so portions tend to be big. Rolly ordered a cold barley drink that is boiled barley flavored with honey and lemon. It was very refreshing and I willingly gave up the bottle of water that I had ordered to have several glasses of the barley water.

After lunch, we headed out the restaurant and walked up a couple of streets to catch the local bus to the town of Urubamba which would be our transit point to Ollantaytambo. I got on board ahead of Rolly and immediately headed for the very back row seat - the one that is a single bench seat. We sat down and watched the rest of the bus board. The conductor eventually came back to collect the fare which amounted to 5 soles for each of us. Sitting in front of us was a family with two young children. The girl was just about the cutest thing in the world - a small round face, with big brown eyess, two pigtails and a mouth that curved up into a smile each time either Rolly or I would smile or wave to her. Rolly told me that Andean people are generally very shy and as he said this, I snapped a photo of her - her face lit up with a big smile but partially hidden behind the seat. We found out that her name is Melody and she´s five years old.



Soon Melody and her family got off the bus and poor Rolly was left the endure the 1000 and one questions that I had for him about life in Peru e.g., how does the school system work here, what do people do for health insurance, what is the average wage for a school teacher, how do the Andean and Christian religions mesh, how is the President elected.....and on and on. Rolly patiently answered every question and then some.

At one of the local towns, a small group of school children boarded. They headed straight for where Rolly and I were sitting. I snapped a photo and showed them what they looked like on the camera. They then asked if I could take a couple more photos of them which I gladly did. They were too cute for words! Rolly asked to see their schoolbooks. I´m guessing that the children were probably around 10 years old or so and it was interesting to see their books and what it was teaching them - very basic reading, writing, math and science. At one point, the six kids all broke out in song and all that Rolly and I could do was smile and watch. When they reached their destination, they all got up, waved good bye to us and got off the bus where they continued to wave to us until we could no longer see them.



More questions for poor Rolly as the bus rambled on. Do people living in the Urubamba Valley have electricity? Yes for some households. What about running water? No, the water comes from wells. What do they use for cooking fuel? Kerosene, I think was the answer. Does he like the current President? No. Did he like Fujimori? Yes. How did he learn English? A short course til he could no longer afford to pay for it followed by videos of English language movies and listening to......Madonna. He knows the words to "Like a Virgin". Scary.

We soon arrived at the Urubamba bus station. We got off the bus, ran through the station where Rolly asked for the combi (9 passenger mini van) to Ollantaytambo. There were about 4 passengers already on board. I got into the mini van first and headed for the back seat. Rolly sat down next to me and then a woman, with live (i.e. clucking) chicks in a cardboard box sat down next to Rolly. A man than squeezed himself between Rolly and the woman. Back seat full. An Andean man and I am presuming his wife - both dressed in traditional Andean clothing got on board and found their spots. One by by one, people clamored on board until (I swear) there was literally no breathing room left! I tried to count heads and gave up after 12! At the same time that the van was filling up with people, there were people piling luggage, boxes, sacks of potatoes, metal rods and even several roles of corrugated tin roofing onto the top of the van and into every crevice in the van. I don´t know how it was possible, but eventually the van got moving and we left the bus station!






We chugged down the road. Poor Rolly. Clutching his backpack and squashed in the back seat. I opened up the window to let some fresh air in and resumed questioning Rolly. Is it true you can earn a college degree in tourism? Yes. What courses do you have to take? History, culture, service management, etc. We also covered personal questions which I will not reveal in this blog. You´ll have to ask Rolly himeslf, if you ever meet him.

We arrived into Ollantaytambo around 2pm and headed straight for the ruins. I could easily recognize the ruins as I had see so many pictures of them in all the reading that I had done leading up to this trip.



As with Pisac, we started to climb and stopped at each of 3 tier levels where Rolly explained various ruins as they came into view. Additionally, we stopped at a couple of vista points where Rolly explained how the Incans used the markers on a particular moutain to determine the start of the summer solstice. He also pointed out ruins located on the mountain that archeologists believe were used by the Incans as graineries. We hiked to the very top where the I finally saw the 4 boulders that commonly show up in photos of Ollantaytambo. Rolly explained to me that archeologists believed that the stones that Ollantaytambo was built with were actually located a mountainside over, with a small stream separating the mountain from the hilltop site of the ruins. Rolly explained that the Incans used wooden logs to move the boulders down one mountain to the other. They also diverted the flow of the stream so they could move the boulders across much more shallow water and then built gravel ramps up the side of the "destination" moutain so they could effectively push and pull the boulders up to the site!!





After a few minutes to appreciate the view from atop Ollantaytambo, we began our descent. As with the climb down from the top of Pisac, Rolly walked down while taking in his surroundings. Me, on the other hand - well, I watched every step I took. I have no idea what Ollantaytambo looked like on the way down!

We exited the ruin site and Rolly took me to my hotel. He got me checked in and we both said goodbye. I headed to my room, got out the travel book and found that the one and only museum (the CATCCO) in town was closing in about 45 minutes. I decided to check it out and I´m glad I did. The photo below shows the interior courtyard as you enter the CATCCO - the view beyond is that of the graineries of Ollantaytambo.



For a donation in the amount of your choosing (though they suggest 5 soles), you enter in to a very small, 5 room museum that turned out to be very informative. Each room has a set of handheld placards that provide English explanations of the exhibits in each room. The museum basically covers details of the lives of the ancient Incans that lived the Urubamba valley as well as some information about current day life. I stayed at the museum until it closed and then headed back down towards the ruins where there was another of the what had by then become an expected sight for me - the handicrafts market. I quickly strolled through the market and decided to call it a day. On the way back to the hotel, I stumbled onto small shop selling Andean textiles. I wandered in and found a couple of the tapestries catching my eye and ended up buying one. My next stop was to buy some munchies (roasted Andean corn - very addictive) and bottled water.

Here's a photo that I took of the town of Ollantaytambo - the ruins are behind me and my hotel is at the top of the hill in front of me.



Simon had gotten me a room with a view of Ollantaytambo and with a small stream running right outside my room. What other bathroom would give you a view as the one in the photo below?




Back at the room, I rested, did my daily duties of showering and laundry and with the gentle sound of running water in the background, I kicked back to read a book. At some point, I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to hear the phone ringing - it was Simon, The Worrier, calling to check up on me. I assured him I had arrived from Cuzco in one pience, that I had a great time on the journey over, that Rolly was an excellent guide and that I would meet up with him at 9:30am the next morning. I hung up the phone and decided to stay up and continue reading.