Thursday, August 10, 2006

My journey through the Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes is the town that is the launching point to Machu Picchu and it was to be my destination after Ollantaytambo.

My morning in Ollantaytambo began with a wake up call from a rooster and wait......could it be? Why yes, it was.....the sound of a cow mooing in the distance. You know you're in the country when the call of barnyard animals takes the place of an alarm clock!

I quickly got out of bed, packed up and headed down for my usual breakfast. I had about an hour or so to kill before having to meet up with Simon. I headed out for a walk and found a scenic path that ran alongside the creek next to the hotel. I found the cows that had awoken me - turned out that there was a house behind the hotel and the culprits were grazing in the yard.

There was a low stone wall bordering the entire length of the creek. I sat down, pulled out my travel guide and read up on Aguas Caliente.




As expected, Simon The Punctual, was already waiting for me at the hotel even though I arrived at least 10 minutes ahead of the scheduled meeting time! Simon was looking a bit peaked when I saw him and he confessed that he thought he was coming down with a cold. He said he was on medication and was determined to go on to Aguas Calientes with me.

Simon wanted to take me to have a look at a traditional Andean home and so we made our way down the Ollantaytambo equivalent of a back alley and entered into a home. I didn't ask but I presumed that Simon knew the residents! That's Simon on the left in the photo below.



To enter the traditional Andean residence starts with walking through a wooden door. You enter into a courtyard that is bordered by several "homes" - each of which would be occupied by members of a family e.g., father and mother in one, son and daughter-in-law in another, etc. Each "home" is single room structure constructed of adobe. The first thing that you notice as you enter the "home" are the guinea pigs running around - all over the place. They serve both as pets and as food.



Hung up on the walls are cooking and cleaning utensils and other "tools" used in day-to-day Andean life.

Simon explained that each house also has an altar - for displaying offerings to the gods and deceased family members. In the picture below, the small bowls hold corn and potatoes. There are also vessels for burning incense. The statue is adorned with offerings that the deceased can use in their next life e.g., paper printed up to look like money.

Now....., I don't know if what Simon told me next is true or if he was just bs'ing me but he said that you're suppose to put cigarette into the statue's mouth, light it and make a wish. With that said, Simon (who is a smoker) pulled a cigarette from his personal pack and placed in the statue's mouth, whipped out the disposable lighter and as he lit the cigarette, he told me to make a wish. I thought it was a bit odd ritual but went ahead with it anyway.




We said our thank you's to our hosts and made our way to catch the train to Aguas Caliente.

None of the roads in Ollantaytambo are paved and they are very narrow so simply walking down the street can be a bit of a challenge. Not only do you have to pay careful attention to where you place your feet but you also have to keep mind of the cars, trucks, tour buses, etc. that come rumbling down the streets so you can step aside instead of getting run over. All this and not to mention that walking is a very "dusty" affair as the vehicles kick up a lot of dirt as they drive by. At one point, Simon decided to hail a motorbike taxi, like the one shown below, to take us the rest of the way to the station. I have to admit that it was a welcomed reprieve from walking and being shrouded in dust....and it was a fun ride!



At the train station, there are gates that you need to enter past in order to get to the platform. Security guards stand at the gates and only certain people are allowed in at any one time. When we arrived at the station at Ollantaytambo, the only people allowed on the other side of the gate were ticket holders for the local train.

Simon explained to me that there were 4 classes of train travel out of Ollantaytambo:

  • Local which is restricted to Peruvian citizens and residents. As a Peruvian resident, Simon could travel in this class though he told me that his blond hair has often led to someone complaining that a "foreigner" is illegally riding in the restricted class.
  • Backpacker which can be used by any traveller though I think that it's priced to pretty much eliminate local Peruvians....or at least the Andeans that live in the Urubamba Valley region.
  • Vistadome which is distinguished primarily by the fact that the train cabins have ceilings that have glass segments so passengers can have a more panoramic view of the landscape as the train chugs on and.....as I was soon to find out...., they serve food on the Vistadome.
  • Hiram Bingham which is named after the Yale professor who discovered Machu Picchu and apparently costs some astronomical ($400?) fare to ride on.
I wanted to go on local class but that was not to be. I watched with a bit of envy as the locals boarded and street vendors, selling all sorts of food to the passengers, followed. Before the train pulled out of the station, all the vendors got off and returned to their stalls outside the gates of the station.



Once the local train pulled out of the station, the handicraft vendors returned to their spots on the middle of the train tracks.



Our train soon came and Simon and I boarded and ensconced ourselves in our assigned seats. As the train pulled away from the station, I looked out the window and caught sight of a farmer tilling his land. In this part of Peru, farmwork is all manual and the tools are all wood and steel. Bulls are used to provide the "muscle" to pull the tiller. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see a black speck in the middle of the photo - that's the bull. The farmer is just to the left of the bull. Sorry but I don't have a telephoto lens on my digital camera! You can also see a series of stone walls. As Rolly had explained to me the day before, Incans built stone retaining walls for 3 purposes - for terracing land, as decorative features, and as retaining walls to prevent erosion. Many of these ancient walls still exist today - my guess is that the walls in the photo are for terracing land.



As the train rumbled on, the landscape got more dramatic - the valley narrower and the mountains higher. In fact, the Urubamba Valley is so narrow at this point that there is no road - the only way in to and out of Aguas Caliente is via rail. As well, the Urubamba River turned from a gentle flow to a raging river, with water fiercely cascading over huge boulders. Snow capped mountains formed the backdrop. It was simply breathtaking scenery.



Though we had been in constant touch over the previous days, it was only when we were "trapped" together on the train, did I finally get a chance to get to know Simon....and what a wonderful story he told about how he ended up in Peru and meeting the woman who would eventually become his wife. We traded other bits and pieces of personal information during the course of our chat.

We soon arrived in Aguas Calientes. Aguas Caliente is very tiny town, situated in a very picturesque location - at a lower elevation that either Pisac or Ollantaytambo and near the start of the rainforest. As a result, the mountains are dense with vegetation, the temperature is much warmer and there's more humidity in the air. As best as I can describe it, it's semi-tropical in feel. The Urubamba River divides the town in half.

Simon and I walked from the train station to the hotel and he got me checked in. I don't know exactly how he does it, but Simon got me yet another room with an awesome view. With the windows open, I could hear the water raging over the boulders. Check it out.



I did a bit of unpacking and then headed out. I had the rest of the afternoon to explore the town and Simon had mapped out a walking route for me - destination was to be a small museum. I headed out on the walk but never found the museum. I didn't really care as the view of the river and mountain and the sounds of the rushing waters were more than enough to satisfy my senses. I was happy just to soak in the scenery!



Eventually, I walked back towards the center of town. Some people might be annoyed by the sight of train tracks running, literally, through the center of the town and so close to shops and restaurants that you can literally hop off the train and sit down a restaurant chair having only to take a few steps....but I thought it was kind of cool.



I had lunch in a small restaurant near the town. I thought I would have something "light" so I ordered a Tortilla de Verduras (tortilla with vegetables) and a Coke. After what seemed to be a short eternity, this huge pancake like thing was delivered to my table. I discovered that in Peru, a tortilla is basically a pancake like batter that encases any number of ingredients - in my case, it was tomatoes, lettuce and onions. I started eating the tortilla and about 1/2 way through, I couldn't eat any more. I decided to walk off lunch and headed to the handicrafts market. After a few minutes of seeing the same stuff that I had seen in Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Cuzco, I left the market and walked to the central square where there is a statue of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui . Pachacuti is reputed to be the great Incan warrior who had Machu Picchu built as a retreat for himself and other nobility.

I also stumbled on a small, open air market, on a side alley off of the main square. I spent a bit of time there and then headed back to the hotel.



After taking a shower and doing a bit of laundry, I sat beside my hotel room window and did a bit of reading.

I met back up with Simon at around 7pm in the hotel lobby. The Stelzer family would be arriving at 7:15 that evening and the plan was for Simon and I, along with 2 porters, to greet them at the train station. Simon and I headed up to the station and patiently waited for the train to arrive. As we stood on the outside the station gates, 7:15pm came and went. Simon The Worrier was getting antsy and eventually convinced the guard to allow all four of us to wait on the train platform. We scurried inside the station gates and didn't have to wait long before we heard the sound of an arriving train. As the train moved in, I spotted Riley and we all walked towards the train section that the Stelzers were on. As they disembarked, the porters took over carrying their luggage.

Naturally, Simon and I were curious about their time on the Lares Hike. Turned out, everything was going swimmingly well for them - the mountain scenery was spectacular, they slept comfortably each night, the food was great..... that is, until after they ate dinner the last night they were on the trail. Apparently, all of them except for Susie came down with food poisoning and spent most of the previous night either throwing up or having the runs. Poor guys. I can only imagine how miserable it must have been for them to endure the night with upset stomachs and then have to hike all the next day. They suspected that it was the beef that they had eaten for dinner - it had not been refrigerated the entire 2 days of the trip and probably was rotting. None of the guys had a good night's rest and it showed on their faces.

We quickly walked back to the hotel and the Stelzers checked into their rooms - they were exhausted and dying for hot showers. Given what they had been through, eating was the last thing on their minds....except for Kyle who was hungry.

I hadn't eaten dinner either and so Kyle and I decided to head out in search of a meal. We walked to the Pachamamma restaurant along with Simon. Kyle and I ordered our dinners and then all three of us walked across the train tracks to a store to buy supplies (bottled water, munchies, bread) for the next day. Kyle also picked up a few things (crackers, bread) for his family to eat that night.

Simon stayed with us long enough to have a cup of tea. He was looking worse than in the morning despite having been on medication all day and I was getting worried that he would not be able to join us tomorrow on our trip to Machu Picchu. I urged him to call it an early night and get some rest.

After Kyle and I finished dinner, we walked back to the hotel and I headed back to my room where I watched a bit of TV before going to sleep. I couldn't wait for tomorrow to come around!