Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ollantaytambo & Taking the Train

Situated in Ollantaytambo for the evening, we bounced around the cobbled, colonial streets, raced our boats, and went to bed. The following morning, our real exploration of the area began. The streets are inhabited by wrenchingly noisy motorized rickshaws and combis; one of the combis we saw had all of the seats removed and a live cow in it! We wandered down a smallish street along the river to the train station - Ollanta is best-known for its ruins, and secondly because it is one of the most popular places to catch the train to Machu Picchu - where we purchased tickets. Tickets for the train are impossibly expensive unless you buy the backpacker class seats; but, in reality, you have to buy whichever seats are available and fit your schedule, so they manage to clean house on the 'prime time' trains. I think Brice and I payed about $100 each for our tickets round trip (ouch). As a further consideration: the ticket office keeps strange hours and their payment options are limited. Plan on carrying a lot of ID, visiting one of the two ATMs in the small Plaza de Armas first, and getting there with plenty of time to track down the office cashiers.

After we figured out the train schedule, we visited the Ollantaytambo fortress. Though Pisac was more complete and much more grandly situated, Ollantaytambo's massive terraces absolutely dwarfed the ones we saw at other ruins. I spared my sore, blistered feet and remained on the lower levels, but Brice climbed up the whole structure, and visited the buildings at the top. People look like ants on the top of Ollantaytambo; when you look up from the bottom, it is absolutely mind boggling to think about how long this place must have taken to build into the mountain side. In fact, if you stand at the base of Ollantaytambo and clap, the echo will cause an effect like an entire concert hall breaking out into applause. It feels like standing in the middle of the world's largest amplitheatre.

Historically, Ollantaytambo's significance comes from yet another skirmish with the Spanish. After the battle for Cusco, the Incan nobility and remaining military retreated to Ollantaytambo. But, unlike the battle at Sachsaywamthe Incas actually managed to turn the Spaniards back at their new fortress. They re-appropriated Ollanta as their new capitol for a short time, but ultimately retreated further into the wilderness to find a more easily defended headquarters and Ollanta was firmly under Spanish control by 1540.

While the main ruins themselves are awe-inspiring, a smaller set of lesser-known storage houses located on the opposite hillside (trust me, if you get to Ollantaytambo and look at the set up, my generic 'opposite hillside' direction will make a lot of sense) are open for more adventurous exploration. After we failed to find a path or staircase towards the smaller ruins, Brice decided to hop a wall in someone's back yard and give it a try anyways. I opted not to join him for that adventure, but I really wish I had. It turned out that there was a path to the small ruins wedged into the back of an alley (Brice found it a few minutes after I left for an Internet cafe), no trespassing required.

We spent the rest of our day lounging about in the Plaza de Armas, visiting the small market stalls along entrance to the ruins, and looking for more delicious Andean pizza. Pizza in the Andes mountains is a treat not to be missed; the only economical way for them to prepare a pizza is with whole, fresh ingredients in a wood-fired brick oven. Depending on the quality of the pizza sauce, many of the pizzas we had in the Andes easily beat out those my father and I tried in the cafes of Rome. Pizza along the Peruvian coast, however, should be avoided at all costs. But eating in Ollanta was generally pleasureable, although we did have one funny moment. Brice and I asked a girl leaving a restaurant if it was any good, and she replied that they were great; the beers were way bigger there than down the street. We had a good laugh at that one.

Most of our time in the marketplace went towards finding Brice a marble sphere; he spent a few days thinking he wanted one as a souvenir, so we enjoyed picking each one up and weighing its pros and cons. Yes, that may sound silly, but if you know Brice and me (which if you're reading this, you probably do) then you know we managed to make it into an elaborate, somewhat offensive game. Luckily for me, I broke down and bought (or should I say that I broke Brice down and he bought me....) myself a dorky-looking, canvas hat at that market; it came in handy on the relatively unshaded tour of Machu Picchu we took the next day.

Once we grew bored with the toursit market, we wandered through some of the little shops along the Plaza. Most of them were horribly over-priced, but I needed bandaids for my feet and had to content myself with paying ten cents per bandage; that's probably a world record, or something. Since we heard that Aguas Calientes could be prohibitively expensive, we wandered back to a small store well away from the tourist areas and let an absolutely adorable little Quechuan girl sell us only marginally over-priced water, crackers, instant ramen, and cookies. She was just too cute to pass up. Brice would just point at things while she very proudly counted out how much they would cost, and then he would reach up and get what he wanted off the high shelves while she smiled the biggest grin I've ever seen and counted out the new total. Ah, nostalgia.

Finally, we wandered back to the train station and boarded our coach for the 2-hour journey to Aguas Calientes. We went from our relatively warm mountain top (at nearly 2,800 meters above sea level) through some frigid, snow-covered peaks, and descended into the sub-tropical jungle surrounding Machu Picchu. I remember thinking then how amazing it was that just several days prior we had been sleeping at a roadblock, looking up at the immaculate night sky, and trying to guess how long it would take us to walk to Cusco. Seeing so much in so few days is a really surreal feeling, akin to something like Rip van Winkle must have felt when he woke up.

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