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Ollantaytambo, Peru (Day 6)

On our last day in Peru, our flight from Cusco wouldn’t be until 15h30. Until then we could either wander around Cusco or use our Boleto Turístico to explore the other ruins on the outskirts of Cusco (Puca Pucara, Q’enqo and Tambomachay). However, we had heard really good things about Ollantaytambo. As it turned out, when we returned from Machu Picchu the night before, Lima Tours sent a driver to pick us up at Ollantaytambo. During the trip, we talked to him, initially in Spanish. Then we found out that he had been learning English and wanted to practice, so we carried on in both languages. He’s from the town of Urubamba, which we had to pass through on the way to Ollantaytambo, and comes from a indigenous family with 5 siblings. The car is his family car and he uses it to shuffle tourists, usually to and from Cusco. His mom spoke only Quechua, and he taught us a few words of the tongue-twisting language of the Incas. He was a genuinely nice guy, and moreover a descendant of a people whom we greatly admire. It didn’t take us long to decide to make a deal with him for a return to Ollantaytambo. We agreed on a price, S./150 , and that he would pick us up at our hotel the next day at 7h00.

Hermitaño, or Hermi for short, arrived the next day right on time. We were whisked through the narrow streets of Cusco, to the outskirts, which were just starting to stir, and in short order to the hills and farmlands of the highland. We had been driven on the same road a few days ago, but of course it was pitch dark. Even from the road, the the snow-capped peaks of the Andes are breath-taking. We made a pit stop where we admired this peak romantically named Veronica.

The landscape not surprisingly became more familiar once we got closer to Ollantaytambo. Once past the town of Urubamba, we drove alongside the eponymous river, sacred to the Incas. This valley must have been heavily settled by the Incas, as there are many terraces on the surrounding mountains, some of which are still in use. Soon we drove up a terrace-like ramp, made a sharp left turn and suddenly found ourselves in Ollantaytambo. We passed through the main square and arrived at the market. Unlike at Písac), the entrance to the ruins is next to the market and we drove right up to the gate. It was now about 8h45 and Hermi promised to pick us up at noon. We hope he had a chance to go home, just 15 minutes away.

Ollantaytambo, affectionately known as Ollanta, was never conquered by the Spanish—it was only abandoned when the Incas withdrew to Vilcabamba. Aside from its impressive ruins, it still retains much of its Inca roots. The streets in the old quarter and some of the buildings are Inca originals. Despite its growing popularity, the town also manages to avoid being overrun by tourist establishments, instead remaining a charming small town that regains its solitude once the last tour bus departs.

We headed straight for the ruins. As soon as we had the Boleto Turístico punched, we were greeted by a tour guide. Since we didn’t know anything about the ruins, we took her up on her offer. It turned out to be a great decision, as she gave us much more information than we could have ever found out outselves. Like most Peruvians we met on this trip, Monica was friendly and polite. In addition to speaking great English, she is of Quechua descent and as qualified to talk about the ruins as anyone.

The ruins are a religious complex also known as Temple Hill. The terraces begin to rise steeply soon as we entered.

As Monica explained, these terraces are not agricultural but, surprisingly, decorative. In Inca days, they were filled with flowers.

An impressive mountain rises across from Temple Hill, with Inca structures built on the mountainside.

More Inca structures are above us. We would be walking through them soon.

We made our first stop at the temple section build on top of a ridge overlooking the town.

The now-familiar trapezoidal niches contain small treasures and offerings. Monica said they would be placed inside ceramic vessels and urns.

Ingeniously, the stones were carved with an interlocking mechanism, visible in the upper left of the niche, to better resist earthquakes.

The intended main entrance to the Temple of the Sun unfortunately was unfinished before the end of Inca sovereignty.

We continued to ascend through another trapezoidal doorway.

At the top we encountered the most amazing feature of the ruins—six massive monoliths fitted together with the precision for which Inca builders are justly famous. The monoliths are believed to form the wall of the main chamber of a magnificent Temple of the Sun. Unfortunately, we will never know what it would look like.

Carved in reliefs on a monolith is a depiction of the Chacana or Inca cross, illustrated on a printout that Monica showed us. We have seen this cross in many places (including a local Peruvian restaurant that we frequent in Boston).

The monoliths were quarried on a mountain across the valley.

They were transported down the mountains, on ramps, across the intervening fields (the Incas diverted the river to allow the crossing) and again up the ramps to their destination. Since they had no wheels, they had to haul the massive blocks along on logs.

Coming down from the temple section, we tried to turn on this “Inca TV”, as Monica gleefully pointed out.

We entered a walled enclosure where guards would stand watch.

The “lookout tower” is a great vantage point , but whoever had to stand here had better beware, as there is no ledge to prevent a precipitous drop.

The well-made trail (nothing built by the Incas seems to be shoddy) skirts the cliff for more panoramic views.

And leads to houses built onto the cliffs.

These were used as storehouses. Thanks to the high altitude, provisions would be preserved longer.

Of course there would be some sort of covering.

On the opposite mountain there was more structures, likely fortifications.

As well as secondary storehouses for reserve provisions.

Sadly this was also used as a prison by the conquistadors. Anecdotally they executed Inca prisoners by taking them from the prison to the structures to the left and pushing them over the cliff.

Heading back down the trail.

And descended the terraces.

The famous Bath of the Princess. This fountain had carvings of sacred animals, which were destroyed by the Spanish who considered them idolatry.

The grounds here are an active archaeological dig. More Inca structures continue to be unearthed.

In this temple we see another fountain.

As well as large niche where mummified remains, likely of a royalty, were found in a sedentary position.

A last look at Temple Hill as we bid Monica adieu. We hope one day she’ll fulfill her wish to travel the world as we did, though her dream destination of New York doesn’t have quite the same exotic appeal to us as does her own hometown.

Outside the gate we couldn’t miss an opportunity to seek an audience with the Inca.

Okay, one final look at the ruins as we walked away.

We walked through the old town with the narrow streets that date back to Inca times.

The stone walls are adorned with overhanging bougainvilleas.

Traffic was mostly local.

And we saw the same “protective cows” that keep watch over indigenous households.

We had lunch at a restaurant right on the square. Hermi again showed up on time, but since we weren’t done, he joined us for coffee. Since we wouldn’t be needing the Boleto Turístico any longer, we gave it to him. It’s good for 10 days so perhaps he could use it for the remaining sites, which besides the aforementioned sites near Cusco also includes such fascinating ruins as the circular terraces at Moray) and the waterworks at Tipón.

The trip back was just as scenic.

This was the best thing at the airport, a reproduction of an enormous sun disc.

In the relatively short span of their civilization, the Incas have left many treasures that are no less magnificent and awe-inspiring.