The ride in the collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was just shy of two hours. As you might expect, the views were fantastic. We were driving across a high plateau of rolling hills, tucked in among the snowcapped peaks of the Andes. It is agricultural land, so there were endless fields of wheat, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops.
The van ride had Mila miserable with motion sickness; I know she was greatly relieved when we rolled into the main square of Ollantaytambo and piled out of the van.
A good portion of the town is made of of stone buildings connected by a network of narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. The town and many of the buildings in it date back to Inca times. Over the years, much of it has been reconstructed and reconfigured, but there are many elements that are original. Here’s how wikipedia describes the layout of the town:
The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. At the center of this grid, the Incas built a large plaza that may have been up to four blocks large; it was open to the east and surrounded by halls and other town blocks on its other three sides. All blocks on the southern half of the town were built to the same design; each comprised two kancha, walled compounds with four one-room buildings around a central courtyard. Buildings in the northern half are more varied in design; however, most are in such a bad condition that their original plan is hard to establish.
Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Its layout and buildings have been altered to different degrees by later constructions, for instance, on the southern edge of the town an Inca esplanade with the original entrance to the town was rebuilt as a Plaza de Armas surrounded by colonial and republican buildings. The plaza at the center of the town also disappeared as several buildings were built over it in colonial times.
From the main square, we started the short walk uphill along the cobblestone streets with our luggage. Mila was moving slowly, a bit wobbly from the residual motion sickness, which a nice local man happened to notice. He offered to carry one of our bags for us, declining to accept payment, but we insisted and he finally accepted a nice tip.
The guesthouse was on the edge of the old Inca settlement and faced the Inca terraces and structures carved into the adjacent mountainside. The views were fantastic.
Mila decided to stay at the hostel to recuperate, while Jette and I went out to find some food.
One of the really cool things in Ollantaytambo is the elaborate and robust water system that runs through both the town and the ruins on the mountainside above. Even after hundreds of years it is still functional.
You can see much more about the history of Ollantaytambo here. One cool thing that we didn’t know about at the time, and therefore didn’t notice while we were there, is the giant face carved into the mountainside above town:
Mila tried to take it easy by resting and going to bed early. Thankfully, she woke up early the next morning feeling like herself. We were all up early as this was the day we were headed to Machu Picchu.
Most visitors to Machu Picchu take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes there are busses that shuttle people up and down the mountain. The train trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a very short 24 miles. The shuttle busses up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu take about a 35 minutes on slow, winding roads. The transportation is monopolized and very expensive. The short train ride, the shuttle bus, and admission to Machu Picchu cost more than $600 USD for the three of us! Visiting Machu Picchu was by far the most expensive one-day sight we’ve seen in our months of travels.
Many people go to Aguas Calientes the day before they visit Machu Picchu so that they can be at Machu Picchu for sunrise. We opted not to do this for two reasons. First, we figured most people would do this and that morning would be the most crowded time to be there. Second, the mornings had been foggy and we assumed our day at Machu Picchu would be no exception. No point in being there for sunrise if you can’t see anything! Our plan was to leave Ollantaytambo early in the morning, spend the day at Machu Picchu and return to Ollantaytambo that same evening. That’s what we did and it worked out very well.
Aguas Calientes is a tourist dive. It is just a bunch of simple hotels, restaurants and shops catering to the 2,500 tourists that visit Machu Picchu each day. We’re really glad we just passed quickly through and didn’t spend the night. From the train station we walked to the shuttle bus stop and got in line. Before long, one of the shuttle busses took us up the mountain and into the clouds.
Everything was shrouded in foggy clouds and a misty rain was falling. We entered Machu Picchu and made our way up the foggy paths to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is thought to have been the main entrance to Machu Picchu in Inca times and would have served as a gate and checkpoint. It is a good bit above the main Machu Picchu complex and though some guides suggest that the hike up and back takes 3-4 hours, we did it comfortably in about two.
When we got to the Sun Gate, clouds still obscured everything below and the Machu Picchu complex was not visible. The clouds were moving quickly though, and after only a few minutes there was a brief moment when the clouds broke and we had a good view of the main Machu Picchu complex. The wide angle camera on my phone didn’t capture much. To the eye, we could see the main complex peeking out of the clouds below.
We relaxed at the top for a bit, then headed back down the trail to the main complex. It was a pretty quick hike down the trail, and as we descended, the clouds really began to clear.
As we got down close to the main complex, the fog and clouds had cleared and visibility was good.
While there were a only a handful of people who had hiked up to the Sun Gate, the main complex area was full of tourists. As we got closer, we got the classic view of Machu Picchu that gives a sense of how, amazingly, it is perched on a mountain top. To me,this placement is the thing that makes it so incredible.
As we explored Machu Picchu, one of the most striking things was the different building techniques used. The most common technique used small stones stacked into walls using mortar. Often these walls appear to have been built hollow, and filled with mortar too. A second technique used large stones, roughly cut, and stacked dry, without mortar. Smaller stones were used to fill in gaps, as in the photo above. The most impressive technique used large or very large stones, precisely shaped, and stacked with great precision, using no mortar, as in the photo below.
Only a few of the structures in Machu Picchu use this technique and show this level of precision. Most of the structures are built with small, roughly shaped stones and mortar:
The difference in building techniques is striking and incongruent. It seems difficult to imagine that all of these structures were built by the same people, at the same time. As we mentioned in a previous post, one alternative theory is that the large, precise structures were built by an unknown culture long before the Inca arrived on the scene, and that, years later, the Inca discovered these and built around them. I don’t know enough to accept or reject this hypothesis, but I can see how common sense might lead to this conclusion. The construction techniques and craftsmanship are strikingly different, and suggest the use of very different technologies.
Consider the fact that the Inca had only Bronze-Age technology. They had no wheeled vehicles, and had only stone, wood, copper and bronze tools, all of which are softer than the stone used in construction. How in the world could they have quarried these huge stones, moved them to the building sites, cut them so precisely, and lifted them into place? There seems to be much speculation, disagreement, and debate about this.
Here’s a video that gives you a view of the central buildings built with the large, precisely cut and placed stones, as well as the more common buildings built with the small stones and mortar.
National Geographic has a great photo gallery showing Machu Picchu as it looked when Bingham found it and after excavation: Pictures: Machu Picchu, Before and After Excavation. For example:
Some of the most amazing structures at Machu Picchu are almost invisible. Apparently, the Inca engineered excellent foundations and drainage systems, which are hidden below the ground. NOVA has an interview with an engineer who investigated this.
As in Ollantaytambo, they also had a well engineered system of fresh water delivery that still functions today!
Jette the animal lover had lots of fun with the llamas and alpacas at the site. Most of them were pretty tame and if you held up a tuft of grass, they would eat from your hand. Towards the end of the day we took a break on the porch of one of the reconstructed structures while Jette joined the llama herd.
After 7 or 8 hours of exploring Machu Picchu, we took the shuttle bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We were hungry, and we had some time to kill before the train back to Ollantaytambo, so we had dinner at one of the many tourist dives in town.
I was really tempted by “Guinea Pig the furnace” but in the end settled for some chips and guacamole.
We often try to avoid really touristy places and given the costs and hassles associated with Machu Picchu, we seriously considered skipping it. In the end we were glad that we went. The setting in the mountains is truly spectacular. The ruins are too, but if they were plopped down in the middle of a big, flat field somewhere they would be much less so. As they are, it is a magical place.
06/05/2106 EDIT – Just found these photos and wanted to share them: