Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.
Our Inca Trail trek with Aventours included a day tour of the Sacred Valley. Early on the morning of Tuesday, June 10th, our guide, Jhon, met us at our Cusco hotel to pick us up. We set out with our excellent driver (seriously, this guy made me feel the most secure of any vehicle ride we took our entire time in Bolivia and Peru) for a memorable day.
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Our first stop was a viewpoint overlooking the town of Pisac, located along the Rio Urubamba. From this vista, you could see snow-capped mountains in the distance. Next, we headed to the Inca Citadel of Pisac. The spectacular site includes trails that provide a good hike of the many ruins. Our guide wanted us to arrive early, as the site quickly fills with tour groups by mid-morning. The hike at Pisac was good training for what we would start to experience the next day along the Inca Trail, with lots of steps.
Pisac served at least three purposes having agricultural terraces, religious structures, and military structures. It is believed it guarded the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley, with Choquequirao guarding the western, and the fortress at Ollantaytambo guarding the northern.
At the start of the hike are ruins protected with thatched roofs. Next, the agricultural terraces, sweeping around in a huge curve, demonstrate the Inca’s ability to produce food at nearly 10,000 ft. The Ceremonial Center of Pisac was the goal of our hike. Here, we found the Temple of the Sun, baths, altars, water channels and fountains, a ceremonial platform, and one of two Intihuatana (an astronomical tool)–a volcanic outcrop carved into a “hitching post for the Sun.” The other is found at Machu Picchu. We climbed a hill overlooking the Ceremonial Center for an even more spectacular view looking back at the site and to the town below. When we had taken it all in, we followed a different path taking us along the agricultural terraces back to meet our driver. Here we could see all the tour buses lined up and we were glad we got there early!
Back in town, we were allowed quick visit to Pisac’s famous craft market. There, we purchased our game of “Ludo,” which we got to play that night with Jhon and our Inca Trail porters at the KM 82 camp. The market takes place on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday and is bustling and colorful; it would have been nice to have more time to spend there but we were happy for the short opportunity.
Sadly, we did not get to visit Urubamba, but enjoyed driving through it on our way to Ollantaytambo. We did stop to eat just outside of town in Huicho for a pretty good buffet lunch at “Inkalicious.” We were the first group to arrive but the place soon filled up with other tour groups. It is a pretty outdoor setting with friendly staff and clean restrooms. We only took a couple of rather poor iPhone photos here.
When we arrived in Ollantaytambo we had difficulty making it to the ruins, as a large truck was blocking the one way street. So we hopped out and followed Jhon on foot through the streets of the town, first to a market where he bought some flip-flops, then to the entrance of the ruins. The ruins tower above the town, impressive with their Inca terraces. This site required a lot of climbing and after our morning at Pisac, my legs and knees were starting to feel it! And my fear of heights began to rear its ugly head. Again, good training for our Inca Trail adventure.
The Spanish lost a major battle here, attempting to capture Manco Inca; the Inca sent arrows, spears, and boulders down from the terracing, raining upon Hernando Pizarro’s cavalrymen. Next, Manco flooded the plain using water channels, resulting in the Spaniards’ retreat. Having learned a lesson, Pizarro returned with a cavalry four times the size, causing Manco to flee to Vilcabamba.
Like Pisac, in addition to being a fortress, Ollantaytambo also served as a temple having a ceremonial center. Jhon pointed out to us a mountain on the other side of the river, approximately 6 kilometers away, from which the stone for Ollantaytambo was quarried. Instead of trying to cross the Urubamba River with the heavy stones, the Inca simply diverted the river around the stones–no problemo!
When we finished our tour, Jhon directed us to a place in the market where I could buy my trekking poles for the Inca trail. The only wooden ones being sold that day that we could find were the fancier, decorated sticks, which ended up making nice souvenirs (sadly, I had to have our Ollantaytambo hotel cut them in half for me so I could transport them in my backpack home–they’ll only be used for decoration from now on!).
Our next stop with our driver and Jhon was our camp at KM82, the start of the Inca Trail. To continue the chronological story of our trip, click here. After we finished our amazing trek and spent an extra night in Aguas Calientes to visit Machu Picchu for a second day, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo. Fortunately, we had the good idea to spend a little more time in Ollantaytambo before returning to Cusco and we were glad we did!
Where We Stayed
Given Brian’s love of all things “train,” we had asked Aventours to book us a room at El Albergue Lodge for a one-night stay. The lodge is located right on the train platform so it was quite convenient coming from Aguas Calientes. We had requested a matrimonial room (that usually means one double or queen size bed) and ended up with a triple–one double and one twin size bed. The staff was friendly when we checked in and kindly set us up with dinner reservations in their on-site farm-to-table restaurant. We also signed up for a tour of their farm.
The grounds are beautiful. There are only 16 rooms in a handful of buildings surrounded by lush gardens. Outside each room are rocking chairs inviting guests to enjoy the pleasant surroundings, including views of the surrounding mountains. Our room was comfortable and well-appointed with a safe, electric heater, robes, shampoo, conditioner, bottled water, and even fresh flowers from their gardens. Wi-fi was spotty in our room, but worked great in the lobby and restaurant areas.
That night, we enjoyed a special dinner. I tried their homemade chicken fettuccine while Brian had more alpaca. Everything was fresh and delicious. The next morning, we were treated to a complimentary breakfast and had a small menu to choose from. We both ordered the French Toast, which came with bacon and avocados or hash browns. Yummy! We really wanted to try their traditional Pachamanca Lunch, but decided we wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy town and our appetites hadn’t fully recovered yet after our trek. Instead, we took a wonderful private tour of the farm, free upon requests for lodge guests. Our guide showed us the different areas of the farm, stopping to identify different plants in Spanish and telling us about the workers.
Eventually we set out to explore town. The Plaza de Armas was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Our guidebook called Ollantaytambo “the best surviving example of Inca city planning, with narrow cobblestone streets that have been continuously inhabited since the 13th century.” Exploring its grid of narrow streets north of the Plaza was a highlight of our trip.
We ended up at a restaurant on the square, this one, I think. There we made a new friend who was visiting from Panama. We enjoyed our meal, then set out to buy a souvenir for an old friend before returning to our hotel via mototaxi–our first ride in one!
Sadly, our short time in Ollantaytambo came to an end and it was time to return to Cusco. We had learned that Cruz del Sur was now offering daily bus service to Cusco–apparently a relatively new offering and alternative to pricey taxi rides. I was in for yet another scary ride through the beautiful mountains but thankfully, we made it to the Cruz del Sur office in Cusco safely, where we were able to get a cab back to our hotel.