The next morning we awoke early. The plan was to visit the ruins of Ollantaytambo before the crowds arrived and watch the sun rise over the mountain peaks. Kudos to Santiago! The morning air was brisk as we strolled towards the ruins from our Hotel. Funny—they looked much smaller from the sitting room! This site comprises a critical part in Inca history. Being the gateway to the Amazon, the Incas devoted significant resources in this area. There are large food storage depots visible along the sheer rock faces of the surrounding mountains. Inca guard structures are also spread throughout the area. There was also ample space devoted to housing of military and governmental officials as a visible symbol of power for any people venturing up from the Amazon basin. Finally, this site marks the last refuge of Manco Inca, the last Inca Emperor who staged a famous rebellion against the Spanish and then fled from Cusco. After being defeated here by the Spanish, he escaped with his followers deep into the Amazon where he lived in exile before finally being killed some years later. Huge stone terraces lead up to the sun temple on top of the mountain. It defies imagination to think how the Incas transported such large stones from a quarry way across the valley and then across the Urabamba river. Standing on top, it is easy to see how this site was an ideal spot for a last stand against the Spanish. As the sun peaked over a tall mountain peak, we made our way along a narrow trail and eventually back into town.
After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we boarded small three-wheeled taxis that appeared to be crafted from old motorcycles. Our taxi had not traveled more than five feet before it broke down. No worry! Another one quickly pulled up. We hopped in and off we went.
At the train station, we boarded a train operated by Perurail, a company owned by Orient Express. We then descended further down the now narrow valley through an ecological transition zone. The Urabamba River which was nothing more than a babbling brook a few days ago was now a raging body of water. Just a few months earlier, record rainfall resulted in the river swelling to a torrent that washed out parts of the railway as well as the Inca Trail. Thousands of tourists were stranded in Aguas Calientas and had to be flown out by helicopters. Visible evidence of water’s destructive forces can be seen throughout the valley in the form of landslides. We soon left the dry arid terrain behind and found ourselves in the midst of a cloud forest. It was nice to see lush green foliage for a change in contrast to what we had experienced for the last week.
We arrived in Aguas Calientas and checked into the El Mapi Hotel. Aguas Calientas is the quintessential tourist town. It serves as a base camp for the dozens of buses ferrying tourists up and down the muddy road that leads to Machu Picchu and it also serves as the return point for tired hikers finishing the Inca Trail and in need of a soft bed, tasty meal and a hot shower. Restaurant upon restaurant as well as all manner of souvenir shops squeeze into spots along the narrow pedestrian streets. At some point in time, it was discovered that pizza sells. Every one of the dozens of restaurants has a pizza oven.
Despite its tourist overtones, the town has a certain charm. There is a nice court yard with a charming church and fountain. The Urabamba River winds along the border and it is pleasant to stroll down the road to a museum which houses artifacts from Machu Picchu. I was surprised to discover that many of these artifacts were discovered within the last 10-15 years. Just recently, a gold bracelet was discovered at the base of a tree.