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Ollantaytambo: How in the world did they move those stones?

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Today was whitewater rafting on the Urubamba river. Our guide was great - another friendly local - but the rafting was pretty tame stuff; about 2 hours, with only two class 2 rapids. We both wished it was more exciting. Even so it was fun enough. We met a teen group, and rafting with the Andes above us was something. Also, we saw a new kind of whitewater photography: a young guy waited by the first rapids, took pictures, raced along the riverbanks to the next rapids, took more pictures, etc. He then met us at lunch and sold us the photos. That's called working for it!

After lunch we went to Ollantaytambo, one of the best-preserved of all the Inca settlements. Our hotel was El Sauce, a charming inn at the top of the town, with walls cheerfully covered with hundreds of Peruvian knit hats. Incredible handiwork! We wander into town, and it reminds us a bit of a medieval village, with its narrow cobblestone streets. These streets, Teddy tells us, are original to the Incas, as are many of the walls that line them and the irrigation canals that run down them. .

He pulls us into a small courtyard, and tells us that this kind of place used to be the home of one extended family. He brings us into a large ground-floor room with blackened stone walls. On one side is a bed, a table with handicrafts for sale, and the man and woman that live there. On the other side is a mass of guinea pigs scrabbling on the floor, next to a basket of alfalfa. We feed them a bit and they love it - it's hard to remember these are food, not pets. Nearby is what looks like an altar, with many ancient-looking objects: human skulls, dried alpacas (?), carved stone figures, shells, dolls, etc. We ask Teddy if this is a display for tourists, and he says no, these people live here and let us enter - in the hopes we'll buy something, I guess. It is really something.

Just outside the town we start climbing the great staircase to the ruins of the fortress. This fortress is Ollantaytambo's great claim to fame. This is the one site where the Incas defeated the Spanish in batttle: Manco Inca tricked the pursuing Spanish by flooding the plain they were crossing, forcing them to retreat to Cusco. It is here also that we see the seven rose-colored granite monoliths, enormous blocks of stone far taller than us. Teddy tells us they came from not from this mountain, not even from this valley, but from a quarry he points out to us way off across the valley, many miles away. How did the Incas get them down the steep mountain, across the river, and up this mountain?

The Incas had no written language, so we don't know. We can make educated guesses, though. Teddy tells us a good story: once recently, in Ollantaytambo, there was an Incan stone - one far smaller than these - that was in the way of new traffic patterns, and people decided it had to be moved. The townspeople decided to try without machinery, the old way, just to see. They pushed on it, pulled it, used animals, tried oil, anything. Nothing budged it an inch. They called some Quechuan people down from the hills, and they knew what to do. They threw wet sand down in front of the stone, and it slid right across.

He says the Incas most likely brought the stones down the hill and across the valley hill with gravel and sand, and up the hill with log ramps. The Incas may not have had the wheel, but they did use rolling mechanisms when needed.

In other areas of the fortress, we see some incredible stonework: staggered, mortarless, irregular stones, fitted together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. This is the stonework I've heard about - the Inca contruction that stays standing after earthquakes have crumbled the adobe and brick structures all around it.

For dinner we eat at Hearts Cafe, a funky little place started by an Englishwoman who uses the proceeds to fund a project helping abandoned Quechan women, children and old people. It was filled with foreign backpackers, somewhat gamey-smelling, and down-home types. The walls were covered in posters about the project and its work. The food was simple, eclectic - soup, pasties, etc. We loved it, and donated of course.

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