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Ollantaytambo and the Train to Machu Picchu

Miraflores Plaza de Armas
Miraflores Plaza de Armas
We got up early and took a tour of “Old Ollantaytambo” this morning. As we walked the ancient cobblestone streets, we spotted the “Andean giant hummingbird” flitting through the flowers of a nearby garden. We had the opportunity to enter one of the local houses, visit with the occupants and view how they have lived for many hundreds of years. The most interesting thing was that their food source, the herd of guinea pigs lived right in the house with them, and rushed to our feet to greet us as we entered. The open pit fire was burning in the living room, and real human skulls were placed on the mantle to protect them from bad spirits.

After the very interesting visit to the old town, we took a taxi to the train station and caught the Perurail train that runs from Ollantaytambo to Auga Calientes. It was a fantastic train ride into the heart of the Andean jungle. Along the way, we noticed very tall trees with dark green fruits the size of grapefruits hanging from them. Marco told us that they were avocados. We had never seen such large avocados in all our travels. We continued to travel along the Urubamba River through incredible scenery until we reached Auga Calientes, the gateway city to Machu Picchu. After checking into the Macchu Picchu Inn, We walked across the street and dined at the Inka Wasi, marveling at how they had made intricate carvings of animal figures out of carrots in our lunches. Needless to say, Karen had avocado stuffed with chicken salad for lunch after seeing the large fruits on the train ride.


After lunch, we walked to the bus station where we caught the bus and took an adventurous 35 minute ride, twisting and turning ever upward into the heart of the lost Inca Citadel, Machu Picchu. As we ascended the steep, narrow dirt road that led to the ruins, we met other busses on the hairpin curves, narrowly avoiding collisions, as one bus would have to stop and back up for the other one. Finally we arrived at the entrance, and we proceeded through the checkpoints and had our passports stamped with a Machu Picchu symbol. This was the moment we had been looking forward to for many years! As we had come to expect, our guide Marco had timed our visit perfectly, and the morning crowds of people were leaving the ruins making plenty of room for us. We spent the afternoon hours being guided through the fantastic Ruins by Marco, learning ancient secrets and feeling the energy of this very sacred and special place. First we entered the main gate and paid tribute to Hiram Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911. We then sat at a resting point called the house of the terrace caretaker. It was an excellent place to view the ruins for the first time, and we sat and gazed at them for many minutes.

As we sat at the bench, we saw climbers ascending the very dangerous Huayna Picchu and screaming in exaltation as they reached the top. Llamas roamed freely among agricultural terraces serving as “lawnmowers” according to Marco. After a while, we got up and walked across the terraces to an area called the Dry Moat, and viewed the Main Fountain. Crystal clear water was cascading down from the highest points of Machu Picchu through a series of 16 beautifully constructed, cascading aqueducts.

We then ascended the steep steps that led to the Temple of the Sun, the only round building in the ruins, and the finest stonework in Machu Picchu. Marco described the sacred niches that were carved in the temple walls for idols or offerings, and pointed out the centerpiece that served as an astronomical observatory. It has a straight edge cut into it precisely aligned to the sun at the June solstice. The temple entrance door has holes drilled above the jamb that may have supported wooden beams that held a ceremonial sun disk. Below the temple in a cave carved from a rock is the Royal Tomb, or Palace of the Princess. It is a very exquisitely carved altar carved in steps.

Next to the Temple of the Sun is a three-walled house called the Fountain Caretaker’s House. Marco pointed out the thick stone pegs high on the wall probably used to hang heavy objects. At the top of the staircase, you pass the Quarry, where you observe a partially split rock that seems to show how the builders cut and moved the stone from the quarry. However, many experts think that this rock was probably cut by a 20th century archeologist.

The structures directly opposite the Temple of the Sun Are called the Royal Sector because of the huge stones that weigh up to 3 tons used in the buildings. Again we marveled at how they could have possibly fit them all together so perfectly. As we walked along the ridge enjoying the magnificent views of the Urubamba river far below, we came across the Tres Ventanas (3 Windows), a wonderful example of trapezoidal Incan windows. Marco says that if the windows in ruins were not trapezoidal, they weren’t Incan. Next to this site stood the Principle Temple, featuring beautifully crafted walls and another sub-temple attached to it called the Sacristy, were the left-hand door jamb has no fewer than 32 corners in its separate faces.

Next, we climbed the steep staircase to the Intihuatana and viewed the solstice markers that were used for calculating seasons and making astronomical observations. This extraordinary monument somehow escaped the Spanish attempt to smash all “idolatry”, but Marco had to sternly tell a German to get off the monument! At the north end farthest from the entrance, we came across the Sacred Rock, which seems to trace the actual mountain skyline behind it. The Incas really understood the power of stones! We noticed beautiful rocks embedded in the pathways and stairs throughout the ruins.

Walking back towards the entrance, we stopped at the grassy field known as the Sacred Plaza, and Marco told us that helicopters used to land here with tourists before they realized that the vibrations of the rotors were damaging the ruins. We then walked through a series of cruder constructions known as the Common District and paused in an area known as the Mortar District. The common belief there is that the two discs cut in the floor of this district were used for grinding corn, but Marco believes that they were filled with water, and used as reflecting pools to reflect the Southern Cross at night. The Incas used the Southern Cross to establish direction and keep track of seasons. Marco told us that it was a very important indicator for them. As we neared the end of our tour, we viewed the Prison Group, and Marco explained the Temple of the Condor to us. We then moved through a series of maze-like passages called the Storage Areas that led to a Ceremonial Rock where Marco demonstrated important Inca rituals. It was a fantastic moment.

As our tour came to a close, we were all struck with wonder as we walked towards the exit and boarded the bus to make our way back down the dangerous winding road. Often we have visited tourist attractions that were “over-hyped”, but Machu Picchu is so overwhelming that it can not possibly be over-hyped! It is a magnificent, deeply spiritual and very sacred site.

As we rode the bus down the twisting road, a Peruvian boy dressed in a red robe raced us down the hill, a distance of 5 miles for the bus, but much shorter for him, as he did not have to take the switch backs. Of course he won the race, and the bus driver let him on the bus to collect his tips. Marco told us that boys like him often make more money than anyone in their family. He also repeated something that we had heard throughout the tour. Do not give children any money if it is during school hours and they should be in school! He mentioned that it is a big problem in Peru. Because tourism is so lucrative, parents are taking their children out of school, dressing them up in colorful clothing and then taking them to tourist areas to be photographed for money. After returning to Auga Calientes, we enjoyed a very good supper at the Indio Feliz with Marco before retiring to the very nice Machu Picchu Inn with its extra room and excellent bath facilities.

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