Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, and Aguas Calientes, Peru

The Sacred Valley of the Incas or Urubamba Valley. The valley is a very fertile strip of land running along the river and up towards Machu Picchu. It is fed by a number of tributaries which descend through adjoining valleys, and contains numerous archaeological remains. The valley was cultivated extensively by the Incas due to its special geographical qualities. Large scale maize production started around 1400 as Inca urban agriculture.

Our tour bus left Cusco and headed towards Pisac, stopping to take a few photos en-route. We had a stop to see the market at Pisac - which was large, but full mainly of the factory made products that one sees all over Peru. The way of tours is to give you the market, rather than the nearby Pisac remains, which were too far away to see in the allotted hour.

On up the valley, following the river, we had a very pleasant pause at Yucay, where the buffet lunch at Sonesta Posada del Inca was what buffet lunches really should be, but scarcely ever are on tours. There was panpipe musical accompaniment while we ate. Back in the bus we reached Ollantaytambo by mid-afternoon

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Our bus tour set out from Cusco and headed first for the Indian market at Pisac. Renowned among tourists for its ware. However .. most of the stuff comes from large factories in Lima, and is not hand made, still it is very colourful, and you can buy fruit.
Sonesta Posada del Inca at Yucay was where we stopped for a very good buffet lunch, complete with music and the obligatory llamas

Ollantaytambo, at an altitude of 2,792 meters, has an enormous Inca archaeological site towering over the town. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region and built the town. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance.

Ollantaytambo has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. The valley sides of the Urubamba and Patakancha rivers along Ollantaytambo are covered by an extensive set of agricultural terraces which start at the bottom of the valleys and climb up the surrounding hills. The terraces permitted farming on otherwise unusable terrain; they also allowed the Incas to take advantage of the different ecological zones created by variations in altitude. Terraces at Ollantaytambo were built to a higher standard than common Inca agricultural terraces, with cut stones instead of rough fieldstones.

The Incas built several storehouses on the hills surrounding Ollantaytambo. Their location at high altitudes, where there is more wind and lower temperatures, acted like fridges and enabled grain to be stored for years. Grain would be poured in the windows on the uphill side of each building, then emptied out through the downhill side windows.

During the Spanish conquest of Peru, Ollantaytambo served as a temporary capital for Manco Inca, leader of the native resistance against the conquistadors. He fortified the town and its approaches. In 1536, on the plain of Mascabamba, near Ollantaytambo, Manco Inca defeated a Spanish expedition by blocking their advance from a set of high terraces and flooding the plain. Despite his victory,however, Manco Inca did not consider his position tenable so the following year he withdrew.

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Ollantaytambo is a Inca village actually built by the Incas, and has the fortress towering over it. We went up the fort's steep terraces ..
.three times - once with the very good tour guide. This was the site of the Incas last stand against the Spanish conquistadors.
The Incas had not only cracked the use of terraces for agriculture, but also the conservation and channeling of water.
The flowers are wild, but are a reminder of what one can see all over Peru, including the National flower of Peru, the Fuchsia
On the opposite mountain were the majority of the Inca storage grain silos. They could keep maize for up to 25 years in the cool silos.
It was quite a hike along a narrow, but safe, path to get to the highest silos. From here we could look down on the fortress below.
The village streets are Pure Inca, but there are supplies of beer and a number of restaurants that the Incas never had access to.
The other side of the river and a train from Cusco.

We stayed at Hostal Samanapaq in Ollantaytambo, best remembered for the very hospitable owner, and good breakfasts. By day this hotel was idyllic, but by night suffered from a lack of proper lighting and inadequate heating (remember the altitude leads to cold nights). The owner led us literally through a farm yard to put us on the path up to the grain silos, which we certainly would never have found ourselves.

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Hostal Samanapaq is where we stayed in Ollantaytambo. The host was very hospitable, the ..
breakfast, and the decor very good - but the lighting at night was appalling

PeruRail provides passenger services on the 3 ft (0.91 m) gauge Ferrocarril Santa Ana from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes..

At the top end of the market, the Hiram Bingham Pullman provides “Orient Express” style luxury. Meals, guides, bus service and entrance to the ruins are included in the fare. ($600 round trip per person - from Cusco)

For the less well-heeled tourist such as us, there is the Vistadome services provided by 1965 vintage German Ferrostaal refurbished railcars with large side and overhead windows, allowing views of the mountainous terrain, complete with a refreshments service, or the Backpacker trains offer basic service at a lower price. We found the Vistadome good on the leg where we had the right railcar, though you could not say that the "vistadome" bit offered much in the way of extra vision.

Aguas Calientes is on the Urubamba (Vilcanota) River, which was in full flood when we were there. It is the closest access point to the sacred Incan city of Machu Picchu, which is 6 kilometres away, about 1.5 hours walk uphill. It is an unpleasant town, whose main aim in life is to fleece the tourists. There is no road in to Machu Picchu, so to reach it you have to take the train (OK you could walk the Inca Trail for 4 days, but that has become an even more expensive alternative). And if you want to see dawn over Machu Picchu, then you have to stay in Aguas Calientes. We wanted to see the dawn, so we stayed in Aguas Calientes., if I could have found an alternative, I would.

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We could walk from the hotel in the morning to catch our train to Aguas Calientes. Not everyone was a tourist!. Perurail served snacks.
The railway follows the river, which was in full flood. And we passed the trail head for the Inca Trail, lucky people. Before heading ..
.. further up the river to Aguas Calientes. Not much to see there, a nice statues of an Inca and the museum which was a half
..hour walk out of town, and hence had hardly any visitors. Hard work all this walking.

We stayed at Into Punku, which turned out to be a very pleasant hotel, and a very nice room. Mind you it was bang on top of the station - hotel rooms do not come any nearer to stations than this, unless you are actually on the train.

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If you have to stay in Aguas Calientes., and most people do, stay here - it is close to the station !
And this is the only place in Aguas Calientes that is worth eating at. Good food and atmosphere.

The only reason anyone in their right mind would choose to stay in Aguas Calientes is to get to Machu Picchu in time to see the sun rise over the ruins. So we were up soon after 5am to catch an early bus up the mountain. Like most things in Aguas Calientes the bus is inordinately expensive - $11 a head - but the alternative was a 8km hike up a very steep dirt road - so we chose the bus.

Was it worth all this effort to get to Machu Picchu - Yes, it certainly was. Right there at the top of the road.

Next stop Machu Picchu

Our trip to Peru