A River Runs Through It

The sound of rushing water, everywhere we go. My ears are filled with gurgling, splashing, and bubbling, pleasantly overwhelming at its loudest. Stone canals line the edges of every cobblestoned street in Ollantaytambo. They still deliver water from the adjacent Patakancha River to the town’s residents, just as they did over five hundred years ago. A wooden bridge crosses the Patakancha a block from the main plaza, connecting the town to the ruins just beyond. Even the courtyard of our inn has a canal running through it; the sound doesn’t disappear until we close the door to our room.

We walk past ancient but still-perfect granite foundations, built with the incredibly precise, mortarless stonework for which the Incas are renowned. You couldn’t even slip a human hair into some of those joints. People live here still, descendants of that brief but powerful civilization. Now those perfectly-carved foundations are topped by plaster-covered walls, painted blue, yellow, or cream. At night, every other doorway has a dog sleeping in it.

We spent three nights in Ollantaytambo, a town that most tourists only know because it’s the most popular starting point to Machu Picchu, both for the Inca Trail and the train. Though it certainly caters to that clientele, it’s a real town with a rich cultural life of its own. Some of the buildings here have been continuously occupied since before the Spanish arrived.

On our first night there was a big party in the plaza celebrating the 142nd birthday of the District of Ollantaytambo. Various live bands played Latin rock like Santana’s Corazon Espinado on a huge, lit stage. IMG_2218Street vendors grilled chicken, or beef hearts, competing with the restaurants lining the square. There were over a thousand locals there, dancing, socializing, and drinking Cusqueño beer out of enormous 750ml bottles. This led to the natural problem of where to empty one’s bladder. For the men, this was a no-brainer: There were lots of walls to pee on, so pee on the walls they did. In public. I even saw a man peeing on the door of a porta-potty, too drunk to realize that it wasn’t occupied.

The next morning, we were amazed to see the garbage gone, everything hosed down and squeaky clean. We took the short walk across the bridge to a complex of temple ruins and huge agricultural terraces built on the mountainside in the 15th century. The 200-plus stone steps to the top were challenging as we struggled with an altitude of over 9,100 feet. Once, Ollantaytambo was a royal rest stop halfway between Inca capital of Cusco and the Emperor’s country estate of Machu Picchu. These terraces were later the site of the only successful Inca repulsion of the Spanish invaders.
Granite boulders, some of them weighing 130 tons, were somehow hauled down from a mountainside quarry 5 miles away, across a valley and the wild Urubamba River, and up this mountain to construct the temples and fountains. There are lots of theories, but no one knows for sure how the Incas moved them across the valley. And once on site, masons would carve them so precisely that nothing could move the finished walls, not even earthquakes. Here as well, canals bring water to several bathing fountains, still running after five centuries.

On another mountainside directly above the town and facing the temple ruins, an enormous stone-walled granary was built to store three years’ worth of grain for the town’s inhabitants.

You can hike up to the watchtowers visible above the granary, but it’s a lot further than it looks in this photo.

In the afternoon, I climbed a steep, rocky, stair-strewn path to reach the granary, chewing coca leaves to help with the altitude. Yvonne stopped halfway up and took my photo. It is inconceivable to me that this is the path by which thousands of bushels of quinoa, potatoes and corn would have been transported for storage. But there’s no other way up.

Most people in the Sacred Valley who dress like this do it for themselves, not for tourists

As we descended, we heard music coming from somewhere on a side street. Of course, we had to check it out and discovered a local celebration going in a big social hall, a gathering of the many farming families in the area. A few hundred people were seated inside, and more were standing, crowded in the aisles and in the back. A teenage band performed on the stage while kids played and grandparents socialized. Many people were dressed in beautiful traditional clothing.

We hung out in the doorway while volunteers distributed bowls of soup to everyone, including us. The soup was really good, a wheat base with quinoa, chicken, corn, and a cilantro garnish. It was fortunate that we liked it: Several people were watching us hopefully as we took our first spoonfuls, awaiting our reaction. A local woman befriended us and conversed with Yvonne in Spanish, even inviting us to stick around for the full dinner that was coming later. As she walked with us back to the plaza, she complained about the many men who had peed the night before. She pointed out a large sign painted on the wall: Orinar en las paredes está prohibido (Urinating on the walls is prohibited). This was clearly a much bigger problem than we had realized.

This three-year-old Mary with Baby Jesus clearly won the Best Costume Ever contest

I had no idea that Halloween is celebrated anywhere outside of the U.S. But the night of October 31 was a huge deal to the children of Ollantaytambo. The town’s entire population of kids was out in costumes ranging from Spiderman to the Virgin Mary, collecting candy from the many shops and restaurants. The superheroes and princesses entered in groups, loudly chanting HAL-LO-WEEN! HAL-LO-WEEN! before lining up politely to wait for their share.

Women sell lechón and tamales on the plaza

Our last morning in Ollantaytambo was All Saints Day and in the Andes, one tradition for the day is lechón (roasted suckling pig) and tamales. Back at the plaza, several groups of women sold food they’d spent many hours preparing. Our hotel receptionist told us that we had to try it. I picked the table that appeared the cleanest; the pork was in chunks piled into a trash bag lining a big bucket, but at least the bucket was covered. For about $8, a woman reached into the bucket and let me choose between 2 hunks of greasy meat. I probably overpaid, but it was tasty and tender with crispy skin, and enough lunch for both of us. We prayed that we wouldn’t get sick (which we didn’t).

After lunch, we picked up our suitcase at the hotel and then walked along the burbling Patakancha toward the train station, headed for Machu Picchu.