What must it be like to live in a small village already at way over 3,000 metres, where sheer mountains rise up directly above for maybe up to 1,000 to 2,000 metres more like a giant fence of random but all encompassing rock.
We have been in this environment for a few days now. I try to take some comfort from the fact that the mountains appear to be solid rock in light of the huge amounts of seismic activity in Peru. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes follows the river along a very narrow passage through the mountains. Sometimes it is too narrow and we pass through a tunnel. The peaks rise up above us like giants looking down benignly with the highest reaching a snow capped 5,700 metres. A number of snow caps are more easily seen on the return journey.
Meanwhile the river is like none I’ve ever seen before. Full of absolutely massive rocks, the water tumbles through at phenomenal speed in an absolutely lethal spectacle. It is awesomely mesmerising.
Maybe halfway into our 90 minute journey the vegetation changes from being quite sparse with cacti and bromeliads to a more sub tropical feel. Warmer temperatures and more rain allow high altitude palms and orchids to flourish.
We kept our eyes peeled for the Spectacle Bear and the National bird Cock of the Rock along the way but no luck there.
Aguas Calientes is an end of the line pit stop with a feel of the wild west. Wall to wall eateries compete for your custom. Luckily someone from our hostel met us at the train as I don’t think my mud map would have worked in the rabbit warren. Looking over the rooftops reveals what looks like a shack shanty town on top of the touristy outlets at ground level.
Just up the steps is The Tree House restaurant. Obviously a foodie spot that we managed to luck into.
We meet people who like us have trained in to do Machu Picchu the next day. I would love to know how it panned out for some. A young Paraguayan woman who didn’t like heights and wasn’t sure she’d even go. An American woman just puffed out from walking up to the restaurant had a ticket to climb the mountain behind Machu Picchu which appears to be a vertical climb taking a couple of hours.
We head out at 05.30 and the queue for the bus is good 300 metres long – and it’s uphill to get to the end of the queue. People would have been there at 03.30 to get the first bus. It’s pretty efficient though and we are on a bus in 40 minutes with a 20 minute ride up the mountain.
A number of fit young things are walking up from the base. Extremely hard work
There is still cloud cover but we hopefully head up to the Sun Gate. Lots of early arrivers are heading down not having seen the sun. We pike at a great spot after 20 minutes and are rewarded with the sun breaking through the clouds wafting over the main site.
Fascinating with cloud cover, it is stunning in full sun light. We head down to join the masses. This is low season yet there are hundreds of people still and more continue to arrive.
My big mission is to find the location of my 1974 photo and recreate the event. I was already sure this would not be possible having seen many lovely places roped off.
We show the photo to one of the attendants. He smiled “Yes it is 3 Windows, but no puede”. OK, I can’t, so I find something a bit similar and Kerri snaps away until another attendant tells me I can’t have my leg hanging down.
It has been a full on few days and we leave Machu Picchu satisfied but exhausted. We jagged the timing for the day. Around lunch time it started to pour rain – those who got a later start would not have had such a pleasant experience.
There are 2 seasons here, wet and dry. So, for visitors in the rainy season, an overnight in Aguas Calientes with a very early morning start to get up the mountain would be my top tips to give yourself the best chance of a great experience of this magical place. We haven’t been here that long but it seems to rain later in the day and overnight.
I am glad I first visited in an easier and less well touristed time when you could clamber wherever you liked, but it’s pretty special to return nearly 43 years later and fulfil that long held promise to myself. So here’s the homage to my youthful adventurous self albeit not quite as I planned. 1974 – 2017.
Finally we are heading for the Sacred Valley and will use Ollantaytambo as an entry and exit point. The collectivo drops us of in yet another charming village Plaza and we make our way to Intitambo, our resting spot for two nights.
What a warm and welcoming hostel. None of these mountain hostels have heating but seem to be very well designed and constructed with extremely cosy beds.
The terrace looks straight out onto the ruins and always up, up to the peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Climbing any of the ruins in the Sacred Valley has an element of risk. We hear that the Pisac ruins are closed due to someone falling. Another person has died while doing a star jump for a photo and falling off a cliff – that is according to some reports. We see people doing exactly that so could be correct (star jumps that is, not falling).
The Ollantaytambo ruins extend up the mountain with various temples and the ever present water features at the base. In the wet season, mornings seem to be the optimal time to set out. The tracks may be a little precarious in the rain, though the yellow ponchos high up tell the story that people do undertake it in the rain.
Time is obviously a factor for a lot of people heading to Machu Picchu, so many seem to head straight back to Cuzco. Exhaustion plus in my book after a big day at MP. But if time is not an issue, Ollantaytambo is a perfect spot with nice accommodation, food and coffee. What more could you need?