If one had to pick a town in which to spend the night en route to Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo would be among the best places anywhere in the highlands. More than 500 years ago, Ollantaytambo served as an important rest stop and administrative and religious center for the Incas.
It’s still an enviable rest stop (and a 90-minute train ride from Aguas Calientes, from which you can climb or take a bus to Machu Picchu). The weather is warmer here than in most of the Andes due to its relatively low elevation (2,800 meters, or about 9,186 feet) and placement in a protected valley.
We arrived mid-afternoon with time enough to wander the narrow cobblestone streets before supper. Wherever you walk, you hear the sound of water, whether from the river that runs along the half-mile road that leads down to the train station, or from the mountain water that runs through the curbside, rock-lined channels of the residential quarters.
We stayed in the lovely Las Portadas hostel, with Leopoldo and Noemi Loayza as our hosts (Leopoldo also served as our bus driver during the week).
The next morning Abraham led us first on a challenging climb to see the colcas, or storage houses, that the Incas placed high above town, an ideal setting in which to preserve corn and potatoes. “Here they enjoyed natural refrigeration, taking advantage of wind that blew dry and cold,” he said.
We could see agricultural terraces spread all over the hillsides below us, taking advantage of micro climates in which to grow different varieties of crops. Abraham reminded us that Peru, the land of the first potato, has developed more than 500 varieties of potatoes and 200 varieties of corn.
Later that day we climbed the huge fortress that overlooks the town, a fortress fashioned by Inca leaders as a defense against invaders and a place for rest and refreshment in the center of what local people call the Sacred Valley. The stonework is among the finest. Abraham noted that the stone for the walls was quarried from a mountainside six kilometers away. The arrival of the Spaniards ended the work, prematurely. He showed us a mighty stone, resting alone, that never made it to a wall.
Earlier in the day we visited Chinchero, with an opportunity to upgrade our wardrobes. Chinchero is a textile capital at 3,800 meters, or 12,467 feet, and home to many textile workshops. A young woman named Tania welcomed us to a small weavers shop, where she and others demonstrated the process of cleaning, softening and coloring llama and alpaca wool. The natural coloring agents included corn (purple), a cactus parasite (red), and eucalyptus (green). We also visited a colonial-era church that now sits on the foundation of what was once an Inca temple.
After leaving Chinchero, we took a short-cut across rough terrain, passing solitary shepherds tending their sheep, to arrive at the archaeological site of Moray. Moray features an agricultural experiment station way ahead of its time with more than a dozen concentric terraces arranged in an earthen bowl, each terrace lower and more protected than the one above. Abraham said that Inca plant scientists used the terraces to simulate growing conditions at various elevations and climate conditions. There’s a difference of 12 to 15 degrees from the bottom terrace to the top, he said.
After lunch in Ollantaytambo, with a birthday cake for Jessica, we boarded a train for Aguas Calientes.