If you choose not to trek to Machu Picchu the train from Ollantaytambo is the next best choice. Peru Rail offers a number of daily departures and three standards of travel - Backpackers has standard railway seating; Expedition has four seats around a table and roof windows; Vistadome has more upmarket seats and service and roof windows. All services have large side windows.
I travelled Expedition and took a picnic lunch.
There is a daily service direct from Cusco which gets you to Machu Picchu in time to meet all the crowds.
It is best to overnight in Aguas Calientes so you can catch the early buses to the site.
Machu Picchu would arguably be the most popular of all 'things to do' in Peru, if not all of South America. Translated as 'Ancient Mountain' it is a 15th century Inca site located at 2430 metres on a mountain ridge overlooking the Urubamba Valley.
The significance of the site is not exactly known but most archaeologists believe it was built as an estate for the ninth Inca Pachacutec. Construction started aound the turn of the 15th century but was abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest about 100 years later. It is clearly divided into two halves - terraces (probably agricultural) and buildings (probably residential).
It was unknown to the Spanish and therefore remained relatively intact until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Artefacts were taken to Yale University and after years of negotiation the university has agreed to return them. Many of the buildings have been partially restored to give visitors an idea of the original construction. By 1976 up to 30% had been restored and restoration works continues.
In 1981 Machu Picchu was made a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary; in 1983 declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2007 an internet poll voted the site as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Machu Picchu is in danger of environmentql degradation and has consequently been placed on The World Monuments Fund Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. As visitors we must take care of this amazing place.
Ollantaytambo is the name of a small town and an Inca archaeological site on the Urubamba River, about 60 kilometers northwest of Cusco. It is located at an altitude of almost 2,800 metres above sea level and is the most popular site in the Sacred Valley. It was built by the Incan emperor Pachacuti in the middle 1400's. He also constructed extensive terraces and established an irrigation system in the Urubamba Valley.
During the Spanish invasion of Peru the site was used as a fortress by the Inca resistance against the conquistadors. in 1536 they defeated the Spanish by halting their advance and flooding the plain. The site was abandoned shortly after.
The terraces of Ollantaytambo are built to a higher standard to most with smooth high walls of cut stone compared with the normal rough stone. On top of the terraces is the unfinished Sun Temple. The huge stones were quarried from a site across the river - what an amazing feat to transport them.
One the mountains across from the terraces there are remains of Inca storehouses.
Entrance is with the Tourist Ticket.
The Ollantaytambo ruins are not far from the town. The sun temple there was being constructed of pink granite, but it was never finished. The blocks, weighing as much as 100 tons, were constructed at the bottom of the hill and then hauled up with pulleys and llama leather cables. Bark under the blocks made them easier to slide. People paid their taxes with labor.
Most visitors climb to the sun temple and explore the various ruins. However, there is still plenty to see in the lower part of the site for people who can't climb. You can see all the buildings on the site, and you can visit the king's bath. He had a private fountain for bathing in an enclosed building. His daughter, who ruled the area when he was absent, had a nice fountain also, but it was out in the open. The rest of the population had a simpler facility.
Cusco is a so interesting city that deserves its own page on VT! After visiting its main colonial spots and archaeological remains I was happy to renounce to visit other places (like Arequipa!) to see (and live) also the popular side of the city(picture 2) like the local market, smaller but also interesting museums or its off the beaten path churches. An anecdote to tell here is that I also visited all the old bookshops of the city (very interesting, almost hidden, small, with rare books) looking for some books about the quechuas pulmonary physiology :-)).
Cusco was the political centre of the Inca Empire. Its name comes from Qosq’o , that means “the navel of the world” . And it is true because at that time this city ran the destiny of men and women from the current countries of Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The highest political and religious authority was the Inca, considered direct descendent of the Sun. Designed by the Inca Pachacutec (1438-1471), the city centre is dominated by the Plaza de las Armas, (picture 1) which was also the heart of the Inca Cusco and where it took place different religious and military ceremonies. From Plaza de las Armas you can see several climbing streets and it is like watching two different cities superimposed: the Inca city with its walls made of huge perfect stones and the colonial city, built on the ancient structures, with white houses and red roofs. The Andean governors’ old palaces are nowadays the foundations of the current Christian churches. So, for example, on the ancient palace of the Inca Viracocha the current cathedral was built; or you still can see the remains of the Temple of Sun –Coricancha- under the church of Santo Domingo. The Inca walls of Santo Domingo resisted three earthquakes (in 1630, 1950 and 1986) but not the church itself, which was destroyed. Cusco is the perfect place to start your different trips to Sacred Valley.
The last day you will wake up very early, still dark, to walk the last 8km to arrive at Puerta del Sol at dawn. Seeing Machu Picchu for the first time at dawn, quiet, still without tourists is a unique experience. Machu Picchu was built between the XVth and XVIth centuries and it seems it was inhabited for about 100 years. It is believed that here lived about 1000 people. Enlarge the first picture to see the main spots in Machu Picchu. One big space north-south, la Plaza Ceremonial (picture 2) where took place different ceremonies, divided the ensemble up in to big sectors: the west or upper city where we can find the main temples and the noblemen’s houses; the east or lower city where the people who served in the temples lived. The Puerta del Sur, on the left of the picture, was the only entrance to the city and you arrived to it from the Inca Trail. The walls and the moat separated the residential area from the agricultural terraces. You also can see the Sacred Square (on the left) that was connected with sacred Intihuatana (behind, on the top of the hill) by stairs. It is believed that this temple is a source of energy where many people still go trying to receive this energy from the firsts rays of the sun. The Temple of the Condor (the nearest cross on your right) has a condor’s head sculpted on the rock (picture 3). Behind this temple you find the Three Doors House. It is believed that there was the residence of the Vírgenes del Sol. And the circular building in the middle of the picture is the Temple of the Sun.
There are a lot of mysteries around Machu Picchu: fortress against other people or shelter for Manco Capac’s defeated warriors? Citadel to keep the Inca’s treasures or acllacunas’ (Vírgenes del Sol) city? 109 of a total of 135 bodies founded belonged to women . . . Enjoy your visit.
The third day is the longest stage but it is also unforgettable. Here you will go from 3800m (paso de Runcuracay) till 2800m but the grades are not sharp. During this day you will find also the most beautiful Inca remains like Runkuracay, a circular structure discovered in 1915 by Bingham’s team and used maybe for defensive purposes (picture 1), or Sayacmarca (“raised village” in quechua) with great views over the snow-field Salcatay (pictures 2 and 3). Finally after crossing nice landscapes and an Inca tunnel you will arrive to the base camp of Puyupatamarca where you can party: the trail has almost finished and the following day Machu Picchu is waiting for you! (picture 4)
Warning: the pictures on this tip are taken by my camera but not by me, I was too busy trying to survive :-))
The starting point is on the km 82 of the train Cusco-Quillabamba. We are at 2800m high. The first day, about 12 km and climbing only 100m, is the easiest day. The landscape is very colourful and full of broom. Having Urubamba River on your right, you will cross eucalyptus forests until the remains of Quente and Llactapata.
The second day is more challenging. The distance is shorter, about 10 km, but you will climb from 2800m to 4200m (Warmiwañusca at 4215m), the highest point of the trail. This part was known during the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries as “the smuggling route”: people used this way to transport on the donkeys sugar and coca to avoid the high customs taxes. After the commemorative picture (!) and some rest you will descend to the valley of Pacaymayo, the base camp. During this day we also could see some smiling beasts like llamas or alpacas
The Inca Trail is the most famous trekking in America and it is easy to understand why. There are two ways to arrive to Machu Picchu: by bus from Aguas Calientes or taking the Inca Trail. Even if it was very hard to me (I had some problems due to "soroche" two days before and I was not in my best conditions) I would repeat it again: crossing the Puerta del Sol at dawn after four hard days and see Machu Pichu still without tourists was a unique experience. Later I checked by myself what meant the first option: thousands and thousands of sheep-tourists doing long lines to invade the site. Fortunately by that time we had already finished our visit.
Very crowded in the past and in danger for a while, Unesco put strict conditions to the Peruvian Government: “if you don’t restrict the access to Inca Trail we will take the money away”. Nowadays the access is restricted to 500 people per day and the only way to do it is contracting an official travel agency (remember to book some months in advance!). It will provide you with the tickets, guide, bearers and all the necessary stuff like tents or food. This was also good to regularize the bearers’ conditions: for example in the past they could carry until 40kg on their backs and nowadays they are weighed before leaving and only allowed to take 20kg maximum.
The Capac Ñan was the Incas’ royal road. A system of roads about 20.000km long that joined the desert with the snow covered mountains. It allowed the Andean villages to receive the products coming from the sea and the sea villages to have wood and coca from the Andes and ritual feathers from the Amazon. The ancient Incas studied so well the characteristics of the land that designed the roads in a way that two points were always connected by the shortest possible road. They also built “tampus”, a kind of places to rest and eat during the longest distances. In general the roads are paved and have mill-races, stairs and tunnels. It may have 5metres width. Bridges are also very interesting: they look very fragile but they are still used by locals. The Inca Trail crosses along its 42 km nice Inca villages, fortresses and different landscapes: valleys, snow covered mountains and forests.
Like ancient Nile river we can consider the Urubamba river the origin of this story. It forms a wide valley which, thanks to its good climate, was an excellent land to cultivate corn (the symbol of fertility and divine for Incas, it was their main food and was used in rituals and ceremonies). This area became in Inca times the most developed agricultural land thanks to terraces (constructions that stopped the land erosion, extended the cultivable land and retained the humidity) and channels. They “sacralised” this valley building and ensemble of religious constructions. The most impressive Inca sites will be constructed on its shores, nowadays known as the Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley).
In Tambomachay you can see the Baño del Inca (the Inca’s baths). Three terraces made of huge stones created a kind of falling water where water run until a big pool where Incas and their women took their baths. These place was also used to do some rituals to the water.
Ollayntaytambo was the name of an ancient Inca warrior and was also the name of a fortress that guarded the way to Machu Picchu. During the Spanish conquest Huayna Capac after loosing Sacsahuamán obtained here an important victory. Later, after a second attack by the Spanish troops, he would had to leave and founded another capital in the forest, Vilacabamba. Nowadays Ollayntaytambo is a nice Andean village, with a great archaeological site. In Ollayntaytambo you still can see (well it is the only village where you still can see) the typical Inca general layout and its inhabitants are still the ancient Incas’ descendants. The Inca urbanism was very simple (enlarge picture 1 to see it): an ensemble of narrow streets were organized in a grid (canchas) perfectly delimited by masonry walls. These walls had entrances to big patios with all the houses and other constructions around. The Plaza de las Armas (on the right of the picture) was the main space of the village; then you can see a straight street that connects the plaza with the remains (the big open space in front of you is the entrance to the archaeological site and nowadays is full of stalls selling touristy stuff); behind the Plaza de las Armas there is a long street that goes parallel to the river until the train station, street that local women try to avoid in order not to meet “los condenados de la noche” (the condemned men of the night) a kind of smiling phantoms who are supposed to bring all kind of illnesses. Nice colonial houses have replaced the ancient ones without modifying the general structure. Another freaky detail that you can see on this picture is the smiling image of Tunupa, messenger of Wiracocha and unifier of the Incas, which is sculpted into Pinkuylluna mountain protecting Ollayntaytambo (on the left).
"... al que la ha visto y mirado con atención le hace imaginar y aún creer que son hechos por vía de encantamiento o que las hicieron demonios y no hombres" Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales
The fortress of Sacsayhuamán (known by locals as “sexywoman”) guards Cusco from the top. Legend says that Sacsayhuamán is the head of a puma designed by the Inca Pachacutec when he was drawing the general layout of Cusco. Its cyclopean stones follow the mountains doing a zig zag that creates three lines of walls, which is only a small part of the original and huge fortress. After the Spanish conquest most of the stones were used to build the current houses in Cusco. Sacsayhuamán, a fortress between fortress, is a masterwork of civil engineering: built in only 50 years, some of this perfect cut stones weigh more than 100 tones! So it is difficult to imagine how the fortress was constructed especially if we remember that Incas did not know the wheel. Inside the fortress, on the top, you can also see a kind of ceremonial space. A local man told us that in this area some people come with the strangest devices looking for gold ;-))
This archaeological ensemble belongs to the Imperial Inca stage, from the Inca Pachacútec until the Inca Wayna Capac. There are a lot of mysteries about Ollayntaytambo: the little time existed between the design and the construction of the city or the fact that the defences are guided towards Cusco like if Incas wanted to protect the city from the Incas themselves. The mountain is divided up into big terraces very difficult to climb at 2700m :-((( having the ensemble the appearance of a big pyramid. On the top there was the Temple of the Sun, where astrologists and priests calculated the solstices. You also can see some houses and granaries. On the left of the first picture you still can see some of the ramps used to carry the stones up to the mountain. Some stones weight more than 50 tones. The views from the top are great (picture 2). In front of the site there is the Pinkuylluna mountain were you still can see two constructions: the colcas (stores) on the right and the prison on the left (great views also here).
Pisac was one of the biggest Incas’ metropolis and nowadays it is the second most important archaeological site after Machu Picchu. Agricultural terraces, still cultivated following the ancient methods and the huge remains dominate the landscape (picture 1).The paths are well indicated but we were happy to take a local guide: he was the kind of person that has grown between the stones and knew every detail of them. He also told us fantastic stories ;-)). In Pisac there are two main areas: Intiwatana, the sacred area with the temples of Sun, Moon, Storm and Rainbow and the noble suburb of Hanan Pisac with about thirty houses kept in very good conditions. The most interesting point is the solar altar or Intiwatana (picture 2): the shadow casted on it by the sun was used by Incas to calculate the solstices. El Baño del Inca (the Inca’s baths) which is full of cascades that brought water to different levels (picture 3), complete the archaeological site. Consider about 2 hours to visit well the place.