South America Diary: Day 14

It’s been a long time since I last typed up a day of this travel diary. But I haven’t forgotten it!

Thursday, 28 April, 2011. 09:25

Internet Here!We are resting in our room after breakfast. We got up at 07:00, but M. was tired and after a shower climbed back into bed, while I wrote up some of yesterday’s diary. A short time later, the power went out, so I laid down and closed my eyes too. We intended to go to breakfast at 08:00, to have time to meet the group at 08:30 for an optional walking tour of Ollantaytambo. But when the lights came back on and we looked at the time it was 08:17 already. We dressed and went to the breakfast room, where some of the group were already waiting with Ale, while some others were finishing breakfast. I told Ale we wouldn’t be coming for the walk as we were running a bit late.

Breakfast was some sticky cereal like the one at Cusco, strawberry yoghurt, flat bread rolls, and eggs cooked for us. That done, we came back to our room again for a bit more rest before checking out the Inca remains here in town.

Inca Granary15:22. Hotel Plaza Andina, Aguas Calientes

We have arrived in the town of Aguas Calientes after our PeruRail train trip from Ollantaytambo down the Urabamba River.

Back in Ollantaytambo, we went out to get M. a cup of coffee. We went back to a place we’d tried after dinner last night, Hearts Cafe, although then they had turned off the coffee machine for the night. M. got a cappuccino, and for the first time on the trip it had chocolate on top instead of cinnamon. On the way we ran into Ale in the square and she asked if we’d climbed the mountain to the Inca remains looming over the town on the mountainside, or visited the Inca religious centre at the other end of town. We hadn’t done either, but were planning to visit them later. However Ale suggested climbing the mountain, saying Andrew and Zaina and Zeeshan were doing it, and the views from the buildings above were spectacular.

Inca terracesSo first we went back to the hotel to get my camera bag, and ditch my jacket because I hadn’t realised how hot it was. We walked to the square and down a narrow laneway between buildings to the starting point of the climb. The way was steep and rocky, and M. didn’t like the look of it, so she waited at the bottom while I climbed up. I had to pause to catch my breath several times. Not far up I noticed Andean pipe music drifting down the mountain. It turned out to be a guy playing in a shady spot next to the path. He asked, in Spanish, if I had water, then switched to good English when I said I didn’t speak Spanish. I gave him a sip from my water bottle. He said he liked to play there because of the acoustics of the music bouncing off the mountainside. He gave me an encouraging farewell as I continued up past him.

Me at OllantaytamboFurther up the path forked and I met Zaina and Zeeshan coming down. They took the other fork going around to a second site on the mountainside. I continued up to the main building, which indeed had a spectacular view over Ollantaytambo and across to the terraced Inca remains on the opposite side of the valley. I had a man there take a couple of photos of me standing over the town far below. Then I started the climb down again. Near the pipe player, an old woman was collecting some sort of plant from the mountainside and putting it in a big bundle, presumably to carry down to the town later. The player gave me a parting farewell as I passed him and soon I was back with M. in the narrow calles of the town.

Ollantaytambo SiteWe had half an hour before we needed to meet for our train ride, so walked across Ollantaytambo to the Inca religious site. A woman punched our tourist tickets for entry, and we wandered around this site for about 20 minutes before returning to the hotel. It was primarily a set of two terraces on the mountainside, with some buildings at the bottom and along a ridge near the top. We didn’t have time to climb the steps up the terraces, but walked around the ground level remains, seeing various interesting things such as a still-working fountain and some underground construction now exposed to the sky.

With about ten minutes to our meeting time at 12:00, we left and walked back to the hotel. There, we threw our stuff into our overnight bags and waited in the lobby for the rest of the group. With the group we walked down to the train station for our 12:58 departure to Aguas Calientes. There were dozens of snack vendors near the station, and I bought a banana and a pack of queso Pringles for the trip, since we hadn’t had lunch and Ale said the train trip took two hours.

PerurailWe had to show tickets and passports to board the train, and the staff took the tickets off us so nobody had a record of their assigned seat numbers. M. and I had been given seats across the aisle from one another, but a woman was already sitting in M.’s seat. She and the guy next to her moved, leaving an empty seat next to M. I sat with her, saying we could direct anyone claiming the other seat to the one I’d vacated. It turned out the other seat had been Jian’s, but he had moved to sit with his mother, so we were safe.

Rio UrabambaWe were facing backwards, with a woman from California and a guy from England opposite us, both older than us. It turned out they were on a 21-day Intrepid tour, and were heading to Puerto Maldonado after Machu Picchu. The train departed promptly, at 12:58 on the dot. It rattled and swayed along the track, being one of the least smooth train rides I’ve ever been on. The track ran along the Urabamba River, which was a shallow wash running over gravel, the water grey-green with mountain rock silt and ten to fifteen metres wide. It rushed quickly among the rocks, breaking into gentle white water occasionally in particularly rocky bits. The river valley was broad, with a flat flood plain populated by farms. Ale had said there is a road to Aguas Calientes, but it takes eight hours to drive there. I wondered why there wasn’t a road parallel to the train line. I found out about half an hour into the trip as the valley closed up and became extremely narrow and V-shaped. Ant semblance of a flat land by the river vanished and it became clear that even the narrow train line had only been placed there by sheer bloody-mindedness and a lot of rock cutting and blasting. The river flowed more swiftly here and the bed was littered with boulders, some the size of trucks. The water became rough and would have been a serious challenge to rafters. The mountains loomed above on all sides and we saw the huge peak with the glacier Veronica on it. Ale said it was named after the first woman who climbed it, a German.

Clouds over the Sacred ValleyAs the trip progressed, the mountains, grassed at first, became cloaked with trees and clouds hugged the tops of the peaks, spilling over the ridges. A light rain began to fall and we could see how Machu Picchu could be famous for rain when Cusco was so very dry. The sky was a threatening grey over some of the mountains. I took a stack of photos of the changing scenery of the valley through the window, as did the guy opposite us. There was a free refreshment service, which consisted of a small packet of pretzels and some chocolate-coated stuff made from corn, which was like a non-sweet honeycomb. They also offered hot drinks. M. had a tea, while the guy opposite us got a coca tea.

Aguas CalientesThe scenery became ever more spectacular as the train rattled on. The rain never got heavy, and stopped after a while. We saw an Inca building with terraces on the side of the valley and also the start of the famous Inca Trail hiking track. We saw a few hikers along the way. Eventually the train pulled into Aguas Calientes, and suddenly we were surrounded by buildings and the train station.

We disembarked an Ale led us to our hotel, the Plaza Andina, up the Rio Aguas Calientes valley from the station and very close to the thermal springs and baths for which the town and river are named (Aguas Calientes being Spanish for “hot water”). The station spewed hordes of tourists out straight into the middle of a tightly packed artisan market. It was extremely chaotic, but Ale led us strongly through the middle of the market, ordering us not to stop and look at stuff. At the hotel, we had to wait together in the breakfast room while the owner copied our passports. This took some time, and we suspected their copier/scanner wasn’t working and they’d taken them down the street to a copy shop. Eventually we got our passports back and checked into our rooms. Ours has a window facing the wall of another hotel across a narrow lane below, but turning to the right gives us a view straight at the mountain on which Machu Picchu is located. We rested for a while in our room, then headed out to take a closer look at the vast market area near the station. It was very colourful, but extremely touristy and junky, and Ale had warned us that the prices here are extremely inflated. If we wanted souvenirs, it would be best to buy in Cusco.

Aguas Calientes marketWe walked back to the hotel, planning a visit to the hot baths before dinner. But we ran into Zaina and Zeeshan in the street and they said they’d been to the baths and it was lame. It was tiled like a public pool, and full of tourists. Nothing special or rustic about it. Given this insight, we decide to simply rest in our room until dinner. Tomorrow will be a huge day, with a very early start, so it’s a good idea to be well rested.

Written next day

We met with the group at 19:00 to go out for dinner. Ale suggested three places, and we chose the one which she explained had a set menu of appetiser, main course, and dessert of choice, for 54 soles. But she said the servings were large enough that you could split one between two people. She led the way down the hill to Indio Feliz, a place buzzing with activity and with a decor best described as eclectic. It had paintings on the walls reminiscent of the European Baroque period, wine barrels mounted near the ceiling, various carved figures and animals on the walls, and stapled to every spare spot that wasn’t already covered, thousands upon thousands of business cards (presumably from customers). They were stapled to the staircase banisters, the ceiling joists, the bits of wall below the paintings, and in many cases simply to each other, forming projecting fingers of two or three cards sticking out from the walls. We got an upstairs table sitting opposite another table of which Andrew said a woman looked exactly like Kim Clijsters. (Not really.) Kim and Laura shared a “menu”, as did Zaina and Zeeshan, me and M., and Ale and Olivia. Andrew had one to himself, joking about not wanting to share his food with anyone.

Make your own pasta sauceWe got a starter of creole soup, a vegetable broth served with pieces of hot chilis in a bowl, and a bowl of shreds of the local altiplano cheese that resembles halloumi. It was good. Next we had tagliatelle, which came with a plate of small bowls from which we could mix our own sauces. It included fried mushrooms, basil pesto, chopped chili peppers, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and a tomato sauce. When the plate of pasta arrived, I was thinking, “Okay, that’s a good amount to share between two people.” But then the waitress gave us another one and told us that it had already been split on to two separate plates for us! This made the total size of the dish truly staggering. I’m not sure how any one person could have finished one. Andrew had ordered beef skewers and took care of those all himself though, as the serving size of that seemed smaller than the pasta. Dessert was orange pie, which I’d ordered because it sounded unusual. Kim and Laura had ordered it too, giving them a grand slam identical dinner order to us. The owner of the place came to our table to chat with Ale and told us the orange pie was an original recipe of Indio Feliz. It was good, sort of like an orange-almond flourless cake with a hint of custardiness. Very nice.

Following dinner, we went back to our hotel. Ale helped us book wake up calls with reception, and the woman there wrote down our room numbers and times. We had to be up and eating breakfast by 04:45 to depart the hotel at 05:00. We booked a call for 04:15.

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