We are sitting in a cafe in Aguas Callietes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. I have a cold bottle of water and Jason's got chamomile tea sitting next to our respective computers. The sun's already set behind the cloud-covered jungle-ish mountains all around us.
This town exists solely for tourists. The window to my right looks onto the main plaza, and we keep flinching as two little girls in navy blue school uniforms toss a yellow rubber ball right next to us on the other side of the glass. Beyond them is a fountain with a taller-than-life statue of an Incan chief, flanked at its base by two painted statues of Inca women, one red one blue. The other patrons in the cafe are all gringos, as are most of the people walking through the plaza.
Still, it's fun to be in a town like this. The mountains are just as mist-covered as the pictures promised, and the effort it takes to get here elevates the whole experience.
We found the PeruRail office in the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco this morning after circling clockwise around the entire square. There weren't many tickets left (whoops), and there certainly weren't any of the Backpacker Train (i.e. cheap) left for today, so we got two tickets on the Vistadome Train out of Ollantaytambo, a town 60 miles NW of Cuzco.
So now we needed to get to Olly (as I will nickname it henceforward, since, like my attempts to say "Thank You" in Turkish, I tend to stick imaginary syllables in the middle of the word). We downsized our luggage for a one-night trip and dropped our bags off at the hotel we are going to stay at when we return to Cuzco before hailing a cab to take us to the street where we were told the collectivos waited.
The cab driver dropped us off next to an alleyway and a man stuck his head in the cab door before we could gather our bags. Jason asked about a ride to Olly and the man said, "Si, si!" and beckoned us to follow.
We did and found ourselves in what might have been somebody's backyard and certainly was a dirt parking lot for cars in various stages of disrepair and at least seven men in button-down shirts and black pants, all of whom seemed to be offering rides.
The original guy explained what we wanted while Jason tried to both confirm and clarify, since we had been expecting the vans we kept seeing drive groups of people around town. When Jason asked, "Where are the busses?" the men would collectively reply, "Si, si" and go back to arguing muy rapido while pointing at each other, the cars, and us with both hands.
Finally the Mexican Standoff-without-guns came to an apparent conclusion when one of the guys directed us to get into the white sedan on our left. It didn't feel like a kidnapping, so we did as we were told. We slid into the backseat and were promptly squished by a scruffy-looking gringo who spoke fluent Spanish appearing out of nowhere and sliding in on the other side. A local guy (at least I assume he was a local, since we stopped outside his house for a few minutes on our way out of the town) hopped in shotgun and we pulled away. Kind of. We actually sat in the lot for 5 minutes of waiting for another car to move out of the alleyway, which prompted a lot more Spanish yelling. But then we pulled out and were on our way.
Once we got on the road proper, it was a great trip with windows rolled down and my hair blown all about. I frequently leaned out the window to try to get a better picture of the mountains we were driving through, only to pull back inside suddenly whenever the driver passed another car on a blind corner with a bus coming straight at us. We passed a few small pocket mountain towns, soaring snow-capped peaks, herds of sheep grazing on school basketball courts, women walking past in red-embroidered skirts with large burdens in brightly-woven cloth tied across their shoulders, and, randomly, a rock climbing wall in the middle of nowhere. It felt an awful lot like driving through a back road in the Rockies, and yet nothing like the Rockies at all.
We pulled into Olly on a very bumpy cobblestone road (which didn't help my very full bladder) and paid the driver 25 soles for the 90 minute drive. After a quick run to the nearest bathroom we had just under two hours to explore Olly before we caught our train, so we headed for the ruins we could see on the mountainside ahead of us.
People have been living in Olly since the 13th century, and it was the site of one of the few victories the Incas had against the Spaniards in the 1500s. Of course, the Spaniards returned with four times as many troops and conquered the town thoroughly shortly thereafter, but still! They won one at least.
We crossed through a souvenir market and bought a ticket enter the ruins. They stretched up the steep mountainside in a series of terraces (probably used for farming) with the ruins of a series of stoney rooms and passageways at the foot of the mountain. A river runs next to the ruins and part of it is channeled through the site underneath the ground, appearing as fountains inside the various rooms. It reminded me of Knossos and of the ruins in Mexico on a smaller scale.
When I post pictures of the site (hopefully in the next entry), I want you to keep something very important in mind: There are views from the top of the ruins. Which means that I hiked up there. Yes, hiked! Up very steep and uneven stone stairs and a dirt path with Jason trotting past me reminding me of my pioneer genetics in what he thought was a very encouraging way.
From the top we looked down on the town, the patchwork quilt farmland, and the Peruvian middle school marching band arranging themselves on the terraces to our left, blowing on pan flutes and cow horns and drumming drums to get ready for a Hill Cummorah-type pageant tomorrow. We were in the middle of the Andes, we kept reminding ourselves. How spectacular!
A perilous descent down the mountain later and we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Puka Rumi next to the ruins. We both ordered chicken burritos, and it was delicious! We each received two thick crepes (not tortillas - crepes. They were definitely made that way, although with a different, thicker batter that had basil chopped up into it) and the waitress set a series of clay bowls on our table with cheese, chicken, red beans, tomatoes, a heaping pile of guacamole, and shoestring fries that were so salty and delicious.
We ate and walked downhill alongside the river to the train station and got on the Vistadome train for the 90 minute ride to Aguas Callientes. Although the car had wonderfully large windows, to my dismay our assigned seats were two of the few that faced backwards. The VomitWatch kept it from being horrible, but I missed most of the views because I couldn't look out of the window for more than a few seconds before the nausea became unbearable. I defer to the entry Jason's writing alongside me, since he was able to take in much more of the sights.
The train car was packed full with a group of hikers who had just finished a three-day trek through the mountains from Cuzco. They were such a cluster of hiker stereotypes, from the brassy Australian woman who pulled a bag of squished and decaying bananas from her bag, leaned across our laps with it and called, "Scusi! Scusi!" at the attendant to get rid of it; to the American ex-grad student who talked loudly about his wealthy uncle and house near the beach in Rhode Island; to the young blond girl dressed up like a hippy and yet sharing her bag of peanut M&Ms with everyone in her group. Between them and the blushing young train attendant who lost his balance on one of the corners and fell into my lap (much to the glee of the Aussie), it was quite an entertaining ride.
In Aguas Callientes we hunted for the cheapest place listed in Lonely Planet and found it on the train tracks at the very end of this little town. Jason was positively gleeful as we climbed the steps in the darkness: "I love that it's the last building between us and the jungle!" We got a room for the night, bought our passes for Machu Picchu at the tourist office, and found this Internet cafe to blog, to hydrate, and to plan.
P.S. Jason's version, which made me burst out laughing many times in this quiet cafe, can be found here.