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The Inca City of Ollantaytambo

Before departing for Aguas Calientes from Cusco, we modified our plans a bit. Instead of spending two days in Ollantaytambo and then another two days in nearby Urubamba, we thought it would be better to base ourselves in one place in the Sacred Valley and explore form there. This provided us two advantages. One, we could just take Colectivos (shared taxis) around the Sacred Valley and save some money. Two, it gave us the opportunity to stay at El Albergue.

We arrived in Ollantaytambo about 1pm, and headed for a nice little guesthouse called Picaflor Tambo. This place was one of my favorites. First off, the two guys that run this six room guesthouse are so helpful, cheerful, and friendly. We even got good recommendations for places to eat. Second, the location is great as it is right next to the entrance to the ruins of Pinkuylluna.

Ollantaytambo is the last remaining inhabited city with the existing Inca layout. As a matter of fact, most structures are built using existing stone walls. And most of the older streets have water running through stone channels built in the streets, similar to an irrigation system.  It was nice to fall asleep to the sound of water running next to our guesthouse.

Exploring the Fortress Ruins

We spent the first day in the city relaxing and walking a bit around town. The only major knock against this place was the number of restaurants all around the Plaza de Armas that seemed to serve the same food. This is why we followed the recommendations from the Manager of Picaflor Tambo and got away from those restaurants. It was interesting watching the folks outside the restaurants trying to attract you to come and visit, especially during the low season as there is a lot of competition for not much business.

The second day, we got up early, had a hearty breakfast, and then set out for the Fortress Ruins. This was an amazing structure of Inca engineering, originally built for religious purposes, but is the site of a major Spanish-Inca battle. After lunch, we walked around and explored the old part of town, the part built using the original Inca walls. We had a quick break at the guesthouse, and then climbed up to the Pinkuylluna ruins. These old storehouses once held grain. While it doesn’t take long to explore these ruins, they are a decent climb. They do offer some great views of the city as well.

El Albergue and Pachamanca Lunch

We moved to El Albergue the next day, where we were able to just drop our bags off and head off to catch a Collectivo over to Urubamba.  The highlight of our stay at El Albergue was definitely the food. We had excellent breakfast both mornings, an amazing dinner that left us both so stuffed we were on the brink of being sick. A big thank you to Emily’s friend Sacha for recommending this place.

We also decided to partake in the Pachamanca (meaning “earth oven”) lunch right before heading back to Cusco. Chicken, green beans, potatoes and more were cooked underground using hot stones.

By far, this was the best food we have had in Peru. And we also got to taste the Caña (similar to Pisco) that they distill on site.  I do recommend this experience, as it also comes with a tour of their organic farm.

Collectivos, Explained

By now, I imagine that about half of you reading this post are a bit confused by my reference to “Collectivos.” A Collectivo in Peru is basically a passenger van that will run between two destinations in the Sacred Valley.  It is a very economical way for local (and brave tourists) to travel as a 35 minute ride will cost you about $1 USD. However, the drivers do pack these vans quite full. So full that I even had to stand for part of a ride due to the number of folks in the van.  The Collectivos are found at specific locations in the towns across the Sacred Valley, and as soon as the van is full, it will take off to its destination.

Collectivos are sort of like a combination between a city bus and a taxi. Passengers get off and on in between cities and as far as we could tell there were no set stops. Sometimes the Collectivo drivers had helpers who would yell the destination out the window and open the van sliding doors. If the van is heading where you want to go, you yell back “si” and jump in! Payment was accepted at the end of the trip.

It is a wonderful, crazy, and chaotic way to travel, but one that I enjoyed immensely. It reminded Emily of taking kombis to and from campus when she studied in South Africa. Have you rode in a shared taxi or Colectivo? What was your favorite part? Stay tuned for more of our adventures in the Sacred Valley!