A Day in Ollantaytambo

Waking up on a memory foam-topped mattress, swaddled in plush blankets and pillows, following days of trekking up and down mountains, you can only imagine how many times I clicked the snooze button. But, my time had expired in beautiful Aguas Calientes. I had an 8am train to catch to Ollantaytambo. I was definitely going to miss this city tucked away in the shadows of Machu Picchu. I enjoyed the city’s simple and quiet flow of life and the ever-present feeling of being wrapped up in safety and a warm hug by the looming mountains that surround. The city was still at such an early hour and the walk to the train station was unimpeded by the hustle of tourists and paraders that filled them just the day before. It was nice to have my quiet goodbye.

Most of the passengers on my train car were students from the University of Illinois on a post-graduation trip with their honors college. It hit me that my interactions with Americans had been few and far between so far and I found it unexpectedly comforting to hear snippets of conversation about familiar cities, jobs, and college courses floating in the air. Just three years ago, I was them. Oh what a life that has unfolded since then!

When the train pulled into the station in Ollantaytambo, the rough plan for the day had been decided. Retrieve my backpack from my hostel. Find a tourist office to see what nearby hikes were available. Eat some good food. Wander the markets. Board the colectivo van back to Cusco by mid-afternoon.

As it turned out there were some Incan granaries about an hour’s hike from the city center. The walk to the trailhead brought me down a maze of cobble-stoned streets, wide enough for foot traffic only and eerily quiet except for the rare stray dog here and there. There was a woman setting up her chicha “flag” to announce that a fresh batch of beer was ready for passerby.

The hike was short but strenuous on my already beyond sore legs but worth it. The views from the top were incredible, overlooking the clay roofs and ruins across town. I shared the trail with three, maybe four other hikers. The sun was shining and the temperature was hot but manageable. I think I bumped into bliss again.

On the way back down, I ran into a local offering tours of the ruins I had just seen. Although I obviously didn’t need a tour, I did need lunch. He recommended I try alpaca and directed me to the restaurant to do so. It was a good recommendation. My alpaca came drowning in a sweet mustard sauce and lay on a bed of caramelized onions. The meat was lean, tender, and almost sweet even without the mustard. With a little spanglish, I managed to successfully substitute the spinach side for a nice order of french fries – “No espinaca. Papas fritas, instead [thumbs up + head nod].” Then they had to roll me out of the restaurant. So filling!

After wandering the markets for a bit, I decided it was time to head back to Cusco. The colectivo vans line up over by the train station, hoping to fill their vans with the off-loading train passengers. The van I ended up in wasn’t so successful but it meant my giant backpack didn’t have to sit on my lap for the next hour.

This being my second time in a colectivo, I noticed how much more relaxed I was with it all and was able to sit back and just enjoy the breathtaking scenery passing by. The stretch of road that U-turns around Urubamba is hands-down one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on. Sitting in this van full of friendly strangers I couldn’t communicate with and the beautiful patch of earth passing by outside my window, I once again felt completely at home and at peace in the world. This is what I want my life to be about – simple pleasures in beautiful places, surrounded by culture and an endless flow of new experiences. The feeling needs to be bottled.

Returning to Cusco felt good. I was glad that I had spent that unexpected day here just a few days before. It cut down on the stress of finding my hostel and way around. I felt like a local or like I’d spent at least more than 6 hours there, strangely enough. It felt like home. My hostel, Hostal El Grial, was much nicer than I had expected and right next door to La Boheme, the hostel where I had been storing my bag last time I was in town. I had a room tucked away on the first floor. They brought coca tea to me as I was settling in and set me up with a map and some recommendations for things to do and where to eat. I was impressed in all of 5 minutes. Glad I had two nights here!

By the time I wandered outside again, it had already grown dark. The streets were full of light and people and I couldn’t have been more excited to be there. Still stuffed from my lunch, I opted for a hot chocolate and pastry for dinner and found this really cute cafe just off the Plaza de Armas. I met a family from Seattle while there. Their daughter had actually lived in Cusco for the past year going to university and was now headed to the jungle for 6 months to live with a tribe and do research. The conversation was interesting and insightful. It was nice getting back to the random conversations with whoever was nearby. Ollantaytambo was nice but so, so vacant. I was ready for the hustle and bustle of a city again. And that is exactly what I received over the next two days.

Hasta luego,