While my dad and I unfortunately didn’t have the time or the energy to hike the famed 4-day Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu, we chose an equally exciting way to get there; the Sacred Valley Tour. Instead going to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu) directly from Cuzco via train, we drove for several hours through the mountains to small town of Ollantaytambo where we boarded the train. Along the way, we stopped at three archaeological sites and drove by several more that were nestled away on the hillsides. It is a beautifully scenic and enjoyable way to start the journey to Machu Picchu, and I highly recommend it!
We began our day driving down in elevation to the Sacred Valley. Our first stop on the tour was the site of Pisac. An archaeological complex that spans the entire surface of a single mountain, Pisac is thought to have served as both a spiritual and agricultural center. The sheer magnitude of the site must be appreciated from both far and near. Once at the base of the mountain, the bus takes 20 minutes to ascend to the entrance. Along the way, passengers have the opportunity to view the site from several different angles that are not all accessable by foot once there.
Exploring the site by foot, there are several different spots to visit. There are two main architectural complexes that boast both beautiful masonry and impressive towers. From the second, one has a great view of the over 3000 ventanillas (window-like cliff-face tombs) lining the adjacent mountain.
In addition, visiting the administrative center at the very top of the site is very impressive. Standing in it, you get an eerie sense of how much power the Incan ruler that utilized that space had. The site sits in a very advantageous position – allowing sweeping 360 degree views of the valley and terraces below. The ruler would have had the ultimate view of his entire valley kingdom; allowing him to oversee agricultural progress.
Climbing the stairs at Pisac was hard work. So when our time was up there, we boarded the bus and headed off to lunch (which was included in the day’s ticket) to reward ourselves for a good climb. After a short drive we arrived at an outdoor buffet. Under a huge tent were three long tables filled with dozens of different foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, different salads, fish, chicken, and even pasta. The food was delicious – and we spent our hour there eating and chatting with new friends – a Peruvian couple from another tour bus who were sharing our table.
After lunch it was back to the bus and onto our next destination: Ollantaytambo. It took an additional hour or so to get there – the perfect amount of time to sneak a post-lunch nap (which is what 90% of our bus did!). Rolling into the tiny town in which Ollantaytambo sits, it’s very hard to believe what you’re seeing is real. Deemed an ancient “resting place” for travelers making their way to Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo stretchs almost vertically up a steep mountain, and the tourists who have made it to the top look like ants.
Not much of a resting place, really. Despite the daunting appearance, it IS possible to climb to the top, and the view once you’re there is definitely worth it.
The Temple of the Sun is one of the biggest draws for tourists at the site. It consists of several 10 foot high stone blocks, fitted together perfectly, and notched so that the sun bounces off it in a certain way, like an ancient sundial.
Once you’re able to make your way to the very top (it takes time), you have a wonderful view of the site, the town, and the adjacent site of Wiracochan. Wiracochan is thought to have been a storage center for Ollantaytambo, and provided a place to house excess food to feed the travelers. It even served as a sort of ancient refridgerator – built in a spot with optimal wind and shade exposure, food was kept at a cooler than normal temperature.
Our tour of Ollantaytambo was amazing. The best part was that (for us) it was the final stop on the tour and we were able to explore at our leisure after our guide was done with his explaination. We took full advantage of this and spent an additional 30 minutes exploring different rooms and passages, before making our way back down the multitude of terraces to the bottom.
At the bottom of the site – which boasts quite a lovely artisans market – we watched as the majority of our group boarded the bus and began their 2.5 hour journey back to Cuzco. But for us, and a many others, it was time to continue our journey to Machu Picchu.
After a quick dinner break, we traveled the short half-mile (you can walk or take a taxi) through the town of Ollantaytambo to the train station. There, we boarded our backpacker train to Aguas Calientes – the town at the base of Macchu Picchu. When we arrived at our destination, it was dark out and we could just barely see the outlines of the mountains rising over the town. We were both very excited to wake up the next morning and see our first glimpse of both the town, and of Machu Picchu.
Kate is a volunteer and researcher for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.