We both woke up around 7AM and were feeling quite refreshed after a full night’s rest. We headed down to the breakfast buffet at El Mapi and were pleased by the selection of fresh fruit, breads, waffles, and eggs. I have to add though that it wasn’t much more impressive than the breakfast at our $79 per night Hotel Pension Alemana in Cusco. The view of the mountains was spectacular and we ate until we were uncomfortably full. We hadn’t booked a return train ticket because we weren’t sure what our plan was for this day. We could train directly to Cusco or stop in Ollantaytambo to explore then taxi the rest of the way to Cusco, we decided to train to Ollantaytambo as we’d heard the quaint community had a lot of charm. The next available train was 1PM so we bought tickets and had the rest of the morning to spend in Aguas Calientes.
We had intended to check out the hot springs that are the namesake of Aguas Calientes after our Machu Picchu trek, however since we were exhausted and Katie was ill we deferred to relax. This morning we had time to check them out so we put on swimwear and set out to find the springs. It turned out to be very simple, just head up the hill until you reach the entrance, it was about an 8 minute walk from our hotel. There was a nominal fee to enter, around 5 soles ($1.50usd) I believe. After entering the grounds you still have to walk about 3 minutes up the trail to where the pools are and this walk was beautiful, the river and lush forest were incredible. When we got to the springs we were a bit disappointed, it’s like a series of murky swimming pools. Ruth (Machu Picchu trek guide) had warned us that the water was cloudy but that it was not contaminated; just dirt from the rocks and mud. It was early (around 9:30AM) so there were only a few locals here. We dropped our backpacks and extra clothes into a locker then headed to the pool. The water was certainly warm, though cloudy and seemed a little smelly. We stayed for 20 minutes or so just soaking and chit chatting, this was not quite what we had in mind for natural hot springs but we were glad to have given it a chance. The bar area at the springs is elaborately decorated to give a reggae/stoner vibe and looks like a fun place to relax, though it was, of course empty at 10AM. In the end, the springs were interesting to see but wouldn’t plan to spend more than an hour total on this event.
We went back to the hotel to change and get our bags ready for 11AM checkout. We had the concierge hold our bags since we still had a few hours before our train, then we went out to see the rest of Aguas Calientes. That took all of 15 minutes, it’s a really small town with Machu Picchu being the attraction. Apparently it’s known for having decent wood fired pizza, though we didn’t have time to try any on this visit. There is one main square with bars and restaurants and then a large tourist market outside the train station. We tried to wander down some back alleys and see where the locals live, we came upon a large fenced in soccer field where some boys were playing and it was nice to see real life continuing in this tourist driven community. We sat down on a bench by the river and just soaked in the temperate weather before heading back to get our bags and board the train.
We took the PeruRail Vistadome which is a little bit more expensive than the PeruRail Expedition we’d come in on, but the views out the top of the train car were great. The crew also provided some entertainment for the ride with a fashion show of alpaca goods and a rainbow dressed, creepy clown who is some kind of Incan symbolic devil or something. He was dancing wildly around the car and, much to my surprise, stopped next to me and asked me to dance in the same manner, I declined but he persisted and everyone was looking so I got up. I tried to mimic his footwork on the shaky train and was really just making a fool of myself, but it was kind of fun and very memorable. Katie captured an embarrassing video of this, but I conveniently can’t figure out how to get it off the iShare onto the computer.
When we arrived to Olly we knew we wanted to get some food first, Katie had found a place on TripAdvisor that had some good looking lasagna (there’s a surprising amount of Italian food in Peru) so we went to Italiana. We split the veggie lasagna which was rich but tasty, the owner of the restaurant was so gracious and sweet which was, again, typical of most Peruvians we’d interacted with. During lunch we saw at least a dozen stray dogs run down the alley outside the restaurant. Stray dogs were a common occurrence all over Peru, though the strays weren’t thin and sad, they were well fed and seemed to be more like community owned dogs than homeless in need.
After lunch we just started walking, Ollantaytambo is really easy to navigate since there is one main square with about 6 side streets coming off of it, and that’s it. There are ruins in the hillside above the town which you can see from almost any point inside the town, you can also hike up and check them out – but we both agreed we were hiked out. We wandered down the same alley the restaurant was on, I call it an alley because you can’t drive on these walkways, you can really only drive through the main square of town while the roads extending outward are for foot traffic only. The road we were on continued down to a T which we kept following until we saw a beautiful garden peeking over a fence. There was an elderly woman inside and she heard us passing and came out to greet us, we tried to converse in broken Spanish and she informed us that she lives in this house and maintains the garden alone, she was very proud and invited us in to see her apple tree. I was hesitant because I didn’t have small coins to offer as a tip (I’d come to understand that you should tip any local you interact with) but she was insistent so we entered the gate and praised her lovely flowers. Further conversation was difficult with our limited Spanish so we hugged her and continued on our way. We agreed that this was our most authentic glimpse into any town we’d seen, Olly is so small making it easy to stumble into the non-tourist areas. If we’d had more time I think it would’ve been fun to spend a night getting to know this town a little more.
On our way back toward the main square we passed by Awamaki Store and found out that it is a non-profit supporting women from the surrounding communities who handcraft alpaca goods which the store sells for fair trade prices. While the prices are slightly higher than the markets (really only slightly if you pay full asking price at the markets like I do), you know you are getting quality, handmade goods with the proceeds going directly to the women who created them. Another bonus about this set up is that you know you’re paying a fair price without being expected to haggle down 25%, which I appreciate. They had some beautiful and stylish fingerless gloves (hand warmers?) that I loved. I found a brown pair for myself and a black and teal version that I thought my grandma in Michigan would appreciate for the craftsmanship, the warmth, and the social impact of the organization.
We had been told that there was a good craft brewery (Sacred Valley Brewing) in Olly and thought we had found it on the map, we walked to where it was supposed to be and couldn’t find it – after asking at a restaurant we found out that the brewery is actually located in a town called Pacha 15 minutes away. We debated getting a taxi to Pacha but decided we’d rather just head back to Cusco and return to the Hotel Pension Alemana where we’d previously stayed. A police man directing traffic helped us find a taxi, the first one was not negotiating lower than 80 soles and the concierge at El Mapi had told us we shouldn’t pay more than 30 for the Olly to Cusco taxi. The police man also insisted 30 was a fair price and pointed us to another taxi, we ended up paying 30 each (60 soles). We had paid 150 soles for the same ride during the strike so this seemed like a bargain, though obviously locals ride for half that. It was a much more pleasant ride than the rocky dirt road we’d taken during the strike and we made it back to Cusco in an hour and a half despite some traffic. We also got a great view of the sunset over Urubamba as we drove up the mountainside above the city.
First thing we did after checking into the hotel was hurriedly try to find ESMA Joyas again so that Katie could purchase the ring she’d left without on Wednesday. We retraced our steps looking through every shop to try to find that back courtyard that we’d entered previously; we found them just a few minutes before closing time and Katie got her gem. By this point we were kind of over Peruvian so we went to Greens Organic for dinner. They happened to have the Sacred Valley Brewing Co. beers on tap (same brewery we had tried to go to earlier this day), so I tried the IPA. I was happy with this selection, it wasn’t overly bitter and had lots of flavors going on. We also split a salad and some sweet potato and beet gnocchi. We enjoyed the fresh, wholesome options at this restaurant even though it wasn’t much of a cultural experience. After dinner we were exhausted, as is a common theme throughout this trip; we took on a lot of walking, hiking and exertion in altitudes containing much less oxygen than our bodies are accustomed to and it generally wore us out, so it was home to bed after dinner this evening.