Tuesday 14th – Thursday 16th August Puno – Ollantaytambo - Cusco

The bus from Puno to Cusco and then a mini van onto Ollantaytambo took pretty much all of the day with some great views out over the snow-capped mountains and local village. In the evening we arrived in the Sacred Valley to the ancient Inca town of Ollantaytambo. This town is home to the Ollantaytambo ruins, although we couldn´t see them towering over the town in the darkness. We went out to a restaurant for dinner and were somewhat to surprised when someone on the adjoining table ordered the Guinea Pig dish and it came out with a capsicum helmet on its head! The girl who had ordered it was horrified and made them take it away and remove the head! Hilarious!

The following day we headed out early to see the Ollantaytambo ruins. In the morning light they were towering impressively over the quaint little town. Set in the side of a rocky mountain it functioned as a centre of Astrology and a military fort in the Incan times. Apparently, the Incans were able to spot the Spanish Conquistadors coming up the valley and were able to flood the valley to buy themselves some time to retreat back to the jungle. There were a number of terraces and steep steps to climb to make it up to the temple of the Sun and the fort which both had amazing views back out to the Sacred Valley and over the town of Ollantaytambo. We also climbed up to the very top to the mirador where we could get an even better view of the area and even see an ancient face that the Incas had carved into the mountain opposite to – the face is over 100m high and is supposed to be the face of their god Tunupa. After lunch we wandered through the Incan designed streets of the town which were really picturesque and constructed in a series of straight lines according to the lines of a compass. We also climbed up the mountain on the other side of the town where we had a great view of the Ollantaytambo ruins and were able to walk amongst the ruins of an old storehouse used by the Incas. It was so difficult to comprehend how these ancient people were able to build such impressive constructions out of stone when they had none of the tools that we have today.  Archaeologists still don’t really have any idea how they did it!

On Thursday we made the journey back up out of the valley to Cusco to meet with our tour guide who would take us down to Manu Road in the Amazon basin the following day. We took a car and a driver so we could stop off at some different sites on the way back up. Our first stop was unexpected and by the side of the road, the driver pointed out a capsule hotel that had been built in the side of the mountain! Guests needed to climb 200m up the side of the cliff face on a via ferrata to access the pod hotel rooms, and the cost to stay there was over $500 US per night! But what a view and experience! The next stop was down a long dusty and windy road to some ancient Incan salt flats (Salina de Minas) that are still in use today. These salt flats were amazingly beautiful – the different coloured whites of the salt pools standing out against the dry brown of the valley surrounding it and the brilliant blue skies. The local communities have been farming the salt flats for centuries – each family is able to take one of the pools and farm salt to sell for free. The whole process seems fairly straightforward, there is a salty stream that runs down from a nearby mountain and the saltiness of the water is due to the fact that many thousands of years ago, the whole area was under the ocean. Then the tectonic plates pushed the earth up and formed the mountain range, trapping the salt deposits in the meantime. Now the salt is filtered out in the mountain stream which runs down the salt flats which were ingeniously constructed by the Incan people. The people run some of the stream water into their pool then allow the pool to dry out in the hot sun. Finally, when the pool is dry they are able to harvest their salt. The salt is known as some of the best in the world and many fancy restaurants pay a lot of money to use the salt in their cooking. The people of the area are now doing very well through the harvesting and selling of the salt as well as the tourism being brought to the area due to the history of the area and quality of the salt. Apparently the local community has been able to buy a number of tractors for community use in farming which has been a definite benefit.

The next place we visited were the Marlon terraces, about 20 minutes away. These terraces were amazing constructions, made by the Incas, supposedly as an agricultural experimental site. They are a series of circular or oval terraces descending as much as 100m into the ground. Apparently this type of construction allowed the Incas to grow plants at different temperatures, with different amounts of shade, sun, wind and other factors. It is believed that they used the seeds from these perfect plants to export to other large cities so that they could grow fruit and vegetables that otherwise they wouldn´t have had access to. Others don´t agree and think that they site was a sacred ceremonial place – or an astronomical site. It is difficult to tell – but despite this they were very impressive ruins. 

Finally our driver dropped us of at a textile factory where we were able to see the process of changing the wool from the Alpacas and Vicuñas into wool with the different plants that made natural dyes. It was amazing how many different colours the women could extract from nature. 

Next we made our way back into Cusco city. We witnessed a woman getting into a very small taxi with a full sized llama! Hilarious! Also at night we went for a walk to get some food down to the main square and ran into a huge celebration which looked to be like a large number of mothers with their sons in traditional dress parading around and dancing.