Estacion de Tren
On our third evening in Peru we checked into El Albergue at Ollantaytambo. This little boutique bed and breakfast had come highly recommended. The rooms were tastefully decorated and very comfortable. It also had a lovely little restaurant with a kitchen that was supplied by its own organic garden. The eggs for breakfast were from the house hens and even the coffee was grown on site.
For me, though, none of this was really that important. The main attraction of the El Albergue was that it was housed in the old building of the Ollantaytambo railway station, and that station was situated on a busy working railway at the heart of the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley in Peru’s Andean highlands formed the heart of the Inca Empire. It is roughly 60 kilometeres long and it stretches west from Pisac (Yellow 1 on the map below) towards Machu Picchu. The valley follows the Urubamba River and is approximated by the two yellow lines drawn onto the map.
On a high
After about a 90 minute flight, our plane from Lima landed in Cusco on time at 11:20am. The effects of the high altitude were immediately apparent and for the first few steps we were struggling to catch our breath.
Many tourists visiting the area choose to stay in Cusco. But although it is well equipped and centrally located, the city is situated at 3354m and can be a shock to the system for people coming directly from Lima.
Ironically, whilst many people associate a visit to Machu Picchu with altitude sickness, it is actually the need to travel via Cusco that gives rise to the biggest problems. The whole of the Sacred Valley, including the citadel itself, is actually at a lower altitude than Cusco.
So, instead of staying in Cusco immediately we were going to spend our first two nights in Ollantaytambo. The town was located deep in the Sacred Valley itself and although it was only 60km away it was quite a lot lower at 2797m.
The following day we would make the day return train trip to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo and we would also use our journeys between Cusco and the Sacred Valley to see a few more of the area’s attractions.
Our plan for the first day was to visit a couple of archaeological sites (Salineras and Moray – marked 2 & 3 on the map above) that I had chosen and then end up at Ollantaytambo by around 5pm. As public transport in the area was very limited, I had decided to hire a car and driver for the trip. It actually wasn’t exorbitantly expensive and it certainly beat the idea of a tour bus.
Our driver, organised via a recommendation from another travel website, was waiting at the entrance to the airport car park. He introduced himself as Luis and led us to his silver Hyundai and told us to make use of the bottles of water he had placed in the back.
His English wasn’t that good but he had a great personality and we made do with a mixture of his English, my poor Spanish and the translator on my iPhone. Surprisingly it had coverage almost wherever we went and we put it to good use translating words to keep the conversation going.
We drove out of Cusco pretty quickly and soon started to zigzag up the hill towards Poroy (3486m). We finished the climb and we stopped there whilst Luis put some fuel in the car. My hands were tingling a little and my wife felt a little dizzy. Luis assured us that it would be all pretty much downhill from now on. We started off again and soon we came around a bend and we were delighted to see that the road ahead descended as far as we could see.
Eventually we turned off the main road on to a little dirt track and then after a while we stopped next to a man in a little hut. In exchange for 20 Soles (6 USD) he gave us two entrance tickets for Salineras.
We continued on for a while and it was not immediately apparent what we had paid for. Then, after a few more minutes, we rounded a bend and there stretched out below us was quite an incredible sight; the ancient salt pans of Salineras. We drove down to the little car park and Luis suggested we take our time and look around ourselves.
There were literally hundreds of salt pans and we walked for almost an hour between them. Basically they are shallow pools that fill with salt water, which then evaporates and leaves behind salt. The Incas created salt in the same place in the same way over 500 years ago.
There weren’t many people there and we almost had the place to ourselves. A few of the other people who were there were trying to make imaginative poses for photographs and some of the more uncouth tourists were even trying to write their names in the salt!
Although we must have now been lower than 3000m, we certainly noticed the altitude taking its toll on our fitness and as we climbed back up to the entrance gate we became quite breathless. We decided to try out mate de coca (tea made from coca leaves) and ordered two cups in the little café near the entrance. It was supposed to help with altitude, but whether it did or not, I can’t really say.
Apparently all the rights to the salt are owned by residents of the nearby settlement of Maras. Maras was where we went next. We pulled up in the little town square and went for a wander. The square had a statue of two typical Andean characters with their donkey but the town itself was almost completely deserted.
We eventually found a small group of locals gathered under a tent drinking something from a big iron urn. They told us that it was a corn-based drink and encouraged us to try it. We got a cup between us for 1 sole (30c) and sat there drinking it with them. It wasn’t at all bad.
We had noticed that the locals weren’t speaking Spanish to each other and we mentioned this to Luis. He told us that the local language was Quechua. He spoke it too and managed to teach us a few simple words to use as greetings.
We were also noticing that as we passed through towns and villages that a lot of local people were dressed in the local Andean costume. The older women especially seemed to have their hair in pig tails and they were all wearing hats, normally bowlers.
Luis told us that the women have it bad here in the rural areas. He told us that whilst women can vote and own property they still face plenty of discrimination. (Apparently adult illiteracy is 7% for men but 27% for women)
We left Maras and continued to drive along unpaved roads past fields full of white corn and potatoes until we made it to the entrance of the second place I had planned to visit; Moray. My poor planning and lack of prior research was to cost us money at Moray.
There was a little hut at the entrance just like the one at Salineras and I went over to pay the entrance fee expecting it to be 10 Soles again. The guy behind the counter asked me my nationality and then told me that the only ticket he could sell me was a Boleto Turistico and that it would be 25 USD per person.
The Boleto Turistico is (in my opinion) a bit of a crafty idea to get more money from the foreign tourist. Four of the main sites in the valley have come together to operate a joint ticket system. They make it impossible to buy entrance to just one place but instead sell a more expensive ticket that permits entry to all four. Obviously if you see all four it works out at just over 6 USD an entry.
I consulted with Luis and he told me that Pisac, the place we had planned to see on the way back to Cusco, was also included in the deal so we would get at least some more value out of the ticket. Reluctantly we paid up, left Luis in the car park and went in.
Moray was actually quite stunning. It was basically 3 sets of concentric terraces carved into the earth. They actually looked like roman amphitheatres at first sight but they are thought to be a giant agricultural experiment.
The Incas used terraces to grow crops and the remains of terraces can be seen all over the valley and at Machu Picchu itself. Moray is thought to be a scientific investigation to see what crops grew at what levels and in what conditions.
Investigations have uncovered different soil types at the different depths and it is thought the idea was to work out what grew best at what orientation and at what depth.
The place was almost deserted and we wandered around for almost an hour taking it all in.
Now we finally headed towards Ollantaytambo. As we left Moray we paused overlooking the entrance to the upper Sacred Valley. It really was quite a view and even Luis decided to take a picture!
We then descended slowly into the valley using an unpaved road, little more than a dirt track in places, to zigzag down towards Urubamba. We picked up the main road at Urubamba and followed it as it kept close to the river heading up the valley.
By 5pm we were into Ollantaytambo and checked into the Albergue. We said goodbye to Luis and promised we would meet him again in two days for the trip back to Cusco.
Whilst my wife relaxed in the room I immediately went to explore the station.
Ollantaytambo station sits at the centre of the Sacred Valley 3ft (narrow gauge) rail system. The system is shaped like a letter “Y” and connects Cusco with the tourist Mecca of Machu Picchu. Much of the system was completed in the 1930s.
Ollantaytambo sits almost at the centre of the Y. Heading west, the line stretches for 44km to the station at Aguas Calientes; the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. It terminates 11km further on at Hidroelectrica.
As there is no road west of Ollantaytambo, the railway actually provides, for locals and tourists alike, the only vehicular access to Aguas Calientes. In February, when the Inca Trail is closed, it is actually the only way to reach Machu Picchu.
Heading east, the line splits into two. A short northern branch continues to Urubamba, whilst the main line heads south to Poroy (23km). The line used to continue down a series of zig-zags to San Pedro Station in Cusco (39km) but that section is currently closed.
Most of the trains operating on the system are run by Perurail; a 50/50 joint venture between a UK and a Peruvian company. The services are heavily geared towards tourism. The exact service offered also varies with the season.
In the peak dry (winter) season services operate from Poroy (accessible from Cusco by taxi or bus) via Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu).
In the wet (summer) season services are curtailed and, whilst a few start back in Urubamba, most only operate between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. Tourists heading from Cusco to Machu Picchu use Perurail’s “bimodal” service entailing a long bus ride out from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
There is also a bewildering choice of trains on offer too –
The most prestigious trains on the line are the luxury “Hiram Bingham” (named for the discover of Machu Picchu) trains. They are operated by the UK Belmond company and they feature at-seat dining. A single ticket on one is likely to set you back a few hundred dollars.
Perurail’s Vistadome trains, which have panoramic windows in the roof, cost about 50 USD for the single 44km trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas.
The “basic” Expedition trains which provide a standard level of comfort cost around 35 USD single.
Just to make things even more complicated, Inca Rail – another totally separate company, also run tourist trains on the line too.
In addition to all of the above there are also local trains which have less comfortable seats and are sometimes not shown on the public schedules. These have heavily discounted fares but Perurail operate a very strict system of making sure no tourist gets the local deal; passport numbers are printed on all tickets and checked on the train.
There is apparently some local resentment at the preferential treatment tourists get and last year a group of locals blocked the line near Machu Picchu in protest. The blockage was mentioned as a possible cause of a collision between two tourist trains that injured nine passengers on the same day.
Watching the trains pass through Ollantaytambo station, I had to admit that the whole system did feel a little strange. I understand why they have to make a distinction in fares, but it was still odd to see the station full of local people late at night waiting for a train long after the last advertised tourist service had left.
It was quite cold now, probably down to about 8 degrees, and we were glad that the Albergue people had placed an extra heater in our room and thick alpaca blankets on the bed.
We dined that night in the Albergue Restaurant on llama Steak and chicken with sweet walnut sauce, two Peruvian classic dishes, whilst watching the trains come and go through the window onto the platform.
Knowing we would have to be up early the next day for our trip to Machu Picchu, we got an early night.