by Maureen Zupan '72, P'09
The town in which we are staying is Ollantaytambo, nestled in a valley among high mountains, some with glaciers on their tops. It is called a "living Inca town" because its residents try to maintain ancient Incan traditions such as tilling their fields with foot ploughs. People have lived here since the 13th century.
After breakfast, we came upon several alpacas that were acting as lawn mowers at our hotel. One of them eyed my sweater WAY too closely, as if to say "is that sweater made of alpaca". I didn't know that alpacas spit when angry, and Kate yelled to me (when I was about a foot away from the one that was eyeballing me) that his ears were back: he was about to attack/spit. I got out of there fast!
We started our day visiting the visiting the series of carved stone terraces that were built to protect the valley from the invaders, including those from Spain. The terraces are accessed by steep stone stairs, and they lead up to the fortress of Araqama Ayllu. Our guide told us that the greatest Incan victory over the Spanish occurred at the bottom of the terraces. The Incas had dammed up the rivers nearby and hid in the steep terraces and mountains. Once the Spanish were at the bottom of the terraces, the Incas released the dams, water poured into the area, the Spaniards' horses were unable to move through the water, and the Incas attacked from above.
We climbed to the top…most of us. It was VERY strenuous. We were grateful to have walking sticks: wooden sticks, carved with Incan symbols that we were able to purchase for about $2.50. Even that was a bit of a learning exercise. The person selling the sticks wanted ten soles for each one (about $3.50). We had been told to bargain for everything we purchased in the markets…so we offered to buy three for twenty soles. She counter offered eight soles each (about $3 each). We accepted. But we left feeling quite guilty that we "bargained" over 50 cents!
We got back on the bus for an hour trip to Moray to see the "concentric circles". It looks like a Greek amphitheater of circles of terraces sloping down to a large circle in the middle. Our guide explained that researchers believe that this area was actually a crop laboratory used by the Incas to find the best conditions for allowing particular plant species to thrive. Each terrace has a different eco-environment, and the Incas would test various plants under the various environments, to find the one that worked the best. It was supported by a complex irrigation system. The high terraces show traces of about 250 cereals and vegetables that were grown there.
While there our guide talked about the Peruvian elections which were held in April for President and Congress. There was no clear winner for President, so a run off is being held in June between two people: ex-army officer Ollanta Humala and the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori. Several people who have talked to us about the elections gave us the same view: this election is for the lesser of two evils: people are worried that Humala is a disciple of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela…and Fujimora comes from the family of a corrupt president who is still in jail. These people seem to feel Peru has come a long way from the years where the terrorism of the "Shining Path" and the incredibly high inflation brought the country to ruin…and they don't want to go the way of Venezuela.
We headed back toward Urubama for lunch. We passed a school in a remote area just as the school day was ending. The students were streaming out of the school on their way home. Our guide told us that many of these children walk two to four hours round trip to get to school! And although they wear school uniforms donated by private groups for many of them, their families have to provide their shoes, so many of them wear inexpensive sandals.
The roads in this part of Peru are decidely NOT highways. In many places there is only enough room for one vehicle to pass. Getting up and down the mountains requires driving an arduous back and forth roadway on the mountain, with turns called "switchbacks" (almost complete 360 degree turns). As we came around one of the switchbacks into Urubama a car decided to pass a bus headed our way. The car was in our lane. Both buses slammed on their brakes, and the car darted ahead of the bus with inches to spare. We put on our seat belts.
Lunch was at Sol Y Luna in Urubama. We ate outside in a magnificent garden, on a beautiful sunny afternoon. It felt so good to be resting after the trekking we had done…once again eating great food. As we were leaving, a group of Australian bikers were arriving. They sure put us to shame: we were exhausted from exploring, but at least we had a bus to take us from place to place. They were riding bikes up and down those mountains!
On our way back to Ollantaytambo and our hotel, our bus was slowed down by a large crowd of people walking toward us. It turned out to be a funeral procession. Out of respect, we didn't take pictures, but it was a heart wrenching sight. Some men led the procession, surrounding a priest, carrying signs and flowers. Then the casket was carried by some more men, followed immediately by a young girl and her mother, both crying (the young girl was sobbing). There were a couple of hundred people following them. It was very somber.
When we arrived back in town, some of us got off the bus at the town square to go into the "Botica"…the local "chemist" who dispenses medications. Someone needed something for a headache…someone else needed something for an upset stomach…someone else needed something for hydration…all the result of the effects of the altitude. A woman behind the counter would ask what ailed the person, and then pull a box out of the counter behind her, cut the pills from a strip of pills, and hand them to you.
I went into the local Internet Café to transmit yesterday's blog and some pictures since the internet at our hotel wasn't working. It was very small (four tables), very neat, very clean. I asked the owner how much it cost to access WiFi, and he handed me a menu of food and drinks. I ordered a hot chocolate (4.5 soules or about $1.50). No cost for the internet!
Another day is over in this wondrous country!