Had our last breakfast at the Doubletree El Pardo before heading to the airport. Check-in was tedious but uneventful, and we got to our gate in plenty of time. Our hour-long flight was equally uneventful, although it was fun to fly from the never-ending fog bank of Lima into the sunshine of the Andes. Our plane circled past a number of impressively jagged peaks before landing at Cusco’s charmingly low-tech airport. It’s nice to occasionally experience a place that isn’t quite at the cutting edge of 21st century technology.
Not that Cusco isn’t trying. After meeting the driver from our hotel in Ollantaytambo, we drove into the center of town to pick up tickets for Machu Picchu and it’s clear that Cusco is riding a boom of tourism-driven wealth. There’s new construction and refurbishment everywhere, and the town is bustling with tourist-related businesses – restaurants, adventure tour companies, bars, and internet cafes… it’s reminiscent of Boulder or Zermatt or any other outdoor-oriented sports town. Lots of robust outdoorsy types to go along with the typical hippie trail backpacker crowd.
In short order we were on our way out of town. The road climbs steeply to the north as you leave the Cusco basin, past more and more construction. Unlike the true shanty towns that border Lima to the south, these dwellings – although by no means luxurious – appear more working-class in nature. We saw lots of kids in school uniforms and backpacks returning home as we passed. At the crest of the basin, intense construction stopped and we moved into an agricultural zone of scattered farms and ranches.
We followed a river valley for several miles, then turned right and immediately began climbing again, topping out at the town of Chinchero at about 12,500 feet. The road meandered through high plateau land with fantastic views of surrounding glaciated peaks, then began its descent to the Urubamba River valley, over a vertical mile below. This is the famous Sacred Valley, home to the Incas and the site of countless archaeological wonders. We caught occasional glimpses of ancient terraces and other examples of the amazing stonework for which the Incas are famed.
The road from Urubamba wound along the river, through groves of eucalyptus and bamboo, past small pastures and fields, lots of stone walls (ancient and modern) to the bustling town of Ollantaytambo. Like Cusco, Ollanta is enjoying a boom economy, and this formerly quiet Inca village is full of the sounds of construction. The main square, unfortunately, is a major construction zone right now.
Our hotel, located perhaps a quarter mile downhill from the town proper is also the Ollantaytambo train station. They've added on to the original station building and now have about a dozen beautifully simple, spacious, and comfortable rooms. The hotel also boasts a nice restaurant and an espresso bar that serves delicious coffee drinks - even at 5 AM, which is handy, since we'll be on the platform about that time tomorrow morning.