Ollantaytambo Volunteering

Unfortunately the one Pisco Sour turned into a few beers and then going out for a few ”too many Pisco Sours”, with a Spanish guy who was shooting a film in Peru.  This meant that the early morning rise of 8am was pretty painful and so we headed off to the market get a cheap coffee and omelette breakfast before once again making a journey under duress.

Once our share taxi ride left, after hanging around for about half an hour for it to fill up, the journey was no problem and once again we found ourselves cruising around dusty roads through the baking mountain ranges, past small mud brick settlements en route and passing the tribal Peruvian people wearing clothes made from every colour under the sun.

We rattled up towards Ollantaytambo on the cobbled streets that suggested we were heading towards a more ancient settlement and past through town in just under 20 seconds.  Our Ollantaytambo volunteering we had arranged through Helpex had begun…

Ejected into the heat we didn’t have a clue where we were, where KB Tambo Hostel was, nor which direction we were facing.


After adjusting to the light we saw it was right in front of us, a well kept, good looking exterior that was boosted when we got inside, with a modern seating area, clean and really well decorated place.  It looked like it was going to be the nicest place we had stayed in and luckily we were about to stay for a week helping out around the place in exchange for a free room.  Sweet.

The small town of Ollantaytambo is quaint, although clearly heavily invested in due to the massive influx of tourists that come through here (as opposed to actually stay here for a while), to visit Macchu Picchu.  Some of the restaurants we inspected while we were having our first wander around town were plush, clean, modern, well decorated and expensive.  Exactly what most western tourists want in order to achieve their ”away from home on an adventure, but need my western toilet, first world country food, good tea, spotlessly clean, well designed interior and impeccable customer service lifestyle”.  The place was an array of people wearning North Face, expensive sunglasses, walking sticks and other high tec gear that often makes it look like they were embarking on the final frontier of the unexplored world.  Despite this the place is surrounded by massively impressive mountains and ancient Inca ruins that towered over the town, standing perilously on the edge of vertical drops.  The old town itself is built on the Incan remains, so the streets are cobbled and waterways trickle through the town giving a distinct countryside feel through every street, even though they have been channeled by man hundreds of years go with precision.

Off the main plaza you could escape the constant drone of tourist buses and combis, pouring yet more people into this small town for the train to Macchu Pichu.  This included the KB roof terrace, which we loved as it looked out over the town’s main Fortaleza ruins.  There was a bar there and a jacuzzi ready to be filled.  KB Tambo definitely deserved the glowing review from the guide books and unknown to us until recently is actually the ”Our recommendation” in Lonely Planet.  The better news was that that evening after we had met the staff and KB himself we were told that we just needed to hang around, speak English to people and get to know the place!  Ace, I am sure we will manage!

We didn’t really see much more of KB after that.  The following day we set about on our work, which was ultimately sitting around and telling people we were full for the next few weeks and perhaps recommending other places to stay.  We strolled around the town and people watched.  A mixture of locals dressed in seemingly upside down hats, and garishly bright ponchos, with tourists wearing breathable fabrics, caps and sunglasses, marching with intent and then ”modern Peruvians” wearing scruffy trousers, strangely enough often thick sports wear and a t-shirt.  The election campaigning that we had witnessed in Cuzco with the strikes, was also in full swing here.  Trucks, taxis and lorries banged and rolled through the streets, kicking up dust and pumping out thick carbon smoke with supporters shouting, drumming and waving flags of their chosen party.  The trouble was to decipher who they were and what they did.  Each had their own icon, for example ”Pan” (bread) party, the ”Spade” party or the ”football” party.  This makes it easier for the locals, who are often illiterate to vote based on iconography they identify with, as we also found in India.

Later on after dissecting the local populace we sat on the roof with a beer in the scorching sun and was soon joined by the bar lady, called Adriana, who we immediately learnt worked during the week to supply the small number of people currently using it.  That turned into a Pisco Sour making event, with some Americans and ”Chet” the biking tour guide.  We sunk 2 bottles of different kinds of Pisco and Laura learnt and began making them herself.  We were then invited to go to an ex-pat leaving party and joined a group of 15 westerners who were all volunteering for Awamaki, a charity to support the local, traditional methods of weaving.  This young ex-pat community tended to hang around and drink together in their time off, a temporary permanent group who often knew each other from years past, but who were all ultimately transient and had “real homes”.  A new lifestyle for sure, one that is dynamic and changing, you experience a lot and then leave it all behind.  It must be strange, but it was good to meet the guys and hear of the wide stories of people’s backgrounds, all congregated under the stars in another remote place.  We stayed until we pretty much couldnt really see that much and didn’t really want to feel too bad for our next day at work, so soon into proceedings.

The next day though the work that we were meant to do really was so little, Laura wandered around bored while I emailed and spoke to the few people who needed English language based advice.  It was good in the sense that we got to know the people who were staying at the Hostel, but really most people make Ollantaytambo a 2 day fleeting visit, en route to Machu Picchu.  They rarely stayed to visit the less popular but amazing Inca ruins here.  The good news for us was that we have heard that despite the government charging 40 Sols (about 9 pounds) to enter that there is a back way that you can use and go when it is closed early morning.  There are also some remote ruins and treks around here that we suddenly had on our agenda since we were looking not too busy for the next week.  The owner needed to go to Lima to finish his book and so we were there to ensure everything ran smoothly, but this would not take us long at all.  Excellent.

We headed out to the market to pick up some cheap supplies in order to cook our own food, as despite the great choice in food it is expensive on the gringo trail.  We needed to avoid that.  The market is a hive of campesinos (native farmers) all wearing their brightly coloured garb, mostly women who carried their children around with them on their backs.  We ended up spending a fair amount of cash and it turns out that, as is often the case, you are charged more being white and not speaking perfect Spanish.  Either way it meant we were reducing our temptations and also that we could eat when we wanted.  People in South America generally eat a large lunch (Almuerzo) and you can find a two or three course  meal for 5- 10 Sols (1 to 2.50 pounds), which is great value for money, but you need to ensure you get there before they run out.  The disadvantage for people who tend to eat in the evening.  Anyway that evening we russled up a mash potato and mixed vegetarian affair and Laura made a large batch of tomato sauce to eat with other things over the next few days.

The next few days came and went and Laura and I slid into the groove of the slower pace that this place demanded.  The only irritations were that you couldn’t sit out on the front because of the incessant stream of vehicles that damaged the tranquillity of the place, and the fact that election fever was getting more and more intense everyday.  This meant that meetings were held in the main square, using massive loudspeakers to blast out campaign messages, shouts from loads of vehicles drumming support, from 6am to 7pm everyday.  One day the roads in this small village were completely blocked with traffic and everything was at a standstill.  This doesn’t make for a nice quiet beer in the sun!

The beauty of staying in a place for a long time is that you can actually spend time with local people, learn how things are done, what people in the area do and start to be able to say hello to people in the street.  We knew how much things cost and so started getting ripped off less and less.  We ate the local breakfast of cold boiled egg and boiled potatoes with medium spicy “aji sauce”.  I got into an anticuccho habit, as it was just 1 Sol (22p) for a kebab of cow heart on a coal fire on the street. We were also invited by Adriana to her house to make a dish called Causa Limena, literally meaning “cause of the lime”.  Adriana is passionate about her heritage, Peru and taught us about all of the native products that Peru produces.  She (rightly) believes that Peruvian food is not on the international scene, as there is so many things that the rest of the world cannot really get hold of and the fact that each region has a distinct way of cooking many different dishes, which makes it hard to get a sense of distinct Peruvian dishes. With the exception of Cuy (fried Guineapig), which most people wouldn’t eat anyway!

After a few days of managing KB Tambo we ultimately realised that the 3 ladies who managed the place could speak enough English and were attentive enough to do their job without our help.  So that day we decided to head up to a place called Pumamarka with Chet in a taxi.  We would trek back and Chet would cycle.  We had been in Ollantaytambo for 4 days now and not seen anything apart from a quick 1.5 hour jaunt up to the ruins that were immediately overlooking the town.  This was different though.  We headed up further and further into the hills in a normal taxi (think volvo estate kind of car) bumping around and grinding the underside with the driver shaking his head in dismay regularly.  We ground our way further and further into the country, which is truly spectacular.  Only a few campisinos to be seen and traditional houses made of the local red soil that are pressed into bricks with dried grass, then left to dry, when they are then ready to be used as bricks.  Similar to the Indian style of mud houses, but far more organised, they have a far better finish and are often even painted in lime stone wash mixed with natural pigment.  But mostly not.

Finally we reached our drop off point before we had to hike up a 40 degree incline to the top of the relatively low mountain top.  The view (as above is breathtaking), the place was desolate, the wind blew with little friction and noise.  How a place can be so vast and yet so quiet is an unusual experience for someone from the city!  The ruins themselves were amazing also and yet people rarely come here.  There is one of the few examples of a three story Inca house here, a maze of different rooms with windows at peculiar heights (too high to see out of). The place is a dream for paint-ballers and hide and seek lovers for sure.

The trek back was just as amazing, we ended up following a campisino down the path to lower ground with his two horses in tow.  Behind us began the swirling and grumbling of a storm and so we ensured we didn’t hang around to admire the view too much.  Yet winding down the side of a mountain is such an amazing sight that I am definitely keen to get involved in a lot more.

We ended up back at “base camp” just before the heavy rains started and so we cracked open our daily beer to congratulate ourselves on a fantastic day.  Chet joined us and he mentioned a steak house which is run by the same guy who used to run KB’s restaurant.  We decided to treat ourselves to a good meal, as we made our market shopping last for a good 5 meals.  Chet and a friend of his came down as well and we ended up having an amazing steak meal, Chet who knew the owners of course got drinks for half price and so we gorged on a fillet steak, fat chips and fried plantain (not unusual with Peruvian fries), 3 mojitos for 10 pounds each.  Sweet.

At this point our scheduled week with KB was up and so we decided to head to another Hostel who Laura had made contact with initially and who needed some marketing work.  She asked us to stay and so the next day we tied up our loose ends and made our way across town to our new house Apu Lodge.  This place had just been built in the last few years and so was in top condition.  The ruins that looked over town were immediately above the lodge and the bedrooms were made to a great standard, with literally 24 hour hot water Apu Lodge  had a water tank, which most don’t so when the town’s water supply is cut so is the water to most of the places claiming 24hr hot water, but not here!  It is funny what becomes precious to people when they are abroad.  That afternoon we decided that we would spend our time in the garden doing some weeding in the sun and that was pretty much it until I could speak to Louise, the owner about the marketing efforts to date.  The house was pretty mad at that point as with 2 kids, 4 family members staying, and friends from other countries visiting with their kids things were a bit manic.  Everyone was really welcoming though and mad the place feel vibrant for the guests at least! That night we couldn’t resist but go back for another steak and more mojitos.  Damn good quality food that costs a third of the price of home, when in reality you are spending most of your daily budget on it!  We’ll deal with the budget problems later….

The next day we had agreed to take out some quad bikes for a few hours with some American guys that were staying at KB Tambo and Chet.  The guys with the bikes knew Chet and so we didn’t need a guide.  Laura was nervous as her experience with bikes, let alone motorised ones has not been too fruitful let’s say, let alone with a load of boys, especially Americans, especially Americans who are in the Army.  Either way she and everyone else were up for it and after a typically Peruvian wait for them to turn up we were on our way.  I love motorised machines that are simple to operate.  Go, stop. Easy.  The roads though were a different matter, the potholes and dusty conditions make it a little more challenging. If you are behind someone then seeing is difficult.  No wonder the bikers like it to have rained here before they go out, so the path is mud and not dust. Either way it took us all a while to get going, we headed in convoy making a lot of noise and were a sight to the locals who had not often seen westerners, let alone those ripping around on quads!  We made our way up into the mountains when suddenyl we looked around and had lost a team member.  I headed back to see where he was and no sign.  Everyone coverged back in one spot and were all confused.  Where could he have gone?  Another guy headed back and found him.  His chain had come off.  We ended up heading back as the road further on had been washed out and so headed back to Pumamarker for the second time, but this time we were driving up the potholed road, scarred by irrigation channels the locals had made to direct the run off water to their crops.  After an hour of bone rattling and the chains continually coming off as a result of the rocky ride we were getting little frustrated, but after a while got a system of putting the chains back on easily.  That was a good thing, as the tour company with the bikes laughed at the predicament.  “So you fixed it?  Great!”.  Thanks guys.  We made it to the final bridge where we had to navigate the bikes across a few tree stumps across the river before Laura’s motor finally conked out and wouldn’t restart.  So we walked the rest of the way and had a well deserved smoke at the top, enjoying the scenery once again from the summit.  The rest, as they say, was downhill, and we crused back at pace powersliding around the hairpin bends as dusk began to approach.  What a ride!  All the hard work of cycling eliminated and a real rush.  We headed back to Apu Lodge and had a few beers before calling it a night.

The next day we got down to business.  Laura rehung some of the artwork that was on the walls and I produced a marketing plan for the Lodge.  It is good to not have work to do, but also rewarding to have made an impact on someone’s business in exchange for a really nice place to stay and food.  The following day was goodbye time and it was strange that at first we disliked the place for being too touristy, but by the end of it had fit into the ex-pat life, knew which places were good to eat and started to know the locals well.  That day all was quiet too as elections were finally here.  No more noise. Surreal after not experiencing this in the week and 3 days we had been there.

We said our goodbyes, grabbed a taxi and headed back to Cuzco intent on catching the first bus out to avoid staying there for another night.  The taxi we ended up sharing was with a Brazilian couple who we ended up talking to and when we were dropped off arranged to meet later for a beer and then catch the bus with.  We had to drop off some business cards to a hostel in Cuzco that we had arranged a marketing partnership with for Apu Lodge.  We then had some time on our hands and so ended up giving into the numerous offers of a massage for just 20 Soles (4.30 pounds).  Experience shows these things end up far more expensive and far worse than promoted on the street, but was actually and I quote Laura “the nest massage I have ever had”.  We tried the Inca stone massage, which lasted an hour and 20 minutes and included aromatherapy oil plus hot rocks being ground into your muscle knots.  We felt this would be a great way to start an all night bus journey and left feeling very relaxed indeed.  We then met up with the Brazilian couple and went for a pizza and a few rum and cokes, the same place that Laura and I went to the first time we went out in Cuzco.  3 rum and cokes each later we were feeling amazing to say the least, when we headed to the bus station for 10 pm.

The bus left on time and despite being just 50 Soles (12 pounds) for the 11 hour journey to La Paz the bus was comfortable, more so than we expected.  We felt like another chapter in our adventures was now closed and so as the bus cruised along the tarmac road towards Lake Titicaca on the border with Bolivia I got out the Coca leaves I had bought in the market and chewed away reflecting on the times just past and to welcome in the capital of Coca production- Bolivia. The trip was all in all good, apart from the drivers raucous laugh and plink plink music that continued throughout the night.

I woke at 6am with the dawn sun just breeching the lake’s horizon, small villages surrounding the lake, lower hill tops, but a lot higher in altitude than Cuzco.  At 12,500 feet above sea level it is the highest navigable lake in the world.  We decided to skip the usual gringo trail of stopping in at Copacabana and Isla del Sol (Island of the sun) and so watch some Spanish tourists depart the bus with shouts, as they still had a few kilometers to go, which the bus wouldn’t take them.  After this we reached the boarder in around 40 minutes to a MASSIVE queue.  We thought things would move fairly quickly, but we were wrong.  We were stood in the morning chill for around 3 hours until we reached the front of the queue, and after we had made friends with all the gringo’s in the queue.  Wandering around to see the cambios changing money and street sellers, distributing animal head soup, as well as the usual liquid concoctions sold to make you feel better for a variety of, yet unknown reasons.

At last we made it through, despite losing one of our new Brazilian traveling companions who had drunk some dodgy water in Machu Pichu and so was feeling like hell on Earth.  We walked across the bridge across lake Titicaca with another Australian guy we picked up in the queue and despite pushing and shoving managed to get our entry stamp in a hundredth of time that it took to get our exit stamp.  Back on the bus in appalling time (according to those who had done the crossing before) we finally made our way into another unknown country.  The hills looked similar, dusty, semi-baron.  We passed a convoy of trucks all who were being inspected by the authorities for some reason, which began to confirm the tales of Bolivian disruption for Political and generally social malcontent reasons.

After another 4 hours on the bus and dozing in and out of sleep we finally awoke on the outskirts of a mountainous bowl filled to the brim with brick coloured houses.  We had made it finally to La Paz.

Disembarking was the first taste of the city.  A lazy bus station worker who was pointing at people’s bags but not really getting them off.  I stood up to claim ours and when it brushed his arm he scowled and rubbed his arm like it had just broken.  With our new collective of 2 Brits, 2 Brazilians and an Ozzy, we grabbed some cash and then a cab and all agreed to head to a hostel called the Wild Rover….

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    • Mike on 10/15/2010 at 06:13

    Hey mate! Sounds fantastic, feeling quite jealous reading it! Great that you’re meeting and hanging out with the locals a bit, that’s how it should be done! Pisco sours sound dangerous! All the election campaigning sounds really interesting too. Is it fairly peaceful? Don’t know much about Peruvian politics. How’s the Spanish coming along? Look forward to the next instalment, keep living the dream! x
    p.s. love to Laura too. xx

  1. Thanks Mike! Great that you have been reading the blog. Rewarding to know that hours in the internet cafe is worth it. Peru was peaceful, but in the lead up to the election it was just really noisy with peaceful but loud and disruptive demonstrations. Hope all is well for you and Ireland is treating you well.

    From laura

    ps, my spanish was dreadful to start and is now propbably about an awful on the scale! But I am trying to improve, probably get better just in time to go to Brazil and get totally confussled with Portugese!

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