“I know where there’s a stone wheel,” the guide said. “An Inca wheel.”
He might as well have been dangling gold before a Spanish conquistador.
“It’s got to be Inca,” he said. “I don’t think there were any Spanish going all the way up there and carving wheels.”
We were drinking together in Norton Rat’s Tavern in Cusco, Peru. Norton’s overlooks the main square, the Plaza de Armas. There is a balcony where you can eat, drink and watch the never-ending spectacle below. The bar is big and comfortable and is usually host to a bunch of interesting people from all over the world.
The guide’s name was Doug and he wasn’t exactly your stereotypical image of an Andean guide. No austere old hawk-beaked coppery-skinned Indian was Doug. No, this was an authentic clean-cut, nice-as-they-come, all American white-boy. He was fresh-faced and eager and had great teeth. He looked like a Land’s End ad.
At that time, Doug wasn’t a very experienced guide. His first assignment was to begin the following Sunday. He had to meet a group of hot-to-hike gringo tourists at the airport at 8:00 A.M and take them over the Inca trail. Doug was 29, but he looked to be about 18. He had come into the bar alone and I was alone and we were about the only customers there, so we got together and started trading Inca theories and fantasies.
“The wheel’s at the quarries of Kachiqhata,” he said. “That’s where they got the stones to build the temple at Ollantaytambo. And it’s not a mill wheel. Mill Wheels have grooves in them, and this thing doesn’t have grooves.” He talked about holes drilled here and there, but his image was difficult for me to visualize. It was beginning to sound a little like an alien craft… or maybe Ezekiel’s wheel. But Doug radiates such honesty and goodness that I willingly suspended disbelief.
Ollantaytambo (oy yan tie tambo), the village itself, is notable for being one of, if not the only, remaining village in Peru where people still live in buildings of classic, pre-colonial Inca architecture. Most tourists are unaware of this. What they come to see is an architectural jewel perched on a mountain spur a few hundred feet above the village. This construction is one of the most impressive stoneworks in the Andes. It is a temple/ fortress of exquisite and unique design. The reason it and other similar architectural sites in Andean Peru are referred to as “temple/fortresses” is because they seem to have been both. They were temples but they were also defensive redoubts for the next attack from the neighboring tribe that came around to slaughter you and yours and take your life, your land, your food and your women. This temple at Ollantaytambo is obviously unfinished, but what is there is Andean stonework at its finest. Huge blocks of rose rhyolite were brought from the Kachiqhata quarries high on a mountain across the valley. They were sledded a couple of thousand feet down the mountain, somehow transported through the river, dragged several hundred yards across a field or two, then brought up a colossal 380 yard-long ramp to the construction site. The quarry at Kachiqhata was the only place around where they could find this stone and if the Incas wanted a certain kind of stone for their construction, they would go to great lengths and heights to get it. Rose rhyolite is pretty stone. It is a dense and fine-grained volcanic rock that is a light salmon to pale pinkish yellow in color.
I had seen the stoneworks at Ollantaytambo, but I had never been to the quarries, so the trip seemed worthwhile, even without the alleged wheel.
I tell Doug, “I’ll pay your expenses if you’ll take me up there, but I can’t hike it on foot. We’ll have to get horses.”
I have a fair collection of excuses for not walking. My left knee was trashed years ago by an unfortunate automobile-person encounter where I was the person. It has been operated on twice and is severely cartilage-challenged. But that’s only the half of it. My entire right leg has been weakened and un-coordinated by a weird, voodoo neuropathy that I am certain was the result of an old girl friend sticking pins in my effigy. The fact that I had just turned 63 was incidental as far as I was con-cerned, but it was good for an added excuse if I needed one.
When I was in Peru six months ago, I had hoped to ride up to the quarries. For one reason or another, it didn’t happen, but I did get hornswoggled into a hike on the other side of the river that I thought would ruin me. I have an especially hard time with uneven terrain and much of that hike was a scramble from rock to root to branch. Horses seemed like a much better idea. I assumed there was a horse path to the quarries and, at the worst; we might have to walk a little way to the wheel.
“No problem.” says Doug. “We’ll get horses. I’ll call Señor Ponce in Ollanta. But the only day I can do it is Saturday.”
I was ready whenever he wanted to go. I have been coming to Peru off and on for almost 25 years. I love a mystery, and the stoneworks of the Incas are a magnificent mystery. These people, or their predecessors, could move 100+ ton stones for miles and miles and then fit them together with such precision that you can’t get a scalpel between them. They had no animals to help with the transportation because llamas were the biggest and strongest of their animals and if you ask a llama to carry more than 100 pounds, he spits at you. They created these marvels without mortar, and they did it without metal tools.
Doug went off to call about the horses while I continued to take up space at the bar. I had come here, come for the forth time in two years to photograph the ruins and to broaden my understanding of the Incas. I am putting together a web site of text & pictures that will hopefully lure the reader into a deeper exploration of this fascinating culture. I have taken hundreds of photographs and have read most of the translated writings of the old Spanish chroniclers. The deeper I dig, the more I realize how much there is to learn.
But for all my serious intent, somehow, on this trip, I had fallen into frivolous ways. I was putting in a lot of man-hours at bars and discos. I was having a fine old time and making lots of new friends, but I was feeling a little guilty. I wasn’t doing much to move my web site forward, unless I changed the point of the project and called it “Disco Babes of Cusco.” If Doug could take me to see something that most people didn’t know about and that injected another bit of mystery into the stew, I might redeem myself in my final days here.
Oh boy. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Doug came back and announced that Señor Ponce could provide horses at 40 sols each. That was about eleven dollars and seemed to be a pretty clear bargain when you consider that the critters had to carry us up a rocky, treacherous slope to an elevation that was some 2,000 feet above our starting place. But there is a fierce bargaining nature that besets gringos in Peru. By now we had collected a few kibitzers and one of them insisted that 40 sols was just a beginning price and we should hold out for 20.
Doug leaves and I continue to take up space at the bar. But now I am a changed man. My mind is on fire. Disco Babes flee from my thoughts. A WHEEL!
What the hell was a wheel doing up in the Kachiqhata quarries? Sometime before the Spanish Conquest in the 1530s, work on the shrine at Ollantaytambo, with its gigantic megaliths, suddenly and mysteriously stopped. There are surmises about the reason for this happening, but any of them could, or could not be, true. Again, it is that maddening lack of written history that clouds the past.
The path of the stones as they were transported from the quarries to the temple is clear. There are minivan-sized blocks abandoned on the ramp up to the temple site, across the fields below and even submerged in the river. And, as I was to find out, there are huge stones, cut and uncut all the way up the mountain to the quarries. There is no evidence that the Spanish ever took stones from the quarries. You don’t see that rose rhyolite in any colonial buildings. When the Spanish needed building materials, they just tore down some Inca structure and mortared those stones together to make a grand colonial church or a grand colonial casa. It would seem that when work ended on the shrine at Ollantaytambo, work also ended in the quarries.
By pure chance, my dear crusty Swiss friend René was coming to Cusco the next day with his girlfriend Victoria. I hadn’t seen René since we trucked around southern Spain three years ago in his personally-modified Iveco van. I was expecting to be with them while they were here, but I couldn’t imagine them wanting to join me on the wheel expedition. Their time was too short and there was too much else to see. Before their arrival we were in daily contact by email, so I proposed an itinerary. We would go to Ollantaytambo on Friday morning, the day after they arrived. That would give them a day to acclimate. The trip would take an hour and a half by cab. That afternoon we could tour the ruins then the next day they could go on to Machu Picchu and Doug and I would go up to the quarries.
The night before their arrival, I planned to get to bed at a reasonable hour, but fate intervened. A group of girl friends asked me to go dancing. I agreed, but told them I’d have to quit early. It was too much fun. We went to Ukukus, one of the many discos in the center of town. This is the disco of the locals. It is where the staffs of the myriad bars of Cusco go after hours. It’s a good place to go if you want authentic. Way too much fun. Early ended up being early in the morning.
Around noon, I was awakened by René, banging on my door and yelling “Hey! Vake up, old man!”
I am in scraggly shape. While they practice breathing at almost 12,000 feet above sea level, I struggle to penetrate my haze and get dressed. They are hungry, so we head for a restaurant.
We head up the street called Hatun Rumioc
. This is the street of the famous twelve-cornered stone, the jewel of what’s left of the walls of Inca Roca’s temple. The walls are a classic example of Inca polygonal stonework. The stone is a yellowish/ greenish diorite. The fit is perfect.
The twelve-cornered stone and the wall itself are magnets for vendors of all sorts, and for about a hundred yards we are running the gauntlet. At the entrance we are offered toasted peanuts and habas, crispy toasted and salted morsels that are the shape of butterbeans. On various and unpredictable days you may also have the opportunity to buy chile rellenos, empanadas, juice, candy, ice cream cones and granola bars. The last sold by what I believe to be the only Korean man in town. He assures you that these bars are great for the Inca Trail.
Once past this mini food court there are art and craft shops left and right. The galeria de arte
on the right has a sign that says “Free Entrance,” and often the proprietor is standing in front, his arm extended, palm up, inviting you to take advantage of this free entrance. I never go in. I don’t have any more room in my house for art. But somebody must be buying, because art is proliferating in Cusco. It can be found in an ever-growing number of galleries. It is also in the street.. There are now almost as many street vendors of art as there are of post-cards, and many of them are selling their own paintings, some-times for as little as a sol (34 cents). They approach you opening their folders so that you can see their work. I always refuse. There isn’t even room in my house for small art.
Just past the “Free Entrance” gallery, you are assaulted by shoeshine boys, as well as the aforementioned peripatetic art and postcard vendors. There is an old blind man sitting on the pavement, leaning against the wall. He is dressed in traditional garb, the colorful manta and the peaked knit cap with ear flaps. He plays a charango
, an Inca mandolin. He plays one song and he plays it not very well. There is a cup before him. Occasionally I will drop a coin into it. He seems not to notice and keeps plunking away at his instrument... the same tune... the same tune. Sometimes he is joined by another old man who plays a flute, also not very well. They play the same song.
Two women in traditional garb with llamas in tow ask me to take their photo for a sol. They ask this whether I have a camera or not. There is a little girl with a lamb that is sometimes in her arms, sometimes on a leash. The lamb wears a hat with flowers attached. The little girl also wants me to take her picture...for a sol. Also, whether I have a camera or not.
An old woman leans against the wall, hat in hand, outstretched, moaning pitiably. Victoria gives her a few coins.
Toward the midway point in this 100-yard odyssey there is often a cluster of tourists examining and having their pictures taken in front of the twelve cornered stone. It is a truly remarkable thing, with its graceful curves and angles and its perfectly beveled edges. René, who has been a builder, stops to examine it. He runs his hands over it, looks closely at the joints and shakes his head in amazement. It looks soft as butter. On the rare times when the crowd is minimal, I run my hands over this beautiful, quilted wall, always surprised that it is so much harder than it looks..
Just beyond, on the right, an elderly woman with teeth so big and perfect they must be falsies, is standing close to the right wall, selling necklaces and pendants. She wears medium heels and a black skirt with white polka dots. She looks like someone you would see in a church in the U.S. She has an outstretched arm with locally made necklaces hanging all along it and in her hand. After many days of passing this lady and buying nothing, I began to risk a smile. Surprisingly, she doesn’t use this as an opening to press a sale. She thanks me for the smile
. It is a rare and appreciated gesture.
Women selling carved gourds and ponchos stalk the street whining, Amiigooo
. And when I refuse it’s always, maybe tomorrow
Sometimes blankets of red and black and yellow and green are laid on the street to display jewelry and weavings. It is amazing stuff, but it is stuff I don’t need. I’ve already bought nearly one of everything in this town.
At the crest of hill there is more food. Someone is selling little plastic containers of yogurt topped with peaches. A woman sits on a step selling hot tamales from a basket, lined and covered with a warm towel.
Past this we are back into the peril of vehicular traffic and the street has changed its name. Triunfo, it is now, and our restaurant, Los Tomines is only a few doors down on the left.
Los Tomines means “The Jugs,” or “The Jars.” It has nothing to do with tits or ptomaine. The place is open and pleasant and has a jug motif. The back wall is adorned with a large ceramic of an Indian woman with jugs all about her. One of these jugs has an unusually large mouth and is the food pass-through from the kitchen.
I go here frequently, so the waiters know me. If they see me coming, they open the door and give me the palm-up sweep-in gesture. Juan and Raul are polite, friendly and gracious and would do honor to the best restaurants of Manhattan and Los Angeles.
Raul sweeps us to my favorite table. It is in the corner beside a window. It is my custom to sit at this table, positioned with the window at my back so that I can read. We take our seats and Raul offers a menu and stands by, bowed slightly, hands clasped together in the time-honored fashion of waiters all over the world.
René and Victoria peruse their menus.
“I suggest the menú
. A menu here is a carta
. A menú
is the daily special, an inexpensive meal that is usually served from noon to 3:00. Most of the restaurants have a menú
, but Los Tomines has one of the best.
Raul describes the menú
options, and after a bit of struggle with the Spanish, we order. Warm bread and a spicy green sauce are brought first, and next the beverage, which today is chicha morada
, a juice made from blue corn that looks and tastes much like grape juice. Then we get an entré, an appetizer of Chilé Relleno
with lettuce, tomato and onion. Next is the traditional soup with quinoa, potatoes, onions, carrots, lima beans, hunks of Alpaca meat and other vegetables I cannot identify. And then the main course, the “Segundo
.” A plate covered with grilled chicken or trout along with a mountain of papas fritas
... french fries... and a salad of tomato, onion and cucumber. There is so much food that it overlaps on the plate. The salad and the meat are partially obscured by the papas fritas
. On request they will make a sauce to order and mine is picanté
, made with garlic and peppers. I can never eat all this food, so I usually leave with a take-out bag containing another meal for later, or for someone in the street who looks hungry. René, who is rail-thin, devours everything. Victoria leaves a little.
The cost of this feast is approximately $2.00 apiece.
After lunch, René and Victoria go off to look at the ruins around Cusco, and I go off to have another look at my bed.
That night we all go to Norton Rat’s Tavern and catch up on old times. My local friends René and Yheni come in. René is Dutch and Yheni is Peruvian. I introduce them and immediately the two Renés are deep in conversation in German. Aside from having the same name, they have in common that they take great delight in the sport of insulting me, and referring to me as “Old Man.”
We stay up way too late and don’t get started until near noon.
As soon as we leave the hostal, I start hailing cabs and bargaining for the fare to Ollantaytambo. The more tattered the taxi, the lower the price. We finally get a deal that amounts to a little over $15. It is a Toyota that has been imported from Korea. It still has Korean lettering on the side.
The drive to Ollantaytambo is breathtaking. We climb up to a higher elevation, past Poroy with its sidewalk chicherone
venders, then out onto the plain. The rolling hills are a patchwork of impossible greens. Fluffy clouds linger in a deep blue sky. After forty-five minutes we can see snow-capped mountains rising on the other side of the sacred valley. Then, shortly, we drop down into the valley and enter the town of Urubamba.
From here it is only fifteen or twenty minutes to Ollantaytambo. The mountains become steeper as we drive parallel to the Vilcanota River, which at some inexact point will become the Urubamba River. Soon we can see ancient Inca terraces, andenes
, on the opposite riverbank.
We got to Ollantaytambo in time for a visit to the major ruins. It was René’s first day at this altitude, but he handled it easily. To get to the temple/fortress of Ollantaytambo, you must climb two hundred and forty four stone steps. At the top there is an unfinished complex that is, in many ways, unique in Peru.
The centerpiece is a wall of 6 gigantic megaliths standing side by side. Between each of the megaliths is a narrow column of stacked fillet stones. And the whole thing fits together perfectly without mortar. The precision of the fit and the size of the stones are hallmarks of Inca stonemasonry.
Yet there is something quite different about this work. There are motifs here that are more typical of the much older structures at Tiawanaku on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Nowhere else in Peru is there such a strong architectural connection to Tiawanaku.. This is significant. The Incas claimed that they originated at Lake Titicaca. But they never claimed creation of the stoneworks at Tiawanaku. It is said that when Inca Pachacutec saw the stone walls of Tiawanaku he ordered his stonemasons to use them as a model.
That night we went to Señor Ponce’s restaurant to check out horse availability. The place was of green walls with florescent lighting. There was a TV showing something about the life of Jesus. The TV was very loud and a rapt group of family and friends sat watching it from the other end of the room. I asked about horses and was quoted a price of 40 sols for each. Just as expected. I said I’d think about it. I was hoping for a price reduction before we left the place, but it didn’t happen. This was my first mistake.
We went to dinner at a restaurant that wasn’t there six months ago. Cafe del Sol
is a culinary oasis in Ollanta. Irini is the jefe
. Irini exudes care. Her eyebrows peak in the middle. The decor is nice. Lying on tables covered with Inca fabrics are old photos, local pottery and books about the area.
After a fine dinner, Irini sat with us. We told her that we were trying to find horses to ride to Kachiqhata and had been offered mounts at 40 sols each. She said that sounded reasonable. She also offered some other advice.
“Check to make sure they’re well shod. Check to make sure they’re well fed. Make sure they are rested enough to make the trip. It’s a hard one.
“And whatever you do, don’t let them give you the gray mare with the foal. The foal comes along and always wants to nurse and it’s just impossible, not to mention pathetic.”
The next morning we went to Señor Ponce’s place for breakfast and to ask again for horses. We were told that horses had to be reserved the day before. So much for gringo parsimony.
There were several nags being readied for action on the square. I went out to look at them and saw Irini, sitting on the plaza with her baby. When I told her that we couldn’t get horses, she suggested we talk to Washi, who was a few yards away working with the nags.
“Washi!?,” says I. “Is his real name Washington?”
Yes, it was the very one. Two years ago my friend Kurt and I were here and had met Washington. He pronounced his name “Washing-tone.” He was 15 then, a clear-eyed and smiling boy who spoke serviceable English. Now he was Washi, suddenly a man and very much the busy guide. He wore a T-shirt with “Washi” inked on it.
Washi told us he could get 3 horses by 1:30. I pressed him to make it sooner, and he promised to get the horses to us by 1:00. Then he took off with the nags, who were carrying some large tourists who didn’t seem to know much about riding.
Doug showed up, as promised, at 10:00. We knocked around for a while, and passed a shop that was selling walking sticks. René suggested it might be a good idea to get a couple. I saw no need for them. We were riding to the quarries, and a walking stick would only be in the way on a horse. René bought two anyway and gave me one. We went for lunch, and while we were waiting for the establishment to go out and kill the chicken and fish for the trout, René used his amazing multi-tooled Swiss Army Knife to smooth his walking stick. When he finished with his, he went to work on mine. All the while, I watched with bemused detachment. A waste of time, think I. It’s just going to make riding the horses more difficult.
We were served a few minutes before our appointment with Washi. I know that you generally need to add some slack to any appointment with anyone in Peru, nevertheless I gulped down my trout and hustled to the square. It was indigestion for naught.
To be continued...
Richard Nisbet now lives in Cusco and is leading tours of the realm of the Incas. (www.machupicchu.us.com
"Cusco Tales" is widely available in Cusco and is in some of the Zeta Books stores in Lima. It can also be purchased online through the South American Explorers Club (www.saexplorers.org
). A version of the CD that goes with the book can be seen at www.ancientwalls.net