“Take a look around,” he said. We stood in an ancient Inca enclosure. Some of the surrounding partitions amounted to homes without roofs, with door-frames bolstered by ancient wood and rectangular window-like nooks set three meters above ground. No one but myself and my new friend, who happened to be the hostel receptionist, stood in view of what I perceived to be a masterpiece.
Sensing my interest in local identity earlier that day, Francisco had promised to take me after work “to a spot where no one goes.”
He delivered. We parked his motorbike by the side of the road near the top of a mountain. After climbing to the crest, we passed through sticks on hinges into a clearing. All around me stood abandoned settlement. I felt a deluded sense of privilege as if I had stumbled upon a dead animal.
The city before me wasn’t my discovery, of course. It was a hushed treasure, kept well and at peace.
Francisco urged me to wander at my own pace. Inside the first home I entered, the nothingness felt nothing like nothing. The wind and light and wrapped around the outside of the stone walls. I could hear it, see it. Inside the Inca home I was removed from the outdoors. The walls lent a shadowy sense of solitude that, even without the roof, enfolded me in shelter.
Five hundred years after the conquest of the Incas at Ollantaytambo, the structures stood with as much functioning potential as they once did. Grass grew within square perimeters. With such limited space, it was hard to imagine residences filled with eccentricities. Inca society, according to the the Quechuan concept, “ayni”, unified its micro-communities under the idea that people kept only what they needed. There was no pomp and no stretch over one’s neighbors.
Through the windows I could see the knees of mountains. Their heights didn’t impose upon me from where they stood. They stood level with my breast. Looking over the edge I could see terraces from where the motorbike began its mount, some of the farmland still framed by ancient rock foundations.
Circling back, I found Francisco lying on his back near the gate. He lay under the sky, legs extended, hands cushioning his head. When I walked towards him, he stood.
“You like the city?” he asked.
“It’s an image from a fairy tale,” I said, stupidly. There was another impression I kept hidden. The space felt haunted. More a hive than a fairy land, it was too perfect and genius to stand empty.
“Do you ever resent what happened here?” I asked. Earlier at the hostel, he had told me that his sister was an anthropologist on local history. He held a similar interest (albeit a non-academic one) in Ollantaytambo’s history, and identified strongly with the successes and losses of his ancestors.
Francisco shook his head. “The conquest happened because it had to happen. Society is changing, even now. When people choose to value things over people, the outcome is war and destruction. It’s an evolution. It started happening long ago and continues now.”
We strolled into a a section of houses I hadn’t yet explored. Airy green pathways fed from house to house. The clusters of residences were organized in a circle at the crest of the mountain, all surrounded by a stone membrane.
For a moment we both forgot about history. “Look at the windows and doors of this one!” said Francisco. “From outside the house it looks like a face!”
We reached one of the highest structures and looked through a square window. He pointed out the famous fortress near the city center.
Ollantaytambo’s fortress remained the main source of tourism for the city, attracting hundreds of visitors and thousands of dollars a day. Now it poised hundreds of meters below. We saw little shapes with limbs collecting in clumps along different tiers of hill.
“How is it that we’re the only ones here?” I asked Francisco, turning back towards our settlement on high. The sun was setting. The shadow of a mountain let its skirt flare over the valley.
“Every resident from Ollantaytambo knows about this place,” he said. “The locals have just chosen not to make it an attraction.”
We walked back to the clearing into which we originally entered and sat on the grass.
“So do you want to keep working in tourism?” I asked him.
Francisco tore at the grass between his legs. “No. I’m 27, and I’ve been working for other people long enough. You saw the home we passed on the way up? I built that. It’s a nice space, and I can rent it out to temporary residents. Besides that, I have a small bit of land so I can grow all the grains and vegetables I need. There’s even a stream, so maybe I can farm some fish. The goal is to be totally self-sustainable. ”
Francisco pointed to a far mountain. “You know some people still live really high up? Higher than this? I lived with them for a while. They have no watches or electricity, so they wake up when the sun hits, around four in the morning, and go to sleep very early. Everything they need is grown around them. All else is given away.”
We passed a woman in braids on the way down. She sat with her baby and llama. Crafts lay sprawled before her knees.
She must have seen me on the way up. I remembered what Francisco said about the history of self-sustainability and, as I walked past with a wave, hoped her livelihood didn’t depend on frugal travelers like me.
As Francisco revived his bike, I took one more look back at the fence of the abandoned city. I encoded the remnants of its tale.
For me it was a testament to the extent to which beauty could be gutted by greed. But for Francisco and the other the locals of Ollantaytambo, it was a place for reflection. It was whispered of and adored, and, from what my own guts could gather, a dignified reminder of identity.
(Above: The entrance to Ollantaytambo’s fortress)
(Above: Two dances from the independence festival at the city center, which carried throughout June)
(Terraces at the skirt of the mountain where Francisco and I began our ascent)