I love reading Game of Thrones whilst i’m travelling. I am, unashamedly, a Game of Thrones geek. The books have my heart. They have been a faithful, easy and strangely appropriate travelling companion constant on my kindle since July 2012.
Whilst the stories traverse a wide range of continents from the icy cold winds of the North to the soft flowing silks and spicy foods of the Southern isles so do I on my own adventures around this beautiful globe of ours. From Cersei drinking her honey sweetened wine at Kings Landing to Arya selling baked clams in the shell down the Saltpans, its a fitting parallel for my own travels.
One day, i’m sitting on the muddy coloured coastline of North Peru picking at ceviche, morsels of raw fish marinated in lime, the next surrounded by the billowing green hills of the Andes. That’s where my story starts today, in Ollantaytambo - a small town nestled against Pacha Mama’s bosom at the heart of the start of the sacred valley; watching the women come down from the mountains for market day, carrying bright, pink blooms in their caps and the strange, soapily scented bundles of freshly picked herbs from the hills on their back.
Ollantaytambo is a tranquil, little town that would give Riverrun a run for its money; surrounded as it is by the gentle rolling hills of the Andes, and flanked on all sides by rushing water, from the rivulets that run down the Pre incan waterways to the foaming, green waters of the Patikancha and Urubamba rivers.
Once the royal estate of the Incan emperor Pachacuti and then the home to the leader of the resistance at the time of the Spanish invasion, these days Ollantaytambo is mostly used by tour buses depositing tourists to view the ruins for an hour or two or for people wanting to take the train from the local station to Machu Piccu.
However if you can, I recommend stopping and staying a few days in this sleep little town.
One of my favourite things in Game of Thrones is seeing how the temperature, tundra, fashion and most of all foods change from land to land and its my favourite thing about travelling too.
Here in the Andes the fayre is hearty and comes with some serious carb loading. It’s said to be the birthplace of the humble potato and that they have some 4000 different varieties. The word Papa (meaning potato in Spanish) is a Qu’echua word meaning “tuber.” Plates often come served up with rice and chips and sometimes a side helping of corn or potatoes too.
Unsurprisingly the female figure of the Andes tends to be short and large of hip. They need their strength to walk the mountains at this altitude. Quinoa is the other superfood native to the Andes full of energy rich nutrients and minerals. It appears in thick jugs of drink served roadside and soups everwhere. Down by the Urubamba river it grows wild amongst the ruins in great flowing long stems, the little rusty red stars of its grain just ripening on the stem.
My first night in town is spent at Andean Moo hostel.
“Our rooms are $40” a teenager at the front desk says confidently.
“I want to pay $10” I tell him.
Outside my door is a little spiral staircase going up to a roof terrace so I take up a cup of coca mate and plonk down in one of the wicker chairs and watch as the sun slowly sinks behind the hills.
The village sits at just over 9000 ft making it considerably warmer and more clement than Cusco. The novelty of no longer having to go to bed fully clothed with a hot water bottle will take a while to wear off.
When I wake in the morning the sunlight is just cresting the peaks in an ever mystical light. The wind has picked up and the energy from the rushing water that surrounds the town is palpable.
I spend the morning climbing the free ruins called Pinkylluna and then make like a local and head to the mercado (market) for a 3 soles ($1) fruit juice and lunch.
The ground floor is where the fruit stands, grocers and odds and sods stalls are set up. Its also where the butchers lay out their wares. Today the animals have just been cut up and the counters are awash with blood and thick, fatty hearts, lungs, tripe and every other conceivable body part.
On the first floor are the Jugo (fresh fruit) counters. I order a “mixto" for $1. A mixed juice combining, apple, papaya, mango, melon and banana. When I query the long soft spikes of Aloe Vera sticking out of a tub, she offers me some for free deftly slicing off the dark green skin and wobbling a shivering, transparent triangle into the blender. I proceed to the second floor for a $2, 2 course lunch. A thick ,gelatinous soup with bits of vegetables and then rice and chicken.
For my second night i’ve found a new place to stay, Casa De Wow has an enormous dream catcher hanging in the reception and beds made out of huge tree trunks. Patricia an American volunteer from Chicago greets me at the door and offers me free lemon and honey for the cold i’ve picked up. I spend the rest of the afternoon curled up in bed amongst piles of huge Incan rugs.
The following day Patricia asks if I want to see some guinea pigs. Chickens, horses, pigs and cows were only introduced to Peru at the time of the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century. Prior to that the people got their meat from their native species, alpacas, llamas and guinepigs.
The latter are called Cuy in Peru - another onomatapoeic Qu’echuan word that mimics the animal’s high pitched squeak.
She takes me right next door where an old Peruvian lady Juliana and her husband sit at a table shelling corn. We take a peek inside their home, which has dirt walls, a smokey fire stove cut into the side and grass on the floor. Around the perimeter dart several blurs of white and orange fur including one tiny little baby that stops and shivers in the corner.
“Oh so they have them as pets here?” I ask Patricia.
“Oh no” she says,
“they’re keeping them to eat them.”
Ah well. - they better run fast.
My first and to be frank last taste of Cuy was 5 years ago when I was first in Cusco, it tasted greasy with a strangely, pungent flavour. On public holidays you can see them burnt of their fur and spit roasted whole, propped up in displays with carrots and tomatoes wedged between their rodenty front teeth. It doesn’t make them look more appetising.
After a 3 hour trek into the sacred valley to see some alternative Incan ruins - Puma Maka i’ve built up another appetite.
Down towards the train station by the river there is a cafe where the waitress (a surprisingly smiley young woman) recommends the ceviche. Its probably wise to save ceviche sampling for beachside resorts where the fish comes fresh from the sea but here the gamble pays off. The trucha is mountain trout and native to the Andes. It comes served rustic Andean style in thick, pink, meaty chunks atop slivers of sweet potato and accompanied by cancha black corn kernels. Its delicious.
For my final night I change accommodation again and find a hostel on the way out of town that has prettily tended gardens, with hammocks by the river. The dorms are the same price as most single rooms in town but the views are worth it.
I spend my morning breakfasting in the sunlit gardens and reflecting on my short little stay from my hammock.
I had been feeling low again at Healing House. My intention when I first arrived in Peru was based around getting warm, healthy and into nature and yet that somehow slipped by the wayside. After a month or so my days seem to be spent huddling against freezing temperatures, avoiding the constant influx of new visitors to the house and comforting my sorrows in a seriously bad habit of daily coffee and carrot cake. I decide to take action and I’m so pleased I listened to myself and brought myself somewhere sunlit and tranquil. It might not sound much but listening to and then prioritising what I need and want in any given moment is such a new muscle right now that i’m training.
From sitting on the roof terrace with a cup of mate watching the sunset, to shooting star gazing from an Incan throne at midnight, to breakfasting in riverside sunlit gardens, to ceviche and sopa, I’ve really managed to sample the best of all worlds for my short little stay.