Urubamba. I first heard the word in 1974 when Paul Simon released his Live Rhymin’ album and was accompanied on a couple songs by a group of that name. He explained on the album that Urubamba was a river in Peru that ran past Machu Picchu, and ever since, once I heard those Peruvian flutes, the name has had a certain magic for me. So, when we were looking to explore the area around Cuzco and Machu Picchu and discovered there was a beautiful hotel in the town of Urubamba, right on the river, I jumped at the chance.
It’s worth saying from the start that the hotel, Tambo del Inka, is one of the most beautiful hotels we’ve ever stayed in. Ever. The design, the lighting, the soaring ceilings and gigantic fireplaces, the location right next to the river were all truly exceptional; it was a delight to come back to the hotel after a couple energetic hikes we did.
It’s probably also worth saying that we might be the only people who have ever gone to Urubamba and Cuzco and not gone to Machu Picchu; Urubamba is only about 35 miles from what Lonely Planet calls “the best-known archaeological site on the continent.” In the first place, we were there seven years ago after hiking the Inca Trail, so going there on a train seemed somehow cheap. But cheap it wasn’t. When we got to the hotel and asked about the cost of tickets – train to the ruins and tickets into the site, we were quoted a price of something over $500. So we just said “Heck with it. We’ll do some hikes on our own.”Which we did. Our first day we caught a local bus to the town of Pisac where there are some Incan ruins high above the city. Again, the hotel quoted us a price of something like $300 for a car, driver, guide, etc. – they’d probably throw in some cold water for free – we said “Yeah, we can do that on our own.” We did and it was a great hike, well marked, up to some pretty great ruins. And then, on returning down to Pisac, we got online and asked TripAdviser for a restaurant recommendation. It was one of those moments you can’t believe you could be so lucky. Here we are in this little town that no one has ever heard of (actually, there is a bit of tourist infrastructure, but I’d certainly never heard of Pisac) and we had an amazing lunch, essentially gourmet quality. Blown away – and so glad we didn’t just settle for whatever the hotel would have guided us to.
The next two days I just went on hikes from the hotel. I had observed, you see, that while sitting is about the most uncomfortable position imaginable for me while I’m dealing with this pinched nerve, walking is great. And walking with a loaded knapsack stretching my back and shoulders is even better. And walking uphill with a loaded knapsack is like catnip for me. It’s essentially the only time I’m pain free. So walk I did. Urubamba sits at about 9,400 feet above sea level but you go up from there. The first day I climbed to over 11,000 feet on a gravel road in a beautiful valley behind the city and the next day up a big hill behind our hotel. One of the things I’ve been intrigued with in these weeks in Peru is just how much of the world, here in South America at least, is two miles or more above sea level. Having had weeks to acclimate to the altitude, starting way back in early February in Guatemala, has been a real luxury.Finally, I have to again mention how good the food has been in Peru. Urubamba is a pretty small town. It sees its share of tourists but it’s by no means the major destination in the area. Still, we ate at three or four really good restaurants, typically with some Peruvian-Asian fusion thing going on. Just great food.
Oh, and one last thing. What did I learn when I was reading up on the group Urubamba and their collaboration with Paul Simon, this Peruvian music that I’ve loved since 1974? While they’re named after this most famous river in Peru and are known for popularizing Peruvian folk music, the musicians are actually Argentine and Uruguayan. Weird. And one more thing I learned. While traveling in Peru you can get really tired of one of the song they collaborated on with Paul Simon, “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”; it plays everywhere, constantly. I always assumed it was just an American pop song that was adopted here. Turns out it is in fact a classic Peruvian song, written in 1913, and is considered Peru’s second national anthem. Simon & Garfunkel popularized it for us Gringos, but it really is a native Peruvian song.
That’s todays music history lesson. From Urubamba we went back to Cuzco for the night and then we take a train down to Lake Titicaca where we’re going to spend 10 days or so exploring the Peru-Bolivian border area.