Christmas in Ollantaytambo

My Christmas memories of Ollantaytambo will always feature trips to the communal oven, where on most other days of the year we buy our bread for the breakfasts at Apu Lodge. There are ovens like these in most villages in the Andes, because most people dont have ovens in their own homes; traditionally they cook over an open fire, although many homes now also have a simple gas-burning stove with a couple of rings. My father used to delight in coming with me to the oven to buy bread every day, and especially at Christmas to deliver and pick up our turkey, which would come back smelling deliciously of woodsmoke from hours nestled in amongst the cuys (guinea pigs) and ducks. He loved the fact that he could leave the roasting to the experts. I remember one year the baker looking in scorn at the bacon we had layered over the skin of the turkey. She elected to remove it during cooking so that the skin would brown properly.

The very first time my parents visited for Christmas, I found a recipe on the turkey to cook it with pisco, and it was absolutely delicious. Since then we have had other memorable turkeys, like the one that Gustavo, our chef and manager, who designed our restaurant menu, soaked for many hours in brine, and another that I forgot to defrost until Christmas morning.

One of my favourite dinners was with my namesake Luisa and her husband, John, partners in La Cervecería del Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley Brewery), their newborn baby and his proud granny, who was staying with us at Apu Lodge. They brought not only the magic of a newborn at Christmas, but also a damajuana (demijohn) of beer that paired really well with the roast dinner.

Quite apart from the food, the three best things about Christmas in Ollantaytambo are the warm weather, the processions, and the lack of commercialism. Father Christmas doesn’t visit many children, so my own grew up without the expectation of huge stockings, and there is no obligation to buy gifts other than a Christmas basket or laundry tub full of goodies for employees. There is a different tradition of chocolotadas, where local children are invited via the radio to come for hot chocolate, sweet bread and a small gift. We have done a few of these, and in 2020 Gregorio, our gardener, took the chocolotada to his home community of Waca Wasi, gifting each child a book and a tree to plant.

The Festive period in Ollanta does not end at New Year as it does in my native Scotland – we have a whole other fiesta in January, the Bajada de Reyes, the Epiphany festival, or literally “Coming/Descent of the Kings”, which lasts from 5th January to 9th January each year. It is truly spectacular, with many dances in costume on 6th January, the central day, and on the subsequent days. This fiesta is the anniversary of my arrival in Ollantaytambo and the friendly welcome extended by the local people got me hooked on the place very fast – I came for a day en route to Machu Picchu and stayed all week.

In the photo above our receptionist Karina and I serve paneton and hot chocolate to the pilgrims from the Patakancha valley who had accompanied the icon of baby Jesus (el Niño) to the chapel, at Niñosamaqchina, a few blocks from Apu Lodge. Traditionally the Niño lived in the chapel at Marcacoccha near Pallata, but it was stolen from there so is now kept in the village, but ferried back up the valley each year to be carried back down by the comuneros (community members). Karina is carrying Louise’s baby Mayu on her back in a lliqllia, a square blanket used to carry everything from babies to animal feed.

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