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Ollantaytambo, Peru

Too many travellers to Peru head straight to Cusco and on to Macchu Pichu and, unless hiking the Inca Trail, they miss many of the small towns with incredible ruins in the rest of the Sacred Valley. Ollantaytambo (oh-YAHN-tay-tambo), a quaint little village nestled in the Urubamba Valley, is home to some of the most impressive Incan Ruins outside of Machu Picchu, and a destination well worth your time. I recommend at least 3 days.

Getting to Ollantaytambo (about 70km from Cusco) is pretty straight forward. There is a choice to go by road or by train. A taxi or private transfer will cost about 45 soles (about $15 CAD). Budget travellers can easily catch a bus or collectivo ($3.50 CAD) from Cusco. I took a tour from Cusco that visited Chincero, a women's textile center, Moray, and the Maras Salt Mines before its last stop in Ollantaytambo. I had made plans to leave the tour in Ollantaytambo where I planned to spend 3 days.

The word Ollantaytambo comes from the Quechua word Ulla-nta-wi, meaning "Place to see down". It was an important Incan city in its time and was the royal estate of the Incan Emperor Patchacuti. Today the town has some of the oldest continuously-occupied buildings in South American. It is known as a stronghold of Inca resistance to the Spanish colonizers and is remarkably well-preserved.

Locals refer to the town as simply "Ollanta" (oh-YAHN-tah) and were quick to correct me if I called any of the ancient sites "ruins" because these sites are still very much sacred to the locals. They prefer to call them parques arqueològicos (archaeological parks). The town is very focused on tourism with many day visitors to the sacred site or overnight guests heading out on the Inca Trail or other Inca trails in the Valley.

The town is very small and most guesthouses and small hotels are very close to Plaza de Armas. I easily found my guesthouse, Q'ori Anka BnB, on a side street just off the plaza. I had a stunning view of the sacred site from my balcony.

The room was spacious, clean, nicely-appointed, and the hosts were personable and very helpful. Breakfast each morning included your choice of eggs, fruit, bread, avocados, coffee, and the best fresh-squeezed orange juice I have ever tasted before or since.

Pinkuylluna The town is surrounded by two massive sites: the main site of Ollantaytambo which costs about 70 soles ($25 CAD) and Pinkuylluna (pink-ah-YUN-ah), which is free. The entrance gate to Pinkuylluna, on the opposite side of the valley from the main site, is a little tricky to find with access to the site hidden away within the maze of cobblestone streets. Once through the gate, a small stone staircase starts with a very steep climb behind the traditional stone houses.

This hike is more challenging due to poor maintenance and some very steep climbs. In parts, it can be difficult to see the trail. It is not a trail but a hike. You will need to be in reasonable condition and wear good hiking boots. A large water bottle and hiking poles are strongly recommended.

The path splits in 2 and I decided to do both paths but on separate days. As I climbed, I took a lot of photos.... it was a good excuse to rest. My goal was to make it past the Qollqa (grain storehouses) to get to the very top but I was soon second-guessing this goal. My legs got a good workout as I tried to mountain goat my route up the hill.

These “steps” are fairly typical for Inca trails. They are uneven and of varying heights. Much of the path is right at the edge of the mountain. Where there are handholds, they are simple and rustic. There are many good views across of the valley and the Ollantaytambo site. I needed frequent breaks and used those breaks to take plenty of photos. Even though I was there in high season I only saw one other person on the trail and he was way ahead of me.

Getting closer... but the “path” kept going and going. From the valley floor, there really is no true perspective of how large the Qollqa is. The granaries were built in the 15th century by Incan emperor Pachacuti to store grain produced in the surrounding agricultural terraces.

I spent some time exploring the Qollqa and carried on until I reached the top. Ta daaa! I made it! Not bad for an old broad with a dodgy hip! I was pretty damned proud of myself. The downward hike was still a challenge and the entire hike took me about two and half hours.... the guidebook had suggested it would take half that time.

I was visiting in July, a time of many Carmen de Santiago festivals. When I returned to the village, I was delighted to see the local school's children parading around the plaza. These little ones were adorable in their traditional costumes.

The following day, I tackled the second path of Pinkuylluna, after a local told me about a less-travelled Inca trail that branched off of the main trail. He said it was just as steep and rocky, but the scenery was spectacular and that I would be able to see Wiracocha (an Inca deity) carved into the mountain.

There were more qollqa and another steep, rocky path. I wasn't quite sure what Wiracocha looked like so I examined every large rock formation. Is this Wiracocha?

Sometimes you just have to sit and soak it in. (Also figuring out the timer on the camera gave me a good excuse to rest for a bit). This day, I didn’t take a lot of pictures because I was too busy enjoying the hike and figuring out where to put my feet.

I had more or less decided that that rock I saw earlier was the Inca diety when I left the qollqa made my way around another large rock formation and suddenly saw it.

This is definitely Wiracocha! I was absolutely fascinated and spent at least an hour just wandering around to see different angles and trying to find a path to get closer (I never found it... regular trail markers are just not a thing there). I spent at least 4 hours on the mountain before my water supply was low and I needed to head back into the village.

Ollantaytambo Sacred Site The immense Ollantaytambo ruins are a former Inca administrative centre and gateway to the Antisuyo (Amazon corner of the 4 regions of the Inca Empire).

From the entrance to the site, the ruins of Ollantaytambo climb up into the terraced heights of the temple district. It is often called a fortress, but only part of the site was for military purposes, while the top is an unfinished temple.

In the 15th century, Pachacutec conquered the area and began to rebuild Ollantaytambo, constructing terraces for farming and an irrigation system. It was the last stronghold for Inca Manco Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance during the Spanish conquest.

The Fortress/Temple Hill was home to Inca nobility. After Pachacutec’s death, the town eventually became Manco’s. Manco used the area as a retreat from the Spanish attackers and became the site of a major battle between the Spanish and Manco’s Incas.

The Inca held back the Spanish invaders from high above in the terraces and eventually defeated the Pizarro's Spanish invaders. The Inca flooded the valley, forcing the Spanish to flee. Manco knew they would return, so he retreated to the jungle stronghold of Vilcabamba. Pizarro soon returned and captured Ollantaytambo.

At the Sun Temple, a towering wall known as the Wall of the Six Monoliths stands directly in front of the terraces at Temple Hill. For unknown reasons, this construction was never completed. Each stone is approximately 50 tons. Like other Temples of the Sun, the jaguar carving is lit by the sun on the Winter and Summer solstice. Part of the fascination of this area of the site is the distance the Inca had to move the huge stones. They used special techniques to move the stones from a quarry high on the mountainside on the opposite side of the Rio Urubamba, across the river and up to the place where it now sits, a distance of 6 km (3.7 miles).

The military zone is where Manco and his army would watch over the valley for invaders.

In between the Military Zone and the Temple, these windows resonate sounds down into the valley. These were used to warn the people of invaders and other dangers. Visitors can stick their heads in the space and check out the sound for themselves.

There are few railings or handholds on the pathways clinging to the edge of the mountain. The only safety features that I saw was this sign and this rather weak barrier. Of course, I went there...

The narrow path led to a small storehouse. The only thing the site has changed on this building is the roof.

Back in the valley the ceremonial area called the Banos de Nista (princess bath) has many fountains, which drain into the Patakambo River.

I easily spent most of a day on site. The entrance fee is one of the more expensive fees in Peru but well within reach of budget travellers at 130 soles ($45 CAD). Visitors can walk around the bottom area at no cost. The site opens at 7am and closes at 6pm. To avoid the tour groups, plan to arrive before 10am or after 4pm. However, even with tour groups, the site is so large that you are unlikely to ever feel crowded.

Right outside the entrance is the Mercado Artesanal. Similar to many Peruvian markets, this market generally sells the same kind of products, with small variations on the prices. This market was less expensive than the Cusco market.

Some bargaining is expected and, if reasonable, will be happily accepted in all of them. The vendors are not too pushy and it's easy to walk around its aisles and stalls. I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere and the friendliness of the vendors.

I really wished I knew someone who would wear a llama hat. I definitely would have bought one of these if I had young children in my life.

Just as a side note (and to give you the opportunity to laugh at my naiveté). Sometimes, I have to laugh at myself. I have been pleasantly surprised at all the rainbow flags I have been seeing. I had read that Peru was not LGBTQ+ (or women’s rights) friendly. It finally occurred to me, this wasn’t that rainbow flag. It is a regional symbol of the Inca belief that rainbows originated in this region.

I thoroughly enjoyed my three days in this lovely and friendly village. The lower elevation was sorely needed after spending a week in the Amazon (check out that post here) and then returning quickly to the high altitude of Cusco. I was suffering from altitude sickness until I settled in (check out this post on how to prevent altitude sickness). I generally prefer small towns and places where I can be active over cities, so Ollantaytambo fit the bill. Accommodations and food were significantly less expensive than Cusco and I had easy access to many other fabulous places to visit in the Sacred Valley.


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