Literally the end of the road in the Sacred Valley of the Inkas, Ollantaytambo is a not so hidden gem, a living monument to Inka city planning, and the access point to Machu Picchu, the Inka Trail, and the Peruvian jungle east of the Andes.
Coming from the cold heights of Chinchero, we dropped steeply into the Sacred Valley, following the river as it cut its way downwards. Ollantaytambo is the city where the main road stops. Beyond, you either take the train to the end of the line at Aguas Calientes, or the narrow winding road up to the high pass at Abra Malaga, on your way to the cloud forests and jungles beyond. Being such a departure point, Ollantaytambo is fairly touristy, but manages to retain a lot of charm due to its unique character.
The city was constructed by the Inkas in the 1300s, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Andes. Everything is laid out in the original grid, with irrigation channels running down narrow cobbled streets bordered by finely constructed Inka walls. You have to walk everywhere, as only one or two streets around the Plaza de Armas are large enough to permit vehicles.
We had a great time meandering through the many back alleys, and even came across some of the famous Chicha houses, marked by red plastic bags tied to sticks outside the doors. Chicha is the local corn alcohol, described as sort of a beer. It’s basically moonshine, as people just brew it up in their houses, stick a red bag on the door, and have little parties. We haven’t tried it yet, but I hear it’s quite bitter.
At the edge of town lie the remains of the old Inka fortress, a really impressive set of fortifications and terraces built into a cleft between rock outcroppings. Eavesdropping on a guide, I learned that these terraces were merely structural, supporting the walls and buildings high above. They were too small, and the soil too thin and poor, to be used for agriculture.
Although the ruins were military, there were of course important temple areas, including the Cyclopean architecture of the Temple of the Sun. The intricate stepped shapes carved into the gigantic stone blocks were mesmerizing.
We wandered in and out of a seemingly endless stream of corridors, buildings, and stone archways, eventually descending back to the valley floor down a completely different set of terraces and stairs than we had ascended.
At this end of the complex were old baths and irrigation channels, with intricate fountains spouting water into waiting pools.
In addition, we spied places in the mountainside where rock had been quarried for construction. The purpose of those knobs jutting out of the rock face isn’t entirely clear to me though.
After thoroughly exploring the fortress of Ollantaytambo, we were not done! On the opposite side of town, situated high on the mountainside, are the old Inka grain storage warehouses. Pam told us (from a book she was reading), that they were put higher up as the colder air would preserve the cereals and other crops.
It was very impressive to see the big stone buildings perched on the edges of the steep cliffs, and as we laboriously climbed upwards, I didn’t envy the people who had to carry the building materials or crops, for that matter.
Sitting among the ruined buildings, eating our traditional lunch of bread and avocadoes, we could look out over the river valley to the fortress ruins across town, and the majestic peaks surrounding us on all sides. It was quite serene, even in the heat of the cloudless day.
Logistics (September 2013):
Combi from Chinchero to Urubamba (where you switch): s/2-3
Combi from Urubamba to Ollantaytambo: s/2
Combi from Ollantaytambo to Cusco (direct): s/10
Hotel: We were with Alina’s mom and stayed in an expensive place for $50 / day. It was nice but internet was terrible. Would not stay there again. The trend in Peru is that cheap hostels have great internet, and at pricey places it is really, really slow.
Entrance Fees: Grain storehouses are free! Fortress is part of the Boleto Touristico. There are 2 versions. For s/140 you get 10 days, and about 17 places in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. For s/70, you get 2 days, and entrance to the ruins at Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, Maras Moray, and Pisaq. It’s hard to do them all in two days though!