Peru positively bursts with ancient archaeological sites that give a fascinating glimpse into the country’s rich history. While the magnificent stone citadel of Machu Picchu is one of the most popular tourist draws – for good reason – there are various other lesser-known Inca wonders well worth visiting along the way.
The distinctive Inca town of Ollantaytambo, known locally as Ollanta, lies at the far end of the Sacred Valley, 72km northwest of Cusco. Known as a departure points for the Inca Trail, Ollantaytambo is also where trains depart for Aguas Calientes, the town on the valley floor just below Machu Picchu.
A day trip from Sol y Luna, which allows time to explore Ollantaytambo, one of the longest continually inhabited towns in the Americas and home to hundreds of years of Inca tradition, is time well spent. Guests visiting Machu Picchu from Sol y Luna will also have some time to explore the winding, cobbled streets before catching the train.
A town steeped in history
Pachacutec was the 9th Sapa Inca – ruler of the Inca dynasty – who masterminded the conquest of Ollantaytambo and the transformation of the Cusco Kingdom into the influential Inca Empire in the middle of the 15th Century. Under Pachacutec’s reign, Ollantaytambo became a crucial base for Inca nobles and agricultural workers. When he died, the estate remained under the control of his lineage.
By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1533, Ollantaytambo had become one of the most crucial settlements in the Inca Empire.
When the rebel leader Manco Inca Yupanqui fled from Cusco, fighting rearguard actions against the advancing Spanish and looking to rebuild the rebellion, he established his headquarters in the town, which became the site of the notorious Battle of Ollantaytambo in 1537. Manco Inca ordered the building of a dam to flood the valley and used the terraces as higher ground to attack the Spanish soldiers. Eventually, however, the Inca rebel forces were driven into the jungle and Ollantaytambo was taken over by the Spanish colonists. The town continued to be a major settlement in the Sacred Valley under Spanish rule.
Today ancient indigenous dwellings exist alongside Spanish colonial buildings and more modern constructions, telling the story of the town’s dramatic and colourful history.
With Inca ruins overlooking the town in several directions, a lovely central square, cafes and restaurants aplenty, and winding streets to explore in all directions, there is a huge amount of things to see and do, so it is well worth making time before heading for the train station for the onward journey to Machu Picchu.
The town’s well-preserved ruins are an excellent complement to Machu Picchu and other remarkable Incan archaeological sites that scatter the valley – do bear in mind that the town sits at an altitude of 2,792 meters, so it’s worth pacing yourself. Your private guide will be on hand to ensure you don’t overdo it!
The temple hill and fortress
Ollantaytambo’s prominent temple hill was built in the shape of a llama. The ruins stretch from the entrance to the site right up into the terraces of a temple district known as the fortress – a bit of a misnomer as most archaeologists believe this sites was largely religious.
A hike to the top will take your breath away – in more ways than one on account of the altitude. Take regular breaks to catch your breath and marvel at the stunning views dominated by the wall of the Six Monoliths, each of which is believed to weigh over 50 tons. The Enclosure of the Ten Niches, which resembles a row of windows, sits right at the top of Ollantaytambo.
The construction of the temple was never completed but probably belonged to a Templo del Sol – a temple to worship the sun. Many believe the site was abandoned as the Incas fled further in to the remote valleys and jungles towards Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba, led by Manco Inca following the unsuccessful siege of Cusco.
Terraces and granaries
A handful of ancient granaries in the agricultural sector have been cleverly reconstructed and are open to visitors. A series of meticulously laid out agricultural terraces, traditionally used by the Incas to grow potatoes and corn, step down the ravines in flawless formation.
Opposite the town’s main hill, nestling in an unassuming side alley, is the start of a small path leading to Pinkuylluna, a series of storehouses that became an important element of military campaigns. By some extraordinary architectural feat, the Incas were able, on the mountain’s steep ravines, to erect sturdy houses to store food. The lower temperatures and higher winds in the area protected the food supply.
The ritual sector
The small ritual sector, which has a feeling of incompleteness, can be reached from the back of Ollantaytambo. Keep your eyes peeled for the origin of the natural spring that supplies water for the entire complex. The remnants of the buildings indicate that there was once more to the site and the fact that official maps refer to Incamisana, suggest that it was formerly a water temple. Water runs through artificial channels and fountains to the Templo del Aguas, giving an insight into the hydraulic work of genius created by the Incas.
The Bath of the Princess
A final highlight of the ruins is the Baño de la ñusta, a fountain with an impressive outflow and series of elaborate carvings where ceremonial bathing once took place. The Incan water system was rediscovered in the 1980s and today the irrigation design is still evident.
The Old Town and central square
To experience a truly authentic taste of Ollantaytambo, step back in time and wander through the old part of the town. Emperor Pachacutec’s houses dating back to the 15th Century are still standing to this day, with blocks of houses clustering around central patios. Local Quechuans proudly resplendent in traditional dress mill around the winding cobbled streets leading to the Urubamba River; immerse yourself in a place that often feels like it hasn’t changed since Inca times.
The town square is a popular rendezvous for locals and tourists alike. Locals gossip on the pavements, whilst shoppers haggle at stores and and mothers transport babies on their backs. Backpackers lounge in the shade, whilst a gentle current of tourists head downhill towards the station – next stop, Machu Picchu.
This is the place to find souvenirs and handicrafts, and to enjoy a coffee and soak up the atmosphere. In the market, situated near the exit from the ruins, you’ll find a range of Peruvian crafts and textiles. Your guide can arrange cooking and weaving classes run by talented indigenous folk, and the quaint Museum of Chocolate is a great place for sweet-toothed visitors to refuel with some delicious treats.
Ollantaytambo offers excellent hiking and biking opportunities – if this is for you, guests can choose to visit the town on one of our mountain bike/e-bike excursions – a full day excursion provides an exhilarating combination of exercise, sightseeing, history, culture and photo opportunities aplenty.
However you choose to explore Ollantaytambo, you can return after a fulfilling day to our beautiful Relais & Chateaux hotel for some well-earned rest and recuperation – book in for a spa treatment or wallow in the hot-tub as you enjoy the peace and serenity of our gardens.
Do get in touch with one of our team today to discuss planning your trip.
Enjoy the architectural and cultural wonder of Cusco
Your most treasured memories from Peru?