OLLANTAYTAMBO has one of the most Inca-looking of the Sacred Valley’s settlements. Coming down the valley from Urubamba the river runs smoothly between a series of impressive Inca terraces that gradually diminish in size. Just before the town, the railway tracks reappear and the road climbs a small hill to an ancient plaza. The useful Ollantaytambo Heritage Trail guides you to most of the important sites with a series of blue plaques around town.

As one of the region’s hotspots, and a popular overnight stop en route to Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo can get very busy in high season, making it hard to escape the scores of other travellers. At heart, though, it’s a small but still very traditional settlement, worth enjoying over a few days, particularly during its highly colourful fiestas, when local folk-dancing takes place in the main plaza. Many women still wear traditional clothing, and it’s common to see them gather in the plaza with their intricately woven manta shawls, black-and-red skirts with colourful zigzag patterns, and inverted red and black hats.

Beyond Ollantaytambo, the Sacred Valley becomes a subtropical, raging river course, surrounded by towering mountains and dominated by the snowcapped peak of Salcantay; the town is a popular base for rafting trips.

Brief history

The valley here was occupied by a number of pre-Inca cultures, notably the Chanapata (800–300 BC), the Qotacalla (500–900 AD) and the Killki (900–1420 AD), after which the Incas dominated only until the 1530s, when the Spanish arrived.

The legend of Ollantay

Legend has it that Ollantay was a rebel Inca general who took arms against Pachacutec over the affections of the Lord Inca’s daughter, the Nusta Cusi Collyu. However, historical evidence shows that a fourteen-kilometre canal, that still feeds the town today, was built to bring water here from the Laguna de Yanacocha, which was probably Pachacutec’s private estate. The later Inca Huayna Capac is thought to have been responsible for the trapezoidal Plaza Maynyaraqui and the largely unfinished but impressive and megalithic temples.

A strategic location

Ollantaytambo was built as an Inca administrative centre rather than a town and is laid out in the form of a maize corn cob: it’s one of the few surviving examples of an Inca grid system, with a plan that can be seen from vantage points high above it, especially from the hill opposite the fortress. An incredibly fertile sector of the Urubamba Valley, at 2800m above sea level and with comfortable temperatures of 11–23°C (52–73°F), good alluvial soils and water resources, this area was also the gateway to the Antisuyo (the Amazon corner of the Inca Empire) and a centre for tribute-gathering from the surrounding valleys.

As strategic protection for the entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley and an alternative gateway into the Amazon via the Pantiacolla Pass, this was the only Inca stronghold to have successfully resisted persistent Spanish attacks.

Rebel Inca Manco

After the unsuccessful siege of Cusco in 1536–37, the rebel Inca Manco and his die-hard force withdrew here, with Hernando Pizarro (Francisco’s brother), some seventy horsemen, thirty foot-soldiers and a large contingent of native forces in hot pursuit. As they approached, they found that not only had the Incas diverted the Río Patacancha, making the valley below the fortress impassable, but they had also joined forces with neighbouring jungle tribes forming a massive army. After several desperate attempts to storm the stronghold, Pizarro and his men uncharacteristically slunk away under cover of darkness, leaving much of their equipment behind. However, the Spanish came back with reinforcements, and in 1537 Manco retreated further down the valley to Vitcos and Vilcabamba. In 1540, Ollantaytambo was entrusted to Hernando Pizarro, brother of the conquistador leader.

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