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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ollantaytambo is surrounded by stunning countryside and skyscraping mountain peaks, and offers a wealth of interesting day-trip options.
It’s easy enough just to choose a path leading up into the hills to the east and see where you get to, remembering, of course, that you will need a tent or have to get back to town by nightfall. Any route will provide a good hike, bringing you into close contact with local people in their gardens. There are also a number of organized tours, available from Ollantaytambo as well as from agents in Cusco. The local Museo CATCCO (204024 or 204034, firstname.lastname@example.org) provide information on the Rutas Ancestrales de Ollantaytambo – Ancestral Routes of Ollantaytambo. This is an entire list of walking circuits that link important points relating to the archeology or history of the area (a large map of this route can also be found at the entry to the Inca fortress).
The area around Ollantaytambo is an excellent spot to begin trekking into the hills. One possibility is to head along the main down-valley road to Km 82, where a bridge over the Río Urubamba is becoming an increasingly popular starting point for both the Inca Trail and Salcantay. Alternatives are the hard-going two-day trail to the beautiful and remote lake of Yanacocha, or travel up the Río Patacancha to the little-visited Inca ruins of Pumamarca, on the left of the river where the Río Yuramayu merges with the Patacancha under the shadows of the Nevada Helancoma. From here the main track carries on along the right bank of the Río Patacancha through various small peasant hamlets – Pullata, Colqueracay, Maracocha and Huilloc – before crossing the pass, with the Nevada Colque Cruz on the right-hand side. It then follows the ríos Huacahuasi and Tropoche down to the valley and community of Lares, just before which are some Inca baths. Beyond the village are several more ruins en route to Ampares, from where you can either walk back to Urubamba, travel by road back to Cusco, or head down towards Quillabamba. It’s at least a two-day walk one way, and you’ll need camping equipment and food, as there are no facilities at all on the route.
The Inca quarries of Cachiqata can be reached in four hours on horseback with a Cusco or Ollantaytambo tour company. It’s also possible to camp here and visit the site of an Inca gateway or Intihuatana. There are also the nearer ruins of Pinkuylluna, less than an hour away by horse, or the Pumamarca Inca ruins about half a day away.
Ollantaytambo is a centre for river rafting, organized largely by KB Tours on the main plaza (204133, kbperu.com), who also offer lodging, mountain-biking and trekking tours; all activities start from around $45/day. Alternatively, arrange a rafting trip with one of the Cusco-based tour companies. The river around Ollantaytambo is class 2–3 in the dry season and 3–4 during the rainy period (Nov–March).
Ollantaytambo’s vibrant fiestas are a sight to behold, particularly the Festival of the Cross, Corpus Christi and Ollantaytambo Raymi (generally on the Sunday after Cusco’s Inti Raymi), and at Christmas, when locals wear flowers and decorative grasses in their hats. On the Fiesta de Reyes, around January 6, there’s a solemn procession around town of the three Niños Reyes (Child Kings), sacred effigies, one of which is brought down from the sacred site of Marcaquocha, about 10km away in the Patacancha Valley, the day before.