Don’t Skip: Ollantaytambo, Peru


Intro to Ollantaytambo

The town of Ollantaytambo lies at the intersection of three valleys, at the western end of the Sacred Valley region in Peru. Traditionally, it was a place to rest and restock on the way through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. Remains of temples show religious significance as well. During the 1400s Inca Pachacuti used the area as his personal estate and ceremonial center. In times of unrest, it was also strategic, the site of an important battle of resistance against the Spanish. Today, most people pass through Ollantaytambo on the way to Machu Picchu. Some start their Inca Trail hike from here; others just catch the train. But Ollantaytambo really warrants a couple of days of exploration. It’s a unique city, with some features even its more famous neighbors nearby don’t share. Below are the highlights that really set Ollantaytambo apart from other towns we visited in the area of Cusco and Machu Picchu.

The Living Inca City

Ollantaytambo is known as the Living Inca City. It was built on top of Inca foundations, still visible today. The city is organized into canchas, or blocks made up of groups of residences. Walking the streets you can see large, stone entryways opening up to wide courtyards. Many people still live in residences clustered around the perimeter of these courtyards. They also follow many customs and traditions passed down from generation to generation. This sense of history is more tangible here than in other places we visited. We spent lots of time (as usual) just walking. One interesting feature was the water system in place in Ollantaytambo. On some of the smaller streets, you can see the waterways that once carried water through the city for irrigation and drainage.

Ollantaytambo Ruins

Main Ruins of Ollantaytambo

While nothing compares to the setting of Macchu Pichu, we found it very rewarding to explore the ruins of smaller towns like Ollantaytambo in greater detail. We walked around the main ruins here with a guide, and were able to learn a lot. Ollantaytambo is unique in that it shows evidence of pre-Inca presence in different construction techniques and materials. Although portions of the Temple of the Sun were destroyed by the Spanish, and stones were later removed for new construction, massive monoliths of pink granite remain. There are many theories as to how they got there, but most of them involve the mobilization of hundreds of people over a long span of time to have made it happen. We had a hard time even imagining the complications of moving these immense stones, never mind leveraging them into exact positions and lining them up with other stones that fit so exactly beside one another. This temple was a ceremonial center, and water and purification were major themes. In one area, said to have been the bathing area of the princess (Baño de la Ñusta), our guide showed us how the water´s surface tension enables you to almost shut the water off temporarily (to wash) and turn it back on again (to rinse).  To us it seemed like magic. This bath also had an upper “filter” cleansing and purifying the water before it reached the bather. Check out the video of this bath at the bottom of the post!

Down to Ollantaytambo

Pinkuylluna Hill

A hike up Pinkuylluna hill on the less-visited side of town (opposite side to the main ruins) reveals large structures said to have been depositories or storehouses. Although it looks like it would have been inconvenient, the Inca stored food and other items up here because it was cooler and better ventilated. It is also more centralized for protection and less accessible to enemies. The views out over the Sacred Valley from here are beautiful. One of the rocky sides of Pinkuylluna Hill takes the form of Tunupa (Viracocha), protector of Ollantaytambo. This 400-foot tall anthropomorphic face is formed from indentations in the the rock forming eyes and mouth, and a large protrusion forming the nose.

Rock Carving, Ollantaytambo

Where We Stayed

Hostal Chayana Wasi was clean and comfortable. The hosts were very friendly and knowledgeable. They advised us to walk up Pinkuylluna Hill in the morning, as the sun would be hitting in that direction, keeping it warmer. That turned out to be a great call. Our room had a lovely view, and though we paid a bit more than usual, we felt it was well worth it. The included breakfast is a highlight, with eggs, bread, fruit and fresh juice.

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    • There is a variety of accommodation options so you can find something inexpensive if you look around. Food in Peru is cheap, too. It’s so tasty, and BIG portions, especially the set lunches!

  1. I’m heading to Peru with my husband in December to visit Machu Picchu, of course, but want to check out some other spots too. Ollantaytambo looks very interesting. That shower/bath is WOW…amazing that they were able to figure stuff like that out way back then.

    • Hi Jenn– Agreed! We’re sort of history/trivia nerds, and were blown away by some of the things we learned. You’ll have an amazing time in Peru for sure. Do you know where else you might visit besides Cusco?

      • Not yet- we just started our planning. Landing in Lima, planning to spend around a week and a half in Peru, then on to Bolivia to see the salt fields and northern Argentina if we have time (planning to stay a month total). Definitely open to ideas if you have any :) It will be our first time in S. America.

        • Our usual advice is to spend more time in less places. We spent a month in Peru, and wished we had more time. As a first visit to South America, Lima will be a nice introduction. There’s lots to see. It’s pretty easy to get around, and there is a TON of delicious food. The cuisine is varied, with influences from all over. If you’re flying from Lima to Cusco, allow time to adjust to the altitude. We arrived by land from Puno, which is a bit higher, so we were okay, but I know that can be a challenge. We found Cusco itself to be tiring on the tourist harangue front, but beautiful. Get out and do some day trips to the areas around it. We haven’t made it to Bolivia yet (no space in the passport, believe it or not, at the time) but looking forward to it. As for Argentina, we’ve only seen BA, Ushuaia and Patagonia in the south and then up to Bariloche by land where we crossed into Chile. In other words, nothing much in the north. Feel free to shoot us an email (turtlestravel -at- gmail) if you want to pick our brains. We love to talk about South America when we can’t be there ourselves!

          • Less is more is what we usually tell people too (about Costa Rica) but sometimes it’s hard to follow yourself, especially if you don’t know when you’ll be able to get back again! I have a feeling we might have to cut Argentina this time around so that we’ll be able to enjoy ourselves more in Peru & Bolivia. Thanks for the tips on Cusco- we’ll definitely do some day trips to the surrounds. I might take you up on your stuff to pick your brains once we really get into the trip logistics. Let us know if you ever happen to be in Costa Rica and we’ll do the same. Cheers guys!