Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Peru: Don't Skip Ollantaytambo

This is a bath, still with running water, dating to the Inca era.
 In the background you can see the beginning of terraces that
rise high above the town of Ollantaytambo.
       This small town (population 3,000) is more or less the end of the road for people traveling from Cusco to Machu Picchu.  If you make it to Ollantaytambo by car or bus, this is where you transfer to a train because there is no road connection to Machu Picchu. Oddly, hiking from here isn't an official option.  None of the established trails --  the classic Inca trail, the Salcantay trail and the Inca jungle trail -- go through Ollantaytambo, and simply walking along the railroad track isn't an approved route.
          Many visitors take a train all the way from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of Machu Picchu), giving them at best a quick glimpse at this town's Inca-era ruins, which are considered second only to Machu Picchu in grandeur and have more historic significance. Ollantaytambo is worth much more than a glance from a moving train.
          The town, pronounced oh-yay-tay-TAHM-bo, predates the Inca culture.  Some of the ruins that overlook the town were built by the Quillques, who were living here in 1440 when the great Inca empire-builder Pachacutec conquered it and started building a ceremonial center and a royal compound with an estimated 1,000 workers. Others may have been built by the Colla people of Lake Titicaca, brought here to work by Pachacutec. Time ran out on the Inca's rule before his buildings were complete. In the mid-1530s, the ruling Inca, Manco Inca, transformed Pachacutec's incomplete temple complex into a fortress and from it was able to defeat a 100-strong Spanish force led by the Pizzaro brothers, Hernando, Juan and Francisco. It was the last defeat for the Spanish, the last victory for the indigenous people.
         In addition to the ruins, the town itself provides testimony to the past.  Many buildings consist of adobe, brick or stone walls built atop lower walls dating to the Inca era or earlier. Ancient water channels still provide drainage, testimony to the native peoples' genius in managing water.
Terraces and fortifications rise above corn fields and climb
 the mountains that surround Ollantaytambo. 

Photos below: Stairs connect the terraces.

Like most Inca-era stone work, the walls at Ollantaytambo sit directly on
bedrock.  The smaller stones appear to be a rather unartful repair. Notice
the lack of mortar between the larger stones. 

Unlike Machu Picchu, most of what visitors see at Ollantaytambo is original
stonework. Few areas show signs of repairs.
Six giant slabs of pink rhyolite are perfectly slotted together
 and oriented to glow at sunrise in Ollantaytambo's never-finished
 sun temple. The long straight lines  and the use of molten bronze to hold 
the wall  together are unusual and not seen in sun temples elsewhere.
This throne-like carved stone sits among many rough-carved
 stones near the sun temple. Its purpose and intended

 location are, like most of Inca culture, lost to the ages.
The terraces are the most striking feature of the Ollantaytambo ruins. Similar
terraces can be seen in many areas of the Andes in Peru.

A narrow path takes people who don't suffer from vertigo from
one section of the fortress to another. On the opposite moutain,
Ollantaytambo's famous granaries -- grain storehouses --  and the trail
that leads to them are visible. We did not visit those ruins.

A restored structure clings to the side of the mountain
overlooking Ollantaytambo. Thatched roofs were
commonly used by pre-Columbian cultures in Peru.

Water rushes through a centuries-old channel to
feed Inca-era fountains and baths.

This small street in Ollantaytambo may predate the 1440 Inca
conquest of the town, but the lower stones on the walls sure
look like Inca stone work to my eye: the stones interlock in
various ways, walls appear to tilt slightly inward, and there's
little or no visible mortar. Below are some more street scenes
from this remarkable place. 

Note the water channeled along this street. 


  1. Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.

    1. Thanks for the note. I didn't get to do any of the trails, but I's always assumed the Inca Trail was the best.

  2. The Salkantay Trek is a hiking in south America and an alternative to the traditional Inca Trail for reaching Machu Picchu.