The small village of Ollantaytambo is a good alternative base to Cusco for exploring the Sacred Valley and is the gateway to visiting Machu Picchu. Ollanta – as it’s also called – boasts some interesting ruins and a nice historic center with cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and irrigation channels that are the result of Inca city planning dating back to the thirteenth century. And after the tour buses have gone the town is a haven for people who like some peace and quiet.
Many people arrive in the Sacred Valley without adjusting to altitude. While Cusco seems like a logical place to stay, the city lies at an elevation of 3.400 meters. Because Ollantaytambo (2.800 meters) is 600 meters lower than Cusco, staying here for the first few days can take the edge of adjusting to altitude. 600 meters doesn’t seem like much, but it can feel like a world of difference. After acclimatizing in Ollanta the even thinner air in Cusco isn’t that bad anymore.
Impressive ruins on the mountainsides
Impressive steep, terraced ruins built into the mountainside dominate the far side of Ollantaytambo. The religious structures doubled as fortifications and is one of the few places in the Americas where the Spanish conquistadores lost a major battle. We spent a leisurely three hours climbing all the stairs and exploring every nook and cranny of this fortress/temple before digging in to an alpaca burger we had for lunch at one of the eateries surrounding the cozy Plaza de Armas.
After lunch we climbed the steep rocky trail to the Pinkulluna ruins, a set of Inca storehouses high up on a mountain at the other side of town with great views of the ruins we’d visited that morning. In the evening we had another go at alpaca meat. The steak we had this time was delicious, probably the best meal we had in six weeks of traveling through Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Disappointing rural community tour
On our second day in Ollantaytambo we did a morning community tour with a local NGO, Awamaki, before taking the train to Aguas Calientes (for getting to Machu Picchu) in the afternoon. We’d hoped to see and learn a little bit more about daily life in a rural Andean village.
The tour however mainly focused on the weaving of some local ladies, of course with the objective for you to buy something from them. Though it was nice to interact with the ladies and we did get to see one of their homes (cuy – guinea pigs – were kept as livestock), we’d expected something else.
The thought that the local community benefits from the high tour price ($ 50, which is a lot for a half day tour in Peru), gave us some consolation.
Travel tips Ollantaytambo
Sleep – We had an en suite twin room for two nights at Ollantaytampu Hostal, at a quiet location three minutes walking distance from the Plaza de Armas. The room was big enough, was clean, had comfortable beds and a hot shower, wifi was intermittent. The communal deck afforded views towards the Ollantaytambo ruins. At night you could hear the water from the nearby stream.
Transport – There are regular collectivos going to Cusco costing a few euros leaving from the Plaza de Armas when full. The drive to Cusco takes about 1,5 hours. From Cusco to Ollantaytambo we used a prearranged taxi through Taxidatum, a reliable company that also operates taxi services in Lima. We visited Chinchero, Moray and Salinas along the way.
Tour – Tour guides near the entrance are available for tours around the ruins. You will notice them using a book to point out interesting things that can be seen on site as well as in the surroundings of the ruins. This book – ‘Cusco and the Sacred valley of the Incas’ – is for sale at the market in front of the complex for 50 soles (14 euros) and can be used for a self-guided tour. You’ll also learn that many Inca sites in the Sacred Valley when viewed from higher ground depict animals or mythical figures. The lay-out of the Ollantaytambo ruins is supposed to represent a llama (some imagination is needed though).