I’ll be the first to admit that when I hear the name Peru, the ruins of Machu Picchu are what immediately come to mind. And yet, if you visit this amazing South American country, you will find other incredible Inca ruins including those at Ollantaytambo. Thankfully, the first hotel we stayed at on our Peruvian adventure was in Ollantaytambo so being able to visit the ruins there was like going to ancient remains that were essentially right in our “backyard.”
As our guide explained to us, many dub Ollantaytambo to be a mini Machu Picchu in terms of scope and importance. You can see from its dramatic location how Ollantaytambo would have been a highly effective fortress but it also served as a temple, as a beautifully constructed ceremonial center is at the top of the terracing. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, who conquered the region and built the town and above mentioned ceremonial center.
While gazing at the ruins of any ancient civilization is always a matter of wonderment, I think the Inca are even more spectacular since they often constructed their edifices right into the landscape of the Andes Mountains and if you’ve been up close to the Andes, you will know this is no easy feat. Construction of houses and buildings consisted of quarrying stone from the mountainside almost 4 miles away (roughly six kilometers), high above the opposite bank of the Rio Urubamba and then transporting the massive stone blocks back to the site! And as I’ve mentioned before, the Inca were quite the crafty and ingenious lot-moving the stone blocks across the river meant carting the blocks to the riverside and then diverting the entire river channel around them! Yes, modern society has nothing on this incredible ancient civilization.
Ollantaytambo was the third and final stop on our touring around of the Sacred Valley (we had visited the agricultural terraces of Moray and the famous salt pans at Salineras earlier in the day). As both of those sites were at a higher altitude than Ollantaytambo’s, I was ready to call it a day. My knees were screaming-climbing paired with decreased oxygen from altitudes of 11,000 feet roughly equates to a brutal workout. Moreover, after arriving at the Ollantaytambo ruins and seeing how the terrain just went up, I didn’t know if I could handle any more climbing, especially since the next day we were to visit Machu Picchu and I didn’t want anything marring that. And yet out guide wanted to make sure I saw everything since yes, how often does one visit Peru? So going extremely slowly and taking frequent breaks to sit or just catch my breath, I did do it (although we didn’t go to the very top but I was fine with that).
We learned that the ruins at Ollantaytambo are one of the few places where the Spanish conquistadors lost a major battle. Considering that men like Pizarro and Cortes and their armies were responsible for the decimation and destruction of countless indigenous cultures, the fact that an indigenous people was able to defeat the mighty Spanish in at least one battle is quite significant. The rebellious Manco Inca had retreated to this fortress after his defeat at Sacsaywamán. In 1536, Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s younger half-brother, led a force of 70 cavalrymen to Ollantaytambo, supported by large numbers of indigenous and Spanish foot soldiers, in an attempt to capture Manco Inca. The conquistadors, showered with arrows, spears and boulders from atop the steep terracing, were unable to climb to the fortress. In a brilliant move, Manco Inca flooded the plain below the fortress through previously prepared channels. With Spaniards’ horses bogged down in the water, Pizarro ordered a hasty retreat, chased down by thousands of Manco Inca’s victorious soldiers. The victory, however, was short lived as the Spanish would return with greater numbers forcing Manco and his forces to flee into the jungle.
Whereas the Mayan civilizations constructed their cities in the thick of the jungle and the Aztec on the arid plains of the Mexican landscape, in Peru what amazed me the most about the Inca was the agricultural terraces they constructed. While different from those at Moray (there they are in a circular fashion), at Ollantaytambo they are straight but incredible. They start at the bottom of the valleys and climb up the surrounding hills. The terraces permitted farming on otherwise unstable terrain, not to mention they also allowed the Inca to take advantage of the different ecological zones created by variations in altitude.
If you see them in person you will be amazed by their size-700 meters long, 60 meters wide and up to 15 meters below the level of surrounding terraces. There are so many things I would love to go back in time to see but something that is at the top of my wishlist would be to witness the agricultural terraces actually in use-seeing different crops growing there.
I’d highly recommend staying in the Sacred Valley, but specifically in Ollantaytambo (as opposed to being based in Cusco the entire time). There is so much to be seen here but especially these wondrous ruins. Even though they may not be as famous as Machu Picchu on a global scale, they are still pretty darn spectacular.
Tips for visiting!
-Be sure to bring water and apply sunscreen. While hats are good, the higher you climb, the windier it will be and I ended up having to take mine off as it wouldn’t stay in place and ended up just being a nuisance.
-Tickets for Ollantaytambo are part of the Boleto Turistico. For 70 soles (about $23 USD), your 2 day boleto turistico (tourist ticket) is valid at entrances for Moray, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero, all sites in the Sacred Valley.
-Either hire a guide or buy one of the guidebooks that are sold in the crafts stall at the entrance to the ruins; otherwise you will probably miss a lot.