Dominated by its massive Inca ruins, the quaint village of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley is the best surviving example of Inca town planning. The narrow cobblestone streets have been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. The postcard quality ruins are the main draw, but it is also perfect for just wandering the maze of narrow alleys and streets. As you step over the babbling irrigation channels, it is very easy to pretend you have stepped back in time.
We have visited Ollataytambo many times over the last 10 years. Feeling energetic, one one occasion, we trekked for three days through (and over!) the mountains from Lares. Delighted to reach our destination, we staggered into the Plaza de Armas and were welcomed with open arms by a lady whose house we had camped outside the previous night, high up in the Andes mountains. How on earth did this tiny, old, Quecha lady get here before us?
Our guide Miguel led us to Hearts Cafe in the corner of the Plaza where we grabbed a table outside and ordered cold beers and, surprisingly, Cornish pasties. Miguel took a lot of convincing that they were NOT empanadas but originated from my home county of Cornwall.
Hearing our English accents, were soon joined by Sonia, the owner of Hearts. An incredible dynamic English lady in her seventies, Sonia had moved to Peru and set up the Living Heart Foundation. A nutritionalist by profession, Sonia had devoted her time to improving the nutrition, health and wellbeing of the children living in the mountains in and around the Sacred Valley.
To cut along story, very short, Sonia was a persuasive lady and within a couple of hours chatting, we had agreed to stay around for a few weeks to help out with the marketing and business planning for her foundation. In return, she would let us stay in the cottage of in the grounds of her house in the next town of Urumbamba . She and Miguel were great pals and we couldn’t help wondering if our trek had been some sort of elaborate set up ( or maybe just serendipity?).
Very soon we fell in love with the Sacred Valley, as many people do, and have returned many times since.
The ruins of Ollantaytambo are breathtaking. Not as dramatic as Machu Picchu or as large as Pisac, but still very special. The village is pretty much as it would have been in Inca times. Once the tourist hordes (en route to or from Machu Picchu) have left we would wander the streets of the village and see a different, more local life style.
During our wanderings we would keep an eye out for the red plastic bags on sticks outside some of the houses. These meant that the “Chicha” the home-brewed corn beer was ready. Luckily we would often get invited in for a glass or two!
The ruins in Ollatytambo are divided into two sections, the main ruins and “the Granaries” Which face each other on opposing mountainsides . The best time to explore was early mornings and late afternoons when the tour buses had gone and the early morning or late afternoon light really showed the ruins at their best and the heat was a little less fierce.
The main ruins are easy enough to navigate, even for someone like me, who really is not keen on heights. The views from the top are spectacular and from there it is easy to appreciate the Inca’s logic of building a defensive fortress here.
The granaries however are a different matter. Whilst Carolyn was perfectly happy scrambling up the vertiginous paths, I quickly decided that it was not for me and retreated to the safety of level ground and take photos instead.
Each day we commuted from our little cottage in the hills above Urumbamba by collectivo (public minibus service). A 30 min walk from our cottage got us to the bus station where we would wait patiently for the minibus to fill up. Always the only gringos on the bus we got to know some of the other “commuters “ quite well.
We lived as much as the locals did. We shopped in Urumbamba market for vegetables and fruit, but drew the line at the meat and chicken which, after a day exposed to the heat tended to get a bit whiffy! Instead we bought our meat from the shop around the plaza where the hygiene standards were marginally better. We did however try, in vain, to work our way through the myriad varieties of potatoes for sale (without success – there are more than 3,000!).
Since our first visit back in 2008, we have returned to Ollataytambo many times. Has it changed? Certainly. It has become a lot busier as it is the main train station for Machu Picchu. Most visitors just pass through for one night before getting the train to Aguas Calientes. A shame as the town is at its best after the day visitors have left.
Sonia Newhouse has retired and is now in her mid eighties. She has left a wonderful legacy for the children of the mountain around the Sacred Valley and her work is continued by the Living Heart Foundation now run by a Peruvian NGO. Hearts Cafe has moved from the corner of the Plaza to the road leading from the Plaza down to the ruins. Still serving excellent food including those Cornish Pasties (although not to the standard of those my Grandmother used to make!)
Our guide and friend Miguel was tragically killed in a rockfall whilst riding his horse in his beloved Andes. RIP Miguel.
Getting to Ollantaytambo is easy. You don’t have to trek for three days. It takes around two hours and 10 New Soles by collectivo from the station on Avenida Grau in Cusco. Alternatively, it is a little quicker by taxi from the airport but at around 120 NS, much more expensive. Taxis can usually be booked online with http://www.taxidatum or by your accommodation either in Cusco or Ollataytambo.
It can often make good sense to combine the journey from Ollantaymbo to Cusco with a taxi tour of the Sacred Valley – see here for more information.
At 2700 metre above sea level, it is the ideal place to acclimatise to the altitude before visiting Cusco. It is also the main train station for Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
There are many trekking options to Ollantaytambo and throughout the Sacred Valley, ranging from half days to a week. You can read about our trek here.