Not everyone who visits Machu Picchu arrives via the legendary Inca Trail. Some people actually prefer a combination of swanky hotels and luxury trains to gasping for breath, shivering in a bivouac and coming face to face with other people’s bad toilet habits in a windswept mountain ablution block.
If, like me you manage to resist the charms of said Bucket-List-Hike, then you will probably pass though the sleepy Andean village of Ollantaytambo at some point. Unfortunately, this usually means spending just a fleeting stop at the railway station, seeing nothing more than a busy platform, or getting stuck in traffic as your driver negotiates the horrendous bottleneck that is the one and only road through Ollantaytambo’s picturesque centre, leaving you with memories of fumes and frustration and a less than positive opinion of Peruvian traffic management.
But it’s worth persevering because outside of the tourist rush hours and just a few hundred yards from the very same train station lies a peaceful, unspoilt and friendly village with plenty to offer the most jaded of travellers. So here are six good reasons why you should slow down, tarry a while and maybe even stay for a night or two in delightful Ollantaytambo.
1. The Road from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
I know, strictly speaking the road from Cusco is not in Ollantaytambo, but getting there is almost as enjoyable as actually being there. The road climbs up out of Cusco and soon traverses rugged highlands surrounded by fields of livestock and mountain folk working their potato and corn crops. Snow-capped mountains, jagged ridges, magnificent glaciers and far-reaching views down the Sacred Valley as the road dips down into Urubamba provide unforgettable vistas as well as myriad photo opportunities too.
Sacred Valley, heavenly view – as seen from the Cusco to Ollantaytambo bus
The well-maintained road passes through the high ancient town of Chinchero with its lovely market, beautiful church and Inca ruins, and close enough to the circular terracing a Moray as well as the remarkable salt pans at Salinas for you to visit all three en route. Just make sure you set off early if you want to give them all the time they merit and still arrive in Ollantaytambo before nightfall.
The best way to make the most of the drive is to organise a car and driver through your hotel or tour operator. That way you can do the journey at a leisurely pace and stop whenever you want. Cruz del Sur also runs an excellent bus service from Cusco to Ollantaytambo three times a day. The buses are modern, comfortable and come with reclining seats, seatbelts and air con. There is no toilet on board but the journey is less than two hours. Fares are from $8 one-way, but obviously you don’t have the luxury of getting the driver to pull over every time you want to take that perfect holiday snap.
ENTERTAINMENT TIP: If looking for fun at night, or to watch sports during the day, or even a taste of home, visit the Wild Rover Hostel Cusco for great food, sports and beer! Entrance to their bar is free even for non-guests
2. The Inca Fortress and Temple
For history and archaeology enthusiasts, Ollantaytambo’s main draw is the superb terraced fortifications that cling to the valley side as it rises steeply above the western edge of the village. For those who can handle the fairly vertiginous climb, the reward at the top is a well-preserved Inca temple and of course more breath-taking views. It was from here that the Emperor Manco Inca’s men rained rocks, spears and arrows on a battalion of conquistadors and eventually flooded them out to score a famous victory against the Spanish in 1536.
Ollantaytambo’s Inca terraces, fortress and temple
Entry to the ruins is free with the ten day Cusco Tourist Ticket (along with the church at Chinchero and the terraces at Moray, above) or you can pay an entry fee for Ollantaytambo alone. Although if the entry fee puts you off, it has been known for the odd security guard to let tourists in through a sneaky back entrance in exchange for an equally sneaky back-hander. Although that, of course is not to be recommended. Alternatively, an easier way to save a few Soles is to visit one of Ollantaytambo’s free attractions, such as…
3. The Inca Granaries of Pinkulluna
High up on the opposite side of the valley, the Inca granaries are no less impressive (if rather smaller) than the main ruins that they face. However, there is no entry charge and should you climb the fairly treacherous path to the top you can claim bragging rights for risking life and limb in the name of archaeological tourism and the quest for another great photo opportunity.
The Inca granaries of Pinkulluna, high above Ollantaytambo
The sign pointing almost skywards to the ruins is located ironically close to a second sign advising against tackling the climb. And for those with limited Spanish language skills the skull-and-crossbones illustration should help to get the message across.
The path to the granaries is steep and very narrow in places with loose stones and rocks making it particularly difficult for the unsure of foot. Oh, and there are no handrails either. Luckily, there are a couple of good viewpoints not far from the start of the path for those who decide they are not up to the whole climb.
Joking aside, it should not be attempted without decent footwear – don‘t even think about high heels or flip-flops – a hiking stick is a good idea and it should never be tackled in wet weather. The views would not be up to much anyway.
The entrance to the path is opposite the Picaflor Tambo Hotel (see below) on Calle Lares which runs north from the main road through town, just east of the square.
4. Inca Bridge and Valley Hike
Another of Ollantaytambo’s free attractions is its Inca Bridge. Although in fairness it is so unimpressive that charging even a couple of Soles to see it would be daylight robbery. However, if you cross the river via said bridge you will find yourself at the start of a relatively gentle but quite spectacular walk, memories of which I am sure will stay with you for a very long time.
Leave Ollantaytambo on the main road towards Urubamba and at the second sharp bend turn right towards the river, cross the Inca Bridge and turn right again when you get to the other side. From here the path climbs gently through mountain vegetation alive with butterflies, chirping humming birds and brightly coloured blue and yellow tanagers. On a clear, sunny day the air is still and quiet and the walk can be quite breath-taking.
Happy twitching: a humming-bird on the valley hike
Within half an hour you will be high above the village with tremendous views up deep river valleys to the east, west and north, and of course the Inca fortress and granaries. A little further on and looming snow-capped mountains also come into view. The climb gradually becomes steeper and the path passes through the shade of fragrant eucalyptus trees and after about an hour and a half you will reach a very welcome shelter where you can sit in the shade and take in the surrounding splendour at your leisure.
The path is usually very quiet with few other hikers and only the occasional friendly local, driving heavily laden mules and ponies for company. There’s little shade so make sure you wear sun screen and a hat and take plenty of water. For the really hardy you will find the Inca quarries where the stones of the fortress and granaries were extracted some 6km from the start. It takes several hours each way so should not be attempted by Sunday strollers who have just arrived at altitude. However far you decide to go, don’t forget your camera.
Let the train take the strain, or take a hike above the town…
5. Wandering the town’s ancient streets
Even if you can only spare a few hours in Ollantaytambo there is a lot to be said for just wandering around its ancient cobbled streets, lined with centuries-old adobe buildings, colonial houses and of course original Inca walls. All the while you can hear the sound of gurgling icy mountain water cascading down wonderfully preserved Inca irrigation channels. Bump into a burnished local in traditional Andean clothes with a brightly coloured woven blanket full of firewood slung over their shoulder and you could almost be back in the 13th century.
Stone me: Cobbles and Inca walls in Ollantaytambo’s atmospheric, ancient streets
The open air artisans’ market at the foot of the Inca fortress on the Plaza Araccama is smaller but less claustrophobic than those at Pisac or Aguas Calientes and is a good place to find souvenirs that are similar in quality but generally a bit cheaper than in Cusco. Come early or late to avoid the tourist buses.
Round off your walking tour with a pit-stop on the main square. It may not hold much architectural interest but it’s a great place for a bit of people watching, and once the buses and delivery trucks have gone for the day – another good reason to stay overnight – it becomes a tranquil spot to enjoy a nice cold Cusquena beer or a freshly squeezed lemonade and watch the Inca ruins change colour as the sun slips behind the mountains.
Ollantaytambo’s Plaza is a great place for watching fellow visitors come and go
The Kiswar Hostal and Cafe is a great spot on north side of the square where a large Cusquena beer is currently just 8.50 Soles. On the opposite side of the square Quinua Restaurant does a good selection of pizzas and excellent alpaca and lomo dishes and has a huge wood-fired pizza oven right in the middle of the restaurant so it’s cosy even on a chilly winter’s evening.
6. The Albergue de Ollantaytambo
Now I’m not saying that The Albergue is one of those hotels that simply demand that you re-route your entire trip just so you can stay here – that would be exaggerating slightly. However, if you are coming to Cusco and the Sacred Valley it is a very good reason to spend at least one night in Ollantaytambo.
El Albergue is undoubtedly the best hotel in town with spacious airy rooms furnished in traditional style and set in beautifully tended sub-tropical gardens of vibrant native flowers and abundant fruit trees. Moreover, the restaurant serves first class Peruvian and international cuisine at very reasonable prices. Even if you are not staying here, non-residents can enjoy lunch or dinner, but reservations are strongly advised. You can read our full review of El Abergue’s restaurant here.
Why not stay a while? El Albergue’s terraces and garden
In addition to its hospitality credentials El Albergue is a beacon of responsible tourism, using home grown and locally sourced produce in the restaurant, encouraging plastics recycling for guests and employing only local staff. It also runs its own community school for children of the village. If you want to get more involved than just sleeping or eating here you can even join the staff for a morning’s work in the kitchen garden, followed by lunch in the garden or the restaurant where you can enjoy some of the fruits of your labour.
If you can’t get a room at El Albergue but are sold on the idea of staying in Ollantaytambo there are several other decent hotels to choose from. Apu Lodge is in a quiet location on one of Ollantaytambo’s narrow cobbled pedestrian streets with a big sunny garden and clean, comfortable ensuite rooms.
Picaflor Tambo Guest House is another popular choice. Located opposite the start of the walk to Pinkulluna, the six ensuite rooms all have romantic Quechua names and are spacious, traditionally furnished and adorned with bright textiles and fresh flowers. One of the neighbours can get a bit noisy at weekends so if you are a light sleeper and staying on a Friday or Saturday night ask to stay in ‘Rumi’ or ‘Inti’ – to make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Service is warm and friendly and the owner speaks excellent English.
Spacious, light and peaceful: Picaflor Tambo’s “Inti” suite
So, There you have it. There are of course more reasons to stay in Ollantaytambo than those above, but with most busy trip schedules it would be hard to fit any more in! However, it is only an hour and a half by train from Aguas Calientes, so what better place to stop off and chill out for a bit on your way to or from Machu Picchu? Alternatively, if you are looking to do the inca trail or another trek to Machu Picchu, you will very likely be starting at this point. If you have not yet booked your tour or trek and want to see some of the options available to you, we recommend taking a look on the www.findlocaltrips.com.