Ollantaytambo is both the archaeological ruins of a great mountain side Inca city and also a modern day village perched alongside the Rio Urubamba. Likewise it was a key stop on the trail to Machu Picchu in ancient Inca times and also serves as the point to catch the train to Machu Picchu today. Ollantaytambo is one of a handful of sites that lie in the Sacred Valley. Sitting at an altitude just shy of 2,800 meters it doesn’t exactly feel like you’re visiting a valley.
My first glimpse of Ollantaytambo was the morning I started the 4 day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. While I wasn’t able to explore the city and ruins that day, I made it a priority to come back and visit this masterful mountainside relic.
Distinctive Characteristics of Ollantaytambo
The terraces at Ollantaytambo create more than a spectacular view. The Incas in their infinite wisdom created these terraces to be able to farm in otherwise unusable and treacherous land. Also since the terraces rise up from the valley at a steep pace, different ecological zones were created allowing for crops of a very diverse nature. Peru is a country that has most every fruit or vegetable you can imagine (except pickles!) due to the fact that the Incas long ago brought fruits in from the jungle and learned to cultivate them using the terraces.
On the opposite mountain from the majority of the terraces, the Inca built grand storehouses to preserve their crops after the harvest. I thought it was absurd to haul all of their bounty from one mountain across a valley and then up another mountain but the Incas had good reason. Because these storehouses were located high on the mountainside, the temperatures at this altitude and the winds helped to keep their harvest preserved for far more time than they would have lasted under normal storage conditions.
My favorite and I think the most interesting portion of the site, is located just to the side of the storehouses. There is a large face carved into the side of the mountain that measures about 400 feet high. It is believed that over the years erosion has washed away most of the features but never the less you can still easily make out the grimacing face. The man is believed to be the famous leader Viracocha but not much is known about the carvings purpose. I can only imagine it made a great display of power to have Viracocha staring down on you.
The Incas were also masters of leveraging water from the mountain glacier run offs. In Ollantaytambo you can see streams winding through both the ruins and the modern day town that were created in Inca times. Many of the water pools even had regulated water pressure so that the stream maintained a consistent flow. One example of this is the Bath of the Princess.
Don’t Skip the Sacred Valley
If you’re making your way to Peru, don’t just visit Machu Picchu. If time permits make sure to stop by the Sacred Valley and visit Ollantaytambo, Pisaq, Moray, and the other great sites. While Machu Picchu is the most famous, and definitely a wonder of the world, no trip is complete without experiencing the rest of the great Sacred Valley sites. It really helps you to visualize the grandeur and inter-connectedness of the great Inca Empire. As a bonus it’s also a great way to work on acclimating to the altitude before heading out on the Inca Trail or just climbing the thousands of stairs at Machu Picchu.