Discover Ollantaytambo! The last living Inca city

By Serena Pedrioli

Situated at an altitude of 2,792 metres in the province of Urubamba, Ollantaytambo (Quechua: Ullantay Tanpu) is the only town founded by the Incas to have preserved its original urban structure intact, and to have been inhabited without interruption since the 13th century.

The town is best known for its archaeological park, a World Heritage site, and as a stopover on the way to Machu Picchu. In fact, we’re about two hours’ drive from Cusco (about 75 km), and it’s from here that you can catch the famous tourist train to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for reaching the wonder of the world.

It’s well worth stopping to explore Ollantaytambo, a very picturesque town with cobbled streets, Inca irrigation canals still in use and impressive archaeological ruins.

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What to see in Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo Fortress Archaeological Park

Terrazze del parco archeologico di Ollantaytambo

This fortress (whose name means Auberge d'Ollantay, the name of a warrior) seems to have been built by the Inca Pachacutec himself. Built on the edge of two mountains, the site was important for its military, administrative, religious and agricultural functions, as well as for stargazing. This is undoubtedly one of the most astonishing archaeological complexes created by the Incas. What made this site famous was the battle that took place here between the Spaniards and the Incas, when Manco Inca tried to build an Inca resistance here after the defeat of Cusco.

Mercado Turistico

At the foot of the fortress is a well-stocked souvenir market, with many stalls lined up displaying handicrafts. Peruvian handicrafts are sensational! You'll find traditional fabrics used to make tablecloths, backpacks, sweaters and much more. In Valle Sagrado towns like this one, we recommend you take a look at the gemstones, which you can find at very affordable prices. Even if the prices already seem low, don't forget to haggle. This is a typical custom in this country, where the initial price is always inflated and never the "right" price, which you will be offered after a short haggle.

Streets of the historical center

Centro storico di Ollantaytambo

A stroll through the streets of the old town is an experience not to be missed! You'll feel as if you've stepped back in time, accompanied by the sound of water and the tranquil lives of those who continue to live in the homes of their ancestors. As we've already told you, Ollantaytambo has preserved the original urban structure of the Incas. Narrow cobbled streets criss-cross in a checkerboard pattern. The doors of the houses, which retain their typical octagonal shape, and the stone walls of the houses, which often rise diagonally from the street, are particular elements of the Inca heritage. In addition, open water canals still run along the cobbled streets. Along the streets, you'll find several hostalos where you can stay, typical restaurants, bakeries, kiosks and many other shops.

One experience I recommend is to visit the interiors of some of the houses that have been rebuilt for tourists, trying to reflect Inca furnishings and customs. You’ll be given a brief introduction to the house, with all its traditional objects, and you can buy (if you wish) the handicrafts on display. Some of the houses also have cuy (guinea pigs) for you to feed. Entrance to these houses is totally free, so it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to buy anything. If you don’t want to buy anything, we recommend that you leave a small offering with the owner as a thank-you for your visit.

Mercado San Pedro

It’s a small, enclosed market where you’ll find handicrafts, fruit and vegetables, meat and in fact a little bit of everything.

It’s located just outside the historic center and is a place very little frequented by tourists; in fact, you’ll meet almost only the locals who are likely to look at you intrigued.

In Peru, and not only, this type of market is active mainly in the mornings and it’s customary to stop off and make yourself a hearty breakfast. On the second floor, you’ll find a dedicated breakfast section, offering fruit juices, hot quinoa or soy drinks and stuffed rolls.

Good to know!

Unfortunately, Ollantaytambo is regarded (unfairly) as a stopover town among tourists who have already seen Machu Picchu and those who have yet to do so. In fact, the main road linking Cusco and the jungle passes through this town, which for this reason is very busy, arousing the discontent of the locals. Tourists who trust the tour operators usually arrive in the morning to visit the fortress exclusively, then leave after a brief stop. For this reason, as well as recommending that you devote at least two full days to this charming village, we encourage you to visit the Fortress early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so that you can enjoy your visit in peace.

Ollantaytambo is just 75 km from Cusco, and it’s possible to get around by tourist train operated by PeruRail and IncaRail, or by car in shared cabs called collectivo. The second option is certainly more practical, both because it’s cheaper (around 20 USD per person vs. 80 on the train) and because you can take it whenever you like during the day without having to book in advance. Go to the Plaza de Armas and approach the parking lots where these cabs are parked, but don’t forget to always try to negotiate the price with the drivers, who generally offer higher prices to tourists. Finally, it’s good to know that these cabs are shared, which means that not only will you be traveling with other people, but the driver may postpone departure until all available seats in the vehicle are occupied.

As you will have gathered by now, Ollantaytambo is a small village and there is a bank (or ATM). That’s why it’s so important to have money with you! It’s best to have it in the local currency, the Peruvian sol, but if you’ve only got dollars left, you’re likely to meet someone who’ll exchange them for you.

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