The Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo were suggested to us by a guy we met in Arequipa. We had never heard of Ollantaytambo (O-yahn-tay-tom-bow) and can barely say it at times. However, after spending some time in Cusco we were ready to get out of the town of tourism, hawkers and inflated prices to a place with a slower place and check out some ruins. Ollantaytambo is a village in the Sacred Valley in the south of Peru, on the Urubamba River. The Ollantaytambo ruins are a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside. It is said that Francisco Pizarro and the conquistadors of Spain in the 1500s, sent his younger brother Hernando, with 70 fighters on horseback to take Ollantaytambo. The Incas held them off in their stronghold, only one of a few in all of Peru. They eventually left the area for higher ground and relinquished the village to the Spanish. The village's old town is an Inca-era grid of cobblestone streets and adobe buildings that make you feel as if you are back in medieval times. With its narrow cobblestone streets and passages, it was almost reminiscent of Varanasi in India. We couldn't wait to get exploring the surrounding ruins and village.
The Village of Ollantaytambo
The census in 2012 states it's population around 700 inhabitants, however the last census a month ago might show more. This town seems bigger than 700, however it is a touristic town, more so than we had hoped for. While in Cusco, we couldn't wait to get to a place where we weren't hawked into buying tours, bracelets, mass-produced paintings, etc etc. No such luck in Ollantaytambo. The minute we got out of our taxi, we were swarmed by hawkers trying to get us to buy their stuff. The main plaza de Armas here in Ollantaytambo is small in comparison to other plazas we have seen and without a Catholic Church. Instead it's full of overpriced restaurants all selling the exact same thing for exactly the same price. All of them accosting you on the street with a menu trying to usher you into their establishment. A block away from the plaza... peace and quiet. Of course we picked a hostel right on the plaza and would have to endure the constant pandering of everyone in the center part of town.
The town itself is like walking back in time to the medieval times. It's not hard to imagine what life in the 1500s would have been like in this city. It's Incan construction through and through. The homes all have a courtyard and very small doorways. The rocks are intricately placed with adobe mud as cement. The streets are cobblestone passages no more than 6 -8 feet wide. We loved walking around the town which really consists of 4 streets and 7 cross streets. One block from the plaza is the residential zone where most of the people in the city live. There are also some outer neighborhoods as well along the river and just outside the city.
The Streets of Ollantaytambo
The streets of Ollantaytambo have an irrigation system from the mountains that still pipe in water to many of the homes. It's a fast running water gully that provides the entire city with somewhat fresh water. Not that you would drink from it directly, however for showering, washing clothes, dishes, and toilets, it would be fine. The streets are really narrow with worn cobblestones and walls that are indicative of the intricately placed stones Incan masons were known for much like San Blas in Cusco. Walking around Ollantaytambo is special. Watching Andean mountain life at 9,100 feet with traditionally dressed women and kids walking around, was just what we wanted out of Peru and had a hard time finding. Cusco is huge, Arequipa was huge, Lima was huge, Huacachina wasn't even a town, and I felt as if anyone I saw dressed traditionally in any of these places were asking for us to take a photo of them for money. Ollantaytambo was more authentic.
The People of Ollantaytambo
The people here are lovely! To be honest, I haven't been a huge fan of the people in Peru. The tourist industry has pretty much jaded most of them to foreigners and we don't feel the warmth of Latin America as we do other places. The Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo is different. The people say hello to you, and good morning and night. The people are willing to sit and talk to you about their culture and their country. There is a large indigenous grouping of people in Ollantaytambo.
The men don't dress as traditional, however the women and many children do. The things they all have in common are that all the women carry a wrap around their back. Some haul groceries, some children, some we can't figure out what they might have in their wrap. They all have knee-length skirts with multiple layers of alpaca/llama fabric. They all usually have some sort of hat or head-dress as well. This is where things differ. Some are bowler hats, some are tall puritan style hats. Others are small round hats with flowers in them and a large decorated chin strap. Most of them are extremely colorful. We did however see a group come through that were in all black. I asked one of the men where they were from, and they said near the Bolivian border. Dressed the same, however no bright colors. The people here are humble and simple. Many don't even speak Spanish and only Aymara or Quechua which are two of the main languages of the indigenous. We felt as if we were finally in a foreign country with culture and not just a tourist trap as we have felt in many parts of Peru. Refreshing!
The Ruins of Ollantaytambo
There are two main ruin sites in Ollantaytambo. The main ruins by the same name and a smaller ruin site called Pinkuylluna, The main ruin site was over 25 dollars to get in and we decided not to pay the archeological juggernaut that is Peru any money to see its ruins. It's simply a cash cow and the reason we didn't want to go to Machu Piccu either. The smaller ruins of Pinkuylluna are free and have spectacular views of Ollantaytambo. For us, it's not the place we want to see, but how we see the place.
The Pinkuylluna Incan Storehouses of Ollantaytambo are located on the hill overlooking the North-East side of the town of Ollantaytambo. This steep climb takes between is well worth it for the spectacular views of Ollantaytambo's villiage and the Incan ruins.
It is believed that the storehouses (Qollqa in Quechua) were built in the 15th century by Incan emperor Pachacuti to store grain produced in the surrounding agricultural terraces. The storehouses were built at high altitude to both preserve the food (more wind and cooler temperatures) and to protect their food stores in the case of attack.
We explored these ruins for two days and hiked nearly to the top at around 10,000 feet. (1000 feet higher than the village below) We sat up there for hours until they kicked us out at 5pm when it closes. The ruins were beautiful and peaceful and at times we had them to ourselves. This is what we enjoy. Not standing in lines, massive tourists, and commercialism of ruin sites that Peru has perfected.
Change In Perspective
We have been all over the world and have seen many ruin sites, temples, historical places and the like. Now days, we want to go places where we can actually connect to place not just see it. Paying huge prices to go to sites, temples, etc... just doesn't fit into our style of "connection". We want to climb the ruins and sit and ponder what it must have been like to be an Incan. Sit on a ledge as we did, and take it all in.
Seeing a historical place like Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley of Peru isn't the draw for us. It's draw is when we can connect with it. Dig deep down and become one with it. Explore it. I know this sounds very mystical, however we have found that the greatest memories we have of places, were not the places themselves, but how they made us feel.
We felt that the difficult climb over rock, 1000 feet up to a terrace overlooking the valley, held a special feeling for us because we could do it at our own pace, not on a tour, exploring the sites. To sit for hours overlooking, speaking little and connecting to the valley and ruins in a way that is ours. Hopefully Peru will learn to understand this. Probably not however. The cash cow of Incan sites has made Peru a lot of money and recent changes such as Machu Picchu.
The tourism influx has created opportunity for some Peruvian families and individuals, and we understand that. However, when it's all about the money, it tarnishes the unique feelings you get when you visit somewhere special and ancient. We are glad that there are still places like Ollantaytambo where you can take in the culture and connect. But, probably not for long. We imagine that in the not to distant future, they will charge for Pinkuylluna as well, when the government feels they can make another quick buck off the tourist.