Horror: That was the immediate reaction of the Spanish upon seeing Ollantaytambo.
Given their situation, you can hardly blame them. At some 200 feet high, and made up of coursed ashlar stones weighing 50 tons or more, the massive walls and terraced parapets of this Inca stronghold would well have struck fear into the hearts of just about any fighting force audacious (or just plain foolish) enough to attack it, as the Spaniards were bent on doing way back in 1537.
Nowadays as well, awe and even intimidation are standard reactions to Ollantaytambo’s sheer over-the-topness—though today the only fear this temple-fortress inspires is of the 200-odd steps leading to its summit, which can take the wind out of even physically fit climbers. More even than its neighbor Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo’s sublime heft makes it look like a huge Lego project built and abandoned by the gods.
It also makes it a required stop on any foray into Peru’s Sacred Valley. Located some 50 miles from Cuzco at the head of the Inca trail and looking out over the confluence of the Wilcanuta and Patacancha rivers, the ruins of Ollantaytambo and its adjoining town are the scene simultaneously of one of the greatest drubbings of the Spanish by the Inca soldiery, of some of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in the Americas, and of one of the most astounding engineering marvels anywhere…all in an Andean valley of heart-stopping beauty.
All of which means you shouldn’t be surprised if your visit to this 600-year-old relic en route to Machu Picchu ends up getting extended—perhaps to several days.
Here’s a sneak preview of what you’ll find in this living Inca town.
“These Indians are demons…”
When Hernando Pizarro marched his men down the Urubamba River valley in late 1536, he had no idea what he was getting into.
Pizarro, half-brother to the great Francisco and one of the top Spanish brass in Peru, was hoping to follow up on a recent victory at Cuzco, in which his men had finally broken a seven-month siege by the encircling Incas. Flush with confidence, the Spaniards thought to maintain the initiative and smash the Inca resistance while they could.
It didn’t turn out that way. Upon emerging onto the plain just below Ollantaytambo, the conquistadors were summarily thrashed by a maniacal horde of natives who’d been whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy by Manco Inca, their leader. Arrows, spears, even captured Spanish sabers and arquebuses: the Incas let loose with everything they had, capping their onslaught by flooding the plain with water diverted from the nearby river.
When the dust settled, the invaders’ casualties stood in the thousands. Ollantaytambo would go down as a bitter loss for Spain, one that showed just how fierce the Incas could be when they rallied.
Pedro Pizarro, Hernando and Francisco’s cousin, said it best: “These Indians, when they are victorious, are like demons in pressing it home…”
Today the streets in the village of Ollantaytambo are quiet, bearing none of the traces of the violent past. Indeed, because the Spanish never razed the town, they’re some of the best-preserved streets in all of South America, with many families living in houses that are substantially as they were in Inca times.
Several of these dwellings form part of enclosures called canchas, consisting of four homes around a central courtyard. The canchas date from the 1400s, and some still sport the stone lintels that denoted higher status in Inca society. A few blocks go so far as to retain their Inca names: Torohuatana, Cipascancha, Texacocha.
At the edge of the village’s grid lies another of Ollantaytambo’s adornments, the Princess’s Bath. Carved from a single stone measuring 2.5 by 1.5 meters, this fountain was reportedly used for ceremonial bathing by Inca royalty staying in the town. It forms part of a larger waterworks system, complete with channels running through the principal streets, that still functions today.
The upshot being that walking along these cobblestoned alleys is about as close as you can get to experiencing what life was like in an Inca village.
Ramparts and Temples
The hillside bastion that towers above Ollantaytambo’s homesteads is one of the Sacred Valley’s archaeological marvels, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors—including many anthropologists—every year.
The problem is, none of them is quite sure what it was for.
The fault lies with the ruins themselves. On the one hand, that the complex’s 17 massive stone terraces served some defensive function seems undeniable. It’s strategically placed at one of the principal approaches to the Inca capital of Cuzco, and the panoramic views from its peak would have enabled Inca soldiers to pick out invaders from miles away.
Atop the citadel, however, things get confusing. Situated there are a number of buildings whose purpose was unmistakably ceremonial. Most imposing among them is the unfinished Temple of the Sun, with its wall of six gargantuan blocks near the main altar and windows to let in the sun’s rays on the winter solstice, but there’s also the Enclosure of the Ten Niches (supposedly used to render homage to ancestors of the Inca Pachacutec), as well as the mysterious Temple of the Condor (a strange rock carving whose peak resembles the Andean bird’s head), both subjects of intense academic bickering.
Puzzling as the citadel-temple’s purpose is, even more so is how the Incas managed to build it in the first place. We know the 40- to 50-ton boulders were hauled from a quarry three miles away, but after that the speculation starts. Did the workers of the time actually divert the Urubamba River to facilitate the slabs’ transport? What tools allowed them to carve the hard andesite with such precision? And how did they hoist them up so high?
The answers to these questions probably won’t be forthcoming anytime soon, but Ollantaytambo seems only to profit from the mystery. Like its cousin Machu Picchu, its silence continues to provoke explorers—eloquent testimony to the enduring fascination of South America’s greatest empire.
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.