Peru’s Ollantaytambo

DFN: Another place to put on my must see list!

Peru’s Ollantaytambo — a ‘living Inca town’
Secure heights: The hillside fortress at Ollantaytambo, Peru. – INDRANIL CHOUDHURI
Nivedita Choudhuri

Peru is blessed with arguably the most fascinating, and some of the most accessible, archaeological remains in all the Americas. Machu Picchu is said to be the ultimate destination, but Peru has much more. Ollantaytambo, often described as a living Inca town because its residents still maintain ancient traditions such as tilling fields with foot ploughs, is absolutely spectacular.

We reached Ollantaytambo as dusk was setting in. I let out a moan when I realised we’d been allotted a room on the second floor of our hotel. Lugging our belongings we huffed and puffed up the two flights of steps — no easy task at 2,800 metres above sea level.

Ollantaytambo is the most populous town in southern Peru’s Sacred Valley, a mountain-hemmed corridor of Edenic farmland bordering the silvery Rio Urubamba. With relaxed rural hotels and several key Inca sites nearby, this is the perfect place to catch not only your breath but also attune to the enigmas of one of history’s most fascinating cultures. Few visitors linger long at Ollantaytambo as most scurry to board the train to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu.

Steeped in history

The place takes its name after Ollanta, the Inca general who fell in love with the ninth ruler Pachacutec’s daughter. He was forced to flee the city, but was united with her after Pachacutec’s death. Significant in history for the greatest Inca victory over the Spanish, the town was conquered again by the Spaniards in 1537.

After gulping down a few cups of coca tea, which tastes like most herbal teas and is great at relieving altitude sickness, we set off to tour the town. Ollantaytambo’s cobbled streets and mountainside ruins of 15th-century storehouses and agricultural terraces immediately appealed to us. Most of the houses are traditional, stone-built Inca structures with open courtyards that look straight up at some of the most dramatic ruins.

Promoting tourism

To encourage tourism in the Sacred Valley, many agencies have launched Quechua home stays and home visits whereby visitors are welcomed into the dwellings of local families. Quechua is an indigenous language of the Andean region and is spoken by around 13 million people. Many Quechua speakers are direct descendants of the Incas and live as subsistence farmers in the high-altitude areas.

Our guide Alfredo took us to the home of a Quechua family not far from our hotel. A lady ushered us in and showed us around. It was a one-room house — there were a couple of beds at one end and cooking utensils at the other. Scores of cuddly guinea pigs darted about, unaware of what fate had in store for them. Peruvians reportedly consume more than 20 million guinea pigs — or cuy — a year and they are omnipresent at Andean fiestas. In fact, cuy has been an essential source of protein in Peru for hundreds of years. The home visit put my husband off guinea pigs for life. He had been looking forward to tasting them before the trip started, but just couldn’t bring himself to order roast guinea pig at any of the restaurants we visited later on.

We entered a small café in the corner of the main plaza for dinner. To our surprise, we found burgers, lasagne and farmhouse chicken casserole on the menu. Not the typical Andean fare. But the food was not the only surprise at Hearts Café. It was opened by Sonia Newhouse, a British woman in her 70s who bid adieu to the UK and travelled to Peru some years ago. Shocked at how few resources the local women had, she decided to help them become more independent. The café was thus born and its profits are used to educate children and help local women become more self-sufficient.

Alfredo arrived next morning to take us up to the massive hillside fortress — Araqama Ayllu. We walked past the lively local market where people dressed in bright fabrics were selling a bewildering variety of fabulous knitted and woven clothes. This part of Peru is famous for its colourful knitwear. If there is one item to buy, it has to be the chullo: the alpaca Incan hat with ear-flaps. While they wait for visitors, the women pass the time spinning wool or knitting hats.

Standing tall and strong

We purchased tickets at the counter and then proceeded to walk up countless steps to reach the fortress. I was amazed at the Incas’ fanatical building style.

The fort comprises the Temple of the Sun, the Royal Hall, the Princess’ Baths, and the Intihuatana, used to trace the sun’s path. Although unfinished, the Temple of the Sun is a superb example of Inca stonework. The stone was quarried from the mountainside a few km away, high above the opposite bank of the Rio Urubamba. Transporting the huge stone blocks to the site must have been a stupendous feat involving the sweat and blood of thousands of workers.

A trip to Ollantaytambo should be combined with a visit to the nearby village of Chinchero. The village has Inca ruins, a colonial church, some wonderful mountain views and a colourful Sunday market. The market is less touristy than the one at Ollantaytambo.

An advantage of starting a trip at Ollantaytambo is that you don’t have to get up quite early to catch the train to Machu Picchu. We left for the station around noon. The train passed between snow-topped peaks. We pushed deep into the recesses of the Andes, winding through a thickly wooded world of raging rivers, exotic flora and remote, overgrown Inca ruins. I looked happily out of the window at the gangs of gasping unfortunates who had chosen to trudge to Machu Picchu along the dreaded Inca Trail. Life wasn’t too bad after all.


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