Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley – Days 23 to 25

Jackie at the entrance to Ollantaytambo fortress

Ollantaytambo is a place I’ve wanted to go to since reading about it in the book ‘The Spanish Conquest of the Incas’ that Simon Cocker lent me some time ago (and which I still have on a shelf in the UK – I will return it Simon – when we get back!).

Very briefly, prior to the arrival of the Spanish and after the death of the Inca Huayna Capac in 1524 the Inca Empire was divided between his two sons Atahualpa, who controlled the north centred at Quito in modern day Ecuador, and Huascar who controlled the south from Cusco. 
Plaza de Armas, Ollantaytambo
A bitter civil war erupted between the two brothers with Atahualpa coming out on top by invading the south and killing his brother, to assume full control over the whole empire. It was at that moment that the Spanish arrived, managed to capture Atahualpa and used him to command his troops to surrender to Spanish demands and deliver huge amounts of gold to them. Eventually the Spanish killed Atahualpa and advanced on Cusco and were seen as liberators against the oppressive Atahualpa.

Urubamba town from the top of the valley
Views from the bus near the Sacred Valley
The Spanish quickly appointed a younger brother of Atahualpa, Manco as puppet Inca and, at first everyone was happy. However, by 1536 it became apparent to Manco Inca and all the Indians that, far from him being in charge, it was the Spanish and the destruction in their capital Cusco and bad treatment of the natives was not going to resolve itself to the advantage of the Incas.

View from the fortress, Ollantaytambo town and the Sacred Valley beyond
Manco Inca thus escaped from Cusco and made a secret treaty with many thousands of natives to rebel against the Spanish, retreating to the fortress at Ollantaytambo to mount their resistance and plan their attack on Cusco to drive the Spanish out. Fransico Pizzaro’s brother Hernando quickly rounded up some troops and rode the 42km across country to confront Manco Inca at Ollantaytambo fortress only to find they had flooded the surrounding land and had many thousands of natives in the formidable fortification.

Close up of the ruined Inca grain stores on the mountain opposite and, to the left the gigantic grumpy looking profile of a face carved in the rock, possibly an Inca sculpture of Wiraccochan, the mythical messenger from Viraccocha, the major creator-god of Peru
Inca stonework supported by Jackie
A battle ensued after which the Spanish uncharacteristically retreated, but despite this victory Manco Inca felt the fortress was untenable and withdrew further inland, thus allowing Hernando to take full control.

Today it’s a lovely small, but very busy town that is a delight and we thoroughly enjoyed our weekend there. It’s a two hour collectivo (shared mini bus) ride from Cusco, up and over the mountains, dropping down into the valley known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas at the town of Urubamba. 
The unfinished Sun Temple
The valley was formed by the Urubamba river and has cut a deep and scenic valley from Pisac (where we went last weekend) through to Ollantaytambo, then on into a very narrow steep sided valley to Machu Picchu. The Sacred Valley is a tour that many people do from Cusco as it can be done as a nice circuit in a day, visiting Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, returning to Cusco by the evening. We didn’t want to do a tour as too little time is available to fully explore the Inca ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo, hence we visited Pisac last weekend and Ollantaytambo this weekend.

View of part of the fortress and the valley towards Mach Picchu beyond
Looking back to the terraces and the Sun Temple
After entering Urubamba town our bus turned left and followed the river through the valley to Ollantaytambo. The valley was certainly scenic with towering mountains but we weren’t bowled over by its beauty, however on entering Ollantaytambo along its cobbled, narrow streets we were immediately charmed by its beauty. It is such a likeable place, very rustic and quaint, the main square, called unsurprisingly (as many plazas appear to be called) the Plaza de Armas has many hostels, restaurants, cafes and shops, dwarfed by the huge mountains around. At 2700m altitude it’s 600m lower than Cusco and we enjoyed the slightly thicker air, not having to breathe quite as deeply, which made quite a change!

Dangerous place? Mmm, I'll second that!
We found a nice hostel, the PachaKusi on the ‘main’ street near the Plaza, after researching on the Internet and get it for just over 30 Soles (£7.50) less than the rates quoted on the internet, result! Nice room with private bathroom and a rooftop balcony with fantastic views over the fortress, more Inca ruins and on another mountain behind and amazing views down the Sacred Valley and onwards towards Machu Picchu.

Ollantaytambo, the market square and the Inca ceremonial water fountains
After some lunch in the Plaza we dropped off a few things in our room (we were travelling very light and headed up into the fortress, where we spent about three hours exploring. We didn’t think it was quite as impressive as the one at Pisac but the engineering the Incas had done with water management was very impressive and much of it still intact and working today. The whole site is terraced for the production of food and irrigation canals ingeniously fed water to all surfaces via stone canals, the engineering of which would be impressive by today’s standards.

Some of the water supply engineering
Water channels carved out of solid rock
We got back to the hostel by late afternoon armed with beer and nibbles and went up onto the rooftop terrace to relax and take in the view. The sun set to the left of the fortress behind some mountains and although we got some nice light and shadows the sunset wasn’t a memorable one, but still enjoyable. However, as soon as the sun went, so did the warmth, so jackets out and we went in search of food, finding a quaint little restaurant where we sampled the local trout, accompanied by a musician playing guitar and alternately singing and playing the pan pipes very proficiently.

Think this might have been some sort of ceremonial bathing area
More water channels carved in rock
Sunday was a lazy start, the usual bread, butter and jam, orange juice, scrambled eggs and coffee or tea, whilst chatting to a guy from London about our travels and then we were off walking. No shower unfortunately, the water pressure in the town is very low as the town has grown beyond the size it can properly sustain apparently. The owners were pumping water into a rooftop storage tank trying to get the pressure up so we had water for flushing the loo and to wash by, but nothing from the shower rose!

View from the other side
Jackie meets her match! This Llama wants no strokes!
We first went up the mountain opposite the fort to explore the Inca grain store ruins which were interesting, but also gave great views of the fort and the Sacred Valley. Next we walked down to the train station to both investigate the narrow gauge railway that takes people to Machu Picchu and to find the path that leads up another mountain that, according to our Rough Guide gives very good views of the fortress, the town, the grain store ruins and the valleys either side. 
A street in Ollantaytambo complete with Inca drainage
The Incas are still alive and delivering gas!
Someone told us we could go through the security gate onto the station platform, walk along the rails, onto a path, over a bridge on the river and then onto the path up the mountain. The security guards didn’t at first share the same view, but we insisted and eventually they let us through. It was quite a long walk along a dusty road before we found the bridge and then a long walk up the other side with ever increasing panorama views as we ascended.

Oh look what Jackie found, a tiny kitten miaowing loudly
This is Yucca apparently
It was, however more than Jackie wanted to do and more and more toys were coming out of her pram as we progressed upwards. Ideally I would have liked to walk over to another bridge further up and back along the side of the railway, but I could see that was not going to happen! I gave up just before the path flattened out and we retraced our steps, but I still think it would have been shorter to carry on and do the loop. Anyway we had great views, walked a very long way, stopped for lunch and got the bus back to Cusco, arriving by early evening as two very tired people.

On the rooftop terrace of our hostel enjoying a beer and nibbles while the sun sets
Sun set on the grain store mountain. The face not quite visible from here
Running short on cash we diverted to the BCP bank by Plaza de Armas in Cusco, where we found we can get the most withdrawl of cash in one go (700 Soles, about £175), only to bump into Tina, the British, but of Chinese parents, girl who is staying in our homestay and who was waiting for another girl at the language school while she got some cash out. Tina then went on to tell us how she was robbed in Cusco on Saturday afternoon in a market. She had her purse with credit and cash cards and 400 Soles cash in her bag over her shoulder, someone squirted water on her and as she lifted her arms someone took her purse without her knowing. It was only later did she realise it had gone. We were able to help her by drawing out some cash for her and she transferred the money into our account, so at least she isn’t destitute! Lesson to be learned by us all there.

Sunday morning walk up to the grain store ruins. The Plaza de Armas is right, our hostel roof terrace is in view, in the middle near the bottom is a small orange roof, to the right of that is the terrace with a black water tank just in view
Ollantaytambo town is left, the fortress terraces and fort are above
Today we have booked a tour for next weekend to Machu Picchu, big decision here, we could easily have booked the whole thing ourselves, but there are lots of things to arrange that must all come together. I’d worked out the cost of a DIY trip and, today we visited a tour company recommended to us who, after negotiation, reduced their prices to the same as my DIY cost (US$230 each), so we went for it. 
Looking down the Sacred Valley
Approaching the ruined grain stores
It starts with another bus ride back to Ollantaytambo, the train to Machu Picchu village were we spend the night in a better hostel that the one I was looking at, breakfast very early in the morning, a bus ride up to the entrance, a 2 hour guided walk round the ruins, then we’ve booked a slot to walk up the mountain for apparently great views, the bus back down to the village, the train back to Ollantaytambo and the bus back to Cusco. A pretty good deal we think and were really looking forward to that.

Walking amongst the grain store ruins with the town below and the fortress beyond
A little humming bird we saw
Today, back to Spanish class, we’re halfway through our 4 week course and it’s getting quite hard now. I’m not doing as well as Jackie, who is not doing as well as Tina and I’m feeling very frustrated with myself. I probably want to run before I can walk and be able to converse with people. It is so frustrating not to be able to talk easily with this lovely family in the homestay and I’m stumbling over sentences in class and feeling like an idiot. I must look back at my progress though and we both have come a long way, but I just want to be better!

Anyway, I must get back to studying now, I really want to do better!
Maybe its just me, but I found this really interesting. See that channel of water in the distance, it goes down a hole and underneath the much lower road, only to re-emerge on this side of the road to continue its journey. Clever or what?

The train heading to Machu Picchu. I waved but he didn't wave back

Walking along the dusty track by the railway towards the bridge

Interesting bridge, not for vehicles!

The Urubamba river, bottom, a train at the station and, just right of centre is the fortress and the mountain to the right contains the grain store ruins

A closer view of the fortress from the side

A two carriage train returns from Machu Picchu

The fortress just left of centre, the grain store mountain about centre, the town below

As high as we went. The fortress on L, Grain store mountain left of centre, the Sacred Valley off to the right and the Urubamba river just in view. Shame about the tree in the way!

We walked back down into the town, I ordered drinks and lunch, Jackie went to wash her hands and came back in carrying a cat!

Last view of the grain store ruins and face profile before heading back on the bus

The Sacred Valley on the way home


  1. Some fantastic pictures and looks you are having an amazing time in Cusco and exploring the surrounding areas. We loved Ollantaytambo and exploring the fort; we especially enjoyed going up the grain store to get a full visita of the Inca construction. We just marvelled at their engineering and the ability to move and shape such large stones through a combination of absolute belief in their gods and slave labour. We contemplated doing the route over the other side but decided it not only looked a long slog but it would seem never ending - seems Jackie confirmed our view. Envious of your next trip - to us it was one one of our highlights of our year away. A little like Angkor Wat in so far you know its going to be amazing but even so still takes your breath away. Couple of tips - make sure you go up to the Sun Gate to get the stunning, iconic shots and also if you want to climb up the mountain behind, you need to book this well in advance as the numbers are limited and as we found it is full on the day!

  2. Wayna Picchu is indeed booked up, so we have to go up the higher Montane on the other side! Jx