Sacred Valley of the Incas – OllantaytamboDecember 3rd, 2013 | Posted by in Peru | The Places We've Been
The Sacred Valley of the Incas, roughly thirty kilometers as the crow flies north of Cusco, represents the original Inca heartland. This breathtaking, steep-sided valley is cut by the Urubamba River (also called Vilcanota, or “sacred river,” in Quechua) and flattens at its base to a fertile agricultural plain. A tour of the valley’s scenery, ancient towns, and Inca ruins by foot, bus, or train is usually high on the list of activities for any traveler in the area, and for very good reason.
After leaving Pisac, the highway through the Sacred Valley of the Incas turns northwest, running along the right bank of the Urubamba River. The road passes through several small settlements over the next 40 kilometers — most notably Lamay (and its medicinal baths), Calca (popular for its thermal springs and the ruins of Urco), and Yucay (where emperor Huayna Capac had his sixteenth century palace) — before running into the town of Urubamba. Though supposedly a good base from which to explore the valley owing to it’s central location and modern(ish) amenities, as we drove through we were uninspired and decided to keep our heads down and push on through the final 20 kilometers to Ollantaytambo. In retrospect, this seems to have been a wise choice, as I have just learned that Urubamba means “flat land of spiders” in Quechua.
Like Pisac, Ollantaytambo is the name of both a living town and the Inca ruins above. Continuously inhabited since at least the 1400s, Ollanta (as it is often shortened), most famously served as a stronghold for the Inca resistance under Manca Inca. The narrowness and steepness of the valley here make it easy to see why it might be a good defensive position. They successfully repelled Spanish forces under Hernando Pizzaro (Francisco’s brother) here in 1537 before retreating further to Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the Inca.
Activity in today’s Ollantaytambo is centered around the main Plaza de Armas, the ruins and market on the west edge of town, and train station. As we pulled in, our plan was to 1) visit the ruins 2) find the train station (we would be catching the train to Machu Picchu here the next time we were in Ollanta) and 3) get some lunch. There is only one way into town. We drove the rough and narrow cobblestone street directly through the wide Plaza de Armas, across the river, and through the Inca plaza directly below the ruins before finding a cochera (parking lot). After entering the ruins, we headed straight up through terracing, toward the fortress above us. Near the top we once again encountered our St. Louis friends, chatting briefly and exchanging contact info, as it turns out they had been to Tierra del Fuego, and we are always in search of good tips. The weather blowing in over the mountains above us looked like it might be somewhat nasty, but we pressed on to the heights of the complex. Though we were greeted by fierce winds over the final ridge, it never did start to rain, enabling us to finish our exploration and walk down unabated.
After descending back into town, we started looking for a place to eat. In our typical manner, we completely over-analyzed the eating situation (this is something of a recurring trend when it comes to us searching for a restaurant). After walking up the main road, pausing at the entrance to Plaza de Armas, deciding to turn around, sitting down at one place and then leaving because they didn’t have the pizza their sign advertised, eliminating a nice place next to the river because “the view might be blocked by some foliage,” dismissing another because we decided it was too expensive based on what was actually on the menu, sitting down to talk about the situation, discussing the possibility of just grabbing a small snack and eating back in Cusco, and walking around for one more pass, we finally settled on a restaurant with a courtyard almost in the shadow of the town’s church. After all that, it turned out to be quite lovely, with views of the ruins and mountains above us, and you can’t go wrong with mate de coca and pizza on the menu.
The last order of business before heading back down the valley (Ollantaytambo is the end of the road unless you are on foot or taking the train) was to definitively locate the train station and a place to park our car overnight for our journey to Machu Picchu. Check and check. After sitting through a small traffic jam (why a giant tourist bus would choose to stop, drop all of its passengers off, and dilly-dally on the only narrow road through town is beyond me), we were on the road again heading back toward Urubamba.
Many people only make it to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Machu Picchu or as part of a trek on the Inca Trail. This, my friends, is a huge mistake. The setting is gorgeous, the town’s history is interesting, and we found Ollanta to be the most delightful, relaxing, and picturesque town in the Sacred Valley. Even if it’s just for an afternoon, if you are passing through area be sure to take a bit of time to sit back and enjoy Ollantaytambo.