The Ollantaytambo archaeological site, one of the most popular in Peru, was built by the Inca and is home to some of the finest examples of perfectly cut stones, startingly steep stairways through tidy terraces, an intricate water system, and a few alpacas thrown in for good measure.
The Inca loved this valley which was cut by the Urubamba River and offered fertile soil that allowed the rising empire to feed its people. This reverence led to the name Sacred Valley of the Incas (Valle Sagrada de los Incas in Spanish). Other cultures thrived in the valley before the Inca including the Chanapata, the Qotacalla, and the Killke. However, the Inca created the archaeological sites that still remain and tens of thousands of travelers visit the Sacred Valley to see them every year. Machu Picchu is, by far, the most famous Incan archaeological site in the Sacred Valley, but there are many others that are worth your time, including the Ollantaytambo archaeologicial site.
Exploring the Ollantaytambo archaeological site
Unlike most archaeological sites, the Ollantaytambo site is part of a living town of the same name. Locals call it “Ollanta” and it’s been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. The road through the Sacred Valley ends in the town of Ollantaytambo and the train to the town of Aguas Calientes and the Machu Picchu archaeological site departs from and returns to the Ollantaytambo train station. So, it’s no surprise that you will see lots of tour buses, lots of tourists, and lots of tourist crap for sale in town and in front of the archaeological site itself.
The name Ollantaytambo is believed to be derived from the Quechua word ulla-nta-wi which means “place to see down.” The Ollantaytambo site, built by the Incas in the mid-1400s, is believed to have been used as a ceremonial center, a royal estate for Incan leaders including Pachacuti, and a fortress from which the Inca could “see down” the Sacred Valley. This made Ollantaytambo strategically important.
The elevated vantage point from the site helped the Inca–including Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance–to thwart Spanish conquistadors, though the Incan empire was ultimately overtaken by the invaders.
When you walk through the gate and enter the Ollantaytambo archaeological site, the massive complex makes an imposing first impression. On the ground level, you’ll find a series of aqueducts and fountains moving water from nearby rivers. These were all precisely hand-carved out of stone and many are adorned with purely decorative additional carving. And it’s all still in perfect working order.
Exploring the rest of the site requires tackling long, steep, stone staircases that give access to the site’s agricultural terraces, stunning Sun Temple, intricate stone walls, elaborate arched stone doorways, and much more.
We call the staircases at Ollantaytambo the “Incan Stair Master” and the climbs are made even more taxing by the 9,160 foot (2,790 meter) elevation. Take it slow and watch your footing. Luckily, there are plenty of reasons to catch your breath as you stop to admire the construction of the terraces, the massive cut stone walls, and other classic Incan elements.
Like at all Incan sites, the best stonework was used for the construction of royal or ceremonial areas. As you explore the Ollantaytambo site you will notice that the craftsmanship gets finer the higher up you go.
The highlight of the Ollantaytambo archaeological site is the Sun Temple. Located at the top of the site (but worth the climb), the Sun Temple was built from massive chunks of fieldstone that may have been transported from a hillside far across the valley. Each boulder was then shaped and carved by hand before being fit together perfectly without the use of any mortar.
Experts believe the Sun Temple was never completed, but visitors can walk right up to a finished section called the Wall of Six Monoliths to admire the amazing stone-working skills of the Inca.
Ollantaytambo travel tips
The full Boleto Turistico del Cusco (130 soles or about US$36.50 per person) is valid for 10 days from the first time you use it. It includes admission to some museums in Cuzco, all of the archaeological sites around Cuzco, and the major archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley, including Ollantaytambo. If you do not plan to visit the archaeological sites or museums in and around Cusco and just want to focus on the archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley, get the partial Boleto Turistico (70 soles or about US$20 per person). You can buy a Boleto Turistico in an office near the main plaza in Cuzco or at the site itself.
Try to arrive at the Ollantaytambo archaeological site in the morning to avoid afternoon crowds (this is an extremely popular site) and to take advantage of gorgeous mid-morning light for photography.
Wear good walking/hiking shoes and bring your trekking poles if you use them. You’ll also want to wear a hat and sunscreen and carry water because there is very little shade. And allow at least two hours to explore this large and fascinating site.
Many visitors overlook the other archaeological site here. After a short hike up a hillside facing the Ollantaytambo site, you’ll find the Pinkuylluna archaeological site. Here, the Inca built can large food storage facilities in places where strong winds and cooler temperatures kept their food stocks fresh longer. The structures are lovely and so are the views of Ollantaytambo.
Where to eat in Ollantaytambo
You will work up a hunger while exploring the Ollantaytambo archaeological site. Remedy that by having lunch at Chuncho, a restaurant on the main plaza that got its name from the Quechua word for native or wild.
Chuncho offers a changing menu of traditional native dishes made with local ingredients. Those ingredients come, in large part, from their nearby organic farm. Seasonal dishes might include soups made with mote (extra-large Andean corn) or made from some of the hundreds of varieties of native potatoes. There might be oven-roasted cuy (guinea pig), or rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers). Dishes are best shared around the table so everyone can get a taste of the Andes.
After lunch, wander the cobblestone streets around the main plaza to see buildings dating back to Inca times that are still used today. Some of the houses here are among the oldest continuously occupied homes in South America. You’ll notice some of the same construction techniques that you saw in the archaeological site, including river rock foundations.
Where to sleep in Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is a popular jumping-off point for onward travel to Machu Picchu and as a destination in and of itself, so there are a lot of places to sleep in Ollantaytambo from backpacker hostels to large hotels favored by group tours and the tour bus crowd. The most eclectic and stylish hotel in Ollantaytambo is El Albergue. Located right at the train station near the center of town and close to the archaeological site, this hotel offers rooms and bungalows around a peaceful central garden. Comforters are fluffy, the architecture is traditional, and the atmosphere is homey and serene.
More Sacred Valley travel tips
Part 2 of our Sacred Valley Travel Guide covers the Pisac archaeological site. Part 3 covers the Moray archaeological site. Part 4 covers the living Incan culture in the town of Chinchero. Part 5 covers (mostly) non-archaeological things to do in the Sacred Valley. Part 6 covers where to eat and drink in the Sacred Valley. Part 7 covers some of the best hotels in the Sacred Valley.
And here’s our guide to restaurants, sightseeing, and hotels in Cusco, everything you need to know about visiting Machu Picchu, and our day-by-day guide to hiking the Inca Trail.
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about Archaeological Sites