While the climax of the epic Inca Trail is magnificent Machu Picchu, the iconic hike along that ancient Andean road begins at a place no less important: Ollantaytambo.
Though the city, located some 60 km (37 miles) north of Cusco, is truly ancient—the city center probably dates to the 1300s—much of it was razed in the 15th century by Inca Emperor Pachacuti, after he conquered the region. He rebuilt the city’s monuments in perfectly fitted pink granite boulders quarried about 5 km (3 miles) away. The amazing Temple of the Sun still stands, a testimony to the Inca architects’ prowess.
While Pachacuti probably intended Ollantaytambo to be some sort of spiritual center, the arrival of the Spanish and fall of the empire changed all that. Instead, Ollantaytambo would become stronghold of Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the indigenous resistance. While he successfully held the strategically impressive position, which sits at 2,792 meters (9,160 feet) above sea level against repeated Spanish onslaughts, eventually, the Incas retreated to the highlands, leaving Ollantaytambo’s terraced farms and beautiful stone buildings to be used by the enemy.
Today, most travelers visit on day trips from Cusco, often just the most impressive of several Sacred Valley cities they’ll see that day. It’s easy for independent travelers to visit from Cusco or Aguas Caliente, using public buses or the tourist trains. The most intrepid travelers, of course, spend time here before beginning the trek to Machu Picchu.
There are several hostels and hotels, ranging from basic backpacker spots to the very comfortable Hotel Pakaritampu, if you’d like to spend more time in this graceful city. It’s well worth it. Ollantaytambo isn’t nearly as touristy as Cusco, though it offers all the Internet cafes, souvenir shops and tour operators you’ll ever need.
The spectacular ruins of Ollantaytambo are a must; it’s worth hiring a guide so you’ll better appreciate the Inca’s detailed city planning. Temple Hill, and the Wall of the Six Monoliths, was designed to reflect the setting sun. Ask someone to point out Pinkullyuna, nestled into the cliffs; it’s possible to hike there too. Or simply stroll around the Old Town. Continuously occupied for at least 800 years, it offers a taste of life before the Europeans arrived. Look for stone houses that are among the oldest on the continent.
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Small but fascinating Museo CATCCO (Andean Center of Traditional and Cultural Technology of the Communities of Ollantaytambo) will help you put your astounding surroundings into context, with information about local history, ruins, artifacts and ethnography.
Shoppers will find plenty of handicrafts for sale, but head to Awamaki Weaving, with a shop selling high quality woven goods made with the finest materials; look for real alpaca items colored with natural dyes.
There are several tour operators, offering day trips to surrounding destinations, or more in-depth exploration of Ollantaytambo itself. Chicha Tours are particularly popular. You’ll visit several chicharias, where they make and serve chicha, an alcoholic corn beverage popular since the turn of the second millennia. The perfect ending to an amazing day.