Exploring Ollantaytambo & Patacancha, Peru
The small town of Ollantaytambo plays an important role in the history of the Inca. In 1536 Manco Inca made several last stands against the Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro here. In the first battle Manco successfully flooded the plains below the fort driving the Spanish away. But in the second, he was defeated and forced to flee down the valley to Vilcabamba.
Everywhere you look in this town there are reminders of this past. The Spanish built their new town of Ollantaytambo on top of the old Inca town, previously built by Pachacuti in the early 15th century. But they left much of the Inca town intact. Large Inca stone doors lead into colonial homes and courtyards. Ancient waterways gush down narrow cobbled alleys. The old blends with the even older, both Quechua and European. It's a unique and interesting mix.
The town is still overshadowed by an imposing Inca fortress, the scene of Manco Inca's stand. It is closer and bigger than you imagine, towering overhead. From a distance, and looking like ants, tourists form orderly lines, swarming up and down the steep staircases, along the terraces. On the other side of the valley are are series large Inca storehouses.
Between them are the crumbling yellow brick houses of Ollantaytambo, tightly packed into a narrow valley below these commanding Inca structures. Clustered around the more spacious central plaza are cafe's and tourist shops. In the middle of the square, under the trees, dogs snooze and locals siesta. The town has a sleepy, dusty and rural charm.
Located near Cusco and on the way to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, Ollantaytambo gets it's share of tourists. But most are just passing through and don't take the time to explore or get out into the surrounding hills. It is worth staying for at least a couple of days, even if you do no more than explore the backstreets and drink coffee in the Plaza.
In the evenings things quieten down. The town becomes less touristy and more Peruvian. If you go looking for dinner too late everyone will have turned in. At night, navigating through the almost pitch black alleys, it is easy to get lost or end up in one of the waterways. If you are lucky, a wandering local drunk might help you out.
An excellent day trip from Ollantaytambo is up the valley to the north to the Patacancha Valley. To get there you take a narrow dusty backroad that snakes it's way up to dry, desolate grasslands over 4000 meters above sea level. The village of Patachancha itself is known for it's weaving and there are various traditional houses and places you can visit to see this happening - although you probably can't just turn up, you need a guide or someone local to introduce you and take you the right place. There are also some interesting old churches and Inca terraces.
Read about a visit to the Awamaki women's weaving collective on the website Women Travel The World here. Awamaki is a Government initiative established to collectivise and connect local weavers with outside markets. This blog describes a trip up the Patacancha valley and being taught some basic weaving.
Another nice blog with photos about travelling up to Patacancha and staying with a Quechua family is over on Surfing The Planet. Written by Rachele (Italy) and Gábor (Hungary) these two travellers get quite involved in the local community, travelling up the valley by local bus, talking to the local doctor, herding sheep and hanging with the locals.
The Patachancha valley is quite off the beaten path, you don't see many tourists up here. Almost all the locals wear traditional Quechua clothing and lead a very simple rural lifestyle.
A good way to see this area is on a mountain bike - get a lift to the top and it is downhill all the way. This can be done by organising a bike and transport through local company KB Tours (the office is in the Ollantaytambo square). You can see some of a bike trip with them in the Travel Collected video below.
Four Films on Ollantaytambo and Patacancha
All three of these films take you on walking tours of Ollantaytambo town, the first also includes a bit of a walk up on the ruins and a ride down the Patacancha Valley.
The first film below is one of our own - Peru Travel Guide - Ollantaytambo & Patacancha. Here we visit the large Inca ruins overlooking the town and demonstrate how to deal to tourists with the nana stick. Then there is a walk around the Ollantaytambo back streets, alleys and the Plaza. Finally we ride mountain bikes down the Patacancha valley and visit a few homesteads, eat a potato, check out an old church and zoom down a few single track excursions along the way. There seem to be a lot of school kids on the road too.
“Oh boy we’ve got a dead cow right here” exclaims the ever observant Gabriel Traveller as he admires an “awesome view of the countryside” on the outskirts of Ollantaytambo. Yes, nothing goes unnoticed by this prolific world adventurer and vlogger - even dead cows. However, before the film climaxes with this unfortunate bovine encounter, we get an enjoyable tour of the town.
First up it's a chat in his characterful hostel which we learn cost only $US13, then it's out and about around the back streets with a running narrative on Inca history. In the square Gabriel encounters a crowded Fiesta in full swing. Lots of colourful locals in traditional dress are celebrating something here. Down by the Inca ruins - which are a bit deserted due to the Fiesta - Gabriel encounters and "awesome rickshaw”.
While everything in the world of Gabriel Traveller is awesome, For Zac Peetsma it is all "amazing" - like pizza. That is, except when it is "insane" - such as the interesting earth cooked meal of fish, potatoes and pineapple - which does, in fact, look pretty insane. Especially the pineapple. Looks amazing.
For this film Zac and his partner Monikah take a rest day in Ollantaytambo, which means not a lot happens, but you still get a nice tour. In particular, they showcase some picturesque shots of gardens, flowers, cats, windows and doorways. They capture the little things.
Although you might not learn much from this film, every traveller needs a rest day. Especially after completing the Inca trail, like these two just did. After that exertion some aimless wandering and casual hammocking seems well in order.
The following Adventure of Two film is included as it shows interesting shots taken from a seven hour walk they did up to Inta Punta (The Inca Sun Temple). Although they didn't quite make it to the very top, the elevation and views the get over the valley look quite stunning. Unlike the Himalaya, the Andes aren't always visible because you are in a deep valleys. But this walk looks like a steep climb, so you get good elevation and great vistas. Adventure For Two also describe the walk and share some good photos in their blog here.
Aside from that, the film doesn't have any narration or practical information, but there are nice images. It jumps back and forth a bit between the village, ruins and the walk up to Inta Punta, but you get the general idea.
Ollantaytambo Practical Information
Ollantaytambo has a small population of around 700 people and sits at 2800 meters above sea level, lower than Cusco but up the valley from Aguas Calientes.
It is about two hours by car, combie or bus from Cusco and the train ride to Aguas Calientes also takes another two hours. For a full description on how to get there by train or on foot check our feature on Macchu Picchu here. The train station is about 10 minutes walk from the plaza and easy to find. Pisac is also a couple of hours away by car or bus - more info here.
There are dozens of places to stay in Ollantaytambo, but probably the nicest and quietest places are up in the old town, away from the traffic which comes right through the main Plaza.
Aside from walking the old town back streets the main attraction in town is the Ollantaytambo ruins. Although primarily a fort, they is also a ceremonial centre. At the top of the terraces there is impressive stonework and doors - such as the one pictured above. The monumental Temple of The Sun rock wall at the top is quite large, complete with some mysterious niches which may have been used for astronomy. Entry to the site is a few minutes walk from the plaza - down the hill and across the river. Entry requires a boleto turistico.
Most of the stones at the ruins come from an Inca quarry which is about 6km from the town.