Outstanding Things to Do in Ollantaytambo
It took me a whole week before I could pronounce the name of this little Sacred Valley town without totally embarrassing myself. Luckily, I quickly learned that locals referred to Ollantaytambo as Ollanta which makes talking about this gem to locals much easier.
Most tourists make a quick stop in Ollantaytambo to visit the famous ruins on their way to Machu Picchu, but few people seem to notice the town itself. Big mistake! With its gurgling irrigation channels and narrow cobblestone streets, Ollantaytambo is a surviving example of Incan urban planning and a living work of art. Staying here is an absolute no-brainer for architecture freaks like us.
The town is also the perfect place to just wander around, soak up the atmosphere and people-watch. Cobbled paths take you away from the tourist buzz of the central plaza and way back into areas where only few visitors stray. This is authentic Peru just a few feet off the beaten path. Peak over the high stone walls and you will find beautiful gardens with colorful flowers, toddlers playing, drying laundry, chickens, cats, donkeys and cages full of guinea pigs destined for the dinner table.
Besides being a fascinating town that has been continuously inhabited for the last 800 years, Ollantaytambo, like Cusco, provides a great base to explore the attractions of the Sacred Valley. And for those looking to get off the tourist track, visitors staying here can hike out to isolated ruins in the surrounding mountains and side valleys. Yes, Ollantaytambo is definitely a place where you can get your fill of ruins.
We liked Ollantaytambo so much, we actually visited twice and spent a total of seven days in the tiny town. Here are some of the great things we discovered in the area.
These giant Inca ruins with steep terraces tower over Ollantaytambo and will certainly be the first thing you notice entering the small town. Hordes of tourist descend upon the Ollantaytambo ruins each day either before or after their visit to Machu Picchu. Just wait for a window after the morning crowd leaves and before the afternoon crowd arrives and you will have the place to yourself.
It’s an impressive site and definitely worth a visit despite the pricey boleto turistico (at least the entry ticket includes other archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley and Cusco). Make sure you don’t miss the famous Sun Temple featuring the Wall of the Six Monoliths. And watch out for big dust clouds sweeping through every now and then, especially when you are in the process of changing lenses (we had to learn the hard way).
Pinkuylluna Ruins in Ollantaytambo
Just opposite the Ollantaytambo ruins, on the other side of the valley, is the small archaeological site of Pinkuylluna. Accessible from Calle Lari, a steep path leads uphill to several ancient Incan granaries overlooking Ollanta and the Ollantaytambo ruins beyond. This site is also completely free, so it’s a great option if you don’t have a boleto turistico. It’s a nice spot to watch the sunset, but if you head up there to photograph the Ollantaytambo ruins, go in the morning as the sun lights up the ruins beautifully earlier in the day.
There are also a handful of paths lined with colorful cactus flowers forking off to minor ruins and a granary further up the valley. Be warned: The paths that lead toward the peak all eventually peter out forcing you to awkwardly scramble back down the hillside. Of course, if that’s your thing, just go for it.
A great half-day outing from Ollantaytambo is the walk to Pumamarka (Quechua for puma village), a set of picturesque pre-Incan ruins overlooking the Patacancha River. The ruins are especially photogenic because of their red hue AND their beautiful setting high above the valley floor. You can choose to walk along the road to Pumamarka or use the walking trail which takes you through an elaborately terraced landscape along little streams and aqueducts. Beautiful!
There are lots of guided tours offered in Ollantaytambo, but the hike to the free ruins can easily be done independently. Just ask in your guest house for directions. And remember – when in doubt, always take the path to the right. We ignored this advice at one point and, after walking an extra hour, ended up way above the ruins. Having said that, we actually quite enjoyed our little detour. We are no big fans of backtracking, so the circular route suited us perfectly. Oh, and despite the name Pumamarka, no puma sightings anywhere. 😉
Quellorakay Ruins in Ollantaytambo
Just a 20-minute walk south of the fruit and vegetable market in Ollantaytambo are the newly restored Quellorakay ruins, another free Inca site. Although very close to town, getting to the ruins feels a bit like an old-world expedition. You have to make your way around barbed-wire fences, horse stables and terraced fields. Don’t give up, just head towards the train tracks. Eventually, the ruins come into view surrounded by gorgeous terraced corn fields. Totally worth it! Strange though that they would invest so much time and money into restoring these ruins, but somehow, they seem to have forgotten to construct a path to the site.
Sacred Valley Via Ferrata and Ziplining Adventure
If you need a break from those awesome Inca ruins and long for a major adrenaline rush, Natura Vive offers a great via ferrata and ziplining adventure just outside of Ollantaytambo, not to mention their amazing Skylodge. It’s not for those with a fear of heights, but if you can handle dangling off of sheer cliffs, it makes for a great experience. You can read more about this adventure (and watch our video) in our Skylodge post.
Moray to Salineras Hike
One of my favorite hikes in the Sacred Valley is the trek from the spectacular circular terraces of Moray to the stunning terraced salt pans of Salineras. Both sites on their own are amazing, but if you combine them via an easy 2-hour downhill hike, the experience will definitely end up being a highlight of your visit to the Sacred Valley.
Start the do-it-yourself adventure by taking a taxi from Urubamba to Moray. The amphitheater-like terraces of Moray are quite unique. The circles are so deep that each terrace has its own microclimate with a measurable temperature difference between the top and bottom circles. It is now theorized that the Inca used these terraces to study the effects of various temperatures on crops. Science aside, they are also just really beautiful to look at.
The walk from Moray to Salineras takes you through a landscape of rural farms and small canyons backed by an eye-popping wall of Andean peaks. There are a couple of easy-to-miss signs for hikers, but it is best just to ask people to point you in the direction of the foot path to Salineras.
Once you get to Salineras, make your way across the salt pans balancing precariously on the narrow ledges of the pools. (I wonder how many people have taken a plunge?) The salt terraces are incredibly beautiful, especially later in the day when the vivid reds of the surrounding mountains are reflected on the surfaces of thousands of salt pools. Amazing! But don’t stay too late if you want to get back before dark. On the far side of the terraces, continue down along the hiking path into the valley for another 30 – 45 minutes, cross the Urubamba River via the small bridge upriver, and make your way to the main road. There, you can flag down a colectivo to Ollantaytambo or Urubamba. Not hard and incredibly rewarding.
Plan Your Trip to Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley
When to Go – The best time to visit Peru’s Sacred Valley is June to August during winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Days during the peak season tend to be dry, sunny, and clear. If you prefer fewer crowds and lower prices you should visit during the shoulder seasons, April to May and October to November. We did the bulk of our traveling in the Sacred Valley from July to November, and enjoyed each and every month.
Accommodation – Ollantaytambo, a gateway town to Machu Picchu, is a quiet atmospheric place at the end of the Sacred Valley. Many visitors travel directly from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by taxi or bus (see more transportation options). We highly recommend spending some time in Ollantaytambo as there are plenty of cool things to do. We stayed in the wonderful Apu Lodge (read our review further down), but there are plenty of other options for Ollantaytambo hotels and lodges. Check for the best deals on booking.com and agoda.
Guidebooks – We usually travel with a Lonely Planet. During our six months in Peru, we used the Lonely Planet Peru guidebook and really liked it. It’s great for cultural and historical info, maps, hiking tours, itineraries, and includes highlights such as Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, the Peruvian Amazon, the Salkantay trek, Apu Ausangate, Machu Picchu, and many others. For a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Peru. All guidebooks can be conveniently purchased on Amazon.
Travel Insurance – Overseas medical insurance is probably THE most important thing to have for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. WorldNomads’ travel insurance covers travelers for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of activities and adventure sports. You can buy and claim the insurance online, even after you’ve left home.
Travel Gear – One piece of equipment we highly recommend for your day trips is an action camera such as the GoPro to capture everything on film. In combination with the camera, a GoPro head strap can be quite useful.
Thanks to the Lovely Apu Lodge Ollantaytambo
I discovered Apu Lodge while exploring the backstreets on our first visit to Ollantaytambo in July. When I saw the beautiful flower gardens with hammocks and covered rest areas, I knew we had to come back and stay there.
The lodge’s gardens turned out to be one of our Ollantaytambo highlights. It’s a great spot to hang out and bird-watch. We saw flocks of parakeets and giant hummingbirds, the largest member of the hummingbird family. We even spotted a condor way up in the sky. Add to that, cozy rooms, strong hot showers and a great breakfast with lots of healthy choices, and you’ve got yourself a little paradise. (Well, a breakfast of fruit, yogurt and muesli is my German definition of paradise.)
Yes, it’s a great little hideaway, but Apu Lodge is about more than just accommodation. The lodge focuses on sustainable tourism by giving back to the local community. Visit their responsible tourism page for more information. Your stay at Apu Lodge helps the people of the Sacred Valley. What’s better than that?
Thanks to the owner Louise for hosting us in this charming retreat. And thanks to Catherine and Mike for going out of their way to ensure a perfect stay and for providing invaluable information on the day hikes in the area.