While the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu need no introduction to most travelers and photographers, those who haven’t yet made it to see this Wonder of the New World may be less familiar with the small towns that one passes through to reach the mountaintop where the site resides. These towns are wonders in themselves, situated in high mountain valleys, and offer rare glimpses into the culture of those who live and work in the Andes. For many, the trek to Machu Picchu involves a train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a small and often crowded tourist’s hub situated below the ruins. Other, more adventurous tourists skip the train and opt for a four-day trek along the Inca trail that terminates in Aguas Calientes. That trek begins in the ancient village of Ollantaytambo.
We call ourselves city travelers, so to us, the hike sounded like torture (although we’ve been assured it’s well worth the effort by many friends), but after doing some research online, we decided we couldn’t miss Ollantaytambo. We grabbed a minivan bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, stored some luggage, and then took the train the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes. This way, on our return journey, we could spend a restful three days in Ollantaytambo before heading back to the relatively bustling city of Cusco. Ollantaytambo is nestled in a valley some 9,000 feet above sea level and was by far the quaintest place we stayed in all of Peru. It was also perhaps our favorite city we visited on that trip to South America. (I likewise reserve a special place in my heart for Chile’s Valparaiso).
We lodged at La Casa del Abuelo, a charming spot run by a lovely, kind couple and their adorable young daughter. The hotel’s complimentary breakfast was accompanied by exquisite lattes (brewed with pride by the proprietor himself on an old Italian espresso machine) and these were the perfect introduction to the welcoming city.
The first thing one notices is that the city’s architecture is spectacular. The town exists in and around still-standing Incan structures that are used today as restaurants, stores, and houses. It occurred to me that if these buildings were simply smaller, they’d be tended to by gloved curators in a museum where people would be charged admission for the privilege of simply viewing them. But as it stands now, these structures are the homes and shops of folks who carve out a life surrounded by the peaks of the Andes—their heads in the clouds and their feet on the grooved cobblestone walkways constructed before Columbus had “discovered” the New World.
Ollantaytambo is famous in its own right for Incan agricultural ruins, large tiers carved out of the side of the mountain. Tourists flock to see these famous ruins, and, as is the case with Machu Picchu and other famous attractions, pay a fee that supports the maintenance and protection of the grounds. But on the opposite side of town, nestled between a couple buildings is a small and unassuming trailhead that leads up the slope opposite the terraces. This poorly tended path leads to an ancient, slovenly granary overrun with local flora that provides a great lookout over the small town. Upon reaching the granary, it becomes obvious that the trails continue indefinitely, winding around the sides of the hills, over small peaks, penetrating deeper and deeper into the Andes. And each of these trails leads to more and more ruins. So while most opt for the well-tended, well-groomed, and famous sites, there’s also magic to be found standing alone on centuries-old stone, experiencing the isolation and beauty of ruins in actual ruin. The sense of history is always overwhelming but becomes even more so when one sees what happens when nature begins its reclamation process, freed from the work of guards and groundskeepers. Ollantaytambo offers a taste of that beauty, and the only expense is the energy of walking. Even for those who tend to skip the hikes, this is well worth it.
Ollantaytambo isn’t just a staging ground for those heading to Machu Picchu. Up a nearby mountain is a Quechuan village, just recently connected to the mainstream Peruvian culture and governance, where the local women are gifted weavers and the town’s residents communicate through interpreters (even Spanish hasn’t reached a few remote villages in the high Andes). The women laugh while they teach helpless tourists their sewing methods. Awamaki, a local non-profit, runs small groups up to the village collectives a few days per week and ensures that sales of the ladies’ wares go back to supporting their increasingly endangered way of life. The photo featured above called ‘Hands’ shows the deft fingers of Marta, a Quechuan woman working at her trade.
On our last day, we opted to pay a visit a local chocolatier. For not too small a price, one is allowed to attempt to make a few confections using prepared ingredients as well as learn about the history of one of the world’s most popular foods. Chocolate originates in the Americas, and until the arrival of Westerners in the 16th century, it was unknown to Europeans. Within a few centuries there blossomed a worldwide love affair with the product, and today one can stand among the ruins of Ollantaytambo and taste a version of an ancient Incan chocolate beverage (a bit spicy and bitter), and then round the experience out by making one’s own candies. Chocolates in hand, and with a friendly hug in the hotel lobby, we ferried our belongings down to the mini-bus station and hopped a ride back to Cusco. While we enjoyed Cusco for all it had to offer, returning to a town with a Starbucks made us instantly miss the charm of the mountain village, where the warmth of the hotel, the wonderful quinoa soup we enjoyed from a friendly café, and the sounds of the elderly, blind musician playing outside in a local market for tips made us feel like we’d seen a slice of life that, while perhaps often seen by others as well, certainly shouldn’t be missed by anyone headed to Peru to see the grand ruins of Machu Picchu.
Bradley Geer contributed to this article.