Easily my favorite town in the Sacred Valley of Peru, Ollantaytambo is just a couple of hours drive from Cusco. Most travelers only spend a few hours there, usually visiting on day trips around the Sacred Valley before either returning to Cusco or continuing to Aguas Calientes, from where they then visit Machu Picchu.
It’s a pity, really! This small town is actually incredibly charming, and once the hordes of day trippers leave, it’s actually a quiet place where you’ll also find a few excellent accommodation options, and very good restaurants too. In fact, I think it’s a great alternative to Aguas Calientes – and certainly more charming.
I have been to Ollantaytambo on both my trips to Peru – actually sleeping there each time! In this post, I will share the best things to do in Ollantaytambo, Peru, and some practical information that will help you plan your visit, including how to get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and from there to Machu Picchu.
The History Of Ollantaytambo
While today it is known as the starting point for the Inca Trail – and the gateway to Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo obviously has a much longer and richer history than modern-day trekking.
The town and the surrounding region were conquered by the Inca emperor Pachacuti in the 15th century. He incorporated the area into his personal estate and rebuilt the town, undertaking grand constructions projects and extensive terracing of the Urubamba Valley.
Ollantaytambo was then a base for the nobles of the Inca Empire, as well as the emperor’s retainers (yanakuna). Once Pachacuti died, the town became an administrative center for his remaining family.
Later, during the Spanish conquest, Ollantaytambo was the capital for a local resistance movement against the conquistadores. The town was accordingly fortified and provided a strong base to defend against the Spanish, who were defeated in a battle near Ollantaytambo in 1536, blocking any further advances by the colonizers.
Centuries later, thanks to the Inca ruins here, the town drew international attention from overseas explorers including Clemence Markham and Charles Wiener; Hiram Bingham III stopped off the third on his search for Machu Picchu in 1911.
The Best Things To Do In Ollantaytambo
With Machu Picchu in striking distance of Ollantaytambo, many people stop off at the town at some point during their journey. However, there is more reason to stop off at this fascinating Inca stronghold than just taking a breather before carrying on. So here are a few highlights to pack into your itinerary when visiting Ollantaytambo.
Visit Ollantaytambo Ruins
Ollantaytambo is home to its very own Inca ruins, specifically in the form of a 15th-century fortress. Situated on a series of steep terraces, this still imposing fortress was the headquarters of the local leaders’ resistance against the invading conquistadores.
It was from here that a successful defeat of the Spanish was planned, with pre-dug channels in the valley below creating the opportunity to flood the terraces and bog the advancing Spanish down.
The highly effective fortress was well built, but surprisingly never completely finished. The blocks had to be transported from a quarry six kilometers (3.7 miles) away, and so the remains of half-built walls can still be seen when exploring the Ollantaytambo ruins.
The Temple of the Sun is situated opposite the ruins of the storehouses (below). You can reach this location by hiking, although it can be pretty tough going so catching a ride might be better for some.
Admission to Ollantaytambo ruins is part of Cusco Boleto Turistico – you can get that here.
To explore the site, you are way better off getting a guide. There are several official guide on the site that will approach you the minute you walk in. We hired Nati – her full name is Natividad Griselda Zevallos Sisa, and you can reach her by whatsapp at +51984368910 or via email at email@example.com. She’s an excellent guide, speaks great English and she will make your experience much more enriching. We paid her 120 Peruvian Soles (that’s little over $31 USD), which we divided in four, and the tour lasted almost 2 hours.
Hike up to the Pinkuylluna
High above the ruins of the Inca fortress are some even more impressive ruins: Pinkulluna, strange-looking buildings clinging onto what seems to be impossibly steep cliffsides. You can actually see them clearly from Ollantaytambo ruins. The hike up here is certainly steep, but is well worth your effort.
Offering up an amazing view out over the town and the mountains, these are lesser visited ruins than other locations in the Sacred Valley area – most people who end up in Ollantaytambo usually spend just a few hours there, so they completely miss them, which is a real pity. They’re actually storehouses, built to keep grain fresh, with the mountain air keeping the produce aerated.
To get there from Ollantaytambo, head up Laire Street until you find a set of stairs with a sign for the trail. It takes around 45 minutes to reach the top. You can get there with the same ticket you use to enter the main ruins.
Explore the Old Town of Ollantaytambo
The old town is a beautiful example of Inca city planning, and you should definitely spend some time wandering around the narrow stone alleyways and paved streets that weave through Ollantaytambo. It’s all incredibly well preserved and gives you a good inkling into how life may have been lived here by its Inca population centuries ago.
If you haven’t got much time to explore the old grid layout in its entirety, head to the south of the town. It’s a little more polished and easier to wander, with many locals wearing traditional garments, and eateries to stop by.
Visit the market
Though the market is small (as you’d expect it to be for a town of this compact size), here there is a surprising array of souvenirs you can pick up. It may not be an authentic, living and breathing marketplace, but it looks amazingly colorful on the backdrop of the stone buildings, and there are still a lot of local crafts and products made in the region on sale.
You should also read my post 16 Best Souvenirs From Peru.
Practical Tips To Plan Your Visit To Ollantaytambo, Peru
How to get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
The main way that people get to Ollantaytambo is by traveling from nearby Cusco. There are a few different options that ferry visitors between the two destinations, however, I have listed the most popular (and most convenient) below.
Getting from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by shuttle bus/colectivo
The best way to get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is to take a colectivo from Pavito Street. Colectivos leave approximately every 40 minutes and takes about two hours, and usually go through the transport hub of Urubamba. It costs approximately 15 Peruvian Soles ($3.70 USD) per person.
Getting from Cusco to Ollantaytambo on a guided tour
If you want the smoothest option, going to Ollantaytambo on a guided tour from Cusco is the best option for you. It’s not the cheapest option by far, but it will ensure that you get from A to B without having to wait around, figure out timetables or get lost on the way. You’ll also have a knowledgeable guide, too.
Most tours of the Sacred Valley that also go to Ollantaytambo typically return to Cusco on the same day, but most companies will have no troubles in dropping you off there – that’s what I did both times I visited, actually!
For a day trip to the Sacred Valley, which includes a visit to Ollantaytambo, click here.
Can you get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by train?
Although there is a train station in Ollantaytambo, and you can catch a train from Ollantaytambo all the way to Machu Picchu, you can’t alight there from Cusco. Instead, the train goes all the way to Machu Picchu from Cusco without stopping, but it definitely isn’t cheap and is best booked well in advance.
How to get from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu
If you are thinking of spending the night in Ollantaytambo (more about where to stay in a bit) before heading to Machu Picchu, you will want to know how to get there. Below is a breakdown of the main available options.
Ollantaytambo train station is located in Avenida Ferrocarril, about 10 minutes walk from the main town square. Peru Rail and Inca Rail both connect Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes / Hidroelectrica, which is just 32 km (about 20 miles) away.
There are regular departures throughout the day, but keep in mind the train is actually quite slow (it can take up to 1 hour and 50 minutes – something done intentionally so that you can admire the incredible landscape). So if you intend to visit Machu Picchu on the same day, rather than spending the night in Aguas Calientes, you should plan for an early departure and make sure you book your train tickets well in advance as the earliest (and cheapest) trains regularly sell out.
Keep in mind that once you get to Aguas Calientes you’ll have to either walk up to the site’s entrance (it takes little over an hour) or take the shuttle bus. You can also get your tickets for the shuttle bus in advance on sites such as GetYourGuide – for more information, click here.
About 30 minutes drive from Ollantaytambo you’ll find kilometer 82, which marks the start of the official Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – a 4-day walk to get to the site. This is by far the most rewarding way of getting to Machu Picchu – though keep in mind you can’t walk it on your own. In fact, you need to get government permissions, and join a guided group. If you have specific dates in mind, you should also book it at least 6 months in advance.
Where to stay in Ollantaytambo Peru
Even though Ollantaytambo isn’t exactly a large town, there are still a long list of locally run accommodation to suit different budgets and travel types. Since there are quite a few, here is a brief selection to give you a good cross-section of what is available in this charming Andean town.
For backpackers or those looking for affordable accommodation in Ollantaytambo, Las Portadas is a great option. This colorful traditional house is just 100 meters from the town’s main square, and so it makes for a great base to explore further afield.
Here guests will have the option of a selection of different rooms, from shared dorms to rooms with their own private bathrooms; some even come with their own balconies. There’s a pretty garden with views of mountains, and also an on-site bar where you can enjoy a relaxing drink in the evening with fellow travelers.
Making the most of the wonderful natural setting of the valley, Hotel Humantay is a beautifully decorated property that feels boutique in style. Rooms here make use of local stone and wood, and feature views out across the valley.
The guest lounge is located in a room almost entirely made of glass, which allows for yet more amazing views of the valley. This midrange hotel is also impeccably clean and serves up a mean buffet breakfast each morning.
For somewhere a little more high-end to stay, you should consider the 5-star Del Pilar Ollantaytambo. This upscale hotel option boasts 16 rooms and two bungalows, and is situated about five kilometers (little over three miles) from the start of the Inca Trail.
Surrounded by an abundance of nature, the guest rooms on offer at this luxury hotel are spotlessly clean and sophisticated, with white-washed walls, huge windows and dark wood. Facilities include an onsite restaurant, a bar, and a games room for some downtime.
Where to eat in Ollantaytambo Peru
As with the accommodation options in Ollantaytambo, there are also a surprising amount of places to eat here. Heading towards the town’s main square, and on streets leading to the terraces, there is actually a selection of different eateries to try out.
Much of the food on offer here has been tailored towards visitors to the region, and so you can expect to see international dishes such as burgers, pizzas, and pastas. However, these will often be on menus alongside alpaca steaks and other traditional Peruvian dishes.
There are also a handful of places to enjoy a cocktail or an evening drink while you are staying here. For those of you who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are even delicious restaurants that will be perfect for you.
One recommended option for vegans is Alma Amor, which boasts a hunger-inducing menu of curries, burgers, falafel, and great desserts, alongside a slew of pisco sours and other drinks.
There are a few restaurants run by the same family in the area. We tried Chuncho, situated in the Plaza de Armas. The menu is definitely inviting, and the atmosphere cozy, and they serve nice craft beers – however, service isn’t very good. We pointed out some serious intolerances before ordering, and they were completely disregarded. Keep in mind that the owners also run the Cafe Mayu, at the train station, and the equally delicious El Albergue.
For when you just want a quick bite to eat, and a coffee, there’s the charming cafe and bakery, La Esquina – a good spot to people watch and while away a couple of hours.