Ollantaytambo is just a blip on the radar for some while it gets remembered by others as the best views in Peru. How’s that possible?
The first group are just boarding a train to Machu Picchu with their faces buried in their phones; the second group takes time to appreciate Ollantaytambo, either by setting out on the Inca Trail from there, or at least taking a day trip form Cusco to check out the ruins.
The ruins copy the mountainous terrain and are perched up above Ollantaytambo town down in the valley, which is where the train to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo) leaves from. Ollantaytambo is also a common starting point of the Inca Trail.
So what should you know about Ollantaytambo?
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Be prepare and read about altitude sickness
With an altitude of almost 2,800 m (9,150 feet), Ollantaytambo is up higher than Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo’s altitude is, however, lower than Cusco, which will have you trying to catch your breath at 3,400 m (11,100 ft). You’ll be reaching for the coca tea on your first day there.
I’ve mentioned altitude sickness in almost all of my Peru articles, because wherever you are in the Andes Mountains, you’re probably way higher than your body is used to, and it’ll let you know that it’s not happy the moment you step off the plane. Do take time to acclimatize before you do anything crazy like hiking Rainbow Mountain. Spending a few days in Sacred Valley is a great way to get your lungs up to speed.
Chinchero village is one of the places you can stop on your way to Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo is 50–60 km (31–37 miles) from Cusco depending on which route you take.
The drive takes about 1.5 hours if you’re traveling on the longer but more comfortable road through Huarocondo, though we know for a fact you will be wanting to make stops on your way through Sacred Valley. That means you will be taking the uncomfortable, dusty road through the highlights of Sacred Valley like Chinchero village and the Maras salt terraces.
If you don’t have your own set of wheels and you hate the bus like us, a taxi is the way to go. The journey will set you back USD 50 going point to point, more if you negotiate some stops on the way and how long the driver will spend with you in total.
Agricultural terraces of Ollantaytambo ruins
At the Ollantaytambo ruins you can see the urban organization of the former Inca city, including the walls of the fortress, water channels and fountains (still functional!), quarries and storehouses. You’ll also notice some agricultural terraces that were used for growing crops that would’ve otherwise not grown at this altitude, similar to the system at Moray, another cool Inca site not far away.
Ollantaytambo also served as a safe place for Inca royalty, who would hang out here whenever the going got tough. Not a bad choice considering Manco Inca even got Hernando Pizarro to retreat after a bloody battle at Ollantaytambo. Of course, the Spaniards did eventually take over, forcing the last Incas to retreat to Vilcabamba.
It’s fascinating stuff, because the Incas were fascinating people. They were no doubt intelligent, and, just because I want to, I’m going to assume they had a great sense of humor. Like me. Heck, they even taxed citizens based on how happy they were. Not happy enough, here, lower taxes for you! Better? I’m sure the Incas would’ve made great beer buddies.
How did Incas get these huge stones from across the valley!?
Case in point showing the Incas‘ brilliance: The stones of the Wall of the Six Monoliths, part of the Temple of the Sun, had to be moved 6 km (3.7 miles) from a quarry on a mountain on the opposite side of the river. The stones are all precisely carved and polished. The largest monolith is over 4 m by 2 m... how did they get it there? Did it have something to do with Hulk, just like the huge-ass corn of Sacred Valley?
But most of all, take in the views. Ollantaytambo’s ruins may be some of the best preserved in Peru, but the views of the Sacred Valley landscape are out of this world. So even if you feel like you’ve seen all the Inca ruins you can take, don’t miss Ollantaytambo. Just check out the photos! Real life is like a thousand times better.
Be prepared for walking up and down a lot of stairs at Ollantaytambo ruins. It’ll be worth it, but you’ll be huffing and puffing. It can all be over in 2 hours, after which you can check Ollantaytambo off your to-do list and head down to town for a coffee.
Our top tips for visiting Ollantaytambo:
Cusco Tourist Ticket and map
Ollantaytambo can be visited as part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuit 4, which costs s/70 and also includes Moray, Pisac and Chinchero, or the circuit 1 for s/130 that includes a whole bunch of places. See our Sacred Valley article for the details on the Cusco Tourist Ticket. Tickets can’t be bought online, so just rock up to any of the sites on the ticket you want and get it there. Take your passport with you.
Views from Pinkuylluna viewpoint
One of the best sort-of-secret spots to visit in Ollantaytambo is a viewpoint called Pinkuylluna. You can get the most incredible views of Ollantaytambo town, the ruins and the mountains, all in one serving. Start your climb up the steep trail by walking through a wooden door on Lares Calles. A great sunrise spot. Not so great for sunset—they close the access point before 5 pm. It’s a 30-minute climb.
The town itself is small and cute, with water flowing down the channels in the old roads. The non-stop sound of water is a little funny, I promise you’ll be checking the sky for rain clouds at least several times. You also might end up looking for a restroom more times than you usually would.
There’s a souvenir market right at the base of the ruins which offer the regular bits and bobs that you can buy everywhere else in Peru. If you want to visit a real market, visit the authentic, multilevel Mercado San Pedro right by the Plaza de Armas.
You can stock up on produce, like veggies and alpaca cheese, and make yourself a sandwich. Or, if you can’t be caught dead making your own food, there are delicious meals to try on the top floor. The vegetable and beef soup (sopa de chairo) was fantastic!
The location of the train station in Ollantaytambo—right by the river, 1 km away from town
Despite the ruins and views being awesome, the most visited place in the town is the Ollantaytambo train station. That’s because it’s where hundreds of tourists alight the numerous daily trains to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo), which is the entry point to Machu Picchu itself.
Tip: We wrote up a whole big, fat article about the logistics of getting to and into Machu Picchu (because it is a doozy!), so check that out if that’s your next stop. You can also check out this article about the best time to visit Machu Picchu. We went in rainy season…was it a good idea?
Ollantaytambo’s train station doesn’t disappoint, so even though you’re in a tiny town in the middle of the mountains, everything at the train station is well organized. Even the bathrooms are clean. There are also places to by snacks and some (bad) coffee.
The train station is located down by the river, about 1 km (0.6 miles) away from the center of Ollantaytambo town. You can park at the train station at Ollantaytambo for s/15 per day.
Aguas Calientes town
To get to Machu Picchu, you first need to get to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo), a town that is not accessible by road. So before you ask, no, there is no bus to Aguas Calientes and we couldn’t drive there as we usually would, either.
The trains at Ollantaytambo are well-maintained and have big windows and windows in the ceiling, allowing for a lot of gazing out at the incredible views on the way to Aguas Calientes a.k.a. Machu Picchu Pueblo.
Peru Rail train
The views almost make up for the price: The train trip to Aguas Calientes takes 1.5 hours and costs an extortionate USD 60–100, making it one of the most expensive short train rides on the frikin planet. First service is usually around 5 am and the last train leaves Aguas Calientes around 9 pm.
Buy your train tickets online through the train companies’ websites, but not until you know which time slot your Machu Picchu tickets are going to be for. And account for time to take the bus up the mountain… I’ll once again respectfully point you in the direction of our Machu Picchu article for the best way to buy tickets for everything, because you could end up with a very bad combination of them if you don’t time things right. The guards won’t let you into Machu Picchu if you aren’t on time!
Be prepare to the 28 kms long walk along the train tracks
Not sure if it’s the train prices or a strong urge to make your life harder for no good reason, but there are individuals that choose to walk to Aguas Calientes instead of taking the train. This isn’t something I’d recommend, but hey, maybe you just like being different or have a fear of choo choos.
In that case, you can walk the 28 kms along the train tracks from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, which will take you the better part of the day. Read up on this option if you’re thinking about it, especially about the guards turning people away because, duh, tourists walking on the train tracks isn’t exactly what they want. Something about safety.
There are also the popular multi-day treks on the Inca Trail (or other less crowded routes), but we didn’t consider those since we likey treks, but we no likey sleeping in tents.
For a little luxury, you’ll have to search for your Ollantaytambo hotel out of town.
That’s because the biggest selection of luxury hotels in Ollantaytambo is not in Ollantaytambo.
Some of them are even hanging on the cliff face!
At the Vertical Sky Luxury Suites, you can choose to sleep in a glass pod hanging above the valley floor that you get to by walking, strapped in, mountain climbing-style, to the ledge of the mountain, before getting into your “room”. You get your own Jacuzzi up there, too. Or, you can choose the more spacious and less hanging glass dome. You still get views for days, but it provides more comfort, like an actual floor you can walk on.
For the crème de la crème that won’t trigger your acrophobia, check out the luxury hotels in Urubamba. It’s a small town about 20 km (12 miles) closer to Cusco, and even though they’re on the ground, the hotels there are top notch. Just a couple of the options we can recommend:
At Tambo del Inka, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Valle Sagrado, you get not only luxury everything, an exceptional spa and pool, but staff are also happy to share their Inca knowledge. It’s like nothing is impossible at Tambo del Inka.
You’ll feel at one with nature at the riverside property of Rio Sagradddo, A Belmond Hotel. You can get massaged with local herbs or dine at the beautiful restaurant that serves gourmet Peruvian dishes. The Rio Sagrado resembles an Andean village. They provide organized activities such as fishing trips, horse riding and ATV tours.
In Del Pilar Ollantaytambo, located a 15-minute drive from town in the other direction (towards Machu Picchu), you even get your very own alpacas! They hang out on the grounds of the hotel, with one main 2-storey building and several separate bungalows. The Del Pilar provides a tranquil retreat with a great restaurant, and fun extras like a pool table and bikes so you can explore the surroundings on your own.
If you’re keen on staying right by the train station in Ollantaytambo, you can’t get any closer than the El Albergue Ollantaytambo. It’s below our usual preferred rating with just 3-stars, but being right next to where the trains to Aguas Calientes leave from, it has convenience going for it, and the owners are lovely.
The rooms are basic but very clean and even charming, with high ceilings and wooden beams. If you sit out on the patio staring over the river to the snowy peaks of the mountains of Sacred Valley, you might even forget there isn’t a bathrobe waiting for you inside.
Tip: The El Albergue organic farm is right beside it, and that’s a gem where they grow produce for their restaurant. They even have a distillery and coffee roastery. Go on the Pachamanca Lunch Experience (book a day in advance!) to get your lunch cooked over granite rocks, buried in the ground while covered in a damp cloth. It comes out tasting like the Inca gods are looking down on you. You taste their pisco and get a pitcher of chicha, too! (More about the grape brandy and pink beer in our Food and Drinks in Peru article.)
If you’re on the other side of the spectrum and don’t even require walls, why not check into a tent?! Just kidding! At the pretty Las Qolqas EcoResort, you’ll have to try hard to realize you aren’t in an actual building. You’ll have walls, glass windows, extremely comfortable beds and your own bathroom…just not a real roof. There’s a spa, a tour desk, a yoga deck, a fantastic restaurant and that little detail of falling asleep under the peaks of the mountains with just a bit of textile between you and all that nature. It’s a special experience.
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If you only have 3 days for Sacred Valley and Cusco, you’ll be missing out on some good places. But, I’ll try to be a silver-lining kind of guy this time and smash as much as possible into those 3 days in Cusco.
Peruvians are some of the kindest, most helpful and courteous people I’ve met during my travels. Until you put them in the driver’s seat. Then they turn into aggressive, angry, idiotic monsters. Especially in Lima.