History and Mystery of Ollantaytambo


On the westernmost side of the famous Sacred Valley of the Incas, a two hour ride from Cusco, lies the old picturesque village of Ollantaytambo. Itself situated on an altitude of almost 2800m, it is surrounded by towering mountainsides that hide many mysterious paths, hidden caves and lonely ruins, and lies at the confluence of the Patacancha and the bigger and ever fast flowing Urubamba river, rushing its way to the lower eastern side of the Andes and eventually joining the waters of the Amazon basin. Above the village lies the fortress by the same name: an impressive Inca structure consisting of amazing stone work and built from huge boulders that can be seen from almost anywhere in the village.

However, for most people visiting the Cusco area, Ollantaytambo is only a short stop on their way to Machu Picchu: either to catch the train at the crowded train station just outside the village, or the base point for trekking the Inca Trail. With its difficult name and relative proximity to other more famous sites, “Ollanta” receives less fame and credit than it deserves. Especially because it is home to a few interesting sites and plays an interesting - if not downright mysterious - role in both history and mythology.

The legend of Ollantay

Ollantaytambo and its fortress are attributed to the extensive building program of Inca Pachacuti, the 9th Inca (1418–1471/1472) who expanded the Inca territory from the Cusco area to a vast empire. So much for facts. The town of Ollantaytambo is also linked to the legend of a love story from Inca times, that survived the centuries and gained more popularity in modern times. The story tells of the most trusted general of Inca Pachacuti, who fell in love with the Inca’s daughter, Cusi Coyllur. Because Ollantay was not of royal descent their love affair had to stay secret, but let eventually to the birth of a daughter, Yma Sumac. In one version of the story, Ollantay asked the Inca for the hand of Cusi Coyllur and was refused, but eventually pardoned. In another version, he saved the life of one of the sons of the Inca from a hostile tribe and was given the hand of Cusi Coyllur. Either way, the result was that the town of Ollantaytambo was named after him.


The battle of Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo lies at the junction between the high Andes and the Amazon basin, writes John Hemming in “The Conquest of the Incas”, which makes it a crucial point both geographically and politically. The Incas were highland dwellers and their empire stretched only to the edge of the Andes range. Beyond Ollantaytambo, the slopes of the high Andes descend into the dense and increasingly impenetrable jungle of the Amazon.
When the Spanish invaders conquered Cusco and pushed those loyal to the last Incas further and further back, Ollantaytambo became the last stronghold of the Incas in the Andes before the last of them retreated into the jungle. Before retreating however, Manco Inca and his armies fought a battle against the Spanish expedition led by Hernando Pizarro and trapped the Spaniards on the plains of the valley by retreating onto higher situated terraces and flooding the plain. Even though the Incas famously won this battle (fought between armies of each 30.000 strong!), Manco Inca realised that his position at Ollantaytambo was to vulnerable because of its proximity to Cusco and, and he retreated further north into the jungle.

Mysteries: the fortress


That is as much facts and fiction about our beloved town as there can be collected. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that there is almost no information to be found whatsoever about the town itself. Why was it built? Some assume Ollantaytambo was built as a royal estate for the Inca and his family. However, that does not explain the mysterious fortress on the hillside above town.

The Ollantaytambo fortress ruins consist of 17 layers of stone terraces that climb up the hill, topped off by massive walls that enclose - and here the real mystery starts - what seems to have been a temple or ceremonial centre. The terraces and walls, as well as the strategic location, seem to suggest a defensive purpose. This makes sense, given the position of Ollantaytambo close to Cusco yet at the edge of the Andes and close to the jungle, which was where the Incan empire ended and other tribes ruled. But the parapets and terraced hillsides don’t enclose and actual fort or military post - they surround what is now called the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Condor. Why build a religious structure on top of a fortified hill? Above a royal estate?

the cachiccata quarries

Besides the function of the ruins, also the structures itself pose unanswerable questions. Some parts of the fortress are built with 40 to 50 ton boulders and, like with other Inca buildings, the stones are carved and fitted together perfectly. The boulders come from quarries across the river, high up a hillside at least 500 m above the Valley: the Cachiccata quarries. Up to the present day you can hike to these quarries and see the jaw dropping size of the boulders that were quarried and left there, or left alongside the path half way to Ollantaytambo, when the Spaniards conquered the area and the quarries were abandoned.
The first quarry can be recognised by the almost eerie little round buildings that are built on the rocks all around the path. They are too small to be entered (except for one or who), and must have housed idols or have been erected for some ceremonial or religious function. The second quarry still consists of enormous rocks and boulders some of which are clearly cut out to some shape, like the huge wheel shaped one that is now hidden between the bushes on the side of the path. A cave nearby houses human remains and is still visited by local people who leave little offerings.
That ancestors of today’s population ever moved these stones down the slope of the mountain, across the river, and up the other side to the fortress, is an incredible feat of almost superhuman proportions.

Whatever the function, origin or tale of Ollantaytambo has been, it stands as a monument to human ingenuity and the mysteries that are left to us by people we know so little about. In a future article we will look at some landscape futures around Ollantaytambo that are as mysterious as they are beautiful: the Inca face on the mountain above the old town, the two dimensional pyramid that can be seen on the plain of the valley, and the nearby ceremonial cave called Ñaupa Iglesia.






John Hemming, the Conquest of the Incas