“The Incan City”- A Perfect Precursor to Exploring Machu Picchu

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Ollantaytambo or “The Incan City” is a small town 60 km Northwest of Cusco. It was once the royal estate of emperor Pachacuti and served as both a town and ceremonial center. Today it is a small residential town that thrives off of tourism in addition to serving as one of the starting points of the popular Incan Trail. The Incan city as it stands today consists of a mix of its original infrastructure with more modern infrastructure built atop. From the paved roads, to the retaining walls, the original 500-year-old infrastructure is discernible throughout much of the town.

The 'Floating Stairs'

The ‘Floating Stairs’

The retaining walls are mixed in with the cities more modern construction while the ruins sit alone at the north end of the city stretching high up the mountain tops above. (An entry fee is required to enter the ruins) On the front facing side of the mountains there are terraces built and stacked up nearly to the top of the ruins. These terraces were originally used for farming. Perpendicular to the terraces are the original stone stairs and in some of the terraces themselves, there are ‘floating stairs’ to be discovered! These fun stairs are a few pieces of stone spaced farther apart than average that jut out from the wall and provide the illusion that they are floating. They involve more climbing then stepping… I speak from experience…shhh 😉 ! Their purpose was to make it easy for the farmers to move from one terrace to the next.

Hannah was feeling like a mountain goat this day and made it all the way to the top of the ruins while I pushed myself 7/8ths of the way up before deciding I didn’t want to fall off a cliff. I was really just a matter of yards from the top but the elevation was making me extremely dizzy and light-headed. Although we didn’t get to spend too much time appreciating the ruins, we did get to observe the genius craftsmanship implemented in making nearly perfect right angle and rectangular building blocks.

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These huge rectangular blocks, also seen in the architecture at Machu Picchu, weighed several tons each. The most amazing  thing about these blocks is that the people who constructed Ollantaytambo where able to move these several ton building blocks up to the top of the mountains without wheels or help from animals. The terrain is too rough and would make a wheel useless while archaeological studies have lacked any indication of the use of animals during the construction process. Some of these blocks appeared to be up to 10 feet high or more and some possibly higher than 15 feet. Keep in mind that these were made of granite, a very dense and heavy stone. To this day scientists can still only guess at how these remarkable people were able to achieve such a feat.

Like Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo has a secret or two of its own. Ollantaytambo, built in the mid-15th century, served as a fortress during the height of the Spanish conquest of Peru. An additional piece of ruins hides discretely on the opposite mountain face at the other end of the Incan City. This additional piece is built is a rectangular structure  accompanied by what appears to be a face carved out of stone (some say it is Pachacuti). The rectangular structure served as a store house for food and grains. At first glance these ruins nearly blend in with the steep, rocky mountain face. It is hidden from view to anyone approaching the city from the south. It was likely that if the conquistadors came, that they would be approaching from the South from Cusco. With the store house out of sight, it was likely that their food would be safe even in the event of battle.

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Can you see the face on the left?

Given the chance to go again I would love to finish the ascent while exploring the trails that wind and curve around the mountain face to other parts of the ruins. Who knows what we missed! Since Ollantaytambo shares several similarities with Machu Picchu, I suspect there were many hidden pieces of history that we missed.  We were given only but 20 minutes to ascend the ruins and explore so if ruins such as these fascinate you, remember to give yourself plenty of time since there is a lot to see. Most importantly, give yourself a few days to adjust to the elevation. If you plan to visit Machu Picchu, or even if you don’t, be sure to make time to see Ollantaytambo, “The Incan City!” It provides a small glimpse of the extraordinary architecture that was implemented during the time of Machu Picchu’s construction and provides a beautiful scenic view set in the Andes Mountains 🙂


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