The Amazing, Colossal Sanctuary of Ollantaytambo

Streets in the old part of Ollantaytambo are narrow, cobble-stoned, inaccessible to cars and trucks. Along one side, water flows in ancient Inca canals, still used today, no more than a foot wide. Quechua is spoken more than Spanish. Life goes on here as it has for centuries. There is no indication that less than a half mile away, a crush of tourists descend everyday on the railway station to board trains for Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu. What many don’t realize is that Ollantaytambo has some of the most impressive megalithic ruins in the world.

Water canals line one side of the streets in old Ollantaytambo

That Ollantaytambo lies between Cusco and Machu Picchu is why it gets short shrift by tourists who’d rather spend their time at those popular destinations. A shame really because Ollanta, which locals call it for short, has its own important history and architecture. The town used to be the royal estate of emperor Pachacutec. It was here in 1537 that during the Inca rebellion, Manko Inka Yupanqui defeated an invading Spanish army led by Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s half-brother. Like a spectacular movie battle scene, volleys of arrows, slingshots, spears and stones rained down on the Spanish troops from high terraces and water flooded the valley that the Incas somehow diverted from Rio Urubamba. Despite the historic battle, Fortaleza de Ollantaytambo had more than a defensive purpose.

This was the first town in Peru where my wife and I stayed last year (2016), following the Amazon rain forest. Like all tourists, we were here to take the train to Machu Picchu. Still, I was also looking forward to spending a day to see ancient megalithic ruins that some regard as the equal of any in the world. No matter where we walked, The Fortress, as it’s sometimes called, loomed over the entire town.

The first thing I noticed was the impressive terracing (andene) that looks from the bottom like one side of a gigantic stepped pyramid, an illusion of perspective. Andenes are one hallmark of Inca engineering.

Terraces at Ollanta

A long stairway on the left side leads to the top. From anywhere along the climb, it’s easy to see why researchers think they served some agricultural purpose, much like the terracing at Moray; the surfaces are broad, deep and flat. Because they’re oriented toward the sun, it’s believed that the terraces were solar energy collectors to provide heat for crops, long after the sun set. Not only that, the resulting microclimates made it possible to grow corn, potatoes and quinoa at different altitudes.

Did the Incas use these terraces for agricultural purposes? Note their scale relative to people.

Near the top, we turned left to a stairway that led past incredible stonework that I saw time and again in Peru. Immense, polygonal stones were fitted together with such precision that no mortar was necessary. This section contains The Ten Niches (Diez Hornacinas). Why go to so much trouble to build a ‘fortress?’ The complex must have served more important ceremonial or astronomic functions.

Stones are fitted so tightly that a razor can’t be inserted in the seams. These have rounded edges.

Some edges are beveled (bottom, left). The planar surfaces are amazingly flat.

Why are these stones so non-linear? The enigmatic ten niches (Diez Hornacinas) are to the left and in the topmost image.

The much-photographed portal

Look at the precise vertical cuts in this joinery.

The Temple of the Sun (Templo del Sol) is the site’s stunning architectural achievement. Monoliths weighing up to 50 tons and rising 15ft (4.6m) high form a six-section wall made of pink granite (rhyolite), transported from the Cachicata quarry 4mi (6km) away, each stone separated from its neighbor by shim-like inserts. Again, the seams are unimaginably tight. How were these stones brought here across the 1000-ft (300m) deep Urubamba river valley and dressed so beautifully? These are not the handiwork of Bronze Age tools.

Temple of the Sun (image from Note the chakana pattern and the smoothing marks as if the surfaces were wet concrete.

The wall might have once been part of a larger structure. Where’s the rest of it? I noticed the ground nearby littered with other gigantic pink stones. Some researchers suggest that the ‘temple’ was left unfinished when the Spanish invasion happened, others feel that the rubble was the aftermath of a massive earthquake or other catastrophe that toppled the structure long ago.

Do these massive stones mean the Temple of the Sun was left unfinished or suffered a massive catastrophe?

The rest of the complex consists of Inca-era walls, buildings and passageways of mortared field stones that, while impressive and extensive in scale, clearly don’t match the technical sophistication of Templo del Sol or Diez Hornacinas. Why is there such a big difference?

The construction here is not as sophisticated as the Diez Hornacinas or Templo del Sol.

The stones are considerably smaller with lots of mortar holding them together.

We wandered through this sprawling area until we got to an area called Inka Misana. The crowds were sparse. Most visitors don’t go through this part, though it’s not far from the main entrance. More large blocks of impressively finished stone were on the ground. Equally incredible were what appeared on the hillsides. You could even say, what didn’t appear. Large cubed sections had been skillfully and smoothly removed from solid rock, with no visible gouge marks, as if the stone were cut by some sort of machinery or unknown technology.

Excavations in rock, some appearing as cubed cutouts, others like stairs.

The planed surfaces are flat with no gouge or chisel marks.

How in the world did the builders accomplish this? Certainly not with hammer and chisel. I’ve wondered before about the different building styles at Machu Picchu. I think the same applies here in Ollantaytambo. Is it so hard to imagine that different peoples may have been responsible for the three styles, the Incas being the most recent, calling into question everything we think we know about human history and its technological achievements?

ollantay pan

(Click to enlarge)

Ollantaytambo should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.

Baby alpaca at the entrance

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Did the Incas Build All of Machu Picchu?

To many, Machu Picchu is the poster child of the Incan civilization. Like an ancient lost city, the ruins lay hidden from the world for centuries, even the Spanish invaders, until they were ‘revealed’ to archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Yet, for all its majesty, Machu Picchu isn’t the only impressive legacy of the Incas. I visited several ruins in Peru: Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Machu Picchu, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Qoriqancha—all breathtaking in their own way.

But, there are anomalies at Peru’s ancient archaeological sites. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that there are three distinct, very different styles of stone construction, easy to overlook or ignore if you’re in a hurry. The conventional wisdom is that the Incas did all the masonry during their brief reign in the 13th-16th centuries. When the Spanish invaders arrived, everything was already in place. They made assumptions and recorded what they saw. Without a written language, the Incas cannot tell their own story.

Is there more than meets the eye?

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Beauty and Mystery All In One: Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is arguably the world’s most famous ancient archaeological site, a celebrated World Heritage Site that draws millions of visitors annually. My wife and I have had it on our list of destinations for a long time. When we finally made the decision to go to Peru, in part prompted by rumors (since proven to be untrue) that admission to Machu Picchu might be either severely restricted or shut off, it naturally went to the top of our itinerary.

When we arrived, we almost didn’t make it. A farmers’ strike blocked Urubamba and therefore passage to Machu Picchu, including on the evening we were being driven to Ollantaytambo. Carlos, our guide, somehow managed to convince strikers to let us past the blockade, so we were able to get to our hotel.

Ollantaytambo is the starting point for most tourists who don’t plan to hike the Inca Trail. The town has its own attraction, the magnificent Inca citadel that’s built on the mountainside above the city. Rail service is provided to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town where all visitors to Machu Picchu stay overnight. From Aguas Calientes, a 20-minute bus ride takes you up a spectacular, cliff-hanging road to the site’s entrance.

Visitors in Aguas Calientes queued up to board buses for Machu Picchu

What is it about Machu Picchu that captures everyone’s imagination over other Peruvian archaeological sites, some of which have equally impressive design and architecture? It surely is the iconic image, the picture-postcard scenic view (like the one at the top of this post) that countless people have seen. No other single symbol has come to signify a place than this incredible ruin dramatically perched on a mountainside on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, and Wayna Picchu towering behind it. It’s a sight that seems more fairy tale than the utilitarian purpose for which it was built. Ever since National Geographic published pictures in 1913, Machu Picchu has never been the same.

It’s too bad that we weren’t able to spend more time here. My wife and I spent most of the morning by ourselves walking along the paths around the Hut of the Caretaker and soaking in the view that’s recognized the world over. After we met Carlos, he had to give us the quick tour through the main complex because our train ticket back to Aguas Calientes was in the mid-afternoon. We didn’t have long to appreciate what we were seeing. It’s a sad fact that the sheer crowds and transportation schedules dictate how you spend your time here. In spite of the pace, I was impressed by the colossal achievement of the Incas in building this city, fortress, religious complex, royal estate, summit meeting place, or whatever function Machu Picchu served. Its scale is immense, appreciated all the more of course from the grand view, but likewise in walking its many paths and stairways, past courtyards, buildings, enclosures, terraces, doorways, towers, all integrated with the contours of the land. That so many rocks were moved, dressed and transformed into structures, that so much earth was terraced, everything according to a grand plan, boggles the mind.




It seems every major Inca site has incredibly long stairways. Machu Picchu is no exception. They are literally breathtaking. Anyone not acclimated to high elevations will be gasping for air. More than that, the riser of each step seems high relative to modern standards, making me wonder how the Incas found these stairs to be comfortable to climb at all. Each tread consists of several uneven stones laid side-by-side. Going down the stairs is no easy matter either, though the Incas obviously had no problem. And here I was, slowly and carefully planting my feet in my high-tech Vasque hiking boots with Vibram soles and TPU torsion control chassis.


There is also a reminder that, geologically speaking, things were always not so quiet. A fault runs through Machu Picchu. Sometime in the past, probably before the vast Inca expansion project, a wall constructed of colossal stones had been pulled slightly apart, the first architectural failure of this type of construction I’ve seen and an anomaly among similarly constructed walls here that somehow defied the earthquake’s incredible force. There were also other tell-tale signs.


Did these boulders fall down from the mountain and the gaps filled in later by the Incas?

How unfortunate that millions of tourists like me are putting pressure on Machu Picchu. Resources like the internet and Lonely Planet are doing their part in stimulating more interest. Machu Picchu appears on many ‘Top 10’ lists of must-see travel destinations. In order to protect its treasure, the Peruvian government has skirted around the issue of severely restricting permits to enter the site, yet any measure to reduce tourism, Peru’s #3 economic sector, would have a profound effect on the local economy. Cusco Airport is unable to handle increased traffic, much of which Machu undeniably accounts for. As a result, there are plans to build an even larger international airport in nearby Chinchero, with a capacity to handle super-jumbo Airbus A380s. I can’t imagine what impact such an undertaking would have on this small village, famous for its world-class weavers. If the Chinchero plans don’t materialize, Cusco’s throughput capacity could automatically limit the problem.

I’m glad I got here, finally. Even the circus-like atmosphere didn’t blunt my appreciation for what Sapa Inca Pachacutec built (or, more likely, expanded upon) in the 15th century. Machu Picchu lay hidden for centuries until Hiram Bingham brought it to the world’s attention in 1913 with the National Geographic Society. It even lay hidden from the Spanish invaders. Now, it is the world’s destination, for better or worse. The beauty and the mystery of Machu Picchu.