6 and 14-17 Jan 2014. Ollantaytambo, on the Patakancha River, flowing into the Urubamba, is about 70 kilometers northwest of Cusco, and one of the more significant Inca towns in the Sacred Valley. Having been in Cusco for two weeks, plus more than a week in Bolivia and Puno, we were by now well adjusted to the altitude. Finally. Ollanta, as the locals call it, was easy. We first went there on a day trip from Cusco for Fiesta de los Reyes, and then again for four days to explore this enchanting town, and because it is an easy journey to Machu Picchu by train.

We came by bus from Cusco. The scenery along the way is lush and gorgeous. Much of Andean Peru is like this. Some way south of Cusco it’s dry and harsh with mud brick dwellings and sheep and alpaca farming. Closer to Cusco, in the Cusco Valley and the Urubamba Valley it is rich and fertile. The green and yellow make my eyes swim in the rich beauty. There are people living in poverty in Peru I am sure of it, but here it feels so rich, so fertile. This is the abundant, luxuriant birthplace of the Inca Empire.




The town was one of the royal estates of Pachacuti Inca, who conquered the area. In the mid 1400’s he ordered the building of extensive agricultural terracing and irrigation systems in the Urubamba valley. He had the town built as housing for the nobility, and next to the town, high on a hill above the terracing, a temple. The terraces and irrigation systems allowed farming on otherwise unusable land. One of the most remarkable things about the Inca was their ability to convert steep rugged mountainsides into viable agricultural land with the creation of “climate-control” terracing, and elaborate irrigation systems. They became rich through hard work and astonishing ingenuity.




According to legend Ollanta was a fearless captain in the Inca army. So fearless he fell in love with the Emperor’s daughter and asked for her hand in marriage. He was refused permission to marry her because the Inca did not allow marriage between different social classes. So the angry Ollanta rebelled and ran away from Cusco to the royal estate that eventually became known as Ollantaytambo. He holed up there and fought with the Emperor. One has to assume he had some kind of rebel force fighting with him. After ten troubled years of conflict he was captured, and then pardoned by the son of the now deceased Emperor, who also allowed him to marry his sister. I like to think that Ollanta’s persistence and courage (or foolishness, depending on your point of view) led to more liberal marriage customs. And clearly the new Emperor was a good guy. Or had something to gain from the marriage.

Ollanta is a living Inca city. It has some of the oldest continually inhabited buildings in the world. Built over 600 years ago, to walk the streets or to enter one of the courtyards of these dwellings is like travelling back in time.




It seems just about every time I read online about any one of the Inca ruins it says it was built about the mid 1400’s, the time of the reign of Pachacuti. He is also responsible for Machu Picchu. He must have been one busy guy. I’m not an archaeologist, it’s not my purpose to write a history blog, and I know Wiki is not the most reliable source of information, but I do get the feeling that the 1400’s were the time of greatest power and expansion of the Inca Empire.

Today the homes of Ollantaytambo are largely inhabited by the distant descendants of the original residents. Many still dress in the traditional way with sumptuous detailed woven fabrics, and elaborate hats and hatbands, and the same love of bright colours seen throughout the Peruvian Andes. I love the exuberance of their clothing, and their fearless embrace of colour. Many are wearing ordinary (and I do mean ordinary) western dress these days but it was not hard to find entire families still favouring traditional dress. The following photos were all taken in the town on regular days, people going about their business as usual.






And then there was this wonderful woman who stopped to talk with us as we sat at an outside café. What a personality! We were told she is 92, and obviously still going strong.


We first went to Ollantaytambo for Fiesta de los Reyes, also known as Bajada de los Reyes, meaning Descent of the Kings, celebrating the arrival of the three kings to welcome the baby Jesus. It is celebrated throughout the Sacred Valley, but most flamboyantly in Ollantaytambo. Known as Epiphany in the church, in typical Andean style it is much more than a Catholic religious service. I wish I understood more about the fantastical characters that come out to play on festival days. The festivals are all nominally Catholic, and follow the celebration and worship calendar of the Catholic Church. Often the reason for a festival is based on this calendar (in this case the recognition of Epiphany) or on the celebration of a saint’s day, but there is always much much more going on than the Catholic agenda. Always there is the celebration and worship and dancing to and for the traditional gods, and although Christian effigies are carried on biers through the streets, it really seems to be as much, or more, about the old gods, the old ways of honouring and celebrating and paying homage to them. Maybe one day I’ll go to the Andes and study festival dances and costumes and find out the significance of them. Meanwhile all I have are these photos of an enthusiastic dance through the streets of some fabulously wild and imaginative characters.










Dressed in traditional clothing, residents from surrounding communities walk into town for the festival. And all the people of Ollantaytambo put on their finest outfits to honour the occasion. The ‘audience’ is as colourful as the parade.




And then we discovered there was to be a bullfight!

On the edge of town – a bullring


We’d never been to a bullfight, nor ever thought we would, but here was an experience being handed to us so we said yes. To a point. We were there early and so we found ourselves a good position standing on a wall, back a bit from the main seating, and watched as the stadium, and then the hill behind us, filled up. By the time the action started the crowd numbered well into the hundreds.

A small part of the crowd on the hill:


There were five toreadors in all and they were acclaimed with great fanfare. A small young bull was released into the arena and used as a warm-up as they took turns taunting it into action with their bright neon capes. This part was actually quite entertaining to watch. The young bull was perhaps confused, and perhaps somewhat frightened, but no real harm was being done to it. They waved their capes, the bull responded instinctively, and the toreadors danced and pirouetted around it.

The young bull was wrestled out of the arena by a couple of wranglers and replaced by an older, bigger bull. The real thing. This was no longer just a warm-up. For quite some time the toreadors again took turns taunting it with their capes. And then it suddenly happened. One of them walked out from behind one of the red protective barriers carrying two lances. He walked carefully up to the bull and jabbed them deliberately and with force and precision into the back of its neck, and then danced away. The bull reacted in pain and terror. I was horrified. I don’t live under a rock. I know this happens in bullfights, but to see it live is really awful. And naively, up until this happened, I thought that maybe it was just going to be all about the action with the capes. Apart from the fact that it was now time to catch our bus back to Cusco, both Don and I agreed that it was enough. It was time to leave. Neither of us could stomach seeing any more.



My understanding is that the bull is taunted with more and more lances jabbed into its back by the appropriately named picadors, and by the matadors and toreadors and all the other ‘dors’ waving their capes at it to heighten it’s fear and frustration until finally it is so exhausted that one of the brave ‘dors’ hops in there and kills it. It is then dragged out of the stadium. I know this very end part only because I caught a glimpse of it on TV in some South American restaurant. To me the whole thing smacks more of cruelty and torture than heroism, and yet there is obviously some aspect of humanity that loves it, craves it. We saw the very large audience going wild with every ‘success’ the toreadors had over the bull.

On that cheerful note I will end this post, leaving you all to think (or not) about the human condition. And bullfight or not, Ollantaytambo is a delightful town.

Next post: After the Andes and the Sacred Valley, time for the big city: Lima, Peru’s capital.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.