Road to Machu Picchu: Ollantaytambo to Aquas Calientes

John Sundsmo
BATW Travel Stories
9 min readJan 4, 2022

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The Inca Highlands of the Peruvian Andes

Story and Photos by John Sundsmo

Once a destination refuge for Inca nobility, Machu Picchu is located on a narrow mountain ridge at the far end of the Inca’s Sacred Valley. The “road” to Machu Picchu is not a road, but a footpath in the sky on the ancient Inca highway, or, for my wife and I, a train from Ollantaytambo to Aquas Calientes, which lies in the river valley directly below Machu Picchu. We thought our visit to Peru was a once in a lifetime experience, but the way we chose to explore and experience the Sacred Valley amplified the experience many fold.

After a flight from Lima, we began our visit to the Sacred Valley in Cusco. A quick visit to the COSITUC main office secured tourist tickets to all the archaeologic sites (n=16) and the ticket needed for Machu Picchu. Rather than boarding a train to Aquas Calientes, we spent a week exploring the Inca heartland in hired cars. We are grateful that we made this decision, because we found unique vistas, historic sites and cultural experiences that made our trip complete, rivaling and even exceeding the wonders of Machu Picchu, and without the crowds.

Our first driver took us from Cusco through Chincero and Urubamba, to reach our destination for the night in Pisac (Cusco to Pisac). In Pisac we experienced the high Andes culture in Pisac’s renowned Sunday market and explored the Inca Intihuatana and gateway to the Amazon at Kantas Ray (Pisac ).

In this present article, our driver dropped us off in Ollantaytambo and from there we caught the train to Aquas Calientes, i.e., the departure point for buses to Machu Picchu. In Ollantaytambo, my wife suggested that we further our explorations with a visit to a remote hillside village with a weaver’s cooperative. I’m glad she did.

Inca water systems still functioning in Ollantaytambo after more than 400 yrs

Ollantaytambo (elevation 9,160 ft/2,792 m): Just 45 miles northwest of Cusco, Ollantaytambo is strategically positioned at the narrow end of the Sacred Valley where the Patacancha and Willkanuta Rivers meet. It is a departure point for a train ride to Aquas Calientes and also for an Inca trail hike to Machu Picchu (elevation 5,905 ft/1,800m.) The train follows the Rio Urubamba River valley to Aquas Calientes (2 hrs.) The trail follows the Inca stone highway in the sky (4 days; 3 nights, 26 miles; with a peak elevation of 13,828 ft/4,215 m on day 2.) The small town of Ollantaytambo is today on the tourist map because of Machu Picchu, but, in Inca times, it was a thriving mecca and estate for the family (panaqa) of Pachacuti, a 15th century Inca emperor who put the Incas on the map with dramatic expansion of his empire. He remade Ollantaytambo into his personal estate.

Inca traditional entry — still in use

The small town was also a historic turning point for the Inca. It was here in Ollantaytambo that Manco Inca Yupanqui, the last puppet emperor, came to escape the pursuit of the conquistadors after the fall of the Inca capital in Cusco. The nearby fortresses were perhaps the only ones that did not fall to the Spanish and were the only battles won by the Inca. Steep narrow stone staircases finally gave Inca stone-throwing warriors a strategic advantage over the armor-clad Spaniards on their war horses. Today, the living town sits amidst the remains of its glorious imperial heritage. The grandness of its past is on constant display in the surrounding terraced hillsides, Inca public street water aqueducts and ancient stone dwellings. Those dwellings are the oldest continuously occupied homes in all of South America.

Once Inca imperial housing is now tourist accommodations

Imperial buildings are still easily recognized by the extremely high quality of their tightly fitting large stones, now more than four centuries old.

Inca terraces afforded unique solutions to mountain weather

Extensive high stone terraces allowed the Inca to create different agricultural zones. Terraced stone walls trapped and radiated heat, thus allowing growth of plants that otherwise would not withstand the high cold altitude. Like other imperial stonework in Ollantaytambo, the terraces are amazing works of stone artistry.

Ollantaytambo citadel on the terraced Cerro Bandolista hillside

Cerro Bandolista: Imperial Inca ceremonial temple is perched on steep terraces of the Cerro Bandolista hillside. Accessible by a series of stairways that climb to a main terrace, the views are worth the climb. Spanish conquest brought construction to a halt but the unfinished ruins are very impressive both for their size and quality of workmanship.

Patacancha for peace and harmony

Patacancha: In late afternoon we opted to arrange a quick side-trip. After our wonderful experience at Pisac Sunday market, we hoped to add another view of Andean cultural life by visiting a hill village of weavers and woodcarvers. Through our hotel we found and hired a van, driver and guide (required) to take us up the valley to the Patacancha cooperative above Ollantaytambo. Our driver negotiated a narrow dirt road with panache; up the beautiful rushing Patacancha river, with frequent stops for sheep, cows and humans herding them home before nightfall.

Getting livestock in for the night
How the art of weaving is passed down

When at last we arrived in Patacancha, we found the small hill town long in shadows, but still with fading daylight. Locals were busily wrapping up their daily chores in preparation for another cold night in the Andes. We felt extremely fortunate to experience a little of their daily life: groups of children returning home from school chatting with friends; livestock being herded obediently into family compounds for the night by young children; grandmothers sitting weaving with granddaughters; brothers helping sisters; families all pitching in to prepare for nightfall. Their lives seemed basic, but highly fulfilling: warmth from handwoven clothing; food from their own garden terraces; ancient family dwellings made of thick mud-brick to raise their families and keep out the elements. Smiles were warm and engaging.

We enjoyed seeing the fine traditional homespun Alpaca bags, belts and capes, but also especially appreciated seeing interactions of the families and their daily lives.

Traditional Inca highland weaving
Peru Rail — all aboard for Aqua Calientes

Train to Aqua Calientes: We stayed that night at El Alberque Ollantaytambo Hotel. It is in the Ollantaytambo train station complex. Our dinner menu in the hotel’s Café offered not only basic Peruvian food, but well-prepared Italian food complemented with organic produce from the hotel’s garden. (We recommend the hotel and café for their international flavor and quality of service and rooms.)

Peru Rail and Inca Rail trains depart from Ollantaytambo station for Aqua Calientes, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. Schedules and prices vary greatly depending upon the time of day and class of service. Peru Rail offers Expedition, Vistadome and top of the line Hiram Bingham classes. We chose the Peru Rail Vistadome (mid-range) service and window seats, but with all morning tickets sold-out, our earliest departure was mid-afternoon. The train ride follows the scenic winding Urubamba River down a narrow valley past small hamlets and Inca ruins, so unless you’ve seen it all before, be sure to take this journey in daylight.

Agua Calientes: Arriving in Aqua Calientes at dusk we quickly checked into our hotel. Our plan was to get an early start the next morning for Machu Picchu, both to dodge crowds and to experience sunrise from the Huaynapicchu peak. Buses begin boarding before daybreak with a 1st entrance to Machu Picchu at sunrise. Rules now limit the number of visitors. We managed to get on a second bus and when we arrived we only had 30–40 people ahead of us in line. As the sun began to rise we were inside the Lower Gate and headed for a waiting area at the trail head for Huaynapicchu. Much to our chagrin, our planning was flawed as the trails didn’t open until 7:00AM. The rules limit the number of hikers on the trails and your place in line determines whether you can make the hike. We were early and didn’t have a problem. While one of us waited, the other had time for some photo exploration. (The Peru Travel Blog has more on new entrance requirements and trail options.)

Machu Picchu sunrise from Huchuypicchu
Trail to Huchuypicchu

Considering our limited time for exploration, we decided that, rather than climbing Huaynapicchu, we would opt for a shorter and faster lower peak at Huchuypicchu. Despite our initial planning glitch, the revised plan worked well and by 8:30AM we were alone on top looking down at a cloud enshrouded Machu Picchu. Sunrise under these conditions was less than optimal, but quiet solitude and views from atop Huchuypicchu were spectacular and well worth our early bird hike. As we came down and met more and more hikers going up, we were glad we went early. After exploring the main site, citadel and sun god worship stone, noon found us wearily having a bowl of soup at the café outside the lower entry gate, as it turned out, our first meal of the day. More time would have been nice, but under existing time-limitations we were satisfied with our overview of this spectacular well preserved Inca site.

Temple of the Sun God

Did we see everything at Machu Picchu? No, but enough for us until next time.

Does Machu Picchu live up to the hype? Yes, but we found other less crowded Inca sites in the Inca Sacred Valley equally interesting and picturesque (see other articles in this series, i.e., Part One and Part Two )

Machu Picchu with Huchuypicchu peak to the right (top).

Would we go back? Yes, but in this present trip we spent 9 days exploring the Inca Sacred Valley. Next time would be more targeted; undoubtedly with more visits to high hill country hamlets and also exploring South from Cusco into the Puno, Lake Titicaca and Arequipa regions; or alternatively, to the North into Trujillo.

Guanacos of Machu Picchu

In Part Two of this series we described meeting a senior trekker from Germany, Gretchen, who related that somehow no matter where she hiked in Switzerland or Patagonia, the Andes inexplicably drew her back every few years. After our brief encounter with the Inca Sacred Valley, we can fully understand why she makes these pilgrimages. The shear majesty of the Andes, clean clear mountain air, amazing Inca archeology and robust vibrant culture in high hill communities is all unique and invigorating. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you’re missing a once in a lifetime experience. For us, like Gretchen, once in a lifetime may not be enough.

See also the Peru-Travel page.

This article was published previously on TravelExaminer.net under the same title (https://travelexaminer.net/road-to-machu-picchu-ollantaytambo-to-aquas-calientes/ ).

Machu Picchu

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John Sundsmo
BATW Travel Stories

A traveled scientist, photographer and co-founder of TravelExaminer, John brings a different focus to travel writing interests in history, science and culture.