Ollantaytambo, Peru — As we trod along, both ourselves and the horses looking a bit worse for wear, the welcoming sight of Ollantaytambo’s cobbled streets came into view, it’s neatly stacked rock walls, yellow houses, and blooming bougainvillea marking our safe return. After four hours spent teetering on horseback along steep mountain pathways, it was a comforting homecoming.
For many visitors, Ollantaytambo in Peru’s Sacred Valley, is simply a stopover on their trip to Machu Picchu, the place where the train leaves for Aguas Calientes or where the Inca Trail hike begins.
But it’s well worth taking a bit of extra time to explore Ollantaytambo.
Here the mountains rise up high on all sides, and impressive ruins and steep agricultural terraces loom over the town, built on Incan foundations.
Above: The people, places and odd-looking animals make Peru a special place to visit.
It’s a charming, traditional place with a relaxed atmosphere and plenty to see and do.
We opted for two full days in Ollantaytambo. After dropping our bags at our guesthouse, we ventured out into the drizzling rain towards the main ruins, watching as tourists in cheap plastic ponchos ducked in and out of shops.
Following the line of visitors climbing up to the fortress, we explored the impressive stonework in the maze of rooms, and eventually stumbled on a door, left slightly ajar. Curious, we decided to follow the narrow walking trail on the other side, zig-zagging up behind the main ruins and out to a grassy lookout near an Incan structure.
Here, perched high above the throngs of tourists, we were completely alone to absorb the breathtaking beauty of the landscape and the deep history of this place.
On our second day, we set out with a guide to explore the valley on horseback.
After about two hours of riding, we followed our guide on foot to the Incan ruins of Pumamarca.
Above: Peru offers visitors some of the most breathtaking landscape in the world.
It was overcast and the clouds hung low in the sky, threatening rain which was to come later in the day.
Once again, we were surprised to have the ruins to ourselves, and we wandered through the stone-walled storehouses and temple structures listening to stories from our guide, a Quechua-speaking descendent of the Inca.
We continued on, and after climbing with our horses to a well-worn footpath high in the mountains, we knew right away that the descent would be tough.
Our small horses were tired — they’re not really built for the two tall tourists sitting on their backs.
Our guide’s horse was first to take a tentative step down the steep and narrow rocky path, and ours followed suit.
As the horses slid down the polished rocks, we jolted back and forth on top of them. At one point, the pitch was so steep we were forced to climb off and coax the animals down.
Despite the harrowing nature of the ride, once we were safely back in town we reflected on the spectacular sights we had seen: the tremendous, expansive peaks stretching to the horizon, local homes with pastures grazed by cattle, women working small farms in traditional dress and ancient terraced landscapes.
Moreover, we were overcome by the inordinate solitude and serenity that we felt during our journey by horse and throughout our entire stay in Ollantaytambo, a fortuitous experience to have at any of Peru’s tourist sites.
The next morning, we made our way by train into the crush of tourists in Aguas Calientes and Machu Piccho, already longing to be back in lovely Ollantaytambo.
Above: Whether they are new or ancient, the homes in Peru all seem to be built clinging to the country's rugged mountains.