Ollantaytambo: Inca Fortress

We approached Ollantaytambo as the Urubamba River valley began to narrow into a steep gorge, the same approach that Hernando Pizarro and his forces used leading up to the battle of Ollantaytambo in January of 1537. Our taxi climbed the steep, stone-paved road up to the town and we rolled along the bumpy main street. While passing stone walls and buildings, about half way through the town, we caught a glimpse of the Ollantaytambo fortress high above town. In an instant we understood why the Spaniards had so much trouble taking this town

Back in the 16th century, the town was defended by Manco Inca, who at 17 was installed as a puppet ruler by the Spanish and later ended his collaboration and led the Incas against the Spaniards. He fled to Ollantaytambo after losing Saqsaywaman in Cusco but he had his soldiers ready for Pizzaro. When the Spaniards arrived they were greeted by arrows and stones hurled from high above. Pedro Pizarro, the cousin of Francisco Pizarro and a chronicler of the Conquest, writes that they “hurled down so many boulders and fired so many [slingshot] stones and arrows that even had there been many more of us Spaniards than there were, they would have killed us all.” Despite this, the fighting continued with Manco Inca’s troops continuing to hold the fortress. Later in the day, things got interesting. Kim MacQuarrie, in his book “The Last Days of the Incas,” writes, “As the two forces grappled with each other, the Spaniards suddenly noticed that the plain they were fighting on had mysteriously begun to flood with water. Manco Inca, it turned out, had devised a secret weapon and had chosen this precise moment to unleash it. Along the nearby Patacancha River, which emptied into the Yucay, Inca engineers had built a series of canals. Manco had now given the signal to open them, flooding the only plain upon which the Spanish horsemen could maneuver.” This stratagem changed the course of the battle and the Spanish began their retreat back to Cusco. The victory was short-lived as the Spaniards soon returned with a much larger cavalry, took Ollantaytambo, and Manco Inca retreated to the last Inca stronghold of Vilcabamba.

The fortress itself sits high above Ollantaytambo and is visible from pretty much everywhere in town. The five of us checked into our hotel, cleaned up and went out to explore the city. Ollantaytambo sits at the intersection of the Patacancha and Urubamba River valleys, 45 miles northeast of Cusco and 30 miles east of Machu Picchu. The town reminds me of remote villages in central Nepal’s Annapurna Range, except for the large tourist buses driving though the only street (it is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu). Ollantaytambo is one of the best surviving examples of Inca town planning and because it dates from the 15th century, it has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in the Americas. The layout of the town is the shape of a corn cob with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets, with a plaza in the center of town. We meandered past Inca walls with massive, smooth, rough-hewn boulders, many of them between two and three feet in length and width. The side streets were meticulously paved with stones set perfectly in place and drainage channels running down the middle. The calming sound of water could be heard down many of the streets; several had channels of rushing water running alongside the buildings’ stone walls. We found a spot for dinner at a café perched above the Patacancha River where I devoured a delicious alpaca steak.

The next morning we got up early to visit the ruins. Just before the entrance, we passed a grouping of vendor stalls that were, by my reckoning, on the same plain that Manco Inca had flooded almost 500 years earlier. We entered the site and climbed up the steep terraces to get a view of the town and valleys. Across the Patacancha River, high up the mountain were qollqa, or grain storehouses. The qollqa were at high altitudes where the wind and lower temperatures extended the life of the grain inside. Our guide showed us some intricate stonework and gave us a thorough tour of the ceremonial center. The highlight for us was just standing at the top of the fortress, looking down and imagining rolling boulder after boulder at 30,000 enemy troops. After an hour and a half in the hot sun, we made our way down to the plain below the fortress, where we stopped so I could buy a T-shirt. Just as the Spaniards were tripped up by Manco Inca, on this very same plain we were waylaid by a T-shirt vendor.

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