Ollantaytambo, Peru

July 14, 2016

In your city, how can we tell that we are in the year 2016?

An incredible volume of tourists from around the world pass through Ollantaytambo, and in addition to staying in town to enjoy its particular magic, they also head to Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo has perhaps become one of the most international sites, and that’s reflected in the cultural clash of a traditionally agricultural town—with its strong indigenous and mestizo customs—and international characters who bring (and need) the internet, hundreds of hotels, restaurants, etc. On one hand, this brings cultural exchange and economic benefits, and on the other, it makes this a town of increasing chaos that’s trying to redefine its identity. 

View of the town View of the town

What in your city reminds you of the past?

Everything Inca. People come to Ollantaytambo because it has the ruins of a fortress of great importance, in addition to being the self-proclaimed town of the living Inca. That is to say, people have been continuously living in the same structures as the Inca did since 500 years ago. The entire Inca system of terraced agriculture is still largely present.

A street in town A street in town

Which building or intersection in the city would make us think that we are in the future?

I would say that the walk from town to the train station is a symbol of the future of global tourism. Every sign for every restaurant, which range from pizzas and kebabs to “typical Peruvian food” (which is generally misspelled), offers you cuy (guinea pig, a traditional Andean food), tacos and every kind of fusion. The future? You could say it’s a city that’s moving forward, but depending on how you focus, progress is a myth. Everything is cyclical. 


Where in your city would be the best place to lose track of time, freeze time, or gain time?

The carved rocks beside the Vilcanota river, for their meditative quality, and in a completely different context, the “chicherías” (bars where you drink an Andean alcoholic beverage of the same name, made from a corn base) with Huayno music and zapateo (a traditional dance).


What song or local band would you recommend for an everyday playlist?

I like that there are new Peruvian punk bands coming out of Cusco, such as La Base, Karma Ukuku, Bacterias, Menarkía and Muñeca Rota. I fully support them.


Which museum or cultural space is generally omitted from a typical cultural excursion, but is definitely worth visiting?

The contemporary art galleries at the Coricancha. In the valley there’s a new museum of pre-Hispanic Peruvian culture, the Museo Inkariy, which seems interesting.

Museo Inkariy Museo Inkariy

In which bookstore can you find new or second-hand publications on art history, exhibition catalogs, or artist monographs?

Doesn’t exist.


What dish most embodies your city, and where would you find it?

The Pachamanca at El Albergue in Ollantaytambo.  In Quechua, pachamanca means “underground oven”, and the dish is prepared by cooking meats and other Andean products (like potato, sweet potato, corn, fava beans, and yucca dressed in chincho, hucatay, ají, cumin, pepper, and other herbs and spices) with preheated rocks buried in the ground.


Where can you find the best coffee (or tea)?

Café Mayu at the train station.

Café Mayu Café Mayu

What is a monument that reveals a hidden past?

If I had to mention just one, it would be the agricultural terraces at the ruins of Moray.

At an altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), there are circular ruins in the form of amphitheaters that seems to disappear inside the Earth, like artificial craters. Apparently the site was an Inca agricultural laboratory designed to experiment with growing at different altitudes and climates (some of the craters are more than 100 meters deep).  It is believed that the terraces, built with retaining walls full of fertile soil irrigated by a complex system, made it possible for the Inca to grow over 250 varieties of plants that came from all over the empire, including fruit trees and tropical plants that would never have thrived at this altitude. In effect, it was a giant greenhouse. 

Ruins of Moray Ruins of Moray

Outdoor or public artwork worth visiting:

All the ruins of the Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Chinchero, etc., and obviously Machu Picchu. In different parts of the valley there are also incredible sacred stones carved by the Inca. A more contemporary option would be the capsules of the Via Ferrata, as well as the sculptural monuments at the entrance of each town, where you can also check out the neo-Andean architecture. Two that really intrigue me are the puma in Calca and the monument outside of the Museo Inkari.

Ruins of a fortress Ruins of a fortress Baño de la Ñusta, a sacred stone Baño de la Ñusta, a sacred stone A Skylodge on Via Ferrata A Skylodge on Via Ferrata Pablo Hare, Calca, Valle del Urubamba, Cusco (2008) from the series Monumentos Pablo Hare, Calca, Valle del Urubamba, Cusco (2008) from the series Monumentos

Where would be the best place to view the sunset in your city?

From Pincuylluna mountain, looking out over town.


Next Sunday, let’s meet at:

The Salineras de Maras—the salt mines.  It’s a truly beautiful site on one of the hillsides of the Sacred Valley where the local people collect the salt that comes out of a spring with more than 3,000 wells.

Salineras de Maras (salt mines) Salineras de Maras (salt mines)

Which book transports me to your city?

Arquitectura y Construcción Inca en Ollantaytambo by Jean Pierre Protzen, who spent almost 20 years recording and measuring the whole town and did an exhaustive study resulting in this impressive book. Another that I recommend is by the photographer Edward Ranney, Monumento de los Incas, with texts by John Hemming.

A photograph shot by Edward Ranney in Ollantaytambo A photograph shot by Edward Ranney in Ollantaytambo

What aspect of your city most inspires you?

Beyond the landscape and the extraordinary mountains that situate it, my town is alive, full of culture and traditions that blend the traditional Andean world with contemporary dialogue. There are a lot of people who work honorably with their hands, artisans in town who work with clay and wood and who forge iron. You have all the residents of the high valley, textile makers whose red, black, and white clothing is full of history and symbolism. These are strong people who fight and who are direct descendants of the Inca. 


Where would one probably get lost: geographically, emotionally or historically speaking?

In Ñaupa Iglesia, near Pachar, you walk up to where there’s a carved-out cave that has an Incan altar. The local curanderos still use this site to made payments to the earth, and other ceremonies. If you project the axes of the stone altar at different times of the year, they align with the stars and important constellations, as well as marking the dates of the solstice. It had to be a place of big announcements and astronomic events. 

Ñaupa Iglesia Ñaupa Iglesia

If you were to be commissioned today to create an artwork “about” this city, briefly describe your proposal.

I would work with the ushnus, the ceques, and the sacred carved seats. The ushnu specifically looks out at the sacred mountains, the solstices, everything that has to do with the Andean worldview that very much interests me. The 42 ceques are sacred lines, vectors, that are invisible and emanate from Coricancha in Cusco, and upon which you’ll find sanctuaries and huacas, revered monuments or objects. They are lines of pilgrimage. I’ve wanted to create and map my own system of ceques from the town of Ollantaytambo, and in these paths, make a ritual of creating new carved seats. It’s a more ambitious project that I may keep in mind for the future.