Machu Picchu has a reputation that looms larger than life. But somewhere in the shadow (literally!) 30 kilometers down the mountain is a ruin that may even be slightly older than Machu Picchu.
While most travelers take the fastest route to Macchu Pichu and stay nearby Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is the city-equivalent of an airport: a modern village of cement and corrugated metal, sprung up to house and feed the steady stream of international travelers headed to Machu Pichu.
If you are considering staying in Aguas Calientes, read on to learn about a village just a few stops up the railroad track connecting Aguas Calientes to Cuzco. It’s my favorite destination from my entire month spent wandering Peru: Ollaytaytambo.
Ollaytaytambo, unlike Aguas Calientes, is a living village that has been constantly inhabited since Incan times. Today, it’s home to about 10,000 people and, in the shadow of Machu Picchu’s rise to tourism hotspot, is a thriving community that has benefited from tourism while largely avoiding the negative effects of overtourism.
On the Way to Macchu Pichu: a Journey Just as Important as the Destination
Ollaytaytambo has avoided overtourism because most travelers blaze right past its train station on the way to Aguas Calientes on the ascent to Machu Picchu- but read on to learn why I think this destination isn’t just a great addition to a Peru trip, but to me was even BETTER than Machu Picchu!
7 reasons Not to Stay in Aguas Calientes Before Visiting Machu Picchu
Before my trip, I repeatedly googled whether I should stay in Aguas Calientes or in Ollaytaytambo prior to my Machu Picchu day. At the time, the Internet wasn’t much help, and it was only through one Reddit users glowing report of staying in Ollaytaytambo that I chose to give this village chance.
I’m thankful I took that advice- and to help others make an informed decision between Aguas Calientes or in Ollaytaytambo, that I’ve written this article including these 7 reasons to stay in Ollaytaytambo and not in Aguas Calientes (which I also visited, but did not stay overnight in).
1. Travel Savings.
Ollaytaytambo is slightly less expensive than Aguas Calientes, with hotels and restaurants there generally a bit more expensive than Cusco and slightly less than Aguas Calientes
2. More Incans Ruins for Less Money
Ollaytaytambo sits in a valley between two mountains. Walking the quiet, narrow streets of Ollaytaytambo, one only has to look up – in two directions! – to get stunning views of Incan ruins. Additionally, both mountainside ruins are easily accessed – one side (Pinkuylluna, ruins of ancient Incan storehouses) offers completely free access to anyone willing to take the short but steep hike, while a close inspection of the ruins on the other mountainside charges a small admission fee as it is part of the Ollaytaytambo Archological Park (a park with 15,0000 reviews averaging 4.8/5.0).
Essentially, you’ll get more Incan ruins for your buck by staying in Ollaytaytambo, and you’ll be able to explore these ruins without the crush of the constant crowd at Machu Picchu.
3. Authentic Peruvian food
While Aguas Calientes is a young city economically focused on meeting the demands of mostly Western, often young American travelers, Ollaytaytambo is actually home to native Peruvians. In Aguas Calientes you’ll have to hunt for authentic Peruvian food in a sea of menus highlighting pizza and hamburgers. In Ollaytaytambo there are a number of authentic choices.
Ollaytaytambo has its tourist restaurants, to be sure, but only a street or two off the main drag you’ll find authentic street food near the open market, food counters and eat-in restaurants frequented by locals, and several Chifa restaurants. (Chifa is a beloved food in Peru. It’s a bit like the Peruvian version of Chinese American food- and because 99.9% of tourists never try chifa, the pricing is not inflated for tourist budgets)
4. Ollaytaytambo is laid-back
Aguas Calientes is a city focused on moving people to another location – tens of thousands of people a day, in fact. To me, it felt like the city version of an airport, with large buses, trains, and machinery moving crows of humans between boring block-type construction buildings.
Ollaytaytambo, on the other hand, is a community with a split economy. While tourism plays an important role in Ollaytaytambo and has helped ensure the survival of this village, it’s much quieter and somewhat agrarian. During my stay, it wasn’t unusual to see livestock being hand walked through the city streets.
Because Ollaytaytambo’s streets are very narrow – more on that later – most of the city is navigable only by foot, bike, and ultrasmall cars and vans. Combine all of this with a river flowing through the city and multiple aquifers and you’ve got a relaxing, more peaceful alternative to Aguas Calientes.
5. Better souvenir shopping.
Everyone told me that the best souvenirs in Peru at the best prices would be at the market outside the train station at Aguas Calientes, but I spent hours shopping through that enormous market- at times aggressively marketed to – without finding a single thing that felt like a special souvenir.
Ollaytaytambo also has a tourist market and while the market there is smaller, it was there that I found some of my favorite treasures of my entire month in Peru. Although I didn’t find the Peruvian frazada I was looking for (but did finally find in Arequipa), I did find a Machu Picchu token necklace that I adore and wear frequently to this day, as well as a set of throw pillowcases made from a frazada.
6. Authentic experiences
Although certainly, this varies from traveler to traveler, I found that in Ollaytaytambo I had access to a unique Peruvian experience that I would not have had if I stayed in the more popular Machu Picchu overnight spot of Aguas Calientes. More specifically, during my time in Ollaytaytambo, an Airbnb experience was available that allowed visitors to take part in a traditional meal called a Pachamama.
Spending time getting to know locals and sharing this culturally important meal was one of my highlights of my month in Peru.
Looking back on this trip and how my experiences shaped me as a human and as a traveler, I can honestly say that the Pachamama meal I was able to take part in in Ollaytaytambo was far more enjoyable, memorable, and meaningful than my actual experience of seeing Machu Picchu.
One more, and trust me, I saved the best for last:
7. Live in an Incan ruin
I’m not someone heavily into archaeology but even I geeked out about staying in Ollaytaytambo. Why? Because, it turns out, Ollaytaytambo is a living Incan “ruin.” Or, better put, it’s an Incan city that has survived rather than falling into ruin. While Machu Picchu and even the ruins on the hillsides above Ollaytaytambo are half walls and fallen stones, this city itself has somehow maintained its old identity while adapting to modern life.
In Ollaytaytambo streets are narrow because they are the streets, walls, and buildings are that were planned, laid out, and built by Incan builders who couldn’t imagine modern cars.
Open Aquifers that splash water down through channels in the middle of streets are the same aquifers that watered children, cleaned dishes, and bathes families nearly a thousand years ago. As you walk down the street in Ollaytaytambo you can see the division in the walls where new construction has been added on the foundations of old Incan homes. If you have the privilege of staying in one of these homes, you’ll find yourself having to stoop at each doorway- as the original Incan-built thresholds remain the entry to most of these homes.
To me, living, walking, and travel journaling in a living breathing Incan city was an experience far more profound and educational than Machu Picchu’s mystique, and if you have the time in your Peru itinerary to visit this gem, I highly encourage it.
Every traveler to Machu Picchu has to make a few critical decisions about transportation and lodging. While some people make Machu Picchu a day trip from Cusco, this can be an exhausting day as the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the last stop before Machu Picchu, takes about 4 hours if trains are running on time (and that’s not always guaranteed).
Essentially, getting from Cuszco to Macchu Picchu gives you four choices:
Four Ways to Get from Cusco to Machu Picchu:
1. Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco as a day trip with no overnight stay
Pros: It’s possible! Unless you are an enthusiast or an archaeology buff, Machu Picchu itself can be “seen” in under an hour. Crowds pressing visitors forward through the walkways make it hard to linger anyway. A day trip can work to do a quick visit and get on with your itinerary.
Cons: Getting to Machu Picchu, Seeing it, and getting back to Cusco in one day is a very long day. Additionally, the railway and train cars between Cusco and Machu Picchu are not the most reliable. During my visit, a locomotive broke down and left us stranded on the track for 4 hours. For travelers who were taking the train all the way back to Cusco that night, the 4 hour delay turned their ride into an 8-hour train trip- causing several to miss flights that had been cautiously booked with plenty of margin for more typical delays.
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2. Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco with an overnight in Aguas Calientes
Pros: After taking the train to Aguas Calientes the day before, your Machu Picchu day’s travel will be easy! Just had to a bus station to book the same-day passage for a ride up to the Machu Picchu entry.
Cons: Aguas Calientes is a new city, constructed for the purpose of housing, entertaining, feeding, (and sometimes exploiting) tourists. Frankly, it is an eyesore, and although there are some nice hotels, having passed through it, it’s not a destination I would choose to stay overnight.
3. Getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco with an overnight in Ollaytaytambo
Pros: Ollaytaytambo is, itself, a fantastic destination worthy of a full day or two. It can be reached from Cusco by train or (for only $2 US dollars) you can get from Cusco to Machu Picchu via ‘colectivo’. From Ollaytaytambo, a 90-minutes ride on a morning train can take you to Aguas Calientes and return you to Ollaytaytambo after your Machu Picchu assent. Ollaytaytambo lodging is a little bit less expensive than lodging in Aguas Calientes or the expensive lodges just outside the Machu Picchu entrance.
Cons: Staying in Ollaytaytambo does require just a bit of extra maneuvering on Machu Picchu day – getting from Ollaytaytambo to Machu Picchu will require a train ride, then a bus ride, and then a train and bus ride to get back to Ollaytaytambo at the end of the day.
4. Machu Picchu via trek or other guide-managed arrivals.
If Machu Picchu is the central focus of your trip, rather than Peru, the region, and greater Incan civilization ruins, a guided tour might be a good fit for you. Even with a guided tour, you’ll probably be taking one of the routes above, at least partially. Treks to Machu Picchu from Cusco generally take advantage of, at least partially, the rail system for a portion of the trip.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a female, fat, one-bag traveler, and journalling it all on WanderBig.com