Ollantaytambo was occupied long before the Inca by the Quillques, who built some of the rougher buildings at Pumamarca and on the ridge near the Ollantaytambo temple itself. After Inca emperor Pachacútec conquered this area around 1440, construction began on a ceremonial center and royal estate that housed an estimated 1,000 workers year-round. What Ollantaytambo is most famous for, however, is a 1537 battle in which the Inca defeated a Spanish army—and nearly massacred it altogether.
The battle happened during the 1536–1537 Inca rebellion, when Manco Inca was forced to withdraw his troops to Ollantaytambo after being defeated by the Spanish at Sacsayhuamán. Hernando Pizarro arrived at Ollantaytambo one morning at dawn with 70 cavalry and 30 foot soldiers. But Manco Inca’s men were waiting on the terraces of the sun temple, which had been hastily converted into a fort. Pedro Pizarro wrote afterward, “We found it so well fortified that it was a thing of horror.” Conquistadors Juan, Francisco, and Hernando Pizarro were brothers, and Pedro Pizarro was their cousin.
From high on the upper terraces, Manco Inca commanded his troops from horseback—co-opting the symbol of Spanish strength—as jungle archers shot volleys of arrows and Inca soldiers fired off slingshots and rolled boulders. Sensing defeat, the Spaniards retreated, but Manco Inca pulled a final surprise. On cue, he diverted the Río Urubamba and flooded the plains below Ollantaytambo, causing the Spaniards’ horses to founder in the mud. Manco’s forces fought the Spanish all the way to Cusco, where Pizarro waited for Diego de Almagro to return from his Chile campaign with reinforcements. Manco Inca, meanwhile, recognized the growing strength of the Spaniards and withdrew to Vilcabamba.
After Manco’s departure, the whole valley became an encomienda for Hernando Pizarro, who pursued Manco deep into Vilcabamba and raided his camp in 1539. Manco narrowly escaped, but his wife and sister, Cura Ocllo, was captured and brought to Ollantaytambo. After Manco refused to surrender, Francisco Pizarro had Cura Ocllo stripped, whipped, and killed with arrows. To make sure Manco got the message, they floated her body down the Río Urubamba toward Vilcabamba, where Manco’s troops found her.
About two-thirds of the inhabitants of the Sacred Valley died of diseases brought by the Spanish. The descendants of the survivors were put to work in the haciendas that sprung up in the valley, often the result of Spaniards marrying Inca elite. One of these, the Hacienda Sillque, is today a ruin of adobe walls and arched doorways, about 20 kilometers west of Ollantaytambo. A road down the Urubamba Valley to Quillabamba was begun in 1895. It was this road that Hiram Bingham took to “discover” Machu Picchu in 1911. In the 1920s, the road was converted into the rail line that now carries travelers to Machu Picchu.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition