Small town. Big ruins.

Ollantaytambo is a very pleasing little town in the El Valle Sagrado. That’s the Sacred Valley stretching between Cusco and Machu Picchu and containing many impressive ruins.


Ollanytaytambo’s ruins probably come second only to Machu Picchu’s for impressiveness and, because a colonial town was built atop many of them, it’s got a more ‘lived in’ feeling. Also, though we couldn’t see it the town is supposedly laid out like a corn cob.

It’s also a bit of a mecca for volunteers. While there we heard about one organisation that provides dormitory accommodation for Peruvian girls who have no opportunity to go to secondary school in their home villages, another trying to set up a pre-school and overheard a meeting of some young volunteers who seemed to be teaching English. We also ate in a cafe that funds family planning for rural Peruvian women.

The tourism triple whammy

The town made me reflect on what a positive force tourism can be for development, but also how localised its impact can be.

  1. First, the tourist dollars flowing through the Sacred Valley mean Peruvian poverty is almost imperceptible to the uninformed tourist.
  2. Second, the kind of places that tourists like to spend time are also pretty nice for volunteers too. So you’re more likely to get non-profit organisations set up, and find people to staff them. After all as we’ve said before, volunteers make decisions about balancing personal and community benefits.
  3. Third, non-profits will find it much easier to fund raise with a steady stream of tourists to hear their donation pitch, or eat in their cafe. Virtuous cycle.

None of this is intended to blemish the outstanding work that many non-profits do in tourist heavy areas. But it does make us think that if we were to volunteer again – a possibility that is on our mind – we’d consider how well the area was serviced as part of our calculus of where to spend our time and put our efforts.

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