Ollanta for Short
Ollantaytambo, Ollanta for short, is a town in Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas, on the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It has its own formidable Inca ruin (an uncompleted fortress, abandoned with the arrival of the conquistadores), and there's a train from Ollanta to Machu Picchu. Most tourists who get to Ollanta go for those two reasons. But I'm glad I spent an extra day just hanging out in the town.
Ollanta is known as the "Living Inca City" because the main residential area is still the original Inca-built town, a nearly square grid of narrow streets and alleys, with most homes built on original Inca stone foundations, many including the original portals. It's fascinating, and I think most people who pass through just to see the ruins or catch the train miss it.
This town of about 12,000 got a windfall about 5 years ago, when Perurail started running about 6 trains a day from Ollanta to Machu Picchu, instead of the 1 or 2 they previously had. It brought a lot more tourism to the town, but it hasn't been spoiled. People still go about their very traditional lifestyles and very little English is spoken. While I stayed in Ollanta I used Spanish exclusively.
I'm glad I stayed in Ollanta instead of Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly called Aguas Calientes), at the end of the train line. Taking the train from Ollanta (1 hr. & 20 minutes) I still had over six hours at Machu Picchu, which I think is more than enough for most people (unless you want to see the sun rise over the ruins). Machu Picchu Pueblo is simply a constantly growing tourist hub lacking in charm: English spoken everywhere, restaurants with touts, lots of places for muesli or cappuccino.
I had originally planned to spend less time in Ollanta. My game plan was to get there with a tour bus that hits other Sacred Valley ruins and markets along the way on a Tuesday (one of the market days), then go to Macchu Picchu on Wednesday and return to Cusco on Thursday. But I was unable to get a train reservation to Macchu Picchu until Thursday, so I had a day to hang out in Ollanta. It actually worked out fine. The ruins at Ollanta require climbing hundreds of steps, quite a workout, and a day between that and Machu Picchu was a blessing in disguise.
I loved my lazy day in Ollanta, wandering the old Inca streets, eating guinea pig, drinking chicha with local old folks, and looking at the ruins from the window of my hotel, the Hostal Sauce.
My stay in Ollantaytambo was one of the most rewarding parts of my visit to Peru. If you're planning a trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I highly recommend you stay a day or two in Ollanta and just go with the flow.
The strange yellowish structure (click photo to enlarge) on the side of the mountain near the Ollantaytambo fortress is believed to have served as a granary, but nobody is quite sure how the Incas accessed it!