Many people will visit the Wonder of the World that is Machu Picchu and other popular sights in Peru’s Sacred Valley while based in the colonial city of Cusco. There’s nothing wrong with that per se; I just think there’s a better plan of action to be had and that is the tiny town of Ollantaytambo, or Ollanta as it is affectionately known. (Spanish lesson-remember the double “ll”in the Spanish alphabet is pronounced like a “ya”sound so “Oyan-tay-tambo.”)
Cusco has a big city feeling, Ollanta does not.
I’ve lived and traveled throughout Latin America so upon arrival into Cusco (that’s where we flew from Lima), the scenes before me did not surprise me at all (i.e. mobs of people, bad traffic fumes, open air markets selling every type of produce you could imagine, trash everywhere). Cusco’s airport is also not immediately near to the stunning Plaza de Armas where most tourists stay so visitors won’t be greeted with the most serene of images. I always have an open mind while traveling but I know that many do not so I could see some people being put off by Cusco in those initial moments. Although it was nothing compared to Lima’s, the traffic was still pretty bad in Cusco too.
The population of Ollanta is around 2,000. While you will certainly see tourists there, it’s nowhere near as many as you see in Cusco. Situated at the northwestern edge of the Sacred Valley, this small town offers more of an authentic feeling in my opinion. More than half of the population speaks Quechua, the indigenous language, the locals are “right there” in terms of them doing their own business (i.e. not just serving tourists), and it’s just a sleepy, laid back place. In Ollanta itself, there is one road in and one road out; two roads in one direction if a driver deems another driver as going too slow.
Ollanta’s location can’t be beat
While staying in Ollanta, we made two day trips, one to Machu Picchu, the other to two famous sights in the Sacred Valley (the agricultural terraces at Morray and the salt mines in Salineras). Both trips took a lot less time than if we had been coming from Cusco which is further away. To me, a plus when traveling is being able to spend less time in the car getting to your final destination.
The train station is “right there”
Unless you’re doing the Inca Trail, the most popular way to get to Machu Picchu is via train. While you can catch the train to Machu Picchu from both Cusco and Poroy, Ollanta is the nearest train station to Peru’s most famous ruins. The journey from the Ollanta train station to Aguas Calientes (where the train terminates for Machu Picchu) is only 90 minutes, versus being two hours or more when traveling from Cusco or Poroy. Staying in Ollanta meant that the day we traveled to Machu Picchu, we literally just needed to leave our hotel and walk right outside to the train station (our hotel was right there). No need to hire a driver to take us to the train station or leave even earlier than our 5:07 AM departure time.
I’ll admit, prior to researching Peru I had never heard of the Ollanta ruins. From a worldwide perspective, Machu Picchu gets all the attention. However, after having visited, I have to say it was pretty incredible to stay right in the same town as such impressive ruins. Our guide called them the “mini Machu Picchu” and yet I think they were just as special and unique in their own right. Between their dramatic location (they offer a great vantage point on the valley below), their religious significance (you apparently want to be here on the summer and winter solstices to see some incredible imagery), and the fact that Ollanta was one of the few battle grounds where the indigenous people actually beat the Spanish conquistadors, it’s a pretty neat place to check out.
Don’t get me wrong, Cusco is still a great place to visit and stay (I myself spent two nights there). But I think when it comes to delving into the world of the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo is a much better choice and that much more fulfilling and memorable.