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Fortress Ruins 

The Inca elite adopted Ollantaytambo, building irrigation systems and a crowning temple designed for worship and astronomical observation. Rising above the valley and an ancient square (Plaza Mañaraki) are dozens of rows of stunningly steep stone terraces carved into the hillside. The temple ruins, which appear both forbidding and admirably perfect, represent one of the Inca Empire's most formidable feats of architecture. The Incas were able to successfully defend the site against the Spanish in 1537, protecting the rebel Manco Inca after his retreat here from defeat at Sacsayhuamán. In all probability, the complex was more a temple than a citadel to the Incas.

The upper section -- reached after you've climbed 200 steps -- contains typically masterful masonry of the kind that adorned great Inca temples. A massive and supremely elegant doorjamb -- site of many a photo -- indicates the principal entry to the temple; next to it is the Temple of Ten Niches. On the next level are six huge pink granite blocks, amazingly cut, polished, and fitted together; they appear to be part of rooms never completed. This Temple of the Sun is one of the great stonemasonry achievements of the Incas. On the stones, you can still make out faint, ancient symbolic markings in relief. Across the valley is the quarry that provided the stones for the structure; a great ramp descending from the hilltop ruins was the means by which the Incas transported the massive stones -- thousands of workers essentially dragged them around the river -- from several kilometers away.

A footpath wends up the hill behind an outer wall of the ruins to a clearing and a wall with niches that have led some to believe prisoners were tied up here -- a theory that is unfounded. Regardless of the purpose, the views south over the Urubamba Valley and of the snowcapped peak of Verónica are outstanding.

The ruins are open daily from 7am to 5:30pm; admission is by boleto turístico only. To experience the ruins in peace before the tour buses arrive, plan on getting to them before 11am. Early morning is best of all, when the sun rises over mountains to the east and then quickly bathes the entire valley in light.

At the bottom of the terraces, next to the Patacancha River, are the Baños de la Ñusta (Princess Baths), a place of ceremonial bathing. Wedged into the mountains facing the baths are granaries built by the Incas (not prisons, as some have supposed). Locals like to point out the face of the Inca carved into the cliff high above the valley. (If you can't make it out, ask the guard at the entrance to the ruins for a little help.)

Old Town

Below (or south of) the ruins and across the Río Patacancha is the finest extant example of the Incas' masterful urban planning. Many original residential canchas, or blocks, each inhabited by several families during the 15th century, are still present; each cancha had a single entrance opening onto a main courtyard. The finest streets of this stone village are directly behind the main square. On my last visit to Ollanta, stonemasons were busy redoing every last old cobblestone street, so the Old Town should be in pristine shape again. Get a good glimpse of community life within a cancha by peeking in at Calle del Medio (Chautik'ikllu St.), where a couple of neighboring houses have a small shop in the courtyard and their ancestors' skulls are displayed as shrines on the walls of their living quarters. The entire village retains a solid Amerindian air to it, unperturbed by the crowds of gringos who wander through it, snapping photos of children and old women. It's a starkly traditional place, largely populated by locals in colorful native dress and women who pace up and down the streets or through fields absent-mindedly spinning the ancient spools used in making hand-woven textiles.

Ollantaytambo is an excellent spot in the valley for gentle or more energetic walks around the valley and into the mountains. One of the more accessible walks is the climb up into the hills overlooking the old town; take the stairs off Calle Lares K'ikllu, northeast of the Plaza de Armas and with the widest rushing canals in town. A simple sign reads "To Pinkuylluna." Though the climb is initially very steep, you can clamber over the entire hilltop and explore old Inca granaries. The views of Ollantaytambo, across town to the ruins and of the surrounding the valley are stupendous.

Sacred Valley Festivals

The traditional Andean villages of the Sacred Valley are some of the finest spots in Peru to witness vibrant local festivals celebrated with music, dance, and processions. Among the highlights are Christmas, Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day, Jan 6), Ollanta-Raymi (celebrated in Ollantaytambo the week after its big brother, Cusco's Inti Raymi, during the last week of June), and Chinchero's Virgen Natividad (Sept 8), the most important annual fiesta in that village. The Fiesta de las Cruces (Festival of the Crosses, May 2-3) is celebrated across the highlands with enthusiastic dancing and the decoration of large crosses. Pisac celebrates a particularly lively version of the Virgen del Carmen festival held in Paucartambo (July 16).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.