Explore the Rock and Ruins of Inca Town, Ollantaytambo

"Can you see the man's face?" asks the waiter in the plaza cafe, as he sets down my cafe con leche. I instinctively turn my head towards Ollantaytambo's central fountain, where taxi drivers sit awaiting their next customer and women in full-flowing indigenous dress are carrying babies on their backs.

"No, no," he says. "Look up!" In truth, until he came bearing coffee, I hadn't stopped looking up. Above us, sitting high in the Andean mountains that surround the town, are some of Peru's most impressive Inca ruins, dating back to the 15th century.

I look again to these ancient sand-coloured storehouses and, sure enough, to their left I can make out the shape of a male profile in the rock face. Apparently, this particular fellow is Tunupa, spirit of the mountain and guardian of the town. You don't have to spend long in these parts before realising that what looks like a rock to visitors, is shrouded in myth and legend for the locals.

Take a break

For most backpackers in Peru, seeing Inca ruins means one thing: trekking. Mostly this involves the Inca Trail, which, as satisfying as it is, also involves three nights' camping and some fairly strenuous hiking at high altitude.

This is why Ollantaytambo - which sits conveniently on the train route from Cusco to Machu Picchu - comes as a welcome respite. To soak up incredible historical ruins here, all you need do is slightly tilt your head. Alongside the dramatic mountainside relics, the town is framed by spectacular Inca terraces, rising up the hills like giant stone steps and carrying extra significance as one of the few places that the Inca defeated the Spanish conquistadors.

Meet the living Incas

Ollantaytambo bills itself as a "living Inca town", and walking its narrow, cobbled streets feels like being in a large, open-air museum - albeit one where you'll see people carrying their laundry or riding a bike through the exhibits.

It's one of South America's oldest continually inhabited sites, and is known for the best-preserved examples, of kanches (traditional stone houses built around a central courtyard). It's an impressive sight even before you remind yourself that everything here - each perfectly carved stone block - was constructed without the wheel or iron tools.

But "living Inca town" is not its only slogan. The unofficial billing among in-the-know backpackers is that Ollantaytambo is "the new Cusco". It may seem ridiculous for a 600-year- old town to be called "the new" anything, but in terms of tourism it remains Cusco's underdeveloped sibling.

Most tourists in Peru's Sacred Valley reduce the town to a pit stop on a group tour or they skip through it all together, seeing no more than the name on the sign as they pass through on the region's Orient Express-owned tourist train.

Ahead of the curve 

But Ollantaytambo makes for a wonderful base for exploring the sites of the Sacred Valley - scoring points over Cusco for having fewer street hawkers, a lower altitude (great for acclimating) and a laid-back, small-town feel.

That's not to say the town is untouched. Over the past few years its tourist infrastructure has seen a growth spurt, incorporating various new hostels, internet cafes and tourist-friendly restaurants, one serving the not-so-Peruvian dishes of banoffe pie and veggie samosas.

However, these are mostly concentrated around the plaza, and you only have to venture a few streets back for something more local. A 'menu del dia' deal is usually a budget-friendly bet.

Scottish-born Louse Norton, 30, has lived in Ollantaytambo for the past six years, last year opening a hotel, Apu Lodge, with her Peruvian husband. She's seen few changes in the old part of town since she arrived, due, she says, to tour buses not being able to fit down the narrow streets.

"You see them pull up at the end of the road, where the guide sticks his head out the window for 15 seconds, points to where the Inca centre lies, and then they drive on," she says.

When I ask Louise for recommendations for other things to do around town, she puts on her other hat as co-founder of Leap Local, a worldwide network promoting independent local guides and which has a particularly strong coverage around her adopted hometown.

She suggests a visit to Maras-Moray, once a local point for Inca agriculture. To get there, she puts me in touch with Leap Local-listed driver Hernan Percca.

Marvel at the heritage

On arrival the site resembles a giant, perfectly symmetrical crop circle from a distance or, from the middle, a Roman amphitheatre. Hernan explains how the Incas cleverly moved their crops up and down the terraces, depending on the seasons, and formulated their own irrigation systems. But it wasn't until relatively recently that the local community recognised the site's historical importance.

"Fifteen years ago, it was all overgrown here" he says, "Children used to play here; people took, stones for their houses. They didn't realise it was something so special."

Herman also suggests a stop at Salineras, where thousands of salt pans cascade down a hill like white-rimmed rock pools. He explains how thermal springs have been used to produce salt here since pre-Inca times, and that the bizarre-looking complex is now run by a local, community-focused co-operative.

Although our excursion takes three hours, costing approximately 50 soles ($15) if you get the bus part the way, or 110 soles (£24), directly from Ollantaytambo.

Back on the trek

Back in Ollantaytambo, there's time to ponder options for tomorrow. Feeling fully recovered after my Machu Picchu trek, it may be time to strap on those walking boots once again. Options include the Lares Trek, which has hot springs en route, or Huchuy Cusco, which is sometimes referred to as a "mini, more dishevelled Machu Picchu" - although one that you are likely to have all to yourself.