A trip to Peru has to include Inca ruins. My Sacred Valley Travel Guide offers the low-down on visiting the heart of the Incan empire…
Sacred Valley Travel Guide
The Sacred Valley is one of the shiniest jewels in Peru’s spectacular crown. The country’s ancient history is fascinating and the Sacred Valley offers a stunning selection of Inca sites to visit. It’s also the gateway to Machu Picchu, with most travellers taking the train from Ollantaytambo. Truly, no trip to Peru would be complete without visiting this fascinating place. In my Sacred Valley Travel Guide, I’ll cover off the main sites of the Sacred Valley and how best to see them.
~ What is the Sacred Valley? ~
Shaped by the Rio Urubamba river, the Sacred Valley was an important part of the Inca Empire due to the fertile land, favourable climate and close proximity to Cusco. The 60km stretch land, bookended by Ollantaytambo and Pisac and situated within the Peruvian Andes, is home to stunning scenery, a multitude of Inca sites and some of South America’s great treks.
Most of my research ahead of visiting Peru focussed on Machu Picchu, so I wasn’t very clued up on the Sacred Valley. I can tell you that it blew me away – the Sacred Valley is simply stunning. My friend Lucy, who I was travelling with, said she’d never seen a person’s jaw drop so many times in one day.
~ How to see the Sacred Valley ~
Situated approximately 15km north of Cusco, the Sacred Valley is accessible by a sweeping road, which hairpins through the steep hills. Most people visiting this region of Peru will spend a few days in Cusco to acclimatise to the altitude. This makes Cusco a perfect base from which to visit the Sacred Valley.
Now, if you have the luxury of time, exploring it over a few days would be amazing. This would allow you to stay in some of the villages and also check out some of the hiking routes might be preferable. Yet for most visitors, time is of the essence, needing to see the valley in a day or two. Luckily, you can visit the majority of the Sacred Valley in a single day. Whilst various operators run out of Cusco, I’d recommend getting your own driver for the day. It allows a better degree of flexibility. We booked a driver through our hotel, which cost in the region of $30, split between two of us. Even with the generous tip (what should have been a 5 hour hour day ended up being at least 7 because we were so enthralled with the place), it was a bargain.
~ Ticket costs for the Sacred Valley ~
When I visited Peru, visitor could pay at the entrance to most of the Sacred Valley sites upon arrival. Some, such as the Chinchero ruins were free. This is no longer the case, with the Boleto Turistico covering entrance to most of the sites. An article all about the various ticketing options available will be coming very soon…
~ Highlights of the Sacred Valley ~
So, you’ve decided on visiting the Sacred Valley. Good choice – read on for an overview of what you can expect…
First stop is Chinchero which, for the Incas, was the birthplace of the rainbow. A whitewashed colonial church and square dominate the centre of the village. On Sundays, a market takes place, offering colourful fabrics and artisan products for sale. The rest of the village, a sprawl of brown adobe buildings, occupies the higher ground to the South.
It’s what lies beyond the village, to the North, which steals the show. As I walked through the village square, I spied an archway which I assumed would offer a cool view of the valley. I ended up with way more than I bargained for. Stepping through the archway, down onto a flat grassy area, when I glanced to my right my jaw dropped for the first time that day.
Before me were those famous Inca terraces; a giant green staircase stretching out for hundreds of metres. To the left was steep drop off to the valley floor below and beyond was a backdrop of the magnificent Andean foothills. The view was mind-blowing.
Our second stop of the day was to the Salinas de Maras. The road in, on the opposite side of the valley, offered a magnificent panorama over the Salinas – a striking grouping of salt evaporation pools which have been build into the side of the valley.
Whilst the pools date back to Incan times, they are still used today. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. A salt water spring flows from the side of the side of the valley and into a series of terraced pools. The sun’s rays evaporate the water, leaving behind a deposit of salt crystals. The local community share the pools, with each family being assigned a selection. After the water evaporates, they then harvest the salt crystals for sale.
From a distance, Moray’s giant set of terraces look like a crop circle on steroids. The series of concentric circles create an amphitheatre of sorts. Although you won’t find any Roman-style games here. Believe it or not, it is believed that the Incas used this fascinating site for agricultural experimentation. Because each of the terraces has a unique microclimate, with a range of some 15ºC between the highest and lowest points, it’s believed that the Incas used the site to test the growing of different crops and to domesticate and acclimatise crops for use at higher altitudes.
The town of Ollantaytambo lies at the foot of a set of striking and imposing Inca ruins. The site was a strategic entrance and defensive stronghold of the lower part of the Urubamba Valley. These days, however, it’s the last stop for many before venturing off to Machu Picchu. Part temple, part fortress. Whilst the Temple of the Sun was a place of religious significance, Ollantaytambo was also of strategic importance. It’s positioning and steep terracing creates a bottleneck into the Urubamba Valley – a perfect place to defend.
During the siege of the Spanish invasion, the steep terracing made Ollantaytambo a perfect base of Incan resistance and it became the only place to successfully fend off the Spanish. Although the victory was a short lived one. In January 1537 a battle took place between the forces of Incan Emperor Manco Inca and an expedition led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro. The Inca forces were able to hold off the Spanish forces through a combination of flooding the valley below, to hinder the Spanish cavalry, and then raining down arrows from their lofty terraced position. As I mentioned earlier, unfortunately for Manco Inca the victory was short lived. The Spanish returned with four times as many soldiers and Manco was forced to flee and take refuge in the deep jungle.
Part temple. Part fortress. Huge, steep terracing. Bottleneck into the valley. imposing terraces. Temple of the Sun – religious significance, but also strategic.
Unfortunately, because it’s situated a the opposite end of the Sacred Valley, we didn’t have time to visit Pisac. Having since read about it whilst researching this post, I would definitely remedy this if I were to return to Peru. The town of Pisac features a very popular artisan market. Perched in the hills above the town is a rather spectacular temple complex. Judging from the photo I’ve borrowed from Pixabay, it’s probably worth a day trip on its own…
Sacsayhuaman, pronounced broadly as ‘sexy woman’, is a fortified complex situated to the north of Cusco. Although its purpose has nothing to do with women, sexy or otherwise. It’s thought that the name derives from the Quechua words ‘sacsay’, which means satiated or full, and ‘waman’, which means hawk. The name is likely to derive from the abundant presence of these birds in historic times. Although, to this day, it’s not 100% clear.
Sacsayhuaman is impressive in both its scale and location. The Incas cut and transported the giant boulders from 20km away. These stones, which fit together perfectly and without the use of mortar, were then used to build the temples and walls of the complex. It drives home what skilled builders the Incas were. It’s an interesting place to stroll around and explore for a few hours.
Whilst the walk up from Cusco is steep, and you’ll no doubt be needing a rest on the way (altitude it tiring), it’s worth it. Aside from the site itself, Sacsayhuaman offers the most splendid views over Cusco…
Have you been to the Sacred Valley? If so, what was your highlight and what would make your own Sacred Valley Travel Guide?