The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a valley traversed by the Urubamba River and contains many famous and beautiful Inca ruins. It was called the Sacred Valley because it contained some of the best land in the region and was not a part of the Inca Empire as such but the property of the Emperor himself. Goway’s Robert Glazier looks at the allure of the Sacred Valley and why it needs to be included on every Peru vacation.
It was once the centre of the ancient Incan civilization and was worshipped for its fertility, natural resources and strategic position, strategic because it is located between Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire and the legendary 15th Century city of Machu Picchu.
Good Reasons to Visit.
Apart from the fact that it is steeped in the history of the region and offers Inca sites which can be explored, it is situated in a stunning landscape high in the Peruvian Andes amid awe-inspiring mountainous terrain. Add to this, a collection of interesting small towns and colourful indigenous people plus fascinating local markets and you have plenty of reasons to go there. The locals here respectfully preserve their past by following many indigenous practices and observing centuries-old festivals and celebrations.
You can easily enjoy a day in the Sacred Valley while in Cusco. Or you might even consider an overnight stop in, say, the town of Ollantaytambo. Regardless, the most important decision is to included the Sacred Valley on your Peru vacation in the first place.
The Towns and Villages of the Sacred Valley
Let’s start with Pisac which is best known for its Sunday market. In spite of its popularity, the market retains much of its local charm as villagers from miles around gather to sell their produce. It also is known for its Inca ruins on a series of steep agricultural terraces with hilltop fortresses visible from the town’s centre. Trails lead over and through the terraces, tunnels, temples, tombs and ceremonial centre. The wonderful views down and across the Urubamba Valley rival those of Machu Picchu. The archaeological highlight is probably the Sun Temple, now in ruins but still well preserved. It has been called “The Little Machu Picchu”. Set high above a valley floor, it is rimmed by vast terracing of which the stonework and the panoramic views are magnificent.
Ollantaytambo was once a country retreat for Inca royalty and nobility and is also where the Incas fought some of their last battles against the Spanish. The cobblestone town streets are the product of Inca city planning dating back to the 1200s. It has been built on top of original Inca foundations and is the best surviving example of Inca town planning. It is an attractive little town at the western end of the Sacred Valley about two and a half hours from Cusco. Ollantaytambo is located at the foot of some spectacular Inca ruins which protected the strategic entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley. The temple area is at the top of steep terracing which helped to provide excellent defences. Climbing to the top of the village’s ceremonial centre where Incas would worship brings panoramic views of the Sacred Valley. Pinkullyuna is a hill with Incan storehouses. It is here that you can have some of the most spectacular views of the Ollantaytambo ruins, the town and the Urubamba Valley.
Moray is the name of the Incan ruins near the town of Maras. While they resemble a giant amphitheatre with concentric terraces, they were created for agricultural experimentation. Each level corresponds to a different microclimate, which the Incas possibly used to test crops. The deepest centre part was the hottest and temperatures decreased as it moved outward allowing the Incas to determine which climate was best suited to which crop.
Chinchero is a small Andean Indian village located about 30 kilometres/18 miles from Cusco. There are beautiful views overlooking the Sacred Valley including one of the snow-capped peak of Salkantay which dominates the horizon. The Incas believed Chinchero was the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. Its major claim now is its colourful Sunday market which is less touristy than the market at Pisac. The village mainly comprises mud brick (adobe) houses and the locals still go about their business in traditional dress.
Salinas is one of the most spectacular sights in the Sacred Valley. Near Maras, it is here that you will find thousands of salt pans that have been used for salt extraction since Inca times. A hot spring at the top of the valley discharges a small stream of heavily salt-laden water which is diverted into salt pans and evaporated to produce a salt used for cattle licks. Originally constructed by the Incas, to this day, Peruvians mine the salt flats.
So, if you find yourself in either Machu Picchu or Cusco, the Sacred Valley is on your doorstep.