Don’t hurry your trip to Machu Picchu – linger in the Sacred Valley to get the full Inca experience.
When I traveled to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu (known collectively as “The Gringo Circuit”), I was surprised to find that it was the Sacred Valley that stole my heart. Of course, Machu Picchu was a spectacular experience, unparalleled by anything else I’d seen in South America. But the Sacred Valley was a tranquil escape from the busyness of Cusco, and even the “InkaBucks” coffee shop and Internet cafes couldn’t steal away the charm that exudes from these towns.
Spanning two formidable remnants of the Inca Empire, the city of Cusco and the slopes of Machu Picchu, lies a quiet river valley dotted with a few towns. Pisaq, Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, and Urubamba are the main towns in the Valle Sagrado, the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Here in the highlands of Peru, women with sunburnt skinned and dark braids carry children in brightly colored slings. Men heave huge sacks of vegetables or grains, their harvest for the day. Schoolchildren, all in uniform, pile into overcrowded buses in the afternoons, talking excitedly to each other or falling asleep in the back row.
Descendants of the Incas, these Quechua-speaking farmers continue to work and live off the land, some of them seemingly oblivious to the constant stream of tourists who use the towns scattered about the Sacred Valley as a rest stop on the way to visit Machu Picchu.
A Trip Back in Time
Even during the Inca Empire, the towns in the Sacred Valley were used as tambos, or rest stops. These waystations provided food and shelter for Incas, who would travel along footpaths from the capital, Cusco, to other important towns in the empire. Today, some of the hostels in the valley, such as the delightful KB Tambo in Ollantaytambo, have taken up this Inca byword. If the Sacred Valley is the best place to see the remnants of these Inca tambos, then visiting these sites is essential for getting the full Inca experience.
Ollantaytambo: A True Inca “Tambo”
Ollantaytambo is the only town in the Sacred Valley that has been continually in operation since the time of the Incas. Located next to the Urubamba River, it is home to the train station that carries travelers from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
But the real reason that travelers stop at Ollantaytambo is the ruins of an Inca fortress, built into the hillside above the river. Above the exceptionally huge agricultural terraces are walled buildings, which would have protected the villagers in the event of an attack. When the Spanish conquistadores ransacked Cusco, they chased the Incas to this site, where Manco Capac II fought a losing battle. But the Spanish never got as far as Machu Picchu or Vilcabamba, and some Incas were able to escape into the cloud forest.
When I climbed the ruins at sunset, I could look out over the town, its farmlands, the surrounding hills, and much of the river valley. The dust rising from the streets made the air dazzle in the strong sunshine. Across the way, I saw a some abandoned ruins that seemed to blend into the hillside, and I made a point to ask the hotel receptionist, when I saw him later that night, about these seemingly forgotten ruins across from the main Ollantaytambo ruins.
“Oh those? Those are the granaries. You can hike up to them in about a half hour. But beware, it’s quite a scramble.” At that, I had to try it. Early the next morning, I took off for the Pinkuylluna granaries, and soon found myself tiptoeing along the cliff, watching pebbles beneath my feet crumble into the dust. But when I reached the ruins, I had the place to myself, and an even better view of the valley than the day before.
Písac: More than Just a Shopping Spree
In the town of Písac (spelled Písaq in Quechua), you can browse the aisles where local farmers and artisans bring their goods to sell and trade. The market takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. You can find local produce like corn and potatoes, local ceramics, carved gourds, colored beads, textiles, and more. If you want to visit an indigenous market that is oriented less towards the tourist, and more for locals, head to Chinchero’s market.
It takes about one hour to take a local bus or taxi from Cusco to Písac. From the central plaza and market, it takes about an hour to hike up to the ruins, or you can take a taxi or go with a guided tour. The ruins – including the Temple of the Sun, baths, altars, and shrines – are set high above the valley floor, and the views are incredible.
I recommend grabbing a bite to eat in the plaza, where you can choose from several restaurants, like the Mullu Café. Order a mojito or pisco sour as a refreshing reward for hiking up to the ruins.
Maras and Moray
Maras and Moray lie on the road between Cusco and Urubamba. These Inca sites are sometimes overlooking in popular Sacred Valley tours, but these are two of the most fascinating Inca sites in the valley. If you are feeling adventurous, take a horseback ride on a Peruvian paso horse to visit Maras and Moray.
Maras is a small village outside of Cusco, well known for its nearby salt evaporation pans, where salt is cultivated and harvested. The salt deposits form a honeycomb-like pattern on the hillside, with varying colors of salt that makes the whole scene striking. Since the time of the Incas, salt was extracted from an underground stream by ducts that funnel the salty water into a network of “ponds” or pans, where the sun evaporates the water and leaves salt crystals for farmers to scrape up.
Moray is an Inca ruin just west of the village of Maras. The site consists of circular terraces about 30 m (98 ft) deep. These agricultural terraces were most likely used to study the effects of microclimates in the terraces. Due to wind and sun, the top levels differ from the bottom levels by as much as 15 °C (59 °F). As with many other Inca sites, it also has a sophisticated irrigation system.
Another Good Reason to Take It Slow
All of the sites mentioned here require that you pay for the “Boleta Turistica,” a ticket that includes the sites for a set price of S/. 130 ($45). The BTQ can be purchased in Cusco, at Sacsayhuaman, or at the entrances to many of the sites included on the ticket. If you want to visit just one or a few of these sites, you’re out of luck, because you have to buy the package deal. To take full advantage of the BTQ, you should try to see more than just the obligatory stops like Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo.
While I was in Cusco, I planned to embark on a self-guided tour to Koricancha and some museums with my trusty BTQ, only to find out that these museums closed at dusk. With a day or two more in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I could have taken full advantage of my BTQ ticket and learned more about the Incas in the process.
With many hostels and hotels costing only $30-$50 a night, it pays to take your time on your trip to Machu Picchu. Read more about getting your money’s worth out of the BTQ.
The Scenic Route to Machu Picchu
When you take the time to visit these spots, you begin to understand the sophistication of the Inca Empire. Even though Cusco has been almost completely rebuilt by the Spanish, and even though Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, and other sites were razed, the Inca stonework and architectural skill continues to impress.
And when you arrive at Machu Picchu, you no longer have to imagine the Incas’ skill at turning stone into cities. Perched on a mountaintop, this city in the sky has been preserved for hundreds of years. Nearly all that is missing of this city are the thatched roofs.
I must have been one of the first hundred to enter when I traveled to Machu Picchu. After an early morning downpour, the fog rolled in and obscured the view from the entrance. I waited patiently to enter, and then took off, making a beeline through the park for the trailhead to Huaynu Picchu. Along the way, I had to stop to marvel at the huge stone walls that appeared before me through the fog. Birds and chinchillas scattered as I walked briskly along. The fog slowly lifted, revealing a vast city that spread out in all directions, with agricultural terraces tapering off into the river valley below. Beyond all this were the peaks of more mountains piercing through the veil of fog.
By the mid-afternoon, after I had seen it all, I came to the Watchman’s Hut and asked a man to take a photo. He said he had just arrived from Lima, where he had been this morning. He’d taken the direct route to Machu Picchu, and was returning to Cusco that night and Lima the next morning to catch his cruise ship.
Well, that’s one way to see Machu Picchu.
But the Incas meant for travelers to go from tambo to tambo en route to Machu Picchu and beyond. So why circumvent all that, especially if you are hoping to learn more about the Inca civilization? While Machu Picchu was abandoned, many of the towns in the Sacred Valley have been carrying on for centuries. The Sacred Valley is the living history of the Incas.
(Photos in an album here, copyright Kaitlin McMichael.)