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Travel Guide for the Sacred Valley

During Inca times, it was a very important agricultural and ceremonial region. Today, it is a route that leads the traveler to the crown jewel of Peru: Machu Picchu, and a first class tourist destination. Blessed by a friendly climate, surrounded by imposing landscapes and inhabited by ancestral communities, the Sacred Inca Valley is a paradise for its visitors.

Introduction

Located in the Peruvian Andes (at 2900 m.a.s.l.), about 60 km from the imperial city of Cusco if coming in from the north and about 70 km if approached from the south, it is an ideal place to acclimatize and rest before starting getting busy with a tight itinerary. 

Due to its geographic position and climate, the Sacred Valley was of special importance during the Inca period. The abundance of water made the valley an important agricultural center, one of the most interesting examples of this is Moray, an archeological site which is believed to have been an ¨agricultural laboratory¨. It is shaped like an atrium, each level had a different microclimate, in this way it served as a test to evaluate what could be cultivated in each region of the Tahuantinsuyo (the way the Inca empire was called). 

The wide temperature differences in the terraces have created micro climates, similar to what is achieved in greenhouses in modern times

The Valley is crossed by the Vilcanota River which has different names such as the Urubamba River, or Wilcamayo (in Quechua, Urupampa, which means “plateau of spiders”) whose origin headwater is at +4000m, following the course of the river we will find the picturesque town of Pisac which is also gateway of the Valley to the south; at the top of the village is an Inca fortress another of its charms is the famous handicraft market and its alleys with its restaurants and cafes.

Following the course of the river and looking very carefully upwards, we can see the Inca citadel called Huchuy Qosqo. (little Cusco – 3600 m. s.n.m.), an Inca city that is said to be the place where the Inca Wiracocha spent his last days. 

Another access point to the Sacred Valley is through Urubamba that will lead you to the middle of the Sacred Valley, between Pisac and Ollantaytambo. If you decide to take this route, the mandatory stop would be the town of Chinchero from where you can appreciate the snow-capped mountains of Chicón, Pitusiray and Sahuasiray to the east. Chinchero is known not only for its popular Sunday market, but it is also interesting because of the Inca wall that was part of the palace of the Inca Pachacutec and the colonial temple that has murals and canvases belonging to the Cuzco school. 

Pisac archaeological site with the Sacred Valley on the background - RESPONSible Travel Peru
Pisac archaeological site with the Sacred Valley on the background

Following this route, the next stop would be to visit the town of Maras where you can see on the house facades coats of arms of the families of the mestizo nobility, 10 km away are the salt mines, formed by a set of three thousand salt ponds and that are exploited from Inca times to the present. This is a perfect place for lovers of photography and an important tip: it is advisable to visit them in the dry season (May to October), just a few minutes from the salt mines is Moray, the agricultural center mentioned above.

Maras salt ponds
Salt from the Maras ponds is recognised by the greatest chefs

If you continue, the road will lead you to the shores of the river and continue to probably the most beautiful town in the Sacred Valley and gateway to Machu Picchu; Ollantaytambo, its archaeological site was an Inca administrative center, it is believed to have served military, religious and agricultural functions. The town with its cobblestone streets, divided by the lesser Patacancha River, maintains its ancient customs and traditions.  

Ollantaytambo seen from its archaeological site - RESPONSible Travel Peru
Ollantaytambo seen from its archaeological site

What we recommend for you,

At RESPONS we identify two types of travelers, those who follow the masses, or those who want to go off the beaten track and go deeper into the destination, for this type of intrepid, eager to learn and curious traveler we have the following recommendations.

The first question I asked myself when I traveled to the Andes is why people live in the high altitude areas. The answer, or rather part of it, is that when the Spanish colonization was established, since the sixteenth century, there were forced displacements, which pushed the exploited indigenous populations to unprotected areas. Before this period the Andean people transited through these places for ritual or used the mountains for their livestock (llamas and alpacas), as grazing opportunities. At present the cold is a problem for these helpless communities. The reason for such a comment is that at RESPONS we like to take tourism to more remote areas where authenticity is not just marketing promise and real communities are found, it is our way of understanding inclusion…

Start in the heights of Pisac where Chahuaytire and the Potato Park are located; Chahuaytire is the land of the weavers and therefore the best place to learn about the traditional textiles of Cusco, there the people wear typical costumes that differentiate them from the other communities, the men weave and the women spin. The community of Chahuaytire belongs to the Potato Park project, a place where this tuber is cultivated in all colors, sizes and shapes. 

Boy resting from the Paru Paru community in the potato park

Continue your journey to the heights of Lamay, where is necessary to tighten your shoelaces to walk along a beautiful Inca trail, accompanied by a nice group of llamas (by request) which will take you to the impressive archaeological center of Huchuy Qosqo. On the walk you will have beautiful views of the majestic Apu Pitusiray (4,950 meters) and the Vilcanota River,  to finally enter the complex by a large Inca gate. The extension of the site  shows its importance despite being  called little Cusco, as mentioned before. 

Spectacular Inca terraces and in the background you can see the entrance door to the archaeological complex of Huchuy Qosqo | Responsible Travel Peru
Following the trail will lead us to the entrance gate of the Inca trail.

The next day you can put on our old clothes and join a day of work with the farming community, where you will learn the origin of some of the foods that we see in our supermarkets with the denomination of superfoods; Quinuas, Kiwichas and the famous giant corn. It will be a spontaneous day to meet and share unique moments

The chaquitaclla, also known as the foot plow, was one of the most important farming tools of the Andean world | Responsible Travel Peru
Travelers learning to use the chaquitaclla, also known as the foot plow, was one of the most important farming tools of the Andean world

What follows is a visit to the beautiful town of Ollantaytambo, where countless tourists arrive to visit the archaeological complex and take the train to Aguas Calientes for the respective visit to Machu Picchu. We propose to stay at least a couple of days as it is a good place to visit several other places.

The first two options here are intended for lovers of hiking, although it has its archaeological importance, start with Perolniyoc and Ñaupa Iglesia, the excursion leads to a beautiful natural waterfall carved into the rock of 50 meters high and its top is a pre-Inca archaeological center, Raqaypata which served as a lodge for the ancient. The next stop would be Ñaupa Iglesia (church), an enigmatic place where there is a carved rock, they say it is unique in its kind, which was a ceremonial temple where the Incas offered payments to the Pachamama (Earth), the Apus (Andean deities), the Sun and the Moon. Those who know the site know of its great energy. The next hike is to climb the Inti Punku ¨Sun gate¨ where you can appreciate spectacular views of the Nevado Veronica (5800 m.a.s.l.), on the route you will find the quarries from where the stones were extracted for the construction of the archaeological center of Ollantaytambo. Inti Punku, they say, was an interdimensional door connected with other doors like the one of Machu Picchu, besides being an astronomical center, and whether or not it is true, this is a magical place.

Perolniyoc and Raqaypata waterfall are located in Ollantaytambo, it is a wonderful place where you can do adventure tourism and culture

Ollantaytambo also offers experiences for travelers who want to take a calmer approach to traveling. We recommend eating a Pachamanca, this is a cooking technique with preheated stones. Within the Andean worldview, it represents the material and spiritual link between man, nature and its ancient products. For lovers of photography: tour the old town with your camera and get to know the chicherías (shops of fermented corn beverage) and other secret nooks and crannies presented to you by our photographic guide. A visit to our beloved communities is another great plan, a visit to Patacancha is a great opportunity to meet a group of weavers who will teach you the whole process of making their valuable fabrics, which are exported to other countries. Visiting and learning about these projects help to value their culture as well as strengthen their association.

Dear traveler, the options are unlimited and we could write several more articles recommending various experiences. This valley is sacred for many reasons and if you spend enough time you will be enchanted by one of the most magical places on the planet.

How it connects to other destinations

The Sacred Valley of the Incas can be accessed by two roads: from Cusco north through Chinchero (28 km), Maras, Moray to the town of Urubamba (57 km). And also from Cusco to the northeast through Pisac (30 km) and following the course of the Vilcanota (Urubamba) River to the town of Calca (48 km)

Consider the easy way

If you prefer real experts to plan your itinerary for you, consider taking a look at our custom itineraries section. We have more than a decade experience in tailor-making unique travel experiences throughout our beautiful country. We’ll take all the work out of your hands and leave you only to look forward to your dream trip. 

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ABOUT RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL PERU

RESPONS’ mission is to improve living conditions in Peru through developing and promoting sustainable tourism. We’ve implemented a business model in which all areas of human relations are respected, and - equally important - respect for the planet is incorporated.

Following this business model, we practice fair trade, foster cultural identity, promote equal opportunities, and we preserve the environment that surrounds us and other species.

Together with you we improve, day by day, on the always-demanding path towards sustainability.

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