Urubamba - the Sacred Valley in Peru

by Kshaunish Jaini

Sacred Valley introduction

The Urubamba Valley, more commonly referred to as the Sacred Valley, lies around 15 miles or so from the Incan capital of Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes. It’s one of the highlights for visitors and receives over a million tourists every year. It’s most famous archaeological site is Machu Picchu , however, there are many other ruins to see nearby as well as countless hiking and adventurous activities.

hiking-peru

Hiking in the beautiful Andes of Peru.

Cuzco was an early stronghold for the Incan Empire and the nearby Sacred Valley was under their control during the peak of the civilization. Due to the lower elevation and therefore warmer climate, it’s sometimes referred to as the bread basket of the Incas who grow maize and other crops in the valley. Maize was prized by the Incas who made it into an alcoholic drink used in religious events. The ancient site of Moray, a series of circular terraces in the Sacred Valley is thought to be used by the Incan Empire for cultivating new varieties of maize. Other terraces were built along the valley’s steep sides and farmed with irrigation to create food for the growing Incan population.

moray-terraces-peru

Circular terraces of Moray.

Like most areas under the control of the Incas, the Sacred Valley was split into three distinct parts. One part was used by the communities and farmers, one for religious events, and another for the emperor who built several royal estates on the land during the 15th century. This included Machu Picchu, which historians believe was built as a country retreat for the emperor Pachacuti. A large scale battle in Ollantaytambo between the Incas and Spanish Conquistadors was won by Emperor Yupanqui, but the Sacred Valley was soon abandoned afterwards leaving it under Spanish control.

What to do in the Sacred Valley

There is much to do and see in the Sacred Valley. Many people stay in and around Ollantaytambo where an impressive Incan fortress still exists. The two hundred or so steps up to the site are worth it, even just for the amazing views over the Sacred Valley. Interestingly, the site was never finished, but it still stands as one of the best preserved ruins in Peru. Nearby Kilometre 82 marks the official start of the Inca Trail that meanders all the way to Machu Picchu.

machu-picchu-peru

Citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru.

Seeing Machu Picchu is one of the most important parts for tourists and rightly so when you consider the site has UNESCO World Heritage status and is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. There are several ways to reach the site , but most people either hike the famous Inca Trail over four days, camping along the way, or take on the three train services – the Hiram Bingham, Vistadome and Expedition. The Belmond Hiram Bingham (formerly the Orient Express) is expensive, but takes you up to Aguas Calientes in style including cocktails and a three-course dinner. Each of the trains have large panoramic windows on the side and on the roof to maximize the views.

Other Inca sites that are worth a visit include Moray and Maras, both of which can be done on a day tour. Moray is an Incan site made up of circular terraces. Though historians are still unclear about why they were built, it is widely accepted that the Incans used it to grow new crops as well as having been a safe place for seedlings. Nearby is the town of Maras which has some interesting terraces used for salt production by the Incas and offers some excellent photo opportunities.

Pisac is visited by almost everyone who comes to the Sacred Valley. The town has some of the most important pre-Hispanic archeological sites including the large ruins of an ancient citadel and cemetery, as well as some more agricultural terraces. It also hosts an important Sunday market where indigenous locals descend from all over the Sacred Valley to sell their colourful wares. Fine handicrafts including weaved clothing, jewellery, instruments and ceramics are piled high. The best time is between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the market is at its peak. Remember to barter, but don’t squeeze the vendors to hard for their products. A sole or two might not be much for you, but can make all the difference to them.

pisac-peru

Pisac market in Sacred Valley in Peru.

There are plenty of adventurous activities to be had in the Sacred Valley. Operators have some excellent mountain biking tours around the hilly trails and dirt roads, past the Inca ruins of Pacapucara, Qenqo and Tambomachay. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, the Urubamba river offers various grades of rapids for white-water rafting. To take in the Sacred Valley’s scenery best, consider taking seeing it from the air on a tandem paraglide. No experience is required to hit the skies on an adrenaline-inducing activity that allows you to see Peru from above. Other areas of the valley have adventure activities including South America’s largest bungee jump, ziplining, quad and motorbike tours.

There are plenty of places to stay in the Sacred Valley, but a highlight is the Skylodge, one of the world’s most unique hotels. Made up of three clear pods hanging from a cliff face almost half a kilometre up, the accommodation is only accessible by climbing up a series of iron rungs. Of course, you will be accompanied by a guide to ensure you reach your capsule safely. It’s supposed to be similar to sleeping in a condor’s nest, and they’re not wrong. Each pod comes equipped with a bed and private toilet, both of which have astounding views over the Sacred Valley below. By night, guides bring wine and a delicious dinner, while guests look up at the stars above. In the morning, breakfast is served on the pod roof, before everyone ziplines back down to the ground. For Peru, the experience is expensive, but well worth it.

There are some excellent restaurants in the Sacred Valley. One notably dish to try is cuy, better known in the west as guinea pig. Though we might look at these furry creatures as pets, communities here have been eating them for thousands of years. Typically, the rodents are fried and then roasted over a fire until crispy and served with potatoes, eggs and corn. Though you might be a little squeamish, give them a go. They are quite delicious. Don’t try and use a knife and fork, it’s absolutely acceptable to pick them up with your hands to eat them.

When to visit the Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley has a spring-like climate most of the year. Between April and October, the temperature is warm (though it is the cooler season) and the skies clear making it the best time for walking. During the rainy season, the weather is hotter, but heavy rains can hit during the afternoons. One of the best times to visit is in March during the cusp of both seasons. It’s typically dry, but the rains bought in during the previous months mean the landscape is lush and green. If you plan to hike the Inca Trail, make sure you don’t book in February as it’s closed for maintenance. Though temperatures can be quite high, it can get quite chilly during the night, so make sure you bring warm clothes. You can read more about the weather on the Inca Trail here.

Also check out our Salkantay Trek guide as a great uncrowded alternative to hike to Machu Picchu. It also contains information about places to visit around Cusco.

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