To the ancient Inca, the Sacred Valley in western Peru was not only a fertile site for agriculture, it was the place that sustained their entire civilization — the very center of their world. Today, it remains a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Incas and continues to be an important site for Peruvian traditions and culture.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is nestled in the Andes of Peru, just 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the city of Cusco. Settled by a variety of ethnic groups, the region was conquered by the Inca sometime between 1000 to 1400 C.E. The valley’s prime location, lower elevation, and warmer temperatures made it an ideal locale for Inca farmers to make chicha, a popular drink made out of fermented maize. As agricultural ventures in the Sacred Valley grew to include crops such as coca and potatoes, the Inca built impressive irrigation channels to adequately water their growing crops.
Today, the region (which is comprised of the villages of Ollantaytambo, Urubamba, Calca, Pisac, and Chinchero) is home to the ruins and villages that stretch across its rolling green hills. These ancient structures tell the unique story of those who lived and worked in the Andean region for centuries, but they also serve as a modern-day home and hub for Peruvian farmers.
Planning your visit
Because Peru’s rainy season spans from December to March, it’s best to visit the Sacred Valley between the months of April and November, when the likelihood of finding treacherous roads and slippery slopes is low. It’ll be less humid then, and the nights will be cool — a refreshing departure from the heat of the summer.
Because the valley is a sprawling region (it’s 62 miles long), you’ll want to spread your exploration over a few days. We recommend finding accommodations in either Pisac, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo, which will make venturing to other villages and attractions easier than returning to Cusco at the end of each day.
Accessing the Sacred Valley is easiest from Cusco. Two roads extend from the Inca capital to the Sacred Valley and on to the villages of Urubamba and Pisac. That being said, it’s likely easiest to begin your venture in Pisac, passing through Urubamba on your way to Ollantaytambo, where you can continue on to Machu Picchu. Since renting a car and driving on Peru’s often difficult roads is time consuming and costly, buses are the best option for most travelers. Buses run quite frequently from Cusco to Urubamba and Pisac, and travelers looking to head to the western edge of the Sacred Valley can find an onward bus to Ollantaytambo in Urubamba. If you’d prefer to avoid large buses, or if you’re traveling with a large group, consider a collectivo or taxi, both of which can take you directly from Cusco to the numerous villages within the Valley. Buses should cost no more than 5 Peruvian Sol ($1.50 USD) for a one-way trip, and taxis average out to about 50 sol ($15.50) each way.
Additionally, if you’re starting out in Lima, you’ll need to either fly or take a bus into Cusco. Be mindful of the fact that even the shortest bus route may take you nearly 24 hours to reach the Inca capital, so flying (though more expensive) is definitely the most efficient option.
What to do
See local artisans in action
Venture to the tiny village of Chicheros and you’ll get to witness one of Peru’s most colorful traditions — weaving. Craftsmen and women painstakingly create brightly pigmented dye, spin yarn, color the strands, and meticulously weave the threads into vibrant clothes and goods. Ask if you can photograph them at work, and see if you can purchase an item to remind you of your time in the Sacred Valley!
Visit the salt flats
Venture to the village of Maras (25 miles north of Cusco) for a unique exploration. Maras is home to a number of monochromatic salt ponds that create a striking visual contrast to the area’s rolling green hills. Existing even before the Inca settlement, the ponds are still in use today, with local farmers benefiting from a relaxed cooperative agreement that allows those who live in the town to harvest whatever salt they need.
Attend a local festival
If you can manage, visit during Ollantaytambo’s Raymi festival, an annual celebration that usually falls during the month of June. The festival, which is enacted to honor the Inca sun god, retells an ancient tale of a general, Ollantay, who falls in love with a princess. The festival is a sight to behold, as performers act out scenes on the ancient terraces built by their ancestors and dress in colorful garb they’ve woven themselves. It’s a powerful experience, and one that you shouldn’t miss. And, if you can schedule it, June is a lovely time to visit this South American hotspot.
Header Image by Laura Grier.