The Sacred Valley of the Incas is nestled deep in the Andes of Peru and 1 hour from Cusco. This famous valley is a range of valleys, mountains, towns, and rivers.
Situated between the ancient Inca capital of Cusco and Machu Picchu, a magnificently scenic valley range named the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Formed by the Urubamba River, dotted with attractive colonial towns and ancient Inca ruins, and only 35km from Cusco, the spectacular Sacred Valley was originally the heart of the vast Incan Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries.
For this reason, it was an important region for the Incas and served as an agricultural, spiritual, and political center for them.
Although the Inca Empire has long fallen, the Sacred Valley still preserves much of its past; like the religious ceremonies, traditional dresses, veneration to Mother Earth, and of course, the llamas and alpacas are everywhere.
How to Get to the Sacred Valley from Cusco
Most people visit the Inca’s Sacred Valley as part of numerous organized full-day tours. The city of Cusco is clearly the biggest tourist destination in Peru where you’ll find many tour agencies offering the Sacred Valley tours. And every tour company seems to sell the same tour itinerary, however, others offer private tours with more stops and longer visits.
You should take note that the cheaper tour agencies usually put their customers together on the same bus. The bus tour is usually a mixture of different nationalities, so you expect to receive the explanation in English and Spanish. Again if you want to have the best-sacred valley experience, you’ve better sign up with the right local tour company!
You can do this tour on your own but you won’t save much. The shared Sacred Valley service costs about (USD10.00) but the private sacred valley tours might cost over (USD70.00). With the classic sacred valley tour, you will have a bilingual tour guide and transport.
The Sacred Valley Inca sites
This is the traditional Sacred Valley excursion with stunning landscapes on the way to each attraction. Before getting to the first destination, you stop at a viewpoint called Taray, which offers the best view of the impressive sacred valley.
The green bushes dot the brown mountains, whose sloping shape contrasts with the blue sky. Small adobe houses laid in perfect shaped grids; as do agricultural fields of different colored crops. White clouds remain just above the mountains and provide a magical feeling.
Before going to this spot, there is also a chance to stop at the small town of Corao. You have a few minutes at this place to visit the textile market with lots of colorful souvenir stalls. The principal attraction of this market is also the llamas and alpacas ready to pose for photos.
The colonial town of Pisac is known for its traditional market which has all types of hand-made alpaca textiles. This market is also considered the cheapest place to buy such souvenirs in the whole region of Cusco.
Local ladies in colorful dresses walk around with llamas or alpacas, asking travelers for tips in exchange for a picture. This will be a good chance to capture the best typical image of Peru.
It’s clear that Peru’s main industry is mining, therefore, this town has many jewelry stores that seem to be a big modern city. However, this is a small town populated by local vendors and travelers.
For those looking to know about the Incas and their constructions Pisac market isn’t the place but an amazing archaeological site. The agricultural terraces and hilltop Inca buildings are just above the colonial town.
The Incas built a total of 276 levels of agricultural terraces connected by an irrigation system and floating stone steps, all divided into different sectors: the higher levels were for the colder crops while the lower ones were for the warmer crops.
More attractive than the agriculture terraces was the residential group, now partially destroyed. Sit at a top of a hill and demand a little hike to the summit, it was constructed for the upper-class society and provided vantage views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Today you can climb up the old stairways, it feels like going to heaven with views that are out of this planet.
The archaeological park includes ceremonial temples, stone water aqueducts, and also cemeteries with tombs built into the cliffs. The Incas were buried with their belongings, and when the Spaniards came, they looted the tombs, leaving behind these visible 1000 holes in the cliffs.
Your bus stops at Urubamba for a buffet lunch. And only lunch.
If yours is not included in the tour, no problem, you can also order your meal at the same restaurant but is more expensive. When you book your sacred valley tour you also need to add another (USD10) for your lunch in Urubamba unless you want to grab just snacks.
Urubamba and Calca are the largest towns in the Sacred Valley, situated along the road from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, beside the Urubamba River.
Urubamba is one of the provinces of Cusco with a traditional farmers market that attracts hundreds of vendors and Andean villagers from rural communities every Wednesday. This city doesn’t offer any tourist attractions, however, you can find nice hotels and mild weather.
Perhaps the most touristic village you will find. The town’s small square is full of colorful words on blackboards displaying a variety of menus of the day. Most scholars consider the place as the last living Inca village and offer a good environment to walk on the cobblestoned streets. This is where most travelers catch the train to Aguas Caliente for Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo also offers a specific group of ancient constructions that can be visited along with your guide. The total extent of which is a huge stone ornamental terrace that wrapped the impossibly steep hillsides. This stone platform provided flat ground to beautify the upper temples and prevent landslides during heavy rainfalls.
It’s time to climb up the steep stairway under the hot afternoon sun and stop whenever is possible to catch your breaths. At the top of a series of terraces, you will find the imposing unfinished Temple of the Sun, now in six giant pieces of rocks.
Ollantaytambo was built as a royal estate during the kingdom of Inca Pachacuti, where it flourished as an agricultural center. Later, this village served as a refuge for Manco Inca, who led the Inca resistance.
Based on historical accounts it was here that the Incas defeated the Spanish army and got some time to escape to the Vilcabamba region. Since then this place has been continuously inhabited by Andean people.
The irrigation system was an example of the hydro-engineering genius of the Incas, bringing in clean and fresh drinking water from the rivers to the farmlands and people.
From the top, you can see the ancient Inca quarry far across the valley over the Urubamba River. Today you can still see the Inca trail that was used to transport the stones used for the buildings in Ollantaytambo. It’s so incredible and imagine that thousands of workers could’ve achieved such work.
Nowadays there are remaining questions and mysteries about the tools and techniques they used to cut the granite stones when there was nothing hard enough at that time.
The Rocky Mountains with ancient granaries built into them surrounds the old Inca village. The large buildings are scattered on the hillsides which served to preserve the food, clothes, and weapons.
But that’s not all, the fascinating part comes when you see an image of the mountain opposite of the ruins, a face carved in the mountain, which the Incas believed to be the mythical messenger of God Wiracocha.
Moray and Maras Salt Mines
This is another famous half-day tour in the sacred valley that enables you to visit the Inca’s agricultural laboratory and salt mines, both are very accessible from Urubamba.
Most organized bus tours will take you first to the circular terraces of Moray. When you look from the upper part, it looks like natural amphitheaters.
These four groups of terraces have been built into a natural depression in the ground, all in perfect concentric circles; simply another masterpiece of Inca engineering.
For those visiting the ancient building by themselves, these terraces will be just another beautiful Incan site. For that reason, we highly recommend hiring a local guide that explains all the historical significance of the visited places.
During the Incan Empire, the main activity was agriculture, and these terraces were used as an agricultural laboratory.
The circular terraces of Moray were built as an agricultural experiment station where the ancient Incas acclimated and adapted a wide variety of crops to different microclines found in each level.
The sun and the wind create a temperature difference of as much as 15-degrees Celsius between the top and bottom terrace.
They also built a sophisticated irrigation system that provided water from a nearby lake. During the heavy rainfalls, the bowl-looking terrace never floods because they were built upon four different layers of smaller stones.
The former capital city of the Incan empire offers so many ancient Inca constructions that differ from one to another and visitors will never get bored of them. Similarly, Moray stands out as one of the most impressive achievements of ancient engineering and understanding of mother earth.
Maras Salt Mines
The Salt Mines of Maras is another highlight of the Sacred Valley attractions for most travelers.
If you have been to the salt flats of Bolivia and other similar destinations, the salt pans of Maras are exceptionally unique and out of this world.
These square-shaped pools were strategically constructed on the hillsides of the mountain overlooking the Urubamba valley. These salt pans form a network of ancient salt deposits, built way before the arrival of the Incas.
The salty water comes from an underground natural spring, mixed with salt deposits from salt lakes, and smartly channeled into the thousands of salt ponds. During the dry season, the strong sun heat evaporates the salty water very quickly, leaving behind deposits of salt crystals.
The local families from Maras have been extracting the salt for ages, and today they keep building more salt ponds. There are approximately about 3000 salt pans that provide salt to local markets in the region. Most villagers from Maras make a living from selling salt and farming.
What is impressive is that these salt mines are part of a cooperative – and not a single owner – that has been around since the Inca times and each pond belongs to a member of the community, the size depending on the family.
The salt produced here is called the Andean Salt and has different colors and each has different uses too. For instance, some are table salt, some are for cooking, for preserving meat, and also for bathing.
A bus tour will always include a short stop for textile demonstrations in the picturesque village of Chinchero. These Andean villages are known locally as the ‘birthplace of the rainbow’, but you can see this only during the rainy season.
Chinchero’s major tourist attraction is the Sunday market, which also sells colorful weavings like all artisanal markets, but less touristy than the one at Pisac.
This village is actually home to traditional weavers and you will have the opportunity to attend a weaving demonstration and the honor of having a local member explaining only in English.
You will learn how natural colors can be obtained from nature. They mainly use leaves, minerals, lemons, and even dried bugs to get all the required colors.
The weaving studios of Chinchero usually gather local skilled ladies that help each other. They will show you how wool is washed, dyed, and spun, all while you are enjoying a hot coca tea.
The Andean Textiles Centers of Chinchero also sells alpaca and vicuña garments. i.e. Jumpers, blankets, and table runners.
At this place, you can also find an Incan archaeological site, once a farmland and resting point of Tupac Inca Yupanqui. The Incan archaeological park includes many groups such as the religious sector, the residential sector, the agricultural sector, many of which are still in use today.