The Sacred Valley of the Incas is best known to the world as the home of Peru’s pre-eminent tourist attraction, Machu Picchu. Many visitors head straight there without stopping to investigate the surrounding region. However, travellers with time to devote to a more thorough investigation of the ancient heart of the Incan Empire have the chance to discover many wonders seen by far fewer outsiders.
The Valley was incorporated early into the expanding Incan Empire and with its relatively low altitude and benign climate, it soon became an important agricultural area for the Inca. The Valley also controlled access to the lowland jungles from where fresh fruit and other products flowed into Cusco. The Valley’s fertility, as well as its strategic importance and proximity to the capital, meant that the surrounding area was soon endowed with many important monuments, towns and fortifications, the ruins of which still exist today.
The attractions of the Sacred Valley are not restricted to ruins, though, and many other places of interest, varied adventure activities and a thriving local culture await those willing to linger and explore.
Many buses travel from Cusco to Písac on the daily.
The rainy season in the Andes starts in November, gathers force in December and lasts until April. The dry season is best for trekking that runs from the end of April to the beginning of November. This is the best time to visit although it can be cold during the night, especially at the highest altitudes. May and October receive fewer visitors but the weather can be unpredictable.
- The Inca remains
While there is more to the area than ruins, they are arguably the biggest draw. No visitor should consider skipping the majestic Machu Picchu, but a longer visit can include several other outstanding examples of Incan construction. Each end of the Valley is watched over by a hilltop citadel, Písac in the east and Ollantaytambo in the west and most Sacred Valley tours take in one or both. The Sun Temple at Písac, in particular, is an unmissable highlight.
- Agricultural terraces
Many of the hillsides in the area were terraced in antiquity to maximise the area of cultivable land and you will not regret witnessing this elegant testament to human ingenuity and endeavour.
One fascinating site that should be included is the bizarre amphitheatre-shaped terraces of Moray. While agricultural terraces are ubiquitous, the terraces at Moray were cut in such a precise way and at such a specific altitude that they were able to control the temperatures and reproduce climatic growing conditions from other areas, allowing crops normally unsuited for the mountains to be grown. Researchers are divided over whether Moray represents a giant Incan agricultural laboratory or a high-altitude nursery but it clearly demonstrates the Incas’ high level of agricultural knowledge and sophistication.
- Ancient saltpans
For a unique sight, head to the ancient saltpans at Salineras. Salt has been collected from this area since long before the Incas arrived and these saltpans are still in use today. If anything, the saltpans are even more impressive than the agricultural terraces.
- Local markets
The towns of Písac and Chinchero both hold lively markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Possibly the most vibrant is the Sunday market at Písac, which is also the most popular. For a more authentic experience, try the one at Chinchero. These markets offer an insight into the local way of life and are also good places to pick up handicrafts.
The Sacred Valley is not just about visits, however, and a Sacred Valley tour can incorporate a multitude of activities for all tastes, including treks ranging from one day to upwards of a week, as well as a range of pursuits guaranteed to increase adrenaline levels.
The Sacred Valley is an area with exceptional trekking possibilities and most of the routes see far fewer trekkers than the ultra-popular Inca Trail. For those looking for a challenging alternative approach to Machu Picchu, the Salkantay Trek is the one to go for. However, other treks including the Lares trek, the Choquequirao Trek, the remote Vilcabamba (Espíritu Pampa) Trek and the high-altitude Ausangate Trek are all options for those who don’t necessarily need to finish at Machu Picchu.
- Mountain biking and zip-lining
You can even opt for adventure activities such as mountain biking and zip-lining. The Sacred Valley is home to the longest zip-line in Peru.
While it is more rewarding to spend more time exploring at a more leisurely pace, A one-day whistle-stop tour of the most important sites may be the only option for those pushed for time. A typical tour may be, Market at Písac (but not the ruins) – Lunch at Urubamba – Visit to Ollantaytambo – stop at Chinchero. A variation might include a visit to the Písac ruins but less time at the market.
- Get the Boleto Turístico ticket
A combined ticket called the Boleto Turístico grants access to a number of sites in Cusco and the Sacred Valley and is valid for ten days. The Sacred Valley sites included are Písac, Ollantaytambo, Chincero and Moray. For those who don’t wish to pay for the ticket that includes the Cusco sites, a cheaper version exists just for the Sacred Valley sites.
- The Sacred Valley is a popular area for tourists and shouldn’t be too dangerous as long as you use common sense. The most common danger is from pickpockets.
- The area is at high altitude and there is a risk of altitude sickness. Any visitors to the Valley should allow enough time for acclimatisation, especially for those planning on trekking.
- At high altitude, temperatures are often very low and you should ensure you have the proper clothing and equipment.
There is much more to the region than just the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu and a more comprehensive Sacred Valley tour will reveal a wealth of lesser-known Inca sites, picturesque mountain scenery and colourful local cultures for those who make the time.