The RealWorld Guide to the Sacred Valley
Lying between Cusco and Machu Picchu, the Urubamba valley was a sacred place to the Incas, who believed that its fertile soils, hot springs and abundant wildlife showed that this was a place dear to the heart of Pachamama, their Mother Earth.
Here they built towns, temples and fortresses, and the valley of the Urubamba became the breadbasket of the Inca Empire, producing abundant crops to feed cities like Cusco and the ever-active armies that brought Inca rule to a growing empire.
An environment of mountains and terraced slopes leading down to swift mountain rivers, and dotted with important Inca sites, the Sacred Valley is a fantastic place to visit, but with its lower altitude, it can be an even better place to stay and relax for a few days when you first arrive in the Andes.
What to See and Do in the Sacred Valley
Most visitors to the Sacred Valley go there for a day tour from Cusco which includes visits to many of the impressive Inca sites, and return to Cusco afterwards. If you’re actually staying in the valley for a few days then there are numerous options for activities, including horse-riding trips and rafting tours available for the more adventurous.
For those who prefer to take things at a slower pace, many hotels and resorts in the Sacred Valley have lush grounds to relax in and explore, and many also have spas and swimming pools for a welcome break in the middle of an otherwise busy holiday!
Ollantaytambo was the major Inca town in the Sacred Valley, and was protected by a large and imposing fortress. Legend has it that the name comes from an Inca chieftan named Ollantay who controlled the fortress here. The fortress itself is highly impressive even though it was still under construction at the time of the conquest and so remains unfinished. Even more impressively, the fortress at Ollantaytambo was the only site to successfully withstand Spanish attack in the whole of the Americas.
The site also contains an Inca temple, some intact terracing and various funeral monuments but apart from the fortress the real treat is the town of Ollantaytambo itself. Almost all the buildings are built on top of Inca foundations and so it is the only surviving example of Inca town planning. The town is divided up into blocks, which each have a single doorway into a central courtyard, with all the houses built around that courtyard. Although much of the town is post-Conquest, you can see original examples of the street plan just off the main square towards the fortress, and there are also some excellent hotels here.
Pisac market in the Sacred Valley is the main shopping attraction and is a good place for handicrafts with a bit more choice and variety than the market in Machu Picchu Pueblo – you should also find things are a bit more of a bargain here. The market is only open three times a week, but you do visit this on your tour of the valley and we always make sure your tour is on the right day. There are a few ATMs in the valley but most of the hotels are at least a five minute walk away so you might want to consider withdrawing cash before you leave Cusco.
Urubamba town is a small place today but was one of the main agricultural centres for the Incas and lies just a little further into the Sacred Valley from Pisac. Here you can visit some of the textile workers in the area and also the famed ceramic workshop of Pablo Seminario. Many of the Sacred Valley's best hotels are in or just outside Urubamba, and the town also has some of the better restaurants, such as Pizza Wasi, which a wood fired oven and good atmosphere and a mix of locals and tourists. Also high on the list are Qanela and El Huacatay, however both of these often require a reservation.
Maras and Moray
Another popular trip is to combine the twin Inca sites of Maras and Moray in one full-day tour. Maras is a salt-panning site which has been in continuous use for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The huge salt pans are in terraces covering the hillside and it's a tremendously impressive sight. At Moray, the Incas set up what seems to have been an agricultural laboratory consisting of experimental spiral terraces where they took plants from lower altitudes and cross-bred them 'up' the terraces until they could cope with the higher altitudes. It's a fascinating site, and one which reveals the sophistication of Inca science and culture.
Getting to the Sacred Valley
Getting to the Sacred Valley is normally by private transfer from Cusco, and it usually takes just under two hours by car. To get to Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley, there are regular trains from Ollantaytambo, and this is especially convenient for visitors who are spending a night or more in the valley, as there is no need to return to Cusco to catch the train.
There is some public transport in the Sacred Valley, but it’s limited to local combis and their operation is pretty irregular; it’s also worth mentioning that it can be difficult so navigate the system without strong Spanish.
Hotels are more than happy to arrange taxis, and they generally cost between 20 and 40 soles for a return journey, depending on hotel location.
Tailor-made Tours of Peru
All our holidays in Peru are 100% tailormade, so if you'd like to customise any of the itineraries you see above, or just start from scratch then get in touch and let us know - we'll be delighted to help you plan your perfect bespoke tour of the Sacred Valley.
Did you know?
Maize was central to the economy and spiritual life of the Incas, but as the population grew, they began to run out of land on which it could be cultivated. At their incredible agricultural laboratory at Moray, they specially constructed graded terraces to allow them to breed strains of the plant which grew at higher altitudes.