Machu Picchu discussed in a previous article is the end of the Inca Trail, which stretches about 20 miles from Cusco to the ruins at Machu Picchu. The Inca trail is a 20 mile route through the Andes traversing the Sacred Valley of the Incas and passes by several of the main sites there. The Inca trail is actually an old Inca road which is still in use by the locals today.
There are two ways to see the Sacred Valley. One is by hiking the Inca Trail. The second is by car or bus. There are many tour agencies in Cusco which can arrange either. If you do choose to hike the Inca Trail it is incredibly beautiful and very difficult. Although the hike is only 20 miles most people take several days. The trail is often steep, the air is thin, and water must be purified. But the views of the snow capped mountains, the mist in the valleys and the plethora of ruins is worth it. The tourist office in Cusco can give you details (which change often), sell you permits, and give lists of agencies sponsoring trips, guides and rental equipment.
Below the Inca Trail and occasionally bisected by it is the Sacred Valley or the Valley of the Urubamba. The valley is about 1200 feet lower than Cusco and was a prime food producing area for the Inca. It still is highly agricultural. There are many Inca ruins throughout the valley and also several colonial towns and bustling markets. It is also a great place to experience some native Quechua culture.
Near Cusco at the start of the valley is the town and ruins of Pisac. Pisac was once a fortress is very well preserved. The fortress is high above the town on a shelf of rock with sheer drops on two sides. You need to hike up to the ruins. Although it is not a long hike, the elevation is high, so take your time. The hike is spectacular, passing terraces, ruins, and caves in which many Incas were buried. The view of the valley below and the town of Pisac is breathtaking (as is the altitude!). At the very top of the ruins is a temple with a ‘hitching post of the sun’ similar to the one in Machu Picchu. In the ruins you will come across vendors who sell small carvings and ceramic pieces, jewelry, and other handicrafts or who will play flutes. All these folks are in native costume, and the fee for a picture or handicraft is very low. If you speak Spanish, they are very friendly and will discuss their lives, families and heritage. Chatting with them makes a very memorable cultural experience. Pisac also has a great weekly market.
As you are heading through the Sacred Valley keep a look out for houses and restaurants with colored flags flying from the front door. These flags signify that the owner has home made chicha or corn beer for sale. It can be an interesting experience stopping in and ordering a glass and some snacks. It is very cheap, and is a great way to experience the local life. One caveat, these places are run by locals for locals. You won’t find English menus, bottled water, or other amenities. Chicha is fermented so it should be safe to drink but there are no guarantees. If you’re worried, order a hot drink such as mate de coca (coca leaf tea).
One of the most stunning sites in the Sacred Valley is Ollantaytambo. This is another fortress and is incredible for it’s site and stonework. It is placed in a natural amphitheater in the rock and with it’s terraces seems to be a theater for giants. Water is channeled through the ruins for fountains which still run to this day. Across the valley high on the side of a mountain is a food warehouse. It was build higher up to be cooler, and is situated where the cold winds blow to keep food better preserved. The little colonial village of Ollantaytambo still is laid out according to Inca plans and you can see the original Inca stone walls and cobble stone streets. There are several nice cafés here and it is a great place to take a rest. On one visit we were privileged to see a village wedding procession while we ate. Ollantaytambo is also the site of the train station for the train to Machu Picchu.
Another little town in the valley worth visiting is Chinchero. Chinchero is known for its market and its museum. The town is on the side of the valley and has some incredible views of the surrounding Andes mountains. The market is crowded, and fun. It takes place on Sundays. The town church is built on the foundations of an Inca ruin and you can see the finely cut stones fit without mortar. The ruins at Chinchero consist mostly of terraces and stairways but are very impressive.
The Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail are two very rewarding. The ruins are fantastic, the people are friendly, and there are also many cultural sites to see.