Cusco Stories and Tips

Sacred Valley of the Incas

Approximately 9 miles (15 Km) north of Cusco, Peru lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas. With an altitude nearly 2000 feet lower than the old Inca capital city and a warmer and wetter climate than that high Andean city, the Sacred Valley is rich in agriculture productivity and today produces most of the region’s wheat, potatos, corn, beans, quinoa and more. It’s importance to the Inca Empire was even greater and the Incas built great citadels, scientific stations, and cities throughout this rich valley. In effect, this rich valley was the garden of the Incas. With its great cities, protective citadels, and a climate warm enough to grow sugar cane, yet cool enough to be devoid of mosquitos, the Sacred Valley was a place that the Inca rulers would retreat to for relaxing away from the bustle of their capital city of Cusco.

Less famous than the ruins of Machu Picchu and the dynamic city of Cusco, the Sacred Valley offers visitors an unparalleled glimpse into ancient Inca culture. Deep in the hills of this forgotten valley are small villages where Andean people live out each day just like their ancestors did 500 years ago. Any tour through the Sacred Valley includes the larger villages such as Pisac, Chinchero, and Ollantaytambo where time has caught up with local traditions and modern conveniences can be found. To discover the Andean culture of the past, travelers need to get off the beaten path to villages such as Moray and Pumahuanca.

Adventure Life strives to introduce travelers to our authentic Peru. All of our Peru tours visit the market and ruins of Pisac and we stay the night in the village of Ollantaytambo. But from here we depart from the traditional tour route and journey into the countryside around the village of Moras. Here we get a chance to talk with local farmers and occassionally share in the daily work in their fields of crops. The people here mainly speak Quechua, which is the indigenous language of most of the Andes. Our guides speak Quechua and English and are often godparents to one or more of the children in the area. This close relationship and knowledge of the Quechua language and the area traditions helps our travelers bring home great memories of newfound friends and shared experiences.

We journey through this unique area on a two hour walk that takes us past the agricultural terraces of Moray that the Incas built more than five centuries ago. The terraces were an experimental station similar to modern agricultural stations. Built in a natural depression in the earth shaped like a bowl, each terrace is thought to have mimicked the climate in the various altitude regions of the Inca Empire – deeper terraces had climates that matched the climates in the lower Andes. From the Moray terraces, Inca agriculturists were able to determine what were the best locations and growing conditions for each of their varied crops.

Not far from Moray and the very small village of Moras are the Salinas salt pans. The Incas mined salt from here centuries ago, and a local salt cooperative works the site today using the same manual process that their ancestors have used for dozens of generations. Sometimes we’re even invited to lend a helping hand with the locals collecting salt!

Towards the end of our walk in this area, we find ourselves on a paved road near the large village of Urubamba. A passing 'combi,' or local bus, picks us up for the twenty-minute ride to our hotel in Ollantaytambo.

There’s a very good reason why all Sacred Valley tours visit Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and we don’t miss either of these on our visit either! Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday the village of Pisac hosts the largest indigenous market in the Cusco region. Farmers from the highlands decend upon the valley to barter and sell all sorts of goods ranging from corn and potatoes to sheep, llamas and mules! With so many visitors coming to see the local market, a 'gringo' market sprung up years ago too. Here, you can feast your eyes on the vibrant colors of Andean textiles and ceramics.

High above the present day village of Pisac, lie the impressive Pisac ruins. The ruined city provides one of the finest examples of Inca archeological achievement. The main buildings of the ruins are built with precision cut blocks of stone. The blocks are cut perfectly straight on all sides. Although no mortar was ever used, the walls of Pisac have withstood numerous earthquakes and years of harsh weather. Pisac has two obvious sections of dwellings. The upper section is of poorer construction than the lower section and archeologists speculate that the upper segment housed residents of lower social status. This is speculations and others others believe it was merely the first and temporary residence of Inca nobility until the nicer section below was completed. Below the main buildings are some of the most impressive pre-Columbian terraces in Peru. The terraces are masterly layed out with diagonal stone steps inlaid in the terrace walls for easy access from terrace to terrace. The terraces reach almost down to the village a thousand feet below.

Our Peru tours end their journey in the Sacred Valley in the village of Ollantaytambo. We arrive late in the day after the buses of visitors have returned to Cusco, and so we get to enjoy the local hospitality and charm in easy peace. Ollantaytambo lies at the gateway to the Amazon rainforest along the mighty Urubamba River. From here, all visits to Machu Picchu or treks along the Inca Trail begin. Ollantaytambo itself is a gem for the visitor that few people get to know. The enormous Inca fortress that towers over the village is steeped in history. It is here that the invading Conquistadors of Pizarro met their first and one of their only defeats at the hands of the Incas. Utilizing thousands of men, the Incas diverted the nearby Urubamba River to flood the plane below the ruins. Pizarro’s horses were made nearly useless in the resulting mud and muck. Upon seeing the fast flowing Urubamba River, visitors get an idea of the near super human feat of diverting such a natural force with little more than stone tools.

In the village below the ruined citadel, houses are built atop Inca masonry. Most streets are two narrow for a car and rows of houses are whitewashed in typical Colonial fashion. If you visit the ruins at twilight or after dark, the silent stone walls seem to whisper with the voices of the ancient battle. In the early morning, Ollantaytambo hums with activity as young men with bright colored ponchos prepare to set out on the Inca Trail, young boys and fathers wander by herding a cow and the family sheep, and women in striped and checkered aprons chat with each other in doorways after cleaning up the morning breakfast. Ollantaytambo is a favorite for travelers fortunate enough to discover its charms after the tourist busses have left.

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