The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a short distance from Cusco. The highlights can be done in one day, though there’s so much to see, it’s worth longer. You can consider it as a greatest hits day that places you in a hotel in the Sacred Valley by dinner, or a very long day trip that lets you stay in Cusco as your base.
With the help of a guide, we set out as a large party. Our van picked us up early, making our way out of Cusco at 7:30 am. We drove through Cusco, driving through the towns center, and passed by city squares all framed by historic, colonial buildings. As we left the center of town, the van began an uphill drive through the outskirts on Cusco. We observed many unfinished houses. Our guide explained that homes are left unfinished to avoid paying taxes on finished out home. The homes were built precariously perched on hill sides. It seemed that a big rainfall would result in the homes sliding from their perched location and topple onto the home right below it. The concrete sprawl of the outskirts of Cusco are a stark contrast to the historic, vibrant, center of Cusco.
The drive quickly transitioned to hilly and green, with hills and mountains rising on each side. It was a total contrast to where we had just spent a couple of days in the Peruvian Amazon.
Our first stop during our one day Sacred Valley tour was to the small Andean town of Chinchero. Our visit was brief, but informative. It started with llamas and alpaca and ended with a traditional weaving demonstration. Chinchero is known for their richly, colored textiles and traditional methods of weaving using wool from alpacas and llamas.
Prior to going to see how the textiles are made, we were given a chance to see and feed the many llamas and alpacas. The kids loved feeding the animals, learning about their fur, and of course taking many selfies with the animals. Following what seemed to be hours or selfies and begging to adopt and take home baby alpacas, we left the animal pens and walked across the street for a traditional weaving demonstration.
We walked into a stucco building, with a store of handmade woven textiles, tablecloths, sweaters, hats, rugs and so much more. We were ushered to a group of wooden benches, semicircle around a demonstration area. Hot tea was served while two Quechuan women sat on the floor of the demonstration area and began to discuss the traditional methods or weaving. The Quechua are the indigenous people of the Cusco/Andes region, recognizable by their beautiful woven skirts and clothing. The younger of the two women showed us the messy balls of wool, how to clean the wool, and how to use the natural dye to stain the wool. Her companion sat on the floor using a traditional weaving loom to create textiles that would later be sold in the store.
It was interesting to hear how this art form was almost lost due to globalization’s introduction of chemical dyes and fibers, supplanting local tradition. Luckily, creating these weaving centers has now become a source of income for the region and has kept a thousand year-old art form alive and thriving without the loss of its identity.
Shopping and bargaining is expected after the presentation. We happily obliged both.
Our next stop, about a 15-minute drive from Chinchero, took us to the archeological site of Moray. We drove down a windy, narrow, dirt street to eventually come up to a parking area surrounded by fields of wildflowers with views of the mountains in the background. It was December, but the weather was decent. A little rain–after all it is rainy season–but slightly warm.
Immediately we saw massive circular, grassy, terraces designed by the Incans for growing crops. Incredibly, the Incans brought soil from varying regions to help grow crops. Although interesting to see and learn about, the facts were lost on the kids. They couldn’t climb along the terraces, for preservation reasons; therefore, they could only see from afar. I would have liked them to feel the climate difference within the terraces and experience the sheer size. However, I respect the fact that it is off limits to tourists.
As our Sacred Valley tour continued, with Ollantaytambo being our last visit, we stopped along the road to see the salt pans of Maras. We popped out of the van and listened while our guide told us about the rectangular shaped salt mines that the local owned. “Everyone in the community owns a salt pan,” he explained, “And some have been in the same family for generations.” For years (many years ago), the salt miners were paid in salt.
If you didn’t know what you were looking at one might think these were boxes or some type of cargo container stacked on up the side of the mountain. We saw the salt pans during the rainy season, meaning all of the salt mines were filled with water and not ready to harvest. Fortunately, we did drive to a small village where we were able to buy the salt to bring home. While in the village, our guide pointed out small Spanish crests above some of the doors. These were the original homes owned by the Spanish Conquistadors.
The drive through the Sacred Valley continued on and along the Urubamba River. The river was fast flowing and filled with rapids. I couldn’t believe how powerful it was, churning with the runoff from the rainy season. The valley surrounding the river was lush, green, and hilly–all around beautiful.
We pulled into the town of Ollantaytambo, originally built in the 1400’s by the Incans. In the 1500’s, they constructed a massive fortress on the side of the mountain to defend against the Spanish Conquistadors. We stopped in the Plaza Mayor, a large central square lined with restaurants and shops. Ollantaytambo is a starting point for the Inca Trail, a four-night hike to Machu Picchu. It’s also a great location to pick-up the train to Machu Picchu if you are not doing the hike.
We started walking through the narrow, stone streets of the town. The streets also had water running parallel to the streets, taken from the river nearby. We were taken to a local house to learn about how these descendants of the Incans live, with multiple generations in one house. We walked through a narrow door that led to a large, open, terrace surrounded by living quarters. Our kids immediately spotted a room with guinea pigs running free, and they flocked to the room to feed them and focused their attention only on the rodents. In this room was also an altar paying tribute to the family’s dead relatives, including their skulls.
We walked a bit more through the streets arriving to the Manya Raqui Square, the entrance to the fortress. Once inside the fortress we saw just how massive and high it was. There were some terraces for farming, like the ones we saw in Moray, except instead of being round, they were built rectangular up the side of the mountain. As we climbed, it became harder and more exhausting. My parents stopped as it was too much on their knees. This is not an easy climb, as it is very steep with lots of stairs and stones. We carried on towards the top. At the summit is the Temple of the Sun, a massive structure with monolithic stones. It is hard to imagine how they were brought up, what methods were used, and how long it took.
Before reaching the top, the topic of ayahuasca came up. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic brew made from two plants. It is traditionally administered by a shaman as part of traditional rituals. Unfortunately, it has become popular with tourists who often imbibe without respect to either tradition or safety.
Our guide stopped our tour to tell us his experience with ayahuasca. He told us of his youth and how he was going down the wrong path in life. He had failed out of school, was getting into drugs, and not making good choices. He had enough insight to realize this and went to a shaman for help and was given ayahuasca. He shared his experience taking the brew. He told us while hallucinating he was walking and came to a fork in the road and was forced to make a decision of continuing the road he was going or chose the better path to a better life. His story was shared in such a meaningful manor, with so much emotion and details. It was amazing as we sat on top of the Incan ruins to listen to our guide share a personal story like he did. These are the moments in travel that make you remember why you love traveling so much.
The journey continued with our guide pointing out some house like structures across on another mountain, high up, perched on a steep slope that was used for storing foods like grains. We made our way down to see some baths and structures used for carrying water. However, what made the visit wonderful was a personal story shared by a guide who had just met us that morning. A great way to end our day in visiting the Sacred Valley of Peru.
Where to Stay
If you plan to spend the night or nights in the Sacred Valley, then the Sol y Luna hotel, outside of the town of Urubamba is a great choice. The resort is so lovely, I wish we had more than one night. We stayed in a casita that had a loft area with a bed for the kids. The hotel is sprawled out with casitas (tiny houses) for guests to sleep in. The grounds are spectacular, English gardens laid out surrounding all the paths to the individual casitas. Trees, flowers, bushes so meticulously planned and cared for. The array of birds they attracted would be any bird watchers dream. There is a beautiful pool and sitting area around the pool. It was a bit too cold to swim. The place was tranquil and spacious, a gem in the Urubamba river valley.
Where to Eat
We chose to go into the town of Urubamba for dinner, find something other than the hotel restaurant. We picked a place that looked decent, had the hotel call taxis. We pulled up to the restaurant only to find it closed. I explained to the taxi driver we wanted to go to a polleria, a traditional Peruvian Chicken place. If you have never had Peruvian chicken, it is a whole chicken cooked on a spit over hot coals. The chicken is tender and juicy, not overpowered with sauces or spices.
The taxis took us to a local polleria in town, and it was the best meal we had in Peru. This is the “hole in the wall” discovery that I dream of finding with each trip. It’s called Carbon Pollos a la Braza, which essentially translates as “chicken breasts on charcoal.”
The restaurant had had some booths in the front, followed by some smaller rooms with tables. We were led to the back of the room, next to one of the kitchens where salads and sides were prepped. The rooms had mismatched tin roofs, with few people. We ordered three whole chickens with sides for 11 of us. The meal came out with the chickens already cut up in 8 pieces. The chicken skin was crisped and the meat tender. We were served fries and salad. We ate in silence as the food was so good, we were just enjoying every bite. It was also very inexpensive costing about $6USD/per person.