Peru’s Sacred Valley took my breath away – literally and figuratively. The valley floor is at 3000 meters above sea level outside of Pisac and descends over its 100 kilometers to just above 2000 meters near Machu Picchu. Also known as the Urubamba valley, its namesake river meanders the entire length and irrigates the otherwise arid region.
The mountains that rise on either side are etched with criss-crossing paths and terraces known as andenes that attest to the engineering and agricultural skills of the early inhabitants.
The valley was settled by Quechua people in the mid-15th century. They were ruled by the Incas for a little more than a century before the Spanish conquest. Today, a majority of the inhabitants speak Quechua and you can still see traditional dress, especially in the smaller villages. There are a few major sites that should not be missed:
Try to say Ollantaytambo three times fast (and note that a double “l” is pronounced “yuh”)! That might distract you from the innumerable stairs leading the way to an amazing panorama.
Ollantaytambo was a fortress and a temple with a thriving village. It was the site of a great battle and one of the few defeats suffered by the Spaniards during the Conquest. The temple hill ruins provide fantastic vistas, while the ruins are well preserved and give insight to daily life.
Maras is world famous for its salt, produced since pre-Inca times by evaporating water from a subterranean stream. There are over 1000 salt pans harvested by local families in a cooperative system.
The ruins at Moray lie on a high plateau (3500 meters) not far from Maras. There are two archaeological sites comprised of concentric circles that descend as they decrease in size. The one in the photo above has been restored, while the one below is a work in progress.
The depth, design, and orientation creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom. This enabled farmers to grow crops which otherwise would not flourish at this altitude including maize and avocados.
An easy half-day hike from the main road takes you to the ruins at Pumamarca where we came across some curious alpaca. Alpacas and llamas are both members of the
camelid family, but the former is smaller in stature and its finer hair is highly prized (and pricey!).
Another way to explore the valley is on the Peruvian Paso. This horse’s four-beat, lateral gait is fairly unique and supposedly much smoother and more comfortable for the rider. I will let you be the judge!
At the end of the Sacred Valley, the terrain changes to jungle and the trail or train to Machu Picchu awaits!