Many Incas called the Sacred Valley (or Urubamba Valley) home with its pleasant climate, fertile land, and its proximity to Cusco. This 100 km (62 mi) valley has plenty of beautiful landscapes to see and quaint villages to visit.
Pisac begins the Sacred Valley. It is a tiny town located 34 km (21 mi) from Cusco with a population of almost 10,000 people. The city’s claim to fame is their Inca ruins and lively markets.
Inca Pisac Ruins
Way back when the Incas built a multitude of agricultural terraces on very steep hillsides. These terraces are quite remarkable considering that they are still in use today. The Incas used the terraces to plant crops, an almost impossible feat as Pisac is 2,972 m (9,751 ft) above sea level.
In addition to agricultural purposes, Inca Pisac was used as a checkpoint connecting the Inca Empire to the rainforest.
They say that Pisac Market is what makes the village so popular for tourists. Honestly, I’m not sure why. The market is usually up and running on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but its most popular day is on Sundays.
There are plenty of alpaca sweaters and knitted caps that says Cusco on it here. But, you can easily find these things in the numerous markets in Cusco. This is definitely not the reason why anyone would come to the Sacred Valley.
Pisac’s Botanical Garden
This garden is also known as Felipe Marín Moreno Botanic Garden. Named after a Peruvian botanist who used this place as his own personal laboratory. The garden features 200 varieties of Peruvian potatoes, 12 varieties of Peru’s national flower, the Kant, a plentiful assortment of insects, and an occasional hummingbird. It costs 6 PEN ($1.80) to enter.
The garden can also be enjoyed in several cafes that surround the area. El Encanto offers big sliding windows that face the garden as you dine on vegan dishes as well as freshly-brewed coffee. Spices Restaurant cooks up their version of Asian dishes as you sit on the balcony overlooking the garden.
How to get to Pisac from Cusco
Head to Avenida Tullumayo for plenty of colectivos to Pisac. They leave when the van is relatively full, and the fare costs 4 PEN ($1.20).
Chinchero was once the largest cities in the Sacred Valley during the Inca empire. It is one of the few sites that sits higher than Cusco at 3,800 m (12,500 ft). Legend has it that this town is the birthplace of the rainbow. Sadly, I didn’t see any rainbows. Chinchero’s claim to fame is its Sunday artisan market, weaving, and its ruins.
Chinchero’s Artisan Market
Chinchero’s artisan market is similar to Pisac’s market but less touristy… so they say. I read that the market happens on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. But I went on a Thursday, and there were no stalls with goods in sight. Sunday is market day. As Chinchero is not as busy as Pisac, bartering is recommended here.
There are many shops in Chinchero that are willing to show you how weaving is done. The one I stumbled upon had a very nice lady named Maria. She showed me every step in the weaving business. It starts with cleaning the wool using the yucca root as a shampoo. Then, the wool is threaded onto a spool, then dyed with natural materials to get different colors. Purple from purple corn. Green from various leaves. My favorite is the red dye from the cochineal cbugs of cacti leaves.
Researchers believe that Chinchero was built as a sort of country resort for the Inca royalty. The terraces were built there for farming and agricultural purposes.
How to get to Chinchero from Cusco
Antonio de León Pineo, a Spanish naturalist, called Urubamba “the Garden of Eden”. Urubamba is the economic and administrative capital of the Sacred Valley. I’m not sure what Mr. Pineo saw. Truthfully, there isn’t much to see here except for gas stations, convenience stores, and hotels. I got as far Urubamba’s bus station to change buses. I even forgot to take a photo of the station.
Ollantaytambo, or Ollanta as the locals like to call it, lies in the Sacred Valley’s northwestern corner. This very chill place has retained much of what the Incas left behind including the water drainage system and the cobblestone streets.
Many guidebooks say the Incas used Ollantaytambo was used as a fortress, but only a small portion of the structures here was used for military purposes. The most noticeable feature is the temple hill. They say it is shaped like a llama, but to see it, I had to be on another mountain looking at the hill.
Walking around Ollantaytambo
Besides the ruins, the town has maintained many of the buildings left behind by the Incas. The irrigation system designed by the Incas is still in use today and can easily be seen throughout the town.
The gridded cobblestone streets date back as far as the 1200s. If you are heading to Machu Picchu by bus, you’ll more than likely pass through these narrow roads.
Getting to Ollantaytambo from Cusco
There are many colectivos to Ollantaytambo from Calle Belen. These colectivos leave when it is full. The one-way price is 10 PEN ($3.01). To get back to Cusco, it took a long while for the colectivo to fill up. So, I went from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba for 2 PEN (60¢) then connected to Cusco.
I missed out on Moray, known for its circular terrace depressions left behind by the Incas because there is no public transportation that would have taken me there. There are tour agencies that can organize tours to all of the sights in the Sacred Valley if you want to do it all in one day.