The Sacred Valley in Peru

Visit Peru and chances are you’ll find yourself, at least for one day, in the Urubamba Valley. Stretching from Pisac to Aguas Calientes, following the Urubamba River, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is tourism royalty. Literally, as the land here didn’t belong to the Incan empire, but to the Emperor himself, and its lush vertiginous hillsides and fertile farmlands are liberally littered with Incan paths and ruins; all leading to the jewel in South America’s Incan crown, Machu Picchu.
At its best the Sacred Valley offers a unique glimpse into Peru’s rich heritage, where local communities live among Incan stonework and traditional Quechua lifestyles – the still-living language and culture of the Incan Empire – abound.
But the Sacred Valley has a seedy side; this is very much the road well-trodden, a veritable highway of tourists on their pilgrimage from Cusco to Machu Picchu in whose wake follows a steady stream of tacky tourist tat and traffic jams. And a new airport smack bang in the heart of the valley – to allow flights from the US and across Latin America to deliver even more tourists directly to Machu Picchu’s doorstep – threatens not just the coping capacity of the world-famous 15th-century citadel but the cultural integrity of the valley as a whole.

The Sacred Valley, what we rate and what we don’t

Heather MacBrayne lived in Cusco for seven years before setting up our Peru specialists, Discover South America. As she explains, with a bit of planning and local knowledge avoiding the worst of the Sacred Valley’s tourist traps can be surprisingly simple: “You don’t have to go far to find more authentic experiences in the Sacred Valley. Outside the main towns, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and, to an extent Urubamba, there are plenty of little villages where there’s very little tourist development, with quirky, family-run accommodations. They might only be a 10-minute taxi ride out of the main towns, but they have a very different feel.”

A little local knowledge goes a long way in the Sacred Valley. Here’s what we, and our Peru specialists rate, and what we don’t.
Underrated

Day hikes

There are plenty of walks to be had throughout the valley that take you out of the bustle of its busiest spots and into the peaceful beauty that drew the Incas here in the first place. If you’re about to embark on the Inca Trail or one of its alternatives, day hikes also offer excellent opportunities for acclimatisation. Heather MacBrayne recommends the half-day hike from Ollantaytambo to the Incan ruins at Pumamarca, which boast beautiful views of the neighbouring Patacancha and Yuracmayo Valleys: “I was there last March and hardly anyone else was around.” Kathy Jarvis from our Peru specialists, Andean Trails, also rates walking in the Sacred Valley highly. She says, “Take time to do some half day or full day walks, there are trails everywhere throughout the Andes, so put your boots on, take a picnic and some water and set off and explore. There are numerous valleys that lead into the Sacred Valley, so no shortage of options.”

The Sacred Valley’s ‘other’ villages

As Kathy Jarvis, points out, “Like in many spots around the world the majority of tourists concentrate in very few places and you only need go a little off the well worn paths to get away from those hot spots and discover for yourselves some of the real life going on.” So consider some time in the Sacred Valley’s more out-of-the-way villages. Places like Lamay or Yucay are close to the valley’s main towns, but have a much more local feel – and can be excellent launch pads for tranquil day hikes. The walk from Lamay, for example, to Huchay Qosqo, comes highly recommended by our experts.

Maras salt mines

For something completely different Heather MacBrayne recommends the Maras salt mines – often just added on as an afterthought if you have enough time. She says: “You can get a bit of ruin fatigue after a while in this part of Peru, especially if the history isn’t the only reason you’re here. So you will have seen some amazing places and amazing ruins, then Maras is different and refreshing. You come around the corner and there’s all these white and pink salt pans lining the hills. Salt has been farmed here at least since Inca times and at one time the Maras salt – because of its slightly pink tinge – was also a form of currency. You’ll find a lot of tours that say go there if you’ve got a bit of extra spare time but I think it deserves more recognition than that.”

Incan ruins

Machu Picchu may be top dog, but there is no shortage of Incan sites in the Sacred Valley. As Kathy Jarvis says: “I really enjoy visiting the Inca sites in the Sacred Valley such as Pisac, Huchuy Qosqo, Pumamarca, Moray, Chincheros...all of which are easy to get to on your own on public transport, or on a private tour with a guide. (And Ollantaytambo – though Ollantaytambo does get very very crowded at times.) If you take a picnic and water you can explore the sites and walk out from them into nearby countryside.”
Rated

Ollantaytambo

There’s no getting around it, Ollantaytambo is the Sacred Valley’s tourism Mecca. Trains from its station ferry thousands of tourists to and from Machu Picchu every day, Inca Trail hikers pour in to start their trek at km82, while coachloads of day trippers line its Incan streets. However, this is still Heather MacBrayne’s favourite place in the Sacred Valley. She says: “Ollantaytambo may be super-touristy but it’s still very beautiful. There are also all sorts of interesting little projects going on which you can discover if you give yourself time. There’s a café which runs a nutrition programme in rural areas, and a weaving cooperative which empowers local women in business. And El Albergue, the old hotel right on the train platform (it’s actually the old station building) has its own organic farm and employs a lot of local people.”

Pisac ruins

Chances are you’ll head to Pisac on a trip into the Sacred Valley, but don’t forsake its spectacular ruins in favour of its more famous market, says Heather MacBrayne. “Some tours skip the ruins and just take you to the market and that’s terrible. Definitely go to the ruins, they are some of the most impressive in the valley. You can walk from the upper part down to the lower part – or all the way back into the village which takes around an hour and a half to two hours from the top.”

Local guides

“Our guides are all local. They are proud of their culture and are happy to share it with our guests,” says Heather MacBrayne. This connection to local people and local traditions is vital in peeling away the Sacred Valley’s just-for-tourists skin and enjoying an insight into a culture that in places has endured since Incan times. Local guides know the quietest spots, the best restaurants and can help you converse – in Quechua – with the local ladies weaving brightly coloured Andean cloth in tiny villages and cooperatives. Heather adds: “There’s living Incan culture everywhere in this valley – from the Quechua language to things like a Pachamanca lunch. It’s an Incan traditional meal but it’s something that’s still eaten at weekends by families in Cusco and in the Sacred Valley. It’s a tradition in the way a Sunday roast is here in the UK, or a family BBQ in the summer. You make a fire and heat up rocks, then dig a hole in the ground, pop in the hot rocks and a load of meat wrapped in leaves, perhaps some potato and sweetcorn and cover it all up again. Then go away and drink some chicha for a while, then come back, dig it all up again and tuck in.”

Community lodges

The valleys adjoining the Sacred Valley are home to people living arguably some of the most traditional ways of life in Peru. Luxurious community lodges, set up in partnership with rural village communities as an alternative, sustainable source of income, help preserve and celebrate local traditions. They’re also lovely places to stay – as Kathy Jarvis says: “Treat yourselves to one of the upmarket hotels, usually set in spacious riverside gardens and enjoy some peace and quiet with the mild climate and fabulous humming birds.”
Overrated

Day trips

Heather MacBrayne recommends always spending at least one night in the valley. “There are two plazas in Ollantaytambo and during the day they can seem like giant coach parks. But after 4pm, when all the day-trippers leave, they empty and local life gets back to normal. It is a completely different place. Evenings here are lovely.”

For Kathy Jarvis, avoiding the standard coach tour day trip is key to a more authentic experience: “ I would avoid all the standard one day bus tours from Cusco as you are herded around and taken to a not very good restaurant en masse with all other bus tours. As an alternative we offer (as do others) one day visits that are a bit different. For example we have one that includes a visit to Pisac Inca site, Urubamba fresh produce market and then a local farm, where you see produce growing in the ground plus animal life, ie chickens, guinea pigs etc and learn about the farming year. You then eat on the farm (a freshly cooked meal from local produce). It’s a lovely experience.”

Pisac market

An almost ubiquitous stop on most Sacred Valley tours, Pisac’s Quechua market was originally a Sunday-only affair where communities from across the valley and the rural reaches beyond came together to exchange and buy goods. With tourists came the opportunity to commercialise and the market has turned into a giant retail centre, with few local artisans and lot of goods being resold from other areas. We’re not saying don’t go but go with your eyes open and with realistic expectations. Heather MacBrayne suggests trying to time your visit for a Sunday – when the local market still meets and communities still come together – or to make sure you explore the outer-edges away from the tourist-centric centre.

Fake handicrafts

It can be difficult to discern whether you’re buying real handmade alpaca wool shawls or a mass-produced knock-off. Generally, you get what you pay for – and the cheap knitted goods in many of the Sacred Valley markets are often the latter. It is better to visit the cooperative centres in Cusco or the Awamaki weaving co-op’s shop in Ollantaytambo, where you’ll meet the artisans themselves. Of the weaving cooperative Heather MacBrayne says: “Things are more expensive but very authentic and you’re supporting their work to empower local women in what is otherwise a very macho society.”

Aguas Calientes

Its setting is undeniably spectacular, sat below Machu Picchu at the base of a steep, subtropical river gorge. However, that’s about all that’s going for Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. This former railway workers’ camp is now a jumbled pile of overpriced restaurants, tacky souvenir markets and hotels, bisected by the train tracks, which bring in hordes of tourists on their way to or from Machu Picchu and everything consumed in the town. If you’re visiting Machu Picchu, either on foot or by train, you can’t avoid it, but you don’t have to stay long.

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Flying into disaster?

In late 2019 work started on the controversial new airport at Chinchero, a pretty town at the gateway to the Sacred Valley. When complete it will deliver tourists on a variety of flights from across the US and Latin America directly to the doorstep of Machu Picchu. Already struggling to cope with the number of visitors it receives each day, there is a very real concern that this sacred place will become a sad theme park for day trippers and the inevitable explosion of overpriced restaurants, cheap souvenir stalls and anonymous hotels will slowly but surely erase the traditional cultural identity of both the tiny town of Chinchero, and the wider valley itself.

As Heather MacBrayne points out, building the airport here has the potential to be as disastrous ecologically as well as culturally. She says: “This is a flat plateau in an otherwise very hilly region. It’s quite unique, and no one really knows what will happen if large international aircraft start landing here.” One thing is for sure, the airport will destroy this ancient landscape, shaped by the terraces and trails of the ancient Incan people. Critics also suggest that planes flying low over nearby Ollantaytambo and its 348sq km archaeological park would cause incalculable damage to the Inca ruins there and completely destroy the peace and beauty of the area.

Additionally, the airport has been built on land previously owned by the Yanacona – one of three traditional communities in Chinchero – who have been the only ones to receive any payment. Others will have to live with the effects of an international airport in close proximity without recompense, and ultimately, with the sale of their land the Yanacona have signed away their heritage and future income.

What you can do

Despite the efforts of many campaigners, including ourselves, it looks like the Peruvian government is blindly forging ahead with the airport project. But as its existence turns more into a chilling certainty it becomes even more important that we focus on travelling to the Sacred Valley in a way that preserves and respects, rather than fractures further the cultural integrity of this unique region.
Don’t fly in for the day but stay longer – in locally-owned accommodations – use local guides and avoid the well-beaten tourist path where you can. Supporting the work of community-owned lodges, of the weaving cooperatives and local organic farms gives value to keeping the unique Incan culture of the Sacred Valley alive.
And as Heather MacBrayne says, all hope is not quite lost yet, “I don’t know any local people who are in favour of the development and a lot of people in Cusco – where tourism is such a vital part of the economy – are concerned that the new airport will cut them out of the equation. So continue to sign petitions and shout about the damage this airport will do; just because the project has started it doesn’t mean it will be seen through to the end.”
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: McKay Savage] [Underrated: Diego Delso] [Rated: Mx._Granger] [Overrated: Diego Delso] [What you can do: David Berkowitz]
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