Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Sacred Valley, Peru

Exploring the Sacred Valley is top of many people's lists when visiting Cusco, or Peru in general. The valley is home to many ancient sites built by the Inca's, the people who lived in the area immediately before, and slightly after the arrival of the Spanish.

A short Inca history lesson

Incan tribes had been living in the Cusco area since the 12th Century, but the Incan empire existed formally from 1438 - 1533 and stretched along the western ridge of South America, centering in the Peruvian Andes. Patchacuti is thought to be responsible for the rapid expansion of the empire, and commissioned the building of sites such as Machu Picchu.

When Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador (am I in an Indiana Jones movie?), arrived from Panama in 1529 he returned to Spain to received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy, then captured the Inca King Atahualpa and used him to demand gold as ransom from the Inca's, before killing him.

The Inca's were eventually wiped out, their history and traditions with them, in 1572 when Tupac Amaru was killed following 36 years of Neo-Incan survival in the mountains.

With no written language, there's very little in terms of historical proof to help us understand the purpose of some of the ancient sites in the sacred valley. Many have been lost to the mountains, and more are still being excavated as we speak.


Your first stop on a tour of the Sacred Valley from Cusco is likely to be Pisac. From Cusco you will climb through the mountains and stunning scenery before reaching the valley. The Inca site had been build into the hillside and in framed by terraces. It's these terraces which you'll see time and time again in the Sacred Valley.

It's a windy road to the city, but once there you're treated to breathtaking views and a chance to explore the pathways. The burial chambers in Pisac are of particular note, and I recommend making the walk to the "city centre" on the far side.

Pisac is also home to a market with lots of souvenirs available, however these are no different to the items you will find in Cusco or any other market in the Sacred Valley. There's lots to tempt you, and it's certainly worth picking up a gift or two, but don't be disheartened if you don't have time - enjoy seeing the sites and shop back in Cusco.


Next on your Sacred Valley tour will be Ollantaytambo. This ancient city is still active and a real treat to explore if you have the time. Unlike other Inca sites, in Ollantaytambo the city was built in the valley - thanks to a pre-existing community when the Incas arrived - so the mountians were dedicated to the building of temples. The steep stairs take you to the temple of the sun and some stunning examples in Inca architecture.

Keep an eye out got the watchtowers on the neighbouring hills. Ollantaytambo was well guarded and it's believed the face of god can be seen in the mountain opposite the temple.

Quechua girls in Ollantaytambo - by @clairemgale on Instagram

In the town below the ancient site, you'll find Inca streets, with their channels of running water, and quint squares in the colonial style brought by the Spanish.

Many people stay in Ollantaytambo before starting the Inca Trail and it's on the train line to Machu Picchu, so if you've an evening to spare, I'd recommend staying the night and soaking up the atmosphere.

Other places of interest

In addition to the cities of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, a typical tour of the Sacred Valley may also include a trip to the salt mines at Maras, the Inca site as Moray, meeting typical Quechua weavers at a women's co-operative, a visit to a llama farm and Chinchero.

We booked our Sacred Valley tour with Viator - check it out!

Below: Patchacuti statue at Aguas Calientes, greeting people on their way to Machu Picchu