A trip to Cusco wouldn’t be complete without a visit to The Sacred Valley of the Incas. Located only an hour’s trip north of the Inca’s epicenter lay towns long known for their colonial architecture and tucked away weaving villages. The Sacred Valley has become a destination in its own right, independent from the city of Cusco, with main attractions being traditional markets and the noble Inca citadels of Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
Steep terraces guarding Ollantaytambo’s Inca ruins rise above the remarkable city to tell the story of a major battle won against the Spanish “conquistadores”. Both a fortress and temple, these ruins provided protection to Manco Inca and his victorious soldiers as they showered Spanish soldiers with arrows and spears from above the steep terraces, making it impossible for the Spanish to climb. The Inca’s well-developed infrastructure allowed Manco to flood the plain below the fortress, forcing the Spaniards to retreat.
The ruins also served as a temple, with a ceremonial center sitting at the very top of the terraces. The stone used to build the temple was extracted from the mountainside nearly 6km away, above the opposite bank of the Urubamba river which borders numerous cities in the Sacred Valley. Hiking the trail from this side of the river to the temple takes a few hours, so it is unknown how the Incas managed to move or extract these massive blocks while diverting the river channel around them.
It is said that looking back at the city of Ollantaytambo from the mountainside, a 2-dimensional pyramid can be identified. Some believe that this legendary place is where the original Incas emerged and founded their empire.
The Pisac ruins call for several hours of exploration. The trek from town starts at the west side of the church and takes approximately 2 hours to the top–though you also have the option to drive up. Once at the top, be prepared to encounter swaths of tourists admiring the largest Inca cemetery, a residential settlement, and a number of ceremonial baths. But if you’re seeking real adventure, continue on the same path past the tourists, and be prepared to explore the Pisac ruins like a true explorer.
Along the path, you’ll find yourself on something more similar to a trail that hugs the mountainside. You’ll know you’ve reached the peak of your adventure when you pass through a lithic doorway, marking the entrance to the main temple complex. Continuing through a short tunnel, you’ll emerge with your sights on a small residential site and agricultural zones to the lower left. Continue on the path for another 10 minutes, or so.
Equal to the massive size of Machu Picchu is the temple complex you didn’t expect to come across. Impressive panoramic views of the landscape surround you as admire the ancient ruins constructed of pink granite stones. The Sun Temple is featured in the center and perfectly aligns with the winter and summer solstice. The area reflects its sacred and spiritual importance.
From the temple, you have the option of continuing down the trail to witness the agricultural terraces which document that incredible engineering of the Incas. The terraces are literally carved into the mountainside, making for perfect photo opportunities. Another 20 minutes down the trail will leave you back in the village of Pisac to explore the markets.
Las Salineras de Mara
Another can’t miss in The Sacred Valley are the ancient Inca salt pans. The salt pans are believed to have been created by the Wari civilization, which predates the Incas. However, it was the Incas who saw the economic opportunity in harvesting salt and dug further into the mountainside to expand the salt pans. The pans are filled with salt water that is channeled through a natural subterranean spring. When the water evaporates, the crystals are left behind to be scraped from the Earth’s surface. Once the crystals are removed, the pan is again filled with salt water.
Today, there are over 6,000 salt mines, each individually owned and mined by a family in the Maras community, allowing local residents to make a living from harvesting and selling salt to nearby towns and shops.
Unique Lodging and Adventure
The Sacred Valley isn’t exclusive to history buffs and those who love architecture, but also to the modern-day traveler seeking truly unique accommodations and adventures.
More recently, sky lodges have been constructed on the mountainsides in the region overlooking The Sacred Valley. The transparent capsules allow you to experience life above the mystical valley, though it won’t come without a cost–physically and financially.
The Sky Lodge is only accessible after a 400-meter hike up a 1,200-foot mountain, or via a bold trail of ziplines. The capsule sleeps up to 8 people and allows for 300-degree views of the surrounding landscape through 6 windows. Packages include breakfast, a gourmet dinner with wine, transportation from Cusco, and a bilingual guide. Just one-night costs over $1,000. But for this incredibly amazing experience, we’re willing to up our shoestring budget any day.