Exploring Sacred Valley
The best way to see the Sacred Valley is on an organized tour – the Inca history is so complex and the Inca archaeological sites so extensive, that without a licensed, knowledgeable guide you’ll miss out on a lot. Local travel agencies offer full-day tours of Písac (both the archaeological site and the market) and Ollantaytambo, the two most important Inca towns in the Sacred Valley.
The remaining towns and sites can be explored on one’s own, either by hiring a driver, renting a motorcycle, or by spending a night in them. All the sites in the Sacred Valley are accessible by road, except for Machu Picchu, that is only accessible by train. Remember to bring Boleto Turístico.
Things to see and do in Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is a 70-mile long, narrow valley that lies along the fertile banks of the Urubamba River, 50 miles out of Cusco. It stretches from the town of Písac in the west to the towns of Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu in the east.
Due to its proximity to the Inca capital, an agreeable climate and exceptionally fertile plains, the Valley was the agricultural heart of the Inca Empire. The cultivated valley floor is only about 0.6 miles wide on average, but the cultivable area is further expanded by side valleys and agricultural terraces.
The area was first utilized some 3,000 years ago; in 1420, the Inca Empire took over and converted it into their prime area of maize production.
At the height of the Inca civilization in the 1400’s, the system of terraces covered about a million hectares and fed an empire of 12 million people. The terraces, along with Inca citadels, colonial towns and isolated weaving villages inhabited by indigenous Quechua people, are the biggest tourist attractions today.
The Valley also played a strategic role – controlling it meant to control access to Cusco on one side, and to the yunga, the warm transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon rainforest, on the other. The Valley protected Cusco from the incursions of jungle tribes, who had to be conquered to ensure access to the fruits and plants of the tropical lowlands like coca leaf and chili peppers.
The Inca and pre-Inca agricultural stepped terraces are called andénes.
The main purpose of these andénes, ‘platforms’ dug into the Andean hillsides, was to increase the amount of farmable land, and to keep it from eroding down the mountainside. Today, they’re the most visible sign of Inca civilization, and the symbol of visual harmony of the environment.
The first step in constructing an andén is laying a bedrock foundation of 3-feet that gives stability to a 7-feet tall, retaining wall above it. The purpose of the wall is to absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate it back out at night, to warm the soil.
The ground behind the wall is filled with large stones and a 3-foot thick layer of sand and gravel. These rock and sand layers are used to drain excessive rain water (as seen in Machu Picchu). A layer of topsoil, hauled up here by hand from lower lands, caps the terrace. In arid areas, water is brought from mountains via a system of canals and aqueducts.
To climb up and down the terraced fields, the local farmers use flying stairs. Flying stairs are flagstones set into the walls and spaced like a staircase; they project out into the air. When local farmers walk on them, they look like they’re walking on the air.
The terraces enabled production of potatoes, quinoa and corn in amounts larger than would normally be possible at altitudes of 11,000 feet and up with seasonal precipitations, low temperatures and thin soils.
When the terraces failed to be productive, the Inca farmers would turn to a traditional farming method called the three sisters, a technique based on planting together different crops to improve yields. The three sisters are maize, beans and squash.
Maize was planted first. When it reached an adequate height, beans and squash would be planted around it. Maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil, and the squash spreads along the ground blocking the sunlight and keeping the soil moist and weed-free.
Over the centuries, the andénes fell into disrepair and were eventually abandoned. This began when the Spaniards forced local populations off their traditional lands after they devastated them by diseases (some researchers estimate that half of the Inca population died soon after the conquest). With them, much of the traditional farming and engineering knowledge was lost.
The best preserved collections of andénes are found in the area between central Peru and northern Bolivia.
The most impressive zones are the Sacred Valley with its enormous terraces of Písac, Ollan-taytambo, Moray and Maras, constructed by the Inca; the Colca Canyon and its 11th century terraces, constructed by the Collaguas; and the islands on Lake Titicaca with terraces, constructed by the Aymara.
The Písac ruins and market
Located 25 miles from Cusco, the Písac Ruins and terraces are a major archaeological site located at the entrance to the Valley.
They are five times more extensive than the ruins of Machu Picchu, spreading over one and a half mile along a mountaintop. The complex consists of fortifications, residences, temples, barracks, aqueducts and agricultural terraces.
The Citadel section, whose main purpose was to defend the southern entrance to the Sacred valley, is perched on a rocky outcrop high above the Písac Valley, offering fabulous views of huge, sweeping terraces.
The Temple of the Sun area, that is formed by a ceremonial center, alters, baths, water fountains and canals, all cut out of solid granite rock and serving a religious purpose. The most important structure here is one of the few preserved intihuatanas, hitching posts of the sun.
Intihuatana is a stone monolith allegedly used by Inca priests as a sundial and an astronomic clock to anticipate the approach of solstices and equinoxes. Exactly how they did that remains unclear.
The Písac agricultural terraces are the largest complex of terraces in the Sacred Valley, and a masterpiece of Inca agriculture. They’re still in use, sweeping around the south and east flanks of the mountain.
The Residential area is formed by groups of stone houses that have straw roofs and stand in rows along several terraces. This was the original village of Písac before it was moved down into the Valley by the Spaniards.
Unlike most Inca sites, Písac ruins contain open tunnels. Cut through solid granite, the larger one extends for 53 feet, the smaller one for 10 feet. They serve no clear purpose; questions also arise as to how they were made since the Inca had no iron tools, and to cut through, a 120 tons of rock had to be displaced.
At the back of the site, there are limestone cliffs honeycombed by hundreds of holes. These are Inca tombs, plundered for centuries by grave robbers. They are off-limits to tourists.
To reach Písac ruins from Písac town down in the valley, you can either drive up and then walk a short distance to the ruins (the cab ride is around S/25 one way), or climb the terraces.
The climb up the 500 terraces is roughly 3 miles long. The trail starts behind the church down in town, and typically takes a couple of hours. It is steep and exhausting but the views of the vast, plunging terraces, the village below, and the valley beyond make it worthwhile. It’s a good training for the Inca Trail.
The entrance to Písac ruins is included in Boleto Turístico.
Písac town is famous for holding the most popular artisan market in the Cusco area. The Písac market takes place every Thursday and Sunday on the main square, and offers products like traditional weavings, alpaca clothing, Andean music instruments, Peruvian ceramics, pottery, silver jewelry and other gifts.
One section of the market is occupied by indigenous Quechua farmers who come down from the surrounding hills to sell their produce. On offer are some of the 4,000 varieties of Andean potatoes, 50 varieties of corn, spicy peppers, local fruits, vegetables, herbs and even fresh flowers.
The weaving village, the Inca salt ponds, the terraced spirals dug in the ground
Chinchero is a 600-year-old Inca village, known for being the center of the traditional Andean weaving production. It is located 20 miles from Cusco on a high plateau at 12,500 feet.
Chinchero weavers are joined in a weaving association, that runs a small store in the village and gives traditional weaving and dyeing demonstrations.
To dye alpaca wool, local women clean it first of any dirt or impurities, which is done with the use of the natural detergent of jabonera plant. Then the wool is dried and wound into threads.
After that comes the actual dyeing process.
The different colors are natural colors obtained from local plants – the green is from the ch’ilka plant, the light purple from the purple maize, the dark purple from the awaypilly leaves, the blue from the tara plant, the orange from the qqaqasunka moss, and the yellow from the q’olle flowers. The carmine red is achieved from the cochineal insect, used internationally in the cosmetics and food industries as a natural dye in meat, sauces, beverages, lipsticks etc.
The wool is put into water along with the dye solution and boiled. To fix the color, lime, salt and a mineral called “qollpa” can be used. After that, the yarns are rinsed until they stop bleeding color, and hung to dry.
Finished products can be bought at Chinchero market that takes place on Sundays, and is much less touristy than Písac market.
Chinchero also has a set of Inca terraced ruins with a church from early 1600’s sitting on top of them. The ruins are easy to walk; the path offers beautiful views of the snow-capped peak of Salcantay.
Recently, the name of Chinchero has been brought up in connection with a controversial plan of building a new airport here, a plan that has caused a lot of international criticism.
At present, most visitors come in through the Cusco airport which has only one runway and is limited to flights from Peru. The new airport should allow direct flights from major Latin American and US cities, and double the number of tourists visiting Machu Picchu.
Ironically, the same Machu Picchu that has been threatened to be placed on the list of world heritage sights in danger due to overcrowding; a fact that forced the Peruvian government to put controls on the flow of tourists recently.
The airport project is widely opposed because of its potential to destroy the fragile environment of the Inca ruins and the local ecologies of Machu Picchu and Cusco. The airport is set for completion in 2023.
Situated 25 miles from Cusco, Maras is a small town, known for 500-years-old salt ponds dating back to Inca times.
Called salineras, these ponds are among the most spectacular sights of the Cuzco area.
They are located 2 miles outside the town at the top of a steep mountain, stretching down the mountainside as far as the eye can see. A hot spring discharges a small stream of salt-laden water here that is directed by tiny channels down onto several thousand terraced ponds. When the polygon-shaped ponds fill up, the keepers shut the stream off by using a small rock, and leave the ponds to dry until the spring water evaporates and salt is left.
Almost all the ponds are less than 13 square feet in area, and none exceeds 1 foot in depth. A stunning effect is produced when the sun breaks through and the entire hillside lights up with thousands of blinding white mirrors.
The ponds are still mined today for white, pink, and black salts.
The entrance fee is not included in Boleto Turístico and can be bought at the site for S/10 ($3).
Located 30 miles from Cusco, Moray is an unusual archaeological site containing ruins in the shape of conical terraced crates dug deep into a hillside.
Experts believe that these stone rings of uncertain purpose were an agricultural research lab since their depth, design and orientation to wind and sun create a temperature difference of as much as 27 °F between the top and bottom parts. This way, each level could have simulated a different altitude and micro climate, allowing the Inca to experiment with new hybrid crops.
Since about 60 % of the world’s food crops originated in the Andes (including hundreds of varieties of maize and four thousand varieties of potato), they might not be that wrong.
Looking like ancient Greek amphitheaters, the perfect, concentric circles are split by staircases that extend upward like spokes of a wheel, enabling people to walk from the top to the bottom. They vary in size, with the largest descending to a depth of 98 feet.
The lowest levels of the terraced circles are perfectly drained and never flood, not even in the rainy season. This is probably due to underground channels, carved in the bedrock and allowing water to drain. How would the Inca make them when they didn’t know iron, is a mystery.
The best way to visit the place and the quaint villages around is on a horse-back riding trip. The entrance fee to the site is included in Boleto Turístico.
The Ollantaytambo stronghold
Located 45 miles from Cusco, Ollantaytambo is one of the most extensive archaeological sites in the country. It is the second best-preserved Inca ruin in Peru after Machu Picchu.
The massive fortification complex is formed by terraces, quarries, storehouses, a ceremonial center and an irrigation system.
It was constructed in the mid-15th century by the Inca Emperor Pachacutec, the same emperor who began the era of conquest that expanded the Inca dominion from the valley of Cusco to the whole of western South America. The complex had an important strategic role – it defended the northern entrance to the Sacred Valley, and the access route connecting it with Machu Picchu to the west and Písac and Cusco to the east.
The most prominent feature of the complex are 200 agricultural terraces that run up a steep hill framed on both sides by rocky outcrops. The terraces are supported by high walls whose purpose was to protect the crops from wind, and to absorb solar radiation during the day and release it during the night. This way, a microclimate zone 3,6° F warmer than the ground was created, which allowed the Inca to grow species of plants native to lower altitudes.
Sitting on top of the terraces is the Sun Temple sector. Built from cut and fitted stones, the temple was left unfinished as indicate numerous giant stone blocks littering the site.
The main structure of the Sun Temple is the Wall of the Six Monoliths, one of the most iconic and baffling pieces of Inca architecture. It consists of 6 massive andesite monoliths, standing approximately 36 feet wide and 14 feet high. Since each monolith weighs more than 50 tons, it remains unclear how they were transported to this spot from the quarry on the other side of the valley and across the river.
Situated at the base of the terraces is the Princess Bath, part of a large waterworks system with channels running through the principal streets of the town. Carved from a single stone of 8 feet by 5 feet, the fountain was reportedly used by Inca royalty for ceremonial bathing.
The engineering that was put into designing the bath is incredible – if a finger is run along the edge of the groove cut in the middle of the stone, the water falling into the canal stops flowing. If tapped again, the water shoots forward.
The entrance fee to is included in Boleto Turístico.
The archaeological site is named after the town where it is located.
The town of Ollantaytambo is the only town in the Sacred Valley continuously inhabited since Inca times. It is the last train stop on the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu, and the first stop for hikers to the start of the Inca Trail.
The town is a unique example of Inca urban planning, characterized by a preserved grid layout, narrow cobblestone streets, stone walled houses, trapezoidal Inca doorways supported with single lintels, and pebbled irrigation canals crisscrossing the town.
A lot of visitors come here to spend the night before visiting Machu Picchu.
Hikes around Ollantaytambo
Sitting on a steep hill on the opposite site from the fortress are qollcas, one-room Inca granaries, used to store the production of the agricultural terraces.
Made of stone, well-ventilated, provided with drainage canals and gravel floors to keep foodstuffs dry, grain would be poured in through the windows on the uphill side, then emptied out through the windows on the downhill side. Dried meat (jerky), freeze-dried potatoes (chuño), maize and quinoa could be stored here for up to two years before spoiling.
Carved into the rock next to the granaries is a giant face, representing Viracocha, the father of all Inca gods, and the God that formed earth, heavens, sun, moon and all living beings. Known also as Kon-Tiki, Quetzalcoatl (in Mexico) or Ptah (in ancient Egypt), he was a legendary bearded white man who travelled the lands and taught humans civilization, arts and agriculture. He invented books, the calendar and maize. When his work was finished, he headed west across the Pacific never to be seen again, but promising to return one day.
The stone face wears a frowned expression, a long beard, a heavy sack on his shoulders, and a crown on his head formed by stone Inca ruins. The face is said to have had its eyes formed by semi-precious rocks.
Similar giant rock faces can be seen all over Inca sites, be it the rocky hill across from the archaeological site of Písac, or the back side of the Machu Picchu mountain.
The trail to reach the warehouses starts on Lares Calle, across from Kamma Guest House. The hike takes about 1.5 hours and is quite challenging.
Another trail leads up to three stone quarries, located about 2.5 miles from the town, that provided the construction material for the Ollantaytambo fortification complex.
In these quarries, gigantic stone blocks were cut out of the mountain, slid down the hillside, hauled across the plain and the river, brought up on the other side and positioned in the terraces with only the help of rolling stones, leather ropes, llamas, levers, pulleys and the strength of hundreds of men. All that despite the fact that to move some of those stone blocks (weighing over 50 tons), several power tools and different power vehicles would be needed. How the blocks could fit so perfectly into place remains also unexplained.
Some archaeologists believe (as mentioned before) that the pre-Inca stonemasons possessed the technology of softening stone, such as the application of pyrite mud to rock surfaces (the Sulphur acid would turn rock into a silica gel), or the application of plant sap (containing oxalic acid). These methods would explain the smooth, shiny, ‘vitrified’ surfaces of the stones and their discoloration.
There are also suggestions that Ollantaytambo and other Inca sites, such as Sacsayhuaman or Machu Picchu, are more than 10,000 years old, and that the Inca merely adopted the buildings that were already in place.
Hiking to the quarries is well worth the effort – they offer amazing views of Ollantaytambo and the 20,000 feet tall Veronica mountain.
Located 4 miles out of town, Pumamarca ruins are a complex of military buildings that controlled access to Ollantaytambo. The ruins are located on top of a mountain, and are an idyllic site with beautiful panoramic views.
To get here, it is about a 20-minute ride from Ollantaytambo by taxi, then another 30-minute hike up a steep hill. You can return walking. Or you pay approximately S/120 ($35) for a drop off and bringing you back. The entrance fee to the ruins is S/10.
The battle of Ollantaytambo
In 1536, a famous battle took place near Ollantaytambo. It was the last victorious battle of the Inca against the Spaniards after the conquest.
The Inca army of more than 30,000 was led by 21-year-old leader Manco Inca, the Spanish expedition, disposing of a force of 70 cavalrymen and a large number of indigenous and Spanish foot soldiers, by Hernando Pizarro, the brother of Francisco Pizarro.
Manco Inca was the leader of the Inca resistance against the conquistadors, and Ollantaytambo served as his temporary capital.
Pizarro’s main asset was his cavalry since horses provided a considerable advantage in striking power over Inca warriors. All Spaniards wore armor, steel helmets and small iron shields. Their main weapon was the steel sword and the lance, both able to penetrate easily the padded armor worn by Inca warriors.
Manco Inca’s troops used weapons such as arrows, maces, spears and slings, and a protective gear such as helmets, shields and a quilted cloth armor.
Well aware of the fact that in open terrain, the Inca soldiers were no match for the Spanish cavalry, Manco Inca decided to use a ruse. He had the Urubamba River channeled across the valley from right to left and back. This way, he formed more battle lines, that he backed by fortifications. Past them, high terraces closed the valley.
When the Spanish troops arrived, they had to cross the river several times. To block their advance even more, the Inca army confronted them from the terraces, showering them with arrows, slingshots and boulders.
In a brilliant move, Manco Inca then quickly opened the dams and flooded the plain. With the Spaniards’ horses bogged down in the mud and water, Pizarro was forced to order a hasty retreat.
Despite this victory, Manco Inca didn’t consider his position tenable, and withdrew to the heavily forested site of Vilcabamba, the legendary Lost City of the Incas. Here, he established the Neo-Inca State that lasted until the capture and execution of his son Tupac Amaru, the last Inca emperor, 35 years later in 1572.