So many places, so little time. It’s the big conundrum of travel: if you spend too much time in one place, what will you miss that’s just around the bend? As John likes to say, the sand is slipping through the hourglass.
Even so, we didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in the Peru’s Sacred Valley. We were in Cusco for four days to acclimate to the altitude before our Inca Trail/Machu Picchu adventure, and then stayed in Ollantaytambo for three days afterward. Now, the Sacred Valley has joined the long list of places to which we hope to return. Maybe . . .
So what’s so sacred about the Sacred Valley? For starters, it’s the cradle of civilization for the fabled and long-disappeared Inca empire. It’s also known as the Urubamba Valley, since it traces the Urubamba River for 60 miles all the way to Machu Picchu. Although MP is by far the most significant and famous archaeological site in the valley, there are many important ruins: Moray, Ollantaytambo, and Pisac, to name a few.
Four Days in Cusco
Most people think of Cusco as the beginning of the Sacred Valley, although it’s 12 miles away at its closest point and not actually in the valley. In fact, Cusco’s elevation is about 600 meters higher than Ollantaytambo. At 3,400 meters, Cusco was ideal for us to acclimate to the altitudes that we’d be experiencing on the Inca Trail trek (read all about that adventure here and here).
Cusco is the historical capital of the Inca empire. Most people agree that its name comes from “Qosqo,” a Quechua word that means “belly button” or “centre,” as in the centre of the Inca world. There’s no denying this city’s strategic importance, first to the Inca and then to the conquering Spanish, who built their own churches and mansions on top of those of their Inca predecessors.
Cusco is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Western Hemisphere. Walking its streets gave us a deep sense of humanity and our own mysterious place in it. We loved our time there but barely scratched the surface of all there is to see in this beautiful city.
Three Days in Ollantaytambo
The town of Ollantaytambo is also home to the huge Inca archeological site of the same multisyllabic name. (Oy-yan-tay-tam-bo – try saying that five times fast!) Sprawling up the steep hills surrounding the town, this complex of ruins was once a royal estate for Pachacuti, the Incas’ most famous ruler and the architect of Cusco. But it was also one of the last Inca holdouts from the encroaching Spanish, who did their best to wipe this thriving indigenous culture off the map. It’s a sad history, and one that has been repeated in every Latin American country. Thankfully, the Inca culture lives on in the lovely, hard-working, and colorful Quechua people.
Today, Ollanta, as the locals call it (I guess the tongue twister gets too much sometimes even for them!) is a crossroads for tourists and the gateway to Machu Picchu, since it’s the last stop for the trains ferrying folks up to MP for day visits. But in many ways, a visit to Ollanta is like taking a step back in time. Many of the homes are original Inca dwellings that are still occupied by local residents. You can spend hours walking the cobbled streets and catching sneak peaks through ancient stone doorways, where you might glimpse cooking over wood fires and pet cuys (guinea pigs) scurrying around on the floor. (Yes, it’s true, those pets are a delicacy and usually end up on the dinner table at some point.)
Ollanta is also an important center for the Andean folk who live high up in the surrounding mountains, and they converge on the town for market days and other important events. In the serendipity department, we were very lucky to arrive in Ollanta on election day and witness masses of Quechua-speaking Andeans in their fabulous, colorful traditional dress. It was so much fun that we wrote a separate post about it.
On our last full day in Ollanta, we hired a taxi to drive us to some of the other points of interest in the Sacred Valley. These included the incredible and mysterious Moray architectural site, the high-elevation town of Chinchero, the salt pans of Maras, and the ruins of Pisac.
While all of these are worthy of a return visit and a longer stay, we especially wish we’d had more time in Pisac – not just to further explore the incredible ruins but also to spend more time at the renowned Pisac market. We’ll be back!
Our Sacred Valley Tips
We loved both of our hotels – the Hotel Archangel in Cusco and the Casa Blanca Lodge in Ollantaytambo. Both are reasonable, centrally located, and include breakfast. Casa Blanca in particular was very accommodating – we spent the night before our Inca Trail trek there, and they stored our luggage during the trek. We spent three more nights there after the trek, and then they arranged an oh-dark-30 pickup to take us to the Wanchaq PeruRail station in Cusco. (Now, there’s another story – the fantastic train ride we took from Cusco to Puno and Lake Titicaca. Read about it here.)
Another great find was Taxidatum, a private ground transportation service that we used not only in the Sacred Valley but in Lima. Taxidatum picked us up at the airport in Cusco and drove us to our hotel, and then drove us to Ollantaytambo the day before our Inca Trail trek.
There’s so much to love about Taxidatum. You make all your reservations and prepay online, and they follow up with WhatsApp confirmations and reminders. They’re extremely punctual, the cars are clean, and the drivers are professional. FYI – we also used a Taxidatum driver to take us to the points of interest mentioned above on our last day in the Sacred Valley.