Urubamba Valley - Peru - The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Urubamba Valley is also known as “El Valle Sagrado de los Incas”, or the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It is a laid back valley near Cusco with a very pleasant climate perfectly suited for farming. Ancient ruins, gentle mountain slopes and scattered farming towns define the valley. The same properties that make the valley attractive for today’s tourist were also the reason why the Inca chose this valley for their permanent settlements. The valley also served as a gateway to the jungle and was easily defendable by Ollantaytambo to the northwest and Rumicolca to the southeast.
Many tourists chose to visit the Sacred Valley as part of an organized day tour. I would recommend a longer stay though as the tours only visit the Pisac Market but do not take you to the fabulous ruins of Pisac. I generally find it more satisfying to explore these by myself anyways, as most tour guides seem to be more interested in leading you to street vendors selling something than showing you the sights. It all depends what kind of tour you book and what guide you will get. I have been lucky on the Sacred Valley tour but I have been unhappy with the guide on my Cusco tour. Fortunately I had enough time in the area to make up for some shortcomings.
Below you can find a detailed review of some of the most important sights in the Sacred Valley. The Cusco Visitor Ticket covers the entrance fee to all of them. The ticket is a great value. You should get it before exploring the area in and around Cusco.
Sacsayhuaman is located just north of Cusco. You can walk here, take a taxi the bus or book one of the city tours that include a visit to Sacsayhuaman. Select your tour carefully, so you won’t face the problem that I had. Our tour guide rushed us through the ruins, so we could spend more time at one of the markets he lead us next. Amazingly, no other tour bus stopped here. The guide probably got a part of the profits. Rushing through a marvelous site such as this is poison for a photographer. Nevertheless I got a good introduction to the site and managed to get some decent photographs. If you want my opinion, you should explore Sacsayhuaman by yourself.
All sites of the Sacred Valley are open from 7am to 6pm, so there is really no need to rush things along. Sacsayhuaman is an impressive demonstration of Inca construction skills. Some of the stones used in this construction weigh up to 125 tons (see size comparison on the photograph). The zigzag shape of the fortress resembles the open jaw of a Puma. The body of the Puma was formed by the layout of the city of Cusco with the Plaza de Armas being the Naval of the Puma (and the center of the world by Inca beliefs).
Today it is believed, that Sacsayuaman was a military fortress of some kind. It is not hard to imagine how these walls could hold back any military force. Others believe that this was rather a temple dedicated to the Sun God.
From here, Manco Inca besieged Cusco for 10 Month and almost won back the whole empire. The Spaniards were almost defeated.
Many might wonder why less than 200 Spaniards could force the whole Inca Empire on its knees. The reasons are many, all in favor of the Spaniards. After the first Europeans arrived, plagues ravaged through the Inca Empire, killing a large number of people. The Inca tribes were in a state of civil war. Each of the parties was more than willing to help the Spaniards to defeat the other party. The Spaniards had advanced weapons at their disposal. The combination of circumstances proofed to be devastating for the Inca.
Despite the destruction of the complex by the Spanish, the ruins are still impressive in magnitude. Many of the stones were taken for the construction of Cusco’s colonial style churches and mansions.
From up here, one has a good overview of the city of Cusco in the valley below. It is a popular spot for dusk.
The festival of Inti Raymi is held at Sacsayhuaman each year (see Cusco article). Due to the many tourists, the ruins were in danger. The Festival is now held on the esplanade opposite to the main structure.
Quenko, Puca Pucara and Tambo Machay
Quenko (Qenqo) is a temple and amphitheatre about 7km (4mi) from Sacsayhuaman. The ruins are very well preserved and feature a series of underground tunnels with an Altar (probably for sacrifice), galleries and carvings. Quenko was carved from a huge limestone formation. Niches in the wall were used to display religious items. The amphitheatre with its huge monolith in the middle featured some wide seats or thrones. This may be a hint for its use by royalty.
Other interesting sights at Quenko include the hall of sacrifices and the water canals cut into the rock, whose zig-zag shape gave the site its name.
Puca Pucara is a smaller fortress. It was probably used to defend Cusco. It is not as impressive as other sites, so our tour guide decided not to visit this ruin (Yes, so that we may have more time for shopping afterwards). Fortunately, all travel agencies asked us to fill out a review by the end of each trip and you can imagine what we tipped him at the end. Not only that, but the tour bus stopped several times to pick up a vendor who tried to sell us something. I felt like on a sales trip, not something I had paid for.
In my humble opinion, Pisac is the most impressive of all sites in the Sacred Valley. It lies some distance away from the previously discussed sites. Most tours won’t even go to the marvelous ruins, which are second only to fabulous Machu Picchu. We took a taxi from Cusco one day to get to the ruins. The taxi ride takes about 40 minutes (one way).
When you enter these ruins for the first time, hold your breath. The farming terraces are the most intricate and best preserved. The site is larger than it appears when you see it from the entrance. I had told my driver I would be back sooner than I could make it, as this site requires quite a bit of hiking. If you haven’t gotten used to the altitude yet (fortunately the Sacred Valley is not that high), you can run out of breath quickly when you are desperately trying to get back to the parking lot in time. The stonework of some of the temples of Pisac is very exquisite. As usual, if stones were fitted with such precision, it was an indication of the importance of the site. Even though the site is not nearly as impressive as Machu Picchu (nothing really is), the stonework is even more exquisite than what I have seen there. The irrigation systems were still fully functional, channeling water through the city. From up here you will also have a good view of the valley below.
The city of Pisac lies at the foot of the hills on top of which the ruins stand. Most tourists will simply pass through here, which does not do this dreamy little city justice. Since the weather here is milder (Cusco can be cold at night, even in the summer, due to its altitude) and since Pisac is not located quite as high as Cusco, this would be a good place to spend one or two days, to acclimate to the altitude.
The Sunday market at Pisac is a chaotic and colorful vortex of vendors and buyers. Many of the items are of interest only to tourists such as wall carpets, flutes and other things specifically designed to appeal to what tourists imagine Peruvian art should look like. Other items such as the colorful spices, fruits and items of daily needs are much more interesting, as they are intended for locals. Snacks made of boiled sweet corn can be bought for 1 Sol. Had I not known, that water boils at a much lower temperature up here, I may have tried one. Usually I am very careful when it comes to food in foreign countries. I saw many tourists going for it though. Its up to you to decide if a culinary adventure is worth diarrhea.
Somehow I could not resist the incredibly low prices and bought a couple of items from the tourist stores. Later I found out, that I could have had the same things for a fraction of the price at the Indian Market in Lima.
Urubamba lies pretty much at the center of the valley. It makes for another good place to stay a couple of days and take things easy. Not that I would, as I generally try to see as much as possible in a foreign place. If you fear you may have problems with the altitude in Cusco, you can stay two days here to get used to the height though. Unfortunately things like this are impossible to predict as I have seen healthy young people struggle and elder people seemly having no problem at all.
We had lunch in Urubamba. Here you can find several pleasant restaurants that serve good food. They usually have large buffets, but after we had some stomach problems in the Colca Canyon area with those, we decided to order a la carte.
We got lucky here and could witness the Three Kings fiesta that was being held around Christmas. A bustling, dancing, singing and cheering crowd all of a sudden surrounded our bus. Dancers with white Masks whirled around the Bus, a street orchestra followed by beautiful dancers followed. Little food stands with all sorts of local snacks and Chicha (corn beer) could be seen everywhere. It was as if the whole city was there on Main Street to celebrate. What a nice and unexpected treat this was for us.
Had crowds not overrun Ollantaytambo as much, it could have outshone Pisac with all its glory. This great fortress at the northeastern end of the valley was once more of sacred and military importance (sounds familiar doesn’t it?). The sites name is comprised from the Tambo Valley and the great Inca general Ollantay, who was imprisoned for wanting to marry the Kings daughter.
What makes Ollantaytambo so special is a wall of granite monoliths. Their size and perfect shape continue to puzzle scientists to date as this stone can not be found in the valley. The terraces are larger here than anywhere else.
It was here, where Manco retreated after loosing the battle at Sacsayhuman. Pizarros brother came after him with 70 men on horses and a lot of native foot soldiers, but could not capture Manco. A short while later, reinforcements arrived that simply overwhelmed the forces of Manco Inca. He finally retreated to Vilcabamba the city in the jungle that illudes scientists to date. Even though it has been discovered in the 1960ies, most of the city still has not been excavated.
Ollantaytambo was also a temple. Next to the monoliths stands the unfinished Temple of the Sun. It seems that construction has simply stopped when the empire faced the first mass diseases and could not support building the temple anymore even before the Spaniards had arrived.
The city of Ollantaytambo at the foot of the fortress has a charming little chapel and a statue of Ollantay. Vendors are selling water to thirsty tourists.
On the mountain opposite to the fortress, pre-Inca structures can be seen. This little narrow houses crouch against the steep walls and make one wonder why anyone would choose such a place to build houses, if not for fear of someone.
At least now you should have appreciated the value the visitor ticket offers you. If you are taking a guided tour, you can be fairly certain that they will provide the ticket for you. Otherwise make sure that you buy it in Cusco before you leave for the sacred valley.
Chinchero is a clean and charming mountain town. You will need your visitor ticket again to gain entrance. Since this town lies higher than Cusco and the steps up to the main market are extremely steep you should take things slow.
This is the most scenic Andean Market. In front of a mountain backdrop, surrounded by the white walls and a beautiful colonial style white church, Quecha people in traditional clothing are offering fine textiles and other items of interest to tourists. The ruins were the estate of Tupac Inca, the son of Pachacutec.
During our visit around Christmas time, locals had gathered around the ruins for a little celebration involving the infamous Chicha corn beer. The overall mood was very good and it was fun to stroll around the ruins for a little while and visiting the church.
Here you can also observe the Bulls on the roofs that are so common around here. Usually they are installed during the house warming when the married couple moves in. They are supposed to bring good fortune, protect from evil and symbolize togetherness and fertility.
Rumicolca at the southeastern entrance of the valley is a great fortress whose purpose was to defend the valley from intruders.
Text and Images (except Rumicolca) by Andre Gunther
Check out his Travel Photos of Peru