For decades, Peru has held a special place in the hearts of adventure travelers. From the towering snowcapped peaks of the Andes to the expansive Amazon Rainforest, there are few places on earth that can match the diversity of landscapes and activities found there. Whether you're looking to hike the Inca Trail, take in the wonders of the Nazca Lines, or soak up the history and culture of Lima, there are surprising things to be found around every corner.
Of course, no visit to Peru would be complete without stopping by its most famous tourist attraction of them all, Machu Picchu. The iconic mountaintop fortress sees more than half a million people pass through its gates on an annual basis, most of whom just come for the day. But when you venture out away from the busy crowds, you'll be able to explore the rugged and breathtaking landscape known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas be rewarded for your curiosity and adventurous spirit.
Stretching for more than 60 miles east to west, the Sacred Valley encompasses some of the most stunning scenery in all of Peru. There is so much history, culture, and natural beauty to be found there that it should rank at the top of the list for any world traveler. Here's what you need to know before you go.
Geography of the Sacred Valley
Surrounded by the high Andes on all sides, the Sacred Valley sits at an elevation that never falls below 6,700 feet and routinely rises well above 9,500 feet. At that altitude, the air is thin and can create challenges for those who aren't fully acclimated. Taller still are the twin peaks of Sahuasiray and Veronica, both of which stand well over 19,000 feet and dominate the horizon.
The valley itself has been carved over hundreds of millennia by the Urubamba River, which is fed by mountain streams created by melting snow high above. In the language of the Quechua people, Urubamba means "sacred river," which helps give the valley its name. The banks of that river are lined by lush, rolling meadows that serve as a sanctuary from the harsh and demanding Andes and the hot and humid Amazon.
History of the Sacred Valley
Archeologists and historians believe that the Sacred Valley has been continuously inhabited for more than 3,000 years. First with the arrival of the Chanapata people in approximately 800-900 BCE and later by the Qotacalla the Killke civilizations that came 1,200 years later. These groups were attracted to the rich, fertile land that was found there, allowing them to more easily grow crops that could sustain their populations.
Around 1,000 CE, the Inca began to rise in prominence throughout the region, using their capital city of Cusco as a seat of power. Using a combination of diplomacy, military strength, and administrative control, the Inca took command of the Sacred Valley with its empire eventually stretching well beyond. They used the lush, fertile area to grow corn and other vegetables, which allowed their culture to thrive and grow. As it did, stone cities and fortresses—such as Machu Picchu—were built throughout the area, becoming lasting monuments to their civilization.
The Inca would rule this part of the world for more than 400 years. The arrival of the Spanish, seeking gold, gems, and slaves, broke their hold on the Sacred Valley. Still, Cusco remains the most prominent city in the region to this day, continuing a lasting legacy of the Incan civilization.
How to Get There
Your Journey to the Sacred Valley begins with first getting to Peru. The vast majority of international flights come and go from Lima, the country's capital city with more than 8.8 million inhabitants. Founded in 1535, the city is rich in culture and history, with plenty for visitors to see and do. It also serves as a gateway to the rest of the country, with domestic flights to all major cities, including Cusco.
There are a number of airlines that provide service from Lima to Cusco on a daily basis, including LATAM, Sky, and Iberia. Of those, LATAM offers the most regular service–up to 16 flights per day—and inexpensive fares. No matter which airline you choose, however, the plane ride is only about an hour in length. If you can, wrangle a window seat, as the view of the Andes along the way is well worth it.
It is possible to drive or take a bus from Lima to Cusco, but the journey is a long one. The route covers 685 miles through increasingly remote and rugged terrain. If you go by bus, expect a journey of about 21 hours in length, with a few stops along the way.
Upon arriving in Cusco, it is wise to take a few days to rest and acclimate to the higher altitude. The city itself sits at an elevation of 11,152 feet, which is actually higher than the Sacred Valley itself. The thin air in the city can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, and even headaches, so take your time and move slowly while letting your body adjust.
Thankfully, there is plenty to see and do in Cusco while you are getting settled. Just wandering the city streets is quite a treat as there are plenty of old colonial buildings to take in. You'll also discover markets to wander through and a surprising amount of wide open spaces to just sit and relax.
Other options include visiting the golden temple of Kornicancha, one of the most revered sites in the entire Incan Empire, and strolling through San Blas, a funky art district with shops and eclectic goods to peruse. Of course, no traveler has truly explored Cusco without visiting the Plaza de Armas, which is a busy hub of the city at nearly every hour of the day. Here, you'll also find the UNESCO Heritage Site of the Cusco Cathedral and the equally impressive Church de La Compañia de Jesus.
Entering the Sacred Valley
Once you've become acclimated to the altitude, you'll be more than ready to travel to the Sacred Valley itself. While the entrance to the valley is just a mere 12 miles from Cusco, the road to get there is a twisty, winding affair that can be a bit disconcerting for first-time visitors. It's all part of the adventure and if you make the trip a time or two, you'll soon find it to be in exhilarating ride.
For most travelers, the route to the Sacred Valley passes through the village of Pisac, followed by Urubamba, before eventually reaching the charming town of Ollantaytambo. It is there that you can purchase a ticket to ride the train to Machu Picchu, making it one of the more busier tourist hubs in the area. Expect an additional three hours and 20 minutes aboard that train before approaching the ancient fortress itself.
There are multiple ways for travelers to reach the Sacred Valley. Most visitors get there as part of a tour group that they've organized prior to arrival. Independent adventurers can hop the bus, which sets off from Cusco for Ollantaytambo every 15 minutes, with several stops en route. This the most inexpensive way to reach the valley, although it requires a bit more awareness of your surroundings to know when and where you want to get off.
It is also possible to hire a taxi or share a ride with other travelers heading in the same direction. A number of locals living in Cusco offer up a car share service that is more personal and comfortable than riding the bus for not a lot more money.
Things to See and Do in the Sacred Valley
The most obvious thing to see in the Sacred Valley is Machu Picchu of course. But with an average of 2,500 visitors a day, the site can get crowded quickly. So once you've had a chance to take in the Inca monument, you may be ready to venture out a bit further and see what else the valley has to offer. Here are a few suggestions:
Pisac: Just outside the town of Pisac you'll find a completely different set of Inca ruins, including an ancient observatory and the remnants of Inca farms. The local "Indian Market" is also a weekly gathering that is good spot to pick up handcrafted jewelry, textiles, glass, and other unique items.
Ollantaytambo: Incan engineering and architecture is on display in Ollantaytambo, where visitors will find another stone monument that rivals Machu Picchu in terms of size and scope. Travelers pass through an arched gate made of jade and stone on their way to the site, which is one of the best preserved ruins in the entire country. But the town itself is also quite intriguing, as it was built by the Inca more than 500 years ago, with families still occupying some of the stone houses found there.
Urubamba: If you're an active traveler, you'll find plenty to love in Urubamba. From here, you can go on guided hikes in the Andes, hop on a mountain bike for a fun ride, or go whitewater rafting on class III and IV water.
Calca: While Inca ruins can be found in Calca, the real reason to visit is the stunning views. Here, the Andes Mountains take center stage, with some of the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. The perpetually snow peaks of Sahuasiray and Pitusira make a stunning backdrop while wandering the archeological site of Huchuy Cusco.
Yucay and Moray: These two locations played a central role in Inca agricultural production. In order to produce large amounts of grain and maize, the Incan people had to create stepped terraces to take advance of the fertile ground found along the steep slopes. Those terraces took a monumental effort to create and they still stand in place to this day.
Maras: The salt mines found near the town of Maras were in use all the way back to the age of the Inca. Once an important part of trade and commerce for the empire, those mines remain a popular destination for visitors to the region even today. The village still has plenty of leftover signs from the colonial period too, blending architecture from across history into one unique location.
Cinchero: Another quaint town to add to your places to visit. This village has yet more signs of Spanish colonialism, including a wonderful church from that era in history. Visitors will also discover terraced slopes used in Inca agriculture, local craftsman weaving unique apparel, and a Sunday market that is bustling with goods, local delicacies, charm, and character.
When to Go to the Sacred Valley
Despite its alpine setting, the Sacred Valley offers surprisingly stable temperatures throughout the year. The same can not be said about precipitation, however. The rainy season runs from November through March, with frequent rain showers, dark clouds, and damp conditions. Unsurprisingly, this is when the valley is at its most quiet and empty, although the weather makes the least enjoyable time to be there as well.
For the warmest, driest, and most consistent weather, plan on visiting between June and August. Naturally, this is also the tourist high season, which means crowds will be larger, lines will be longer, and the popular tourist sites—particularly Machu Picchu—will be filled to capacity. Still, if you want to maximize your possibility of enjoying your time outdoors, these are the best months to plan your trip.
Opportunistic travelers will find that the shoulder seasons of April and May, as well as September and October, offer an acceptable balance of smaller crowds and good weather. Yes, it can rain or snow during those months, but you'll also find days of sunshine and warm temperatures too. Just be sure to pack for a variety of conditions and you won't be disappointed.