THE SACRED VALLEY, or Vilcamayo to the Incas, some 30 km northwest of Cusco, traces its sinuous and staggeringly beautiful course towards Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, and finally Machu Picchu, the most famous ruins in South America. And a place that never fails to impress, no matter how tired you are or how commercial it seems.
The steep river valley opens into a narrow but fertile alluvial plain, which the Incas heavily farmed. Several microclimates within 30 km of the valley allow for specializations in different fruits, corn, and local plants. The river begins in the high Andes south of Cusco as the Vilcanota River to the Sacred Valley; from here on downstream, it is known as the Urubamba River, a magnificent and energetic torrent that empties directly into the jungle to merge with other vital headwaters of the Amazon.
Standing guard over the two ends of the Sacred Valley, the ancient Inca citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo rise above the impressive Vilcanota-Urubamba River and are among the most evocative ruins in Peru.
Pisac Colonial Town is a pretty little town with one of the best artisan markets in Peru, just 32 km northeast of Cusco, near the end of the wild run of the Vilcanota River from Urcos. Further downstream are the ancient towns of Calca, Yucay, and Urubamba, which have the most visitor facilities.
Like Pisac, it is developing a reputation as a meditation and spiritual center but retains its traditional Andean charm. As you move through the valley, the weather worsens, and you see pears, peaches, and cherries growing in abundance. In July and August, large piles of corn lie by the roadside, waiting to be used as cattle feed.
At the northern end of the Sacred Valley, even the magnificent old town of Ollantaytambo is overwhelmed by the excellent temple fortress that clings to the sheer cliffs at its side. The small town, although very touristy, is a charming place to spend time, with a good variety of restaurants, and is a convenient location in the heart of an excellent hiking country. It is an ideal base to take a tent and trek over one of the minor tributaries of the Urubamba or tackle one of the Salcantay trails.
Beyond Ollantaytambo, the route becomes too winding for any trail to follow. The valley closes around the train tracks, and the Urubamba River begins to rush and twist beneath Machu Picchu.
Once, a vital Inca Trail snaked through the canyon, entering the Sacred Valley at PISAC. The ruined citadel, located at the entrance to the ravine, controlled a strategic route that connected the Inca Empire with Paucartambo on the edge of the eastern jungle—less than an hour from Cusco by bus.
The city is now most visited for its market, apart from a look at the citadel. However, it has also attracted travelers interested in spiritual cleansing, including recent experiences with San Pedro and Ayahuasca.
The main local fiesta, the Virgen del Carmen (around July 15–18), is an excellent alternative to Paucartambo’s simultaneous but more remote party, with processions, music, dance groups, and the usual celebrations with firecrackers and food stalls around the plaza.
From the highway and the bridge over the river, the center of activity in Pisac is around the Plaza Constitución. Here, you will find most restaurants, a few hotels, the market, and the town’s concrete church, Iglesia San Pedro Apóstol, named Pisac’s patron saint.
The thriving market occurs in and around the town’s main square, where you can shop for hand-painted ceramic beads and find the occasional bargain. Several excellent artisan stalls are open daily, selling everything from baby alpaca blankets to sweaters. Still, as tourism has increased, many products’ quality and authenticity have decreased.
The best day to visit the market is Sunday, when the locals descend from the surrounding mountain villages to sell fresh produce. Plaza Constitución: Craft market every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Access to the main road: every day from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm; trailhead in town daily from 8 am to 5 p.m. By car, it takes 20 minutes to travel. You can return the same way or go down the well-marked hiking trail to Pisac (45 minutes). Perched high above a valley floor mosaic-patterned with fields and bordered by centuries of terraces amid giant landslides, the fortress displays magnificent stonework, including water pipes and steps.
They have been carved out of solid rock—and panoramas. It takes about an hour and a half to climb to the citadel via a steep and well-signposted path; only try if you are fit and have adapted well to the altitude.
You can see the Sacred Valley north from the saddle on the hill: wide and flat at the base but rising skyward in green, rocky pinnacles. To the south, the valley closes, but the mountains continue, massive and steep, casting shadows on each other.
Below the saddle, a semicircle of buildings is gracefully set into a large natural balcony under row upon row of fine stone terraces believed to represent the wing of a partridge (Pisac meaning “partridge”). 3.5km by road northeast of Pisac.
At the top of the ruins, the citadel’s Temple of the Sun is equal to anything in Machu Picchu and more than makes up for the efforts of the steep climb (20–30 minutes from the parking lot). Reached by many of the dozens of paths that crisscrossed through the citadel, it does suspend in a flat mount on a large spur jutting north-south into the Sacred Valley.
The temple was built around an outcropping of volcanic rock, its peak carved into an Intihuatana, a “mooring post” for the sun. The mooring post itself is intriguing; the angles of its base suggest that it may have been used to track essential stars or calculate the change of seasons with the precision so critical to the smooth running of the Inca Empire. Above the temple are still more ruins, mostly unexcavated, and several ancient burial sites hide among the higher crevasses and rock ledges.
Around late September and early October each year, local festivals and celebrations occur around Lamay and Calca, dating back to at least early Inca times. The central theme of the local ritual for the festival is water, and there are strong links to a mythical experience high in the hills and tied to the moving shadows of Nevado Pitusiray.
The mountain casts shadows yearly on neighboring peaks and cliffs in early October. For several days, the shadow of Pitusiray considered a natural sundial, moves in a dynamic and prominent representation of a prostrate Inca who is jumped and transformed by a black puma.
The festival is held on the first Sunday of October in the Inca ruins of Urco, also dedicated to water, a 2-kilometer walk above the town of Calca. Ask the tourist information offices in Cusco for information about the festival.
First, travel by Kondor Path Tours bus between Pisac and Urubamba to Lamay; then, it’s a 2-hour uphill hike. Cross the bridge over the Vilcanota River to the city’s west and follow the 3-kilometer path to the ruins.
The first significant town between Pisac and Urubamba is Lamay, just 12 km from Pisac and the access point to the little-known and little-visited ruins of Huchuy Qosqo. The Huchuy Qosqo archaeological center is on a natural platform carved into the hillside of the mountain at the heights of the Vilcanota River. Huchuy Qosqo means “Little Cusco” in Quechua. Due to the similarity of its layout with the city of Cusco, it was built by order of the ruler Viracocha.
It was then known as JAQUIJAHUANA (“place to see lightning” in Quechua). This name becomes evident once the impressive panoramic views of the valley are contemplated from the settlement’s natural viewpoint. The most impressive are the Inca terraces, but a series of stone and adobe constructions can also be distinguished, including a Kallanka (great hall), some irrigation canals, and some restored below the leading site, Qollqas (barns for storing meat and crops).
Note the two-tier construction, which helped keep the content fresh.
In Huchuy Qosqo, Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco’s brother, found the mummified remains of Viracocha, which he had burned. However, the Incas later collected and secretly hid the ashes to be revered. Pisac is 3.5 km west of Lamay, high on the mountainside.
About halfway between Pisac and Urubamba is the town of Calca, notable only for its proximity to the famous thermal baths of Machacancha (daily 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; S/20), 7 km northeast of the town and arriving in a frequent combi or an hour and a half. Signposted halfway and located under the hanging glaciers of the Nevado Sahuasiray, the Incas favored this place for the fertility of its soil, and much corn cultivation can still be seen here. The baths consist of three indoor pools with an average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius.
Yucay has been in Peruvian history since, under the Incas, Huayna Capac, father of Huascar and Atahualpa, had his palace here. You can admire the ruined but finely clad stone walls of another Inca palace (probably the country house of Sayri Tupac, though also associated with an Inca princess) in Plaza Manco II, one of two green spaces in the city on either side of the church. Several good lodges are here if you prefer a quieter setting than bustling Urubamba. The small town of Yucay, 3.5 km east of Urubamba
About 80 km from Cusco via Pisac or about 60 km via Chinchero, URUBAMBA is a short drive down the main road from Yucay’s Plaza Manco II, and it is here that the Vilcanota River becomes the Urubamba River (although many people still refer to this section as the Vilcanota). Although it has little apparent historical interest, the city has good facilities.
It is often used as a base for day trips to Machu Picchu in preference to the much more touristy Ollantaytambo just up the valley. It is attractively situated in the shadow of the beautiful, albeit dwindling, Chicon and Pumahuanca glaciers. On weekends, there is a large market in Jirón Palacio. On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, the new Farmers Market is packed with cattle of all shapes and sizes being traded, an event that often spills onto the main road.
The quiet and attractive Plaza de Armas has palm and pine trees surrounded by lovely ornamental gardens. At the heart of the plaza is a small fountain topped by a sculpture of a corn plant, but it all goes back to the red sandstone Iglesia San Pedro, with its columns stacked beneath two small bell towers. The frescoed interior of the church has a sizeable three-tiered gold leaf altar, and at noon, light streams in through the glass-topped dome.
Due to its convenient location and ample facilities, Urubamba is an ideal base to explore the mountains and lower hills around the Sacred Valley, an area of great splendor.
The valley’s eastern side forms the Cordillera Urubamba, a snow-capped peak dominated by the summits of Chicon and Verónica. Many of the ravines can be walked alone or with local guides (found only through the leading hotels and lodges), and on the walk from town, you can enjoy great views of Chicon.
An impressive Inca site, part agricultural and part ceremonial center, Moray is located about 5 km west of Maras on the side of the Chinchero River, within a two to three-hour walk from Urubamba.
The ruins are deep, bowl-shaped depressions in the earth. The largest comprises seven concentric circular stone terraces, facing inward and tapering in a radius like a multi-layered roulette wheel.
Hike 5 km northeast of Moray and 4 km north of Maras – The Salinas de Maras are still in use after more than four hundred years, and these days are a popular stop on many tours of the Sacred Valley, so arrive early to avoid the crowds.
If you are on foot, cross the river over the pedestrian bridge in Maras-Salt Mines, turn right, then 100m downstream along the river bank, turn left, past the cemetery, and up the canyon along the salt stream.
After this, you cross the creek and follow the path cut into the cliff to reach the salt flats, soon visible if there is still considerable uphill walking. The trail offers spectacular views of the valley and mountains, while the Inca salt flats sit gracefully against an imposing mountainous backdrop. Bags of pink salt are sold as souvenirs.
A scenic trail (approximately an hour’s walk) leads through the salt flats and to the Urubamba River, where there is a pedestrian bridge that crosses to the town of Tarabamba, which is on the way to Urubamba (6 km) or Ollantaytambo, buses run every twenty minutes or so in both directions.
CHINCHERO (“Pueblo del Arco Iris”), an old colonial settlement with a large market, is located at 3762 m above sea level, 28 km (40 min) northwest of Cusco and off the main road, overlooking the Sacred Valley, the Vilcabamba mountain range and the snowy peak. Salcantay Peak dominates the horizon to the west.
The bus ride takes you to the Pampa de Anta, once a large lake but a relatively dry pasture surrounded by the snow-capped Nevado. The town is a small, rustic place where the local women, who crowd the main square during the market, still wear traditional dress “built mainly of stone and adobe.”
The town blends in perfectly with the magnificent display of Inca architecture, megalithic ruins and rock carvings, and relics of Inca veneration of nature deities. The best time to visit is September 8 for the lively traditional festival. The Sunday morning market in the lower part of town reached via Calle Manco II, is smaller and less touristy than the one in Pisac but has attractive local handicrafts for sale, particularly textiles.
Uphill from the traditional Pisac Market, along the cobblestone streets and steps, you will find a large plaza, which may have been the original Inca market.
It is delimited on one side by an impressive wall reminiscent of the walls of Sacsayhuaman, although not as solid: it is also built on three levels, and ten classic trapezoidal Inca niches can be seen on its surface.
On the western perimeter of the plaza, the raised Inca masonry is dominated by a carved stone throne, near which are formations of pumas and monkeys. There is also a tiny two-room museum that exhibits historical artifacts and some paintings from Cuzco.
Chinchero’s adobe colonial church dates back to the 17th century, built on an Inca temple or palace. Perhaps it belonged to the Inca Emperor Tupac Yupanqui. He particularly favored Chinchero as a seaside resort outside the city; aqueducts and terraces were built under his command, many of which are still in use.
The church has frescoes; they are lovely and evoke the colonial past. Many belong to the Escuela Cuzqueña and the celebrated local artist Mateo Cuihuanito, the most interesting of which depicts the forces led by the local chief Pumacahua against the rebel Tupac Amaru II in the late 18th century. Although Inca stonework is well preserved, the official archaeological complex is behind the church.
The quaint town of OLLANTAYTAMBO, with its cobblestone streets and old irrigation canals, is an excellent base for hiking and biking. Going down the valley from Urubamba, the river flows gently between a series of impressive Inca terraces, gradually decreasing in size. The railway line reappears just before the town, and the path climbs a small hill to an old square.
As one of the tourist hotspots in the region and a popular overnight stop on the way to Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo can be very crowded in the high season, making it difficult to escape the crowds of other travelers.
However, it is a small but traditional settlement worth enjoying for a few days, especially during its colorful festivals, when local folk dances occur in the main square.
Many women still wear traditional clothing. It is expected to see them gathering in the plaza in their intricately woven manta shawls, black and red skirts with colorful zig-zag patterns, and inverted red and black hats.
Beyond Ollantaytambo, the Sacred Valley becomes a mighty subtropical river, surrounded by imposing mountains and dominated by the snow-capped peak of Salcantay; the city is also a popular base for rafting trips.
The Ollantaytambo valley was occupied by a series of pre-Inca cultures, notably the Chanapata (800–300 BC), the Qotacalla (500–900 AD), and the Killke (900–1420 AD). The Incas dominated only until the year 1530, when the Spanish arrived.
Legend has it that OLLANTAY was a rebel Inca general who took up arms against Pachacutec for the affections of the Inca Lord’s daughter, the Nusta Cusi Collyu.
More prosaically, historical evidence shows that a 14-kilometer canal that still feeds the town today was built to bring water from Laguna de Yanacocha, which was probably Pachacutec’s private property. The later Inca Huayna Capac is believed to be responsible for the trapezoidal Maynyaraqui plaza and the largely unfinished but impressive megalithic temples.
Ollantaytambo’s vibrant fiestas are a sight to behold, particularly the Fiesta de la Cruz, Corpus Christi, and Ollantaytambo Raymi (usually the Sunday after Cusco’s Inti Raymi). At Christmas, when locals dress decorative flowers and grasses on their hats, the Fiesta del Señor de Choquequilla celebrates the patron saint of Ollantaytambo for several days, coinciding with Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter).
The usual heady mix of indigenous and Catholic customs involves non-stop dancing, elaborate costumes, processions, and general parties. On the Fiesta de Reyes, around January 6, there is a solemn procession around the city of the three Niños Reyes (Children Kings)—sacred Inca images—one of which is brought from the holy site of Marcaquocha, about 10 km away in the Patacancha Valley, the day before.
Ollantaytambo was built as an Inca administrative center. It is one of the few surviving examples of an Inca grid system, with a plan seen from high vantage points, especially from the hill in front of the fortress.
An incredibly productive sector of the Urubamba Valley, at 2,800 m above sea level and with comfortable temperatures of 11 to 23 °C (52 to 73 °F), good alluvial soils, and water resources, this area was also the gateway to Antisuyo (the Amazonian corner of the Inca Empire) and center for the collection of tributes from the surrounding valleys.
This was the only Inca stronghold to overcome persistent Spanish attacks as strategic protection for the entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley and an alternative entrance to the Amazon through the Pantiacolla Pass.
The Plaza de Armas of Ollantaytambo is the center of civic life. The alleys from here are lined with stone water channels, which are still very useful during the rainy season. They carry the orderly, gushing streams away from the city and into the Urubamba River.
Downhill from the main square, just across the Patacancha River, is the old Inca Plaza Mañya Raquy, dominated by the fortress. Market stalls, a few artisan shops, and nearby cafes fill the plaza, mainly in front of the beautiful little church, the Templo de Santiago Apóstol. Built in 1620, it has an almost Inca-style stone belfry containing two large bells supported by ancient wood. The church’s main entrance surrounds a simple but attractive mestizo floral relief.
As you ascend through the fortress, the cliff face’s solid stone terraces and natural contours remain frighteningly impressive. Above them, vast blocks of red granite mark the unfinished Temple of the Sun near the top, where, according to legend, the mummified internal organs of the Incas were buried.
A dangerous path leads from this upper level around the cliff to a large sector of agricultural terraces that follows the Patacancha River uphill. Above, you can see the great Inca Plaza and the impressive stone aqueducts carrying the water supply.
The Inca terraces of Mollequasa look like a pyramid when viewed from across the Urubamba Valley (a twenty-minute walk down the track from the train station).
Ollantaytambo is surrounded by impressive landscapes and mountain peaks that rise like skyscrapers, and it offers many exciting options for day trips.
It’s easy to pick a path that leads into the eastern hills and see where you get to, remembering that you’ll need a tent or must return to town by nightfall. Either route will be a good walk, giving you close contact with the local people in their gardens. There are also several organized tours available from Ollantaytambo and agents in Cusco.
The area around Ollantaytambo is perfect for trekking in the hills. Here, you can take walks from half a day to a week or more; they all have Inca ruins along the way. For a half or full day, try going up the Patacancha River from the town to the little-visited Inca ruins of Pumamarca, to the left of the river where the Yuramayu River joins the Patacancha under the shadows of Nevado Helancoma.
The main road follows the right bank of the Patacancha River through several small peasant villages: Pallata, Colqueracay, Marcacocha, Huilloc, and Patacancha, before crossing the pass, with the Nevado Colque Cruz on the right-hand side. It then follows the Huacahuasi and Tropoche rivers to the valley and the community of Lares, just before which there are some Inca baths.
Beyond the town are several more ruins on the way to Ampares, from where you can walk back to Urubamba, travel back to Cusco, or head towards Quillabamba. It’s at least a two-day trek from Ollantaytambo to Ampares, and you’ll need camping gear and food, as there are no facilities. Another good day hike is Intihuatana, which can also start multi-day hikes near Chilca (Km 77).
The Cachiqata Inca quarries can be reached in three hours on horseback with a tour company from Cusco or Ollantaytambo like KONDOR PATH TOURS. It is also possible to camp here and visit the site of an Inca portal or Intihuatana, “Wayracpunko.” There are also the closest ruins of Pinkuylluna, less than an hour on horseback, or the Inca ruins of Pumamarca, half a day away.
Most options include a shuttle to the top of the mountain and a quick ride down. The most popular route is the 50km, 1,500m switchback descent from the dramatic pass and continental divide at Abra Málaga (en route to Paucartambo and the hydroelectric station) Ollantaytambo. Still, there are plenty of thrills coming down a similar path. But off-road. You can even combine a trail with a visit to the traditional town of Patacancha and a weaving workshop.
High up on the other side of the Patacancha River, behind Ollantaytambo, are rows of ruined Pinkuylluna buildings that were initially thought to have been prisons but are now considered likely to have been granaries. Against these, it is pretty easy to make out a gigantic, grumpy-looking profile of a face carved into the rock, possibly an Inca sculpture of Wiraccochan, the mythical messenger of Viracocha, Peru’s greatest creator God.
According to the stories of the 16th and 17th centuries, such an image was carved once, depicting him as a man of great authority; the frown of this particular image certainly implies presence, and this part of the mountain was also known as Wiraccochan Orcco (“Viracocha’s messenger’s peak”).
From here, looking back towards the main fortress of Ollantaytambo, it is possible to see the mountain, the rocks, and the terraces forming the image of a mother llama with a young llama, apparently representing the Catachillay myth, which is related to the cycle of water and milk. Way. The Sacred Valley of the Incas – Myths and Symbols.