The SACRED VALLEY, or Vilcamayo to the Incas, is located about 30km northwest of Cusco. It traces its winding, astonishingly beautiful course towards Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. It’s a steep-sided river valley that opens into a narrow but fertile alluvial plain, well exploited agriculturally by the Incas.
Several microclimates within 30km of the canyon allow specializations in different fruits, corn, and other critical local plants. The river itself starts in the high Andes south of Cusco. It is called the Vilcanota, the same name as the mountain range where it emerges from until the Sacred Valley. From here on downriver, it’s known as the Río Urubamba. This magnificent and energetic river flows on the right down into the jungle to merge with other major headwaters of the Amazon.
They are standing guard over the two extremes of the Sacred Valley, the ancient Inca citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo perch high above the stunning Río Vilcanota-Urubamba.
They are among the most evocative ruins in Peru. Pisac is a small, pretty town with one of Peru’s best artisanal markets, just 30km northeast of Cusco, close to the end of the Río Vilcanota’s wild run from Urcos. Further downstream are the ancient villages of Calca, Yucay, and Urubamba, the last of which has the most visitors facilities plus a developing reputation as a spiritual and meditation center yet still retains its traditional Andean charm.
At the far northern end of the Sacred Valley, even the magnificent ancient town of Ollantaytambo is overwhelmed by the excellent temple fortress clinging to the sheer cliffs beside it. The city is a charming place to spend some time, with several good restaurants and a convenient location in the heart of a great trekking country.
Unsurprisingly, it’s an ideal base to take a tent and trek above one of the Urubamba’s minor tributaries or tackle one of the Salkantay trails.
Beyond Ollantaytambo, the route becomes too tortuous for any road to follow. Here, the valley closes around the rail tracks; the Río Urubamba begins to race and twist below Machu Picchu itself, the most famous ruin in South America and a place that – no matter how tired you are or how commercial it seems – is never a disappointment.
If you’re tempted to explore further afield, the bus journey from Ollantaytambo to Chaullay is exciting via a steep but newly laid road. From Chaullay, you can set out for the remote ruins of Vilcabamba, the legendary refuge of the last rebel Incas, in an excellent hiking country. However, the main road out of Chaullay continues to descend towards the jungle, following the presently defunct rail line to the tropical town of Quillabamba, a springboard to the Amazon rainforest.
Getting to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu
The traditional way to see the Sacred Valley – and Machu Picchu – is to take the three- to five-day hike along the stirring Inca Trail, which, by booking nine months or more in advance due to the excessive demand. You can do this with an official guide or by taking one of the guided treks offered by the many operators in Cusco.
You can only follow the Sacred Valley as far as Ollantaytambo by road: the Inca Trail starts just a few kilometers further.
Sacred Valley By bus or taxi from Cusco
Pisac and Calca leave from Terminal Terrestre in the mornings and the afternoons from a depot at Av Grau 525 at 4 pm, 5 pm, and 5.30 pm.
Near the Puente Grau, you’ll also find colectivos taking people in cars or minibusses to Pisac (40 min), Chinchero’s (50min), Urubamba (1hr), and Ollantaytambo (1hr 10min), from around 6 am until midafternoon. Once in the valley, there are plenty of pickup points in Pisac, Calca, and Urubamba. For Urubamba (1hr 20min), buses depart Cusco from the depot at Av Grau 525, traveling via Chinchero’s – you only pay according to where you’re going to – every fifteen minutes from about 5 am daily. Some buses departed from the Avenida Grau depot and marked for Puputi pass by Tambo Machay and Pisac.
Smaller buses leave every thirty minutes for Pisac, Calca (via Tambo Machay), and some for Urubamba, from Puputi 208 and Tullumayo 207 most mornings, less frequently in afternoons.
Taxis to Pisac from Cusco cost more: about $8–15 one-way. You can also hail one of the many cheap buses or colectivos that constantly drive up and down the main road, which passes close to Sacsayhuaman and Qenko.
Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu By Train
The train connecting Cusco with Machu Picchu has a route almost as spectacular as walking the Inca Trail. Buying tickets online, from a tour agency, or directly at the station ticket office (Av Pachacutec, Wanchaq) is essential. Carriages are often fully booked in high season. There are three classes of railway tickets, and while itineraries are given below, more trains are usually laid on in the high season, so timings may vary.
The cheapest type of train is the Backpacker Shuttle leaving at 5:05 am and arriving at Machu Picchu around 07.45 am. The Vistadome train ($93 one-way from Cusco, $142 return) has more windows than the Backpacker, plus better service and a free snack, departing Cusco at 6.05 am, arriving at 9.52 am; the return journey departs at 3.25 pm, arriving in Cusco at 7.41 pm. By far the most luxurious – and significantly more costly – tour- its train is the Hiram Bingham ($588 return) which has elegant, old-fashioned style carriages with quality table service, food, and guided entry to Machu Picchu, all included in the price.
Departures daily, except Sundays, at 9 am from Poroy station, half an hour’s drive from Cusco, up above the city on the high plateau dividing the Inca’s capital from the Sacred Valley. After a free brunch and coffee, listening to guides explaining the landscape as it passes by, the Hiram Bingham pulls into Machu Picchu station around 12.25 pm; departs the same day at 5.45 pm, arriving at Cusco around 9.11 pm.
It can work out faster and cheaper to catch either train from Ollantaytambo, where there’s a bit of scenic station that can be reached more quickly by bus or car.
This option allows you to enjoy a night in Ollantaytambo and, if you want, get up later for the train. Several daily trains, the first round at 5.37 am (Backpacker, $65 one-way) and 6.40 am (Vistadome, $93 one-way). All Cusco departures for Machu Picchu leave San Pedro station, beginning a truly scenic journey.
It is sometimes possible to queue from 5 am to buy tickets for the same day, but it’s less stressful if you book from the Perurail office at Wanchaq station in advance. There is a slower local train, but for locals and people living and working in the valley, it’s problematic not to buy these tickets as a gringo.