In the southern region of Peruvian Andes, between Cusco and Machu Picchu, Valle Sagrado de Los Incas (Sacred Valley of the Incas) encompasses small colonial cities, authentic villages and an incredible array of Inca ruins. This picturesque valley stretches almost 100km, from the small town of Pisac to Aguas Calientes, the village located at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu was built.
Usually, visiting the famous Inca citadel is an wonderful experience that starts in Cusco. Depending on how adventurous you are, you can hike the Inca Trail for 88km to Inti Punku (the entry point to Machu Picchu), or you can get by bus or car to Ollantaytambo, then arrive by train to Aguas Calientes. Regardless of your choice, in Urubamba Valley you will enjoy a spectacular panorama among mountains that allow you the opportunity to see Andean condors, the largest flying bird in the Andes that Incas considered a symbol of power and fertility.
Our 12-day itinerary in Peru included lots of day trips and activities to discover highlights and hidden gems as the fascinating Historic Centre of Lima, impressive Incan ruins in Cusco, local communities in Sacred Valley of the Incas, breathtaking views of Machu Picchu, and the amazing wildlife that live in the Amazon Rainforest.
Although we planned the itinerary ourselves rather then book a pre-made travel tour, we chose a local agency to handle our reservations, including local guides to accompany us throughout our trip. We spent one night in Aguas Calientes at Casa Andina Standard Machu Picchu, located right in front of Aguas Calientes Train Station and only a 5 minute walk from the bus stop from which buses depart towards Machu Picchu. Between Pisac and Ollantaytambo we discovered Andean traditions that have been passed down through generations. If Cusco had become a city sometimes too crowded, in Sacred Valley of the Incas you will find yourself among the locals who still respect their Inca heritage, speak Quechua, wear traditional clothes, and have a modest lifestyle that reminds of the past.
Tips&Tricks: Thanks to its great cultural diversity, Peruvian cuisine is one of the most recognized worldwide, reflecting the country’s rich history and traditions. For about 80km to Ollantaytambo, local inns offers traditional regional dishes such as Andean soup, alpaca steak, or cuy (the roasted Guineea pig that Peruvians swear it’s absolutely delicious).
Top Guided Tours and Activities (our favorite choices)
Best things to do on your way to Machu Picchu
Even if you don’t have time to put on your hiking boots and explore the surroundings for more then a few hours, Urubamba Valley is a great place to discover small Inca towns and impressive archaeological sites.
Some of the best things to do before boarding the last train to Aguas Calientes are:
1. Observe Andean Condors as they fly just above your head at Santuario Animal de Cochahuasi
Halfway between Cusco and Pisac you have the chance to see the largest flying bird in the world, the Andean condor. Santuario Animal de Cochahuasi is a private shelter dedicated to increasing the populations of Andean condors by breeding the birds in captivity then releasing them into their natural habitat. The rehabilitation center is probably the only opportunity in the Andes to walk among the impressive birds on the verge of extinction and even admire them flying just above your head.
In addition to condors, many wild species (including a few listed as a critically endangered) are sheltered at the sanctuary, some of them rescued from poachers or illegal traders.
2. Marvel at the remarkably well-preserved Inca ruins of Pisac
At an altitude of 3347m, the Inca complex at Pisac is one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Peru and one of the most beautiful places to visit on your way to Machu Picchu. Presumably founded around 1440 by the emperor Pachacuti, the citadel was an important agricultural sector in Sacred Valley of the Incas. Hundreds agricultural terraces were strategically designed by the Incas to increase crop productivity and used to grow corn, potatoes and peppers. While wandering through the ruins, you’ll see unique irrigation systems, towers, temples, fountains and patios, surrounded by mountain peaks that still hold many mysteries about the people who once lived there.
3. Wander through the colorful artisan market of Pisac
Although it’s open every day, one of the most famous traditional artisan market in Sacred Valley of the Incas comes to life every Tuesday, Thursday and especially Sunday when indigenous Quechua communities come from the surrounding areas to sell their products. Roaming through the market is an excellent opportunity to experience the local customs or observe the locals dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing and jewelries. If you’re looking for authentic souvenirs, shopping in this bustling market you’ll have the opportunity to buy beautifully crafted handmade products, ceramics, alpaca wool clothing, ponchos, musical instruments or jewelry.
4. Discover the fascinating history of Ollantaytambo Fortress
Built by the emperor Pachacuti in the mid-15th century (at a distance of 70km from Cusco and 30km from Machu Picchu), Ollantaytambo is the last fortress that withstand the conquest of the Spanish. Located at an altitude of 2972m, the impressive Inca ruins are found on a hill, overlooking the city with the same name. The complex includes a series of 17 agricultural terraces built to a higher standard than most, an aqueduct system which is still fully operational today, ceremonial temples, as well as several fountains, each with its own designs.
Known as the Wall of the 6 Monoliths, Temple of the Sun is one of the most famous Inca structures in the fortress. In order to build it, six large stone blocks weighing up to 100to were transported from the opposite side of the valley (including over a river), by a civilization that never discovered the wheel. The monoliths were cut, polished and combined, using the (earthquake-resistant) technique of fitting stone blocks perfectly together without the use of mortar, known as Ashlar. Although the fortress was still developing at the time of the Spanish arrival and many buildings appear to be unfinished, same as Pisac, Ollantaytambo is a very well preserved archeological site that remains proof of the advanced Inca architecture and engineering techniques.
5. Roam the narrow streets of Ollantaytambo
Continuously inhabited since the 13th century, the small picturesque old town of Ollantaytambo has maintained its original design that existed during the time of the Inca empire. With traditional stone buildings and an amazingly colorful local market where the locals sell their crafts, strolling down its narrow network of cobbled streets is like walking back in time.
Tips&Tricks: Most likely your Machu Picchu itinerary will begin and end in Cusco. Choose the right accommodation that will safely store your luggage for a few days while you visit Sacred Valley of the Incas and Machu Picchu.