Also known as the Urubamba Valley, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is nestled in the Peruvian Andes, around 20 kilometers to the north of Cusco. It stretches around 100 kilometers east to west along the Urubamba River, from the Incan ruins of Pisac to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu. The Urubamba River was known in Quechua as Willkamayu, which translates as “Sacred River”, and is fed by tributaries cascading down the surrounding valleys and gorges.
The Inca took control of the region from various ethnic groups from around 1,000 to 1,400 AD and the Sacred Valley is believed to have been favored for its low elevation compared to other nearby areas. This resulted in warmer temperatures for the growth of maize which was used to make the fermented drink of chicha for religious festivals and ceremonial feasts. To counteract the seasonality of rain (with the majority falling during the wet season from October to April), the Incas also built extensive irrigation systems throughout the valley.
The Incan ruins which remain now draw thousands of tourists a year, particularly to the so-called “Lost City” of Machu Picchu. Many come to trek the Inca Trail which takes in the breathtaking landscapes of the Sacred Valley over four days, arriving at the famous Sun Gate of Machu Picchu for sunrise. But numerous other archaeological sites also dot the valley and there are plenty of lesser-known trails to soak up this spectacular destination.
Things to do in The Sacred Valley Peru
Shop at the Sunday market in Pisac
Located in the foothills of the Sacred Valley around 30 kilometers from Cusco, Pisac is renowned for having the most impressive Incan terraces in the Andes. The Pisac Archaeological Park includes a hilltop citadel with ancient temples, plazas and the Intihuatana sundial, together with magnificent views across the Quitamayo gorge. But for most visitors, it’s the Pisac Market that is the biggest allure, held each Sunday in the main plaza and packed full of traditional handicrafts and colorfully dressed locals.
Attend the Inti Raymi festival at Sacsayhuaman
Situated on the outskirts of Cusco, the ancient citadel of Sacsayhuaman is an easy half-day excursion. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built by the Killke culture around 1,100 AD but was expanded and added to by the Inca from the 13th century. Particularly impressive are its dry stone walls which were constructed from huge stones and carefully cut so that they fit together perfectly, without the use of mortar. It’s here that the annual Inti Raymi festival takes place to honor the Sun God, accompanied by colorful costumes and traditional dancing.
Spend a night (or two) in Ollantaytambo
Set on the banks of the Urubamba River beneath soaring mountains, Ollantaytambo is famed for its Incan fortress ruins and once served as the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti. It’s entered through the Punku Punku gate, with immense stone terraces cascading down the hillside and an impressive Sun Temple and Princess Baths fountain. The surrounding village still features its Inca-era grid of cobblestone streets and adobe buildings, with an excellent choice of restaurants and accommodation making it a popular launching base for the Inca Trail.
Trek to the Salt Mines of Maras
Located around 40 kilometers north of Cusco is the town of Maras, famed for its salt mines which have been exploited since Inca times. Thousands of salt pools cover the canyon hillside which descends to the Rio Vilcanota, with mules often seen carrying sacks of natural salt which have been extracted. The town of Maras was once noted for its large Jesuit community and beautifully carved doorways once belonging to priests can still be seen today.
Horseback ride to the ruins of Moray
Just to the west of Maras is the ancient Inca archaeological site of Moray, with its concentric agricultural terraces set on a high plateau. It’s a popular spot to reach on horseback, with spectacular views across the snow-capped Urubamba Mountains which serve as a backdrop.
Wander the ruins of Qenko
Just a few kilometers outside of Cusco is the archaeological complex of Qenko, comprised of two sites which once served as an Inca ceremonial center. The “Great” which lies at the base of the road leading from Sacsayhuaman to Pisac features a stone altar where rituals and sacrifices are believed to have been conducted and a large amphitheater which houses a mysterious upright rock. The “Small” stands just to the west and includes the remains of high walls, although much has been destroyed.
Witness the water features of Tambomachay
Comprised of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls, Tambomachay, or El Baño del Inca (“Bath of the Inca”), is believed to have been a center of Inca worship in honor of water. It shows the progressive thinking of Incan engineers, perhaps serving as a military outpost or as a spa resort for the Incan elite.
Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu
No visit to the Sacred Valley would be complete without a visit to Machu Picchu…no matter how you do it! You can ride the train to the town of Aguas Calientes which lies below Machu Picchu then get a bus up the steep road to its entrance, hike the famous Inca Trail to watch the day’s first rays illuminate the site from the Sun Gate, or opt for one of the lesser-known, multi-day treks which wind through the Sacred Valley’s villages and Incan ruins en route.
Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century in what is a truly breathtaking setting, high above the Sacred Valley, and was recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s worth visiting as part of a guided tour to really appreciate the stone masonry (without the use of mortar) and the astronomical alignment of its buildings. It managed to remain undiscovered by Spanish conquerors and only became known to the outside world in 1911 due to the work of American historian Hiram Bingham.