The Urubamba Valley - traditionally known as The Sacred Valley due to the reverence in which it was held by the Incan people – lies at 9,000 feet elevation in the Peruvian Andes, serving as the access route from Cusco to the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu.
While often overlooked by travelers who are in a (understandable) hurry to get to awe-inspiring Machu Picchu, this beautiful valley has always been one of our favorite places and we always counsel our clients to consider at least one overnight to enjoy its attractions. A recent site inspection with a long-time university client planning their Peru program reminded us why we feel so strongly about it!
First, a nod to Cusco and Machu Picchu:
Yes, Cusco is a “must see” town. As the capital of the far-flung Incan Empire, on top of which the Spanish conquistadores built their regional capital, Cusco today exudes history and presents a dramatic visual of the mix of cultures in architecture, local costumes and colorful street life. We were lucky enough to catch a local street festival, not such a rare occurrence.
And of course, at the other end of the valley lies Machu Picchu, justly named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, topping the list of most travelers Bucket List. The key here is to take the early train and make the visit before the crowds and of course don’t miss the mini-trek to the Sun Gate.
But in our book the Sacred Valley is the “sweet spot” for those who really want to soak up the scenery, culture and experiences of the Peruvian Andes.
And Here’s Why:
1. Stunning natural beauty and outdoor attractions: With the Urubamba River running swiftly through the deep valley, and soaring mountains jutting into the clouds, the visual is astounding, on par with what we’ve seen in the Rockies, Bhutan and Switzerland. And the options to enjoy the outdoors are varied and accessible. We like the whitewater rafting in the Spring and Summer along the Urubamaba River. But there is no better way to connect to the land and its people than a Llama trek. Highly recommended.
2. Reminders of ancient cultures and ways of life are everywhere: Descending into the valley one is instantly taken by the non-stop swirls of ancient agricultural terraces created by the Incans to feed their vast empire. The terraces of Moray, used as a kind of “test kitchen” by the Incans to adapt their crops is a true standout. The most compelling site here, however is the city of Ollantaytambo, the best preserved of all Incan fortress cities and the perfect place for a group to soak in living history, have a great meal of smoked guinea pig (the local delicacy!) AND have a chance to do some awesome hiking up to remote sections of the citadel.
3. Traditional villages with meaningful interaction: Despite rapid growth, communities of indigenous people maintain a remarkably traditional way of life. Quechua is the lingua franca and ways of weaving, simple construction and farming are largely unchanged from centuries ago. We have established a close relationship with the village of Misminay, a community of 300 people set high in the mountains bordering the valley, with an astonishing view of the Moray Terraces. The village offers a wonderful opportunity to spend the day learning their ways and – if desired – participate in a community service project. Overnight homestays are also possible in a series of surprising comfortable rooms many villagers offer.
So if you go:
The ideal itinerary would look like this:
-Arrive Lima… one or two nights depending on interests
-Early flight to Cusco, and immediate transfer (1.5 hours) to the Sacred Valley; a great way to acclimate to the Andes as Cusco is 11,000 feet versus 9,000 in the Valley
-2 nights in the Valley, with one night at a homestay in Misminay and another at a hotel closer to Ollantaytambo. Do the village experience, Ollantaytambo and Llama trek
Early morning train from Ollantaytambo for full day at Machu Picchu; then take last train back to Cusco
-2 nights in Cusco (one full day) and then flight back to Lima