Date Traveled, August 2013
The Sacred Valley of the Incas comprises the region around Cusco which used to be the heartland of the Inca empire. It includes a number of interesting towns near Cusco and several Inca sites, all of which are set amidst the spectacular natural beauty of this part of Peru. There are several ways to experience the Sacred Valley. The fullest experience would be to base yourself at one of the towns in the valley and spend a couple or more days traveling around. From the spectacular hillside ruins of Pisac to the markets in Chinchero and the mountains and valley all around, there is so much to see and do and I certainly wouldn't have minded spending a good week just around here before even going to Cusco. However I only had a little over a week in Peru and the Inca trail was going to take a good chunk of that, so me and my group of 10 for the trail took the rushed option, the day trip tour bus out of Cusco.
Before I go on any further, would just like to note that in hindsight we should have negotiated a mini van for our group instead. We did that for a trip to Moray and Maras Salineras after we got back from the Inca trail and we liked the flexibility of having to see sights on our own time. If you are not particular about having a tour guide, this could be a better option, especially if you are in a large group when it becomes more economical. The other thing I might have done differently was perhaps acclimatize in the Sacred Valley for a day at least before heading out to Cusco but I was alright flying in straight to Cusco, something I attribute to Diamox, the altitude sickness pill I was taking. Some of our group who did not take the pill were hit pretty bad though. But you learn from experience and the experiences of others =). So at that time, being only our second day in Peru, we decided to take the easy option of just signing on for a day tour with Loki hostel where we were staying before our hike. The hotels and hostels typically parcel their guests on to one of many tours that leave the city every day complete with hotel pick up and a buffet lunch. A tourist trap system used all over the world but sometimes you just have to enjoy yourself and overall it was a good tour and we got to see a lot of great sites and sights around the Sacred Valley.
A hacienda in the valley where we stopped for lunch
Our first destination for the day was Pisac or more specifically the Pisac ruins which are on a mountain top above the town of Pisac. We did have a pit stop at some small village before that which had a market for tourists coming in the buses all day. Something to note in Peru is that most of the restrooms at the popular tourist sites cost a Sole to use them. Good to carry around some small change. The pit stop also had the usual Llama and Alpaca petting and picture stall you tend to see around but this one was apparently a courtesy for the people on tour and there was no payment expected for taking a picture. Once we got to Pisac we had our Boleto Turisticos (the tourist ticket needed by all visitors to see the sites) punched at the site. We all got the full circuit version of the Boleto Turistico pass that gave access to all sites over a 10 day period. At 140 Soles when we went, it was the priciest option but it would cost you more to get the individual circuits separately. If you plan on visiting multiple sites you might as well get the full version.
Pisac ruins was my first experience of the Spectacular sight of watching the Andes mountains with their rolling mists and beautiful valleys far below. I saw many variations of this throughout my time in Peru and never tired of it. What a beautiful country Peru is. The actual ruins were a good 5 to 10 minute walk away along a path next to the cliff side in the mountain top with a view of the valley and mountains to a side. Along one section below are series of large terraces stretching down the mountain. An example of the Inca agricultural techniques. I wasn't certain if crops are still being grown on these particular terraces though. The ruins themselves are further and higher up with in the more paths heading to lookouts at the edges of the mountain. We would have loved to stay and explore all of it but we were unfortunately rushed away in interests of time.
Our next destination was Pisac market in the town below. We were there for maybe 90 minutes and it is decent if not something spectacular. It is always nice to see different things and watch life go by but in terms of trinkets and souvenirs, all the markets around were sadly the same from what we saw. We did eat some empanadas at this store that is supposed to have always had a bakery since colonial times. Another drive then took us by the Urubamba river past several roadside stalls advertising their whole roasted Cuy or guinea pigs on sticks. That may or may not whet your appetite but lunch was next. We were taken to a restaurant in a colonial style mansion near Urubamba town called a Hacienda for a buffet lunch. There are no other options for lunch nearby so you are pretty much forced to eat at this trap unless you are bringing your own snacks. I was also grumpy about the fact the lunch cost as much as the rest of the tour but that changed after we went in. The restaurant was designed like a Hacienda, Spanish colonial mansion, and it was beautiful. It was tastefully decorated and have lovely gardens at the back right beside the river and the food was pretty good too. No reason to complain, but personally would have liked to spend more time at the Pisac ruins at the expense of the market and long lunch.
The terraces on Ollantaytambo
At the very top of the Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo town below. More ruins on the mountain across
Our next stop was Ollantaytambo with its prominent ruins dominating the hill literally inside the little town. It's a pretty little town with cafes and restaurants that gets a lot of visitors both for its own ruins and the fact that it is a prominent place to start the Inca trail hike. We would return back here the next day and stopped for breakfast before we started our hike. The hike to the top of Ollantaytambo ruins was also a good warm up for our brutal high altitude climbs on the trail. We spent a lot of time at these ruins unlike Pisac and pretty much got to explore the ruins as we liked. There were a lot of interesting points to go around and explore. Also the highest part of the complex was a little less crowded than the rest which was nice. A historical note about Ollantaytambo was that the place was the site of the Inca's only major victory against the Spaniards during the time of Manco Inca's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to retake the empire. They flooded the plains at the base and made use of Ollantaytambo's terraces to hold off and defeat a Spanish assault. Directly across from Ollantaytambo are more hills with storehouses visible on them. Apparently those predate the Inca constructions. By the time we came down from the hill it was late evening and we had just enough time to sneak in one more destination, Chinchero.
A spectacular sunset at Chinchero
Chinchero was the highest point altitude wise of our trip since leaving Cusco that morning. All the other sites were much lower and helped relieve the altitude sickness symptoms for some in our group. But Chinchero is at 3700m and higher even than Cusco. The scenic beauty of the mountains around from this part of the Sacred Valley are probably the best. On our drive we could see the snow capped peaks of the Andes in the distance and Salkantay, another mountain popular for hikes is also visible. One day I would like to return to hike to Salkantay. Chinchero town is very beautiful and is known for its Alpaca clothing. The most prominent place is probably the colonial Church that was built on top of an Inca temple or some other prominent structure. The inside is dark but filled with many colorful patting and religious iconography. There was a market in front of the church that appeared to be winding down when we got there. The sun was setting and we were treated to a spectacular scene with the large cross overlooking the sunset in the mountains far ahead. The picture I took of that is one of my favorites.
We ended the day with some fun bargaining for Alpaca clothing at a local center in Chinchero before heading back to Cusco. A long but fulfilling day around the Sacred Valley of the Incas.