Walking in Inca footsteps in Peru's Sacred Valley

Encompassing what was the fertile homeland of the Inca Empire, the transcendent region – often overlooked en route to Machu Picchu – is steeped in Andean history and culture.

Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas stretches between Cusco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, and the legendary 15th-century city of Machu Picchu. Encompassing what was the fertile homeland of the Inca Empire (1438 to 1533), today the transcendent region – also known as the Urubamba Valley – is a quiet expanse of country that is steeped in Andean history and culture.

Many visitors to Peru pass through the region quickly, jumping between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, the base town where many bookend a visit to Machu Picchu. But spending time in the Sacred Valley’s collection of small towns and archaeological sites offers both a glimpse into daily Peruvian life as well as a full picture of the accomplishments and operation of the once-glorious Inca Empire. Here, modernity and tradition are in equilibrium, with locals respectfully preserving their past, following many indigenous practices and observing centuries-old festivals and celebrations.

Travellers planning to ascend Machu Picchu often book at least one night of lodging in Aguas Calientes, the closest Sacred Valley town to the site. But train lines that run to and from Aguas Calientes stop in Ollantaytambo, a tranquil and less trafficked Andean village and archaeological site, which serves as an equally good base for those en route to Machu Picchu and is also a common starting point for trekkers on the Inca Trail, a hikes that concludes 43km later at Machu Picchu.  

Once a country retreat for Inca royalty and nobility, Ollantaytambo is also where the Incas also fought some of their last battles, resisting Spanish conquest from the still intact fortress and staggered terraces rising up around the town. Climbing to the top of the village’s ceremonial centre where Incas would worship yields panoramic views of the Sacred Valley, across the Patakancha and Urubamba Rivers.

The gridded, cobblestoned town streets are the product of Inca city planning, dating back to the 1200s. Babbling waterways, branching from the nearby rivers, feed the still-flowing irrigation system that the Incas designed, their handiwork admired to this day. The town, which buzzes during the day with tourists catching trains to and from Aguas Calientes, is hushed at night, with locals peddling three-wheel motorcycle rickshaw taxis, transporting weary walkers the few blocks to their destination. However, should travellers overlap with one of the many celebrations centred in Ollantaytambo, such as the Three Kings festival on 6 January, they will witness a town up at all hours. Around April, a four-day celebration called Santisima Cruz de Senor Choquekillca honours the town’s patron saint with processions, dances and fireworks.

A handful of lodging options accommodate travellers, such as Hotel Sol and El Albergue Hotel. The latter also operates one of the best restaurants in town, serving pisco sours and fine Peruvian dishes such as alpaca with elderberry sauce in a rustically elegant dining room.

Urubamba, Salinas and Moray
Another popular home base for exploring the Sacred Valley is Urubamba, located about 20km southeast of Ollantaytambo. In addition to being one of the closest towns to the archaeological sites of Salinas and Moray, Urubamba attracts travellers because of its relative low altitude, which allows for easier acclimatisation before heading to Machu Picchu or Cusco.

Located about 4km southwest of Urubamba, Salinas comprises thousands of salt pans, a patchwork landscape of pinks, tans and browns descending into the valley. Originally constructed by the Incas, to this day Peruvians mine the flats, pounding out the salt under the hot sun, wearing wide-brimmed hats and traditional woven Andean dress. Visitors can trek down and around the flats, and small stands sell bags of the variously hued, edible salt.

Just a few kilometres to the northwest, Moray is another ingenious Inca agricultural construction, though it is no longer in use. While it resembles a giant amphitheatre with concentric terraces leading to the ground, it was created for agricultural experimentation. Each level corresponds to a different microclimate, which the Incas possibly used to test crops. The deepest centre part was the hottest, and temperatures decreased as it moves outward, allowing the Incas to determine which climate was best suited to which crop.

Back in Urubamba, popular restaurants include El Huacatay, which serves inventive Andean and Italian plates, such as gnocchi made from coca flour. A few kilometres outside town, La Alhambra offers a buffet with classic Peruvian dishes such as aji de gallina, a nutty, creamy and slightly spicy chicken dish. Hotel Las Chullpas, an eco lodge nestled about 3km above town, offers serene cottage lodging with private fireplaces and outdoor hammocks. Most of the produce served is grown onsite.

Similarly to Ollantaytambo, Pisac – located about 40km southeast of Urubamba – encompasses both a historic town and a striking Inca archaeological site, with a series of steep agricultural terraces and hilltop fortresses visible from the town’s centre plaza. Travellers can make the steep but scenic 4km hike to the terraces’ main entry point or hire a taxi. Trails lead over and through the terraces, tunnels, temples, tombs and ceremonial centre – all engineered by the Incas for farming, worshipping and bathing. The Sun Gate, included in many of the Inca’s lofted towns, perfectly frames the setting sun during biannual solstices, as it has and will continue to do for centuries. The splendid views down and across the Urubamba Valley rival those of Machu Picchu, and unlike the iconic site, visitors often have hushed Pisac almost entirely to themselves.

In downtown Pisac, one of the Sacred Valley’s largest fairs takes place daily, with Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays being the busiest. Vendors peddle handmade goods such as colourful, woven knits and traditional Peruvian treats including grilled corn coated with cheese.

Ringing the central plaza are several inviting inns and eateries. Situated right off the plaza, Pisac Inn is rustic yet stylish, with a leafy courtyard and indigenous art displayed throughout the lobby and restaurant. The onsite Cuchara de Palo Restaurante fuses traditional Peruvian dishes with the country’s trendy Novoandino cuisine, creating dishes such as passion fruit-glazed trout. Staff at Horno Típico de Santa Lucía, located on Manuel Prado, pull fluffy empanadas out of large clay ovens, while guinea pigs – which are a common protein in the region – scurry around small pens designed to resemble castles, unaware that they likely will make their way onto the menu; look out for the word cuy