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The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Most people go to Cusco to visit Machu Picchu. However, you’ll be missing out on something special if you don’t take at least a day to tour the Sacred Valley.
It was known to the Incas as Vilcamayo, and it was a favourite retreat for the emperor and the aristocracy; sort of a pre-Columbian Riviera.
This is a strikingly beautiful, steep-sided valley that opens onto a narrow but fertile alluvial plain that was an agricultural paradise for Inca farmers. Several micro-climates allow the cultivation of a variety of crops.
The Sacred Valley follows the Urubamba River from the town of Pisac, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) northeast of Cusco, to Ollantaytambo, 60 kilometers (36 miles) to the northwest. This was the stretch of the larger valley system that the Incas considered “sacred.” The Spanish later applied the name to the entire river valley. It is a very rural area, but the roads are good, and public transportation will take you to most of the interesting places. You can join a guided tour, or you can rent a car and explore on your own.
The community of Pisac was once a strategic military post in the Inca Empire. Today it is best known for its market, held every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Tourists mix with locals to buy produce, jewelry, ceramics, and woolen goods. The shops and stalls are concentrated in the central plaza, but spill over into side streets. Vendors open up at about eight in the morning, and begin to shut down at three in the afternoon. If you go on a Sunday, you’ll have the opportunity to attend the 11:00 a.m. Quechua mass at the Iglesia San Pedro Apostolo (if you are so inclined), and watch the mayor carrying his ceremonial staff as he leads a colourful, costumed procession out of the church. Sunday afternoon activities include music and beer; typical of rural Peru.
A short taxi ride from the market area will take you to the Inca ruins of Pisac. (The alternative is a two-hour walk on a steep grade.) Usually it is crowded only on Sundays. Archaeologists first thought that the Incas built a fort here for protection from the fierce jungle people known as the Antis. But the site has produced little evidence or warfare. It seems that Pisac was actually a combination of religious site, citadel, astrological observatory, and residence. It might have been a safe refuge in time of war. Besides the Temple of the Sun and the Observatory, the Pisac ruins have the largest known Inca cemetery. A maze of paths takes you through the ruins, into caves, and past tombs high in the cliffs. The views of the site are as extraordinary as the views from it. Excavations of the ruins and the burial grounds are ongoing.
Ollantaytambo, known locally as Ollanta, was named after an Inca general who won battles and who was involved in a doomed love affair with the emperor’s daughter. On the mountain above the town there is a mighty stone structure that was the main defense against raids by the Antis. The rose coloured granite was hauled here from another part of the valley. The complex once included a temple to the sun and ceremonial baths. It never was actually completed. It was here in 1537 that the Incas won their biggest victory over the Spanish, when they forced Hernando Pizarro, the conquistador commander’s brother, to retreat. However, the Spaniards soon returned with reinforcements and captured the fortress.
The Ollantaytambo Heritage Trail is a self-guided route marked by a series of blue plaques that allows visitors to tour the original section of the town. The layout is based on a distinctive Inca unit called the cancha. That was a walled city block with one entrance and an interior courtyard surrounded by houses. The town was therefore a collection of self-centered communities. The most interesting of these can be seen at Calle del Mexico.
La Casona de Yucay, which is now a hotel, was built in 1810. It was the home of Manuel de Oriheula, who in 1825 was host to the great liberator Simon Bolivar. Guests can stay in Room 136, which was where Bolivar slept. The building has a historic setting and four courtyards with lush gardens.
In the heart of the Sacred Valley is Sonesta Posada del Inca Valle Sagrado. This 300-year-old complex, which is now a hotel, was once a convent/monastery. There is a well preserved colonial church, and the cobblestone walkways add to the historical ambience. The rooms have balconies that overlook the gardens and the terraced hillsides. There is a very good restaurant that is well-known for its Sunday lunch buffet.
The town of Urubamba is the geographic, economic and administrative centre of the Sacred Valley. Visitors entering the city by the highway at first see little more than gas stations and convenience stores. But when you get off the highway, you find a very scenic community of tidy streets bordered by flower gardens and pisonay trees. There are wonderful views of the nearby mountains. There’s not much here of historic interest, but you’ll find several good restaurants and hotels. Easy access to the Machu Picchu rail line makes this a good base. Go to the Ceramica Seminario for lovely ceramics made from the valley’s distinctive red clay.
According to legend, the town of Chinchero, once an important Inca city, was the birthplace of the rainbow. So many of them are seen during the rainy season, one might almost think the legend is true. The community is famous for its small but colourful Sunday artisan market in the central plaza. Also of interest is the 17th century church built on the ruins of an Inca palace.
Moray and Salineras were Inca agricultural centres that still astound scientists. Inca engineers took advantage of oddities in the topography and angles of sunlight to create a series of mini-climates for cultivating various crops that ordinarily would be impossible to grow at this altitude. At Salineras, the famed Inca salt pans are still in use. These sites cannot be reached by public transport. You can get here by taxi from Cusco or the village of Maras, or take a two hour hike from Maras.
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