T he word ‘sacred’ is synonymous with ‘blessed’, that rather over-used adjective that nowadays aims to convey a sense of overwhelming good fortune. But such are the unexpected delights of this beautiful corner of Peru that it fully deserves to be described thus, and any visitor seeking a destination that is as unique as it is beautiful should definitely add the Sacred Valley to their must-see list.
Named after the Incas’ sacred river that tumbles and swirls as it carves out a rocky path through the towering high Andes, this magical valley is dotted with ancient stone villages, lined with tall, softly-hued eucalyptus and is alive with darting birds and brightly-coloured butterflies. The area is blessed with a mild, dry climate, and an altitude that is easier to acclimatise to than nearby Cusco making it the perfect place to start your Andean adventure. What’s more there are plenty of sights, activities and luxury hotels that will make a leisurely tour of the Sacred Valley an unforgettable part of any Peruvian vacation.
At little more than 20 miles and under an hour’s drive from Cusco, the large village of Pisac is one of the Sacred Valley’s most alluring attractions. It is close enough for a day trip from Cusco so even if you are on a whistle-stop tour you should be able to squeeze it in.
Apart from the spectacular location, there are two main draws to Pisac. First, the superb Inca ruins set high above the village on a mountain spur from where there are more breath-taking views of the valley and terraces below. The entrance to the ruins is a short drive from the village or a fairly strenuous two hour hike. If the spirit is willing but the body just a too weak for the climb you can always ask your driver to take you up then hike down and meet him at the bottom for a spot of well-earned retail therapy at Piscac’s second main attraction: the artisans’ market.
The market is now held daily, spreading throughout the village centre’s main square and labyrinthine streets and is a great place to pick up locally made textiles, reasonably priced jewellery, and all manner of new age amulets and talismans.
There is nowhere of truly five star standards to stay in Pisac but about half an hour’s drive along the valley in the village of Yucay you can bed down in relative luxury at the Sonesta Posadas del Inca Sacred Valley Hotel. This traditional superior level hotel occupies a restored colonial monastery, has a restaurant and bar and lush gardens where you will also find the original chapel.
About 5km further along the valley is the larger town of Urubamba. Although not particularly appealing visually, Urubamba is well located for excursions to some of the area’s most impressive attractions. The nearby Inca terraces of Moray are a wonder of agricultural innovation – deep bowls of concentric terraces create various micro-climates for the cultivation of different crops as well as a pleasing sight for avid photographers.
Perhaps the most impressive sight in this part of the valley are the magnificent salt pans or ‘salinas’ at neighbouring Maras. An almost unbelievably picturesque scene of ancient white-coated salt pans that tumble down the mountainside where locals have been mining salt for centuries.
Urubamba is also well served for luxury hotels. The Belmond Rio Sagrado (formerly Orient Express) is built to resemble a typical Andean village and offers a luxurious range of rooms, suites and villas as well as heated outdoor pool and spa. There are two restaurants serving locally sourced fare as well as a bar for that all important nightcap. Belmond also offers hotel and Peru Rail train packages to combine any of their hotels with a spectacular trip to Machu Picchu.
Another highly recommended hotel in Urubamba is the Hotel Tambo del Inka, a Starwood Luxury Collection property. As well as all the trappings of a good luxury hotel and a range of rooms and suites, the Tambo del Inka has been awarded the Certificate in Leadership in energy and Environmental Design by the US Green Building Council for its commitment to environmental conservation. And as an added bonus the hotel even has its own private railway station on site to whisk you away to Machu Picchu when you tire – if ever – of its exclusivity and charm.
The newest addition to the luxury hotel scene in the Sacred Valley is the Inkaterra Hacienda. Inkaterra is probably Peru’s leading sustainable hotel “chain” but their commitment to protection of the natural environment and ethical business practices does not mean they compromise on quality, style or service. The Hacienda at Urubamba joins the likes of Inkaterra La Casona in Cusco and the Inkaterra Hacienda Concepcion in the Madre de Dios region of the Southern Amazon as one of their top of the range hotels. Highlights include organic local and international cuisine, complimentary tea time and cocktail hour, and suites up to a positively capacious 968 square feet. Rooms and suites can also be booked together to accommodate up to six people.
The final town on the valley before the river winds its way down to Aguas Caleintes and Machu Picchu is Ollantaytambo. It’s almost as if the valley were deliberately book-ended with its best villages as Ollantaytambo and Pisac vie for the title of Sacred Valley’s most delightful destination.
Whilst the market at Ollanta (as the locals call it) couldn’t hold a candle to Pisac, you can still find yourself some genuine Andean souvenirs at reasonable prices. And it’s also a bit less claustrophobic than its big brother at the other end of the valley. But you don’t come to Ollanta to shop. Its appeal is in its spectacular location and its wonderful Inca ruins. Not only can you visit the extremely well preserved ruins of the fort that rise high above the village, but there are Inca irrigation channels gurgling down cobbled alleyways and to the south of the village are the famous Inca granaries that overlook the town facing the fort on the opposite side of the valley. The pathway to the granaries is not for the fainthearted, however. There is even a sign at the foot of the path that reads “Do not climb” and for those who don’t speak Spanish, a helpful skull and crossbones. Many people ignore the sign and make the climb, but you have been warned…
Ollantaytambo doesn’t have any of the super high-end luxury hotels you will find in Urubamba, but if you decide to spend the night before or after your trip to Machu Picchu which is only an hour and a half away by train, the best place in town is the Albergue de Ollantaytambo.
A charming 1920s inn right the railway platform, the Albergue has comfortable, tasteful and traditionally furnished rooms in beautiful gardens alive with humming birds and butterflies. There is also an extensive kitchen garden where the hotel’s chefs harvest many of the vegetables and herbs for the lovely restaurant. Also open to non-residents, advance bookings are highly recommended.
Ollantaytambo is under two hours by road from Cusco so if you don’t have time to tour the entire Sacred Valley, it’s a good place to stop en-route to everyone’s final destination – the wonder of Machu Picchu. Buen viaje!