Stretching timelessly between the historic towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, close to Cusco, by its name alone The Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru conjures up images of ancient peoples, stone temples, and a lost civilization. It’s evocative, mysterious, and has been a draw for wide-eyed tourists, history lovers and archeologists for centuries. But does this revered region live up to the hype, and should you stay in the Sacred Valley while in Peru?

The short and honest answers are yes it does, and yes you should. And it’s not only the beautifully preserved ancient sites like Ollantaytambo and Pisac which make the Sacred Valley such a top travel destination in South America, there is history to explore here that dates back long before the Inca Empire existed, as well as current culture and traditions that thrive to this day.

Also known as The Urubamba Valley, thanks to the Urubamba River which dissects these verdant peaks and plains, this enclave of Central Southern Peru is a natural wonder in its own right—even beyond the fascinating history that has shaped it over millennia. But with so many Iconic Sacred Valley sites and hidden gems, cultural experiences and boutique lodges to choose from, how do you plan your perfect trip?

At Atelier, we think the most memorable Sacred Valley Tour will be one which fits your interests, travel style, even the time of year that you’re visiting Peru. That’s why we’ve put together a one-stop overview of the Sacred Valley to show not only that it’s well worth the hype, but staying here is worth its weight in (Incan) gold as part of your South America tour.

1. History of the Sacred Valley

Pre-Inca civilization in the Sacred Valley stretches back 4,000 to 5,000 years, though evidence of farming and crop cultivation (including techniques for potatoes and corn still used today) by the Chanapata and Qotacalla People dates to around 800 BC. Something enchanting about this long history is that across generations, centuries, and entire civilizations, the Urubamba Valley has been considered sacred, and aligned with the starry night skies.

The Urubamba River has always been celebrated too, not only for its majesty and the Peruvian people’s connection with Mother Earth but the life its waters give to the Sacred Valley and its surrounds, since before settlers even arrived.

Innovative agriculture, crossbreeding crops, water channels, these are all features of farming techniques which spanned the ages and were perfected by the Sacred Valley’s most famous inhabitants, the Incas. A mystical people whose own legend has ruler Manco Capac emerging from Lake Titicaca itself, around 1200CE, the Incas went on to epitomize what we think of as Ancient South American history. Throughout the Sacred Valley, the Incas built huge forts, clever crop terraces and temples near Cusco to the south and Machu Picchu to the north.

However, it’s easy to forget that Inca rulers reigned over these lands and that of Ecuador, Chile and Argentina as “recently” as the 16th century, a time when Oxford University in England was already 400-500 years old!

Spanish Conquistadors gradually and brutally destroyed the Inca Empire from 1532. Before this, their impressive expansion across everything from earthquake-proof architecture to weather-proof crop varieties to the people and treasures around them, have left their mark on history and modern life alike.

2. Top Incan sites in the Sacred Valley

Though the famous Inca Trail runs through the Sacred Valley, along the Urubamba River and up high mountain passes to Machu Picchu, the iconic Lost City itself sits just outside it. If not hiking the Inca Trail, you can get to Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley easily by train, boarding from the local stations of Poroy, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, a scenic journey that takes you to the foot of Machu Picchu.

However, there is a treasure trove of equally impressive Sacred Valley wonders to discover, with just a few of our favorites including:

  1. Ollantaytambo. Wonderfully preserved, imposing, and situated in a spectacular setting surrounded by mountains, Ollantaytambo simply dazzles. Once an Incan military stronghold and ceremonial center, Ollantaytambo is one of the best examples of Inca engineering and architecture. Roughly 25 miles from Machu Picchu and 50 miles from Cusco, this hillside site is complete with aqueducts, underground water channels, agricultural terraces, housing, a fortress, and Sun Temple all connected by steps and streets. It’s a vast and evocative site, one that brings the Inca’s day-to-day lives, battles, and ceremonies brilliantly to life.
  2. Chinchero. A fascinating melting pot of traditional Peruvian culture, colonial buildings and Incan influence, Chinchero is a charming stop in the Sacred Valley. Chinchero Market is among the best-known and most authentic in South America. Here, locals dress in traditional, brightly colored robes and garments that go back to ancient times, and their handwoven textiles and crafts make for great keepsakes to take home with you. Chinchero’s main plaza, built on the site of an Inca palace, is also photo-worthy and lovely to walk around with its dramatic mountain backdrop and atmospheric architecture.
  3. Moray. As with many Incan wonders in the Sacred Valley, there is magic of the unknown surrounding the vast circular terraces of Moray. Like Tipon, many believe the location, elevation, and access to sunlight of each individual terrace created microclimates to grow and understand myriad crops taken from across Peru and beyond. In fact, there is a 15°C (59°F) temperature difference between the bottom and top terrace, and evidence exists that many of Peru’s 4,000 varieties of potato were cross-fertilized and grown here. Situated around an hour from Cusco, today Moray is simply a marvel to observe from the high-plateau hills which surround the site.
  4. The Maras Salt Mines. Situated close to Moray, the Maras Salt Mines are an equally stunning visual spectacle, and are used today just as they have been since pre-Incan times. Clinging to the sloping sides of a ravine, the 4,000+ salt pools of Maras are fantastic to visit when in the Sacred Valley and are best viewed from above, observing the natural saline spring feeding the pools before evaporation and mining. This traditional technique, still carried in bags on the backs of donkeys, gives a real window into Incan daily life.
  5. Pisac. Overlooking the Urubamba River at the eastern end of the Sacred Valley, the sprawling citadel, fortress, temple (complete with ceremonial baths) and terraces of Pisac are a must-see site in Peru. A magnificent complex that was strategically located in ancient times, Pisac wows with its mix of ceremonial, defensive and agricultural areas that are still wonderfully well-preserved.

3. Outdoor activities in the Sacred Valley

As if the absorbing history and Incan archeology were not enough, outdoor activities in the Sacred Valley are worth visiting for alone. Imagine setting off on a morning hike along scenic ridges, passing open plains or the gushing Urubamba River below, and pausing at viewpoints to admire ancient ruins. There are rural villages and settlements to pass by, and almost endless hiking routes through the Sacred Valley that take you away from human activity entirely. Bliss. All of this before even mentioning unforgettable hikes such as Huchuy Cosqo, and of course the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or alternatives like the Lares or Vilcanota Trails. It’s no exaggeration that the Sacred Valley is a wonderland for walkers.

Less strenuous activities come in the form of horseback riding and mountain biking are fantastic ways to see more of the region. Popular Sacred Valley mountain bike routes like the Sacred Valley Trail wind their way from Pisac to Taray, Qoya, Lamay, and Calca—with stops in between. Perhaps the relaxed roads near Chinchero Village or the plains—and even shoreline hot tubs—around Lakes Huaypo and Piuray are more your style. Either way, the routes and landscapes to enjoy as you go are endless in every direction.

At the other end of the scale, adrenaline junkies can find themselves climbing a mountainside and ziplining through the Sacred Valley for a real experience to remember. Not for the faint-hearted, but the valley’s majesty takes on a whole new perspective from the air if you’re brave enough! Kayaking or whitewater rafting on the Urubamba River is another incredible experience for the fun of the water as much as the striking scenery as you go.

Last but not least, whether you’ve had a leisurely stroll, worn yourself out with a bike ride or done nothing more than relaxed with a good book at your boutique hotel, natural hot springs in the Sacred Valley are the perfect way to round off any day.

4. Best Sacred Valley boutique hotels

One of the things we love the most about staying in this unique region, is that each boutique Sacred Valley hotel or lodge has its own character and appeal, as well as prime locations tucked away in—or even on—the hills, beside ancient ruins, or by the riverfront. It makes staying in the Sacred Valley even more memorable, especially as so many properties adopt their own respectful take on traditional Peruvian culture and Incan influence in the décor or restaurant menus, giving you a real sense of place.

For something altogether different, Starlodge & Skylodge Suites are tough to beat. Attached to a Sacred Valley cliffside, these 2-person capsules sit 1,200ft above the ground, giving you the most incredible views during the day and stargazing opportunities at night. Climbing up to the pods and ziplining back down the next day is an experience in itself.

If you prefer pure comfort, spa treatments and all-round luxury, the respectfully-chic Tambo del Inka, Sol y Luna and Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba are all highly recommended. All of these magnificent lodges enjoy serene settings surrounded by mountains, and will immerse you into the region through fine Peruvian cuisine, tailored gardens, and carefully adorned guestrooms decorated in local fabrics, artworks and ornaments. To immerse yourself still further, the equally impressive Explora Sacred Valley and Las Qolqas Eco-Resort aim to connect you to the landscape through outdoor activities, wellness programs, and sustainable practices.

5. Local culture

Local culture in the Sacred Valley is very important, with farming and festival traditions alive and well—from colorful bazars to celebrations of Pacha Mama, Mother Earth. Visiting Andean communities in the Sacred Valley adds something special to any trip and we’d recommend taking time to meet local Quechua, Amaru, Willoq, and Misminay people. A good place to start is by picking up souvenirs in one of the many local markets like Pisac or Chinchero, both known for hand-woven textiles, pottery and soft Alpaca wool to keep you warm on those chilly Andean evenings! A visit to the nearby Llama Pack Project is also inspirational, learning how this sustainable initiative has helped protect the Andean ecosystem and given income to local families in one.

Agriculture is as important today as it was during the days of the Incan Empire, and you’ll get a glimpse back in time with the same stepped terrace and crop cultivation techniques still being used. Visiting a traditional Sacred Valley farm such as Hacienda Sarapampa transports you to a real-life showcase of fine Andean produce, farming and cultural traditions, with a gourmet farm-to-fork lunch rounding things off perfectly.

More culture and tradition comes through famous Sacred Valley festivals. Among them, Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) is held every June at the ancient site of Sacsayhuaman just outside Cusco, Pachamama Raymi (Festival of Mother Earth) in August, or the Virgen del Carmen (patron saint of Peru) procession are all a privilege to observe. A healing ceremony with a local Shaman can also be a gentle way to connect with long-held spiritual beliefs here.

6. Sacred Valley travel tips

So, the Sacred Valley has made it onto your tour of Peru, great! But what are the essentials you need to know before being packed and ready to go? We’ve put together some top Sacred Valley tips to make your visit is the best it can be:

  1. Acclimatization: While Cusco will be your entry point into the region, The Sacred Valley lies at a lower altitude, so we recommend traveling straight to your lodge on arrival. That way, you can better acclimatize before heading back to see the highlights of Cusco itself.
  2. Machu Picchu: South America’s most iconic destination, Machu Picchu is easily accessed from the Sacred Valley, either by hiking the Inca Trail or one of its alternatives or taking the luxury Hiram Bingham Train to Aguas Calientes and the Lost City.
  3. Take your time: Our travel specialists advise at least 3 days in The Sacred Valley, there is so much to see and do here and an entire afternoon can be spent enjoying the surrounds of your boutique lodge.
  4. Pack appropriately: Both climate and terrain can be varied in the Sacred Valley, so be sure to pack a mix of sunscreen and light layers, as well as warmer clothes and walking boots.
  5. Be respectful: As with any travel destination, we should always show respect when visiting remote communities and ancient sites. Whether that’s small gifts for school children, not bartering too hard at local markets or simply taking your litter home with you, this is a sacred place and must remain so.    

No matter what your interests or group size, speak to the South America travel specialists at Atelier and they will craft your dream tailormade tour to the Sacred Valley and beyond.

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