Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas

As we approached Cusco, Peru, on a recent early morning AeroContinente flight from Lima, it became clear that the Inca empire builder's choice of this area for their greatest palaces, temples and estates was a wise one. The mountainsides were quilted with fields and dwellings seemed to spring from the rich, red earth lining the rivers. What a beautiful place! It was clear that this visit to Peru's Valle Segrado, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which is comprised of the 70-mile stretch of the Urubamba River in Peru's upper Andes between the civilization's most sacred cities, Cusco and Machu Picchu, would be breathtakingly beautiful.

Upon landing in Cusco we faced another breathtaking experience - the adjustment to the thinner air at the 11,000-foot altitude. We slowed our pace, collected our bags, and headed past the eager tour operators that greet incoming tourists to find our guide.

Many visitors to the Sacred Valley begin their stay in Cusco and battle soroche, the altitude sickness many suffer at over 10,000 feet. Often they mistakenly believe Cusco to be the first stop on a trip up to Machu Picchu. In reality, Machu Picchu is located down the river valley at an easy 8,000-foot altitude. Sadly, rather than beginning a stay lower in the Sacred Valley and working up to Cusco, gradually adjusting to the thinner air, some arriving travelers lose hours and sometimes days feeling unwell. Hotels in Cusco greet guests with a cup of mate de coca, a non-addictive tea made from coca leaves and locally known as a remedy for soroche, and have oxygen available. However the new travel trend is to begin a visit lower in the valley, where there are numerous sites to explore, and end it in Cusco, feeling fine and ready to explore the hilly city on foot.

We began our stay in Urubamba, a small town at a comfortable 9,000-foot altitude about halfway between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Tired from the Miami-Lima late-night flight the night before and only a brief nap at the lovely Las Palmeras de San Isidro Hotel in Lima, a charming spot that we fully appreciated only during our longer stay on the return trip, we were happy to sit back and look out the car windows during the 35-minute trip to Urubamba.

Cusco's famed architecture, colonial buildings built on the Inca stone foundations left by early dwellers, gave way to rural mountainside villages and a glimpse of life in the area. Pigs, cattle and other farm animals grazed near the road, workers gathered crops and the children seemed to be enjoying the last days of their summer holiday from school. Soon we rounded the last switchback on our route and descended into quiet Urubamba.


Our base for the first few days would be the Incaland Hotel, a rambling complex on a beautiful stretch of the Rio Vilcanota, as the Urubamba River is known locally. Designed as an education and conference center to be built in coastal Peru but actually built in the Andes as a state-run hotel, its block and wood construction is an interesting contrast to the local adobe architecture. Now privately owned, the 65 bungalows and modern convention center are surrounded by gardens filled with native Andean trees and flowering plants. In the past seven years owner Nick Asheshov has transformed the 26-acre property into a colorful wonderland preserve for native plants, butterflies and birds.

The blue skies during the day, the surrounding mountains, the sounds of the rushing river and the multitude of stars shining in the nighttime sky made this a perfect hitching post for our stay in the Sacred Valley. Our bungalow was large and comfortable and decorated with locally-produced ceramic pieces from Urubamba's noted Seminario Ceramicas, a must-visit gallery and workshop just around the corner from the hotel. My traveling companion, my 16-year-old daughter Katie, was awed by the natural beauty surrounding us and spent much of the quiet time during our stay in the garden outside our bungalow's back door doing her required spring break reading. Looking back, I don't think she even mentioned the lack of a television…

The Incaland's expansive luncheon buffet is a stop for many tour groups visiting the area. We sampled it that first morning, after settling in. Fresh river trout and grilled alpaca were on the menu that day. A range of salads with fresh-from-the-market appeal, regional main-course offerings and an array of tempting desserts left us revived and ready to discover Urubamba.

We later found that most small towns in the Sacred Valley were easy to explore on foot. In Urubamba we discovered it was easier to hail a "mototaxi" - a rickshaw-like vehicle on a motorcycle base -- to take us to our destination quickly and inexpensively. This means of transportation can easily maneuver the sometimes narrow streets and, at 2 or 3 soles (then about 50-75¢) made it simple for us to use our "get to where you want to go and then walk back" method of exploring unfamiliar places.

We began (as most people visiting any village, town, or city in Latin America usually do) at the Plaza de Armas. The town's colonial church, with the Andes rising behind it, anchors the square. Shops surround the plaza and the town's mercado - market -- is just to the west. We wandered past stalls offering all types of merchandise -- clothing, shoes and household goods in addition to fresh meat and produce -- before landing at an Internet cabina where we checked email and touched base with home. We spent the next few days visiting the highlights of the Sacred Valley.

Sunday was devoted to the town of Pisac at the eastern end of the Urubamba Valley and the site of the splendid Pisac ruins. The Inca fortress above the town offers spectacular views of the valley below and the terraced hills that overlook it. The ruins -- part city, part ceremonial center and part military complex -- rival Machu Picchu in splendor and add to the mystery of the Inca civilization.

Because we weren't on an organized tour we arranged through the hotel to hire a car for the excursion (US$20) and after a 45 minute ride arrived at the entry to the ruins where we purchased bolito turisticos (US$10 adults, $5 students) allowing admission to this and a number of interesting attractions in the Sacred Valley and Cusco. We passed the vendors that are a fixture at tourist areas in the Sacred Valley, selling water, jewelry and such, and enjoyed the morning exploring the ruins.

Our next stop was the Pisac market - probably the best market we've encountered in South America and Katie and I are pros. She found a colorful baby alpaca sweater for US$18. I bought a dressy alpaca poncho for a friend for US$35. These were real alpaca goods, not to be mistaken for the really inexpensive woolen goods found elsewhere and that turn out to be llama or acrylic.

An array of souvenir t-shirts were available for 10 soles (just over US$3) and necklaces, handbags and other small gift items were also of good quality and reasonably priced. One nice thing about this market was that the vendors were eager to help us but, for the most part, respected our requests to just look. Sometimes in markets overly aggressive vendors can drive shoppers away but we didn't find this to be the case in Pisac.

Another day we set out for Ollantaytambo, or Ollanta as the pronunciation-challenged call it, at the northwestern end of the Sacred Valley, 30 minutes from Urubamba. This historic town lies in a narrow part of the valley lined with Inca terraces and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The streets of the old town are lined with adobe brick walled buildings and flowering bougainvilla. Fresh water from the mountains still rushes through canals and channels along the streets, remnants of the complex irrigation system the Incas built to bring water to the terraces within the city's walls.

Looking up at the ruins of Inca-era Ollantaytambo from the entrance to the archeological site can be overwhelming to the casual tourist. The climb up to the temple site scales sixteen massive terraces, roughly the height of a 20-story building. Once there the view is spectacular and more clues unfold into the mystery surrounding the Inca civilization and its fall. Across the valley the quarries, from which thousands of workers dragged stones to build this fortress, can still be seen.

For those not wishing to make the climb to the top there is much to explore below. Aqueducts deliver water to fountains, a universal delight for small children, and easy walks provide a glimpse of life around the ancient plaza that grounds the site. As throughout the Sacred Valley, just treading the paths of the empire-building Incas is daunting.

The folklore market that caters to tourists at the gate to the ruins was nothing special and the vendors seemed more aggressive. If you don't have an overwhelming need to shop, you'll find better bargains in a more relaxed atmosphere in Pisac, Cusco and a number of spots off the beaten path.

Machu Picchu

After visiting these two magnificent sites left by the Incas, we were ready for Machu Picchu. Could it really be as perfect as the classic image of it often seen in travel photographs? Judging from our Sacred Valley visit so far, we guessed it would be even better and weren't disappointed.

Our journey to Machu Picchu began conveniently at the Sacred Valley Railway station on the grounds of our hotel. We boarded our "vistacruiser" coach at 6:10 a.m. and began the scenic descent through the Urubamba Valley to Aguas Callientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. The Sacred Valley Railway is owned by Incaland Hotel owner Nick Asheshov and operated by Orient Express Lines which manages all the PeruRail routes.

We settled into our seats to watch the scenery change from alpine-like around Urubamba to jungle-like as we neared Machu Picchu. Along the way we were served beverages and a snack. The biggest advantage of taking a day trip to Machu Picchu via the Sacred Valley Railway from Urubamba is the length of time it allows at the site before the day's return trip. We arrived in Aguas Callientes before 9 a.m. and didn't have to board the return train until 4:45 p.m., leaving plenty of time to explore the ruins and still spend time in Aguas Callientes. Trains from Cusco can take up to five hours.

Rather than following the crowd from the train to the buses that ferry people up the mountain, Katie and I first headed through the small town for a look around. We found mostly hotels, inns and restaurants in the streets surrounding the town's central plaza and pinpointed an Internet cabina to visit later in the day. Out of curiosity we explored the much-recommended El Pueblo Hotel. We had wanted to spend a night there but our itinerary didn't allow it this trip - after a look around the comfortable riverfront courtyard and lobby we added it to our "Next Time" list.

Next, we browsed our way through the market stalls that line the street to the bus departure point. Once there, US$9 bought us round-trip tickets on one of the comfortable coaches leaving for the entrance to the ruins. While looking down from the buses' switchback route as the valley below grew smaller and smaller, the road narrower and narrower, it was impossible not to wonder how the Incas managed to build a city so high in the mountains.

The bus dropped us in front of the pricey Machu Picchu Sanctuary Hotel, adjacent to the entrance to the ruins. The hotel was built to house international VIPs by the Peruvian government. Currently managed by Orient-Express Hotels, it has been transformed into a luxury lodge offering the opportunity to watch the sun rise and the stars shine over Machu Picchu.

We paid the US$20 admission to the site and followed the marked path up the steps inside. Upon scaling the first flight of steps and looking up at the ones ahead we decided we had plenty of time to make it to the top and still be able to wander back down through the site. We stepped off the stairs on a low terrace and looked around for the first time. There isn't any way to describe the scene below in words, or to capture on film, our first view of the Lost City of the Incas. The classic picture-book view of the site before us, familiar to many, was dotted with the llamas that freely wander the grassy terraces. As we watched, the clouds shifted and the sun poured through, bathing the stone walls the Incas had carefully built centuries before in a magical light.

We slowly climbed to the top, stopping often just to look around. In an area where the weather can change dramatically, we were blessed with perfect weather. We made our way down through the ancient buildings and plazas and spent quite a bit of time perched on stones placed by the Incas centuries before. We enjoyed just taking in the view. Hours later we caught the bus back down the mountain.

The folklore market at the base of Machu Picchu was well worth a look. We found a variety of good quality items at reasonable prices. We also found that, because many vendors in the small area carry the same souvenir t-shirts and factory produced textile items, it was easy to bargain.

Back in Aguas Callientes we stopped in at the Internet cabina to check our e-mail. When we travel Katie gets a kick out of "Instant Messaging" her friends from far-away locations. We found Internet time to average about US$2 an hour in the Sacred Valley and the computers in better shape than in other places we've been.

The train ride back was peaceful after our long day of sightseeing. The children who were bundles of energy in the morning were quietly gazing out the window or napping on their parent's laps. We chatted with fellow travelers from Israel, New Zealand and other parts of Peru as the sun set over the snow capped mountains above the valley.

The archeological sites in the Sacred Valley are the main attraction but a trip to the area would not be complete without a visit to the workshop/gallery of ceramic artists Pablo Seminario and Marilú Behar in Urubamba. The couple creates unique ceramic wares that blend pre-Columbian techniques and designs with modern style.

Upon arriving at the Seminario's beautiful home/studio we viewed a short video presentation describing the steps artisans at the workshop take to form the clay from the region into useful household accents and accessories. We then toured the workshop and watched artisans as they reproduced the Seminario's designs, carefully shaping and painting pieces to be sold in the workshop's salesrooms or shipped to clients world-wide.

We were lucky to catch Pablo and Marilú in the studio and were treated to a personal glimpse of projects they are working on. We learned that in addition to their Urubamba shop they have an on-line catalog where items may be purchased and that they plan to open a USA shop in South Florida in the spring of 2003.

Soon it was time to leave Urubamba and head up the mountain to Cusco. We packed our bounty of woolens and ceramics into our now-bulging luggage and hired a taxi (US$20) to take us there.

Cusco is a unique city - actually, a city on top of a city without the layers of earth that usually separate the old from the new. The conquering Spaniards destroyed the buildings and monuments of the Incan city of Cusco. However, they found the early architect's stone masonry so solid that they built their new city using the foundations remaining from the earlier buildings. The Inca stone walls are widely visible, supporting the weight of colonial Cusco's adobe buildings.

Our hotel in Cusco, the 5-star Libertador, provided a fine example of the old architecture blending with the new. Part of the large hotel was built around the home and courtyard of a residence once inhabited by conquistador Francisco Pizarro. New additions blended seamlessly with colonial construction built atop perfect Inca stone foundations. Artwork and antiques added to the classic ambiance.

After our welcoming cups of mate de coca in the hotel's expansive lobby we stashed our belongings in our room and headed out.

The Libertador is conveniently located a few blocks from Cusco's Plaza de Armas and just across the street from the Koricancha (Sun Temple), where what remains of the Inca's Temple of the Sun peeks out beneath the Spaniard's newer Santo Domingo Convent.

We ventured out first to the busy plaza where the Cathedral, the Jesuit church, La Campania de Jesus, and a number of businesses and restaurants overlook the square. We wandered through a number of shops both on and off the plaza, finding nicely priced goods. Sometimes street vendors, hawking postcards, earrings and other small items, followed us to the point of annoyance, but that's to be expected in this part of the world. An artisan market in the San Ignacio chapel next to the Jesuit church provided one of our most peaceful shopping excursions - most of the vendors were reading, allowing us the freedom to browse.

We stopped at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a block from the plaza, which brought us back to this century. Admission was included in our multi-pass and we enjoyed the exhibits. The traditional crafts and textiles produced in this area are brightly colored and it was interesting to compare the designs and colors of the paintings in the museum's galleries to the folkloric handicrafts we had seen.

Our stay in Cusco was short, but one of the most fascinating places we visited was the Koricancha, just across from our hotel. Here, built on the foundation of the Inca Temple of the Sun, the Spaniards built their Santo Domingo Convent using the massive block walls of the earlier structure. Part of the convent's cloister has now been removed to allow access to one of the perfectly designed trapezoidal chambers of the temple, which displays the mastery of Inca stonework.

Outside, looking up from the gardens to the convent's walls it is possible to trace the site's history from the Inca masonry at the bottom through the colonial building and earthquake damage in the middle and finally to modern construction and repairs at the top.

Our visit to Cusco and the Sacred Valley was an eye-opening experience. There's no way to imagine the skill and determination of the Inca people until you follow their footsteps through the ruins of their fabulous cities in the Sacred Valley. They built an empire of immense proportions without the benefit of a written language. Their legacy is a treasure now carefully protected by the government and people of Peru and offered to the rest of the world as a travel experience without compare. This is truly a "must see" Latin destination!

-- Jane Townsend

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