Peru, Sacred Valley
No, where on earth have I found a place like this, a remote indescribably beautiful and culturally diverse series of valleys containing all the historic riches of the Inca. From desolate high-altitude plains and misty cloud forests full of colorful birds. Peru’s highlands will take you on a whirlwind adventure transporting you in time entirely. It’s a whole other world just begging to be explored by the curious would-be adventurer. Time and time again I found myself walking in the footsteps of explorers long ago discovering ancient cities and vibrant villages. This is a destination for those who love travel, this is the Peruvian Highlands!
Cusco – The Belly Button of the World
Ah yes, Cusco, what the Inca’s refer to as the belly button of the world. Cusco has been one of my all-time favorite cities that I have returned to over and over. Maybe some shaman did his number on me and cast his magic to make me say good words about this grimy, overcrowded, but simply amazing place.
Cusco also happens to be the place to set off on all adventures into the Peruvian Highlands. The city has taken quite a turn in recent years heavily focusing on tourism. Although this brings the obvious negatives like over tourism, massage touts, pick pocketers and the ever increasingly annoying “Sir interested in a unique tour” guy’s, Cusco is still great. It has however brought many good things as well, an exploration into the complex cuisine of Peru, historic guest houses, new archaeological sights and opportunities for work for many who have never had the opportunity at all.
The Cusco you see today is not the original Cusco. When Spain arrived in the early 15th century they did all they possibly could to destroy everything Inca. But what the Spanish were not able to do was understand mother nature like the Inca’s had. Earthquakes devastated the Spanish architecture, so those pesky Spaniards built their structures atop of Incan walls as the Inca building methods could withstand even the largest of quakes.
Now with tourism at its highest in years, many of these Incan structures that lay beneath the Spanish ones are being revealed. My favorite Inca structures in Cusco are the following:
Beneath one of Cusco’s most famous churches is Qorikancha, the temple of the sun. This was easily one of the most important temples in the Incan Empire with much evidence showing it to be where the king’s throne was. The walls to the Sun Temple are some of the finest work you will see from any Incan sight. Most of the sections of blocks are fitted so precisely that you can’t even fit a sheet of paper in between them.
Sitting atop of a hill overlooking historic Cusco is the grand temple/fortress complex of Sacsayhuaman. Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma by the Inca. Sacayhuaman was the head of this big cat making it a protective fortress of the region. Although this fortress looks massive, most of it remains buried as it would be too dangerous to uncover it because of the instability of the earth surrounding it.
Where to Stay in Cusco
There is a plethora of hotels to stay at in Cusco, so choosing one can be difficult. While in Cusco I stayed in two different hotels, both of which were amazing!
The first hotel was El Balcon. A historic Cusco house converted into a small hotel. The location is wonderful and the balcony has one of the best views in all of Cusco. Check out El Balcon HERE!
The second hotel I reviewed was the Royal Inka. The Royal Inka is only one block away from Plaza Armas and also has a rooftop terrace that overlooks central historic district! Check out the Royal Inka HERE.
The Sacred Valley
Colorful People of Chinechero
Leaving Cusco towards the Sacred Valley our first destination into the Peruvian Highlands was Chinchero. Chinchero is a series of rolling grassy hills that still sit at a relatively high-altitude making vegetation scarce. The Area is however famed for its cultivation of potatoes, herds of fluffy alpaca and the textiles that the people make.
The local dress is very distinctive, women wear black or red colors with a large flat hat. The men have some of the most colorful ponchos and beanie’s in Peru. We stopped at a local Alpaca farm in Chinchero to see how these textiles are made. They also had a guinea pig farm which I am not going to lie was maybe the highlight of the region.
Cliff Tombs of Pisac – Sacred Valley
Dropping into the Sacred Valley the vegetation changes as you enter a completely different climate zone. The region is much greener and lush, I could almost swear I tasted the increase of oxygen.
The highlight of Pisac is the ruins that loom high above in the nearby mountains. It’s a thirty-minute drive straight up to the mountain top where the ruins cling to the side of a cliff seemingly defying gravity.
Apart from some of the best views throughout the Sacred Valley, Pisac is special due to the concentration of cliff tombs in the adjacent mountain. The mountain looks like swiss cheese from all the tombs, unfortunately, they are off limits, but you can get a good look from Pisac Temple.
Meteorite Space Potatoes – Moray
Further into the Sacred Valley, we climbed into the hills to visit a few more sights. The first being Moray a series of terraces dug into the sides of some ancient meteorite strikes. These terraces go so deep into the earth that they create their own micro-climates allowing the Inca to grow several different climate zoned plants in this one area. The top terraces were growing hundreds of species of potato. I imagine the cosmic space energy from the meteorite made these potatoes have super potato power.
Salts of the Inca – Maras Salt Terraces
Nearby to Moray are the Salt Terraces of Maras. These pink and white terraces that crawl for kilometers down the mountainside were originally created by the Inca the cultivate and harvest salt.
The tourist path takes you by different types of these salt pools which are all fed by a salty stream that comes from the upper part of the mountain. It was quite interesting learning the difference between White and Pink salt. The Pink is the under part of the pool, which is found in less frequency, while the common white salt piles on top of it.
Although it’s popular with tourists, Maras is still a fully functioning salt harvesting area. You can watch workers cultivate and carry the salt up death-defying paths.
The BBQ Cuy Town (Barbecuy) – Sacred Valley
If you are going to make a lunch stop then this is the place. The town of Urubamaba is famed for its herb stuffed, sizzling, BBQ Cuy on a stick. Driving through town you will see plenty of BBCuy puns and Cuy statues.
If you have second thoughts about eating Cuy remember you are in Peru and as the old saying goes “do as the locals do” and this just happens to be dining on a cute fuzzy little delicious Guinea Pig. Oh, and don’t forget proper etiquette, the foreigner is offered the Guinea Pig head as it’s the most delicious part, enjoy.
Ollantaytambo – The Inca’s Final Fight
Here it is! The final stronghold of the Inca. This is where their empire came to an end after the Colonialist Spanish decimated the country. The Inca used this steep, closed in the valley to construct a massive fortress that is fortified with some of the largest and most beautiful stonework in the empire.
Climbing to the top and seeing the sun temple was amazing, the massive stones are fit together with such precision, I could only imagine how amazing this city would have been if history had let it be finished.
Ollantaytambo is also the old starting point of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Now the trail has become too dangerous, so it starts thirty minutes further up the road, but the trains to Machu Picchu still depart from here.
Inca Trail and Machu Pichu – Sacred Valley
I know what your thinking “Stephen, Inca Trail and Machu Picchu need its own post”, and your right I will make a post solely for it. But Machu Picchu is technically in the Sacred Valley so thus it must be included.
From Ollantaytambo the valley narrows, even more, getting very dramatic and beautiful before a small dirt trail called, you guessed it, the Inca Trail begins. The trail takes 3 to 4 days, 5 for those who what the locals refer to as “McDonalds People”.
Along the trail, you will see plenty of ancient temples and stunning vistas before finally arriving at Machu Picchu the grand sight of the Sacred Valley.
Ok, that is all I will say for Machu Picchu, stay tuned for a write up on my epic adventure there!
Peru is big. No, Peru is massive, and most the nation’s historic sights, traditional villages and amazing places are relatively undiscovered. If you want to see Peru and I mean leave the country with that Indiana Jones feel, then you must get help. Guiding Peru was that for me. Their expertise throughout the Highlands and knowledge of new regions was ideal for the avid adventurer. I highly recommend this company, especially because of their amazing guides, who are in a league of explorers themselves! Check out their tours HERE