Sometimes when travelling, you come across a place that had sounded pretty standard and when you see it in person, you absolutely kick yourself for not scheduling more time for it. The Sacred Valley was like that for me. While we did get to see a number of things in the area, I believe the Sacred Valley is just screaming for slow travel. It has amazing landscape, unique archaeological sites, and a slower pace of life.
Due to time constraints, we decided to take the most ‘time friendly’ option and signed up for a private tour with Alpaca Expeditions. This was the same company with whom we did the Salkantay + Inca Trail Trek. I only have good things to say about this company and our very friendly and knowledgeable guide. A tour like this ended up being a great way to get a feel for the Sacred Valley and to experience its highlights. I would definitely come back and spend more time here!
Here are the highlights of a typical day trip from Cusco to the Sacred Valley of Peru:
Awana Kancha Llama Project
One of the first stops people make in the Sacred Valley, especially if on a tour or with a hired driver, is at a tourist site called Awana Kacha Llama Project. It is kind of a petting zoo slash museum slash cultural exhibit slash shop. Not really my thing but I will admit it was useful to finally get a grasp on the differences between the llama, the alpaca, and the vicuña. You can even feed them alfalfa which could make for some amusing encounters with the animals. We were told that the animals in the project’s herd are rotated between there and the fields so each individual does get time away.
There is also an exhibit on traditional weaving and an opportunity to see the differences between the three animal wool. You also learn how important to the Andean peoples these animals are as well as various types of corn and potato. And of course, there is the ubiquitous store that we had no interest in seeing but I heard it is worth a look if you want to shop.
Oh – bonus….it is free to visit! Though tips are appreciated, of course, if you get a site guide while there
If you have a good guide or if you’re good at making your wishes known, there are various fairly official viewpoints (and unofficial ones, too) at which you can stop to take photographs. They are well worth the stop to admire the mountains and the checkered valley farmland. It really is a beautiful sight.
While most people seem to visit Pisac on Sundays for its famous market, we went on a day that was a bit quieter but still had a market going (Tuesdays, Thursdays). The market was interesting to see and it included a number of semi-permanent stalls. There were all sorts of local handicrafts, beautiful art, and even delicious smelling food. The town itself is also worth a wander to explore its rustic charm. But the main reason to visit Pisac is the archaeological site that sits up on a hill over the town. Following a snaking road up the mountain, you will reach the ruins in about 20 minutes by car. The view from up here is beautifully bucolic. I thought the multi-coloured fields looked like a patchwork quilt. The ruins themselves were once a citadel – what remains are terraces, steps, some evidence of daily life, and a few tombs high up along the mountain side. It is best to go as early as possible in the morning because the site can get pretty overrun with tourists and meditating spiritual seekers (apparently the tombs hold the secret of life or something?).
One of my other regrets from our visit to the Sacred Valley is that we didn’t stay in Ollantaytambo for a couple days (we only stayed in Cusco). I had to make do with a couple hours. It was a nice looking town, seeming having various corners to explore. The neat thing about this town is that it was built on Incan foundations and is apparently the best surviving example of Inca town planning. Above the town are some pretty cool Incan ruins and some massive stones. The stones take on an almost mythical quality when you realize that somehow, the Incans got the stones way up here from way down by the Urubamba River. If you visit the archaeological site with a guide, make sure (s)he tells you the tragic love story associated with the site! Of course, it involves a princess and a valiant warrior….
Chinchero is a small rural town that doesn’t look like much when you first arrive. But it is actually pretty cool with an archaeological site and a colonial church. We visited during late afternoon, so the golden sunlight added an amazing glow to the area. Arriving this late also meant that we had the town’s ruins to ourselves. These ruins are the remains of what once was an Incan royal country resort. The ruins themselves are primarily the usual terraces and walls but it is more for the atmosphere why you come here. Being surrounded by mountains in a fertile valley, standing in Incan ruins sprawled next to a pretty adobe colonial church, I was one happy shutterbug. The church was built in the early 17th century by the Spanish and it sits on top of what once was an Incan palace. It is a simple structure with beautifully ornate painted ceilings, representing both Andean and Catholic themes. Unfortunately, one cannot take photos inside the church.
On a separate day, we did a day trip out to the circular terraces of Moray and the salt pans at Maras. For this trip, we hired a taxi with driver for the day through Taxidatum. Our driver was friendly, punctual, and spoke quite good English. He wasn’t actually an official guide but that is why Taxidatum has such good prices. And that worked out well for us because while it was nice to chat with the driver, we wanted to explore things on our own. So we got the best of both worlds, in my opinion!