What is Peru’s Sacred Valley? Machu Picchu always grabs the headlines as the Andean destination of dreamers, scholars and intrepid tourists. Retracing the Inca Trail and the steps of the early 20th century explorers who “discovered” the “Lost City” has become almost a rite of passage for second gen hipsters.
The Sacred Valley is a beautiful sixty-mile stretch roughly following the Urubamba River, filled with Incan history and lore. From the Incan capital of Cusco in the dry Andean plateau (altiplano) it descends, literally, into the high jungle of Machu Picchu.
To my mind, this part of Peru should not be overlooked. Done right, visiting the Sacred Valley offers the increasingly rare chance to glimpse and even experience an authentic local culture, built upon ancient belief systems that still resonate today and serve as a touch point to our humanity.
How to See the Sacred Valley
As a baby-boomer traveler, I wanted a thoroughly planned itinerary including hotel bookings, in-country transportation and a friendly face greeting me at each leg. I’m a pretty intrepid traveler, but the assurance of on-the-ground assistance is hugely important.
I called in the pros. Yampu Tours. They delivered. Flawlessly.
I knew I wasn’t going to hike the Inca Trail. Or, heaven forbid, camp. I need a few (say, 4) stars after the hotel name. Further, I need local guides, courteous and flexible, yet knowledgeable beyond the prepared text. I need to trust their knowledge to feel connected to the people and land I’m visiting.
My goal was an experiential, multi-dimensional trip, not just check off bucket list items.
(Note: this is the first installment of a series on my Peru trip with Yampu)
Yampu put together a terrific itinerary. Trustworthy, local guides who grew up in the area and whose native tongue is Quechan, the ancient language of the Incas. Throughout the trip, each guide provided his/her soulful backstory of growing up in the Andean highlands. I understood how, in just a generation or two, traditional lifestyles are now inextricably linked to the modern world.
You don’t get this kind of insight with just any guide. Yampu has found the best.
So, I recruited two friends, seasoned travelers, and we, as a group of three adventurers, set off.
The “Must Experience” Destinations in the Sacred Valley
MORAY: Experimental farming, the Inca Way
The Inca Empire, at its apex between the 13th to 16th centuries, stretched from modern-day Ecuador to Argentina, from the Pacific coast to the Andes peaks. It’s a harsh landscape with little arable land.
Once conquered, managing a population of nearly 8 million people, scattered over thousands of miles of inhospitable territory, required ingenious military and organizational strategies. The Incas figured it all out brilliantly.
The Incas excelled in harnessing a region of climatic zones ranging from coastal plains to high desert. They developed agricultural labs such as the one found in the archeological complex of Moray. The development of sustainable agriculture was vital to their success.
In this amphitheater of concentric circles, the temperature can differ by as much as 27 degrees (Fahrenheit) from top to bottom. Testing crops in these different micro-climates provided valuable information on successful agriculture production across the Incan empire.
They refined varieties of quinoa in high elevations and developed over three thousand varieties of potatoes. They grew maize of rainbow hues, big kernel stuff, tasty but starchy. It is the basis of a fermented corn brew called chicha de jora.
I didn’t drink any chicha; a bit strong and sweet for my taste. However, if you’re into homebrew, here’s the insider recipe.
Chinchero is the mythical home of the rainbow in Andean lore and a handicraft/weaving capital. I fell hard for the doe-eyed llamas and alpacas.
The wool from the alpaca is, of course, legendary for its use in fine knitwear. Here’s a tiny example of goods I bought for grownups and kids. The little mitts are for my granddaughter.
Unfortunately, we missed Chinchero’s traditional Sunday handicraft market. This photo essay captures the vibrancy of the marketplace. Indeed, it’s a reason to return!
However, we did see a fascinating demonstration of wool dying with local vegetable dyes. Talk about artisanal!
The Maras Salt Ponds
The salt ponds aren’t an official Wonder of the World, but they should be. Eons ago the region was a seabed. Volcanic and geo-rumblings ultimately forced the Andes to rise and form the spine of South America. Meanwhile, seawater was locked within the rock.
It is still trickling out.
Pre-Columbia tribes harnessed the salty water trickling out of a mountain spring around 200AD. Later, the Incan Empire used this precious commodity trading for cocoa leaves from the jungle.
The stream feeds an ingenious system of small canals that in turn fill thousands of small, vertigo-inducing ponds perched on the hillside. Each basin is about 15 feet square (3 meters) and shallow, about a foot (30 cm.) deep.
When a pond is full, the notch is closed, diverting water to another basin. As the water evaporates, the salt is scraped off, bagged and carried in several kilo bags along narrow paths to the cooperative’s depot. It is hard manual labor done at an elevation of 11,000 feet.
The salt is available at the co-op shop (and across Peru). It has a lovely pink tinge, a very salty taste, and is renown for its curative properties. It’s high in calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron, used as an effective treatment for skin conditions and swelling.
(Traveler hack: if you can’t get to Maras, this remarkable salt is available on Amazon.)
Ollantaytambo and the Huilloc Community
Ollantaytambo – Architecture in the Incan tradition
The ruins at Ollantaytambo, built by in the 1400s under the leadership of Incan empire builder Pachacutec (1438-1471), who went on to create Machu Picchu. The ruins are thought to be of religious and strategic importance.
Visiting the ruins is a beautiful precursor to Machu Picchu. It’s a bit smaller, not as busy and sets the stage for the remarkable engineering brilliance of the Incas.
Further, their engineering expertise is readily apparent. The Incan ingenious design for interlocking stone blocks gives their buildings resilience in earthquakes. Seven hundred years and the construction is still “rock solid.”
Incan doorways are a trapezoid shape. Narrower at the top places the pressure on the base of the opening, not the top.
Evident, too, is the very advanced water distribution system. This remnant of the intricate canal system at the Ollantaytambo pays tribute to the Inca engineering genius.
A Huilloc Community Welcome
To my mind, the real value of a tour/travel agency is their ability to connect you with an experience you couldn’t do otherwise.
That is the value-add of Yampu.
Participating in another culture was a hands-on lesson in gratitude and humility.
We visited the rural Huilloc (pronounced “Wee-oak”) community, to participate in Chakra or agriculture. Roles and dress are traditional, so Linda and I slipped into woolen skirts, hats, and ponchos. Geoff, the guy in our small tribe, donned the male attire.
After introductions, we enjoyed delicious mint tea and a crunchy peanut-like snack.
We joined in dancing accompanied by pan flute and strings played by the men. Everybody participated: the kids, the teens, men, women. What first seemed awkward on our part quickly gave away to the graciousness of our hosts.
However, our visit took us deeper. Geoff practiced traditional farming with a hoe/plow tool, still in use today to plant potatoes, a diet staple.
Linda and I toured the kitchen, where potatoes were on the boil.
I was shown how to stoke the fire (blowing through a hollow log). Later, the lady of the house turned me around and, filling a cloth square about the size of a large scarf with the potatoes, she tied it around my shoulders. I was to carry this to the stream where we had a picnic with the family.
By this time, we were pretty comfortable with one another and chatted as friends do. Through our guide, we learned everyone’s ages and roles, and they learned ours.
They heard about our grandchildren (and gamely complimented the pictures); we learned the road to their village was recently paved making the weekly 24 km walk to the market far easier.
The kids played, the teen boy talked about his wish for a cell phone (that’s pretty universal) and the young woman spoke wistfully of her upcoming marriage.
The elder of the family, with his bottle of homebrewed chicha, poured the first draught on to the ground. It’s the Incan practice of giving thanks to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for her bounty.
A beautiful, simple expression of gratitude. Grace is such a simple thing – why don’t we do more to incorporate it our 1st world privileged lives?
Lunch, 3 courses, was served in a dining room clearly meant for visitors. Corn soup, chicken, a vegetable dish and sweet pudding for dessert. The room was too dark for pictures; the meal simple and delicious.
Prepping to Go
Now, with 20/20 hindsight I mostly agree with my pre-trip expectations. Except Peru was more magnificent, more profound than I dreamed.
More attention will be given to the topic of altitude in further installments of my Peruvian adventure, but suffice to say that hydration is super, super important. Especially if you live at or near sea level.
Here are a few tips for staying hydrated while traveling, but what about before you leave?
About a week before departure, I made a conscious effort to drink at least a liter of water per day, the minimum of what I thought I’d need while in the high Andean plateau. I landed in Lima (sea level) but then went directly to Cusco and from there by car to the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley ranges from 6,000-11,000 feet, much higher than my home turf.
I arrived in Peru hydrated, and never had to play catch-up. It proved to be a wise choice. Drink up, my friends.
(Not Quite) Required Reading
I’m a huge fan of reading up on a destination before visiting. And not just travel books or online material. That’s helpful in the planning stage, but not, ahem, the whole story.
To understand a country, to get into its veins, you need their literature, the voice of their authors. For Peru-bound travelers, there’s no better resource than Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
Essayist, novelist, short story writer, his work is legendary.
I loved this one, even though I wasn’t traveling to the Amazon. I found it a thoughtful approach to engaging with indigenous people, a factor very much part of today’s discussion surrounding economic development in Peru.
Here are some other recommendations. I carried the Reader with me and found it an invaluable resource in sorting out the tidal wave of information washing over each day.
If you have the time or inclination for just one book before traveling to Peru, make it this one. A collection of essays, short stories, legends and biographies, this provides a look at the diversity that makes Peru so fascinating.
This one is on every list of must-reads on Peru. Focusing on the history of the Incas, it retraces the steps of Hiram Bingham, the early 20th-century explorer. Clever and funny, it will make you glad you’re not planning a modern-day tramp across the Sacred Valley.
The seminal work of Hiram Bingham. You might as well read his first-hand account, written soon after his 1911 exploration that made him famous for “discovering” Manchu Picchu.
The Upshot/Final Thoughts
Peru clocked 3.3 million tourists in 2017. The growth of international tourism is expected to rise by 8.5% in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
The district government and local communities are only recently awake to the economic benefits of cultural tourism. It is still in its infancy but holds transformational promise. Plans afoot will inalterably change the character of the place. One hopes the commercial development, based on tourism, will be thoughtful; respecting the area’s ecosystems and preserving the inhabitants’ unique heritage.
The economic alternative – migration to the larger cities – threatens to render the region, indeed, “lost.” And by that, I don’t mean overgrown with vegetation.
My advice: see the Sacred Valley soon. The cable cars are coming. The tourist buses will get bigger and more frequent.
Finally, book through an experienced tour provider such as Yampu. You can customize your trip to your liking and come away with a remarkable experience you couldn’t do on your own.
Your Quechan is probably not as good as your tourist Spanish.