Continuing on our adventure in Peru, we explore the natural beauty, indigenous culture, and Inca legacy of the Sacred Valley.
Many people just take a day trip or pass through on their way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. But, as we discovered, the Sacred Valley is definitely worth a couple of days (or more).
Inca archeological sites, cultural experiences, delicious Peruvian meals, and views of the surrounding Andes abound.
Besides appreciating its Inca ruins, the Sacred Valley is also known for its natural setting, rich flora and fauna, birdwatching, and adventure tourism.
Join me as our unique, privately-guided tour continues. Come to a Peruvian feast in an indigenous community, see how families work together to collect salt from ancient pools, and climb the Inca fortress, Ollantaytambo, for breathtaking vistas of the Sacred Valley.
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Descending Into the Land of the Inca
We spent two nights and nearly three days exploring the Sacred Valley. Our adventure began in, Provocative Peru Trip: Touring Lima & Sacred Valley.
Outside the market town of Chinchero, we enjoyed a fabulous lagoon-side gourmet lunch before a visit to the weaving cooperative. Indigenous lore says that Chinchero, one of the Inca’s major cities, was the birthplace of the rainbow. It’s also one of the few towns in the Sacred Valley that sits even higher (12,500 feet) than Cusco.
As we descended into the Sacred Valley by minivan, we enjoyed views of a dramatic landscape featuring snow-capped peaks and jagged mountains. Meandering through the tranquil valley is the Urubamba River, a headwater of the mighty Amazon.
Travel Tip: It’s best to visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu before Cusco. The lower elevation helps with altitude acclimatization. See more altitude tips in Part I, Provocative Peru Trip.
Environmentally-friendly, Tambo Del Inka, is a luxury Marriott property, that was our Sacred Valley home for two nights.
Along with an emerald lagoon and riverside gardens, it’s the only hotel in Urubamba with a private train station to Machu Picchu.
Our room and bath at the resort and spa were expansive and beautifully decorated. Large, open fireplaces were in abundance around the property. Public areas, like the bar, were stunning. Pisco sour anyone?
“A pisco sour is an alcoholic cocktail of Peruvian origin that is typical of the cuisines from Chile and Peru. The drink’s name comes from pisco, which is its base liquor, and the cocktail term sour, in reference to sour citrus juice and sweetener components.” Wikipedia
Sacred Valley Then & Now
Appreciated by the Incas because of its geography and climate, the Sacred Valley is irrigated by the Urubamba. According to our guide, the Inca called it the sacred river, because it reflects the Milky Way above.
Before the Inca ruled the area for about 350 years, at least three other pre-Columbian civilizations inhabited the fertile valley. Indigenous peoples still live and work there; much as their ancestors did.
During our visit, a weekend long festival was being celebrated in the Sacred Valley. Spanish Catholic religious and indigenous cultural customs are combined for the holiday. Bands and dancers in colorful costumes paraded down main streets and aisles of churches. And at night there were feasts and fireworks.
After breakfast, we drove to the local community of Tierra de los Yachaqs. As part of the welcome ceremony, two members greeted us with music. Then, we followed them to a modest family compound.
Once inside, hubby and I were dressed in village ceremonial attire, and took part in a traditional dance. Due to teasing by our sons and family, Mr. Buzz has forbidden me from sharing most of the photographs and videos from our visit, LOL!
Unique Cultural Experience
Described as a demonstration of local farming techniques and food harvesting, the three-hour visit was actually an incredible, one-of-a-kind experience.
After the dance, these charming ladies put us to work preparing fruit, vegetables and meats for a Peruvian feast. Even our guide and driver joined in.
Nothing is wasted here! Scraps are used to feed livestock or as compost for crops. Sandals are made of recycled tires.
While we peeled, sliced and chopped, the men were heating hot stones. A fire pit was used to cook much of the meal. First, stones were placed at the bottom of a hole. Then the food, dirt, and greens were layered on top.
Wrapping the cheese with corn stalks kept it from melting into a puddle.
While the meal was cooking, we headed for another area of the compound. There, we helped remove the huge kernels from a special variety of corn that had already been laid out to dry in the sun.
Villagers still primarily speak, Quechua, an indigenous language that predates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Much of what we know of the Inca — who did not have a written language — comes from oral histories in Quechua.
Rosabeth, a Cusco native (who’s grandmother lives in the Amazon Basin), was able to translate so we could “converse.” Ruban, our driver, also lives in Cusco, but is from Spectacular Spain.
Guinea Pigs & Airplanes
Our hosts were delighted to hear we were going to be at Machu Picchu on my birthday. They immediately asked our age. I’m happy to report they seemed surprised at our “advanced” age, remarking we looked much younger — at least that’s what Rosabeth told us! Hubby was distressed, however, to realize he was the most senior citizen in the entire community, LOL!
When Rosabeth told them I wouldn’t eat guinea pig, there was laughter and teasing. Guinea pig is a Peruvian delicacy. It’s reserved for special occasions, like birthdays. While preparing the meal, I had seen one in a cage with rabbits. That made me nervous it would be a part of the menu!
As a kid, I had five Peruvian (long-hair) guinea pigs. In fact, I bred them as pets. I couldn’t possibly eat one! Guinea pigs as pets — not food — they shook their heads. Did you or your kids ever have a pet guinea pig? Could you eat one?
Later, they asked about our family and jobs. Retirement is probably not a word in their language. These wonderful people work hard their entire lives. No translation was necessary though, when Rosabeth told them I had worked for a company that made airplanes (Boeing). I think I gained some level of respect after the guinea pig discussion!
There were four kinds of potatoes, various varieties of corn, squash (the size of a watermelon), herbs, exotic fruits and vegetables, soup, corn-brewed beer, roasted beef, lamb and chicken — and a delicious rhubarb dessert. A most hearty and filling feast! Much, much more than the Andean dish tasting described in our Cox & Kings travel itinerary.
It may not be the most beautiful presentation or elaborate tablescape, but it was an absolutely superb meal! No other cultural experience of our entire 19-day trip came close. Definitely a highlight of the vacation.
Mining for Salt
After the feast, we descended a winding, narrow road on the edge of a steep canyon into Maras.
Since pre-Inca times, salt as been obtained by evaporating water emerging from a natural spring. Directed into an intricate system of small channels, the water gradually runs down into shallow terraced ponds. The entire operation requires close cooperation among the community.
As water evaporates, salt forms into various size crystals and the pond is allowed to go dry. Several days later, the pond’s owner scrapes the dry salt and places it into a sack. Color of the salt reflects quality, and varies from white to a light red or pink.
Rosabeth also told us the higher the ponds are to the top, the better the salt production. Members of the cooperative may own and work as many as twenty ponds.
After the informative tour, hubby and I sat back to marvel at the operation below.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Later that night, this beautifully crafted cake and chocolate greeting were waiting in our room. Even though it wasn’t yet my birthday, Rosabeth had apparently spread the word far and wide. Fortunately, no guinea pigs were harmed as a result!
For the next day’s big adventure to Machu Picchu, we reorganized all our luggage and hit the hay early.
An Inca Style Birthday
Hubby had to get up at 5:30 AM to grab some breakfast. He had a train to catch in order to meet a guide and porter for the one-day, Inca Trail hike. My long-wished-for birthday gift, was to meet him as he entered the Sun Gate — high above Machu Picchu.
Later, Ruban drove Rosabeth and I to Ollantaytambo, and then took most of our luggage back to Cusco. That’s because you are limited to one piece of luggage and a carry-on bag, per person on the train. Since hubby was hiking with a lightweight backpack, I had to combine what we needed for the next few days into one large suitcase.
Travelers Tip: Check the luggage requirements, and limitations, for all modes of transportation before your trip. For us that meant; two international flights with connections, van, five internal flights, two train rides, and a Galapagos Cruise. Packing took me more than a week to figure out and streamline! Three basic words of advice, “use packing cubes!”
Terraces to the Sky
During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was a royal estate with a town and ceremonial center.
Rising above the charming town is a formidable stone structure.
Traveler Tip: While in the Sacred Valley area, it’s best to dress in layers. I’ve got on a sports bra, breathable t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt (with vents and built-in sun protection), and zip-up fleece. Although I did get overheated climbing all those steps to the top, I definitely needed the fleece earlier in the morning and when in the shade.
You also need water, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim. Mine has sunscreen protection built in. It’s come in handy on several trips, including; Amazing Ancient Athens and Exploring Iceland.
During the Spanish conquest of Peru, Ollantaytambo served as a stronghold for the leader of the Inca resistance. But, those terraces weren’t for defense purposes.
Terraces, used to grow crops in the Andes, are supported by amazingly engineered stone walls. Breathtaking views await those who make the climb.
A massive construction project at the top was never completed. Giant, rose-color granite was mined and moved from elsewhere in the Sacred Valley. An amazing feat.
Behind and below is the fertile river valley leading to Machu Picchu. Somewhere beyond, hubby was now on his steep climb up the Andes!
Ollantaytambo was an elaborate walled complex containing a temple to the sun (used for astronomical observation), ceremonial baths, and palace for the emperor.
All the Inca stone structures were put together like Lego pieces, with no mortar. Below me sits the town and opposite direction of the Sacred Valley — where we spent the previous few days.
Two Valleys Are Better Than One
A second valley converges with the Sacred Valley at Ollantaytambo. Separating the two is a massive mountain.
To store and air-dry/preserve corn, the Inca built granaries. Look closely in the picture above (to the upper right) and see if you can spot them. I’m completely dumbfounded how the Inca carried corn up and down — let alone built those granaries in the first place!
Travel Tip: I found a fanny pack a convenient and hands-free way to carry my stuff. Especially helpful while climbing up and down steep, often uneven ground. Numerous times I used my hands for support exploring Inca sites. In addition to the sunscreen and lip balm, I carried prescription glasses, tissues, small wallet, passport, and cellphone. Most times I wore the pack to one side; on a hip. In crowds, I simply slide it to the front, or carried it tightly under my arm — like a small purse.
Traveling the Inca Trail
Next, we’ll check in with Mr. Buzz on the Inca Trail and meet up Exploring Magnificent Machu Picchu, the iconic archeological site.
Oh yes, and meet a few llamas along the way!
But first, I plan to finish up next week with Part 2 of my Kitchen Coastal Decor for Summer. And don’t miss, Steamboat Springs Sky High Hot Air Balloon Festival.
Have you ever explored the Inca Sacred Valley? Gone on a trip to celebrate your birthday or a special occasion?
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Fabulous trip…the scenery is so dramatic and beautiful! Thanks for sharing your adventure, and a very “Happy Birthday!” to you as well.
Heh Bobbi, thinking of traveling to Peru yourself?
What an adventure, Debbee! Peru’s not on my list but I sure enjoyed seeing your adventure. And what a way to celebrate another trip around the sun – Happy Belated Birthday!
I’ve always been fascinated by the Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations and archeological sites. Working through my bucket list of locations to visit, with Machu Picchu near the top (while I was still able to climb, deal with the altitude, etc.). But, I also discovered how fabulous the cultural experiences were along the way. It was also nice to not be overrun by tourists everywhere.