Cusco is located at 11200 ft (3400m) and the risk of altitude sickness is possible so after landing in Cusco we started our exploration of the Sacred Valley by making our way to a lower altitude to help acclimate. We spent our first 2 nights at the Sol y Luna Hotel in the town of Urubamba. This was an excellent home base for visiting the area and it’s various Inca sites such as Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Moray and Salinas de Maras.
Tip: We found that starting our tour in the Sacred Valley was the best way to discover the area not only to reduce the risk of altitude sickness but also to visit and appreciate many impressive sites before reaching the pinnacle of our trip: Machu Picchu, one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
From Ollantaytambo we enjoyed a scenic train ride aboard the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) the last town before reaching Machu Picchu. We stayed at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel located a 25 minutes bus ride away from the citadel of Machu Picchu. Staying at the Sanctuary Lodge located at the foot of Machu Picchu would have been more convenient to avoid a long wait to get on the bus and also to ensure seeing the sunrise over the majestic ancient city of Machu Picchu. The trade off is that there is really nothing else up there so at night you are stuck at the hotel with nothing else to do.
Staying in Aguas Calientes is more practical if you want to explore the area, go to the hot springs or to catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. Also, many restaurants, bars and shops line the streets of Aguas Calientes. Our hotel offered diverse nature walks in the Rain Forest and we enjoyed a private tour of the Spectacled Bears Sanctuary.
Needless to say that the highlight of our visit was to the iconic and ancient city of Machu Picchu perched high up in the lush Andean mountains. The views were breathtaking and we couldn’t help but to be in awe and feel humbled by the Incas’ masterpiece.
The Incas were skilled builders. The stones were carved like giant Lego blocks to insure solid structures, as a testimonial they withstood earthquakes that destroyed many monuments built years later by the Spanish. Without any use of mortar the massive stones interlock perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the finest examples can be seen on some of the most sacred or royal structures.
The citadel of Machu Picchu was erected high up on top of a mountain at an altitude of 7710 ft (2350m) and how the Incas brought all the stones to the top remains a mystery. We enjoyed a guided tour of the ruins that helped us to grasp what we were looking at. Also, we learned about the construction achievements and the day-to-day life of the inhabitants (1000-1200 individuals). Do not miss the Temple of the Sun, Sacred Plaza and Intihuatana.
The Inca’s skills in astronomy are also apparent in the construction. Among others the Intihuatana stone was used as a precise indicator of the summer and winter solstices. This information was useful in planning the agricultural cycles. The only circular building is the Temple of the Sun and during the two solstices the two tower windows are aligned with the rising sun.
Aside from the main site itself, there are many other viewpoints and sights to see at Machu Picchu. Hiking to the Sun Gate takes you to a great vantage point from which to see Machu Picchu. It wasn’t an easy task but worth the effort if only to enjoy the vistas over Machu Picchu and the surrounding Andeans mountains. If nothing else you can say “I did it!!”
Just a short 15-20 minutes the other way is the Inca Bridge. Certainly worth the effort, and if coming from the Sun Gate you can take a shortcut across the terraces. Not for those with vertigo, this set of trails often becomes a narrow 2-3 ft stone path with no guardrail and a 2,000 ft drop.
Tip: Planning ahead is essential and reservations are necessary for the train and the bus ride up to Machu Picchu. Be prepared for an early wake-up and a long wait to get on the bus. We were in line at 5 am and got to the gate at 6:30 am. We were finally looking down over Machu Picchu by 7 am.
Tip: Bring your passport because without it it’s not possible to enter the site of Machu Picchu. They do check! Stamps for passports are available.
Tip: Bring plenty of water and snacks, once you enter the site you can’t buy any and there are no facilities either. Also, you can only exit and reenter three times with the same ticket!!
Must see in the Sacred Valley:
Ollantaytambo is a typical Inca town where you fall back in time. The people still live like their ancestors did using traditional ways in a small one-room house. Inside you’ll find the bedroom corner, the kitchen with a wood stove and no chimney, an altar and a small loft for storage. In the house we visited there were among other things three llama fetuses hanging on the wall, dried meats dangling from the ceiling and of course guinea pigs roaming around. They will eventually end-up as dinner.
In Ollantaytambo you can’t miss seeing the fortress perched on top of 16 massive terraces. Climbing to the top will reward you with a fantastic view of the town down below and the surrounding mountains.
Pisac is renowned for it ruins and handicraft market. The vestiges’ main highlights are the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon and they served, respectively, as an astronomical observatory and as a ceremonial bathing complex.
The Incas ingenious agricultural system of terraces enabled them to grow a wide variety of plants in the same location and these can be seen all over the Sacred Valley. They grew over 300 types of potatoes. The terraces of Moray were incredible and when we visited we were lucky to witness the celebration to Pachamama (Mother Earth) taking place on the site that day.
While visiting in the Sacred Valley make sure to stop at the salt pans of Maras as they are still active today. If you wish you can buy different types of salt. Be careful not to fall in, as the superstition is that this will bring seven years of bad luck to the unfortunate one who does. The unique landscape is stunning and worth a stop!
During our trip, we stopped in Awanacancha to learn about the different textiles produced from the wool of llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. The latter produce the finest wool and some say that this is even softer than cashmere. Feeding alfalfa to these camelid creatures can be fun for the young and young at heart.
In the village of Chinchero we visited a women’s center to learn and observe them practice traditional weaving and wool-dying methods. Textile products can also be purchased from the ladies.
We visited the studio of the artist Pablo Seminaro for an overview of ancient ceramic techniques.
Overall we enjoyed this trip immensely, and would encourage everyone to make this journey while their legs and lungs are still able.