Between the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and the lost citadel of Machu Picchu lies the Sacred Valley, a scenic region of rolling mountains, traditional Andean villages and remarkable ancient ruins. No trip to Peru would be complete without spending at least one day exploring the many attractions of the Sacred Valley and here’s our guide to the key sights to visit with a day at your disposal.
The privately-owned Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary is within easy reach of Cuzco and makes a delightful first stop on many day-tour itineraries of the Sacred Valley. Nestled in foothills surrounded by the Andes, the sanctuary is home to some of Peru’s most endangered species including the Andean condor, puma and mountain cat. The sanctuary rescues injured animals with the hope of one day releasing them into the wild. You’ll also find the more ubiquitous llama, alpaca and vicuña alongside toucan and monkeys. Few places in Peru offer such a chance to get up close to these amazing animals with an enclosure where you can watch the condor fly, truly appreciating its impressive wingspan. It’s free to visit though a donation of 10 soles is expected. However, in return you can choose a free gift ranging from pens topped with woven condors to small purses.
Markets and Terraces
Next up is Pisac and the impressive ruined citadel that features temples, water fountains and agricultural terraces. Located on a hill at the entrance to a gorge in the valley, the site once served as a line of defence as well as a place of worship. The remains of the Temple of the Sun here equal the craftsmanship of that found in Machu Picchu. Thanks to its strategic hilltop location, the ruins afford incredible views looking out across the Sacred Valley and the patchwork of farmed fields below.
In the colonial village of the same name lying beneath the ancient Inca fortress you’ll find one of the most extensive markets in the Sacred Valley. Stalls here sell all manner of goods from alpaca wool blankets to paintings by local artisans, perfect for souvenir shopping. Prices here are generally cheaper than in Cuzco but don’t forget to haggle – go in with a third of the asking price and barter from there.
Many day tours of the Sacred Valley will stop in Pisac for lunch. Here you’ll find a number of small eateries serving wood-oven baked empanadas that ideal for a quick snack. There’s also a choice of more substantial dishes of grilled meats served with rice and fries, a seemingly inseparable pairing in Peru. Try chicha morada while you’re here, a local drink made from purple maize spiced with cinnamon, lemon and sugar for a refreshing thirst-quencher. Those interested in sampling some of Peru’s more surprising meat offerings can wait for the journey out of Pisac. This journey takes you through the small town of Lamay where cuy seems to be the speciality as eager vendors wave skewers topped with blackened guinea pig at unsuspecting travellers.
Fortresses and Inca Towns
The final stop of the day will be Ollantaytambo, famed for the impressive Inca terraces that were constructed into the steep mountainside. The fortified city served as the royal estate for one of the best-known Inca kings – Pachacuti – who conquered the region. During his reign Pachacuti vastly extended the control of the Inca empire across South America. The Ollantaytambo fortress is also famous for its role as one of the last sites of resistance against the Spanish conquistadors in 1536. It’s a brilliant place to appreciate the Inca expertise in irrigation with stone aqueducts continuing to carry spring water along expertly built channels.
As the starting point for the famed Inca Trail, Ollantaytambo receives it fair share of visitors. The town, also built by the Incas in a grid system that survives in few others places, caters for these visitors with restaurants and cafes serving international favourites. There’s also a local market selling souvenirs.
Many tours to Peru will visit the Sacred Valley before reaching Machu Picchu and it’s the perfect introduction to the Inca empire and their remarkable building techniques.
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