The Urubamba Valley in central Peru, also known as the “Sacred Valley of the Incas,” is book-ended by two of Peru’s most outstanding cultural historical sites — Pisac and Peru’s most famous visitor attraction, the Inca citadel at Machu Picchu. A visit to both these locations is a must and often considered to have “ticked” the Sacred Valley box. However, there are rich opportunities to immerse oneself in the local culture within this 60-mile-long valley, and missing them would be losing out.
Explore Cusco — Gateway to The Sacred Valley
Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, is the popular gateway to the Sacred Valley. Located at 11,800 feet, the steep, narrow cobbled streets might seem quaint but will take your breath away — literally. While there are many historic colonial buildings to visit (including churches that will mesmerize you with their opulent use of gold), we wandered away from the main square to seek out lesser-known points of interest.
1. Join Locals For Breakfast At San Pedro Market
We started the day in a blaze of color at the bustling San Pedro market, a place locals gather for a bite to eat. Every fruit you can imagine is available here and there is no need to look for a sell-by date — it’s all super fresh. Sit at one of many eatery counters; each one is privately owned, but quality standards are maintained collectively and prices are moderated to ensure fair competition. If you wander around to the meat section, beware; you will see meat in various stages of preparation, some of which may still be looking at you. It’s fascinating, but not for the faint-hearted.
2. Try Coca-Infused Chocolate At The Coca Museum
In the artsy San Blas neighborhood, there is an understated, no-frills Coca Museum. The museum is only a couple of rooms located on the second floor of an inconspicuous building and is free to enter. You will discover the history of coca, information on the plant itself, and examples of its medicinal benefits. See the leaves, learn the process of extracting and making cocaine, and learn why locals have been chewing coca leaves for years. On sale — and hard to resist — are the many varieties of coca-infused chocolate… it has to be good for you!
See The Locals At Work
3. From Animal To Table
30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Cusco, off a dusty, windy road, lies the hamlet of Chinchero, reputed to be the birthplace of the rainbow! Although it has Inca ruins all of its own, most visitors miss this out-of-the-way place, which is a shame as Chinchero is also the weaving center of Peru.
The Interpretation of Andean textiles is located here and local women, working together as a co-operative, give demonstrations on how they collect, wash, dye (using naturally occurring dyes e.g. cochineal beetle, lupin flowers, lichen, and minerals to change the color tones), spin, and weave alpaca and llama wool into finished products.
The process is handed down from mother to daughter, and the learning starts at the age of 7. Our demonstrator, who had learned English at school and left at the age of 12, explained how a single 5-foot woolen table runner takes her 6 hours a day for a month to make. We could not resist, and her table runner now adorns our dining table.
4. Taste The Salt At Maras
A little farther north and even higher is Maras, where salt has been harvested since pre-Inca days. An eternal flow of mineral-laden spring water from the Andes is diverted into multiple pans constructed on the mountainside. Water settles and evaporates leaving, behind the salt which is then manually removed, crushed, and stored before being packaged for sale. Thankfully we didn’t have to dip our fingers into the saltpans to taste the salt — wonderfully colorful stalls hawking salt-infused chocolate were set up nearby to (successfully) tempt us.
5. Lunch With A Local
Nancy owns a farm near Chinchero where she grows her own vegetables and raises chickens. In her basic kitchen, she cooks for her family on a Calor gas two-ring stove. My five fellow travelers and I were invited for lunch. We sat around her long wooden table adorned with a simple white table cloth as Raphael, her teenage son, served us cream of corn soup, salad, cheese, veggies, and pollo saltado washed down with chamomile tea. It may not have been gourmet fare, but with all the ingredients from Nancy’s farm, it was fresh, hearty, and the surroundings wonderfully authentic and comfortable.
Head Into A Local Village And Join The Locals
6. Assist In A Llama Blessing Ceremony
Nestled high in the Andes, the hamlet of Patacancha is reached along a single dirt track road. We were greeted there by Juan, the de-facto head of the community, and other members of his family with many “Bienvenidos amigos” and hearty hugs.
COVID had decimated what little tourism they had in this visitor outpost, and there was no disguising they were pleased to see us. We had come to participate in a llama blessing — an annual ritual normally conducted on the eve of the llama mating season but one they would repeat for us.
Juan had already corralled his 64 llamas and alpacas (his share of a local co-operative of 13,000) ready for their blessing. As we donned the brightly colored, woven traditional ponchos and hats, we were serenaded with singing and accompanying traditional music. Speaking in Quechuan, Juan explained the symbolism of the ceremony praying to the mountains and mother earth to bless them and keep the animals fertile and healthy.
We tried to repeat the Quechuan words, but they were pathetically mumbled. Dancing in a circle to a flute and drum, however, was much easier to do. Taking three coca leaves, coated with animal fat, we prayed our own thoughts in silence. I hope our prayers worked and Juan’s flock grows.
7. Learn To Lasso An Alpaca
We were shown how to lasso an alpaca and invited to give it a try. The alpacas just stood still and inwardly laughed at our attempts…. until one of us struck lucky. Juan bound a mature alpaca and laid it on its side and produced a 6-inch knife. Anticipating the worst, we were relieved that he was simply going to show us how he sheared the wool — wool that would be spun, dyed, and woven into items for sale.
8. Share A Feast With The Locals
The Quechan Pachamama is a traditional method of cooking food similar in nature to a luau in Hawaii and is reserved for feasts and special occasions. Lunch was already underway, cooking in an earthen pit as we arrived. Juan dug open the pit revealing chicken, pork, fava beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and plantains, which we shared around Juan’s family table. Only Juan, as the head of the household, joined us for lunch washed down with various herbal teas. We were honored that he was prepared to share this feast with us. Remarkably, Juan spoke French, so were able to converse and thank him in words we both understood.
Discover The Valley’s History
9. Machu Pichu — Let The Bus Take The Strain
Although you can hike to Machu Pichu from Aguas Calientes, a much more relaxed approach is to catch the bus up the steep and winding road to the entrance. Once through the entrance gate, you still have a short and steep hike up a number of steps before emerging onto the overlook that provides the stage for those classic Machu Picchu views. Trekkers having just completed the 4-day Inca Trail, come in the opposite direction making for a challenging but ultimately worthwhile 20-minute or so climb.
10. Lunch By The Rails
Enjoy lunch at Full House, a restaurant right on the main street which also serves as the railway platform. Eating lomo saltado or the local delicacy of guinea pig as a train rumbles past just a few feet away from your table brings a whole new meaning to “lunch on the go.”
Pro Tip: Sturdy shoes are essential. Bring lots of water, chew coca leaves, and take your time. There is talk of potentially limiting visitors to only the citadel overlook in the future to prevent deterioration of the site. So if you have plans to visit, sooner rather than later might be a good idea.
An important Inca city with impressive ruins of a fort and sun temple, Pisac offers another marvelous glimpse into the Incan civilization. In some ways, it’s easier to imagine people living here as the various areas of the ancient city (e.g. garrison, living area, and hospital) are all separate and much more easily accessible. The vistas — with a seemingly endless array of terracing — may not be as well known as Machu Picchu but are impressive all the same.
11. See The Cemetery In The Mountain
The mountain (coincidentally across from the old hospital) was used by the Inca as a cemetery with many holes constructed in the cliff walls to accommodate tombs. Interestingly, mummified bodies were laid to rest in the fetal position representing a return to the womb.
12. Browse The Stalls In Town
In town, roads edged with colorful stalls sell everything a tourist could want (woven goods, flutes, artwork, and trinkets) while women holding baby alpacas target female tourists to pose for a picture. Having said that, it’s easy to stroll and browse this clean town without being pestered by vendors at each turn. A local vendor playing “Hey Jude” on his flute reminded us how our two worlds have collided.