Pura's 10 minute guide to the Sacred Valley
Wonderfully warm and welcoming locals, beautiful patterns woven in the time-honoured fashion, hilltop Inca citadels retelling vivid tales of an advanced civilisation and some truly astounding Andean scenery - what's not to love? The trick with the Sacred Valley is weaving all this together into something personal and more intimate than the usual photo safaris. It's the sort of challenge we love.
The lay of the land in the Sacred Valley
Let's orient ourselves first.
Looking at a map of Peru, you'll find the Sacred Valley region nestled in the Andes down towards the south east of the country. As I'm sure you know, Cusco is the nearest major city, so that's a good place to look for. The valley basically follows the course of the Urubamba River, broadly speaking from Pisac in the east to Ollantaytambo in the west. Beyond that is the cloud forest and Machu Picchu. To the north are the Urubamba Mountains.
Panoramic view of the Sacred Valley - the landscape is pretty special
Why the Sacred Valley is special to Pura
Getting out into the countryside on foot is our sort of thing. We love to stretch our legs and enjoy new landscapes as they develop, step-by-step. There are few better places to do this than the Sacred Valley. We have followed the obvious routes and the less obvious ones, often taking more pleasure from the latter. Given our long-standing ties with Peru, consolidated into our new Pura Peru office, we were always going to explore deeper and get away from the growing crowds to seek a more authentic and intimate experience. So below you'll find our take on the classic Inca Trail and will be introduced to our alternative one, which we are extremely proud to share.
We pride ourselves on taking you into deeper layers of local life and culture on your holiday. The Quechua influences are strongest here in the Sacred Valley and so meeting the locals, understanding their lives and sharing a meal with them has given us as much pleasure as the landscape has. Of course there are many Inca ruins dotted throughout the valley and it amazes us how we are still able to enjoy some of them with no one and nothing for company but the odd herd of llamas.
Uniquely, we don't work with a distant agency in Lima. Our partners in Peru have faces and names, because we know them well and have developed close direct working relationships. Gabby and Pepe are our eyes and ears in Peru, but Carlos, Oscar, Katerina, Mario, Betsy, Jake, Carlitos, Martin and many others play equally important roles in making our trips so memorable.
Pura co-founder Thomas Power enjoying lunch with Gabby & Pepe
The usual suspects
I'm sure you will start recognising some names as you work through your Sacred Valley research. There are a few 'usual suspects' which capture the attention of most visitors and tour operators, with good reason too. The degree to which you focus on these or more intimate 'local' experiences, or (better yet) a mixture of these, is largely up to you. Our visits are flexible, allowing you to be guided by a mixture of our experiences and recommendations and your own interests and sense of curiosity.
We've been to the hilltop fortress at Pisac and the terracing is utterly breathtaking, wrapping around the slopes of the huge river gorge. There are a number of distinct parts to wander around, dedicated to defence, astronomy observation, sun worship, sacrifices and bathing. It is therefore an intrinsic part of the Inca story and a wonderful scene-setter. Just don't expect to have it to yourself, or be tricked into thinking the market is the most authentic in the region. It is a good place to buy a hat though, as I can personally testify. You can choose to either be driven down from the ruins to the town, or complete the hour walk on foot.
Pisac Market is a colourful affair - though not particularly 'authentic'
At the other end of the valley, Ollantaytambo was a royal complex-cum-fortress, strategically located where the Urubamba and Patakancha rivers meet. It was the site of some important battles between the Incas and the invading Spanish and was the place from which the last rulers fled into the cloud forest and the safety of Machu Picchu. Today it is a vast hillside site which impresses with its scale and the size and detail of its terracing and ruins, but offers little in the way of intimacy. Expect crowds, and llamas.
Moray is an interesting place, thought to serve as a huge crop laboratory. Stone terraces were built into the hillside, creating a surprising temperature variance from top to bottom and allowing the Incas to grow a wide range of crops in one place. Not too far away are the huge pre-Inca salt pans of Maras, well worth a stop and a stroll around the site.
Local tending her salt pans at Maras in the Sacred Valley
What else to do in the Sacred Valley
The above places provide a good introduction to the Sacred Valley, telling the tale of life in the Inca times. But such is the strength of the Quechua identity here and the extent to which ancient traditions and techniques are kept alive, that it would be a travesty to not properly experience local life. Doing so is not necessarily easy, without the right guide to get you a foot in the right door and introduce you to people that matter.
That might mean stopping to talk to a woman baking bread by the side of the road in the same vast wood-fired ovens that their ancestors used. It might mean buying local crops and seeds at a little market off the tourist trail. Or perhaps visiting a small community weaving centre, where they are keeping alive a tradition of weaving llama wool which dates back thousands of years. It could also mean eating in a genuine Spanish hacienda surrounded by colonial era art and historical artefacts or in the home of a wonderfully welcoming local family.
This combination of very personal, often unexpected, experiences and the splashy sights mentioned previously can elevate your time in the Sacred Valley way beyond the standard. And we haven't even mentioned the myriad cycling routes you can follow or the unforgettable river rafting on offer. Nor have we got to the bit where you pull on your walking boots...
Baking bread in the Sacred Valley in traditional wood-fired ovens
The classic Inca Trail
We love the idea of reaching Machu Picchu on foot. If you're able to do so, there is no better way to arrive at the citadel than by following the trail to the Sun Gate, for your first glimpse of the site below you. It will probably be the moment that defines your Peru holiday - so we have to get it right.
What does getting it right mean? Well it could mean either timing your Inca Trail to avoid the biggest crowds, the busiest (and least pleasant) campsites and getting you to the Sun Gate in the early afternoon. Not sunrise.
We care too much about your experience to follow the crowd and shepherd you along with everyone else. Why would we do that when there are better options, which only require a little consideration and pre-planning? Working directly with guides and porters means that we can improve both your and their experience, creating a win-win situation. Giving you an extra night to enjoy the sanctuary also seems logical to us, but few others. The link below takes a deeper dive into the Inca Trail.
Getting it right could equally mean completing the one day Royal Inca Trail as part of our four day alternative Inca Trail, with no camping, more diversity and easier access to permits. Let's turn our attention to that now.
Porters walking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
Away from the crowds on Pura's alternative Inca Trail
There are some difficulties involved with the Inca Trail that put a lot of people off. Permits are required, porters are put under a lot of pressure and don't particularly like doing it, you have no choice but to camp and then there are the crowds. We quite enjoy negotiating the various challenges and have worked hard to carve ourselves a 'Pura' Inca Trail experience we can be proud to share.
But why stop there? There are a lot of places that we enjoy walking in the Sacred Valley. We've been to many of these and wondered why we were the only ones there. We wanted to share them. So a mixture of this desire and the frustrations posed by the classic Inca Trail went into the melting pot to create our alternative.
We won't go into in depth here, because we already have on the link below. But the concept is to showcase the same diversity of Andean scenery, to take you to some Inca ruins where you'll likely be the only visitors there and to get you to Machu Picchu on foot, once the biggest crowds have left or caught the train to Cusco. Each night you'll sleep in a comfortable hotel bed and eat in a proper restaurant. Walks generally last between five and seven hours, though can be tailored to your energy levels wherever possible.
You miss places like this if you just follow the crowds in the Sacred Valley
How and when to visit the Sacred Valley
Your time in the Sacred Valley will obviously be weaved in amongst time in Cusco and at Machu Picchu. There are several ways to approach this, depending on how we agree to structure your visit. The most common and ideal way is to spend three nights in the heart of the Sacred Valley itself, then moving on to Machu Picchu for a couple of nights, followed by three nights in Cusco. This would allow you to do our 'alternative Inca Trail'. Obviously this will change if you are to tackle the classic version.
A completely different option is to stay in Cusco and venture into the valley on a day trip. We don't recommend this, given the wealth of places and people we'd like to introduce you to. But it can be arranged if you're really short on time.
Peru is a good 'all year' destination, given that temperatures do not vary wildly. There are a couple of exceptions though. The period between late December and early March is wet. The Inca Trail closes for maintenance in February and the train service is not at its most reliable - so it's best avoided. Early December and late March can be good times for travel, though rain is a distinct possibility. May to November gets a thumbs up and a green light, though August is peak visitor season.
Where next? Condors or iguanas?
So where next beyond the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco? Many plan to continue south to Lake Titicaca, on the border with Bolivia. As much as we love the scenery down here and the idea of the timeless island lifestyles, the reality often disappoints. The Uros Islands are tantamount to a human zoo and time spent on Taquile Island is almost always too swift to be anything more than superficial. If you are set on visiting, let's talk about your options.
We like to direct you to the Colca Canyon, where you get the dramatic scenery and more authentic community visits. Plus condors - up close and personal. The 'white City' of Arequipa is not too far from here and is just lovely. We can't recommend the Nazca Lines I'm afraid as we care too much about your safety.
Of course there is an extremely tempting option to combine your time in Peru with a week long cruise around the Galapagos Islands. It is an increasingly popular option and one which can be considered in more detail on the link below, along with a couple of our favourite Peru holidays.