Carved by the rapids of the Urubamba River, the Sacred Valley is dotted with ingeniously engineered temples and citadels, especially in the villages of Pisac and Ollantaytambo. The latter preserves its original Inca layout, and strolling around the dramatic ruins of the fortress built into the walls of a steep gorge, it is easy to understand why this was the site of one of the rare Inca military victories over the Spanish. The Incas also constructed a complex system of agricultural terraces on the steep hillsides, which is still in use today.
Cradled by jungle-covered mountains at an altitude of 7,970 feet, Machu Picchu is a labyrinth of mysterious gray stones; the surrounding rock spires seem to form a kind of gigantic natural cathedral. The fabled “Lost City of the Incas” was unknown to the outside world until Yale professor Hiram Bingham brought it to global attention in 1911. The Incas built this extraordinary sanctuary in the mid-1400s — its precise function is still in dispute — but abandoned it almost a century later. Untouched by the Spanish conquistadores, Machu Picchu survived intact for centuries, hidden by dense vegetation.
As many as 5,000 people a day visit Machu Picchu during the high season from May to October. It is essential, therefore, to start your exploration as soon as the site opens. Staying at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge enables you to get a jump on the crowds.
The Moray Ruins
One of the most intriguing sites we visited on our journey through the Sacred Valley was one that is not included on most tourist agendas, Moray, located almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor near the town of Maras. A striking construction, it consists of several concentric terraces set at different descending levels and is believed to have been an experimental agricultural station. Here it is thought the Incas tested the viability of different plants to develop those that would yield the best results.
Also near Maras you will find a fascinating field of salt mines with 3,000 small wells. Still an active working site, it has been used for salt since the Incas first began production here.
Fruits and Plants
The Sacred Valley is the route from the Andean highlands to the jungle and therefore has access to the fruits and plants of the tropical lowlands. It also served the Incas as a buffer zone, shielding Cusco from raids by fierce jungle tribes like the Antis.
The explora Valle Sagrado
One of the latest resorts to open in Peru’s magical Sacred Valley is the explora Valle Sagrado. The property has been built on ancient corn plantations, and during its construction, archaeological studies revealed many vestigial Inca remains, some of which required the architect’s plans to be revised. At the end of an Inca platform stands the Casa de Baños Pumacahua, a 17th-century hacienda that once belonged to Peruvian independence hero Mateo Pumacahua. This has now been turned into a unique spa, with restored colonial frescoes and 400-year-old walls. After treatments, guests may swim in a heated outdoor pool with views of the Andes.