It sounds magical and mysterious, and it lived up to all our hopes and expectations, with Inca villages and ruins throughout its mountainous borders. Everything was fascinating from mountain top temples to the Maras salt pans, and seeing something of the people and their way of life was a huge bonus. The morning walk through Pisaq ruins was one of the highlights of our whole South American trip.
This wide fertile valley of the Urubamba or Vilcanota river was one of the main areas for crop production for the Incas. It stretches between Ollantaytambo in the west to Pisac in the east, a distance of about 50km as the crow flies. The steep mountainsides are covered with old terraces, a testament to the fertility of the valley.
We stayed in the beautiful Sol y Luna, just outside the town of Urubamba - an excellent base from which to explore the Sacred Valley. The rooms are in individual bungalows, decorated in ethnic style and with their own shady verandah set in beautiful gardens which extend over quite an area, down to a large stables.
In the evening, when it was quite cold, both restaurants lit great fires. We preferred the restaurant down at the stables which had a more relaxed atmosphere. We had drinks in the bar in comfortable armchairs in front of the roaring fire. The Chandon champagne from Argentina was very good, the same House as Möet. Walking back the Milky Way was stretched across the sky.
Though this town has a colourful market, we were much more interested in the Inca fortress high in the mountains above. This long, leisurely walk through the ancient ruins of Pisac was one of the highlights of our South American trip.
We were driven most of the way up the mountain then walked with our guide along ancient Inca trails through temples and terraces with stunning views over the Sacred Valley.
First was Kanchiracay, an agricultural area, with fine terraces and a residential area enclosed behind walls but right on the edge of the settlement so it may have been defensive in nature - the position has an excellent overview of the approaches on the ridge.
We then came to the fountains of the Inca baths. The Incas were adept at harnessing natural water and channelling it over long distances for their needs. There were two channels in the fountains but no water flowed when we were there.
On the other side of the gorge to the fountain was one of the largest Inca cemeteries ever discovered. More than 1000 tombs had been dug into the steep valley side, high up, but they have still been robbed and are mostly in a very poor state.
Further on we passed through a beautifully curved entrance to the fortress, above us Inca walls crossed the steep mountainside, pierced by staircases. The precision Inca walls are built directly onto the bare rock, ingeniously worked to fit as close as if they were moulded together.
A very narrow tunnel then carries the path forward through about ten metres of rock. It separates the site into two parts and would have been an excellent line of defence.
Coming out of the tunnel the area known as Pisaq, from which the ruins and the colonial town take their name, can be seen perched on a ledge above the valley. This is a residential area and as the stonework is a bit finer than elsewhere it is thought to be the more up-market spot to have a home, perhaps for the priests of the temple? Pisaqa in Quetcha is the name for the Andean partridge and the origin of the name of the settlement.
High up is an area known as Q'Allaqasa, where there are military installations in the form of watch towers - perfectly positioned to give advance warning of an attack, or of any approaching visitors.
Descending from here we came to the incredible ceremonial area. It is perched on a ridge, high above the Urubamba river, at its entrance are ritual fountains, possibly used for cleansing before entering the temple area.
This complex is regarded as one of the finest examples of Inca architecture with the best stonework to be seen in any Inca site.
The Intihuatana is the focus, the "place where the sun is tied". This is a large natural rock, much damaged by the Spaniards and, even more sadly, by local vandals. It is surrounded by a circular wall. There is a Temple of the Moon close by. Water channels run between the buildings, into stone basins and baths.
The doors, windows and niches are all the typical trapezoid shape, and the walls all lean inwards giving extra strength to the buildings.
Along the roof line are stone blocks with cylindrical protuberances extending into the interiors. It's not known what they were used for - they don't appear on all walls or in all buildings.
As we descended we passed more terraces, with larger flat stones jutting out, strategically placed and used as steps. There were also more tombs and tantalising stretches of perfect wall - there must still be a lot to discover here.
Back on the valley floor we made a brief visit to the colourful market - it is mainly full of stuff for tourists, though there are authentic local crafts for sale too, and there were areas where local people were selling their produce.
We had a snack of empanadas cooked in an outdoor clay oven - they were excellent: freshly cooked pastry pockets filled with succulent chicken in some kind of sauce. The clay bulls and cross on the top of the oven is a good luck device, usually found on houses.The man cooking these was the only one we saw in traditional dress - there were plenty of women and children dressed up for the tourists to take photographs of, but no men.
During our exploration of the valley we stopped for lunch at a couple of restaurants chosen by our guide and generally catering for tourists. The most lovely location was Tunupa Valle on the banks of the Vilcanota between Ollantaytambo and Urubamba. It offered a huge buffet of salads, meats, rice and very good chocolate cake. We had chicha to drink, made from unfermented red corn, which tasted very good and is also supposed to lower blood pressure.
Down by the river there were llama, alpaca and a beautiful vicuña - the most adorable of creatures. We ate outside where there were Peruvian musicians playing - very atmospheric.
We felt, though, that the better food was at a restaurant very close to the Sol y Luna on the road to Ollantaytambo - unfortunately I can't remember the name, possibly Maras. It had a great selection of food including guinea pig, alpaca meatballs and chicken.
This Inca town was the domain of Emperor Pachacuti (1438-1471) which he rebuilt to include temples and magnificent terraces. These are evidence of a high class estate as their retaining walls are made from cut stones, rather than unworked field stones.
Manco Inca Yupanqui (1515-1544) successfully defended the town from Spanish attacks in 1536 at what became known as the Battle of Ollantaytambo. The terraces were used by the Incas to rain down missiles on the Spaniards who approached along the valley floor.
Much of the Inca architecture is still in use today by the townspeople.
We climbed the stairways through the steep terraces to the ceremonial area high above the town - fabulous views up and down the valley. The buildings are unfinished and many cut blocks litter the site. It is supposed that building or renovation work was interrupted, perhaps by wars.
After exploring the ceremonial area we walked along a mountainside Inca trail and descended into the remains of the Inca site known as Qellu Raqay.
As we were walking, across the valley we could see some of the storehouses built by the Inca high up the opposite mountainside above the town. Apart from being cool and well-ventilated these would also be quite difficult to raid. Apparently they filled the stores from an opening on the up side, and took grain from an opening on the downhill side.
Qellu Raqay may have been a palace, almost certainly a temple complex. The site is remarkable for the intricate water channels and fountains.
It also has the most beautiful fountain, the "Fountain of the Princess".
There is a square building identified as a water temple which was obviously of huge significance to the Inca. Water was sacred, of course, and the building houses a fountain. Two huge double-recessed niches flank the massive entrance - all features which signify importance.
Early one morning we drove up to this Andean Indian village - at 3762m one of the highest places we visited in Peru. As we climbed 300 metres from the valley floor the scenery became increasingly spectacular.
At one point where we stopped we could see impressive terraces and storehouses - the mountainsides were exploited by the Incas as much as possible in their agricultural endeavors.
The village is built on a steepish hill - the older buildings cluster around the top while the village spreads down the slope and along the incoming road. It sits on the high sierra with the magnificent Andes in view.
Chinchero is essentially a Spanish colonial village built on an Inca settlement. Many of the buildings incorporate Inca walls, the very distinctive angled Inca walls surmounted by vertical colonial walls. These aren't high class walls, not the precision cut stones of temples, but rather the rougher, but still impressive, walls of the countryside.
Many of the houses have small clay good luck bulls on the roof, with all kinds of additions such as bottles and jugs - whatever the owner regards as a good luck symbol - or perhaps symbols of an enterprise that they are hoping will be blessed with good luck.
The little adobe church was built on the foundations of an Inca building, possibly a palace of Inca Tupac Yupanqui. It is beautifully decorated inside, with painted designs on the walls and an amazing painted ceiling (no photography allowed inside, it was rather dark in any case).
Outside the church walls are also painted, one painting was described to us as a battle of Inca vs Inca. The protagonists wear European dress and ride horses and use muskets, as well as sling shots, so I'm not sure if this is correct. It is likely to be a depiction of one or other of the late 18th century revolts against the Spanish who used Indian as well as Spanish troops.
As this painting shows a puma triumphing over what looks like a dragon it could be the Battle of Sangarar which Tupac Amaru II and his Indian army won, though it was followed by a massacre of the Spanish so why it would be painted on a colonial church is a mystery (Wikipedia for additional info).
To the south of the church is a spacious square surrounded by colonial buildings. On the east side of the square is the finest house in the village, though not in a great state. It has columned windows on the first floor and was the birthplace of Pumacahua, the cacique (local tribal chief) of Chinchero. He fought with the Spaniards against Tupac Amaru II.
Below the church on this square is an impressive Inca wall with nine very large trapezoidal niches - the continuation of the wall past the steps to the church has three similar niches. These niches seem to be a feature of this Inca site.
But the most interesting area is that to the west of the church which has substantial remains of Inca buildings and magnificent terraces. One of the buildings has triple-recessed apertures so it must have been an amazingly important place.
Leaving Chinchero our guide and driver asked if we'd mind going cross country rather than back to the main road. We had no objection whatsoever, it sounded much more interesting, and as we were in a four wheel drive vehicle the rough unpaved tracks were no problem.
It was a wonderful drive - across the high sierra with the snowy peaks across the unseen valley.
The potato harvest was in full swing. I got one of my best photographs of the trip, a mother with her child in a sling on her back, stoking the clay potato oven. Lunch would be the potatoes and chicha - the ubiquitous local drink usually made from maize, either fermented or unfermented. It has been made in the region for thousands of years - the Inca used it copiously in their ceremonies.
Everyone joins in the harvest: men, women and children - babies and toddlers accompanying the group, though there are probably more back home with the more elderly. These people were lovely - they didn't mind having their photographs taken and joked with our guide and driver.
This curious Inca site is most often described as being some kind of agricultural laboratory. There are three sets of concentric terraces, each with an irrigation system, and there is no doubt that the different locations, levels and aspects would afford different climatic conditions. But it does seem a bit of a leap of faith to describe them as testing centres for genetic experimentation with crops. Whatever their purpose, it's a very atmospheric site in a beautiful location.
One set of terraces has been renovated, the other two are undergoing work. We walked down into the renovated set of terraces and the increase in temperature was very noticeable, and no cooling breeze. We used the Inca steps - the stones set into the terrace walls. Wonderful to think we were walking in the footsteps of Incas! Or rather leaping - in some cases the steps are quite widely spaced! There is a large platform with the foundations of a building about half way down. Though it's postulated it could have been storehouses, no-one really knows.
One of the sets of unrenovated terraces had large piles of stone in no particular order but I haven't been able to find out what these are. I suppose they could just be loose stones gathered together ready for use.
The town of Maras was founded by the Spaniard Pedro Otiz de Orué and is notable for its carved door lintels and quiet, picturesque streets. We passed through the town on our way to the salt pans. These are an amazing sight, dazzling in the sun.
Salt has been extracted here since well before the time of the Incas. The salt pans consist of hundreds of shallow, terraced pools fed by a single warm, salty spring. The water descends via an intricate network of narrow channels to feed all of the pools. As the water evaporates the salt precipitates out in the form of crystals.
The local people work the ponds in a traditional system of blocking the water flow into their pond when salt crystals have formed sufficiently to be harvested. the pond dries rapidly in the hot sun and the salt is collected.
We walked along the edges of the pools, on narrow tracks, watching some of the local people at work, though it was soon lunch time and they settled down to eat. As in the potato harvesters in the high sierra, this looked like a family enterprise.
Maras was our final visit in the Sacred Valley. The time spent in this area was wonderful, not just for the magnificent Inca ruins, but also to see the local people and their way of life today.