For the Incas, the fertile Urubamba River Valley constituted the center of the four corners of the earth. Its breathtaking landscape of abundant crops and surrounding Andean peaks make it obvious why this spot was considered blessed. If you are visiting Cuzco, you don´t want to miss the traditional Quechua communities where locals in traditional Andean dress brighten streets lined with adobe homes or the expansive landscape marked by farms, Inca ruins, and Inca agricultural terraces still in use today. Check out our list of our favorite spots below!
The Gleaming Salt Mines of Maras
Long ago the Inca diverted a naturally salty stream flowing from beneath Qaqawiñay Mountain through thousands of shallow pools staggered in terraces along the hillside. Evaporating water leaves behind salt which the families of Maras, each entitled to their pool, break up for sale. This collective approach to managing the salt mines has passed through the centuries unchanged since the time of the Inca. About 150kg of “Peruvian Pink Salt” is produced by around 5,740 terraced pools to supply markets throughout Peru, reaching even international markets. This is one sight that you need to see in person- pictures don´t do justice to the sunset reflecting off the bright white surfaces of the salt producing along the staggered pools stunning tonal and textural gradients unlike anything you´ll see anywhere else.
Pisaq Village Market & Ruins
The cobblestone and dirt streets of the picturesque village of Pisaq mix Inca, Colonial, and mud-brick walls and buildings. It was built to memorialize Pachacutec’s conquest of the Cuyos and to guard Cuzco from the Antis nations, designed to form the shape of a partridge, the animal from which it derives its Quechua name. On Sunday after its Quechua-language religious services conclude, this traditional town comes alive with a popular vibrant market, half touristic and selling artisanal goods and half geared towards locals and selling produce, food and drink. While there, make sure to try some empanadas baked in a traditional clay oven.
The Inca Ruins of Pisaq form a complex found along a nearby hillside. These served military, religious, and agricultural purposes; they include the Pisaqa, which are narrow rows of hillside terraces still being farmed today, the Intihuatana Sun Temple, Ceremonial Center, and perhaps Astronomical Observatory, and the Q’allaqasa Fortress.
The Inca Agricultural Laboratory of Moray
The stacked concentric terraces of the ruins of Moray resemble nothing more than a Greek amphitheater. The positioning of each terrace, through subtle variations of elevation, sun, and shade, create dramatic temperature changes producing a range of up to 20 micro-climates. Each terrace replicates 1000m of altitude under normal conditions. Different seeds unearthed from the terraces and precise irrigation canals complete the picture of what appears to have been an Inca agricultural laboratory intended to simulate diverse ecological zones. The experiments carried out here would help the Inca fine-tune their agricultural approach in different areas and thereby feed an expanding empire. October visitors will witness the celebration of Moray Raymi.
The Inca Citadel of Ollantaytambo
Built atop original Inca foundations, the town of Ollantaytambo has some of the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings in South America and is one of the best surviving examples of Incan urban planning. The town of Ollantaytambo lies at the foot of one of the largest and best-preserved Inca citadels, the Fortress of Ollantaytambo, defender of the entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley. The work was strenuous and never completed; thousands brought stones from a quarry high up on the river´s other side. Despite its uncompleted status, Ollantaytambo Fortress was instrumental during the battles of the Spanish Conquest, as it was the only Inca stronghold to successfully withstand attack by the Spanish Conquistadores. Aside from the fortress you´ll also see storehouses, the Temple of the Sun, and ritual baths. Once the estate of Inca Pachacuti, this was a prestigious area, as evidenced by fine stonework which surpasses that of other Sacred Valley sites. Ollantaytambo is known for its unique and high-quality pottery, with each of the surrounding communities specializing in a particular type of ceramics.
Chinchero: Birthplace of the Rainbow
The main plaza of Chinchero overlooking the Sacred Valley is dominated by an Inca stone wall with trapezoidal niches and a colonial 17th century adobe church with elaborate murals resting atop the Inca temple or palace remnants. This small traditional town known for frequent rainbows, and thus believed to be the legendary birthplace of the rainbow deity k’uychi, is thought to have served as the country resort of Inca Tupac Yupanqui and steadfastly preserves many pre-Columbian customs as well as sporadic ruins (despite the town having been burned to hold off the Spanish during the Inca retreat). A weaver’s town, the colorful Sunday market is almost as popular as Pisaq’s and is the place to go for textiles.
How Pirwa can get you there!
Pirwa travel offers a full-day Sacred Valley tour including Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero (stopping in Urubamba around midday for lunch) starting around 8am and continuing until around 6pm. Transport by tourist bus from Cuzco, through the Sacred Valley, and back again is included along with a licensed bilingual guide, lunch and the boleto turístico which grants entry to archaeological sites is not included. We also offer half-day tours which visit Maras Moray. There are daily departures, so Pirwa guests can just stop by one of our convenient travel desks located in all of our hostels or visit our page on Cuzco Tours page for more information.