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The Insider Guide: Sacred Valley of the Incas

  • Where to stay, what to do and what to eat in the Sacred Valley

Carved through the Andes by the Urubamba River, Peru’s remarkable Sacred Valley was at the heart of the Inca Empire. This fertile region lies between the city of Cusco, and the country’s most iconic attraction, the imperial Inca city of Machu Picchu.

For generations it has been popular for hiking; visitors exploring the famous Inca Trail that takes in the valley’s fascinating villages and towns and the many exceptional archaeological sites. In recent years it has also emerged as a luxury holiday destination, with upscale resorts and mountain lodges opening along the established rail route from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu.

Stay

Most of the visitor accommodation is within a 30 - 45 minute transfer from the train stations of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo on the line that runs through the valley from Poroy (west of Cusco) to Machu Picchu.

Skylodge Adventure Suites

A truly unique experience, these transparent sleeping pods (7.5m x 2.5), complete with loo, are suspended 400 metres above the valley, secured to the face of the mountain! The views are clearly panoramic, but access is not for the faint-hearted, as one has to climb up and down using metal steps, the ‘Vía Ferrata’. Available to rent through Natura Vive, who also offering zip-line adventure activities.

This is a new upscale hotel, operated by the world-class hospitality group, Belmond. Built in the style of an Andean village, the resort offers luxury accommodation including 11 suites, 10 rooms and 2 villas. There is a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and children’s activities for family visitors.

Tambo del Inka

This Luxury Collection property is exceptional. Located on the river Urubamba, the Tambo del Inka offers beautiful accommodation built with local materials and decorated in a contemporary style with Andean fabrics. There’s an impressive spa, a fine-dining restaurant and an elegant bar where one should try Peru’s famous cocktail, the pisco sour. The hotel also boasts its own private train station on the route to Machu Picchu.

Aranwa Hotel & Wellness Centre

Built on the banks of Vilcanota River, about half an hour from the train station in Ollantaytambo. In addition to the resort’s wellness spa, the property also features a Peruvian museum and art gallery.

Sol y Luna

This family run hotel offers private bungalow ‘casita’ accommodation. The property’s philosophy is to respect and integrate with the local environment and community. The hotel can arrange excursions in the valley, including horse-riding.

EAT

Peruvian cuisine is superb, embracing both homespun country dishes and fine-dining. The main places to eat other than in one’s hotel or lodge are in the towns of Ollantaytambo and Urubamba.

El Huacatay - Urubamba

This charming, welcoming period property is home to a restaurant that over the years has developed a reputation for a creative menu, created by owner and chef Pio Vásquez de Velasco. Dishes fuse local produce with Mediterranean and Asian influences.

El Albergue - Ollantaytambo

This organic farm offers accommodation and a restaurant. Each day the restaurant offers a traditional Pachamanca lunch, where the meat is prepared on hot stones. Dishes are served with Andean sweet potatoes as well as a local drink called chicha morada, made from purple maize.

Tres Keros - Urubamba

Well positioned for guests of the Tambo del Inka and Hotel Río Sagrado, this fine-dining restaurant created by chef Ricardo Behar is a celebration of both modern and traditional Peruvian cuisine. Choose roast dishes from the wood-burning oven; seasonal vegetarian dishes; or indulge in the tasting menu.

DO

Inca Trail

One of the most famous hiking routes in the world, the Inca Trail runs through the valley to Machu Picchu. It is now strictly limited to 500 people a day including guides, cooks, porters etc. So it’s important to plan ahead and book a permit with the regional cultural department or an approved agent.

Boleto Turistic

This ‘tourist ticket’ offers entrance to cultural and archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley and also in Cusco. You can buy it at the tourist office in Cusco or at any of the participating sites and it makes a good way to take in the rich cultural, historical and archaeological wonders of Cusco and the Sacred Valley, including the fascinating Pisac ruins; the remarkable citadel at Sacsayhuaman (built with intricately cut boulders); the terraces and temple at Ollantaytambo; and the amazing walls found in the mountain village of Chincheros. Many of the sites are near historic villages and towns where one finds interesting cafes, restaurants and markets. The ticket is presently around 45 euro.

Hiram Bingham train

This luxury train with its beautiful vintage Pullman-style carriages, offers a unique way to reach Machu Picchu. Named after the American explorer, who in 1911, guided by local indigenous farmers, rediscovered the citadel, the train offers a gourmet brunch on the way to the citadel, and then fine dining on the way back at the end of the day.

Vista Dome train

PeruRail operates this special train service, with carriages with panoramic glass windows including the roof, affording spectacular views of the valley as it heads to Machu Picchu.

Andean artisan market

Visiting a local market is a must-do in the Sacred Valley. Pisac is one of the best known, but just be sure what you are buying is local or at the very least Peruvian. There can be factory-made, imported fabrics on sale disguised as artisan.

Las Salinas de Maras

The terraced salt mine evaporation pools found at Maras date back to Inca times. Salt has been collected from the mineral rich water of these valley hills for thousands of years and the many salt pits here remain in use; although it seems that the salt works now earn far more from tourism than from the unique salt they produce.

Moray archaeological terraces

Access to these fascinating terraces is not included in the general tourist ticket, but is well worth it.

Machu Picchu

Not re-discovered until the beginning of the 20th century, this UNESCO World heritage Inca site, considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World escaped damage by the imperial Spanish conquistadors. It’s all here to explore; the Inti Watana, Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and more. Although visited by thousands of people each day, the site is vast, so somehow it doesn’t feel too crowded. The setting, upon a 2,430-metre-high ridge is breathtaking, surrounded by tropical forest.

The train arrives at Aguas Calientes, a touristy town in the valley. First impressions are not great – with tacky publicity and overly-assertive sales people on each street corner offering everything from massages to fast-food meals. From here one can take the mini buses up to the Inca city – a scary ride up the narrow, stony road. The alternative is to hike the last bit up through the forest.

All the effort to get to Machu Picchu is more than rewarded by the experience.