Exploring Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas by Car
The road from the city of Cusco to Pisac in the Sacred Valley of the Incas is a beautiful 16-mile drive through the mountains, but very few travelers make the drive. Most people go the Sacred Valley either by train to Ollantaytambo or by bus on an organized tour, but if you take the trouble to do it on your own, you will find that it is worth the effort.
You can do the whole thing in a single very long day, but it is much better to take two days with an overnight stop in Ollantaytambo. The Sacred Valley contains two of the most impressive Inca ruins that you can see in Peru – the fortress temples of Pisac and Ollantaytambo – and you should give yourself plenty of time to see them. These symbols of Inca imperial domination stand high above the villages and farms of the Sacred Valley, and looking up from below, you feel their weight and power and the awe that the conquered people must have felt.
In a few decades, the Incas acquired a vast territory with all of its diverse peoples, and they erected these astonishing temple fortresses to express the power of the Inca gods and to hold the new territories. The structures were built in a very short time, and to accomplish that, the Incas must have made use of the forced labor of thousands of conquered people to quarry the stones, drag them up ramps to the temple sites, cut them to shape and put them in place. At Ollantaytambo today, you can see partially cut stones weighing several tons with projections that allowed ropes to be fastened to the stones so that they could be dragged up ramps to the construction site. No one knows how many people worked at such labor or how many were killed or injured by stones that slid back when the ropes broke, but when you stand at these sites, you can feel the weight of the stones.
Accompanied by a guide whose ancestors very likely built the temples, you climb up to them, and from there, you can look down as the Inca priests and army commanders must have done, and you see the Incas’ domination of the region from their point of view. You see the villages and farms with their laboring people in the valley far below, and you see the watchtowers on the mountainsides across the valley. You feel the cool mountain breeze on your cheek, and you know that the empire is safe.
Sites that can evoke such feelings deserve more than an hour each on a one-day tour of the Sacred Valley, and traveling by car gives you the freedom to explore them fully. You can leave Cusco in the morning and reach Pisac in time to spend some time in the crafts market there. (The market is biggest on Sunday and slightly smaller on Thursday.) The road to Pisac passes through a lovely, forested area, which is unusual in southern Peru, where most of the land is very dry. The forest ends where you come out into the farmland of the Sacred Valley.
After visiting the crafts market, you can have lunch in one of the restaurants on the market square. In the afternoon, you should drive up to the ruins and take as much time as you want to explore them. Here as at other Inca sites, you can hire a trained, licensed English-speaking guide to explain the features of the site to you. Below the temple, you can see the terraces that were farmed in Inca times, but they are no longer used. Today, the farms lie on the valley floor.
When you have finished exploring Pisac, drive back down the mountain and continue on through the valley to the town of Ollantaytambo, a distance of about 35 miles. You travel on a level road along the right bank of the Urubamba River through farms and villages, and you pass the town of Urubamba. The valley is not very wide. So, you see high mountains on both sides. If you have more than two days to spend in the Sacred Valley, you can stop in Urubamba and spend a day visiting such sights as the salt works at Salineras de Maras or the strange ruins at Moray. Or you can go hiking in the mountains.
Ollantaytambo is at the end of the paved road, and it is a good place to spend the night. There are several hotels and plenty of places to eat. Ollantaytambo is also one of a very small number of towns in Peru that are laid out just as they were in Inca times. So, it is a good example of Inca town planning, and many of the original 15th century canchas can still be seen. (A cancha is a block inhabited by several families.) To get a view inside one, visit Calle del Medio, where there is a shop in the courtyard. Ollantaytambo is also the only place that the invading Spaniards were unable to conquer.
In the morning, you can walk from your hotel to the market square to begin your visit to the Inca temple. Hire a guide at the entrance to the site. The climb to the temple looks daunting, but the guide takes you up gradually with frequent stops to explain the features of the site. So, the climb is easier than it looks. In addition to the ruined temple and the mountainside watchtowers, you will see working examples of Inca water control where streams from the mountains were channeled into fountains that were used by the priests for bathing.
Start the drive back to Cusco after lunch. You can go back the way you came through Pisac, but it is a shorter and more interesting trip if you turn right and cross the bridge at Urubamba. This leads to a steep climb out of the valley via a series of switchbacks. (Don’t forget to look back and see some fine views of the valley as you climb.) When you reach the top, you will find yourself in an area of cattle ranches with mile after mile of open fields. Along the way, you can visit the unique Inca site at Moray if you still have the energy. The distance from Ollantaytambo to Cusco is about 42 miles, and you will arrive there in the late afternoon if you don’t stop along the way.
Going into Cusco is the trickiest part of the trip because you will be entering the city by a different route from the one you used when you left it. If you speak Spanish, you can ask for directions, but be sure that you have a map of the city as well as the address of the place where you are going (your hotel or the car rental office) and good directions for getting there.
It is easy to rent a car in Cusco. You do not need to reserve one before you leave home. The rental agency will bring the car to your hotel, and you can either drop it off there or return it to the rental agency’s office. If you return it to the office, the agency will take you to your hotel.
Lodging in Ollantaytambo
El Albergue. Phone: 084/204-014. Web site: www.elalbergue.com. My wife and I stayed here, and we recommend it. It has loads of charm as well as has excellent beds, attractive, comfortable rooms, a beautiful garden, and a very good restaurant. It is justifiably popular. So, reserve a room well ahead. Check the hotel’s web site for current prices.
Other recommended hotels in Ollantaytambo include the Hotel Pakaritampu, Avenida Ferrocarril and the Hostal Sauce, Ventiderio 248. There are also several hotels on the road between Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. For a list, see www.andeantravelweb.com.
Entrance to the Ruins: The Boleto Turistico
To enter the ruins at Pisac or Ollantaytambo, you need a boleto turistico (tourist pass), which gives entry to many of the sites in Cusco as well as those in the Sacred Valley. If you bought one in Cusco, bring it along. Otherwise, you can buy it either at Pisac or at Ollantaytambo.
Guides to the Ruins
At every important tourist site in Peru, you will find trained guides to explain the site to you. If you don’t speak Spanish, make sure that you say you need an English-speaking guide. Inquire about the charge before you start the tour, but remember that these are not rich people. So add a tip to whatever is agreed on. I usually add about 15%. There is no point in bargaining over the charge. The guides have a standard amount that they have agreed upon among themselves.