8 Highlights of Machu Picchu & The Sacred Valley
Peru is a country rich in history and culture. From the delicious Peruvian cuisine, artisan crafts, snow-capped mountains, friendly people and ancient ruins, Peru has something for every traveler. Many people have one destination on their mind when preparing an adventure to Peru: Machu Picchu.
This mountain fortress should absolutely be on every traveler’s bucket list, however, after running several trips to Peru over the past 30 years, we have selected a few highlights that are worthwhile adding to your itinerary as you make the journey to Machu Picchu, whether it is by foot or by train.
Below we share 8 of our favorite highlights from our MedTreks trips, hoping that it leaves you inspired to step a little off the beaten path in this incredible country!
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Entering into the Heart of the Inca
Early morning flight into Cusco from Lima is quite the intro into the Peruvian Andes as the plane floats above sea level and climbs past snow-covered peaks, steep ravines, and river canyons until it finally lands into the heart of the charming and breathtaking city, Cusco. Perched above 11,000 feet, this enchanting city is an incredible blend of Incan legacy and Spanish colonial architecture.
Most people who research traveling to Peru know the Sacred Valley as the entryway into Machu Picchu. Many travel itineraries pass directly through this incredible valley on a hasty mission to see Machu Picchu. We highly recommend taking some time to explore the incredible and majestical, Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley (Urubamba River Valley) is located at the base of the Andes and is rich in Andean culture, Peruvian history, festive markets, and ancient geological sites.
1. Explore the Ruins of Pisac
Just a short drive up and over the hills outside of Cusco, you will enter the Sacred Valley and a great first stop is the famous ruins of Pisac. One of the most significant ruins of the Sacred Valley, the Pisac ruins are perched high up in the mountain with steep terraces carefully constructed down the cliffs.
Women in traditional dress sell local snacks and traditional handicrafts at the entrance as you set out on foot to explore the ingeniously built Incan burial site, surrounded by terraces that carve into the hillside, once used by local farmers to grow crops such as quinoa, maize, and potatoes. A scenic stroll up a well-maintained path with stunning vistas, you will encounter intricate stonework as you marvel at the ceremonial baths, Temple of the Sun, water fountains and the Inca cemetery (hundreds of small caves carved into the mountain). The Pisac ruins are some of the more famous in the valley and you can make your hiking journey as easy or as hard as you like, there is plenty to see. Just stepping a few feet away from your car can provide incredible, breathtaking views of the carefully designed terraces and the magnificent surrounding mountains & valley below.
2. Walking the Open Air Craft Market at Pisac
You can spend hours getting lost in the narrow cobblestoned streets lined with small handicraft shops. Known for its woven textiles, the Pisac Market, which historically was the gathering place for all the artisans to buy, sell and exchange their products, is still thriving 7 days a week and is one of the most famous handicraft markets in all of Latin America.
After exploring the market stalls and marveling at the diversity and quality of the local art, pull up a chair at an outdoor cafe on the plaza to sip a Pisco Sour and watch the world go by.
3. Hacienda Sarampampa
A true culinary treasure hidden in the valley floor. An educational & authentic Farm-to-Table experience.
This quaint hacienda with friendly staff and a delicious 5-course farm to table meal is named after the Quechua word “Sarapampa” meaning “cornfield”. Lunch is served out in the hacienda gardens paid with local wine. Hacienda Sarapampa offers visitors the opportunity to have a unique cultural experience around traditions associated with corn production practices in an authentic and natural environment.
This 5-course meal is not just about enjoying the delicious meals prepared by ranch chef, it is an opportunity to learn about the Giant White Corn variety and how this unique crop has influenced the Andeans and the economy of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and its farmers.
4. Salt Fields of Maras
A perfect day combines 3 of our favorite locations: Salt Fields of Maras, Moray, and Chinchero. We will start here with the Salt field of Maras. Accessed by hiking or by car, the journey to the salt mines allows a spectacular glimpse of the snow-capped Andean mountains and the city and river of Urubamba below.
Stopping to let donkeys carrying quinoa pass or pulling over to learn how bricks are made out of mud, these side roads are a way to experience the local life that vibrantly exists in this fascinating landscape of mountains, rivers, and ruins.
The salt mines are incredible with over 3,000 pools, every pool comes from a single water source that has supplied the southern highlands for thousands of years. The salt fields are inherited from generation to generation and are managed communally among a select number of families.
Walking through the salt mines, you get to witness the different steps of the salt harvesting from prepping the salt beds to extracting the white mineral by a wooden paddle, an ancient technique still used to this day.
The entrance of the Salt mines is lined with stalls selling a variety of local snacks featuring the salt crystals that were harvested from the mines. From Chocolate to popcorn, these salty treats are hard to pass up and make a perfect snack before continuing on your afternoon adventures.
A close distance to the Salt Mines is the incredible Moray ruins, believed to be an Incan agricultural laboratory. Exploring the stone circles of this massive amphitheater gives you a good sense of the height of these individual farming terraces but also the microclimates that exist in just one geographic location. According to the research, the Moray terraces have different temperatures based on degrees of the sun, shade, and elevation, and it was here that they experimented with soil and crops, creating their own laboratory to monitor climate change and the effects on food sources. Today it is evidence of the high level of agricultural knowledge the Incas achieved during that time.
6. Centro de Textiles Tradicionales, Chinchero
A small, authentic Andean village perched at 12,000 feet above the Sacred Valley, Chinchero is well known for its continuing to preserve the Inca customs. Quechua speaking locals wear traditional dresses and a vibrant handicraft market takes place several days a week.
Chinchero is also the home of Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez a famous indigenous Quechua artist and weaver. Nilda established a non-profit weaving organization in 1996 called the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco.
Visiting the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales allows you to participate in the weaving demonstrations, learning firsthand how weavers turn alpaca and sheep wool into fine textiles. Learn how natural ingredients are used to create rich and colorful natural dyes. You also have the option to learn some of the weaving techniques as well as shop the incredible market place of all the handwoven products by local village women.
7. El Albergue Farm to Table, Ollantaytambo
The charming town of Ollantaytambo is fun and festive on most any day. This town has so much to offer: fun shops, good restaurants, local hikes and of course, the ancient and spectacular fortress at Ollantaytambo. Residents have lived in this town surrounded by mountains since the 13th century. Exploring the cobblestoned streets lined with waterways and intricately stacked stone walls or sitting at a restaurant balcony overlooking the bustling plaza, are just two of the many ways to spend a wonderful afternoon in this awesome town.
We prefer to spend a few days in Ollantaytambo and therefore recommend a fun culinary experience: a Farm To Table lunch and tour at El Albergue is a special treat. Enter through the rustic doors at the train station and find yourself in a quaint and stylish restaurant with fresh pasta hanging from the open kitchen across the dining room. The menu is inspired by ingredients sourced organically from their farm with a selection of Peruvian and European flavors. Alpaca steak, fresh salads, homemade fettuccine, and fresh trout are a few items available on the menu.
We highly recommend experiencing the Pachamanca farm lunch with fresh ingredients cooked in a traditional “earth oven.” Guests dine al fresco and enjoy a meal of freshly cooked meats, vegetables, and other farm dishes while enjoying the magnificent scenery of Ollantaytambo. Digest your delicious meal by taking a farm tour or visiting their local distillery.
8. Machu Picchu
Most people who travel to Peru, know and plan to research Machu Picchu well in advance. The crown jewel of the entire experience, we will offer just a few suggestions for your visit:
- Try to go at daybreak, this fortress is magnificent in the morning light
- Blue skies are nice, but not necessary. It is often the darker and cloudy skies that give this place its majestic feel.
- Take the extra time to walk up to the Sun Gate, it provides a spectacular panorama of the citadel and gives an incredible perspective of how the city is truly built on a mountain top, hidden in a valley…it is no wonder this place was a secret for so long.
We hope this blog was helpful, safe travels friends!
“A prophet once said ‘Don’t tell me what a man says, don’t tell me what a man knows. Tell me where he’s traveled?’ I wonder about that, do we get smarter, more enlightenment as we travel? Does travel bring wisdom? I think there is probably no better place to find out than Peru.”
~ Anthony Bourdain