The Sacred Valley of the Incas for a Day
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a large fertile valley, following the Urubamba River for about 40 miles, from Pisac to Ollantaytambo, where there are two large archeological sites of Inca construction, the Pisac Archaeological Park, and the Ollantaytambo Sanctuary. The valley between these installations is primarily agricultural lands that supported the Inca’s capitol city in Cusco. Machu Picchu is another 20 miles east northeast, down the river.
Early history identifies the Urubamba River as the Vilcanota River, or Wilcamayu, meaning Sacred River, where the Sons of the Sun originated, being the Inca people. The river is also associated with the river of stars known as Mayu, which we call the Milky Way, and to the Inca, was like a reflection of the river and valley below.
On Tuesday, we ventured out from Cusco over the mountain to the north and down into the Sacred Valley, to the Pisac Archaeological Park, descending from about 12,000 feet, to 6500 feet elevation. From Pisac, we then traveled along the valley and the Urubamba River to the Ollantaytambo Sanctuary, before returning to our refuge at the Monasterio Hotel in Cusco.
Our first stop was along the way to Pisac where we visited the Awana Kancha, a wonderful museum, feeding zoo of llamas and alpacas, and shops with local crafts. Here we got to see these animals up close and learn how their wool is died into beautiful colors, and then spun into threads and woven fabrics. From there we continued on to the Pisac Archeological Park.
The Pisac Archaeological Park, or Parque Arqueológico Pisac, includes vast terraces where the farmland in the valley was expanded up the mountain slopes, and learned that the stone walls of the terraces, warmed by the sun, actually heated the soil on cold nights, and helped expand the growing season. It is believed that these terraces were built under the direction of Pachacuti in the 1400s. Many of the mountains like these are not solid rock, but are earthen mounds of sediment that can be shaped into the terraces. Water is available during the rainy season which in the Andes Mountains is during their summer months from October to March. Additional water sources include springs up in the mountains where they are captured in stone pools, and directed where needed, and snow melt from even higher mountain lakes and peaks reaching over 14,000 feet altitude.
At the Pisac Archeological Park the Inca buildings, and the terrace walls, are protected, so no crops are grown. The terrace walls have survived because they have the same sand and gravel foundations that have helped many Inca constructions survive the earthquakes in this region. It is believed that the constructions here also served as a citadel, with watch towers monitoring traffic up and down the Urubamba River and valley below, as well as the mountain passes to the north and east. Building complexes indicate possible astronomical sites, temples, and residences for Pachacuti and the Inca royal families.
After leaving the archeological park we stopped by a shopping area in Pisac, at the Constitution Plaza, or Plaza Constitucion. Here we found a unique street drainage system from the square with a serpent’s head, and many shops with local crafts like Lula’s Hats.
Our next stop was for lunch at the Huayoccari Farm, where along the way we could now readily identify the mountainsides, with old terrace formations. These were not layered rock formations as I first thought, but instead we learned, that the terraces were built and reached high up the mountain sides to expand the valley’s agricultural production for Cusco, and the Inca empire. Today some terraces are still in use, but most farming activity is on the low flat land in the valley, where production is efficient with more modern farming techniques.
Huayoccari Farm provided us with a delicious lunch in a farmhouse, designed for the family and farmhands; and yes, we are now wearing our hats from Lula’s.
Our next stop was at the Ollantaytambo Sanctuary, an Inca retreat built by Pachacuti in the 1400s, and includes residences for the Inca nobility, and extensive terraces and irrigation systems for food production. In the 1530s, it was used as a stronghold by those rebelling against the Spanish invaders. Its location at the western end of the large open valley on the Urubamba River protected the river and the Inca road leading into the narrow pass to Machu Picchu.
High above the the town of Ollantaytambo are store houses where products from the agriculture could be stored in the cooler temperatures; and around the bend facing the terraces on the other side is the profile of a man overlooking the city known as Wiracochan, a messenger from the Inca deity Viracocha. Today the locals call it the face of the Inca.
Travel Notes Part 3
This was an all day tour with the round trip taking about 5 hours in driving time. Traffic was light except when leaving the old town section of Cusco and when coming back in to town that night, due primarily to the festival events ongoing during the week.
On Tuesday we were off to Machu Picchu for Part 4 of this travel adventure! And yes, if I did it again, I would have liked an extra day in the Cusco and Sacred Valley region. There is so much to see and learn.
Notes and References
Story by David Smitherman, and photographs by the author and his wife, Ana Mari Cadilla, from site visits made in June 2023.
Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Translate, iMaps, iPhoto.
“Dark Constellations of the Incas,” by artist Miguel Aráoz Cartagena, is on display at the Qorikancha museum, in the Convent of Santo Domingo, in Cusco. https://pro.festivalscope.com/director/miguel-araoz-cartagena
“Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas”, by Fernando E. Elorrieta Salazar and Edgar Elorrieta Salazar, 2005.