Machu Picchu ranks among the world’s most popular tourist attractions, attracting over 1.2 million visitors annually.
But a few years ago the number of daily visitors to the ancient archaeological site was getting out of hand. So UNESCO urged Cusco’s Ministry of Culture to create strict rules for Machu Picchu visitors. These included hiring an official guide, following one of three routes through the complex, and facing time limits to keep traffic flowing.
Machu Picchu is just one of many impressive cities the Incas built from 1438 to 1533, before the Spanish conquest destroyed their civilization. It’s not actually the largest, oldest, or most important of the Incan archaeological sites. For a complete picture of the history and culture of the Andes, travelers to Machu Picchu would benefit from exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Located near Cusco, the Urubamba Valley was considered sacred due to its natural beauty, which ample fresh water and fertile soil for growing food. Here we’ll take a look at the heartland of the Inca Empire, including the archaeological sites and cultural traditions that make the Sacred Valley of the Incas a one of the top things to do in Peru.
Lesser-Known Ruins in the Sacred Valley of the Incas
This ancient city was deliberately burned to the ground by the Inca as they retreated from the advancing Spanish army. As a result, the invaders never discovered the natural treasures of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Located 9,000+ feet above sea level three miles west of Machu Picchu, Llactapata is an intriguing historical site that can only be accessed via the stone path of the Inca Trail.
Located atop one of the main passes into the valley, these elaborate circular ruins are cut around 100 into the earth, with an amphitheater-style shape. As a result, daytime temperatures can be as much as 15 degrees cooler at the top of the ruins than at the bottom. Scientists believe that Moray might have been a testing ground for agricultural experiments. Native guides say that the Inca would grow tropical fruits and veggies at the bottom, and cooler-climate crops like potatoes at the top.
If you’re hiking the entire Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, these impressive ruins will marking the starting point for your adventure. Many of the city’s massive walls remain intact, with remarkable stone work and a mountain that looks like a warrior’s face standing watch over the area. Ollantaytambo is perhaps best known for its summer solstice celebrations: It’s the only time of year when the sunlight passes directly over the warrior’s eye.
If any of the historic sites in the Sacred Valley of the Incas could give Machu Picchu a run for its money when it comes to sheer grandeur, it’s Pisac. One of the largest archaeological ruins in all of the Americas, Pisac is basically an entire mountain that has been carved into terraces, most likely for growing crops. The name translates to “Partridge” in the Quechua language, and the ruins are said to look like a bird when viewed from the air above.
Another lesser-known site that’s accessible only by hiking the Inca Trail, Winay Wayna is vastly underrated. It looks a little like a much smaller version of Machu Picchu, with individual houses built among a set of agricultural terraces. Archaeologists have surmised that the city may have served as an ancient rest stop for people traveling along the Inca Trail.
Only a small fraction of Peru’s visitors have even heard of Vitcos. But its anonymity belies its great significance in archaeological history. After finding the impressive stonework of this Inca settlement, American explorer Hiram Bingham enlisted the help of local farmers, who helped him become the first outsider to visit Machu Picchu. Victor today is an area of serious scenic beauty, not to mention an important Inca shrine known as Yurak Rumi.
People & Culture of the Sacred Valley of the Incas
THE QUECHUA PEOPLE
The Quechua have been the dominant culture in the Andes for around six centuries, with a population of nearly 11 million people spread out across Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. But their dialect, dress and physical appearance varies considerably by region.
Their lives are rooted in pastoral farming, with most land owned communally and its harvest distributed evenly among all families. Like many indigenous cultures around the world, the Quechua have struggled to regain the titles to their ancestral lands. Responsible tourism is helping them create sustainable revenue, providing economic independence and funding cultural preservation.
Music and dance are vital to the Quechua, and central to all their seasonal celebrations. Visitors to the Sacred Valley of the Incas often have a chance to hear traditional Andean music and perhaps join in one of their lively folk dances. Local bands made up of pan flutes, Spanish-style guitars, recorder-style flutes and drums provide the fun, festive soundtrack.
But the Quechua people are perhaps best known for their colorful textiles, which are usually made from high-quality Alpaca fleece. Around 80% of the world’s 4 million Alpacas live in the Peruvian Andes at elevations from 10,000-15,000 feet. To cope with the extreme weather conditions at that altitude, they grow dense coats that are highly thermal and durable and come in 22 natural colors.
Once a year the Quechua shear their sheep and use the fleece to create bold, brilliant fabrics. They using ancient weaving techniques to make coats, gloves, hats, sweaters and rugs that are available in Cusco and many of the small towns in the Andes. To ensure high quality, look for a buttery soft feeling and silky sheen, with no sewn seams visible inside or out. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.