The Sacred Valley of the Incas (El Valle Sagrado de los Incas) is where it all started. Inca civilization began here when Manco Capac, as the legend goes, came upon the valley from Lake Titicaca and founded the city of Cuzco. One of the greatest civilizations the world had ever seen grew from there. The valley is dotted with spectacular Incan and pre-Incan ruins, not to mention the world-renowned site of Machu Picchu and several other lost cities. Other noteworthy archaeological sites are the Pisac terraces and stone structures that stand high on the mountain overlooking the city, the colossal fortress at Ollantaytambo, a once proud military facility, and the peaceful town of Chinchero.
Some Incan relics are still in use, such as the salt mines at Maras and the many farming terraces that line the mountainsides. The Rio Urubamba snakes its way through the fertile valley under the usual blue skies, snow capped mountains, and passing small villages that have changed very little for centuries are what else you will find here. The Inca heartland is densely populated. Small pueblos and farms are scattered everywhere, places where roads still don’t reach. It is quiet and mystical. Almost like Tuscany before it went Hollywood. You can make the valley home to a grueling trek or physically demanding rafting trip, or just relax at a spa in a sleepy town like Urumbamba. A range of adventure activities are possible here. Each town seems to be a base for some trek or tour. Hiking is one possibility, but you can also go rafting, fishing, kayaking, paragliding, climbing, mountain biking, or horseback riding.
Finally, there’s Cuzco, once the Incan capital, and now the tourism capital of the continent. You will find an array of excellent museums, dining, hotels, nightlife, shopping, and historical sites. Almost every tourist that visits Peru makes his or her way here. In the high season (May-September) it can be busy, crowded, and overbooked. The best time to visit is in April/ May or October/November. Most Cuzco travel agencies offer a one-day tour of the valley, stopping at Chincero, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo, stopping at the ruins and markets. Most have English-speaking guides and cost about $15-20 per person.
- Machu Picchu – Now practically over run with tourist most of the year, it is still one of the most enchanting places you will ever see. One of the Wonders of the World and a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Hiking the Inca Trail and Alternative Trails – Walk the Inca highways to Machu Picchu and other undiscovered ruins, through immaculate mountain passes, and see a way of life that has remained unchanged for centuries.
- Cuzco – Most come for Machu Picchu, but it is this Incan capital and colonial powerhouse that leaves them more impressed.
- Relaxation in the Sacred Valley – Peru’s version of Tuscany where you can ride horses through the valley or do yoga beside a pure mountain stream.
- Shopping at the Pisac Market – Villagers hike from miles away to bring crafts to the largest and most visited Sunday crafts market in Peru.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.