Sacred Valley of the Incas: Exploring Beyond Machu Picchu

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Peru : Sacred Valley of the Incas

What is the Sacred Valley of the Incas?

Most people pass through the Sacred Valley of the Incas en route to or from Machu Picchu, the traveller’s Mecca of this part of the world, but few know its worth as a destination in its own right. The Sacred Valley is made up of a bunch of towns nestled between enormous, awe-ispiring mountains that seem to be able to constantly take your breath away. They first town, Pisac, is my personal favourite and the one I will focus on, though many of them are more than worth a mention. I don’t yet know all of the towns well enough to go into, but that isn’t to say that they’re not worth visiting while you’re here. All of the towns are connected by local buses or collectivos, so you can easily do day trips to all of them!

Map of the Sacred Valley

Map of the Sacred Valley

Pisac

A forty-minute winding and beautiful bus ride from Cusco, Pisac seems to appear out of nowhere. Cobblestone streets, mud brick houses and shops, restaurants and mini-markets on every corner. The main square is rarely visible for the market that is on every day of the week, exploding on Sundays with an abundance of colour – fruits, vegetables, textiles, clothing, souvenirs, jewellery – anything you can imagine!

Though you can often observe load after load of tourists bursting out of buses and slowly disappearing as the sun goes down, Pisac actually has the largest expat community in the Valley – everywhere you look you will see ‘gringos’. So many people have settled in this beautiful town and as a result of this, you can find any and every type of alternative healing you can think of. Want any kind of massage, reiki, acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, meditation, sound healing, or a diverse array of natural products? You’ll find it here. Wanting to get deeper and find natural plant/animal healing? Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Kambo, you’ll find it all here. Not that the abundance has made any of this lose its meaning. You could describe Pisac as having a very charged energy; there is a lot of intense healing going on, and you can feel it in the air. People going through all sorts of personal and collective transformations throughout the valley, working through deep issues, ‘finding themselves’, or just giving themselves an opportunity to stop and listen, to find out what the present moment has to offer them.

A beautiful result of all of this healing is that majority of the people you will meet here are very open, kind-hearted and easy to connect with on a deeper level. It’s not too hard here to get past those sometimes tiresome traveller conversations (Where have you been? Where are you going? How long are you travelling for?). You can also find a number of workshops or courses happening at any one time – I’ve just undertaken a Zen Shiatsu massage course, and a workshop on creating your own natural products (soaps, deodorants, essential oils etc.), and next month I am doing my 200hr yoga teacher training course. Every day in the local market, you can find a delicious meal for $1-2 at one of the many food stalls, and a tasty fresh juice (any combination you can think of) for $2, made by one of the several lovely local juice ladies, all of whom are quite enthusiastic about getting your attention!

Sunday market in Pisac

Colourful Sunday market in Pisac

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Coya

Five minutes further down the road from Pisac, with several campesino (country) communities dotted around it, is a tiny little town called Coya. I mention it as this is where I have been based for the past two months. I found it a quieter and cheaper alternative to staying in Pisac. There is not much happening in Coya, although for me that was kind of the appeal. There is one main hostel, the Shangri-La (the most colourful building in the town – you can’t miss it!), and a more up-market guesthouse two doors down, as well as a couple of other homestay-type accommodations popping up. For just AUD$300 a month, my partner and I stayed here quite comfortably. There is all you need nearby – a small market and lots of little shops. For anything else, there is Pisac or Calca (the next bigger town). From here, you can observe the locals going about their daily lives – you will rarely see other travellers here!

Coya, Peru

View from the mountains surrounding Coya

Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo is the last stop before Machu Picchu. As a result, this town is often just a pit stop for trekkers before they take the train. But, like so many of these places, it is well worth visiting and even basing yourself in.. The entire town is an archeological site – the streets are beautiful to walk through and it seems that every time you look up you catch a brilliant new view of the surrounding mountains and ruins. There are two sets of ruins – one that you pay to enter, and another that is free to climb and that gives you a panoramic view over the town and the other ruins. The only downside is that it is very set up for tourists, lots of pricey restaurants along the main square; but, if you dare to explore a little further, you’ll find something a little more local.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Panoramic view of Ollantaytambo and ruins (taken from the top of the free entry ruins)

Why stay in the Sacred Valley?

There are so many reasons I could list, but I’ll summarise with a list:

• If you’re into alternative healing or plant medicine, this is the place for you!
• An hour away from the train to Machu Picchu.
• You will find large ruins in Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and smaller ruins scattered all throughout the entire Valley.
• If you like exploring mountains, you can walk into them from practically anywhere in the Valley.
• Markets, markets, markets! The market in Pisac attracts travellers from Cusco every week, and there is also the lesser known but nonetheless excellent textile market at Chinchero.
• Lares is a 2-2.5 hour spectacular drive away, where you can find beautiful hot springs and lots of trekking.
• If you’re into volunteering or working on organic farms, there is an abundance of projects and opportunities available here.
• If you like the serenity of being surrounded by mountains instead of being in a big dirty city!

In my opinion, I think that a stop in the Sacred Valley should be on every person’s list who is travelling to Cusco, but be prepared to never want to leave. So many people I have spoken to have intended on staying a week and have wound up being here months, even years! We only intended on staying a month or so, but so far we are looking at four months, maybe more!

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