Peru’s Sacred Valley


After visiting the Lake Sandoval in the Peruvian Jungle and Lima, we headed into Inca territory, high in the Andes mountains.  We flew into Cusco (sometimes spelled Cuzco), then immediately took a car down into the Sacred Valley, to try to acclimatize into the high altitude. Cusco is at 11,000 feet and higher. Altitude sickness, if it occurs, happens above 8500 feet. We were going to stay a few days in Urubamba, in the Inca Sacred Valley at about 9400 feet, so we could adapt to the altitude. We were concerned about the altitude due to my high blood pressure. We had heard it can be hard for some people to adapt to high altitude, and wanted to be careful. 

The Incas

One major reason that people visit Peru is to see Inca ruins like Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also, in 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.

What is called the “Inca Empire” is very interesting. “Inca” was the name of the ruling class. The Spanish gave this name to the whole people after their conquest, in about 1533 CE. In the Inca people’s own language – Quechua  –  the name is Tawantinsuyu, which can be translated as The Four Regions, standing for the four regions set up like states, each with their own rulers, but subservient to The Inca, the overall ruler.

The Incas were the largest civilization in South America, extending from modern day Columbia, through Ecuador, Peru, and Chile and into the mountains of Bolivia and Argentina. The Inca culture started around Cusco in the 1300s, and grew rapidly after 1438. There were a number of local cultures that had occupied the mountains of South America for more than 10,000 years and were conquered by the Incas.

The period of human habitation in the Andes was long enough for the indigenous peoples to adapt to the high mountain environment in many ways, including about 1/3 more lung capacity, and about 10% more blood (more than 4 additional liters). This also resulted in a distinctive physical development characterized by a small stature and stocky build. Men averaged 1.57 m (5’2″) and women averaged 1.45 m (4’9″).

From Wikipedia:

In 1438, they began a far-reaching expansion under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, whose name literally meant “earth-shaker”. The name of Pachacuti was given to him after conquering over the Tribe of Chancas (modern Apurímac). During his reign, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui brought much of the Andes mountains (roughly modern Peru and Ecuador) under Inca control.

Pachacuti reorganized the kingdom of Cusco into the Tahuantinsuyu, which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provincial governments with strong leaders: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Kuntisuyu (SW), and Qullasuyu (SE). Pachacuti is also thought to have built Machu Picchu, either as a family home or as a summer retreat, although there is speculation that Machu Picchu was constructed as an agricultural station.

Pachacuti sent spies to regions he wanted in his empire; they brought reports on the political organization, military might and wealth. He would then send messages to the leaders of these lands extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods such as high quality textiles, and promising that they would be materially richer as subject rulers of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. The rulers’ children would then be brought to Cusco to be taught about Inca administration systems, then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler’s children into the Inca nobility, and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire.

Pachacuti’s son, Túpac Inca Yupanqui, and his son, Huayna Cápac, extended the Inca Empire to the north and south by additional conquests. The Inca Empire was a patchwork of languages, cultures and peoples. The components of the empire were not all loyal, nor were the local cultures all fully integrated. The Inca empire as a whole had an economy based on exchange and taxation of goods and labor. The Incas spoke Quechua and imposed a dialect of it on the conquered lands.

I think the Incas were really advanced as engineers and builders, as agriculturists, in their medicine, and in their social organizational skills. While none of the oldest Spanish buildings survive, due to the earthquakes, many older Inca buildings do, having been engineered and built to withstand the quakes. The Inca had agricultural research centers, and, for example, developed over 1000 different types of potatoes so they could occupy the varied ecological niches and growing areas available in the high mountains. They had the advantage of the combined knowledge of their own and the conquered territories’ medicinal plants. They performed successful skull surgery, cutting holes in the skull in order to alleviate fluid buildup and inflammation caused by head wounds. This procedure had been performed by groups earlier than the Incas, with about a 30% survival rate. It is thought that the Incas had about 80-90% survival from this skull surgery. In addition to the four-region federalist system, where each region has  its own government and could solve regional problems, the Inca also built a series of roads and food storage facilities, allowing quick movement for the Inca army, with shelters built along the road one day’s journey from each other.

The high Inca civilization really only lasted for about 95 years (1438 to 1533) but in this time there were many cities and temples built that are attributed to the Incas, as well stone-walled planting terraces, roads, and food storage shelters built over a broad area. Some think this Inca Empire could not have done this much work in so short a period. Some even claim the Incas had Extra Terrestrial help. Most think that the Incas built upon much work that had been done by the cultures that they conquered. I favor this idea over the ET explanation.

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley was at the center of the Inca Empire. It is the major agricultural region closest to Cusco. It follows the Urubamba River from about Pisac in the east to Machu Pichu to the west. Inca ruins that abound here are proof of the extent and height of the Inca civilization. This was a primary Incan growing area for corn, potatoes and other crops. This kind of fertile valley is rare in the high mountains, and this has made it a special place for a very long time. The Quechuan name for the river, the Incan name, translates to “The Sacred River.”

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Our visit

We flew into Cusco from Puerto Maldonado. We then drove out of Cusco, over the mountains through Chinchero, and down into the Sacred Valley and the town of Urubamba.   

Flying into Cusco we could see snow-covered mountains below us. 


Landing at Cusco airport. 


We found it amusing to be welcomed to Cusco by McDonald’s. As we saw in Lima, especially in the restaurant industry, US corporations abound. You can’t get away from these companies!


Leaving the airport, we can see that Cusco is a city built in the hills, with houses and buildings climbing up all around. 



After a bit we got into the open country, mountains and plateaus. The plowed land is being readied for planting potatoes. 


Around us we see magnificent snow-covered peaks. I think the snow starts about 14000 or 15000 feet. 



This was passing through Chinchero, a small town in the mountains. 

More snow-capped mountains. 


Then Urubamba is below us. This was about a 90 minute drive. 


Urubamba is a small town. There are some tourists, but mainly it is a town for locals (except for the expensive tourist hotels). 


Below, a man carries barley, maybe for his guinea pigs. We are told that many families raise guinea pigs as special feast food, much as some families raise rabbits. 


A vendor on the street.  

Here is the main market of Urubamba. 


Brightly colored peppers. 


Many stalls fill this market, most covered with blue tarps. 


Potatoes, many different kinds. They are often available already peeled, in a bucket of water – Andean convenience food. 


To one side of the market is a Catholic shrine. We saw many of these throughout our tour of Peru. Like in South India, there seems to be a deep religious feeling in the local people. Here it is expressed mainly through Catholicism. 

High mountains are on the north and south sides of the town. 


Naturally, like most Spanish cities, in the center of the town is a square, with people congregating, to sit and talk, etc. We saw many locals, especially the older women, in colorful native dress and hats. 

It turns out that the woman wearing the white hat in the photo below is in some special category. These white hats are ‘awarded’  and represent special status. I did some research on hats and women in Peru. This is what I discovered (thanks to Why do women wear hats in the market in Peru):

  • Only married women (and young girls) can wear hats.
  • Women who leave their village and move to a city or town wear felt hats, like fedoras. The felt hat is less expensive and maintains a link to village culture.
  • The white hats are awarded by being asked to ‘join the group’, given to women who are recognized as being the more successful merchants in the marketplace. They are the ‘upper crust’ of the market society.


On the main square, naturally, is the biggest Catholic church of the town. 


A bit of snow on surrounding mountains. 


Below, two women dressed in village style, in the square. One woman carries a baby on her back. These are Quechuas, people descended from the Inca civilization who still speak Quechua. 


The next day we went to lunch at a restaurant in Yucai that specializes in Andean food. 


Laid out in one area of the restaurant are serving tables where authentic Incan foods are offered. These include four different kinds of potato, along with a sauce to have with them, and Quinoa, the high mountain protein-rich grain, as well as a dish made from shredded Achira, a species of Canna, a sweet, starchy root.


There was also a table serving Chicha, Peruvian Corn Beer.

“Chicha de jora” has been prepared and consumed in communities throughout the Andes for millennia. The Incas used chicha for ritual purposes and consumed it in vast quantities during religious festivals. Mills in which it was probably made were found at Machu Picchu. During the Inca Empire, women were taught the techniques of brewing chicha in Acllahuasis (“feminine schools”). Chicha is generally sold straight from the earthenware ‘chomba’ where it was brewed. It is only mildly alcoholic, and gives an energy boost. It is sold everywhere on the streets, and is widely drunk by working people, like farmers, who need an ‘energy boost’ during the day. 

On the table is a large glass, said to be the typical amount that a local would drink. Also there are small glasses that tourists use to sample the chicha.


Another serving table provides examples of Peruvian cuisine, including alpaca stew and lupin beans.


Here is our plate of Incan goodies, with our quinoa in a bowl, and glasses of chicha waiting.


We enjoyed the opportunity to sample a range of local foods. And we had a real beer too!

This restaurant, whose name we do not remember, in the town of Yucai, is on the tour route for some of the Sacred Valley tours. While we were there two groups came in to eat.

The next day we drove down into the Urubamba valley, towards Ollantaytambo. The peaks that surround us are great!


Look to the side of the valley and see that Incan terraces line it, still in use after more than 500 years. 


Into the small town of Ollantaytambo. This town dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. We saw many tourists here. I think many were visiting just for the day.

This is a small street that goes towards a mountain. There is running water in a gutter by the street.


This is the main street through the town. 


Up on the mountainside there are groups of buildings, ruins; stone buildings without roofs. We are told that they are Incan food storage buildings, called qollqa (or quollqa in Quechuan). They are up on the side of the hill for better ventilation and fewer pests. There were many of these through Inca territory. They provided emergency food for famines and natural disasters as well as food rations for the military, priests, and temporary or permanent laborers. There were more than 2000 of these with the total storage capacity estimated at between one and two million cubic meters. This food distribution and storage, along with the good roads, added to the mobility of the Incan military.


Houses in Ollantaytambo.


We headed up a road going north out of Ollantaytambo, up on a dirt road into a valley gorge into the mountains.  See the Incan terraces?


Around every corner in the road we can see a new area where stone terraces go up the mountainside. 


The Incas seem to utilize every available growing area with terraces. How much work did it take to build all these? 


The other thing about the Incas is that they developed crops that would grow well in all these different microclimates they were able to exploit. 


This is why they had the thousand different kinds of potatoes, and hundreds of other crop types. 


Beautiful view up into the pass. 


Green fields. You might not think this is high altitude up in the mountains during the winter. 


More terraces. 


We pass through a village. Kids are in school. 

They all wear traditional dress, brightly colored woven cloth, probably woven by their mothers. 

A donkey walking across the street. At this altitude, donkeys were shaggier, more fur for warmth. So were the horses and dogs.


As we go up, there is a river beside the road, carrying fast moving cold water. 


We pass by an area where they hold their Sunday market day. Today, Tuesday, there is a woman with several llamas. Llamas are the most important pack animals for the Quechuas living traditional lives up in the mountains. Often their villages are not on any roadway, and the llama is the only animal that can pack their goods to go down to market. 

We come to another village above 14000 feet. This is as far as we will go today. 


The village name is Patacancha. This small village has become more visited in recent years, with changes that have happened on the Inca Trail. The number of people who can walk the Inca Trail has been limited by the government, and so tour companies have developed other routes for Inca trekking. Some of these now leave from Patacancha.  


We walk down into the village, between small buildings, houses built of stones. Around most of these houses is a stone-walled fence, to enclose the families’ animals in the night. 


We see a baby sitting by herself, outside a school. It turns out that she is the baby of the school teacher, who has to care for her child, and apparently they will not let her bring her into the classroom. So the baby plays by herself outside the school door, with the mother coming out as often as she can. 


Inside the room there are a few kids, all in traditional dress. Amazingly, most of them wore sandals, not shoes.


This boy is showing us the coloring he is doing in a book that seems to show hillside terraces. 


Up above the village we see the llamas, being driven up the mountain. You can see blue packs on their backs. 


And here is a group of trekkers. I found out that porters usually carry their luggage, so you do not see big packs on their backs. 


Stone house. Note that there are no windows. 


The entrance to the house. 


There were two local women on the road, who have spread out their wares to show us. They are wearing traditional clothes, and one is caring for her baby.


We ended up buying one small piece of weaving from this woman. She said that it took a week for her to make. We paid 50 Soles, about $20.


Notice that the woman on the right is making yarn from alpaca wool, using something called a ‘drop spindle’. Here is a short video.


Carol is teaching this Quechuan kid how to do ‘fist bumps’. 


In this small village we find a brand new medical clinic. This facility was donated by the Peruvian Red Cross together with a similar group in Germany.  


There is one woman, a nurse, I think, or maybe just a ‘health worker’, who is here every day. The doctor comes maybe once a week. 


The examination room. 


There were several medical posters, all in Spanish (which is usually not spoken or read by local adults). This one shows the cycle required for cholera to spread.  


Driving back down the hill, we saw a man making adobe bricks. These sun-dried bricks are the primary building material in much of Peru.

He has already mixed straw in with the clay-bearing mud. In the first photo he shovels it into a mold.  

He then compresses the mixture in the mold. He uses his feet for this. 


Then he smoothes the top of the brick. 


Then removes the mold, so he can make another brick. 


Driving back down into Ollantaytanbo, we see the food storage areas on this hillside again. 

Next we are headed into the Inca ruins of Ollantaytanbo.  For the Incas it was a ceremonial center and perhaps an administrative center. Today, besides a popular ruin to visit, it is also an entry point to the popular Inca Trail.

At the entrance to the ruins, this blind Quechuan man plays a kind of harp.

The ruins go up the mountain, and, at ground level, up the valley next to a stream. 


Here is the main section that goes up the hill. 


At the base of the hill are several Inca buildings. There are two that are restored, and roofed in the ways that Incas would have done. 


Some really big rocks were used to make the rock walls that go up the hill. 


This finely carved piece, now lying on its side, would have been used for part of a door.  Considering that the Inca did not have iron tools, this carving is very good.


A rock wall with niches. These niches are typical of Inca construction, and trapezoidal rather than square. This shape was helpful in the ability of the wall to withstand earthquakes. 


Stairs up the hill into the ruins. 


A smaller building is near the top of this hill section. 


Notice on this section of the walls there seem to be two different construction approaches. The rocks to the lower right are smaller, and those above this are larger. This indicates, we are told, that they were built at two different times, perhaps by two different peoples. 


Looking down from the hill, here is the town. 


More ruins lay below the hill. 


Across the valley we see the food storage buildings to the right and left. In the center is an area said to represent the face of some god that was also carved out of the rock hillside. 


You can see how these rocks were carved to fit each other. Notice that no mortar was used to join the rocks. This high quality stone work was one reason that this construction can survive earthquakes; when the quake comes these rocks just rattle and shake, then go back in place. The brown areas on the stones are lichen.


This doorway has a carved entrance, like the toppled piece in the photograph earlier in the article. 


Notice how smooth the stones of the doorway are. These finely carved, smooth stones indicate that this was part of a temple entrance. The quality of the carving indicates the status or importance of the structure. The spiritual centers had the finest carving, followed by royal buildings. All others used a rougher construction approach. 


Here are views of the agricultural lands in the valley at the bottom of the ruin. 


Notice the Inca terraces in this photo. 


The ruins from another viewpoint. 


These very large smooth stones are well fitted together. They were the center of the temple space in this ruin, the most import part of it. There were probably figures carved into these rocks that were destroyed by the Spanish. The Catholics were intent on destroying all signs of the previous native religion. 


This pathway is how the Incas moved the big stones up to the temple, or so people think now. 


Across the valley, on the other side of the hills, is an old pathway where the rocks were hauled down from the quarry, atop these hills. They are not sure how they were moved. They think that tree trunks were used as wheels to roll the stones down and up the hillside paths. 


Here is a bottom carved stone, intended, I think, to be a part of a wall. Notice how pieces are cut into the rock to allow for a positive fit of the rock to be placed atop this one.  Careful stone carving was needed for both pieces for them to have the close fit that you have seen in these photos.


In the square below are a number of vendor booths for natives selling craft items to tourists. 


Details of a wall. Notice the many small rocks, fitted together without mortar. 


Walking along a cliffside path. 


The valley below. 



This is one end of a food storage structure. It would have had a thatched roof. 


The inside of the food storage building. 


Here is the food storage building across the valley. Looks pretty grand to me. 


A long stairway down. 


These ruins still feature running water flowing through them. 


Here the water goes into what are thought to be baths. 


The baths. 


The ruins going up the hill. 


Above the baths is another area that seems to have been a temple. 


Look at these finely carved niches. These are the best niches we have seen. This must have been a special temple. 


There are carved stairways up the side of the mountain, and other areas carved into the rocks. This temple must have been pretty extensive. 


Here is water flowing into a nicely carved area. The water flows though channels cut into the rock of the mountain. 


Part of the temple, not so important I think, given the rougher stonework. 


Back near the entrance to the ruins. These large niches, experts think, would have held mummies. Mummies were very important to the Incas, and their ancestors would have been on display here, available to provide assistance and help. Not only Incas would be mummified, but also priests and others from high ranking families.

From an Article in the Independent on Peruvian Mummies:

Heather Pringle, author of The Mummy Congress, describes how important mummification was to the Inca, who had inherited their infatuation with ancestral worship from earlier, pre-Incan people living in the Andean mountains and the Atacama desert of Chile.

“In the Andes and Atacama desert, people did not see death as the end of life. Instead they believed it was just the beginning of a new and more influential phase as a revered ancestor who could lend assistance to the living,” she writes.

The mummies were in a crouched position and often wrapped in cloth. Families might keep their own ancestors and bring them out for special occasions. We were told that they would also bring them to visit other houses. In a public place like in the Ollantaytambo ruins, I think the mummies would be those somehow that are seen as ancestors to all, like high Incas and priests. I have heard that sometimes imitation mummies of high ancestors were shown.


This doorway leads into another building at the base of the hill. This building has water running into a central pool. 


Looking out a window of this building into the valley and mountains beyond. 


Another part of the ruins. 


At the entrance of the ruins a group of native women wait. 


These vendors offer many different kinds of goods, most of which are made by locals. 


One popular item are these knitted woollen facemasks. I think these are strictly tourist items. We certainly never saw any native person wearing anything like this. 


The Sacred Valley is a great place to visit. Most people just see it in a one-day tour. There is much more to see here than can be seen in one day. I am glad we had more time here. Even with a stay of several days, there were several other important ruins sites that we missed.                        


One Response to “Peru’s Sacred Valley”

  1. yveeinsj Says:

    So awesome! Thank you for the wonderful pictures and the context for each of them. Can’t wait for the next in the series.

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