The SACRED VALLEY, or Vilcamayo to the Incas, about 30km northwest of Cusco, traces its winding, astonishingly beautiful course from here down towards Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and eventually Machu Picchu: the most famous ruin in South America and a place that – no matter how jaded you are or how commercial it seems – is never anything short of awe-inspiring. The steep-sided river valley opens out into a narrow but very fertile alluvial plain, which was well exploited agriculturally by the Incas. Even within 30km or so of the valley, there are several microclimates allowing specializations in different fruits, maizes and local plants. The river itself starts in the high Andes south of Cusco and is called the Vilcanota river until it reaches the Sacred Valley; from here on downriver it’s known as the Río Urubamba, a magnificent and energetic torrent which flows on right down into the jungle to merge with other major headwaters of the Amazon.
Standing guard over the two extremes of the Sacred Valley, the ancient Inca citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo perch high above the stunning Río Vilcanota–Urubamba and are among the most evocative ruins in Peru. Pisac itself is a small, pretty town with one of Peru’s best artesanía markets, just 30km northeast of Cusco, close to the end of the Río Vilcanota’s wild run from Urcos. Further downstream are the ancient villages of Calca, Yucay and Urubamba, the last of which has the most visitors’ facilities and a developing reputation as a spiritual and meditation centre, yet somehow still retains its traditional Andean charm.
At the far northern end of the Sacred Valley, even the magnificent ancient town of Ollantaytambo is overwhelmed by the astounding temple-fortress clinging to the sheer cliffs beside it. The town is a very pleasant place to spend some time, with good restaurants and a convenient location in the heart of great trekking country. It makes an ideal base from which to take a tent and trek above one of the Urubamba’s minor tributaries, or else tackle one of the Salcantay trails.
Beyond Ollantaytambo the route becomes too tortuous for any road to follow. Here, the valley closes in around the rail tracks, and the Río Urubamba begins to race and twist below Machu Picchu itself.