[Peru] 23 Days in South America V: Cuzco and the Sacred Valley

Day 2: Sacred Valley Tour – Ccochahuasi animal sanctuary à Pisaq à Pisaq Market à Ollantaytambo à Chinchero

For our second day, we embarked on a Sacred Valley day tour with the agency Llama Path. Sculpted by the winding Urubamba River, the Sacred Valley is so named due to its incredible importance in food production to sustain the Incan Empire. The Urubamba brings dissolved minerals and nutrients from the surrounding Andean mountains, making the soil in the region particularly fertile. Historically, the valley attracted indigenous people from around South Africa as it is lower in elevation and so is warmer and milder in climate compared to surrounding areas. Sacred mountains such as Salkantay and Veronica tower over the valley, looking down on the pleasantly ploughed fields, where agriculture persists even until today.

Incan rooms

Incan rooms often have window-like openings for the storage of dried goods and decorations.

The Incans were truly remarkable agriculturalists. Maize and countless varieties of potatoes were developed as the Incan Empire expanded and assimilated tribes along the river valley. Instead of warfare and eradication, the Incan Empire opted for “soft power”, convincing tribes to join the empire and contribute their knowledge and expertise in exchange for vast amounts of centralised resources. As such, agricultural, cultural, religious, and technological practices mixed and evolved as tribes were integrated. It wasn’t long before Cuzco and the Sacred Valley became the de facto capital of the Incan Empire due to its accessibility.

Sacred Valley

Agricultural fields still line much of the Sacred Valley.

Where there is fertile soil, there are settlers, and so too the demand for complex settlements and religious sites increased. Aside from its central importance in the Incan Empire, the Sacred Valley is well known for its archaeological sites. Many of these were stop-off settlements or shrines along the way to Cuzco, akin to modern-day service areas. These were mostly designed in line with the Incans’ astrological and religious beliefs. For instance, buildings were constructed such that the sun would align with features during the summer solstice. Sheer cliff faces were also carved to resemble characters or sacred animals in Incan lore.

Sacred Valley (2)

A view of the Sacred Valley from Pisaq.

Before our tour of the archaeological ruins, we first visited the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary. This sanctuary is a family-run private organisation which rescues indigenous animals from poachers and former owners. The sanctuary houses not only the more common alpacas and llamas but also Peruvian hairless dogs, Andean condors, and even an Andean bear cub. The hairless dogs have persisted since pre-Incan times and have characteristic tufts of golden hair on their heads and tails; they are also known for their extraordinarily high metabolic rate. The preening Andean condors, easily the prize animals of the sanctuary, were worshipped by Incans and were thought of as messengers from the heavens. They are extensively hunted by farmers who believe (wrongly) that they kill livestock; nonetheless, breeding and release programmes have partially recovered their populations in the wild. Our visit of the macaw and monkey section of the sanctuary was abruptly interrupted by the adorable Andean bear cub running loose. Wreaking havoc on the various fenced areas, it was eventually lured back to the keepers by watermelon.

Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary

Inhabitants of the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary. From top left, clockwise: two llamas, an Andean condor, the Peruvian hairless dog, and an Andean bear cub.

Following a brief stop at a mirador overlooking Sacred Valley, our tour continued on to Pisaq, a small town at the foot of mountains housing the Incan ruins of the same name. Like many other Incan ruins, the archaeological complex is divided into regions of various levels of significance: Pisaqa, the commoners’ and farmers’ region; Inti Watana, the religious hub of the settlement; and Q’alla Q’asa, the citadel and lookout. The level of significance of a particular area can be determined by the quality of stonecutting; the most outstanding masonry, consisting of rounded stones and perfectly fitting blocks, was reserved for the areas of greatest importance.

Pisaq (2)

Remnants of Incan rooms viewed from Q’alla Q’asa. The lack of sophisticated architecture meant that roofs were constructed from straw. As such, all Incan ruins appear roofless today.

Pisaqa included the lodging for commoners and massive terraces for growing crops. Agricultural terraces, the most striking features of Incan sites, were of great significance for Incan agriculture. Not only did they expand the cultivatable area in the valley, but a height difference of two metres between each successive terrace led to temperature variations of half a degree Celsius, effectively creating microclimates to allow Incans to grow a wide variety of imported crops. The massive scale of engineering and development of irrigation systems is incredibly impressive considering they were developed without heavy machinery.

Pisaq (3)

Agricultural terraces at Pisaq, looking towards the Sacred Valley.

Inti Watana, the religious site, included the Temple of the Sun, altars, and fountains. The significance of this area is evident from the masterful masonry. Of particular importance is the sun-gate, which aligns with the setting sun on the summer solstice and leads to a winding path down the mountainside towards Machu Picchu. The sun gate is the portal of Pisaq to the outside world, and its positioning purportedly blesses onward travellers.

Sun gate

The sun gate at Inti Watana.

Finally, we briefly trekked up to Q’alla Q’asa, a citadel constructed on the peak of a small mound, which offers a view of the entire Pisaq ruins and the Sacred Valley. The excellent location of the citadel suggests that the site may have been garrisoned. With rougher stonework, it is clear that Q’alla Q’asa was not a site of great religious significance but instead may have served as a combination of military and residential areas.

Qalla Qasa

The citadel of Q’alla Q’asa as viewed from Pisaqa.

Descending the winding road down the hillside, we then visited Pisaq Market, a famous Sunday market selling various silver and alpaca wool items. Natural mines around the Sacred Valley make Peru a prolific producer of silver ornaments, but the high demand has also led to a boom in counterfeits. Sadly, the market no longer caters for locals but is now filled with stalls selling hackneyed souvenirs. We learnt that some stalls used to sell magnetic meteorites collected by local farmers, but this has since been banned by the Peruvian government, thwarting my attempts to secure a piece of celestial rock.

Pisaq Market

Pisaq Market.

Continuing down the Sacred Valley alongside the roaring Urubamba River, we passed by several villages. These villages were historically threatened by mountain pumas, which subsisted on local livestock. However, the puma population has since dwindled due to excessive hunting. One of the villages we passed is Lamay. It wasn’t long before we found that the village was famous for its herb-stuffed honey-roasted cuy, or guinea pig. For the squeamish, look away now:


Herb-stuffed cuy, roasted on a skewer by the side of the road.

In Peru, these furry critters are not kept as pets; instead, they are fattened and roasted as a local delicacy. Roasted cuy tasted much like suckling pig but with much less meat and fat. It seems odd that Peruvians would treat cuy as a reasonable food source. Perhaps its limited utility as a domesticated animal and short breeding cycle makes it a reasonable source of food.

After a quick lunch accompanied by some chicha morada, a non-alcoholic fermented corn beverage, we continued on to Ollantaytambo. The town, again at the foot of a hill housing the famous Incan site, contains buildings which have been preserved from Incan times and are used until today. Ollantaytambo has huge steep terraces guarding the fortress, located on top of the hill overlooking the surrounding valley. Legend has it that Ollanta, a soldier in the Incan Empire, had fallen in love with the Incan Emperor’s daughter. Attempting to kidnap her but failing, Ollanta retreated to Ollantaytambo where he built his community to rebel against the Incans. Eventually captured, he was spared his life due to the Emperor’s sympathy.


The afternoon sun casts a slanting shadow on the terraces of Ollantaytambo.

Curiously, Ollantaytambo was also the fortress site to which the Incans retreated after the Spanish had captured and sacked Cuzco. In an attempt to capture Manco Inca, the last Incan Emperor, the Spanish sieged the Incan ruins, but Manco Inca flooded the valley below with irrigation channels, causing Spanish horses to be bogged down and forcing their retreat. Eventually, however, a larger army returned and forced Manco Inca to flee deeper inland towards the jungle stronghold of Vilcabamba.

Ollantaytambo (2)

Another view of the terraces at Ollantaytambo. The fortress and the religious centre are situated at the top of the steep terrace steps.

Besides acting as a fortress, Ollantaytambo was a temple and, as the terraces indicated, an agricultural site. A ceremonial centre is situated at the apex of the fortress. The altar was placed at the highest point, so that it was closest to the sun, which, according to Incan beliefs, provided the spiritual energy for religious ceremonies on the summer solstice. On the religious altar, a faint outline of a zigzag pattern with three protrusions can be seen. This pattern, termed the Inca Cross or chakana, represented the three levels of the world. The upper worlds were inhabited by superior gods, the middle world represented everyday life, and the lower worlds were inhabited by spirits and ancestors.


The faint outline of an Inca Cross or a chakana.

The propensity of Incans to carve significant figures into stone was also evident from the cliff face opposite Ollantaytambo, which was reminiscent of an old man carrying a large sack on his shoulders. This ostensibly represented Viracocha, a deity who would disguise as a beggar and travel around villages in the Sacred Valley, teaching villagers of the basics of civilisation. Venturing down the steep hillside and looking back up, we saw another stone carving, this time of an Andean condor, descending from the realm above. Whether these carvings were intentional (they would certainly require a large scale engineering effort) or simply a case of pareidolia, we will never know. We ended our tour in the ceremonial area near the base of the fortress, full of baths and fountains which served as both irrigation and religious centres.

Ollantaytambo (3)

The mountain opposite Ollantaytambo apparently resembles Viracocha carrying a basket on his back.

Finally, heading back towards Cuzco, we stopped by the final site of Chinchero as the sun set over the distant Salkantay Mountain. Chinchero is a small village located high up on the Andean plains, renowned for its Sunday market. We arrived in Chinchero just in time for the final shouts of hawking textile vendors. Much like other Incan sites, while there are terraces and remnants of Incan stonework, there is also a plain colonial church built directly on top of Incan ruins.


The colonial church in Chinchero.

The Incan ruins were thought to be the resort of the Incan Emperor Tupac Yupanqui, with various chambers housing the many wives and concubines of the Emperor. Surrounding the resort are aqueducts and terraces, which take advantage of the fertile soil in the region for the cultivation of potatoes, quinoa, and fava beans. These areas are used for agricultural purposes to this day; indeed, the plains were covered with drying potatoes.

Chinchero (2)

The plains at Chinchero, looking out towards Salkantay.

The colonial church was built in 1607 by the Spanish and is one of the most beautiful in the Sacred Valley. While relatively plain from the outside, the church has ornate painted ceilings and remarkable Catholic artwork. Colonialist art features religious figures wielding real-life tools and weapons; a particularly striking painting had an angel dressed as sword-wielding conquistadors. To assimilate the local populace, these paintings would often reimagine scenes such as the final supper and the figure of Jesus to incorporate local imagery, creating bizarre scenes where apostles would be surrounded by giant corn and roasted guinea pigs.

After a long and quite tiring day, we returned to Cuzco, just in time to pick up our rented hiking gear and an early dinner, in anticipation of an early start and the beginning of our much-anticipated trek of the Inca Trail.

Alpaca yarn

Colourful alpaca yarn sold at the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary.

Accommodation: Hotel Arqueologo is situated in the San Cristobal neighbourhood in a terraced building, five minutes from Plaza de Armas. The hotel has charming and comfortable rooms, some of which even span two floors, dividing the living space into sleeping and living areas. The hotel has a bar where cocktails can be enjoyed in the evening and has travel books on Cuzco which can be borrowed. Included in the price is a decent cooked breakfast and free transfer from the airport. The hotel also had no qualms with us storing our luggage at the hotel during our Inca Trail hike.

Hotel Arqueologo

Hotel Arqueologo.


Food: the Andean diet is largely based on maize, potatoes, and indigenous animals such as alpaca and guinea pigs. You can try traditional dishes such as alpaca steak, roasted guinea pig, and giant maize, some of which can be bought on the road during the Sacred Valley tour. Travelling along the Sacred Valley, you will find houses which hang plastic bags outside, signifying that the house sells chicha, the local fermented corn beverage. Nonetheless, it may be best to wait until Cuzco to try chicha as it is prepared under less hygienic conditions and may make you very sick! Another beverage to try is Pisco Sour, a cocktail with Pisco as its base liquor and egg white, syrup, lime juice, and bitters.

Ollantaytambo (4)

Llamas graze among Incan ruins at Ollantaytambo.

With regard to restaurants in Cuzco, we visited Kion, a chifa-style Peruvian-Chinese restaurant which had a combination of authentic Cantonese-style dishes and Peruvian comfort food.


Steamed fish at Kion.

For Peruvian cuisine with a modern twist, we visited Marcelo Batata, a quite crowded restaurant. The service and food were otherwise great, with the waiter providing extra bread and tangy ají dips. The portions are fairly big, so it may be best to share main courses.

Finally, we can recommend Moreno Peruvian Kitchen for contemporary Peruvian cuisine. The restaurant offers many traditional Peruvian food items not limited to the Andean region. We can particularly recommend ceviche served with calamari and Andean corn; lomo saltado, stir-fried beef fillet; pancetta de cerdo, slow-cooked pork belly over braised pumpkin and corn; and their special cocktails. While slightly more expensive, the casual atmosphere and excellent food and service makes this restaurant a welcome luxury following the Inca Trail.


Food served at Moreno Peruvian Kitchen (from top left, clockwise): ceviche mixto, the Pisco Punch cocktail, and Sopa Criollo.

General Tips

For archaeology aficionados, we would recommend staying for an extra day (or more!) in Cuzco to fully explore the Incan ruins. Other destinations along the Sacred Valley include:

– the remnants of Sacsayhuamán, which overlook Cuzco and were the site of the 1536 battle between the Spanish and the Incans;
– the amphitheatre-shaped terraces of Moray, where the Incans developed and cultivated crop varieties, which were then spread throughout the Incan Empire; and
– the salt pans of Salineras. Salt had been harvested from the spring waters of Maras for millennia, a practice which continues today.

Check back here in a few weeks for our article on the Inca Trail, the four-day trek which culminates in visiting the world-renowned Machu Picchu!




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