The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is a place that draws people from all over the world. It is a truly spectacular sight deep within the Andes Mountains that has fascinated many since its discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Although photographs have daubed many international travel magazines and much has been written, nothing can fully prepare you for just how spectacular, awe inspiring and mythical this place really is. It is not surprising that when presented with the opportunity to return I was delighted and eager to marvel this great wonder once again. On this trip I spent some days within the Sacred Valley before reaching Machu Picchu. What I discovered in doing so was an absolute treat and highlighted just how much a visit to the area can offer.
1. Inca Sites
Although Machu Picchu remained undiscovered for centuries after the fall of the Incan Empire, many sites were discovered much earlier. Since Spanish colonisation many of these sites have been damaged but nonetheless remain sites of huge historical interest.
Travelling through the Sacred Valley it soon became apparent that there are Inca sites everywhere. With the benefit of a good guide I realised that the valley is in fact one massive outdoor museum, covered with archaeological places that each help to form an understanding of the workings of this intriguing empire.
One such place I visited was Moray, an Incan agricultural laboratory that was likely used to cultivate resistant and hearty varieties of plants high in the Andes. It straddles the mountainside and has been restored to reveal a fascinating side to Incan farming. Another extraordinary place I discovered is the small village of Maras. High in the Andes where natural sources of salt seem impossible, the area was cultivated by the Incas to form salt ponds from a natural spring. Using skilled techniques farmers continue to cultivate the area to extract salt to this day. Other fascinating sites include Qoricancha, Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Chinchero and many more, all in their own way providing an important insight into the life and culture of the Incas.
The Sacred Valley stretches for approximately 60 kilometres and encompasses areas of fertile farmland and colonial villages scattered alongside the Urubamba River. It is this expanse of land between Cusco and Machu Picchu that formed the heart of the once magnificent Incan Empire.
Machu Picchu actually sits at a relatively modest altitude of 2430 meters above sea level, by contrast Cusco sits at 3400. Thus the huge appeal of a stay within the Sacred Valley immediately becomes both obvious and appealing; the chance to acclimatise. Many visitors will arrive into Cusco and head to a city hotel, whereas a relatively short drive into the Sacred Valley enables you to rest at a more modest altitude and unwind in beautiful surroundings.
3. Superb Hotels & Spas
Within the valley I discovered several delightful properties dotted across this vast mountainous floor. Owing to the idyllic surroundings nearly every room of each hotel can boast spectacular uninterrupted views. Anyone in search of total rest and relaxation will instantly feel rewarded by a stay here, an excellent area to unwind and switch off. A vast range of treatments are on offer at many resorts providing the perfect opportunity to spoil yourself. Additionally I found the quality of the hotel restaurants to be of a high standard, so many taking huge pride in offering the very best in Peruvian and international cuisine.
For those who would prefer a more adventurous stay there are a wide range of activities to enjoy here. I had the opportunity to whitewater raft, horse ride, trek along the many Inca trails and zip wire. I opted this time for a biking tour. Quite simply a fantastic experience, the trips are great for all levels of fitness and can be organised with minimal uphill cycling. Cycle across the many pathways, meandering through the valley taking in the stunning scenery.
One of the biggest draws to Peru and to the Sacred Valley in particular is the wonderful display of handcrafted clothing, jewellery and ceramics on offer at several of the village markets. The most renowned of these is the market within the village of Pisac. Here I found the cobbled streets are lined with artisan creations that are often extremely colourful and superbly made. Well worth leaving some space in your luggage for.
The big draw to this beautiful part of Peru will always remain Machu Picchu but to spend a day or two in the valley itself is fun, relaxing and incredibly rewarding.