The Urubamba Valley, better known as El Valle Sagrado de los Incas (the Sacred Valley of the Incas), is a relaxed and incomparably beautiful stretch of small villages and ancient ruins spread across broad plain and rugged mountain slopes northwest of Cusco. The magnificent Inca ruins found from Pisac to Ollantaytambo and beyond -- some of the finest not only in Peru, but also in all of the Americas -- are testaments to the region's immense ceremonial importance. The Incas built several of the empire's greatest estates, temples, and royal palaces between the sacred centers of Cusco and Machu Picchu, positioned like great bookends at the south and north ends of the valley.
Through the valley rolls the revered Río Urubamba (called the Willcamayu by the Incas; today it is also called the Vilcanota in one section), a pivotal religious element of the Incas' cosmology. The Incas believed not only that the flow of the Urubamba was inexorably tied to the constellations and the mountain peaks, but also that the river was the earthbound counterpart of the Milky Way. With the river as its source, the fertile valley was a major center of agricultural production for the Incas, who grew native Andean crops such as white corn, coca, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables in expansive fields and along spectacularly terraced mountain slopes. The valley continues to serve as a breadbasket for Cusco, providing grains, peaches, avocadoes, and much more.
Even though the villages of the Sacred Valley, stretching about 100km (62 miles) from Pisac to Ollantaytambo, are highlights of many tourist itineraries and are coveted by hotel developers, they remain starkly traditional. Quechua-speaking residents work the fields with primitive tools and harvest salt with methods unchanged since the days of the Incas, and market days -- although now conducted to attract the tourist trade as well as intervillage commerce -- remain important rituals.
Along with Cusco and Machu Picchu, the Valle Sagrado is one of the highlights of Peru and is really beginning to take off as a destination on its own, rather than just an add-on to Cusco or Machu Picchu. If like most you're visiting either of the two biggest attractions in Peru, it would be a shame not to spend at least an extra day or two in the Valley. Many visitors without a lot of time on their hands whip through the valley's highlights and markets on a daylong guided bus tour, sandwiching it between Cusco and Machu Picchu on the Inca itinerary. Seeing it blitzkrieg-style is certainly doable, but it can't compare to a leisurely pace that allows you an overnight stay or two in the valley and the chance to soak up the area's immense history, relaxed character, huge sky, stunning scenery, and, in the dry season, equally gorgeous springlike weather. The valley is also about 300m (1,000 ft.) lower than Cusco, making it much more agreeable for those potentially afflicted with altitude-related health problems. As a way to ease into Peru, it may make more sense to begin in the Sacred Valley and see Machu Picchu before visiting Cusco.
More visitors are doing exactly that, spending several days in the valley, even choosing to base themselves at least initially in Pisac, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo rather than the regional capital, Cusco. With the increased number of services (and more on the way) geared toward visitors in and around centrally located Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, this is more attractive than ever. The Sacred Valley now has some of the finest country-style hotels in Peru, especially geared toward visitors who are looking for an easy pace or all the outdoor activities they can take advantage of. Several highlights of the Sacred Valley, such as the ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and the market town Chinchero, are visited as part of the Cusco boleto turístico.
Beckoning at the end of the line, of course, is Machu Picchu. The most celebrated ruins in South America and a place that retains its mystery, allure, and spectacular beauty despite its enduring (and still growing!) popularity, Machu Picchu is one of the most dramatic places on earth, one that holds a mystical appeal for many Peruvians and visitors. The classic route to Machu Picchu is via the Camino Inca (Inca Trail), a marvel of sensitive development and religious appreciation for nature. Hiking the trail requires 4 days (or 2 days along the shorter, less traditional path) of pretty tough trekking across mountain passes, but the experience is unforgettable. Because of the overwhelming popularity of the Camino Inca, a number of alternative ruins treks, such as Choquequirao and Salcantay, have begun to attract attention for adventurers seeking solitude and authenticity. But if you don't have time or interest in walking and camping, the train to Machu Picchu nearly rivals the trail for scenic beauty, even if it doesn't provide the payoff of arriving shortly after sun-up as the mist begins to clear and rays of sunshine bathe the ruins.