The Urubamba Valley was sacred to the Incas, and it’s not hard to understand why. Better known as the Sacred Valley, it’s a serene and incomparably lovely stretch of small villages and ancient ruins spread across a broad plain, split by the Urubamba River and framed by magnificent Andes peaks and a massive sky. 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. Many visitors use the valley as a base for visiting the region, as it’s about 300m (1,000 ft.) lower than Cusco, making it a better introduction for visitors prone to altitude-related health problems.

History -- The entire valley is suffused by the great, if brief, presence of the Incas. From extraordinary temples to fortresses, no region in Peru is more marked by the continent-spanning civilization. Today, Quechua-speaking residents work fields with primitive tools and harvest salt using methods unchanged since the days of the Incas.

Sightseeing -- The Valle Sagrado has taken off as a destination on its own, rather than just a blitzkrieg-style coach trip. There are superb ruins, traditional markets and villages, and cultural attractions of every sort. Several highlights, such as the ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, as well as the higher-altitude market town of Chinchero, are visited as part of Cusco’s boleto turístico.

Nature -- Through the verdant valley rolls the revered Río Urubamba, a pivotal religious element of the Incas’ cosmology (counterpart to the Milky Way). The fertile valley was a major center of agricultural production for native crops such as white corn, coca, and potatoes along terraced mountain slopes. And of course,

the valley is surrounded on all sides by the stunningly beautiful Andes.

Where to Stay & Eat -- Home to some of Peru’s finest country lodges, the valley is perfect for either a relaxing pace or nonstop activity. The kings of swank and serenity are the Tambo del Inka, Explora Valle Sagrado, and Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, but there are affordable alternatives like the Green House. Dining focuses on the produce and pseudo-grains that made the region the Incas’ breadbasket.

Active Pursuits -- The Sacred Valley region is one of the best in Peru for hiking, white-water rafting, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The classic treks to Machu Picchu steal much of the spotlight, but there are better trails here for adventurers seeking solitude and authenticity.

The Best Travel Experiences in the Sacred Valley

* Climbing to Pisac’s ruins: Leave the busy artisans’ market behind and hike the trail up the mountainside to the Inca fortress ruins. At the top are spectacular views of the valley’s agricultural terracing, mountain vistas, and Pisac laid out beneath your feet.

* Appreciating Ollanta’s genius: In the shadow of imposing ruins is a superb example of Inca engineering: Ollantaytambo’s 15th-century grid of canchas, a masterful urban plan of cobblestone streets, courtyards, and canals that still carry water rushing down from the mountains.

* Instagramming Maras and Moray: One site contains circular terraces carved out of the earth with a purpose that remains a mystery, while the other features pre-Inca salt ponds that hang off a steep mountainside. Get your camera ready, because these sites are as photogenic as Machu Picchu and there’s now world-class dining there, too.

* Kicking back at a luxe hotel: Revel in the lower altitude and greater serenity of the Urubamba Valley by relaxing at a country hotel, complete with spa, stunning views, and all the activities you could want—or not.

* Strolling in the valley: The pretty and rural Urubamba Valley is perfect for gentle walks. Choose between a steep walk up from Pisac town to the ruins or a leisurely hike amid Andean meadows in the Chicón Valley, among others.