Interesting Facts That'll Make You Want To Explore the Sacred Valley in Peru
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Interesting Facts That'll Make You Want To Explore the Sacred Valley in Peru

The Sacred Valley in Peru is visited by more than a million people each year. Many of them are enroute to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas. Sometimes travelers are so focused on this ancient citadel they miss opportunities in the valley region. It’s dotted with Inca ruins and cultural treasures. Plus, the landscapes are stunning.

If you’re traveling to Peru, check out some details about the Sacred Valley before you arrive. That way you’ll ensure you’re not missing out. Here are some interesting facts to get you started.

Where is the Sacred Valley in Peru?

The valley is located amid the Andes Mountains north of the former Inca capital, Cusco.

The Urubamba River carved the valley between the mountains. The Sacred Valley stretches from Pisac to Ollantaytambo.

Pisac is known for its Inca ruins, including the Pisac Archaeological Park. The village also has a renowned market and is a place where a traditional way of life is still embraced. Visitors will see traditional attire, cobblestone streets, and local cuisine.

To the west, Ollantaytambo is located along the Patakancha River amid the mountains. The old town has quaint streets lined with adobe buildings. It’s a common launching point for people who want to hike the Inca Trail. The area is known for its Inca ruins, including a large site with terraces called Temple Hill.

Before entering the valley, Cusco may be the most common stop for travelers. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately, the Spanish destroyed many Inca structures in the city and used some walls that remained to construct newer buildings. A few Inca buildings survived the test of time, but today one of the best known buildings in Cusco is the Spanish Cathedral of Santo Domingo.

How Far is Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley?

These two locations are about 53 kilometers apart. That’s nearly 33 miles. You can take a scenic train ride from one historic spot to the other. That ride is two to three hours long depending on your starting point.

Hike Machu Picchu

Journey to the top of Machu Picchu for epic views. Copyright: © Rustic Pathways

What’s the Altitude of the Sacred Valley in Peru?

The altitude can be tough for some visitors in the region. Cusco has an altitude of 11,000 feet. That’s higher than Machu Picchu’s nearly 8,000 feet. It’s also a couple thousand feet higher than most other destinations in the valley. So descending into the valley can help travelers who struggle with the thinner air.

Why is it called the Sacred Valley?

There are a few theories for why the region is called the Sacred Valley. The indigenous Quechua name for the Urubamba River was Willkamayu, which means sacred river. It’s logical that the valley created by that river would adopt a sacred title too.

Why sacred? The reason may stem from the area’s topography and location. The valley is fertile, giving it rich soil for agriculture. The region also appears to align with the Milky Way.  Stars frequently had spiritual significance to indigenous people, so any connection with the stars could make the area sacred to the local residents.

Who lived in the Sacred Valley?

The region is most famous for being home to the Incan Empire, the largest pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas. However, hundreds of pre-Incan cultures populated Peru long before the Incan Empire. Those cultures contributed to the Inca’s many world-renowned achievements.

The earliest known civilization in the Sacred Valley was the Chanapata who lived there around 800 BC. A few hundred years later, the Qotacalla civilization took root followed by the Killke and then Incas. The Spanish conquered the Incas in the 1530s.

Why do local indigenous people use bright colors in their textiles?

While in the Sacred Valley, you may see indigenous villagers weaving colorful textiles and wearing bright clothing. The Incas gave a lot of weight to colors that were made from plants, insects and other elements in the environment. Among the colors of significance was red. It was associated with conquering and ruling. Also, purple was associated with the founding mother of the Inca people.

What foods are popular in the Sacred Valley?

Maize production was important in the Sacred Valley during the Incan Empire. More than 50 varieties of corn are grown in the country, including one with the largest kernels of any type. The potato, tomato and avocado are also all native to the Andes region. Peru has over 3,000 different types of potato.

These produce items remain popular menu choices in the valley. However, one traditional dish gets more attention. That’s guinea pig or cuy. It has a 5,000 year history as a dish. So don’t be surprised if you see cuy on the menu.

Why are there so many alpacas in the Sacred Valley?

Alpacas live at higher altitudes, allowing them to play a key role in the livelihoods of the Sacred Valley’s rural people. The alpaca’s hair has been called the “fiber of the gods” and was used to make clothes for royalty. It’s still utilized today for textiles.

alpacas in Peru

Farmers in the valley also fertilize their land with alpaca manure. And the animals are also a meat source.

Their overall usefulness has led to Peru being a common home for the species. Three-quarters of the world’s alpaca population live in Peru, numbering about 7.5 million alpacas. That means you’ll definitely see alpacas in Peru.

What can you see in the Sacred Valley?

The Inca ruins in the region are definitely a highlight. They’re recognized as being among the most well-preserved Inca ruins in the world. This includes the terraced fortress near Ollantaytambo and the archeological park ruins near Pisac with their ceremonial baths.

You may also see statues and other artwork. You can search for statues of the ninth king of the Incan Empire, Inca Pachacuti. He’s credited with the construction of Machu Picchu and the unification of the four regions of the Incan Empire.

Amid the artwork and ruins, the scenery is unforgettable. The glaciers and mountains in the region provide a backdrop to the valleys and various waterways.

Rustic Pathways Program Leader Nancy Trujillo, who has traveled to many nations, says the views aren’t limited to the daytime. The nights are also particularly memorable.

“You can see all the stars and the constellations that are visible from the Southern Hemisphere – the full moon and all its craters,” Trujillo said.

Other unique stops include the historic salt terraces that have been producing salt since pre-Inca times. And there are the packed markets, friendly local people and charming villages.

What adventure activities are there in the Sacred Valley?

The mountains and waterways provide a perfect setting for many adrenaline-pumping adventures. You can paddle a boat through waters surrounded by glaciers and hop on a bike to go mountain biking. You can rock climb cliffs and then zipline across deep expanses.

Mountain biking in Peru

Credit: Rustic Pathways

There’s even a famous skylodge you can stay in if you’re absolutely not afraid of heights. This place isn’t for the faint of heart.

If you want adventure activities, it may be helpful to prepare before you go. You’ll benefit from being physically ready to climb and explore at higher altitudes. That way you’ll be ready for the journey.

Adventure activities in the Sacred Valley include:

  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Stand-Up Paddle Boarding
  • Kayaking
  • Pedal Boating
  • Mountain Biking
  • Ziplining
  • Hiking
  • Paragliding
  • Bungee Jumping
  • Horseback Riding
  • Rock Climbing
  • ATV Tours
White water rafting in Peru

Credit: Rustic Pathways

How do you travel as a high school student to the Sacred Valley?

Student travel programs are the best option. That way you can travel with local guides who know the region. Rustic Pathways has three choices for high school and college-aged travelers:

Sacred Valley Service

Andes to Amazon (High School)

Andes to Amazon (College Program)

All these programs allow you to spend time in the Sacred Valley and see the famous Machu Picchu site. Country Manager Alex Ball says the Sacred Valley program has less intra-country travel and more service.

“In the Sacred Valley program you get a deeper bond with the place where you’re doing service,” Ball said. “You see really remote, spectacular subsistence farming communities.”

The Andes to Amazon program has more travel since students see both the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle at the basin, which is the jungle’s most diverse region.

In both programs students get an adrenaline rush doing activities like ziplining and rock climbing. In these programs, you’ll also see why Peru and the Sacred Valley are popular travel destinations. To find out more, visit our Peru program page or reach out to a travel advisor.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.