Just 26 kilometres northeast of Cusco along the banks of the Vilcanota River lies the mystical Sacred Valley of Peru. Stretching between the bustling towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, the region is home to snow-capped peaks, verdant hills and fertile plains with corn plantations, iridescent glacial lakes, incredible archaeological sites, lively markets and a vibrant Andean culture.
Many travellers dedicate just one day to exploring the Sacred Valley, or even bypass it and head straight for the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu. There are, however, myriad gems unique to the region that should not be overlooked.
From mining for salt in the visually spectacular Salineras de Maras, to discovering how handicrafts are made in the town of Huacahuasi, the Sacred Valley offers travellers who dig under the trodden surface an authentic and rewarding Peruvian experience.
Mining for Salt
Salt in the Sacred Valley you say? Si! Located in the rural community of Pichingoto on the slopes of Qaqawinay mountain, the Maras salt mine or Salineras de Maras, is a favourite stop for photography enthusiasts.
Consisting of a complex yet picturesque network of terraced ponds, the Maras salt mine was developed in pre-Incan times as a means of economic exchange. To this day, the 3,000-odd ponds are filled by a hypersaline underground spring, which is believed to have formed from a deep halite deposit millions of years ago.
The network of ponds has been meticulously constructed so that gravity does all of the hard work in directing and filling each pond with the spring’s saline water. Over time, each pond dries out to leave pure salt crystals in its shell, which are still harvested by local families.
Browsing the artisan markets at the town of Pisac is one of the best ways to gain insights into life in the Peruvian Andes. This is particularly true if you attend on a Sunday, when artisans and residents of Pisac’s neighbouring communities descend into the town’s cobblestone streets to display and sell their home-made wares, which include colourful textiles, ceramics, semi-precious stones, knitted goods, various trinkets and even musical instruments.
Garments made from alpaca and llama wool – which is washed, spun, dyed and woven by hand – are a signature handicraft and the kaleidoscopically colourful ponchos, skirts and hats are still worn today. For a look at the secrets behind such brilliant craftsmanship, visit the weavers’ villages of Huacahuasi (pronounced wa-ka-wa-si) or Chinchero.
Here residents demonstrate how they make the yarn and dye the wool using native plants and minerals. The fibres are then woven into a design that conveys the artisanal blueprint of the village.
More Peru Inspiration:
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Arduous road: Uncovering The Inca Trail
Immerse yourself in the stunning landscapes and archaeological sites of the Sacred Valley by pulling up your socks and putting on your boots. With a trek, you can soak in the scenery and engage with locals without time constraints and reap the health benefits!
And you'll be retracing the footsteps of the great Inca civilisation, which built the paths 500 years ago. Several trekking companies co-ordinate half-day, full-day or multiple-day treks. Some companies incorporate the Sacred Valley into multi-day treks starting in Cusco and finishing at Machu Picchu. From camping under the stars, to nestling into a comfortable and luxurious bed at a dedicated lodge, trekking options cater for all styles and budgets.
If you’re a biking enthusiast or want to take your adventure to the next level, join a mountain bike tour to experience the splendour of the Andes. You’ll find yourself off the beaten track amid small towns and Incan ruins, peddling through colourful fields of corn, quinoa and potato, of which there are more than 3,000 native varieties.
Biking tours range in duration and difficulty – from one-day moderate tours requiring basic biking skills, to multi-day challenging trips requiring technical biking experience.
Hang-gliding and Paragliding
For an adrenaline-charged 20 minutes and an incredible bird’s eye vista, take flight over the Sacred Valley. With highly qualified guides and powerful morning thermals, launching from the Mirador de Calca provides unrivalled views of the valley.
Take to the wind and drift among the snow-capped mountain peaks, and rolling hills to see the verdant valleys and open agricultural crops of the Incas in all of its splendour.