The Sacred Valley
The river that runs past Machu Picchu is the Río Urubamba, which the Inca considered a sacred reflection of the Milky Way. Before reaching Machu Picchu, the Río Urubamba flows through the Sacred Valley, a breathtaking landscape of snowcapped mountains, red granite cliffs, and lush green terraces.
The Sacred Valley runs roughly from Pisac to Ollantaytambo and a bit beyond to Piscacucho, a highly fertile region that was Inca breadbasket and still produces much of the grains and vegetables consumed in Cusco. Compared to the chilly, thin air of Cusco, the Sacred Valley is balmy and lush and the Inca considered it paradise on earth, a vision of Eden made incarnate.
Inca palaces, fortresses, and sun temples dot this valley, along with charming Andean villages that produce and sell some of the country’s finest handicrafts. Along with Machu Picchu and Cusco,the Sacred Valley is at the top of Peru’s must-see list.
Two of the most interesting towns in the Sacred Valley are the Inca villages of Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Ollantaytambo is Peru’s best example of a living Inca village, where people still live in the graceful Inca homes and use the same waterways that were used by their ancestors 500 years ago. Ollantaytambo’s sun temple towers above town and contains Inca stonework as impressive as that found in Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Pisac is best known for its daily handicrafts market, which draws large crowds of travelers each day. But Pisac also has an interesting variety of Inca architecture in town, along with important Inca ruins in the hills above. Pisac’s ruins offer an interesting window into Inca life because they combine religious, civilian, and military architecture in a single location.
A growing body of research proves that much of Inca architecture, especially in the Sacred Valley, was built with the movements of the sun and stars in mind. The temple-fortresses of Pisac and Ollantaytambo both correspond very precisely to lunar and solar events. Moray, an area of terraced natural depressions, was probably designed to use sun and shade to work as an agricultural laboratory.
The Inca went to great effort to redirect the Río Urubamba into a stone channel—to maximize farming land, but also probably to reflect the straight shape of the Milky Way. The great care the Inca took in aligning buildings with the sun, moon, and stars reflects their vision of the Sacred Valley as a sacred, celestial landscape.
Heavy rains in January 2010 caused significant flooding in the Sacred Valley, including the displacement of about 10,000 people in the valley alone. The village of Taray, near Pisac, was nearly completely destroyed.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition