Urubamba lies smack in the center of the Sacred Valley and thus makes a good base for exploring the valley. Ollantaytambo is 20 minutes down the valley one way and Pisac is 40 minutes the other way. From here, another highway climbs onto the high plains toward Chinchero, a weaving center with a Sunday market and Inca ruins, and Cusco.
Despite its location on an atrocious highway strip, Urubamba is a relaxed and friendly town that grows on people who spend time here. The massive flow of tourism through the Sacred Valley—especially strong on the biggest Pisac market days (Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday)—mostly bypasses Urubamba, which has just one good ruin and little else to attract tourists besides its pleasant square and a colonial cathedral.
Other towns, like Ollantaytambo, or even Pisac, have more of a Quechua flavor, but none are as mellow as Urubamba. Recently, several hip bars and cafés have sprung up in response to a stream of college students brought here by ProPeru and other student organizations.
The plains above Urubamba are spectacular: The snow-covered Cordillera Urubamba rises over a patchwork of russet and chocolate-brown fields. In the middle is Maras, a dense cluster of red tile roofs, and two other startling visual anomalies. Moray is a set of huge natural depressions in the earth that were elaborately terraced by the Inca. Salineras is a blinding-white salt mine that sprawls across the mountain slope.
With these sights plus mountain biking, rafting, and horseback riding, it is no surprise that Urubamba is home to the valley’s best hotels. Because the day tours through the valley stop here for lunch, Urubamba also has the greatest concentration of good restaurants. A final Urubamba highlight worth mentioning is the Seminario Ceramics studio.
Getting to Urubamba
From Cusco, combis for Urubamba leave from the first block of Grau near the bridge (US$1.25, 1.5 hours). Combis drop passengers at Urubamba’s bus station on the main drag, where frequent transport continues for the 20-minute ride to Ollantaytambo and Pisac (40 minutes).
Motocars are ubiquitous in Urubamba and can be contracted cheaply to arrive at the Chicón or Pumahuanca road or for getting to Yucay. Sol y Luna Hotel offers a full-day valley tour to Ollantaytambo and Pisac, in a private car with lunch included. Another option is to contract a private driver and car—Ollantaytambo and Pisac together is US$40, while one or the other is US$25. Ask your hotel for recommendations.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition