The Sacred Valley of the Incas

A Rare Combination of Natural Beauty
and Architectural Genius

Nicholas Asheshove and Kathy Doore for

The Incas saw the Sacred Valley, which is separated from Cusco by the high rolling farmland and llama pastures of the Chinchero massif, as the reflection of the Milky Way. The Valley was literally heaven on Earth, and for the Incas, sons of the Sun no less, this was home. It was from the temple-pyramid at Ollantaytambo, in the heart of the Valley, that the Ayar Brothers, the Inca founding fathers, had emerged, according to new research. The direct, mystic connection with the stars, the Gods, was destroyed by the conquistadores four and a half centuries ago. But up in the side-valleys and highland districts it has been kept vividly alive and today many Peruvians and foreigners are trying to recapture the connection, seeking new inspiration from a tradition as old as the better-known religions of the East.

The Sacred Valley is at the heart of this new search and even the most down-to-earth visitor senses quickly that this is a special place. They know, partly because they can see it in front of them, that they are in the heart of several millenia of history, the history not just of the Incas and their predecessors but of civilization itself. The splendid road networks up, down, and across these huge ranges at almost superhuman heights, the literally incredible ruins and the massive agricultural terraces are among the great achievements of our race, something, here in the Valley, we can see, touch and think about.


From great snowpeaks like Pitusiray, Chicon, the Veronica and Salcantay the Apus, local gods, look down on pleasant towns, charming, oxen-ploughed fields and thousands of valley-side terraces. The climate is benign, warm clear air, at 9,200 feet above sea level, a comfortable 2000’ lower than hard-to-breathe high-altitude Cusco.

They also look down on Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo and Pisaq, among the most dramatic temple-cities in the world. Today, just as it did 500 and 1,000 years ago, the Sacred Valley provides a rare combination of power and peace, comfort and excitement. It is one of the world’s natural theatres, like the Aegean and Tuscany. The dozens of fiestas and processions reflect an energetic, robustly pagan tradition overlaid by a colorfully gloomy Mediterranean veneer. Musicians and dancers are kept busy year-round. Quechua, an allusive, softly gutteral language in which only metaphor and imagery are precise, is as important as Spanish.

During the dry winter season, between June and September, the Valley’s days are lit by a strong sun and the nights by the brilliant Andean kaleidescope of the stars and the planets. In addition, Lake Huaypo, near Urubamba, is renowned as a sighting spot for UFOs as is the Sacred Valley itself.


In the green summer season, from October through April, even the nights are warm in the Sacred Valley. Most days are sunny, but after midday immense banks of clouds build up over the cordillera and rain often comes down in torrents in the night. Early in the morning during this season the mountains and the side valleys are layered with patches and lines of cloud at different altitudes, a wonderful, evocative sight. This is, after all, the Cloud Kingdom of the Incas.

The main cities and temples were designed to represent some of the groupings of the stars and the planets. The great Temple of the Sun at Ollantaytambo was done in the shape of a llama and as a Tree of Life, and the complex at Pisaq was a condor, presumably in the same way that we refer to the Southern Cross, the Great Bear and Orion’s Belt.

Like the Ganges, the Nile, the Mekong and the Euphrates the Rio Vilcanota the Sacred Valley’s main river, is one of the great cradles of civilization. It is, actually a rather modest, bouncy stream in the Sacred Valley, only 100 feet wide as it swirls past the village of Urubamba, halfway along its course on its way to becoming the Urubamba River, then the Ucayali, and finally the Amazon. Its source is in the mountains that dominate the northern end of Lake Titicaca, It runs northward, passing near Cusco before diving into the Sacred Valley at Pisaq, where the mountainside is cloaked in one of the half-dozen greatest of the ancient sites of the Americas. For some afficionados, Pisaq is as awe-inspiring as Machu Picchu, with the added advantage that visitors even today have it largely to themselves, unlike the crowds that can sometimes dominate Machu Picchu.


From Pisaq on down past Coya, Calca, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, the main towns in the Valley, the Rio Vilcanota runs through the heart of the Empire. Here were the country estates of the Incas and they valued the land so highly, that its whole course through this part of the Valley is channeled with stone walls that still hold in the river against the summer floods.

The glorious cathedral-universities at Pisaq, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, are the South American equivalents of Chichén Itza and Uzmal, the Pyramids, Ankor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis.

What are we to make of this explosion of talent in the midst of such stunning scenery? Why are these Andean architectural marvels so unusual? The great Maya cities are, in the same way, mostly, though, true, not all, set on the otherwise featureless jungle plains of Yucatan. Yet here we have Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo and Pisaq within a space that today takes a helicopter less than half an hour to cover from Cusco, with its own stunning treasures –not to mention a dozen other wonders close by.


These are works of collective genius produced in extraordinary, challenging, dramatic surroundings, a combination found nowhere else. This is not one of those quick see-the-packaged-sights region. The fortunate people wandering through this wonderland today will be forced to ask themselves what produced this flowering of sacred, engineering, social, political and agricultural talent, and what these people would have been doing today if they had not been crushed by our own European efforts at civilization.

Today’s Peruvians, too, can reflect on, and perhaps draw strength from, this huge effervesence of glory created by their forefathers less than a score of generations ago.