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Urubamba: The Sacred Valley of the Incas

Photo: Mylene d'Auriol


Photo: Mylene d'Auriol


Photo: Mylene d'Auriol


Photo: Mylene d'Auriol



Photo: Mylene d'Auriol



Photo: Mylene d'Auriol






At dawn, a hazy mist covers the route from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley and soon Cuzco, with all its vestiges of Inca antiquity and colonial grandeur, is lost from sight. The mist, however, does not prevent one from making out the cyclopean silhouettes of the Sacsayhuaman fortress. Nor does it diminish the majesty of the Qenqo labyrinth with its zigzag carvings on the great stone, looking for all the world like some ancient altar.

Tambomachay is next, a place of ceremonial baths with carved channels and cascades standing in tribute to the skill of the Inca stonemasons and architects. Tambomachay was one of the main centers of Inca water worship and even today, a steady stream of crystalline water wells up from the earth's depths.
Finally, after the bus stops winding its way through the countless curves in the road, it emerges without warning into an Andean market, a riot of color, a hive of activity and chaos punctuated by loud, shrill voices hawking the day's bargains. This is the main square of Pisac, taken over every Sunday without fail by artesanos selling local handicrafts. Residents of the Sacred Valley are not the only ones who show up on Sundays. Tourists also descend in hordes to see the colorful locals and to go to the mass, said in Quechua, after which a memorable procession leaves the church. And of course people come for the handicrafts. At this market, and at a much quieter and less touristy one on Thursdays, it is possible to buy ceramics - Pisac has Peru's best hand-painted ceramic jewelry - weavings, alpaca sweaters, woolen bags, llama rugs and much more.

Pisac is a colonial town built on the ruins of an Inca citadel by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, whose government, among other exploits, was responsible for hanging, drawing and quartering the last Inca rebel, Tupac Amaru. The town stands at the entrance to the Sacred Valley. It is an immensely fertile area irrigated by the Willkamayu or Vilcanota River, which further downstream, running through stretches at times torrential and at other times calm, becomes the Urubamba.

Here it is possible to see how Incan agronomists were able to grow crops on the steep mountainsides. The problem: how to retain rain water for crops on the 45° slopes. The solution: terraces. The Incas built the terraces two to three meters wide and used them with great success to feed their huge empire. Mao Tse Tung later borrowed the idea to solve a similar problem in China, as can be seen at Tachay, one of the finest examples of crop terracing in the world. The terraces in the Andes are beautifully built and blend in perfectly with nature. From a bird's eye view, the mountains look as if they were built in concentric circles.

Incan agricultural ingenuity is manifested in other ways as well. Near Pisac the Urubamba River is very straight in comparison with other areas. The Incas formed that section, more than three kilometers long, into a canal so that the land surrounding it could be farmed efficiently. It is the largest pre-Columbian canal in North and South America.

In the mountains above Pisac, an ancient cemetery keeps watch over the town. It is possibly the biggest find of its kind and, according to local legend, there is a figure of stone there decorated with the most beautiful flowers of the empire. It is Inkill Chumpi, the lovely and sweet daughter of Hualla Puma who was turned to stone after disobeying the mysterious and sacred bird, the Qoriquenke, that had been brought there by Asto Rimac, the prince of the Huallas who ruled in Antisuyo.

Passing through nearby Qoya and Lamay one arrives in Yucay and Calca, which were, according to historical legend, the favorite haunts of Inca Wiracocha, and the place from which the Inca's captains sallied forth to subdue the rebellious people of Pisac. Wiracocha ruled over a kingdom beset with internal unrest at a time when the Inca `Empire' measured no more than six miles around; the vast empire of the Inca, known as Tahuantinsuyo, would come later. Tired from a life spent dealing with troublesome chieftains, Wiracocha eventually abdicated and withdrew from public life to spend his final years enjoying the comforts of his small palace at Calca.

Now, only some insignificant ruins remain in Calca, nothing that would conjure up images of its Inca past. Yucay is a prettier, more interesting village with a 300-year old hacienda that has been converted into one of the Sacred Valley's ritziest hotels. One of the rooms is even supposed to be haunted. Next up is Moray, a place where one can see four circular and concentric stone constructions forming a series of rings. They are supported by stone walls, and surrounding the main construction are terraces that form a type of horseshoe. It is believed that the Incas used the rings, and their varying microclimates, for agricultural experiments. Others believe the rings could have been an amphitheater for civic or religious ceremonies.

In Maras one can see mules loaded with sacks of salt from the natural salt pans at the end of town. It is difficult to reach the site, but is worth a visit as these salt pans are believed to have been in use since the Inca era.

Farther along the right bank of the Sacred River is Urubamba, also known as the Pearl of the Vilcanota, owing to the beauty of its countryside. Then comes the archeological complex of Ollantaytambo. It was the Spaniards that christened it the Fortress of Ollantaytambo. It is a geometrically perfect town with straight streets, trapezoidal doors, and walls carved with beautifully delicate designs. In order to get to the Inca ruins above one must climb a series of well-laid out steps. The air is thin, but guides will urge visitors onward with the promise that it is well worth the effort. Most impressive is the main temple with its double façade featuring six monoliths assembled out of rose-colored granite. It looks as if these granite blocks are welded together, but they are not. The blocks were brought from the distant quarries of Cachicata, but how did Incan masons transport the gigantic structures across gorges, rivers and other obstacles separating the distance? It is a much-pondered mystery.

For those unfamiliar with the legend, the ruins of Ollantaytambo - now sadly somewhat overrun by vendors - are named after Ollanta, an Inca hero who rose to the rank of general through his warrior prowess. Ollanta fell in love with Cusi Coyllur, or "Happy Star," the favorite daughter of the Inca Pachacutec and asked to marry her.

Pacacutec refused, however; it was impossible for a member of the monarchy to marry a commoner, even one who was a military leader. Thus scorned, Ollanta rebelled against his sovereign and defeated his troops with an army led by his lieutenant, Rumiñahui. The Inca Pachacutec died in the fighting and was succeeded by his son, Yupanqui. Rumiñahui, deciding he had more of a future as a loyal subject, betrayed Ollanta and took him prisoner. The new Inca, however, remembered Ollanta's past heroism, showed clemency and even allowed him to marry princess Cusi Coyllur. Like a fairy tale, the newlyweds lived happily ever after and had a daughter, Ima Sumac, or "Morning Star," a legendary beauty in her own right. Visitors lucky enough to be at Ollantaytambo at sunset will likely wax poetical about the delicate interplay of light and dark that emphasizes the contours of the buildings while throwing other parts into shadow. The effect enhances the aura of mystery that surrounds the place and seems to symbolize the struggle between life and death. 

The Vilcanota River has witnessed the Valley's history in silence, and continues to flow through the region as it has since the dawn of time. Although it is at times boxed in, roaring and lashing out in fury at being confined, the river mostly flows placidly through open country, turning the land every imaginable shade of green and providing life-giving sustenance for the largest and sweetest maize in Peru. The locals consider the maize that grows in the Sacred Valley a gift from God. However, the area is also famous for its thriving wildlife, and is a haven for foxes, partridges, deer, kestrels, and, soaring way up in the sky, the condor. Returning to Cuzco, one can take the longer route that passes through Chinchero, with architecture that is a balance of Inca and Spanish Colonial, surrounded by the snow-covered mountains of Chicon and Wekey Willca. Off to one side there are two types of terracing: one for growing crops and the other for containing mud slides, which were as much a source of concern for Inca engineers as they are today. Like Pisac, the main square in Chinchero doubles as a handicraft market on Sundays. 

There is a legend that maintains the town was the birthplace of the rainbow and there is a special rainbow ceremony on May 2. From an architectural standpoint, the Sacred Valley route is truly admirable in that Inca architects believe in the importance of not divorcing men from their surroundings. Instead, they strove to combine human necessities with what the earth, air, landscape, sky, and nature already offered. There was a strong sense of ecology as well, something that would not again be fashionable for hundreds of years. The Inca were not alone in their respect for the environment and their desire to erect buildings in harmony with it. In Kampuchea, the temples and homes in Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are examples of man and nature working together, like the parts of a clock.

Urubamba Sunset

Perhaps because of this Inca world view, many people believe there is something mystical about the Sacred Valley. Machu Picchu in particular is viewed as a center of energy and there have been UFO sittings near the Huapo Lagoon; the area has become an important destination on the New Age travel circuit. The sun will have long since faded by the time the visitor returns to Cuzco, but memories of the Sacred Valley will have not. The mystery and majesty of the place are sure to remain for a long time.

By Luis Moro
Volume II/Issue 8, Page 48

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