Sacred Valley of the Inca

Outside the Inca capital of Cusco lies a 60-mile (100 km) long fertile valley irrigated by the Urubamba River. Over the course of multiple day trips from Cusco, we discovered well-preserved fortifications, religious temples, agricultural terraces, irrigation networks, and administrative structures in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.

Watchtower overlooking town of Pisac at eastern end of the Sacred Valley

At the eastern end of the Sacred Valley lies the citadel of Pisac. This impressive archeological site includes religious, military, and agricultural facilities built along a mountain crest. After sharing a taxi up to the top of the archeological site, I followed a steep and interesting trail back into town.

Inca pink granite stone masonry wall, Pisac Archeological Site

Descending the trail, I found a preserved Inca temple complex of pink granite block construction centered around a sacred altar honoring the sun god. All along the ridge, numerous military watchtowers and observation points with strategic views of the Sacred Valley protected Pisac and imparted its nickname of the “City of the Towers”.

Inca agricultural terraces at Tipón Archeological Site

Agricultural terraces flanking the floor of the Sacred Valley remain the most prevalent and discernible remains of the Inca civilization. A prime example is the enchanting archeological site of Tipón. Here, Inca stone masons erected a succession of walls to create twelve flat platforms for use in the cultivation of crops.

Inca irrigation channel at Tipón Archeological Site

Inca agronomists cleverly situated the agricultural terraces to take full advantage of natural water sources. At Tipón, a series of cascading spring-fed channels irrigate the rectangular terraces. Nowhere else in the Sacred Valley did I observe a better exhibition of Inca skill and expertise in hydrology.

Inca circular agronomy laboratory and seedling nursery at Moray

Another example of the scientific sophistication of the Inca are the unusual circular ruins at Moray. Archeologists believe the terraced depressions to be an agricultural research laboratory and seedling nursery. Within the nested stone rings, Inca agronomists created microclimates and cultivated a variety of test beds to improve crop production.

Pre-Hispanic operational salt pan complex at Maras

Like all great civilizations throughout history, the Inca also relied on the cultivation of salt. At Maras, a natural salt water thermal spring continuously re-fills 5,000 interconnected polygonal pans. Still in operation, independent “farmers” continue to harvest salt by hand-scraping the crystals from the surface of the evaporating brine.  

Esther hoping to see a rainbow at Chinchero Archeological Site

Further along the Sacred Valley, the Inca considered Chinchero to be the mythological birthplace of the rainbow. At the archeological site, ruins of embedded stone walls, trapezoidal terraces, and labyrinthine aqueducts are all that remain of the former country retreat of Inca ruler Tupac Yapanqui.

Colonial parish church on Inca stone foundation at Chinchero Archeological Site

When the Spanish arrived in Chinchero during the 16th century, they destroyed the elaborate palace of Tupac Yapanqui. Today, anchored by the flawless cyclopean stone foundation of the Inca ruler’s refuge, only an unpretentious colonial parish church and its accompanying bell tower endure.

Ollantaytambo town and archeological site at western end of the Sacred Valley

Finally, at the western end of the valley is the former Inca administrative center of Ollantaytambo. At this location, the Inca achieved a rare military victory against the Spanish conquistadors. Nearly five hundred years later, it remains another exceptionally well-preserved archeological site in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.  

Joe visiting the Inca administrative center of Ollantaytambo

Feature Photo: Farmers drying corn outside Pisac in the fertile Sacred Valley of the Inca. Because of its proximity to the Inca capital city of Cusco and its lower elevation and warmer climate, the Sacred Valley was the most important area for maize (corn) production in the Inca Empire. For the Inca, maize was a prestigious crop that was dried, ground, mixed with water and fermented to make the alcoholic beverage chicha, which the Inca elite often guzzled for ceremonial purposes.

12 thoughts on “Sacred Valley of the Inca

  1. I was waiting for you to mention Urubamba on this trip, Joe. It’s also the name of a musical group from Peru that appears on a Paul Simon album (Live Rhymin’), and they chose the name from the river. That might be the sum total knowledge I have of the Incan Empire cities. 🙂 The church at the Chinchero site looks really interesting. Were you able to go in? – Marty

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    • Hey Marty! Urubamba is a great name for a Peruvian musical group. I just re-listened to their Paul Simon collaboration. The Peruvian influence in the song is quite beautiful. As we have traveled around the country, we have heard flutes and other wind instruments commonly played by talented street musicians. I especially like the sound of the pan flute, with its range of notes and vibration of sound created by a skilled musician. The exterior of the church at Chinchero, situated atop the Inca stone foundation, was simple but charming. Peeking inside, we were amazed at the detailed baroque altar, large pieces of religious art, and finely carved wood ceiling. Yet another surprise in this astonishing country.

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  2. It’s one of the fascinations of travel to find the level of intelligence held by ancient civilisations. Sometimes you say “how did they know that?” or “how did they do that?” but most of the time you just think, we in our modern world have lost so many skills. Skills which have become dormant because we no longer need to use them. It’s a fascinating point to ponder.

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    • It surely is fascinating, Phil & Michaela. On this trip to Perú, I have often marveled at the human ingenuity displayed by the people. Thinking back in history, it seems that every generation produces at least one notable genius. Aristotle, Galileo, Marie Currie, Da Vinci, Einstein, and Sir Isaac Newton just to name a few. It stands to reason that human genius’ also populated the Inca and other ancient civilizations. Even though their names are lost in time, their contributions to their own societies must have been equally extraordinary. Fascinating to ponder indeed.

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  3. It’s amazing how much the Incas managed to accomplish! I wish they had written things down, so that future generations could understand their reasoning, but you said they had no written language, I believe. Just think of how much work went into planning those terraces and irrigation systems, and they didn’t even have written instructions to share. Their communication system must have been very efficient. Thanks for sharing the photos and the explanations…I really do find it all fascinating!

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    • That’s right, Ann. The Inca did not use a written language and did not record their history. Despite these shortcomings, it is really quite remarkable how much they accomplished. The amount of labor required to plan and build the terraces alone was immense. Without knowledge of the wheel, it took hundreds of men to excavate, shape, and move just a single large stone. To transmit information across their vast empire, they used specially trained long-distance runners called chaskis to relay important messages over the mountainous terrain. Here again, they relied on brute physical strength and endurance to achieve their ambitious objectives.


  4. Almost as cool as the ancient architecture are the names. Urubamba. Ollantaytambo. Chinchero. We made it to Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Maras, but not the other places. Thanks for the extension.

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    • Glad you got to experience so much of the Sacred Valley, Dave. As you know, unlike in the city of Cusco, many of the Inca structures in the Sacred Valley remain in relatively good condition. Fortunately, because of their remote locations, the Spanish left many of these sites alone. The destruction of the palace of Tupac Yapanqui in Chinchero was a glaring exception. I thought the crop circles of Moray and salt pans of Maras were well-preserved and interesting. Isn’t it remarkable that salt is still being harvested from that ancient site?


    • Thank you so much, Janis. I hope the balance of photos and historical information is not too monotonous. The Inca civilization is indeed a tribute to human resourcefulness and ingenuity. As a species, we should all be proud of their inventiveness and intelligence. Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors mostly came from the poor province of Extremadura Spain. Their primary motive was to enrich themselves at all costs at the expense of the native people. They were ruthless and indiscriminate killers in their quest for gold. Shameful human characteristics and deeds that are both loathsome and despicable.


    • It is a fabulous region, indeed. Because the Inca did not leave a written record of their empire, many mysteries remain. Archeologists studying the sites in the Sacred Valley have revealed a lot of new information, but only a small fraction has been unearthed, so far. The Inca were a prolific civilization, utilizing human ingenuity and raw manpower to build extraordinary structures and achieve great things.


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