Urubamba Valley, Peru: aka “Yucay Valley,” aka “Sacred Valley,” aka “Holy Crap! Valley.”

Urubamba Valley, Peru

Since there aren’t any nonstop flights to Machu Picchu — the Incas were advanced, but not enough to build airports (dammit!) — we had to get there from Cusco by traversing the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Many people choose to spend five whole days hiking the infamous “Inca Trail,” but that’s mental because you can take a perfectly civilized PeruRail train the entire way in, like…two hours.

The Sacred Valley and Urubamba River

But before boarding the PeruRail train at Aguas Calientes station, we spent some time staring with our jaws fully slacked at the unbelievably stunning natural beauty that is called the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Photographs don’t do the place justice at all, but I took a boatload of them anyway (see accompanying thumbnails).

Sacred Valley terrace farming

At about 11,000 feet, the valley is a veritable cornucopia of free-range alpaca beef, cruelty-free vegetables, organic produce and double rainbows where much of Peru’s produce, maize, milk and meat originates. Compared to Lima, it’s surprisingly lush and fertile thanks to its quite literally breath-taking altitude and shear, vertical mountain-sides which protect the region from the hot, dry coastal air. The valley gets one of its many names from the Urubamba River which knifes along the valley floor.

Inca Pisac ruins terrace farms

To farm the valley’s severely tilted land, the Quechua (aka, Incas) constructed wide swaths of agricultural terraces. This ingenious “stepped” design did double duty, preventing both soil erosion during heavy seasonal rains, and fatal falls from 11,000 feet. The Quechua also cleverly hauled richer topsoil from the low lands to produce far more food than would normally be possible at these insane altitudes. And the terraces are still being farmed to this day.

View of Pisac from Inca Pisac ruins.

No doubt, the hauling of soil was made easier by the pre-Incan domestication of both llamas and alpacas, the only two beasts of burden available in all the Americas. Despite their smallish size, both can carry up to about 50 pounds (unless overloaded in which case they will comically, simply sit down). And while alpaca are well adapted to high altitudes, they’re at their best, in my opinion, grilled medium-rare with potato and cheese (see also chicharron de alpaca).

The perilous path up to Inca Pisac ruins.

The first village we visited was Pisac, located on a long crest of a peak at the southern end of the Sacred Valley. From there, we hiked a mildly perilous path above the village to the Inca Pisac ruins, an impressive example of Quechua engineering. Ceremonial altars, glacier-fed baths, and water fountains that would be clever at sea level warrant further admiration at 9,000 feet. No one knows exactly when Pisac was initially built (most likely no earlier than 1440), but everyone knows exactly when it was destroyed (definitely no later than 1530 — thanks again, Conquistadicks!).

Entrance to Inca Pisac ruins, notice the expert craftsmanship and single slab over door, indicating a place of importance.

We shopped a bit for authentic Quechua-crafted trinkets and Alpaca sweaters at the popular Pisac Market (inside one of the stores which sold Alpaca, there was a pet Alpaca that gave us the stink-eye the entire time.) Afterward, we set out for the village of Ollantaytambo where we were to pick up the train to Aguas Calientes, the tiny village at the base of Machu Picchu. On the picturesque drive along the Urubamba river, we passed a beautiful waterfall cascading down from a towering peak that our guide didn’t know anything about. Frankly, there aren’t many places on the Earth that are so spectacular that the locals don’t give a crap about an amazing waterfall.

Inca Pisac ruins

Also at an altitude of at least 9,000 feet — and isn’t everything around here? — Ollantaytambo was home to an Incan fortress thought to protect the northern end of the Sacred Valley. It’s also near one of the three starting points of the aforementioned “Inca Trail.” (For an idea of how insane hiking the Inca Trail would be, click and enlarge any of these photos and image hiking OVER any one of the mountains in it. Still want to do it?)

Inca Pisac ruins

The site is best known for its incredible ruins. Hiking these ruins, you can start to see effects that prolonged exposure to thin atmosphere had on the Quechua. To build the Ollantaytambo fortress, they dug out huge, multi-ton boulders from the top of one mountain, pushed them down to the valley floor and then pushed them back up to Ollantaytambo. More idiotically, they built store-houses for the fortress halfway up an entirely different mountain! Surely, no one with access to oxygen-rich air would have proposed such a ludicrous idea, and certainly no one in their right mind should’ve gone along with it. And yet, somehow, they did.

Lower Inca Pisac ruins as seen from higher Inca Pisac ruins

Regardless of their lack of practicality, the Quechua clearly built spectacularly well engineered, rock structures that survived the ravages of time, the elements and the assholiness of Catholic Spaniards. The thought of doing what the Quechua people did at Ollantaytambo was so daunting and overwhelming, we wondered how Machu Picchu could surpass it. We went back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before we hopped PeruRail’s Machu Picchu train to find out.