When you hear about the Sacred Valley in Peru, you automatically think of the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, but what you don’t know is that the entire valley takes about 5 hours to cross and holds so many more treasures than just Machu Picchu. Most people travel to Peru with the final destination to get to Machu Picchu. Actually, there is no direct road that can take you there from Cusco. In fact, your only options are by train, bus, helicopter, hiking or a combination of two of them, but instead of rushing to get to the grand finale of your trip, here are five hidden wonders that you can discover along the way to Machu Picchu, each filled with their own sense of wonderment.
Rock climb up to the cliffside hotel, The Skylodge, for the night
Thrill-seeking travelers can now stay in Skylodge Adventure Suites, a trio of transparent pods that have been housing intrepid travelers since 2013.
Only accessible by climbing, hiking, or zip lining, the trip to get up to your cliffside hotel room take 3 to 4 hours each way! Each hanging bedroom is suspended on a rock face 1,312 feet above the Sacred Valley in Cusco, Peru.
To get up to your hotel room is a harrowing feat. In front of you is a sheer rock face decked out with 400 iron rungs. With the aid of these rungs and a steel cable that’s fixed to the rock at strategic intervals, you begin your two-hour vertical climb. Beyond this first “test of your will” there is what’s known as a hanging bridge which can only be described as an “adult obstacle course.” The hanging bridge is nothing more than two parallel cords, one for feet, the other for hands and it requires a leap of faith into a vertical position before shimmying over an abyss.
Fears conquered and bridge crossed, your guide will help you climb the rest of the way up. The higher you climb, the more the valley walls open up and reveal their treasures, including a small crumbling of Incan ruins hidden among the shrubs. When we were up there, we stopped occasionally to admire the rare Andean orchids above or the increasingly smaller village below before the strangest sight of all comes into view, the three capsules that will be our destination for the evening: the Skylodge Adventure Suites.
Dubbed “the world’s first hanging lodge,” Skylodge has become a fixture on Pinterest travel boards since its debut and to no surprise. It’s an insane project located en route to one of the planet’s most visited man-made wonders: Machu Picchu.
Each of Skylodge’s three octagonal capsules is made of aerospace aluminum and weather-resistant polycarbonate. Inside are four retractable tables, four solar-powered lights, and plush beds. The bathroom is in a space separated from the rest of the capsule by a thick canvas wall with a zip-up door. Inside is a washbasin with running water, a urinal, and a dry toilet. There’s no shower, but it’s about as luxurious as you can get given the improbable location.
After the winds that whip through the Sacred Valley each afternoon have died down, the capsule becomes a haven of tranquility and a window to the night sky. Away from all of the light pollution, the stargazing is spectacular from up here. After the exhaustion of getting up to your hanging hotel room, you will sleep like a baby! Luckily, it’s a lot easier to get back down in the morning via seven hair-raising zip-lines before you finally touch down on solid ground again.
Accommodation at the Skylodge can be organized through Natura Vive which offers a fully-guided two-day, one-night package that includes the via ferrata, zip-lines, dinner, breakfast, accommodation at Skylodge and transportation to and from Cusco.
Ollantaytambo- The beginning of the Inca Trail
Ollantaytambo is an Incan archaeological site as well as an adorable “hippy” town with cute shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and medieval looking, narrow, cobblestone streets town that marks the halfway point between Cusco and Machu Picchu. It is the only train stop in between the two places. It is located at an altitude of 9,160 feet above sea level in and because of its vantage point and placement in the valley, during the time of the Spanish conquest it was the perfect stronghold for the Inca resistance. Nowadays, it is an important tourist attraction because it marks the most common starting point for the four day, three night hike known along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Life here in Ollantaytambo feels like it hasn’t changed much in many centuries. People are still living in dwellings over 1000 years old, and a huge terraced stone fort towers over the quaint village. Since Ollantaytambo is surrounded by mountains, the main access routes run along the Urubamba Valley. Here the Incas built roads connecting the site with Machu Picchu to the west and Pisaq to the east. During the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1536, Ollantaytambo defended the road to Machu Picchu.
This town is a must-see and a photographer’s paradise. The vibrant clothing and unusual looking “flying saucer” hats that the women wear are so picturesque. Even if you can only spare a few hours in Ollantaytambo there is a lot to be said for just wandering around its ancient cobbled streets, lined with centuries-old adobe buildings, colonial houses and of course original Inca walls. All the while you can hear the sound of gurgling icy mountain water cascading down wonderfully preserved Inca irrigation channels. Wandering around this town and watching the locals, it feels like you could almost be back in the 13th century.
Round off your walking tour with a pit-stop on the main square. It may not hold much architectural interest but it’s a great place for a bit of people watching, and once the buses and delivery trucks have gone for the day – another good reason to stay overnight – it becomes a tranquil spot to enjoy a nice cold Cusquena beer and watch the Inca ruins change color as the sun sets in the Sacred Valley.
Las Salineras de Maras, or The Maras Salt Flats
Years ago, I saw a photograph in National Geographic that looked so unreal that I knew I had to find this place one day. It was of an Incan woman in a top hat, walking along white terraced cliffs that looked like a scene from the moon. What I didn’t know was that those white terraces were salt-evaporation ponds dating back to Pre-Incan times and they cover an entire mountainside in the Sacred Valley in between Cusco and Machu Picchu. I kept that photo with me folded up in my wallet and when I got to Cusco 2 years later I showed it to a few people until someone recognized the place and knew how to get me there.
Forty kilometers north of Cusco, you will find the town of Maras in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The town is well known for its nearby salt ponds in use since Inca times and supposedly with real healing properties. The Maras area is accessible by a long windy paved road, which is precariously on a cliff’s edge along the mountainside. When you finally turn a corner and enter the valley with all of the salt terraces, it is such a dramatic “reveal” of salt ponds. The landscape really does look like something from another planet!
Since pre-Incan times, salt has collected in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. As water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the salt crystallizes around the edges of the ponds.
When I got there, I saw different families dressed in traditional clothing and some in top hats sifting the water for salt. Each family has their own salt pond that is managed by them and has been passed down to them for generations since the Incan times. It is pretty amazing that this ancient method of mining salt is still used there today and is yet another hidden mystery and example of cultural preservation within the Sacred Valley.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week!