The Sacred Valley in Peru Now and Then (2008)
This was one of the occasions during our current trip, when we went back to what should have been ‘familiar territory’: the region around Cusco in Peru, better known as the Sacred Valley. We spent longer there than expected in 2008 , mostly because both of us became sick with a chest infection. Guess what? Unfortunately, the same happened this time – although we knew better and left more quickly.
Other than that, we were surprised by how much had changed in a little over 8 years. Of course, the famous Inca ruins are still standing and look the same! Let’s hope they remain that way. It’s the surrounds that have changed. The popularity of Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, the Salinaras, the entire Inca circuit, has led to an influx of tourists we hadn’t expected.
But it’s not only the Sacred Valley where we noticed the change in Peru. As soon as we arrived in Tacna from Chile, we stood in a traffic jam. That wouldn’t have happened in 2008. Back then we noticed in rural regions that we could hardly ever get off the road – there simply weren’t any side tracks or driveways because not many people owned private vehicles. Now you see thousands of little hatchbacks whizzing around in every town, with some serious SUVs added to the mix.
On our way to the Sacred Valley we stopped in Arequipa, a town we remembered well from our last trip. It had also changed: the narrow streets were choked with traffic, the air laden with exhaust fumes. Not the Peru we remembered from last time! The country is blessed with a relatively stable economy, a low inflation rate, and many people finally seem to earn enough for ‘western consumer goods’; cars and smart phones tend to be on top of the wish list (and who can blame them?).
Our main reason for revisiting the Sacred Valley was that Yasha’s sister and her husband came to join us for 3 weeks in January. How exciting – specially for Yasha! January is not the best time to visit the mountains of Peru as the rain season is slowly settling in. On the plus side it means that it’s ‘low season’, so you don’t need to book everything long in advance and visitor numbers should be down.
But that’s where we encountered our first surprise: in 2008 we stayed for most of September, a month now considered ‘peak season’ for Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Yet back then we perceived most places as less crowded than now, in ‘low season’. We don’t even like to imagine what it would be like to visit during high season…
Fortunately for travellers like us, with their own transport, there are simple steps to avoid the main crowds. We would seriously recommend that you bypass most main tour operators and (if you don’t have your own transport and your budget permits) hire a car or a car with driver.
You see, almost all organised tours adhere to much the same time table: they leave Cusco in the morning and drive along the same main attractions (almost in a convoy), visiting the same highlights around the same time! In the evening they either return to Cusco, or drop off their passengers in Ollantaytambo to catch a late train to Aguas Calientes, the base village for Machu Picchu.
Best Times of Day to Visit Sacred Valley Attractions
Let me list the individual attractions and the best time to visit (from our experience):
- Pisac Ruins: after lunchtime you can visit this site in peace and quiet.
We arrived around midday, a tad too early, as the site was just emptying. I had to park far away from the entrance, below a long line of buses. By 2pm the parking attendants, who were previously directing traffic, had left because there wasn’t anything for them to do. During most of our visit we shared the large site with maybe 20-30 other visitors – not 20-30 bus loads.
- Ollantaytambo Ruins: here the morning (up to lunchtime) is the best time to visit.
In the afternoon the steep stair leading up to the main complex resembles, from a distance, a colourful line of (human) ants rushing up and down. In the morning the visitor numbers were similarly low as in Pisac.
- Moray and the Salinera de Maras: afternoon (or possibly early in the morning).
We went first to the terraced circles of Moray and then drove on to the Salinera. At Moray there was some constant coming and going, groups arriving and leaving. Overall it didn’t feel too crowded. When we arrived at the Salinera, around 12:30, there wasn’t any room in the parking lot and we had to wait. Later, around 2pm, half the lot was empty.
- Machu Picchu: it’s certainly better to stay the night before in Aguas Calientes and rise early to visit the ruins – before the first trains from Cusco bring in the day visitors.
- Chinchero: we visited in the mid afternoon and the place felt almost ‘sleepy’.
There was one mini bus parked in the lot.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
When you know individual places from earlier, you will notice many other differences too. For example, the craft market in Pisac has expanded to almost triple its previous size. A lot more products seems to be mass-produced (we heard rumours that some now come from China) and it’s more difficult to find anything truly unique to buy. There’s also a larger ex-pat community permanently living in this small town.
All towns and villages now have many more tourist facilities, restaurants and accommodation; the latter seem to cover a much broader price range, from simple hostels to truly exclusive 4 or 5 star resorts. For us this was good, because we needed a suitable room for Bron and Bob with the option to park our large truck on the same property (or nearby).
We were particularly lucky in Ollantaytambo, where we spent several days whilst Bron and Bob visited Machu Picchu (we’d been in 2008, and once is enough). We happened to arrive for the annual ‘Bajada de Reyes’ [Three Kings’ Day in English, or Heilige Drei Könige in German]. These are very unique celebrations, for which countless people arrive from the surrounding hills, all dressed in their native costumes. The celebrations in Ollantaytambo are said to be the most colourful in all of Peru. The weather wasn’t very cooperative, but we managed to get quite a lot of beautiful photos.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
Another difference we noticed, was during our stay at the Quinta Lala Camping in Cusco. In 2008 we frequently sat in a large group of overlanders, in the middle of the lawn, chatting and sharing a meal and travel stories. This time the social interaction among fellow travellers was much more subdued (or non-existent). I don’t know if that’s because so many more people are now overlanding the Pan-Americana. It’s nothing unique anymore, there are many online groups available to share tips, so there’s less reason to sit together and discuss your experiences.
Around the World Heritage listed historic centre Cusco has also grown – a lot. To the south there’s now a suburb full of modern shops and a real shopping mall. The steep hills surrounding the city are now densely stacked with new residential developments; often there isn’t room left for real roads going into these, but only narrow tracks and seemingly endless staircases connecting the layers.
Our final observation: you see mobile towers everywhere – quite unsightly monster towers, often within plain view or as a backdrop to ancient Inca ruins. Well, we keep using the local Claro network for our updates and other things, so who are we to complain?