Terraces at Chinchero Peru.
Kelly Cheng/Getty

Making My Way Through Peru's Sacred Valley—and Bypassing Machu Picchu

Sometimes, skipping a bucket-list destination makes it possible to find the riches lying in its shadow.

This is part of a collection of stories on slow travel—read more here.

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As I huff up the last stretch of sloping farmland, nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, the craggy outline of the Pumamarca’s pre-Incan stonework finally appears amid a tangle of greenery. The air is so still I’m tempted to hold my breath; the only sounds poking through the silence are the trickle of a stream, and the dull clang of a far-off cowbell. My partner and I have seen three people in the past 20 minutes, each of whom offered directions in Quechua to the taxi driver who brought us to the trailhead. 

The archaeological site we have come to see dates back to roughly 900 AD, and is said to be one of the few places the Incas defeated the Spanish. A maze of still-intact structures await visitors, ranging from towering fortress walls to ceremonial spaces, and there are sweeping views of the valley below—yet, today, we are the only ones here. Beside the flung-open entrance gate reads a hand painted sign, “Please close the door so the alpacas don’t get out.” (Uh oh.)

The Ollantaytambo archaeological site, which sits en route to Machu Picchu, is home to Inca terraces and a ceremonial center.

YM German/Getty

This is our second day exploring the pre-Hispanic ruins clustered around the ancient yet bustling little village of Ollantaytambo. The town of some 10,000 people is a crucial gateway to Machu Picchu. Here, travelers coming from the city of Cusco spill out of taxis and tour vans on the hour, dragging their suitcases and backpacks just a few feet to the train cars that whisk them 30 miles to the base of the Wonder of the World. As they grab onto the rails and hoist themselves aboard, too few realize just how much they are missing in its surroundings. 

It’s not just Ollantaytambo. The whole of Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, which sits between Cusco city and Machu Picchu, is home to countless pre-Hispanic sites, dozens of which are known and excavated and many more that are not. Some have been around since well before the Incas, with roots in the Killke, Qotacalla, Wari, Tiwanaku, and Chanapata civilizations. Machu Picchu continues to reign as the crown jewel in any Peru itinerary though—and these other attractions, like the Incan salt mines of Maras or hilltop citadel of Pisac, are often seen by international travelers as nice-to-have add-ons for those with a few days to spare after crossing the big one off their bucket list. 

With every passing year, I’ve come to wonder if this type of Wonder of the World-driven travel still makes sense for me. And what, importantly, I've missed out on as a result. How radical might it be to flip that thinking—to spend a week untangling the stories in this area, to dig deep into the places most pass through on a day trip, without ever going to Machu Picchu? 

“People hardly request this,” says Marisol Mosquera, the Peruvian founder of Aracari Travel, who coordinates trips through South America for her international clientele. Those who ask for a Machu Picchu-free itinerary are usually people who have already been, she says. Her colleague Cecile Fabre tells me that those who are so bold as to skip Machu Picchu on a first visit to the country usually only do so in exchange for banner ruins elsewhere in the country, like Kuelap in the north. 

The trail from Pumamarca to the town of Ollantaytambo is flanked by Incan agricultural terraces still in use today. 

Megan Spurrell

At El Albergue, a pachamanca earthen oven is used to cook tubers, corn, and meat; fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden complement the ancestral dish. 

Megan Spurrell

I belong to the former category. I visited Machu Picchu in 2014: I flew from Lima to Cusco, where I spent a few nights in the historic city center, then followed the Inca Jungle trek to the Incan citadel with a dozen other young backpackers. I placed my palm on the ancient structures in wonder; I took my photos in front of the iconic peak; and I promptly left the Valley and returned home. I’ve since become aware of just how much I missed in the process. 

I didn’t even recognize Ollantaytambo when I arrived this time, even though the boutique hotel I was planning to spend three nights in—El Albergue Ollantaytambo—sits right on those Machu Picchu-bound tracks I once walked across (in a miracle of sound travel I’ll never understand, the train’s toots and rumbles don’t reach the 100-year-old inn’s guest rooms or patios). 

But I knew one thing: This time around, I wouldn't have to spend on pricey entrance tickets, or book anything beside my hotel stay in advance. I’d, hopefully, see a lot less people, and actually get to talk to those I did. 

The choice is out of the ordinary for an El Albergue guest, as most of those passing through “usually stay no more than two nights,” according to Joaquin Randall, the hotel’s manager. He tries to convince them to stay longer; he feels strongly that slow travel is the future, and hopes that one day they might. 

As my partner and I sit in the garden of El Albergue on our first day, eating a salad of herbs and veggies plucked from the on-site farm and a trout tiradito topped with mouth-puckering passionfruit, we can see this around us. Anywhere else, you could try to guess where fellow travelers were headed. Here, the only question is whether they are coming or going (to Machu Picchu). We have time on our hands: We order another round of cocktails mixed with the herbal elixir produced onsite (Matacuy). 

Our only agenda for day one is to get our bearings and stay within walking distance of the hotel. Would we explore one or both of the ruins visible from the town center: Pinkuylluna, where the Incans once stored grains in stone structures clinging to a hillside above Ollantaytambo; or the town’s namesake site, where water still runs through ceremonial bathing fountains dating back to at least the 15th century?

EL Albergue sits in the bones of a 100-year-old hotel. 

Megan Spurrell

The wraparound patio has views of the surrounding valley. 

Megan Spurrell

When we eventually head out, set on seeing both, we’re delighted to discover that walking between these two attractions, through the town’s grid of cobblestone streets and adobe buildings, is yet another encounter with the past. The puzzle-piece stones that fit together so tightly a credit card couldn’t slide between them, a hallmark of Incan polygonal masonry, make up the walls of residents’ homes—some of the oldest continually occupied dwellings in South America. The din of TikTok videos spill out of a doorway topped with a single stone lintel that has to be 500 years old. The people who amble past us all seem to live here, or, in the case of those in lliclla capes fading past the town’s edge, higher in the hills. We get preoccupied with trying to walk every single street in the town’s grid, in awe at the reality of a modern-day town set within Incan constructions. For the first time in a long time, I not only forget to check the time on my phone—I notice the shift of shadows on the burnished stones. The gradual dip of the sun toward the horizon is the only reason I feel any semblance of urgency. 

In a matter of hours we have become, beautifully, those people who say yes to the two-hour meal without wondering if we have time. On El Albergue's farm, just behind the hotel, that looks like an earthen oven pachamanca beautifully prepared with foraged herbs, sweet potatoes, and tender meat. The ritual of assembling the oven—constructed, hot stone by hot stone, then later undone in the very same process—is punctuated by an offering to pachamama (Mother Earth). We sip chicha morada (a spiced purple corn drink), and we savor every bite. We speak to our fellow diners long enough to realize that one of them, whose family is from Peru, was born in the very same hospital I was in California. 

When we decide to hire a local taxi on our third day, to explore beyond what's within walking distance, we find ourselves pulling over at an informal roadside restaurant, somewhere between Maras and the sprawling 100-acre-plus archaeological site of Chinchero, the supposed vacation spot of Inca Túpac Yupanqui. We're after a dish our driver says is unique to this part of the Valley: Manca chicharro, a plate of thick chicharron, deep-fried and stuffed rocoto peppers, and fresh herbs atop boiled white corn known as mote. It's something few visitors know to seek out; but it's his pick for lunch wherever he drives past, and his answer to our question: What food do you wish more visitors got to experience? High on the unexpected splendor of the Chinchero ruins—we're still talking about the Incan agricultural terraces we spent an hour climbing, and the ominous placement of one of Peru's first Catholic churches, completed in 1607, atop Yupanqui's once-palace—our proverbial cups are already full, and starting to spill over. 

As we shuffle into the informal restaurant, the woman in charge stirs our meat in a clay pot, in an open-air cooking space out back, where she has an unobstructed view of Andean peaks. Meanwhile our driver Eliazar teaches us basic words in Quechua (añay for “thank you;” sumaq, “delicious;” poetically, there is no word for “goodbye”). We hear about his childhood growing up in the Valley, and when we finally receive our heaving plates of meat and tubers, he invites the chef to sit and sip goblets of chicha de jora with us—a fermented, just slightly boozy, local drink. 

“To paraphrase Bourdain, if you want to understand someone, eat their food or share a meal with them,” says Nico Vera, a Peruvian food journalist and chef currently based in Oregon. “Cooking and eating in the Andes is a truly communal experience, and their connection to the land is profound and sacred."

I spent a week in this area the last time I visited, yet there’s a new depth of connection I feel, over plates of ancestral dishes and spilling-over glasses of local spirits, to the new corners of the Sacred Valley I’ve come to know in a matter of days. With no singular destination, time abounds and yet, when daylight wanes sooner than planned, missed sights hardly feel like a loss—though I am now profoundly aware of how much more there still is to see here. 

Perhaps it’s true that the centering of a main attraction helps us figure out where to go in the first place, what type of thing a country or region is known for. Machu Picchu has undeniably brought droves of visitors who might not have hopped on a plate solely for a taste of roadside manca chicharro, but would be undeniably thrilled to encounter it like we have. But maybe, my future approach is using bucket-list destinations as a launchpad to discover what lies beyond them—even if it, sometimes, takes a return trip to fully appreciate it all.