Peru’s Sacred Valley: Go for a day, stay for a week. We did.

The woman in the enormous white stovepipe hat wedged herself between me and the three men in the back seat of the collectivo bound for Urubamba, angling her considerable hips and shoulders to gain purchase on the well-worn cloth seat.

Her entry into the crowded van brought the headcount to 17 – pretty standard for the 30-minute run these inexpensive transport vehicles make from town to town throughout Peru’s Sacred Valley. Later on, I saw a collectivo packed with kids and their parents, the top loaded with wares for the market, and more than 22 people poured out when the vehicle rolled to a stop.

Our group was nearly all locals. Elderly people in down parkas, working men in rough jackets, children in colorful traditional garb and a scattering of older women sporting aprons and tall hats completed the roster for our run from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba. Oh, and two slightly bemused gringos who sat in fascination as the van blasted along, its interior redolent of acrid smoke, cooked food and body odor.

The view down the barrel of Sacred Valley from the Incan terraces of Pisac.

The view down the barrel of Sacred Valley from the Incan terraces of Pisac.

It’s a bit rough, not terribly comfortable, and at two nuevo sol each (about 75 cents) absurdly inexpensive.

Which would explain why people use the collectivos to get to school, to work, to market, to visit family and friends, bypassing the hopelessly expensive option to own a car. Another option is to flag down one of the many super modified tuk tuks – they look like crosses between mini-long haul trucks and race cars – to spirit their way around town for $2 or less. Then there are the commercial buses; antiquated, fume-belching monsters that lurch from town to town, often comingling animalia with homo sapiens.

Regardless of one’s choice for transport, the prices are reasonable and the waits are short. Safety seems of secondary concern, but we witnessed no head-on crashes during our stay. That’s ignoring the headlights-flashing, horns-blaring near misses that seem like a game to the drivers.

Such is life in El Valle Sagrado de los Incas (the Sacred Valley). It’s rugged, unspoiled, simple and stunning.

This valley was at the center of the Incan Empire as it rose from its status as a pastoral tribe in Cusco –  the region’s capital, about an hour southeast of the valley – and, from the late 1300s to the mid-1500s either conquered or peacefully annexed much of western South America. For many of the indigenous Quechua people – whose language was spoken by their Incan forebears – not much has changed over the years.

Let's see: Bike on roof - check! Ten people in van - check! Woman with stovepipe hat - check! Ready to go.

Let’s see: Bike on roof – check! Ten people in van – check! Woman with stovepipe hat – check! Ready to go.

The fertile plains of the valley rest between immense peaks of the Andes, some of which – at more than 17,000 feet – are snow- and ice-capped year round. Sheep, pigs, cows and goats graze in the green pastures. Corn, potatoes, grains and vegetables grow in rich abundance, providing much of the region’s food, much as it did during Incan times. People are farmers, weavers, hand-to-mouth inhabitants with scant outside influence, save for the ubiquitous mobile phones and smattering of English that some of the young villagers speak.

So it was with the woman in the stovepipe hat, which would have been the envy of Abe Lincoln had he not had such a lockstep predisposition for black clothing. She spoke Quechua to her mates, ignoring the occasional jab in the ribs from the gringo male next to her.

People seem like afterthoughts in this part of the world, tiny ants moving about against the backdrop of the hovering, cloud-ringed Andes, with their stunning, craggy ridges and gentle, verdant slopes which fall to the valley floor. There are massive ice and snow fields over 17,000 feet, too, the source of the constant flow of water into the valley’s villages.

Ollantaytambo was our favorite, a cobblestoned warren of mud brick buildings, narrow streets and funky coffee houses, tiny restaurants and tour companies. The town explodes with the colors of native textiles and handicrafts. (Insider tip: Come with an empty suitcase. You’ll be glad you did). Tiny open stone canals criss-cross the town center, routing mountain water from the slopes through the town’s streets and into the Urubamba River.

Two women - one traditional Peruvian and one (Gabi) traditional traveler, contrast near the mercado in Ollantaytambo

Two women – one traditional Peruvian and one (Gabi) traditional traveler, contrast near the mercado in Ollantaytambo

There’s a terrific local mercado too, tucked to the side of the town center, where merchants sell fruits, vegetables, grains and the ubiquitous round flatbread that shows up on every breakfast table in town.

These miniature bread bombs look like pita, though at roughly 4 inches in diameter, they are happily much smaller. They’re thicker and denser, too, and largely tasteless. After eating several of them over the six days we were in the valley, I’ve concluded they’re better suited for skeet shooting than consumption, but that’s just me.

The center of tourist attraction in the valley, of course, is Machu Picchu, and Gabi previously commented on our day traipsing among the amazing Incan ruins. But there are plenty other reminders of the Incan civilization which flourished in the valley. Immense agricultural terraces dot the mountain slopes from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba and Pisac. They’re accessible, too, and for one general ticket you can scramble over terraces, fortresses and temples where Incan chiefs once watched over their domains.

It's always fun to watch the doors open and see how many people pile out.

It’s always fun to watch the doors open and see how many people pile out.

There are plenty of roadside joints to grab a bite to eat – pizza is offered here more often than in any self-respecting Italian town – and the adventurous will stop into one of the local cuyerias (guinea pig roasteries) to chow down on what in the US is one of the world’s most benign pets. Here, it’s a delicacy, and it’s always the priciest item on the menu if the restaurants offer it.

We passed, bowing to the rodent’s place in our hearts as a pet rather than an entrée. Besides, we were too full from breakfast, what with all that bread.