Today, head down from the high plains to explore the fertile Sacred Valley of the Incas. Once the bread-basket of the Inca Empire, it was heavily populated in imperial times and scores of archaeological sites remain, where well-preserved ruins bear witness to the highly developed society that the Incas created. The drive passes through or close to several of the villages and temple fortresses which pepper the valley.
A guided tour reveals the beauty of the valley. The drive takes in several of its villages and temple fortresses. You visit Pisaq, both the colonial village and the Inca terraces and fort high above. The engineering and preservation are unrivalled. From the flat valley floor the sculpted hillside rises up like a green staircase to the heavens. This Inca site sits on a spur, which juts out between two gorges. It contains a large complex of temples, observatories and grain stores linked by paths which hug the hillside.
Continue along this picturesque, patchwork valley to the fortress/temple of Ollantaytambo. Rising above the community below, the walled terraces and fortress of this Inca sanctuary provide some of the finest examples of Inca architecture. The snow-frosted Andean cordillera forms a stunning backdrop.
Ollantaytambo, sitting strategically at the gateway to the Amazon basin, was never captured by the Spanish conquistadores, but the Inca inhabitants decided that the settlement was too vulnerable and abandoned it. The fortress, the colonial grid plan and the Inca foundations are still intact and there are wonderful views down over the sloping hillsides and into the fertile valley.
In the late afternoon, take the train to Machu Picchu village (90mins). As the river Urubamba enters its narrow gorge between thickly-forested granite hills, there is room only for a single track, which hugs the right bank. You spend the night in the busy village which is dedicated to serving the many visitors with artisan markets, bars and restaurants.