As the road from Cusco approaches the Urubamba valley, it drops sharply some 1000m down the mountainside to the valley floor. As the road twists & turns its way down, past very basic homes clinging to the mountain & roadside, we are relieved that our collectivo (minibus) driver has no deathwish today.
The views of the valley as we drop down are stunning. At the bottom 2 bridges allow traffic in & out of the small relaxed town of Urubamba. On the other side of the river another road runs north & south along the valley. North goes further into the ‘Sacred Valley of the Inca’, towards Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu and Espiritu Pampa. We’re dipping our toes back into this ‘Sacred Valley’, but our purpose here is to see the Salineras de Maras, and walk in this lush green fertile valley. It’s a breath of fresh air after 4 weeks in the hustle & bustle, dust & noise, pollution & rampant capitalist tourism of Cusco.
Getting there – the Collectivo lucky dip
Most folks come to Urubamba as a stop off on the way to Machu Picchu, or on a day tour from Cusco to 3 nearby sites – but that costs some S/.80 for the tour and S/.70 for the tourist ticket to enter a couple of the sites. Our way should cost about the same, give us a few days in the valley to walk & enjoy, and get us to the only site we really want to see – the Salineras.
Collectivos (minibuses) to Urubamba leave from Cusco around the junction of Av. Grau & C/Pavitos. There is no set timetable, and as you approach the area you are assailed by competing operators & taxi car drivers offering you a seat. The price is S/.6 or 7 each one way by collectivo, or S/.14 to 16 each by shared taxi, although the ‘legality’ of the taxis is unclear! The trick is to choose a collectivo that is in good nick, and about to go, as basically it won’t leave until all seats (driver + 15) are taken. We grab 2 seats with above average legroom on one, and it fills up fast, leaving within 10minutes. The driver, thankfully, turns out to be a sensible driver, and the vehicle has good acceleration & better brakes!
The bus is cramped except for the 3 seat row we are on, it appears to have been built for the slightly smaller Peruvians, who take up the other 13 passenger seats. The locals are adept at dozing off even on these bumpy & twisting rides, and it seems quite acceptable to fall fast asleep on a strangers shoulder. Younger locals spend the journey on their omnipresent mobiles. We stare out the windows at the views!
The road to & from Urubamba is almost as stunning as the valley itself. At about midway we pass through the small muddy town of Chinchero. This sleepy place is cited to be the location of Cusco’s new international airport, and we shudder at the impact this will have on locals, as already speculators are buying up the land here & in Urubamba in anticipation. If this airport is ever built, it will have a significant impact on these 2 towns, and on Cusco itself, which may lose its status as the main stopping off point for the Sacred Valley.
Our time in Urubamba is peacefully spent. We devote a day to visiting the Salineras & walking back along the valley. The next day we head east away from the river in Urubamba along Av. Mariscal Castilla. A short 20 minute walk takes us past some Inca walls and the local cemetery, here the road becomes unpaved as we head towards the hills, with the glacial topped mountains of Chicon & Qhapaqsaya towering above, and the mountainsides showing signs of old Inca agricultural terracing. Heading off the main track we walk through fields of corn, potatoes, squash and brassicas. Stone irrigation channels carry water across the valley floor to the various smallholdings worked by local campesinos. It is a gorgeous place to be, then luckily we spot the mist & rain coming down the valley an don’t get too drenched before returning to our hostel.