Macchu Picchu has an altitude under 2,400 meters, about 9,200 feet above sea level. But to get there, one flies to Cusco which has an elevation of 3,400 meters. More than 11,000 feet. That’s past the threshold when altitude sickness typically sets in. Those visiting Macchu Picchu ordinarily stay a couple of nights to acclimatize in Cusco. But there’s the option to stay in Sacred Valley instead which is about 2,900 meters — higher than Macchu Picchu, but lower than Cusco. A river valley “formed” by the Urubamba River, it’s really a perfect midpoint.

Sacred Valley is also home to many archaeological sites and Spanish colonial villages like Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Together with Cusco and Macchu Picchu, the area comprise the core of the Incan Empire. The archaelogical park in Ollantaytambo is no less challenging and is in fact a “climbing tour”. You need tons of energy for this, quite akin to tracing the Macchu Picchu trail. It is a pity Ollantaytambo is often overlooked because of Macchu Picchu’s majestic sanctuary up in the mountains. But Incan civilization in all its sophistication and grandeur manifests in Ollantaytambo’s stonework and dramatic setting both as a fortress and temple. One scales its stone stairways and steep terraces to gain a glimpse from the top of the quarries where all the stones were sourced. It was an engineering feat to transport these stones to put up this fortress, using (or diverting) the river’s current to ferry the stones. Go figure how smart these Incans were.

The Pisac Ruins include agricultural terraces held in place by stone walls. One can choose to take on this hike and impress everyone, or check out the handicraft and souvenirs market. There are also walking sticks, hats, water bottle holders to compose a hiker’s gear or a serious shopper may instead focus on gems, artwork, fabrics and fossils. The last one — please don’t buy! One person was offloaded in a domestic flight because of a fossil he bought which is not allowed to be taken out of the country.

While Cusco is bigger and busier, with its own set of attractions like big churches, monasteries, museums and plazas, Sacred Valley is more rustic. But our hotel for the night clinched it. Sonesta Posadas del Inca in Urubamba is so postcard-pretty, quiet and relaxing. Its charm rests in its sprawling complex of two-storey buildings, flower gardens, fountains, coffee nooks, tiny “instagrammable” chapel, and its breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains. Just imagine having coffee one morning with this view from any one of its many patios.

Even a single night here before taking on Macchu Picchu would be ideal. A train leaves regularly from this area to Aguas Calientes where one can ride the bus up to the citadel. There are coca tea available in abundance, and oxygen tanks are everywhere. Don’t be embarassed to ask the desk for a few minutes of oxygen to clear up your fuzzy brain! Tried it myself and it certainly worked.