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Exploring the Sacred Valley

Art, alpacas and ancient stones: this magical swath of green fields high among the Andes holds a treasury of delights.

Once the aorta of the Inca heartland, Peru's Sacred Valley stretches some 90 kilometres from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo via Pisac, offering breathtaking scenery and an abundant menu of activities.

Towards Pisac (main picture), a simpático shoestring family venture, called the Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, shelters a menagerie of Andean fauna, rescued from illegal captivity. The highlight is a spacious pen, where mighty Andean condors with 3-metre wingspans skim visitor's heads as they swoop on a meat snack. Family-friendly and fun; donations gratefully accepted.

Further animal encounters await at nearby Awanacancha, where all four of the cameloid species - the famous domestic llamas and alpacas, plus the rarer wild vicu├▒as and guanacos - can be viewed, fed and petted. The locale also features traditional weavers at work and a store selling high-quality knits and textiles.

Traditional weaving; a ceramic artwork; "Andean pottery king" Pablo Seminario.

An hour downvalley at Huayoccari, a turnoff leads to the ancestral home of the Lambarri-Orihuela family, where special visitors can enjoy an excellent lunch of Peruvian cuisine amidst a striking array of Spanish colonial and pre-Columbian art. Enjoy the mansion's colourful gardens, with a spectacular view of the valley, and don't miss the excellent private museum of indigenous art.

Across the river between Lamay and Calca, a startling series of hairpin bends climbs 700m to approach the massive ruins of Huchuy Cuzco, about 25 minutes walk from the roadhead. Formerly the royal estate of Inca king Wiracocha, this intriguing site remains sparsely-visited because of its difficult access. Worth a whole or half-day for lovers of Inca mystery and mountain solitude, the views are simply stunning. Requires a 4WD, and great faith in its driver.

At the main valley town of Urubamba, Pablo Seminario holds court at his prolific pottery amidst an immense range of ceramic art and artifacts. His lively neo-Andean style, derived from ancient techniques and designs, has influenced interiors throughout the region, and few leave his premises without some purchase tucked under their arm. He ships, too.

Downstream in Ollantaytambo, a different drummer animates Lucho Soler, who, having learned his arts among the Pueblo of New Mexico, works his clay in earnest solitude and turns out the kind of exquisite pots that ring when you strike them.

A Sacred Valley sampler must include one serious hike. My vote is for the quarries of Cachicata. Everyone visits Ollantaytambo's famous ruins, but few know the fascinating Inca stoneworks high across the river, where ramps, walls, and part-hewn blocks both vast and slender, lie strewn and abandoned by their ingenious makers. It's a whole day. Depart early.

By Peter Frost, a Cuzco-based writer for National Geographic magazine and expedition guide

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