Peru is full of intriguing, sacred sites, imbued with myth, history, and mystery. These sites span from high mountaintops to citadel ruins, but for motorcyclists, the real joy comes from the rides between them. There’s nothing quite like riding Peru; with coastal Pacific deserts to the west and Amazonian jungle to the east, exploring the Andean roads between them in the Sacred Valley is an unforgettable experience.

A loop connects you through the highlands of Cusco and surrounding weaving villages down into the rich valley of the Urubamba River, gateway to a number of fascinating ruins, including Machu Picchu. The road quality is quite good, in Peruvian terms, and this area is special for a number of reasons. If, like me, you prefer to sleep outside of cities, within the Sacred Valley itself is a good starting point.

Quaint streets and a simple life here in Urubamba, with clouds covering the snowcapped Ch’iqun mountain in the background.
Quaint streets and a simple life here in Urubamba, with clouds covering the snowcapped Ch’iqun mountain in the background.Janelle Kaz

Stretching from the towns of Pisac to Ollantaytambo, the valley was deemed “sacred” by the Incas due to its desirable geographical and climatic qualities. Nestled in a fertile valley in the Andes, an array of microclimates allows for a plethora of flora and fauna to thrive, along with the production of a high variety of crops. Along the roads, you’ll ride alongside a colorful canvas of agriculture, including the green stalks and red blossoms of quinoa. With this roadside agriculture, know that there are plenty of the usual Peruvian obstacles to watch out for, such as livestock in the road, mule-drawn carts, dog attacks, and unmarked speed bumps.

You have your choice of towns in the valley to stay in, I personally fell in love with Yucay (pronounced “you-kai”). A mere 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the more bustling town of Urubamba, sleepy Yucay was once the capital of the Sacred Valley. On the hills behind the town, the remains of Huayna Capac Palace stand almost intact, among narrow passageways and well-kept aqueducts which lead to cliffside petroglyphs. These days, the ancient paths are traveled by local settlers with their cattle and families returning for rest after the farm.

A standard “moto-taxi” you’ll see around Peru on the streets of Yucay.
A standard “moto-taxi” you’ll see around Peru on the streets of Yucay.Janelle Kaz

I found a great little spot nestled between the mountains in Yucay called the Sacred Valley Lodge, which has a huge parcel of land behind the guesthouse where plenty of motorcycles can be kept securely. They even have canvas tents in the back to lounge in, with views of ruins, and enchant road-weary motorcyclists with nighttime bonfires.

Golden fields in the South American winter near the weaving town of Chinchero.
Golden fields in the South American winter near the weaving town of Chinchero.Cecile VR

The Sacred Valley of the Incas itself is aligned with the Milky Way galaxy, and without significant light pollution, the stars put on a spectacular display at night. A local told me that in the past, the town used to turn off all their lights during the full moon so that it could shine in all its glory. I’d love if Yucay, or any town for that matter, brings this wonderful practice back someday.

Leaving the little cobblestone streets of Yucay (elevation of 2,860 meters or 9,383 feet), you have your choice of starting the day off toward Urubamba to the northwest or Pisac to the southeast. I chose to head southeast first so as not to have the strong Andean sun in my eyes on the ride back.

Some local motor vehicles in a sunlit alleyway of Urubamba.
Some local motor vehicles in a sunlit alleyway of Urubamba.Janelle Kaz

The road to Pisac will take you through a number of small villages and farms, with the Urubamba River and fragrant, non-native eucalyptus trees running alongside. Pisac is a lovely but curious small town, an interesting confluence of traditional and new age. Many people head to Pisac for retreats, venturing to consume “Wachuma,” the mescaline containing psychedelic cactus known as San Pedro. A path winds from the main square of the town through terraced agricultural land up toward Inca temple ruins and the Inti Watana, an ancient structure made from stone believed to be a seasonal sundial.

The roads of Pisac are incredibly narrow and running through the middle of them is a guaranteed tire trap. This mid-street canal allows for water to pass from the mountains down into the heart of the city, but will certainly take your bike down if you fall into it. Potential takedowns aside, I highly recommend the experience of riding through Pisac, as its narrow streets are novel and uniquely entertaining.

When I made my way through Pisac in mid-July, I was stopped by a traffic police officer who told me the road would be closed for about 45 minutes for a procession. This was the only way through, so I decided to park my bike and have a look. It turned out to be the celebratory parade of the Virgen del Carmen, with a barrage of elaborate, bizarre costumes and festive music. Despite the delay, I felt pretty lucky to roll through this town during such an intriguing cultural event.

The reason for the road closure was the Virgen del Carmen festival, expressing past moments in Peru’s history. The costumes represent different characters, such as the faces of the Spaniards.
The reason for the road closure was the Virgen del Carmen festival, expressing past moments in Peru’s history. The costumes represent different characters, such as the faces of the Spaniards.Janelle Kaz

Following the switchbacks up the mountain, the road curves with epic views of the valley below. You’ll know you’re getting close to Cusco when you see an increase in traffic. Roads usher you into the metropolis that is Cusco, with a population of 428,450 (2017) and cooler air temperatures at 3,399 meters (11,152 feet). Cusco has an array of good coffee and restaurants, but finding ones you can park near may be a bit trickier. Typically motorcycles are often allowed to park in places others aren’t, especially if it looks like you’re from out of town.

An Indian Scout Sixty near the glacial-covered mountains in the heart of the Sacred Valley.
An Indian Scout Sixty near the glacial-covered mountains in the heart of the Sacred Valley.Cecile VR

Leaving Cusco, you’ll pass through a number of small towns, always marked by their speed bumps, before the scenery opens up to the incredible mountain peaks, many of them snowcapped. This is where you’ll pass through Chinchero, the mecca of traditional, handcrafted textiles and woven Peruvian goods. You’ll spot these shops by the alpacas hanging out near the colorful entrances, luring you in with their adorable faces.

The adorable alpaca, domesticated relative of wild camelid ancestors.
The adorable alpaca, domesticated relative of wild camelid ancestors.Janelle Kaz

Near the turn for the salt mines of Maras, there is a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the valley, with the ruins of Machu Colca on the hillside. There are wild spectacled bears, the “taruca” or north Andean deer, and Andean foxes roaming the mountains of this area, so keep your eyes peeled.

From this panoramic viewpoint, the road will descend down switchbacks directly into the valley and the town of Urubamba, or there is a dirt road that takes you through Maras and Moray to Pachar. The latter is an interesting route because people have been extracting salt in Maras since before the time of the Incas. The salt ponds are terraced and have varying colors, many shades of pink. The next pueblo over, Moray, was once an agricultural laboratory, where the Incas experimented with the hybridization and production of different kinds of potatoes and corn on what looks like a terraced amphitheater. Peru is the origin of potatoes for the entire planet, and the Incas developed 3,000 types! People surmise that they did so here in Moray.

The Indian Scout Sixty rides (and looks) like a dream on these curvy mountain roads.
The Indian Scout Sixty rides (and looks) like a dream on these curvy mountain roads.Janelle Kaz

There’s a dirt road that connects to a spot just outside of Pachar (near Hacienda del Chalán), or you could go back the way you came to the paved road which will snake you down some switchbacks into Urubamba and then head northwest. Once you get to Pachar, you’ll see that this little pueblo isn’t much more than a crossroads, en route to the nearby Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. However, situated here is the Cervecería del Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley Brewery), a true gem. They have a very pleasant outside seating area on the river with great food and, of course, artisanal beer. While I was there, I had the opportunity to meet one of the owners who also founded the Sacred Valley Project, a nonprofit organization which makes secondary education possible for young indigenous girls from mountain communities who otherwise would not have this option.

You’ll see many ruins on mountain sides in the Sacred Valley, often still with mysterious origins of how they were actually built.
You’ll see many ruins on mountain sides in the Sacred Valley, often still with mysterious origins of how they were actually built.Janelle Kaz

Despite all the tourism, the people of this land, the world’s most direct descendants of the Inca Empire, live in poverty and have very little access to public services.

Children must walk several hours each way to the nearest elementary school, whereas high schools are located in larger towns, too far from home for students to commute daily. While boys often move to urban centers to pursue an education, this same opportunity is not available for many girls.

Enjoying the good vibes on the river at the Cervecería del Valle Sagrado in Cusco province, Peru.
Enjoying the good vibes on the river at the Cervecería del Valle Sagrado in Cusco province, Peru.Janelle Kaz

The mission of the Sacred Valley Project is to provide boarding and supplementary education for young women from low-income families in remote areas of the Andes so that they can complete their secondary education.

Creating homes where these young women stay Monday through Friday so they can continue school has a tremendous positive impact on reducing the cycle of poverty. Educated women are more likely to have smaller and healthier families, stronger voices in family negotiations, and the ability to advocate for themselves and their children.

There are ways to get involved with the Sacred Valley Project, including volunteering while you’re in the area. Otherwise, it doesn’t get much easier than supporting education in the surrounding community by enjoying a local brew here in Pachar.

The antiquated streets of Ollantaytambo, also known as “Ollanta” to the locals.
The antiquated streets of Ollantaytambo, also known as “Ollanta” to the locals.Janelle Kaz

From the Cervecería del Valle Sagrado, you can continue the loop to head back to Yucay, if that’s where you’re staying, or follow the rough, cobblestone streets to the more touristy town of Ollantaytambo. Either way, you’ll observe the lights and shadows dance on archeological ruins and incredibly beautiful mountains.

Riding off into the sunset of the Sacred Valley might be one of the highlights of touring Peru, with dreams of ancient Inca mysteries persisting into the starry night.

Man’s best friends taking a siesta in Ollantaytambo, gateway to Machu Picchu.
Man’s best friends taking a siesta in Ollantaytambo, gateway to Machu Picchu.Janelle Kaz