A Guide to Sacred Valley: Best Things to Do and See
Our guide to Peru's Sacred Valley will show you the best things to do in the area of Cusco, the former Inca's empire. Explore the beautiful ruins of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Saqsaywaman, Chinchero or Maras Salt Mines.
We don't know how this happened, but out of almost two months spent in Peru, we were based about three weeks in Cusco area. Cusco and Sacred Valley are one of the most visited places in the whole of Peru, and if you don't have it on your itinerary yet, you definitely should. Sacred Valley boasts with mysteries, Incan history, an uncountable number of ruins, stone terraces and the beautiful natural settings in the photogenic valley carved by Urubamba River - all of that catch travelers' attention for decades.
What also put the Sacred Valley and Cusco on every traveler's bucket list is the proximity to Peru's iconic site, Machu Picchu and also nearby trailheads of some of the most beautiful hikes in the world. If you're planning on hiking the original path to Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail or want to enjoy the spectacular views along just as beautiful Salkantay Trek, Cusco and, by extension, Sacred Valley are the best places you can base yourself before and after treks.
No matter how much time to explore Sacred Valley of the Incas you have, you can be sure that with our guide you won't miss the best things which can be seen along 100 kilometers long stretch of the most famous Andean valley.
The city of Cusco is a major tourist hub for all travelers visiting Peru. And here we encountered a problem which bothered us for the all time we spent there. It is not unknown that Peru (as the most of South American countries) have an extensive problem with corruption. But this issue is particularly glaring here, in Cusco, a city where the income from tourism yearly come up to millions of dollars, and we couldn't stop wondering where all the money go. Definitely not into the infrastructure or into the cleaning of communal areas. It is probably naive, but we feel that money (and we are not talking about an insignificant amount) from tourism should be seen somewhere and that local communities should thrive on it.
Nevetherless, when we overlook this fact and start focusing on the brighter side - the history and architecture itself, we must admit that there is something about Cusco. The city center of Cusco is full of churches, narrow alleys, and spacious plazas. The city is in UNESCO despite the fact that many buildings from Inca's times were destroyed by Spaniards who arrived in the 16th century and built churches and houses in European and colonial style. An interesting fact is, that constructions which remained left from Inca's times survived several devastating earthquakes until today, while the new ones from the Spanish times had to be rebuilt over and over again.
Not only architecturally, but also historically is Cusco an extraordinary city. It was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th until the 16th century - from this place the Inca ruled the vast empire and during this time Cusco also flourished - many notable constructions were built, and many legends from that time remain until today - one of those legends, for example, says that the city was planned in the shape of a puma, an Incan sacred animal.
One hundred kilometers long valley stretches from Pisac Ruins and Pisac Town (20 kilometers from Cusco) to the citadel of Machu Picchu. At Inca's times, the valley was not only an important area for constructing several checkpoints (nowadays ruins or archeological sites) and the main path from Cusco to Machu Picchu but thanks to friendly temperatures all year round, sustained source of water (from Urubamba river) and two distinct seasons - wet and dry - the area was (and still is) perfect for agriculture. Incas were people skilled in plant cultivation, and when traveling in the valley, you can notice agriculture terraces which, for us, are nice to look at, but local people still use them to grow crops.
Sacred Valley is easily accessible for visitors. You can use either public transport or sign up for one or multiple day tours in Cusco. Here's a list of places you shouldn't miss on your way to explore Sacred Valley.
ENTRANCE FEE TO SACRED VALLEY
But first things first. You surely couldn't think that a tourist attraction of such importance would be for free. Technically, when entering the Sacred Valley, you don't need to pay anything - you can travel freely in a car, by bus or by train and experience the beauty of the country. But you must pay an entrance fee when visiting every single ruin in the valley and the price is pretty steep.
If you're planning on visiting multiple sites, the best option is to buy an integral ticket. The ticket cost S/130, and it is valid for ten days and allows you to visit 16 sites (museums and ruins within Cusco and Sacred Valley).
In case you don't have that much time or want to visit only a couple of sites, you can buy a partial ticket. It costs S/70, but it is valid only one day. But here's a trick that 'someone' smartly divided all sites into three circuits, so it means that if you want to visit two sites which are not in the same circuit, you must purchase either two tickets or buy the ten-days pass straight away.
BEST THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN THE SACRED VALLEY
When exploring Sacred Valley, be prepared for one thing. You will see lots of ruins and terraces. Although sometimes we can be a bit reserved about some sites and because we've already seen some nice ruins in Peru, massive stone-walled Kuelap or largest pre-Columbian city in South America, Chanchan to name a few, we were worried that ruins in Cusco area would leave us disappointed. Fortunately, we were pleasantly surprised.
PISAC RUINS & PISAC TOWN
One of our favorite archeological gems of Sacred Valley was Pisac Ruins. The Inca ruins lie atop a hill above Pisac Town not only at one place, but parts of those ruins are scattered over the hill. Because of the atop position the main purpose of Pisac Ruins was to protect Cusco from possible attacks.
There are two ways how to visit Pisac Ruins, by car or hiking and if you have a half day and you are reasonably fit, we strongly recommend you the latter option.
There is a road leading directly to the archeological site's entrance, so you can either take a tour from Cusco (tours usually combine several sites including Pisac and cost around $25 when booked in Cusco), take a taxi from Cusco, or arrive by minivan to Pisac and here take a cab to the gate. What do we see as a disadvantage? Because parts of ruins are all around the path leading to Pisac, you won't be by no means able to see everything, only the most crowded part of ruins.
Instead of traveling by car, we decided to hike from Pisac Town to Pisac Ruins. The whole trail leads uphill, so it is a good way how to prepare yourself for other treks in the Andes. The distance from town to the highest point of ruins is 4 km, and it should take you about two hours one way. Of course, you can arrive at the entrance by car and walk only downhill. By hiking this trail, you will enjoy beautiful views, almost abandoned trek, and more ruins.
Pisac Town is famous for traditional markets, so if shopping is your thing, you shouldn't forget to make a stop here.
It is easy to get to Pisac independently. Take a collectivo from Puputi street for S/5. Vans leave when full from 7 AM. To get back to Cusco, catch a regular minivan on the main road intersecting Pisac.
There is a big chance you will visit Ollantaytambo more than once during your stay in Cusco because from here the most of all travelers take a train to Aguas Calientes, a town which serves as a base for Machu Picchu. But there is another reason why to visit Ollantaytambo separately - the Ollantaytambo Ruins.
A former Inca administrative center and also a control point for the entrance to the Amazon corner of the Inca Empire lies approximately two hours drive from Cusco. For that reason, it is better to combine this site with other attractions on the way.
Ollantaytambo Ruins is a huge site characterized by an extensive set of agriculture terraces which are higher and wider than usual Inca's terraces; by the old storehouses, you can see from the ruins when looking on the other side of the valley; and also by the Temple of the Sun standing on the top.
The most impressive thing is when you stand on the top of the ruins, look on the other side of the valley, and when you realize that all large stones come from the quarry on the other side, approximately 5 kilometers away. But the most jaw-dropping moment comes when you understand that Inca people did not use animals or wheel to get stones from one place to another, and created everything by human labour and power.
From Cusco, you can get to Ollantaytambo by collectivo for S/10 from Calle Grau. We visited those ruins with a tour which included all sites below plus Pisac (this one we visited separately though). The tour cost S/80 per person and includes lunch.
Well, by now, you've probably seen so many ruins that you cannot distinguish one from another. But we can promise that you will remember Moray Ruins because they look different. Like an amphitheater. That's also what scientist thought when Moray Ruins were discovered at first - that Incas probably played a theater here.
Although terraces of Moray Ruins have a circular shape, they had a different purpose. It is not a secret that Incas were geniuses in agriculture and plant cultivation, and nowadays it is believed that they used those ruins as an agricultural laboratory. Each level of the terraces have a different temperature, different microclimate and also the design and orientation to the sun suggest, that Incas were experimenting with plants and crops here. Experiments also have shown that the soil comes from several Peruvian's regions and although this region of Peru suffers from floodings in the rainy season, Moray Ruins never flood. Pretty cool, right?
The easiest way how to visit Moray Ruins is to take a Sacred Valley Tour from Cusco. Otherwise, you must take a minivan from Cusco to the village of Maras for S/7 and it takes about an hour. From here, you must get a taxi for S/50 (this price usually includes stop at Maras salt Mines as well).
When you go to the Cusco's main square and look up, you will see a large white sculpture of Jesus Crist. At the same high but only on your left lies the most significant Inca's Ruins within Cusco, Saqsaywaman. It is a favorite trip for people staying in the city only for a day or two as it is easily reachable either by public transport (take a collectivo going to Cristo Blanco or a minivan to Pisac and ask to be dropped off at Saqsaywaman - the correct pronunciation is something like 'Sexy Woman') or walk approximately a half an hour uphill from the city center.
Saqsaywaman was a fortress and even Spaniards who arrived in Cusco in the 16th century admired Incan precise work with the stone - until today some of the stones are so closely spaced together that not a single piece of paper fit between them.
There are another three ruins within 8 kilometers from Cusco and although Saqsaywaman is the most impressive you can take a bus to Pisac and ask a driver to drop you off at the furthest ruin from Cusco - Tambomachay and from here walk back to the city via Q'enqo, Pukapukara, and Saqsaywaman.
A beautiful adobe church and a colorful market will tell you that you're near Chinchero Ruins. The village of Chinchero and those ruins overall are usually visited during Sacred Valley Tours from Cusco and are very often overlooked by independent travelers because public transport is unreliable here. The ruins at Chinchero consist of a series of nested terraces which were built for farming and agricultural purposes and some of them are still in use until today.
The soil at Chinchero is fertile and one of the bests in the Sacred Valley to produce potatoes but the main reason why the Inca Tupac, a son of the famous Pachacutec used Chinchero, was way different as he kept is as sort of country resort: to relax and muster the strength to rule the Inca Empire. Well, we don't blame him as the settings of Chinchero couldn't be better. When the weather is perfect (as was during our visit), you can see many high mountains around including one of the most significant one, Salkantay.
MARAS SALT MINES
The only places we visited in the Sacred Valley which is not a ruin are salt mines in Maras, but it still has a connection with Incas who used this place to mine the salt more than 500 years ago.
Nowadays there are still thousands of salt ponds belonging to hundreds of families who live nearby (traditionally the salt mines had been available to any person wishing to harvest salt; the person had to be a member of the community and the size of the pond he got depended on the size of the family), and although salt mine is still in use and it is possible to buy the salt in the nearby shops, today the principal source of income is tourism. Boleto Turistico is not valid here, and you must pay S/10 entrance fee.
It is possible to harvest salt only during the dry season so when we arrived in mid-November, there were no people working, but still, the view of thousands of salt ponds was incredible.
HOW TO GET TO SACRED VALLEY
For the most of travelers, Cusco will be the main entry point to Sacred Valley. Cusco is well-connected with all major cities in Peru - many bus companies run buses to Cusco regularly from Lima (24 hours in capital Lima), Nazca (fly with us above the mysterious Nazca Lines), Arequipa (read about Colca Canyon day tour), Puno, Copacabana in Bolivia etc.
From Cusco, you can either take an organized tour to Sacred Valley or take public transport. The only downside of taking public transport is that every destination in Sacred Valley has a different bus station so you always have to figure out which bus station is the right one. You can visit tourist information center iPeru on the main square (in the BCP bank building) to get more information.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO
Cusco offers a large network of reasonably priced hotels in the historical part of the city, and you don't need to stay anywhere on the outskirt to save money when traveling on a budget.
Budget: Cusco Bed and Breakfast - Spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, very quiet at night, excellent location.
Mid-range: Tierra Viva Cusco Centro - Providing a tranquil environment, beautiful rooms and also has one of the top-rated locations in Cusco.
Luxury: JW Marriott El Convento Cusco - The hotel features impressive interiors, has a charming colonial courtyard, luxury rooms and Cusco’s cathedral or main square are only 3 blocks away.
To check other accommodation in Cusco, click here.