Cusco and Machu Picchu are rightfully two of Peru’s most popular and desirable travel destinations. I personally can’t get enough of Cusco, nor will I forget the morning I arrived at Machu Picchu all those years ago. The clouds clearing to reveal Machu Picchu in all of its awe-inspiring glory is a memory that sticks with me to this day. However, between Cusco and Machu Picchu, there is a whole region rich in culture, history, and breathtaking views. The Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley of the Incas, is one of the most surreal regions I’ve encountered during my travels.
Aside from its natural beauty and abundance of activities, the best part of the Sacred Valley is that it is often neglected by short-term travelers. Most people might be strapped on time and prioritize Machu Picchu and Cusco. Even those that do find the time often opt for fast-paced guided tours that hardly give you any time to stop and smell the roses. Even my first foray into the Sacred Valley was on a guided tour to Maras and Moray. Eventually, I started taking longer and longer trips out here, bouncing around from village to village, exploring solely by word of mouth. My several trips to the Sacred Valley were among the best parts of my four month long trip to Peru. I would even find myself doing things two or three times just because they were that good.
For those of you that have time to spare, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is a region that can’t be missed. Once you are here, you might never want to leave. Here are the best things to do in this gorgeous area.
The Best Things To Do in Cusco’s Sacred Valley
Explore Pisac Archaeological Complex
Situated above the small village of Pisac is the large archaeological complex of the same name. You can’t see it from the village, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Besides stairs. I knew there were going to be a stupid amount of stairs. Once you finally make it up those stairs, you are in for a treat. The hike takes about an hour or so, and is challenging at times, but it is so worth it.
The ruins of Pisac are easily among my favorites that I have visited in Peru. So much so that I ended up visiting them twice. Every time that I thought it couldn’t get better, it would. You could spend hours upon hours exploring these expansive ruins. The combination of well-preserved structures and stunning scenery makes for one of the best adventures in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Best of all, it has a fraction of the visitors that Machu Picchu has. One can explore the complex for hours and run into only a couple dozen other people along the way.
Explore Ollantaytambo Archaeological Site
The fortress of Ollantaytambo are easily among my favorite ruins that I’ve ever visited. Unlike Pisac, you can see the ruins straight from the town center, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. That’s right. More stairs. The ruins of the vast Incan fortress of Ollantaytambo are among the most jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring in all of Peru.
To up the wow factor even more, make sure to climb all the way up to the top of the hill. There, you’l find the ruins of Inka Watana and an absolutely incredible panoramic view of the Sacred Valley. With Ollantaytambo being the gateway to Machu Picchu today, one can imagine how crucial the fortress of Ollantaytambo used to be in defending the Inca capital of Machu Picchu.
Hike To The Ruins of Pinkuylluna
Situated on the opposite side of town from the Ollantaytambo ruins is the archaeological site of Pinkuylluna. Unlike Ollantaytambo which requires an entrance fee, Pinkuylluna is free to enter. Even if you aren’t into history or ruins, you can get a beautiful panoramic view of the Sacred Valley, the surrounding mountains, and the cute little town and ruins of Ollantaytambo. This was one of my favorite quick activities that I did in the Sacred Valley. I even did it a second time because it was that flippin’ good.
Go Hiking At Kinsa Cocha, Pisac’s Three Lakes
A very little-known hike to do around the Sacred Valley is the hike to Kinsa Cocha, a Quechua word meaning “three lakes”. Pisac is the ideal starting point for this laid-back hike. A taxi from here will cost you 150-200 soles, depending on how many of you there are. There were six of us, so for an off-the-beaten-path destination like this one, it was worth the money. It is around a 90-minute round trip drive from Pisac, while the hike itself takes about three hours. Unless you stop to admire every alpaca you see, in which case it took us a bit more than three hours. Pack warm because it gets chilly up here. Here’s my complete guide to this lesser-known adventure in the Sacred Valley.
Salineras de Maras
The seemingly endless salt pools of Maras have quickly become one of the most iconic destinations of the Sacred Valley. Be warned though, there isn’t much to do here besides look at them. You used to be able to walk along the pools themselves but too much gringo contamination in the salt has made that no longer an option. You can take a day trip here from Cusco or you can settle down in Urubamba and take a colectivo to the small town of Maras and make your way to the Salineras. The entrance fee is 10 soles, so it isn’t too bad for a quick activity.
Moray Archaeological Site
Moray Archaeological Complex is another quick Sacred Valley trip, which is why it is often coupled with the Salineras de Maras by tour agencies. This archaeological site is unique due to the concentric circle styles of its structures. It looks eerily alien in nature, and is yet another fascinating glimpse at the rich history of the area. Like most ruins in the Sacred Valley, Moray also has no shortage of views. On a clear day, one can see the majestic snow-capped mountain ranges in the background.
Visit Chinchero Archaeological Site
One of the lesser-known archaeological sites included on the boleto turistico is Chinchero. You might not have heard of Chinchero but it turned out to be one of my favorite sites in the Sacred Valley. I almost considered skipping it but decided that I wanted to get as much of my money’s worth from my tourist ticket as possible. I thought I would be tired of ruins by this point but Chinchero was seriously impressive. Located about halfway between Cusco and Urubamba, Chinchero is a great stop on your Sacred Valley circuit.
Hike From Chinchero To Urquillos
Aside from exploring the village and ruins of Chinchero, one can also make the hike from Chinchero to Urquillos. The mostly downhill hike boasts absolutely stunning scenery, making it one of the best day hikes in the Sacred Valley. On a clear day, this Qhapaq Nan (Inca trail) gives you unbeatable views of the snowy mountains that undoubtedly played a part in why the Inca viewed this region as sacred. It takes about four hours to get from Chinchero to the small village of Urquillos. This quiet town is easily one of the most scenic little villages in the Sacred Valley.
Go Shopping At Pisac’s Sunday Market
Had enough of ruins? Pisac boasts my favorite market in all of Peru. It is vast and spreads out into every alleyway and corner of the village of Pisac. The vendors take a much less aggressive approach in trying to sell you things. Foreigners like me aren’t seen as a nuisance or as a money grab. Each local person I spoke to met me with genuine interest and curiosity. I befriended a lot of the locals, from my favorite food stall lady, the waitress at my usual café, and the tattoo artist that really should have been giving me commission for how many customers I brought him.
I never saw myself as a small town kinda guy, but Pisac stole my heart in a very unique way. Walking through the market aimlessly was one of my favorite things to do in Pisac. On Sundays, the market expands even further. Every Sunday, people from the neighboring smaller villages would flock to the main square of Pisac to sell their goods. The grey cobbled streets explode with a sensory overload of colors as the locals in their vibrant garb make use of every square inch of the plaza.
Visit the Women Artisans of Chinchero
By now, you’ve probably realized that Peruvians have a storied tradition of artisanry. They are amazing at what they do and you might find yourself struggling to resist the call of a new jumper, blanket, or other knickknack from the local markets. The women artisans and weavers of Chinchero are among the most renowned community of craftswomen in the Sacred Valley. A visit here will give you a glimpse into things like how the white, brown, and black shades of alpaca wool are dyed into whatever color you can imagine. The ingredients that go into dying the wool will actually shock you.
How To Get From Place to Place
My first colectivo ride to the Sacred Valley was a lot more complicated than it should have been. Thankfully, that was the only time I ever struggled with transportation within the Sacred Valley. This region provides cheap, reliable, and incredibly scenic transportation between city to city. Seriously, it is so easy to travel between each village. Here’s a quick breakdown of how to get from place to place.
- Cusco to Pisac: 5 Soles from Calle Puputi
- Notable stops along the way:
- Puka Pukara
- Notable stops along the way:
- Cusco to Ollantaytambo: 10 Soles from Calle Pavitos
- Cusco to Urubamba: 6 Soles from Calle Pavitos
- Notable stops along the way:
- Notable stops along the way:
- Pisac to Cusco: 4 Soles from near the bridge
- Pisac to Urubamba: 4 Soles from bus stop on main street
- Notable stops along the way:
- Notable stops along the way:
- Urubamba to Ollantaytambo: 2 Soles from the Terminal Terrestre
- Ollantaytambo to Urubamba: 2 Soles from outside the mercado
- Ollantaytambo to Cusco: 10-15 Soles from the plaza
How Much Time To Spend in Each City
Pisac: 3+ days
Pisac is one of my favorite places to relax and take a breather. Dedicating a day to exploring the ruins, one to visit the three lakes of Kinsa Cocha, and one to just roam through the streets is the way to go. I’ve spent a lot of time in Pisac, and most of that time is spent eating, wandering, or doing nothing. If you are traveling long-term, you might find yourself enchanted by this quaint little town and staying far longer than you initially planned.
Ollantaytambo: 2 days
The small village of Ollantaytambo is surprisingly full of adventures for how tiny it is. Ruins and hiking trails flank the city in every direction. One could easily spend several days here. However, most people only stick around for Ollantaytambo Ruins and Pinkuylluna. Both of these can be done in a day or two depending on how proactive you are.
Chinchero: 1 day
Chinchero is usually nothing more than a quick stop to the rest of the Sacred Valley for most travelers. My first visit to Chinchero was just a detour en route to a guided tour of Maras and Moray. We stopped by to see the women artisans. This was before I knew of the archaeological complex and the stunning hike to Urquillos. I eventually returned to Chinchero on my last day in Cusco and was not disappointed.
Urubamba: 1 day
Urubamba is one of the bigger towns in the Sacred Valley, although I also found it to be less exciting than the others. It is a good home base for people wanting to visit Salineras de Maras and the archaeological complex of Moray. However, there’s not much else to justify going all the way there just to be closer to these points of interest. One could easily visit them from Chinchero or Cusco, as well. Aside from Maras and Moray, Urubamba boasts a few beautiful hikes and the former Inca Palace of Huayna Capac. It is a beautiful city to lay low for a while, and significantly more local than Ollantaytambo and Pisac. However, if you are short on time, I’d recommend at most a day here.
Where To Stay In…
Pisac: Wolf Totem Nomad
I cannot recommend this place enough. The epic views, family of doggos, and laid-back vibe make it one of my favorite hostels in the world. It is about a 15-minute walk from the center of Pisac but it is well worth the extra journey. The scenery never gets old. Wolf Totem is far from your average hostel, and those looking for a bit more privacy have the options of choosing a private studio room or one of the incredible villas. Seriously, book Wolf Totem. You won’t regret it.
Say hi to Jefe for me.
Ollantaytambo: Casa Quechua, Mama Killa
Ollantaytambo is a gorgeous small town. You’ll find yourself wanting to stay longer and longer. I spent several nights here, despite there arguably being very little to do here outside of the ruins. The beautiful scenery, relaxed vibe, and plethora of food options made it an acceptable location for me to kick back for a bit. It also helped that Casa Quechua was very budget-friendly, at only 20 Soles ($6 US) a night with breakfast included.
The other option I looked at was Mama Killa, which always happened to be full whenever I actually wanted to book it. It runs at 30 Soles, also with breakfast included, and seems to have more amenitides than Casa Quechua. There are tons of options that show up for hostels in Ollantaytambo on Hostelworld, ranging from budget dorms to affordable private rooms.
Urubamba: Luna Rumi (Flying Dog Hostels)
Only about 10 minutes outside of the center of Urubamba is Luna Rumi. It showed up on Hostelworld as Flying Dog Hostels so I booked it. However, when I showed up, I found out that it had transitioned to a hotel, but the owners gave me a private room for a small upgrade from a hostel dorm price. The grounds and gardens here are beautiful. At 38 Soles a night with a great breakfast included, it definitely was worth it to have a little privacy in a beautiful setting. Urubamba is a quiet town that few tourists seem to stay at, so finding a social hostel would be pretty rare, anyway.
There are other hostels in the area but most of them won’t show up online. The ones that you will be able to find on Booking or on Hostelworld usually don’t offer budget dorm accommodations.
Chinchero: Chinchero Backpackers
I did not actually spend the night in Chinchero, as I felt a day trip to the ruins followed by a hike would be more ideal. That way, I could leave my belongings in Cusco instead of having to drag them all the way to Chinchero for just a night or two. If you are interested in spending a night in this less-traveled-to destination, here are some accommodation options in Chinchero.
Oh last but not least, one of the most important things you should consider while traveling through the Sacred Valley…
Cusco’s Boleto Turistico: Is It Worth It?
This was one of my biggest dilemmas while exploring Cusco and the Sacred Valley. To enter most of the archaeological sites that I’ve mentioned, you will need either the partial ticket or the complete tourist ticket. For the complete ticket which lasts 10 days and gives you access to 16 different sites, you will have to pay 130 Soles ($38 US). For the partial ones that last two days and give you access to four, you will have to pay 70 soles ($20 US). If you happen to be a student, you can get the complete tourist ticket for the same price as a partial one, which makes the dilemma much easier. If you are a student, trust me, it will be worth it.
However, most people, especially backpackers like myself, have a hard time shelling out $40 in one go. If you are in Cusco and the Sacred Valley for an extended period of time, then it’s a no-brainer. Even if you visit just two of the sixteen sites, you will already be saving 10 soles as opposed to paying 70 soles each time to enter.
The only way I could justify paying 70 Soles for a partial ticket is if you wanted to bust out some combination of Moray, Pisac, Chinchero, and Ollantaytambo in two days. It will be hectic but it is doable. For most people, I would recommend spreading out the adventures over the course of 10 days and visiting as many of the 16 sites as possible.
Cusco’s Sacred Valley is one of my favorite regions in the world. It is an incredible mix of adventure, history, culture, and relaxation. You can be content doing nothing or everything while you are here. The surrounding scenery feels otherworldly at times, and I guarantee that you will never get bored of it. Seriously, I implore you to avoid the fast-paced guided tour of the Sacred Valley and hop your way around on your own. The colectivos are cheap and you will want to enjoy every second of your stay here with no pressure or time limits. Life is bueno, here.
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