Cusco and Machu Picchu are rightfully two of Peru’s most popular and desirable travel destinations. I personally can’t get enough of Cusco, and I will never forget the morning I arrived at Machu Picchu all those years ago. Seeing the clouds clear to reveal the iconic view of Machu Picchu is something that still sticks with me. However, between Cusco and Machu Picchu, there is a whole region rich in culture, history, and breathtaking views in abundance. The Valle Sagrado or Sacred Valley of the Incas is littered with ruins, markets, hikes, and unbelievable scenery. It is one of the most surreal regions I’ve encountered during my travels.
The best part of the Sacred Valley is that it is often neglected by short-term travelers who flock only to Machu Picchu and Cusco. Even those that do find the time to make it here often opt for a fast-paced guided tour that hardly gives you any time to stop and smell the roses. Even my first foray into the Sacred Valley was with a guided tour to Maras and Moray. Eventually, I started taking longer and longer trips out here, bouncing around from village to village and going by word of mouth to find out what to do. My several trips to the Sacred Valley were among my favorite parts of my several month-long trip to Peru, and I would often repeat activities 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 will 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, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Besides stairs. I knew there were going to be a stupid amount of stairs. You can only get a glimpse of the vast archaeological complex from the town of Pisac, so you are in for a treat once you finally make it up that hill. 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.
Explore Ollantaytambo Archaeological Site
Unlike Pisac, you can see the ruins straight from the town of Ollantaytambo. 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 best in all of Peru. Make sure to climb all the way up Inka Watana for an incredible panoramic view of Ollantaytambo and 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, it is free to hike up here. Even if you aren’t into history or ruins, you can get a stunning panoramic view of the Sacred Valley, the surrounding mountains, the cute little town, and Ollantaytambo’s ruins. 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.
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 companies. 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 endless snow-capped mountain ranges in the background.
Visit Chinchero Archaeological Site
One of the archaeological sites included on the boleto turistico is Chinchero. You might not have heard of Chinchero because it lacks the popularity that the other archaeological sites have, 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 and paid a visit on my last day in Cusco. 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 you can do in the Sacred Valley. On a clear day, this Qhapaq Nan (Inca trail) gives you unbeatable views of the snowy mountains and valleys that undoubtedly played a part in what made the Inca view this region as sacred. The hike takes around 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, spread out, and the vendors take a much less aggressive approach in trying to sell you things. Walking through the market aimlessly was one of my favorite things to do in Pisac. On Sundays, the market expands even further. The central plaza becomes filled with the Quechua from neighboring villages as they sell everything from vegetables to handicrafts to paints to food and drinks.
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 will undoubtedly find yourself struggling to resist the call of a new sweater or blanket or other knickknack that you’ll find in 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.
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, meaning that you could spend several days here. However, most people only stick around for Ollantaytambo Ruins and Pinkuylluna, which 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 day hike that one could take from here. 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, but 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.