Once the center of the Inca Empire, the town of Cusco, and the surrounding valley, is an essential destination for anyone traveling to Peru. Not only is it a stunning mountain setting, with festivals and artisan community, it’s truly a mecca for adventurous tourists.
The main reason why millions of tourists pass through Cusco each year is to visit Machu Picchu. But you’ll be missing out on many of the lesser known, yet equally captivating, Inca ruins that fill the Sacred Valley and stretch from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, if you only visit for Machu Picchu.
While not as grandiose as Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley contains ruins of settlements that were just as important to the Inca empire. The valley was a lush agricultural area that supplied the region with abundant crops of corn, maize, fruits and vegetables. It was essential to the existence of the Incas who lived not only in the valley, but along the Inca trail and at Machu Picchu.
In the towns of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chincheros and Sacsayhuaman, you can see abundant evidence of their reliance on crops, as well as the incredible display of human strength shown in the construction of elaborate fortresses and farming systems.
Going to Peru and want to see the Sacred Valley? Book these great tours through Viator:
- Sacred Valley, Pisac and Ollantaytambo Full-Day Tour from Cusco
- 2-Day Tour: Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu by Train
How to Visit the Sacred Valley: from Cusco to Ollantaytambo
Sine you’re likely already visiting Cusco to see Machu Picchu, you can easily book an extension of your trip to see the Sacred Valley. There are dozens of tour companies in Cusco waiting to cart you around to the top spots in the Sacred Valley. A bus tour will shuttle you through the sites as quickly as possible on an 8-hour day trip. I went on the first tour linked to above through Viator and was very happy with the experience. There were about 10 other tourists on the bus with me.
If you don’t want to be getting on an off a bus all day with a large group, a better way to go is booking a private tour guide and taking a couple of days to explore at your leisure. You’ll see much more than you would on a bus tour and you’ll be able to stop at sites that are not included in the usual itinerary.
You can also pick up a tourist pass called the Boleto Turístico del Cusco that covers the most important of the archaeological sites, so you won’t have to worry about paying an entrance fee at each stop. Just show the card to gain access.
Do keep in mind that these places are located high up in the Andes, some as high as 13,000 ft of elevation, so altitude sickness might come into play. Be sure to drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks, especially while hiking in to the sites. Some of them require climbing hundreds of stairs or hiking a mile or more round trip.
The inhabitants of these ancient civilizations adapted to the incredibly steep terrain by building impressive terraces on which to plant their crops. One of the best places to see the terracing is at the ruins of Pisac. Just outside the small town, perched high up on the mountainside, amidst fields and broad rings of terracing is the Pisac citadel, which was used to guard trade routes between important cities.
The vast expanse of terracing is carved directly into the solid rock face of the mountain and is a marvel in itself. From the very top, there is a panoramic view of the entire valley. It may not seem like it from this vantage point, but Pisac is quite a bit bigger than Machu Picchu, stretching for over a mile along the mountain ridge, and encompasses a number of other smaller ruins along the path, which you can hike to if you want.
Down in the valley, you’ll find the town of Pisac, where a lively market takes place every Sunday. Unfortunately, the market often draws large crowds to this picturesque village, turning it into a not so fun place to be, especially when it’s hot out. A smaller version of the market crops up a couple other days of the week, as well, so if you want to check it out, I’d recommend a weekday over the weekend. Despite the growing number of tourists, the market is still a main outlet for locals to barter and sell vegetables from their farms, but these days you’ll find more selling of handicrafts to the throngs of tourists.
Ollantaytambo is a small town located on the west end of the Sacred Valley that was built on top of the original Inca foundations. The ruins at Ollantaytambo center primarily around religion and many of the structures contain elaborate religious symbolism. The ruins here are an impressive feat of human architecture. The stones that were used for building were brought over from a quarry on the opposite side of the mountain by manpower alone.
The ruins contain the steep terraces found at other sites, which provide protection for the temple that is located at the top of the site. The temple features many symbols of worship and astronomical observations. One of the main attractions is the Princess’s Bath, which has an impressive system that the princess could use to stop the flow of water as she was bathing. You’ll see plenty of people eagerly sticking their hands in the fountain to try this out.
In the town of Chincheros you can visit the Awamaki Weaving Project, where local female artisans demonstrate the techniques they use for weaving the colorful handicrafts you’ve surely noticed for sale everywhere. The weaving co-op is an effort to preserve these ancient techniques by passing them on to new generations.
The village of Chincheros also contains a colonial church built in the early seventeenth century. The walls and ceilings of the church are covered with floral and religious symbols. There is a Sunday market located here as well that isn’t as frequented by tourists than the one in Pisac, so if you want to pick up some souvenirs or buy local handicrafts, this is the better place to do it.
Sacsaymuaman, the House of the Sun, is an incredible Inca fortress, overlooking Cusco. The massive blocks of rock used to form the walls of the fortress each weigh over 300 tons and fit together perfectly. The scale of such a project is almost incomprehensible in a time when only sheer manpower was available to move the rock from its original location, up to 20 miles away.
A few other smaller examples of Inca construction can be found along the road from Cusco to Pisac. Q’enko (a carved rock design in the shape of a zigzag that had spiritual meaning), Puca Pucara (a well-placed guard post along the Inca trade route) and Tambomachay (Inca bath houses) are all worth a quick stop on your tour.
If you choose to hike the Inca trail to get to Machu Picchu, you’ll pass many of these Inca ruins, since they are located along the trail. It’s a 26-mile undertaking, but provides the most comprehensive overview of the Sacred Valley, culminating in the grandest of them all, Machu Picchu. The Incas were certainly an industrious people and seeing the civilizations they built with their hands is truly an incredible experience.
Have you been to the Sacred Valley? Tell us what you found inspiring about the trail from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
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Laura Lynch is the creator and writer of Savored Journeys, an avid world traveler and lover of great food and wine. She has been a travel writer for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.