I’ve been putting off writing this, because Peru (very literally) left such a bad taste in my mouth that I want to leave it in the past. But one of the most worthwhile things to do in Cusco (diarrhea and vomiting notwithstanding) is see the ruins of Peru’s Sacred Valley.
What is the Sacred Valley?
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is in the Cusco region in a valley in the Andes. Don’t let “valley” fool you. The altitude is dizzying. Though Machu Picchu is the most well-known site in the valley, Sacred Valley includes far more Inca ruins than that. There are almost a dozen sites scattered between the city of Cusco and Machu Picchu. And some of them are just as impressive as Machu Picchu itself.
Buying a ticket
If you want to visit more than two of the sites, you need a Boleto Turistico, or a tourist ticket, which is sold exclusively in Cusco in two locations:
- Oficina de informacion Turistica (Calle Mantas 117-A)
- Museo de Arte Contemporaneo
You can’t buy it online, so before you venture out into the Sacred Valley, make sure you have time to pick up the boleto (during office hours) at one of the points of sale. And make sure you don’t lose it; it’s like cash. There are a couple of ticket options depending on what you want to visit and how long you plan to stay.
There are three tour circuits. Circuit I includes four of the sites closest to Cusco: Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Pucapucara, and Tambomachay. Circuit II includes sites and attractions in the city of Cusco like the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo and other local museums, which are by and large not worth the price of admission or the time you’ll spend in them. Circuit III includes some of the larger but also farther ruins including Ollantaytambo, Pisaq, Chinchero, and Moray.
You can buy each circuit separately for about 70 Soles (~$21), and you’d have only 1-2 days to visit all the places on the ticket. But if you’re going to buy two of the three, it’s a better deal to get the Boleto General. The Boleto General is valid for 10 days and includes entrance to all the surrounding ruins including all three circuits. It costs 130 Soles (~40).
Why not just buy individual entrance? It’s almost impossible. Most ruins will require you to buy the partial ticket at the gate. So regardless, you’ll pay for whatever circuit that site happens to be on.
Visiting the sites
All the sites near Cusco are relatively small compared to the others and you can do the whole tour in a half day. It might take a little longer if you get a guide at any of the sites. If you have to pick a guide for one, I recommend Saqsayhuaman, which is the biggest of the four included in the boleto.
- Saqsayhuaman served a citadel on the outskirts of Cusco. The city was designed to be in the shape of a puma and the large imposing ruins of Saqsayhuaman serve as the head. Some of the structures in the site were made of giant impressive stones, expertly cut to fit in together with one another.
- Qenqo is another site in Circuit I that is formed by circles of rock. It’s believed that ritual sacrifices and mummifications took place at this site.
- Pucapucara can also be found in Cusco’s surrounding area. This is a fort made up of several walls and terraces that was meant to help defend Cusco in the time of the Incas. It’s also known as the “red fortress” because the color of the rocks turns a red color at dusk.
- Tambomachay, similar to Roman aqueducts, demonstrate the Inca’s ancient canals and waterways that kept water running through terraced rocks. The exact function of the site is unclear though it could have served as a spa or a military structure.
The Circuit III ruins are the most worthwhile. If you’re pressed for time, these are the ones I would absolutely not skip. I didn’t expect anything to be as impressive as Machu Picchu, but sites like Ollantaytambo really give it some competition. Unlike Circuit I, which you can easily do in a day, to give these sites the time they deserve, I recommend visiting these two at a time.
Ollantaytambo and Moray are north of Cusco, halfway to Machu Picchu, so it might be time-saving to do these two with an overnight stop in the city of Ollantaytambo. This is also close to one of the starting points of the Inca Trail. Though, you can also do it as a day trip from Cusco.
- Ollantaytambo was the home of the emperor who conquered the region. The ruins make up an entire town that is watched over by a series of rock terraces where religious temples once stood. The site is vast and tiring. “Good practice for Machu Picchu,” according to our tour guide. She was absolutely right. The steep steps of the terraces are exhausting but the surrounding view is worth it. Below, a series of canals and streams crisscross the landscape which is also full of alpacas and llamas. Of all the Sacred Valley sites, this one probably takes the most time – at least 3-4 hours.
- Moray is a small but interesting ruin just south of Ollantaytambo. It consists of a series of terraces in concentric circles that each have a different depth. It was an Inca farming experiment to see if they could grow different kinds of crops at different altitudes and weather simultaneously.
Not included in the tourist ticket, but nearby and also popular, is the Maras Salt Mines. Entrance is only 10 Soles (~$3). Though it’s fairly large, you can walk as much or as little of it as you like and it’s still an impressive place. The mines, which should more accurately be called salt ponds, are a large complex of vats that naturally evaporate water leaving only salt.
Pisaq and Chinchero are closest to Cusco. Chinchero is slightly north and Pisaq is eastward, but one day would be enough to see both sites, and the famous Pisaq market. Frankly, the market didn’t seem all that different to me from all the markets in Cusco and it struck me as more expensive. But it’s a good place to get souvenirs or at least relax between Inca ruins.
- Pisaq is probably the second most impressive ruin in the Sacred Valley and just as large as Ollantaytambo. If you’re not sick of hearing about the same priest houses, a guide here would also be worthwhile. As with all the ruins, there will be plenty at the entrance who will be happy to take you through the site. Pisaq is notable for terraces like those found in Moray but much bigger and impressive from every angle. It includes a small village, an Inca cemetery, baths and a sun temple. If you have a lot of time and you really like the outdoors, Pisaq also offers a couple of hiking trails around the mountain edge. Comfortably touring Pisaq takes at least 2 hours and you can double that if you plan to hike.
- Chinchero is actually at a higher altitude than Cusco, so definitely acclimate to the altitude before you subject yourself to that nightmare. The ruins of Chinchero are terraced rocks that lead to a Colonial church. Many tours and itineraries bundle this with Ollantaytambo and Moray because all three are northward. But that will feel a bit more rushed.
How to get there
Some people recommend taking taxis, some recommend using the public buses. Because we were such a large group, we planned the visits in advance and booked a private driver for the day. The taxis are not a bad way to get there, but it may not be as simple to find one to take you back to Cusco when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
The public buses are absurdly cheap if you have a lot of time. You can get 2 hours north of Cusco to Ollantaytambo for just a few bucks if you use the buses, or collectivos. We decided against that because we didn’t have time to wait for buses. But if you spread out your visit to the Sacred Valley over 4 or 5 days, this is not a bad option. You would just have to figure out the bus schedule and familiarize yourself with the appropriate stops.
Since we were a group of 5, we booked a driver so we could customize our itinerary and never get stuck somewhere waiting for a ride. A private driver is advantageous because then you can stay anywhere as long as you like without having to worry about bus timetables or to be ushered out by a tour group.
If you’re tempted to book a driver online in advance, don’t. Almost anything you can book online will be almost twice the cost of what you’ll pay if you find someone locally. And it won’t be hard to find. You can go to any tourism office, your cab drivers will offer to take you anywhere you want and then you can negotiate a price you’re comfortable with. For maximum success, brush up on your Spanish. Many of the people who can offer you their services don’t speak English.
Most of these places require a lot of walking, sometimes uphill. Make sure you always carry water with you. You won’t find drink stands in the middle of an Inca ruin, so bring enough water to last you the long walks.
Don’t overexert yourself. The ruins are only stunning and awe-inspiring if you’re not forcing yourself to hike half a dozen of them a day. If you do that, you’re definitely gonna be over those piles of rocks by the second one.