Guide to Exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas

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Valle Sagrado de los Incos
Pisac, El Valle Sagrado de los Incos, Peru

Majestic yet incredibly serene, the Sacred Valley of the Incas should be on the bucket list of every traveler visiting the Cusco region. Nestled between the awe-inspiring Andes peaks, this scenic valley boasts the largest number of historical Inca sites in Peru and breathtaking mountain landscapes. While Machu Picchu is, of course, the most famous and best-preserved landmark in the area, there are many other less-known but equally important ruins, which you can add to your traveling experience. The valley is also home to the native Quechua communities that still lead a traditional lifestyle. Meeting them can take you a few hundred years back in time when the world was so different. 

Many tourists rush through the Sacred Valley on a whirlwind one-day tour, scurrying across its most notable sites. However, if you have a bit more time, this place deserves a more thorough visit. Since there are so many things to see and do in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, I have written this guide to help you figure out what you really want to explore and plan your trip accordingly. But, first, here are a few geographical and historical facts as a background story.

Sacred Valley of the Incas Geography Facts

Known in Spanish as El Valle Sagrado de Los Incas, this low-lying area in the Andes is also called the Urubamba Valley for the river that runs through it.

Formed by the Urubamba River, the valley stretches for about 100 km between the town of Pisac and the ruins of Machu Picchu. It lies 20 km to the north of Cusco at elevations ranging from 3000 m in Pisac to 2050 m in Aguas Calientes. That is why tourists are often advised to spend the first day in the Sacred Valley. It lets their bodies gradually adjust to the higher altitude in Cusco (3400 m).

Thanks to a milder climate and the ample water supply from the Urubamba and its tributaries, the Sacred Valley has a very fertile land that has long been an agricultural hub for Cusco.

Sacred Valley of the Incas
Small Village in El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Sacred Valley of the Incas History

The Urubamba Valley had been inhabited by various ethnic tribes long before the arrival of the Incas but, due to close proximity to Cusco, was eventually absorbed into their expanding empire in the 12th -14th centuries. The Incas were attracted by warmer temperatures and rich soil that accounted for most of their crop production. They built agricultural terraces, called andenes, on the slopes of the surrounding hills. There, farmers were able to grow everything for the Inca staple diet: from potatoes and corn to coca leaves and pineapples. Besides, the valley also gave the Incas access to the jungle areas, which were a source of tropical plants and fruit.

Agrticultural Terraces in Moray, Valle Sagrado de los Incos, Peru

The Incas considered the Urubamba Valley a sacred place and believed its landscape mirrored the path of the Milky Way. They worshiped natural phenomena such as mountains, rivers, and lakes, and related them to the position of the celestial bodies. They also cleverly incorporated the topography of the place into their architecture, a skill that is greatly admired by modern researchers today and can be seen in many of their constructions throughout the valley.

In the 1400s, the Sacred Valley became a favored area for building royal estate. For example, the ruins of Quispiguanca, located in the modern town of Urubamba, were a country house of Inca King Huayna Capac. Ollantaytambo belonged to the greatest Inca Emperor Pachacuti. Some archeologists believe that Machu Picchu was also built as Pachacuti’s winter residence.

After the defeat of King Manco Inca Yupanqui in 1537, the Sacred Valley came under the control of the Spanish, who destroyed or remodeled most of the Inca’s architectural legacy. Yet, some of their sites, like, for example, Macchu Picchu, managed to escape the destruction and survived to this day in a pretty good state.

Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley of the Incas
Machu Picchu, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

How to Visit the Sacred Valley of the Incas

Today, the Sacred Valley comprises dozens, if not hundreds, of Inca monuments and ruins. They are spread across 100 km, making it hard to visit everything in one day. How many of these sites you can eventually explore depends on the number of days you have at your disposal. However, even if you plan to spend a week or more in Cusco, you still need to set your priorities because it is impossible to include every ruin in your itinerary.

As a way to help you with this problem, the Peruvian government introduced a so-called Boleto Turístico del Cusco (Cusco Tourist Ticket) that gives you access to the most important historical sites in the valley.

Boleto Turístico del Cusco

The boleto turístico is a single general admission ticket that allows you entry to the most popular sites in the Sacred Valley as well as several museums in Cusco. This ticket can be either purchased in advance at the COSITUC office on Avenida El Sol 103 in Cusco or at the entrance to the sites included in the ticket.

Note that you will not be able to buy an entrance ticket to just one site. However, if you do not want to visit all of the attractions included in the full ticket called Boleto Turístico General, you can get a Partial Cusco Tourist Ticket, or Boleto Turistico Parcial.

Boleto Turistico del Cusco
Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turisctico del Cusco)

The General Cusco Tourist Ticket costs 130 soles (about USD 40) for foreign nationals and is valid for 10 days. It gives entry to the following list of 10 historical sites in the Cusco area and the Sacred Valley: Pisac Archaeological Park, Chinchero Archaeological Park, Ollantaytambo Archaeological Park, Moray Archaeological Park, Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park, Qenqo, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Tipon Archaeological Park, Pikillacta Archaeological Park. I will tell you more about each of these sites in the next section below.

The full ticket also allows entry to 5 museums and 1 monument inside Cusco: Museo de Arte Popular, Museo de Sitio del Qoricancha (museum only, not the Qoricancha site), Museo Historico Regional, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Monumento a Pachacuteq (Pachacuteq Statue), Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo (native art and folkloric dance). I will not cover the museums here as this post is primarily devoted to historical Inca ruins in the Cusco region.

Also, note that Machu Picchu is not included in the above list and should be visited separately with a different ticket. You can buy the ticket to Machu Picchu on the website of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. To find out more information on how to visit the Sacred Inca City, read my post All You Need to Know for Your Visit to Machu Picchu.

A ticket to the Maras Salt Mines located near Moray and usually visited on the same tour should also be purchased separately at the entrance to the site.

The Partial Cusco Tourist Ticket costs 70 soles (about USD 21) for foreign nationals. It can be purchased for one of the following 3 circuits:

Circuit 1 (Cusco Ruins, valid for 1 day): Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay.

Circuit 2 (Cusco City and the South Valley, valid for 2 days): Tipon, Pikillacta, Museo de Arte Popular, Museo de Sitio del Qoricancha, Museo Historico Regional, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Monumento a Pachacuteq, Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo.

Circuito 3 (The Sacred Valley Ruins, valid for 2 days): Pisac, Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, Moray.

If you are a student under the age of 25, you can get a 50% discount off the full ticket price on submitting your passport and student card or ISIC.

Visiting the Sacred Valley of the Incas with a Guided Tour

If you only have one or two days to visit the valley, going on a guided Sacred Valley Tour is the best option. This tour will take you to the most sites in the fastest way possible. Remember, all the sites are spread over a large distance, and getting from one place to another takes a bit of time.

Most travel agencies in Cusco offer tours that are split and organized around the 3 main circuits: the Cusco Ruins, the South Valley, and the Sacred Valley. The tour prices start from around 30 soles (USD 9) in addition to the cost of the Tourist Ticket and depend on the sites you visit and the language the guide is speaking. The tours in Spanish are usually cheaper than, for example, in English. Private tours tailored to your liking can be also organized on request.

However, a guided group tour usually gives you very limited time to explore the ruins on your own. So if you are a kind of traveler, who likes taking time and wandering around the historical sites by yourself, it is better to extend your stay in the Cusco region and visit the Sacred Valley independently.

Visiting the Sacred Valley of the Incas on Your Own

It is possible to travel between different sites in the Sacred Valley on your own either by using public transport or taxi. The taxi is, of course, faster but more expensive. For example, a taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo costs about 80 – 100 soles (around USD 30 – 40).

For the same trip by bus, you will pay only 10 – 12 soles. However, it takes longer to get around by public transport and makes you dependant on the bus schedule.

To avoid the rush, you can, for example, plan your trip in such a way as to spend one night in Ollantaytambo. Thus, you will have more time to explore its extraordinary ruins. From Ollantaytambo, you can also get to Moray, Maras, and Chinchero more quickly and for less money.

Obviously, to explore the ruins near Cusco, such as Pisac, С, Qenqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay, it is better to stay for a few days in Cusco.

The Best Sites to Visit in the Sacred Valley of the Incas

I will start my overview of the Sacred Valley sites with the most famous ones and gradually progress to less known but still important ruins.

Pisac Town and Ruins

The modern town of Pisac is a picturesque Quechua village, located 35 km from Cusco at the elevation of 2972m. It is known to tourists for its large handicraft market that takes place on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. There are also plenty of shops that sell local souvenirs and are open every day.

However, it is the ruins of an ancient Inca town located at the top of the hill above the village that are the real hidden gem of the Sacred Valley. Having much fewer tourists, the Pisac archaeological site is, however, one of the largest in Peru and can easily compete with Machu Picchu in terms of sheer size and grandeur.

The ancient town was constructed to protect the southern entrance to the valley and occupies the whole mountain. It also controlled a route that connected the Inca Empire with the rainforest in the northeast. The ruins include a religious center with a ceremonial platform, royal quarters, a military citadel, and an agricultural sector with stepped terraces carved into the steep slopes of the hill.

Pisac Inca Ruins
Pisac Ruins, Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

In the background, you can also see a high cliff dotted with hundreds of holes. These used to be Inca tombs. They have been plundered by robbers for centuries and cannot be visited by tourists today.

You can easily spend several hours roaming around the multi-tier maze of well-preserved ruins. The 30 - 40 minutes a guide usually gives you during the group tour are really not enough to explore the whole site. That is why, if you have extra time, I recommend you come to Pisac from Cusco by yourself for a whole day to make the most of your visit.

You can go to Pisac village by taxi or take a collectivo, public mini-bus, for 4 soles (USD 1,5) from Avenida Tullumayo 207 in Cusco. The ruins are a 20-minute ride uphill from the center of the village. You can take a taxi to the top of the hill for about 20 – 25 soles ( 6-7 USD).

Pisac
Pisac, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Ollantaytambo Town and Ruins

Ollantaytambo is, no doubt, one of the most impressive archaeological sites not only in the Sacred Valley but also in the entire Peru. Rising above the valley at 2792 m, it is an excellent example of the Inca city planning as most of its original layout has been preserved to this day.

The town had existed since the 12th century but was completely rebuilt by the Inca Emperor Pachacuti in the 1440s after he incorporated it into his personal estate. Under his guidance, new lavish religious structures and stepped terraces were added on the steep slope of the hill above the residential areas. The temple sector contains the famous wall comprised of 6 monolith blocks. It is incredible how the Incas could cut and transport these massive stones from a quarry on the other side of the Urubamba river.

Monolith at Ollantaytambo
Monolith Wall, Ollantaytambo Ruins, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Ollantaytambo was connected by the Inca Trail to Pisac in the southeast and Machu Picchu in the northwest. It was a fortress, naturally protected by the surrounding mountains. The town had strategic importance, guiding the entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley. It was, in fact, the only place where the Incas were able to defeat the Spanish conquistadors. In 1536, their king Manco Inca Yupanqui turned the town into his stronghold by creating a fortified system of defense. In the battle of Ollantaytambo, his warriors showered the attackers with arrows and spears from the top of the hill and flooded the valley with water through previously prepared channels, thus forcing the Spaniards to retreat to Cusco.

Eventually, Manco Inca had to withdraw further into the jungle, and Ollantaytambo fell into the hands of the Spanish. Nevertheless, the ceremonial structures and terraces on the slopes of the hill have been very well preserved. The temple that was still under construction at the time of the invasion remained unfinished.

At a closer look, the mountain above the Ollantaytambo ruins resembles a warrior’s face watching over the town below. During the summer solstice, the sunlight passes directly over the warrior’s eye.

You can get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco by taking a taxi or a collectivo in Calle Grau in Cusco. I would also recommend you spend a night in Ollantaytambo for a more comprehensive visit of the place.

Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo, El Valle Sagrado de loc Incas, Peru

Chinchero Archaeological Park and Village

Chinchero is a quaint little village located at 3765 m above sea level between Cusco and Ollantaytambo. The village is known for the remaining ruins of a country retreat that belonged to Inca Tupac Yupanqui, the son of Pachacuti. It features agricultural terraces and aqueducts that are still in use today.

Stepped Terraces at Chinchero
Agricultural Terraces in Chincero, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

The town also has a small but charming colonial church built in 1607. It serves as a beautiful backdrop to the farming terraces in the foreground. The local souvenir market is less touristic and more authentic than the one in Pisac.

You can get to Chinchero in 40 minutes by taking a bus or collectivo from Cusco in the direction of Ollantaytambo or Urubamba.

Chinchero Village and Inca Ruins
Chinchero, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Moray Archaeological Park

The Moray ruins are one of the most popular sites in the Sacred Valley. Located at 3500 m above sea level, they essentially consist of circular terraces that form three large amphitheaters 30 m deep. As a result, daytime temperatures at the bottom of the ruins are 15 warmer than at the top, creating a range of microclimates.

Researchers believe this place might have been used as an agricultural laboratory where the Incas studied the effects of different climates on different crops and acclimatized certain plants for growth at higher altitudes. Thanks to these experiments, present-day Peru has more than 2000 varieties of potatoes.

Another interesting fact is that the Moray ruins never get flooded. The terraces have built-in underground channels that allow water to drain quickly even after heavy rainfalls.

You can reach Moray by taking a taxi from Cusco or Ollantaytambo. Alternatively, you can get by bus to the village of Maras located 6 km away and, from there, take a taxi ride to the Moray archaeological site.

Moray Circular Terraces in the Sacred Valley of the Incas
Moray, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Maras Salt Mines

Located 40 km northwest of Cusco, Maras Salt Mines, or Salineras de Maras in Spanish, have recently become one of the most popular places to be featured on Instagram. No wonder why! The views of the colorful stepped salt pans on the slope of the hill are, indeed, spectacular!

The salt pans date back to the pre-Inca times but are still used by the local people today. Via a built-in system of channels, the terraced shallow ponds receive salty water coming from a hot spring at the top of the hill. It later evaporates, leaving crystals of salt that local families collect and transport for sale to the nearby village of Maras.

Salineras de Maras are not included in the Boleto Turistico del Cusco. You have to pay 10 soles at the entrance to the salt pans. To get there, you can take a taxi from Cusco, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo. Alternatively, you can take a bus going between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, get off near Maras village, then walk 1 km to the salt mines.

Salt Pans at Salineras de Maras
Maras Salt Mines, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park

The extraordinary Sacsayhuaman Complex lies on the outskirts of Cusco. So technically speaking, it is already outside the Sacred Valley. However, included in Boleto Turistico del Cusco, it is one of the most important landmarks on the Inca Ruins circuit in the Cusco region. So I cannot help mentioning it in this post along with a few other sites near the former Inca capital.

Sacsayhuaman, also sometimes spelled Saqsaywaman, was a fortified citadel located on the northern edge of Cusco. Built by the Incas in the 1400s on the ruins of the preceding Killke culture, it stands at 3701m on a steep hill, overlooking the city. Legend has it that the Incas planned the layout of the city in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal in their mythology, and Sacsayhuaman was its head.

Sacsayhuaman was designed as both a military fortress to protect the city from hostile invasions and a temple to perform religious ceremonies. The early Spanish chroniclers referred to it as the Royal House of the Sun. It was also used as a storage depot. When the conquistadors arrived in Sacsayhuaman, they found there a large stock of weapons, food, tools, ceramics, textiles, and precious metals.

The main area of the complex consists of three terraces composed of massive 6-m-high stone walls laid out in a zigzag fashion. The walls are built of the largest polygonal monolith blocks that were ever used in pre-Hispanic America. Some of the blocks are 4 m high and weigh over a hundred tons. Transporting them from a quarry and cutting them to an exact shape was one the greatest feats accomplished by the ancient civilization. The stone blocks fit together so tightly that it is impossible to insert a thin sheet of paper between them.

Megalith Stones at Sacsayhuaman
Megalith Stone Wall, Sacsayhuaman, Cusco, Peru

The construction of Sacsayhuaman walls also demonstrates the Inca architects’ remarkable skills to blend their structure into the surrounding nature. Their outline closely repeats the contours of the mountain range in the background. This becomes more apparent when the sun creates deep triangular shadows between the zigzag terraces in exactly the same way it does on the mountains right behind them.

During the Inca times, Sacsayhuaman used to have several towers along with many other religious and storage structures. Unfortunately, most of them were demolished by the Spanish to supply stones for building colonial houses in Cusco. Only the largest stone blocks that were hard to move were left untouched.

Getting to Sacsayhuaman is pretty easy. You can either take a taxi from the center of Cusco or walk there on foot by following Calle Suecia from Plaza de Armas and then turning into Calle Don Bosco.

Sacsayhuaman
Sacsayhuaman, Cusco, Peru

Qenqo

Qenqo
Qenqo, Cusco, Peru

Not far from Sacsayhuaman, there is one more mysterious Inca site called Qenqo. It is a labyrinth of underground passages that contain a large stone altar composed of a single piece of rock. The Incas must have used it to perform sacrificial ceremonies. Next to the main altar structure, there is an amphitheater with a large rock, carved into a puma shape, in the middle.

Most of the site was destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century. So little can be seen today. Yet, if you are interested in the history of the Inca civilization, this place is full of riddles worth paying a visit.

Puka Pukara

Located 6 km from Cusco on the way to Pisac, Puka Pukara was the entry checkpoint to Cusco. It must have also served as a storage and resting place for chaskies, courier boys that carried messages or parcels between different towns of the Inca Empire.

Puka Pukara is a typical military structure, lacking the finesse and grandeur of more significant sites such as Sacsayhuaman or Pisac. However, it has well-preserved walls, bathrooms, aqueducts, and roads.

Puka Pukara
Puka Pukara, Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru

Tambomachay

Tambomachay is located just 1 km from Puka Pukara. So you can actually walk from one site to the other.

The ruin is essentially an intricate system of aqueducts and channels that carry water through the terraced rocks forming a cascade. There is no general agreement as to what exactly it was used for. Researchers hypothesize it may have been a military outpost, a water shrine, or a spa resort for the Inca elite.

Water Cascades at Tambomachay
Tambomachay, Cusco, Peru

Tipon Archaeological Site

Tipon is located in the southeastern corner of the Urubamba Valley, or what is often referred to as the South Valley. Since it lies outside of the main Sacred Valley route, it is much less visited by tourists. However, its well-preserved agricultural terraces and irrigational canals are some of the most impressive in the Cusco region. They attest to the Incas' engineering genius. Some of these water channels and aqueducts are still used by the local people today.

The site may have also served as a palace for the Inca emperors. There are a few remaining wall structures that housed the royal family.

If you have an extra day in Cusco, the Tipon ruins are well worth visiting either on a guided tour of the South Valley or by taking a taxi to the site from the center of Cusco.

Tipon
Tipon, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

Pikillaqta Archaeological Site

Pikillaqta is also located in the South Valley, farther east of Tipon. The site has nothing to do with the Incas. However, it contains some of the largest ruins left by the Wari culture that controlled the region from 550 AD to 1100 AD.

Pikillaqta must have been an important administrative center and a ceremonial site. The ruins mainly consist of the adobe walls that used to be houses of the Wari people. You can walk along the labyrinth of ancient streets and view some irrigational canals created by the Wari to supply water to their agricultural feeds.

The Pikillaqta site is quite extensive. However, it does not impress as much as the more monumental and ingenious Inca ruins. So I personally liked it the least.

Pikillaqta is usually included in the South Valley tour or you can get there by taxi from Cusco.

Pikillacta
Pikillacta, Cusco Region, Peru

Inca Trail Ruins

There are so many Inca ruins, large and small, in the Cusco region that it is impossible to visit them all during a short stay. Obviously, the majority of tourists stick to the most popular historical sites included in the Boleto Turistico del Cusco and listed above.

However, if you want a more profound experience of the Inca culture, I can recommend you hike the Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The part of the original Inca road leading from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu features some of the best and most spectacular Inca ruins such as Llactapata, Runkurakay, Sayaqmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Winay Wayna, and Intipata. However, they can only be accessed on foot by following the steep and narrow Inca trail, which itself is a great adventure.

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu takes four days. But there is also a short Inca Trail, which is easier and takes only two days. To learn more about the Inca Trail Hike and how to sign up for it, read my post The Classic Inca Trail: My Personal Experience.

Llaqtapata Ruins on the Inca Trail, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

What else to do in the Sacred Valley of the Incas

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is not all about the Inca ruins. It is also one of the most visually stunning nature spots in the Andes with plenty of opportunities for a more active and adventurous pastime.

So if you start getting bored of the Inca ruins and craving for some adrenaline rush, you can go ziplining, paragliding, biking, bungee jumping, and, of course, mountain trekking and climbing in the Andes.

Apart from the Inca Trail, the Cusco area offers many other fantastic treks: Salkantay Trek, Ausangate Trek, Choquequirao Trek, Rainbow Mountain Trek, Humantay Lake Trek, etc.

For an unusual hotel experience, check Skylodge Hotel.

The Sacred Valley of the Incas offers travelers such a great variety of activities that you will never feel bored or disappointed no matter how long you stay in the Cusco region.

Quechua People in the Sacred Valley
Native Quechua Women Dyeing Alpaca Wool, El Valle Sagrado de los Incas, Peru

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2 thoughts on “Guide to Exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas”

  1. The blogger offers you precious practical tips on how to prioritise your choice of sights and how to be sensible about your travelling expenses. Invaluble, applicable, just to the point.

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