With Machu Picchu getting most of the (deserved) attention in the Cusco region, the Sacred Valley is often overlooked. Filled with scenic villages and ancient ruins, the area is begging to be explored. Just a short drive away from Cusco makes these areas perfect day trips from the Inca capital and great options on your Peru trip.
Due to its popular Sunday market, Pisac is a very popular option to visit in the Sacred Valley. Just over an hour away from Cusco, the best option to get there is to hire a taxi driver from the town center. There were five of us, and we found a cab driver to take us there for a good price. It averaged out to less than $15 USD per person for the day, including a round trip back to Cusco. Cheaper than going to the airport for most people.
Our driver was very nice, didn’t really speak English, and waited for us as we visited the crowded Sunday market. At the market, I used my limited Spanish negotiating skills to score a beautiful alpaca wool blanket. Our driver then drove us to a mountain above the town where the Inca ruins are located.
The Pisac ruins look over the majestic town of Pisac with the Andes mountains as the backdrop. At the entrance of the ruins, there are a handful of unofficial “tour guides” to hire. We had every intention of walking the ruins by ourselves until we realized we had no idea what we were looking at. A very persistent guide followed us into the ruins. We caved, deciding to splurge and hire the guide. Getting a guide was a decision we did not regret and highly recommend doing.
Our guide led us through the rather large site, explaining the history of Pisac and the ruins. For around $9/person, this was absolutely worth it. He tried to sell us several things along the tour - and it worked! I bought a tincture of muña which helps calm you and aids in altitude exposure (which came in handy on my 5 Day Salkantay Trek). Plus we had someone to take our picture.
Pisac was a great day trip for us and we were exhausted by the end of it. If you have time I wouldn’t try to combine it with other Sacred Valley sites as this deserves its own trip and took a good portion of our day.
The salt mines of Maras are one of the most unique sights in Peru. A massive collection of over 5,000 salt evaporation ponds cling to the side of a mountain. Adding to the charm, they are still in use today and you will see workers in the ponds.
This was part of another day trip we did that included the village Chincheros and the nearby site of Moray. Similar to Pisac, we found a driver to take the five of us for a decent price. He took us to all three locations in one day for a fun and packed day. He offered to also take us to Ollantaytambo but it was getting dark and we were all exhausted, so we passed on the offer.
The salt mines have a tiny entrance fee of 10 soles (about $3 USD). This grants you access to walk along the ridge and get right up and close to the salt ponds. They have little stands to buy souvenirs, food and water. I bought a few souvenir packets of salt for 3 soles each. We wandered around the area for about an hour which was plenty of time to take it all in.
The village of Ollantaytambo is home to some of the most impressive Inca ruins including an imposing fortress and terraces nestled into the side of a hill. The town is filled with a rich Inca history, most notably as the location of one of the few victories the Inca people had over the Spanish conquistadors.
This was the only main area of the Sacred Valley we didn’t have time to explore. After our Machu Picchu experience, our train stopped here as we transferred into a bus for the ride back to Cusco. We did not get any time to explore however. I was able to see some of the ruins from the bus window and they looked impressive. Visiting Ollantaytambo would be at the top of my list if I were ever to return to Cusco.
Another mesmerizing location in the Sacred Valley, Moray is another must see. The ancient Inca site is near the Maras salt mines which makes it very convenient to knock both off the list in one trip. This was our third stop in a day trip we took that included the above mentioned salt mines and Chincheros.
The archeological site is built on a plateau at an elevation of around 11,500 feet. I remember feeling the altitude here as well as Chincheros. We explored the captivating site for about an hour and that was plenty of time to take in the views. The stunning and meticulously planned terraces are believed to have been used for agriculture, although the true purpose is still a mystery.
Chinceros was the first town in the Sacred Valley we visited and was a unique welcome to Peru. We were dropped off at an area our driver knew about where some local women gave us a weaving demonstration. It was a great experience, as we were not expecting this, and we ended up all buying some sort of traditional Peruvian piece of clothing (I got the classic hooded sweater).
Our driver then took us to the main drop off point near the town center. The first thing we noticed right away was the altitude. You have to walk up quite a few steps to reach the town’s main courtyard - where they have their market every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. If you aren’t well adjusted you will be feeling this walk up. My legs were burning and I had to catch my breath a few times.
Once we reached the market we spent some time browsing and negotiating. There is a very old church here that is definitely worth checking out. The antiquity was wild. It felt like it was from another world.
Chincheros was a lovely first stop on our tour of the Sacred Valley and is only 45 minutes from Cusco. Combining this with Maras and Moray makes for a very fun day trip that I would highly recommend.
Since there were five of us, we decided to rent an airbnb in the San Blas area of Cusco. We used Cusco as our base for three nights before heading out on the Salkantay trek. It’s important to acclimate to the altitude before doing any bigger hikes, so this was when we decided to explore the Sacred Valley area.
If you wanna get creative with your lodging, it would be fun to stay in towns such as Pisac or Ollantaytambo. The downside would be jumping from accommodation to accommodation if you aren’t going to be spending much time there. Pisac (9,750 feet), Ollantaytambo (9,160 feet) and Urubamba (9,420 feet) also have lower elevations which can help if you are struggling with the elevation of Cusco (11,150).
The Sacred Valley of Peru has a ton to offer and you should leave at least a few days open to explore them if you are going to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Ideally I would do three days: 1 in Pisac, 1 in Ollantaytambo, and 1 to see Chincheros, Maras and Moray.