Machu Picchu? Check. Cusco? Check. Chinchero? Moray? Salinas? Ollantaytambo? Pisac? Huh? When visiting the Sacred Valley most visitors focus on Cusco and Machu Picchu, but forget that there are many hidden gems in the Scared Valley that are equally interesting and much less visited.
This picturesque region around the Rio Urabamba in southern Peru was an important crossroads of the ancient Inca empire, blessed with fertile lands and close to its capital Cusco. As a result lots of well-kept remains of Inca civilization can be found here. Some of these became the highlights of our stay in Peru.
Peru from the tourist brochures
As in the old days Cusco is still the main regional hub and the gateway to the valley. We arrived in Cusco after a long bus ride from Arequipa. The first eight to nine hours of the journey were pretty boring, with views of barren Altiplano landscape (which some may find riveting) and even snow above 4.000 meters – at the end of September, which is springtime in Peru.
But the last 2,5 hours we entered the Peru from the tourist brochures – the mountains getting more scenic, the valleys more lush and the villages more lovely. Quite a relief, because up until then we were surprised at how unattractive Peru sometimes can be, especially it’s build up environment.
Aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder, but in much of Peru all sense of architectural taste seems to be lost. Maybe it’s because the country isn’t very rich and suffers earth quakes on a regular basis. It just can’t be bothered with building pretty. In Nazca we were told people just didn’t care how the city was rebuild after a 7.5 earthquake in 1996 flattened the city. They just wanted a place to live.
Chinchero, Moray and Salinas
After spending the night in Cusco we took a taxi to take us to Ollantaytambo, the jumping off point for most trips to Machu Picchu. Along the way we visited Chinchero, Moray and Salinas and had ample time to take in some splendid scenery.
The pretty village of Chinchero (3.762 meter) is well known for its Sunday market, which is smaller and less touristic than the more popular one in Pisac. We still thought it was a little touristy, but it had enough local flavor to keep us happy.
Many women were dressed in colorful traditional garments and it was nice to wander among the different stalls. The town is most famous for its weaving and several cooperatives are happy to show you how it’s made and of course to sell their products.
Our next stop were the Moray terraces near the village of Maras, reached by unpaved secondary roads. The concentric terraces are believed to have been an Inca laboratory. Each terrace having its own microclimate it supposedly allowed the Incas to determine the optimal growing conditions for their crops. Pretty smart, those Incas. The three terraced bowls are amazingly well preserved.
Even more stunning were the Salinas salt pans. Tucked away in a side valley off the Urabamba river, these salt pans have been used since ancient times and even now are still mined for salt. The thousands of salt pans form a patchwork landscape of different shades of grey, white, pink and brown. Absolutely beautiful!
If you want you can walk freely between the terraced basins. On the narrow dams it sometimes can be a bit of a balancing act. I had no problems negotiating them, but Eugénie chickened out halfway, afraid to fall into one of the salt pans.
At the end of the day we arrived in Ollantaytambo, hungry as hell. Amazed by the places and landscapes we had seen during the day, we’d totally forgotten to have a proper lunch. You can read about Ollantaytambo in a separate post which you can find here.
Amazing terracing near Pisac
We visited the historic town of Pisac during a day trip while staying in Cusco. We went on a Thursday, which is also a market day in Pisac, so after lunch at an eatery with a view of the central square we first walked the market. It’s the biggest in the Sacred Valley, but seemed to be totally geared to tourists. There were some professional ‘models’ for you take pictures of, but the local flavor was missing.
The real highlight for us were the impressive agricultural terraces that surround ruined fortifications high above Pisac. We had a taxi take us to the entrance of the citadel situated on a hilltop and then walked back down to town between the terraced fields.
This took us about two hours and it was sweaty and tough on the quadriceps, but afforded splendid views of the terraces and the Urabamba valley. And the most astounding thing: there were hardly any other tourists around.
Travel tips Sacred Valley
Tickets – Most of the popular sights in the Sacred Valley and Cusco (and some of the less popular sights…) are covered by the Boleto Turistico. The ticket cost us 130 soles (35 euros), is valid for ten days and is available at any of the sites included in the ticket. And no, Machu Picchu is not one of them. For those who have a limited amount of time or only want to visit a few places there are also partial tickets available.
Transport – Places like Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Chinchero are easy to reach by cheap public transport and only cost a few euros. To get to Pisac for example we took one of the regular ‘collectivos’ (mini buses) that make the one hour journey.
For Moray and Salinas you’ll need a taxi or walk long distances. We prearranged the taxi that took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo through Taxidatum, a reliable company that also operates taxi services in Lima.
Tour – If you are traveling on a tight schedule hurried one day tours which allow you to see most – but not all – of the sites in the Sacred Valley are an option. We think it’s better, more rewarding and more relaxed if you take your time exploring the Sacred Valley.
We spent a total of eight days in the region, including our stay in Cusco and an overnight trip to visit Machu Picchu. By doing so we were able to set our own time schedule and take as much time as we wanted at each site (which is always more than with an organized tour). We found most sites incredibly peaceful once tour groups were gone.