The Incan Sacred Valley in the Peruvian Andes is a sight to behold. Dotted with small villages and ancient ruins across nearly 70 miles of land wedged between mountain peaks, the Sacred Valley is a perfect companion to Machu Picchu during a trip to Peru. Read on for the most stunning sites you should visit during a tour of Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Where to visit on a Sacred Valley tour
I’ll describe this “tour” as if you are departing from and returning to Cusco. If you visit in this order, you’ll rarely backtrack the same road (except Ollantaytambo), which is a plus in my book – you always get to watch new landscape go by! As I describe later, I highly recommend staying in the Sacred Valley and making it your home base for daily excursions. If, though, you’re staying in Cusco, you can visit these seven sites in a couple of day trips.
Tour Stop 1: Sacsayhuamán
Sacsay…huhhhh?? Yep, you almost got it: sac-say-huamán, or as travelers and locals alike refer to it: sexywoman. “You gotta go see sexywoman,” we heard over and over again. So, after our five-day trek to Machu Picchu ended, we woke up bright and early to leave Cusco and start our time in the Sacred Valley. First stop: we had to see what this sexywom…er…Sacsayhuamán was all about
Sacsayhuamán is located just 15 minutes by car (or 40 by foot for you overachievers) from central Cusco and has incredible views over the city. Built during the 15th century, the site was the most important military base of the Incan Empire, often thought of as the Incan equivalent of the Roman Colosseum.
The most impressive element of Sacsayhuamán is the size of the stones that formed the walls of the structure. Some of the stones are thought to weigh more than 100 tons…each! That’s, like, 200,000 pounds. Hard to fathom!
Tour Stop 2: Pisac
The next stop on our tour of Peru’s Sacred Valley is the village of Pisac. The town is best known for two things: its hillside ruins and its market – the most popular of the Sacred Valley.
Built into the hillside of the Andes, the Pisac ruins are comprised of terrace after terrace of agricultural land. In fact, the terraces are still used for agriculture to this day. You can see evidence of terraced agriculture throughout the ruins of the Incan Empire, but none as intact as Pisac. During your visit, be sure to take in the sweeping views of the town and the rest of the Sacred Valley.
After a morning exploring the ruins, head back to town to visit the famed Pisac market, have lunch, and explore the local way of life. While the market is catering to tourists more and more, you’ll be able to find more affordable and locally-made goods here than you will in Cusco. We snagged a couple of fedoras, hand-woven pillow covers, and a cozy blanket made of alpaca wool. For lunch, check out one of the many cafes that line the cobblestoned streets, and enjoy the people watching.
Tour Stop 3: Urubamba
Next on our tour through the Sacred Valley is Urubamba. I love Urubamba because it can provide a much-needed break from back-to-back ruin exploration. As the largest city in the Sacred Valley, Urubamba is surprisingly busy with plenty of streets to explore.
For lunch, check out the fusion restaurant Kampu. It has a diverse menu and incredibly friendly and helpful owners. We were looking for ATV providers in the Sacred Valley and had come up dry in our Internet search. Low and behold, the owner of Kampu knew a guy, who knew a guy…who knew a guy…and the next day we had an unforgettable ATV adventure in the Andes. It was a simple reminder that the Internet does not hold the answer to everything. Asking locals for suggestions and assistance will often result in a more unique and tailored experience.
I suggest visiting Urubamba if you’re craving a day of wandering city streets. We discovered cute cafes, local watering holes, markets, and spent the better part of the afternoon sharing a bottle of wine on a park bench in the town square just watching life go by.
Tour Stop 4: Ollantaytambo
Continuing along the main highway of the Sacred Valley will take you to Ollantaytambo – one of the most famous ruins and towns in the Sacred Valley. Ollantaytambo is also where you can catch a train to Aguascalientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. After our five day trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu (more on that later), we took the train from Aguascalientes back to Ollantaytambo. The basic train was spacious and comfortable. Of course, you can always opt for the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham, but we were wayyyyy too disheveled to be seen anywhere near anything coined luxurious.
Tour Stops 5 and 6: Maras and Moray
Heading back in the direction of Cusco lies Maras and Moray. Although they are close in proximity, the two couldn’t be more different!
Moray, like Pisac, is dominated by its agriculture terraces. Instead of being built into the mountainside, though, the Moray ruins sink into the ground in concentric circles. The further down you go, the cooler the temperatures get. Which has led many to believe Moray was built as a laboratory-of-sorts to test growing conditions of a variety of local crops.
Maras, or salineras as it is sometimes referred to, is comprised of ancient salt pans that are still in use today. You will find this pink Peruvian salt for sale in stores throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley. I highly recommend purchasing some to take home. It’ll elevate your meals as you reminisce about your Peru experience.
While you can visit both sites via a taxi or private ride back to Cusco, I would suggest looking into more adventurous means. ATVs, horseback riding, mountain biking, or even basic hiking will allow you to really experience the area – while getting a little adrenaline rush!
Tour Stop 7: Chinchero
Our last stop on our tour of Peru’s Sacred Valley is Chinchero. And, regrettably, this was the one site we weren’t able to squeeze in to our itinerary. Every time I read about the town or suggest others to visit, I’m filled with remorse. Next time, though. Next time.
Chinchero is known for its traditional Peruvian weaving and is home to The Interpretation Center of Andean Textiles. You can’t go to Chinchero without experiencing a weaving demonstration. The local women will show you how they wash, dry, and weave a variety of alpaca goods – from sweaters to blankets. It is a great opportunity to learn more about the Quechua people, their culture, and their trade.
When to visit
The best time to visit the Sacred Valley is during the dry season, from April to October. Visit during this time and you’ll have clear and pleasant days with cool evenings – perfect for exploring the ruins and nature.
Where to stay
You can visit each of these sites in a couple of day trips from Cusco. I recommend, though, staying in the Valley to experience the full beauty and culture of the area.
Our favorite place to stay is The Greenhouse B&B. It is centrally located in the Sacred Valley, in the little village of Huarán. It has just four rooms – all but ensuring a peaceful, tranquil place to lay your head after exploring. The owner, Kelly, is incredibly talented in the kitchen and will go out of her way to accommodate any need you have during your stay. But, don’t take it from me: The Greenhouse B&B has nearly 600 five-star reviews on TripAdvisor, and is rated the #1 Inn in the Sacred Valley.
The best way to get to the sites in the Sacred Valley is to hire a private driver for the day for around $70 USD. If you’re staying in the Sacred Valley, ask your host to arrange transportation from Cusco to your accommodations. Many of the private drivers in the area are also tour guides and can take you to any site within the Sacred Valley. A more reasonable option is to take a taxi to the Sacred Valley, which will set you back about $20. Fair warning, though: anything goes when it comes to driving in Peru, so prepare to feel like your driver is auditioning for the next Fast & Furious movie. Cue the Dramamine!
Boleto Turistico del Cusco
Most of the archeological sites and museums in the Sacred Valley and Cusco are included under one of four tiers of the Boleto Turistico del Cusco (Cusco Tourist Ticket). Instead of paying entrance fees at each attraction, you’ll purchase a Boleto Turistico that covers your entrance to a variety of sites. The only site on this list that is not covered by the tourist ticket is Maras, which has a separate entrance fee. Don’t let the Boleto Turistico confuse you like it did me. At your first stop (in this case, Sacsayhuamán), you’ll simply purchase the collective ticket at the entrance (just like you would for a single entrance ticket at a museum) and then use that same ticket at the other sites you plan to visit.
A note on altitude sickness
Altitude sickness, known as soroche in Peru, is a common ailment of travelers to Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Anytime you travel 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level, you’re susceptible to feeling the draining symptoms of altitude sickness. One of the reasons I recommend staying in the Sacred Valley is because of its slightly lower elevation compared to Cusco, making it easier for your body to acclimate to the altitude.
Even if you plan to stay in the Sacred Valley for much of your trip, I still recommend coming prepared to battle altitude sickness. Common practices, such as staying hydrated, avoiding overexertion, and eating carbohydrate-rich foods will help drastically. Luckily, you’re in the land of corn and quinoa, so carbs are not hard to come by!
Your doctor can also prescribe medicine that will help your body acclimate. Or, you can turn to the local medicine – coca tea or coca leaves. Most hotels and hostels will have both of these things available for guests and, while the verdict is out on if it really helps, there’s nothing like chewing on some coca leaves while being crammed in the back of a local colectivo. So just go with it and the novelty of the taste and feeling in your mouth will at least take your mind off feeling sick! Note: coca leaves and coca tea are legal in Peru, but don’t even think about bringing them home. They are illegal in most countries, including the U.S.
The majority of the Sacred Valley is often overlooked for its golden child, Machu Picchu. While none of the sites listed here can compare to the grandeur of the Lost City, embarking on a tour of the Sacred Valley allows you to dive deeper into the Quecha culture and experience the majesty of the Andes.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re crunched for time and have to choose between more time in Cusco or staying in the Sacred Valley, I’d go with the Valley every time. There, I said it.
Planning a trip to Peru? Don’t forget to check out our guide of the Top Five Cities to Visit in Peru.
P.S.: If you want to immerse yourself in Peru and the Sacred Valley before your trip, I recommend listening to Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. While definitely not a literary masterpiece, I found it to be a lovely retelling of one man’s journey to rediscover the Incan Empire and Machu Picchu, with references throughout on sites in the Sacred Valley.