Once the center of the Inca Empire, the town of Cuzco is an essential destination for anyone traveling to Peru. It’s a stunning mountain setting, vibrant festivals and artistic community make it a mecca for adventurous tourists.
It’s also the most convenient base for seeing Machu Picchu, the main reason why millions of tourists pass through Cuzco each year. But if you travel all the way there only to see Machu Picchu, you’ll be missing out on many of the lesser-known, yet equally captivating, Inca ruins that fill the Sacred Valley.
While perhaps not as magnificent in scale as Machu Picchu, The Sacred Valley contains remnants of settlements that were just as important to the Inca empire. The valley was a lush agricultural area that supplied the region with abundant crops of corn, maize, fruits, and vegetables.
It was essential to the existence of the Incas who lived not only in the valley but along the Inca trail and at Machu Picchu. Evidence of their reliance on abundant crops, as well as the incredible display of human strength shown in the construction of elaborate fortresses and farming systems, can be seen throughout the surrounding towns of Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chincheros, and Sacsayhuaman.
The best way to see the Sacred Valley is by bus, and there are dozens of tour companies in Cuzco waiting to cart you around to the top spots. These tours are designed to shuttle you through the sites as quickly as possible on a day trip lasting around 8 hours.
A better way to see as much as possible is by booking a private tour guide and taking a couple of days to explore at your leisure. You’ll see much more than you would on a bus tour and you’ll be able to stop at sites that are not included in the usual itinerary.
For convenience sake, you’ll want to pick up a tourist pass called the Boleto Turístico del Cusco that covers the most important of the archeological sites, so you won’t have to worry about paying an entrance fee at each stop. Just show the card to gain access.
Do keep in mind that these places are located high up in the Andes, some as high as 13,000 ft of elevation, so altitude sickness might come into play. Be sure to drink plenty of water and take frequent breaks, especially while hiking in to the sites. Some of them require climbing hundreds of stairs or hiking a mile or more round trip.
The inhabitants of these ancient civilizations adapted to the incredibly steep terrain by building impressive terraces on which to plant their crops. One of the best places to see the terracing is at the ruins of Pisac. Just outside the small town, perched high up on the mountainside, amidst fields and broad rings of terracing is the Pisac citadel, which was used to guard trade routes between important cities. The vast expanse of terracing is carved directly into the solid rock face of the mountain and is a marvel in itself. From the very top, there is a panoramic view of the entire valley. It may not seem like it from this vantage point, but Pisac is quite a bit bigger than Machu Picchu, stretching for over a mile along the mountain ridge, and encompasses a number of other smaller ruins along the path, which you can hike to if you want.
Down in the valley, you’ll find the town of Pisac, where a lively market takes place every Sunday. Unfortunately, the market often draws large crowds to this picturesque village, turning it into a not so fun place to be, especially when it’s hot out. A smaller version of the market crops up a couple other days of the week, as well, so if you want to check it out, I’d recommend a weekday over the weekend. Despite the growing number of tourists, the market is still a main outlet for locals to barter and sell vegetables from their farms, but these days you’ll find more selling of handicrafts to the throngs of tourists.
Ollantaytambo is a small town located on the west end of the Sacred Valley that was built on top of the original Inca foundations. The ruins at Ollantaytambo center primarily around religion and many of the structures contain elaborate religious symbolism. The ruins here are an impressive feat of human architecture. The stones that were used for building were brought over from a quarry on the opposite side of the mountain by manpower alone.
The ruins contain the steep terraces found at other sites, which provide protection for the temple that is located at the top of the site. The temple features many symbols of worship and astronomical observations. One of the main attractions is the Princess’s Bath, which has an impressive system that the princess could use to stop the flow of water as she was bathing. You’ll see plenty of people eagerly sticking their hands in the fountain to try this out.
In the town of Chincheros, you can visit the Awamaki Weaving Project, where local female artisans demonstrate the techniques they use for weaving the colorful handicrafts you’ve surely noticed for sale everywhere. The weaving co-op is an effort to preserve these ancient techniques by passing them on to new generations.
The village of Chincheros also contains a colonial church built in the early seventeenth century. The walls and ceilings of the church are covered with floral and religious symbols. There is a Sunday market located here as well that isn’t as frequented by tourists than the one in Pisac, so if you want to pick up some souvenirs or buy local handicrafts, this is the better place to do it.
Sacsaymuaman, the House of the Sun, is an incredible Inca fortress, overlooking Cuzco. The massive blocks of rock used to form the walls of the fortress each weigh over 300 tons and fit together perfectly. The scale of such a project is almost incomprehensible in a time when only sheer manpower was available to move the rock from its original location, up to 20 miles away.
A few other smaller examples of Inca construction can be found along the road from Cuzco to Pisac. Q’enko (a carved rock design in the shape of a zigzag that had spiritual meaning), Puca Pucara (a well-placed guard post along the Inca trade route) and Tambomachay (Inca bath houses) are all worth a quick stop on your tour.
If you choose to hike the Inca trail to get to Machu Picchu, you’ll pass many of these Inca ruins, since they are located along the trail. It’s a 26-mile undertaking, but provides the most comprehensive overview of the Sacred Valley, culminating in the grandest of them all, Machu Picchu. The Incas were certainly an industrious people and seeing the civilizations they built with their hands is truly an incredible experience.
Have you been to the Sacred Valley? Tell us what you found inspiring about the area.
Bio: Laura Lynch is the writer and creator of the travel blog, Savored Journeys. She caught the travel bug over 20 years ago and has been traveling the world ever since. She has an insatiable appetite for culinary travel and she tells of the food and wine adventures she and her husband Nick have had around the world on her blog.