Pisac is a small, quiet hamlet in a peaceful valley setting, surrounded by tall mountains and next to a sparkling river. Imposing Incan ruins and stone terraces, stand guard on the mountainside behind, overlooking the city. But until recent years, it has seen little action. Thanks to increased tourism to Peru, Pisac has become a bustling town on market days where tourists come by the thousands to shop. Hundreds of natives dressed in traditional attire sell and barter their colorful textiles, pottery, and thousands of other items.
Perhaps the most visited market in all of Peru, traditionally, it has been a Sunday event. Still, tour companies began bringing busloads of tourists on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so there were slightly smaller markets then. But there are quite a few vendors set up on the main square any day of the week.
The Sunday market begins to get crowded after the 11 am mass (in Quechua) is let out, with a procession led by the town’s mayor. The Plaza and its tall Pisonay tree center the action, but stalls are set up throughout the colonial center, crowding every street. The natives come from miles away, from remote mountain villages in their traditional dress, selling alpaca textiles, jewelry, leather, antiques, rugs, ceramics, and much more. Bargaining is a must. Prices tend to equal those in Cuzco, but the quality is much better. The markets usually wind down by the afternoon.
Standing high on a breath-shortening hill above the Colonia town, you will find the other half of Pisac. This Inca site is one of the most extensive ruins in the valley, the terraces rivaling those of Ollantaytambo or Machu Picchu. It does think that they once were a city combined with a fort, a ceremonial center, and an agricultural complex.
Much of the ruins consist of stone terracing that is most visible from the valley floor. The terraces on the far side are the most spectacular and lined in a semi-circular pattern.
The Intihuatana section is the most significant part and the ceremonial center. It holds the Solar watch, or the hitching post of the sun, which helped the Incas determine the growing season. You can also find the remnants of the palaces of the moon and stars and water channels that led to a ritual bathing site. The views are quite picturesque, including those of the layout of Colonial Pisac and the farms.
The Q’allaqasa, or military section, is connected to the last part through a claustrophobic stone tunnel. If you look across the gorge from this site, you will see hundreds of hollowed-out holes on the opposing cliffs.
These were Inca tombs that Huaqueros raided or grave robbers. The Q’allaqsa connects through a short path to Kanchiracay, the agricultural area, where buses and taxis back to Pisac await. There are two ways of getting to the ruins.
One is by taxi or bus, going the back way around the mountain for roughly 10 km/six miles. This trail will take you right to one of the main structures. There will still be some walking to do. The other way is by walking from behind the market.
You must pass the control booth and show your Tourist Ticket. From there, you head up the way most locals do. You follow the stone stairs and path until you come to what seem to be endless rows of agricultural terraces. It would help if you climbed up each of these (look for the small stone stairs that jut out from the walls).
A path will eventually form that snakes up the mountain to the right. Much of it goes straight up over stone stairs. The five km/three miles aren’t easy, and bringing a water bottle is necessary.
The climb up should take about an hour and a half. Although the altitude is minor than Cuzco, you still need to take it slow and be in relatively good shape. The ruins are open daily from 7 am-3:30 pm.
Serene, beautiful Urubamba is still one of the lesser-known Sacred Valley cities, but that is very likely to change soon. Many young, hip professionals looking to escape the noise and traffic of places like Cuzco and Lima have flocked to the area and are investing in hotels, country lodges, spas, and restaurants attracting internationally trained chefs.
There are few sites to make the stop worthwhile if you are not staying here. If you have the money to spend on some of the many outdoor activities offered, need the relaxation of a country spa, or need a break from the hustle and bustle of the rest of your travels, then Urubamba is the place.
There are few attractions other than the charm of the valley itself in Urubamba. The Plaza de Armas is quaint and quiet but is scenic, flanked by a church and colonial buildings filled with restaurants, Internet cafés, small shops, and Pisonay trees. The central fountain features a giant ear of maize.
Yucay is more of an extension of Urubamba than its town. It is just a few km away and home to several excellent lodging options. The Colonial church of Santiago Apostol has several oil paintings and alters of interest. You can sometimes find monks selling dairy products, ham, and eggs from nearby farms. All tourist facilities do locate in Urubamba.
For hiking from Cuzco and hikes in the Sacred Valley, you can take a tour with Kondor Path Tours. The one exception is the Inca Trail, where you must go with an agency. See the section on the Inca Trail and alternatives.
Choquequirao is becoming one of the most popular treks in the region. The town, which sits more than two miles above the Apurimac Gorge, was discovered by Hiram Bingham just before he stumbled upon Machu Picchu, then eventually lost it again. The five-day/ four-night trek passes by snow-covered mountain peaks and glaciers, the high jungle, little-known Incan buildings and ruins, raging rivers. There are several locations on the trip where there is an excellent chance to see the giant Andean condor.
A five- to seven-day circuit takes you to the top of the area’s highest peak, Ausangate (6,384 m/20,939 feet). The trip takes you to grasslands filled with herds of alpacas and small rural villages that have changed little since Incan times.
Rainbow Mountain Trek Full Day
The trek starts from the town of Tinqui, which is a 04-hour drive from Cuzco. Ausangate is the site of Qoyllority, the snow star festival held every May or June, which features a midnight trek to the glacier by thousands of Andean peoples. Other expeditions from Tinqui lead to Laguna Sibinacocha (seven-eight days) and Pitumarca (six days).
The way to Vilcabamba is not necessarily through Cuzco, but you will have to organize the trip from here. The mountain hideout was the last stronghold of the Incas until what killed Manco Inca here in 1544. It is what explorer Hiram Bingham was looking for and thought he had found when he discovered Machu Picchu. Also known as Espiritu Pampa, the ruins are 70 km/ 42 miles from the lowland town of Quillabamba. It has yet to be excavated on a large scale, so much of it is in pieces and overgrown. To visit here, one must hike for about a week round-trip.
Cuzco’s churches are some of the most spectacular in the New World. Many areas are more spectacular than the famed cathedrals of Europe and combine Andean elements that make them perhaps more interesting. Installing Christendom on a mass level first began here on the continent. To start this tour, walk or take a taxi to Plazoleta San Blas, where you will find the Iglesia San Blas. The church is best known for its mestizo-carved wooden pulpit.
Next, head up Carmen Alto and make a left down the street of 7 Angelitos and continue down 07 Culebras to the Plazuela Las Nazarenas, home to the MAP museum and the Hotel Monasterio. Here you will find the Convento Las Nazarenas, an 18th-century fresco inside. Note the mermaid motif on the doorway. From here, you will make your way down to the Plaza de Armas, passing the Museo Inka along the way.
The Cathedral, Cusco’s most spectacular colonial building, is next. The foundation is part of an Incan Palace. Across the Plaza and just up Mantos in the direction of the stone archway, you will find the Iglesia y Convento de la Merced on the left-hand side.
This church holds the remains of Gonzalo Pizarro and the two Almagros but is best known for its jeweled monstrance on display in the museum. Turning back to the Plaza and on the right side is the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus. Rivaling the Cathedral in grandeur, the twin towers and delicate murals make it perhaps the most photogenic. Just around the corner is the Iglesia y Convento de Santa Catalina.
In addition to the church itself, you can visit the site museum, which has an extensive collection of religious artifacts and art, perfect for this walk. So, after all of this, see, Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun, or Santo Domingo. Just head south through Loreto, the narrow alley with fine Incan stonework on each side.
You will run directly into Qoricancha, perhaps also into little girls in traditional dress holding sheep in hopes of a tip for a photo. After the picture and giving the girls more and more money until they are satisfied, you will enter the church/temple witnessing the combination of Incan and Spanish religious pride.
All of the following can be entered with the Tourist Ticket. There aren’t entrances to several of the sites, but there are roving inspectors to stamp your tickets. If you take a taxi or bus (take the Pisac bus and get off before Pisac) to the last site, you can easily walk the eight km/4.8 miles along the road and downhill back to Cuzco. At each site there are locals in their finest traditional clothes hoping to get paid for a photo or to sell their crafts.
Rarely disappoints. Located on a hill overlooking the city to the north, it is one of the Incas’ most impressive architectural feats. The enormous polygonal stone blocks are some of the finest stone masonries you will ever see.
Construction began in the 15th century and lasted for almost 100 years, requiring thousands of men to complete it. The limestone blocks, the largest weighing more than 300 tons, were brought from as far as 20 miles away.
It was used as both a fort and for religious and social activities. Much was torn down after the Conquest, to be used for churches and other structures, so only about 20% of the original stonework is left standing. One of the most noteworthy aspects of Sacsayhuaman is the three-tiered zigzag fortifications that served to defend against attackers. Rodadero Hill, opposite the main fortress, once had three large towers, but the Spanish tore them down. There was room in the ramparts for an estimated 5,000-10,000 warriors and their supplies, which should give you an idea of how colossal the site was.
Perhaps the bloodiest battle between the Incas and the Spanish occurred here. Two years after the Spanish took the city, Manco Inca led a rebellion and overtook the fort, using it as a base to carry out raids on the city below. With far greater forces than the Spanish, the Incas nearly recaptured the city as a whole. But in a desperate last battle in 1536 Juan Pizarro and 50 men on horseback stormed the fortress and killed thousands of men. It is said that giant Andean condors feasted on the dead and this is why Cuzco’s coat of arms features eight condors.
The site of Qenko is four km/2.4 miles from Cuzco, leading away from Sacsayhuaman, about a km away. The name also means zigzag, which relates to the crooked channels carved into the limestone that was likely used to prepare Chicha (the fermented beverage made from maize by the Inca) or quite possibly blood during ritual sacrifices. The shrine was used for ceremonies and had lightly etched images of a condor, puma, and llama. One of the most exciting features is the hollowed-out stone outcropping containing a small altar.
At Tambo Machay, water flows from a small, carved channel in the stone wall into a bit pool known as the Incas’ bath. The shrine does somewhat hide from the main road. The site does relate to the Incan water cult.
Puca Pucara is just across the road from Tambo Machay. The name, meaning red fort, reflects the pinkish rock built with the post. There isn’t much to see, except the beautiful views of the surrounding valley.
The agricultural terracing at Tipon, 25 km/15 miles from Cuzco, is some of the most impressive that the Incas built. You will also find a temple complex, irrigation canals, and an aqueduct. Many believe the site to be as extraordinary as the ruins at Pisac or Ollantaytambo.
Pikillacta is a pre-Incan site belonging to the Huari culture. The ceremonial center was built between 700 and 900 AD and comprised mainly two-level adobe buildings that have seen their share of wear.
Cusco-based adventure tour operators have developed several alternative trekking routes in response to desperate excess demand for the Inca Trail. The most popular of these is Choquequirao, and like the Inca Trail, this trek ends at a fabulous ancient citadel, although the hike is much more challenging.
The walks around the sacred glaciated mountain of Salcantay are also well developed and, to some extent, overlap and link with the Inca Trail itself. Much less walked but just as impressive is Ausangate, another snow-capped sacred peak (with a convenient loop trail) seen from Cusco, dominating the southern horizon on a clear day. A shorter and more popular trek is the route from Ollantaytambo to Lares.
An increasingly famous yet more challenging alternative to the Inca Trail, the trek to Choquequirao can be done with a four- to five-day trekking tour; these tours tend to depart from Cusco on demand and almost every day during the tourist season.
It is not as spectacular as Machu Picchu; it is still an impressive Inca citadel, whose name in Quechua means “Cradle of Gold,” partly due to its excellent and isolated surroundings. Sitting among fine terraces under the glacial peaks of the Salcantay Mountain range, less than half of the original remains of centuries of vegetation have been discovered. He was visiting here similarly to what Hiram Bingham may have experienced at Machu Picchu when he stumbled upon the site in 1911.
Located 1,750 m above the Apurimac River and 3,104 m above sea level in the Vilcabamba district, Choquequirao is believed to have been a rural retreat for the Inca emperor well as a ceremonial center. It was built at the end of the 15th century, on top of previous Huari constructions.
And it almost certainly had an important political, military, and economic role, controlling people and producing between the jungle communities of the Ashaninka, who still live further down the Apurimac River, and the Andean towns and villages of the Incas. It is easy to imagine that coca, macaw feathers, cassava, salt, and other Ashaninka products arrive in Cusco through Choquequirao.
Hiram Bingham arrived in Choquequirao in 1910 in his search for lost Inca cities. Regardless of the exquisite stonework of the ceremonial complex and the megalithic agricultural terraces, Bingham, like many archaeologists since, failed to see how strong the Choquequirao citadel was. Here, evidence from excavations suggests that a large population continuously inhabited Choquequirao and nearby settlements, even after the Spanish conquest.
The direct route from Capuliyoc walks down the royal trail, where, at 2,915m, there are fantastic views over the Apurimac valley. Preferably find a tour operator (KONDOR PATH TOURS). The trail descends almost 1500m from here to Playa Rosalina on the banks of the Apurimac River, where it is possible to camp the first night. The second day has the most strenuous uphill hike: about five hours to Marampata and a further two hours of hiking to conquer Choquequirao.
The site was a political and religious center consisting of nine main sectors connected by complex aqueducts, canals, and springs. Most of the buildings are located around the central ceremonial patio or plaza and do surround by well-preserved and stylish Inca agricultural terraces.
Alternatively, you can enter and exit by the same path or leave Choquequirao by a different route, more or less circular, following the path that leads directly down from the ruins to the river bridge in San Ignacio. In the small town of Huañipaca, it’s a further two to three hours of steep uphill walking from here. Alternatively, Choquequirao can be reached this way (it’s a quicker route than through Cachora), and, on a reverse circular route, you can exit through Cachora.
Salkanntay Trekking Tours
The NEVADO SALCANTAY (6271m) is one of the main Apus or gods of the Cusco region. Its majestic snow-capped peak dominates the landscape northwest of Cusco, making it a relatively peaceful trekking territory. The main route links the Machu Picchu train line and the Urubamba Valley with the less visited town of Mollepata in the Apurimac River basin. The trek usually lasts five to seven days. It offers more meaningful contact with the local population, a more comprehensive range of ecological niches to pass, and higher paths than the Inca Trail: a good, albeit challenging, option for more adventurous and experienced hikers who have already acclimatized.
Most people start on the Urubamba side of Machu Picchu at Km. 82, where the Inca Trail also begins. You can follow the path of the Inca Trail to the Cusichaca Valley, continuing straight uphill from the village of Huayllabamba, ignoring the main Inca Trail that turns west and right here to Abra de Warmiwañusca – Dead Woman’s Pass. Throughout the journey, the landscape and scenery are very similar to the Inca Trail. The trek is steep and challenging, up to the high pass at 5000m, which takes you along the southern edge of the Salcantay Glacier before descending directly south to the town of Mollepata.
The trek does increasingly approach in reverse, with guides and rented mules in Mollepata. There is less competition for them than on the Huayllabamba side; this route ends in the Urubamba Valley, between Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo. There are no official camping sites along the way, but there are plenty of good tent sites and several traditional stopping places.
There are several options for trekking in the Lares Valley, lasting from one to four days, all with splendid views of snow-capped peaks and green valleys. The walks allow you to experience the life of the people of the Andes, although it is becoming a more touristic version. You will pass through indigenous communities where you can stay with local families and shop for traditional handicrafts. The Lares hot springs are a relaxing end or start to any hike in the area.
MACHU PICCHU is one of the biggest tourist attractions in South America: beautiful stone architecture enhanced by the Incas’ exploitation of the local 250-million-year-old rocks of grayish-white granite with a high content of quartz, silica, and feldspar against a vast and picturesque backdrop of dark green forested mountains rising from the deep valleys of the Urubamba and its tributaries. Distant glacial peaks are dwarfed only by the vast sky.
The mysterious origins of the site are central to its enduring appeal. Still, even without knowing too much about its history or archaeology, or the details of each feature, it is entirely possible to enjoy a visit to Machu Picchu. For many, it is enough to absorb the mystical atmosphere.
The name Machu Picchu means Old or Ancestral Mountain. With many legends and theories surrounding the site’s position, most archaeologists agree that its sacred geography and astronomy were auspicious factors in helping the Inca Pachacutec decide to build this citadel here at 2,492m. It does believe that agricultural influences and religious markers prevailed. The site secured a decent supply of sacred coca and corn for the Inca nobles and priests in Cusco.
The Spanish extirpators never unearthed Machu Picchu, the site of Machu Picchu remained forgotten for many centuries, through the local population and settlers knew of its existence until it was discovered on July 24, 1911, by the American explorer Hiram Bingham. It was a fantastic find because the site was still relatively intact, without the usual ravages of Spanish idolaters. Accompanied by just two locals, Bingham left his base camp around 10 a.m. and crossed a bridge, and then climbed a steep incline until reaching the ridge around noon. After resting in a small hut, he received the hospitality of a local farmer who described an extensive system of terraces where they had found good fertile land for their crops. Bingham was led to the site by a local 11-year-old boy, Pablito Álvarez, but it didn’t take him long to realize that he had found some essential ancient Inca terraces, over a hundred of which had recently been cleared the forest for subsistence crops.
Although more than 1,000m lower than Cusco, Machu Picchu seems much higher; they did build on dizzying slopes overlooking a U-bend in the Urubamba River. More than a hundred flights of steep stone steps interconnect its palaces, temples, warehouses, and terraces. Stunning views dominate the valley below in both directions and extend to the snow-capped peaks around Salcantay. Wherever you find yourself in ruins, you can see spectacular terraces (some of which are once again being cultivated) cutting through ridiculous cliffs, transforming mountains into suspended gardens.
Although it would take a lot to detract from the incredible beauty and unsurpassed location of Machu Picchu, it is a highly supervised place. Site guards frequently blow whistles at visitors who have strayed from the recently instituted one-way routes around the ruins. The best way to enjoy the site, avoiding the guards’ wrath, is to hire a guide in advance, at the entrance to the venue, or next to the ticket office map to help you plan your itinerary.
Following the stairs that descend from the Intihuatana and passing through the Sacred Plaza towards the northern terraces, you will reach the Sacred Rock in a few minutes, below the access point to Huayna Picchu. Little is known about the Sacred Rock, a tablet of rock three meters high and seven meters wide that protrudes from the earth like a carved wall. But it is believed that it had a ritual function; its outline is similar to the Inca’s sacred mountain of Putukusi, which rises behind it in the east.
It is pretty easy to reach the site before sunrise, as the sun rarely rises over the mountains to cast its rays on Machu Picchu before 7 am. Head to Intihuatana (the “mooring post of the sun”) before sunrise for an unforgettable morning that will quickly make you forget the trek through the pre-dawn gloom or the tedious bus queues from Machu Picchu Pueblo.
The prominent peak of Huayna Picchu towers over the Urubamba Valley at the northern end of the Machu Picchu site. Any reasonably energetic person easily scales it with a head for heights. The record for this vigorous and rewarding climb is 22 minutes, but most people take at least an hour. From the summit, there is an impressive panorama. It is a great place to get an overview of the ruins suspended between the mountains among a stunning forested Andean landscape.
Temple of the Moon does hide in a cavern that magically hangs over the Urubamba River, some 400m below the pinnacle of Huayna Picchu. It’s at least another 45 minutes each way and not that easy, with rock stairs in places. Once you arrive at the temple, you will be rewarded with some of the best stonework in the entire complex. The level of skill suggests the importance of the site to the Incas.
The temple’s name comes from the fact that the moonlight often illuminates it, but some archaeologists believe that the structure did probably dedicated to the spirit of the mountain. The temple’s primary sector is located at the mouth of a natural cave, where five niches are found in an elaborate stone wall of white granite. In the center of the cave is a rock carved like a throne, next to which five cut steps lead to the darkest recesses, where more carved stones and stone walls, nowadays inaccessible, can be seen. Immediately in front of the cave is a small plaza with another carved stone throne and altar. Outside, steps on either side of the massive rock lead above the cave, from which an expansive stone-walled room can be seen running along one side of the cave rock. More buildings and beautiful stone shrines do find down a flight of steps from this complex part.
If you don’t have a ticket for Huayna Picchu, return to the guardian’s hut on the other side of the site and take the path below, which climbs gently for about forty minutes, to Intipunku, the main entrance to Machu-Picchu, from the main Inca Trail. This viewpoint offers an incredible view of the entire site, with a detailed picture of Huayna Picchu in the background.
Many people settle in the small tourist town of MACHU PICCHU PUEBLO (formerly known as Aguas Calientes), connected to Machu Picchu by bus, to visit the ruins more calmly or in more depth. Although its hot, humid climate and surrounding landscape of towering cloud forest-clad mountains make it a welcome change from Cusco, its unabashed commercialism is rather unattractive, despite the recent addition of a cultural sculpture trail around the place. The city’s explosive growth has reached the valley’s limits quite well; a minimum of flat land has not been built on or covered with concrete. Not surprisingly, this thriving city has a lively, bustling atmosphere and enough restaurants and bars to satisfy a small army of travelers.
Follow the upper part of Av Pachacutec, 400m from the central square, every day from 5 am to 8 pm S/20. Apart from Machu Picchu itself, the main attraction of these places is the natural thermal baths, which do especially enjoy after a few days on the Inca Trail or a hot afternoon in Machu Picchu, although they can be very crowded. If you head there before sunrise, you’ll enjoy cleaner water and only have to share it with a handful of locals.
A trail that ascends the sacred mountain of Putukusi begins just outside the city, about two hundred meters along the train tracks towards the ruins. The walk offers sensational views of the town and Machu Picchu, allowing an hour and a half each way. Note that this is not for the faint of heart as the trail is very steep in parts (rock stairs have replaced some sections) and very narrow. When it’s wet, the course is closed for safety reasons.
You travel to Machu Pichu from Poroy near Cusco, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo by train. You will get off at the Machu Picchu Pueblo station (Aguas Calientes), located in the closest town to the ruins. If you are doing the economical route, it is the Hydroelectric route; you can also take a shorter train trip to Machu Picchu Pueblo, although most people choose to walk along the tracks from kilometers 120 to 109.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo, bus tickets to the ruins can be purchased at a small painted kiosk on Av Pachacutec (daily 5 am-5 pm), next to the pedestrian bridge. Buses leave across the street at 5:20 am and continue approximately every 10 minutes based on demand until 5:00 pm. You may have to queue for a bus ride in the high season, especially if you’re trying to get to the site for sunrise.
From Machu Picchu Pueblo
Machu Picchu Pueblo can walk to the ruins (more than 2 hours up, 1 hour down, depending on physical condition). The steps (open from 5 am) are marked on the way to Machu Picchu, about 20 minutes from town.
From Santa Teresa
If you have taken the bus or colectivos from Cusco to Santa Teresa, or a minivan to the Hydroelectric plant, you can make the rest of the trip to Machu Picchu on foot. From Santa Teresa, it follows the Urubamba River upstream for 8 km (1 h 30 min–2 h) to the Hydroelectric plant. The buses also travel this route (20min; S/10). Continue upriver from here to an INC hut where you must register, then follow the path along the railway and river, 10–11 km (2–3 hrs) to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Avoid the tunnel near the end by going down to the road below. It is a spectacular hike, with good bird watching along the way; drink water.
A train ride through the Sacred Valley, flanked by towering mountains and offering glimpses of glittering snow-capped peaks, is one of the world’s most remarkable train journeys, enhanced by excellent service and comfortable, well-maintained carriages.
The most extensive train option Perurail offers departs from Poroy, a twenty-five-minute taxi ride from central Cusco (other travelers depart from the Urubamba and Ollantaytambo train stations). Before rapidly descending to the Urubamba valley through various routes, we cross the Anta plains and enter the Pomatales valley.
The pretty Ollantaytambo train station, the departure point for many train passengers these days, is right next to the river, which the train follows as it winds through the valley, stopping briefly at Km 104. Where the SHORT INCA TRAIL begins. The rial trail then follows the side of the Urubamba River as the valley becomes more closed, and the mountains become increasingly forested, steeper, and seemingly higher. The end of the line is the station at Machu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes), a busy tourist town that clusters in the valley a short bus ride from the ruins. From Cusco (Poroy Station), the trip lasts more than three hours; It is about an hour and a half from Ollantaytambo.
THE SACRED VALLEY, or Vilcamayo to the Incas, some 30 km northwest of Cusco, traces its sinuous and staggeringly beautiful course towards Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, and finally Machu Picchu, the most famous ruins in South America. South and a place that never fails to impress no matter how tired you are or how commercial it seems.
The steep river valley opens into a narrow but fertile alluvial plain, which the Incas heavily farmed. Several microclimates within 30 km of the valley allow for specializations in different fruits, corn, and local plants. The river itself begins in the high Andes south of Cusco as the Vilcanota River to the Sacred Valley; from here on downstream, it is known as the Urubamba River, a magnificent and energetic torrent empties directly into the jungle to merge with other vital headwaters of the Amazon.
Standing guard over the two ends of the Sacred Valley, the ancient Inca citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo rise above the impressive Vilcanota–Urubamba River and are among the most evocative ruins in Peru.
Pisac itself is a pretty little town with one of the best artisan markets in Peru, just 32 km northeast of Cusco, near the end of the wild run of the Vilcanota River from Urcos. Further downstream are the ancient towns of Calca, Yucay, and Urubamba, the latter of which has the most visitor facilities.
Like Pisac, it is developing a reputation as a meditation and spiritual center but somehow still retains its traditional Andean charm. As you move through the valley, the weather becomes milder, and you see pears, peaches, and cherries growing in abundance. In July and August, large piles of corn lie by the roadside, waiting to be used as cattle feed.
At the northern end of the Sacred Valley, even the magnificent old town of Ollantaytambo is overwhelmed by the astonishing temple-fortress that clings to the sheer cliffs at its side. The small town, although very touristy, is a charming place to spend time, with a good variety of restaurants, and is a convenient location in the heart of an excellent hiking country. It is an ideal base from which to take a tent and trek over one of the minor tributaries of the Urubamba or tackle one of the Salcantay trails.
Beyond Ollantaytambo, the route becomes too winding for any trail to follow. The valley closes around the train tracks, and the Urubamba River begins to rush and twist beneath Machu Picchu.
Once a vital Inca Trail snaked through the canyon entering the Sacred Valley at PISAC. The ruined citadel, located at the entrance to the ravine, controlled a strategic route that connected the Inca Empire with Paucartambo on the edge of the eastern jungle. Less than an hour from Cusco by bus.
The city is now most visited, apart from a look at the citadel, for its market. However, it has also attracted travelers interested in spiritual cleansing, including experiences with San Pedro and ayahuasca in recent years.
The main local fiesta, the Virgen del Carmen (around July 15-18), is an excellent alternative to Paucartambo’s simultaneous but more remote party, with processions, music, dance group, and the usual celebrations with firecrackers, and food stalls around the plaza.
From the highway & the bridge over the river, the center of activity in Pisac is around the Plaza Constitución. Here, you will find most restaurants and a few hotels, the market, and the town’s concrete church, Iglesia San Pedro Apóstol, named for Pisac’s patron saint.
The thriving market takes place in and around the town’s main square, where you can shop for hand-painted ceramic beads and find the occasional bargain. Several excellent artisan stalls are open daily, selling everything from baby alpaca blankets to sweaters. Still, as tourism has increased, the quality and authenticity of many of the products have decreased.
The best day to visit the market is Sunday when the locals descend from the surrounding mountain villages to sell their fresh produce. Plaza Constitución: Craft market every day from 8 am to 3 pm.
Access to the main road: every day from 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; trailhead in town daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. m. to 4 p.m. m. By car, it takes 20 minutes to travel. You can return the same way or go down the well-marked hiking trail to Pisac (45 minutes). Perched high above a valley floor mosaic-patterned with fields and bordered by centuries of terraces amid giant landslides, the fortress displays magnificent stonework: water pipes and steps.
They have been carved out of solid rock – and panoramas. It takes about an hour and a half to climb to the citadel via a steep and well-signposted path; only try if you are fit and have already adapted well to the altitude.
You can see the Sacred Valley to the north from the saddle on the hill: wide and flat at the base but rising skyward in green, rocky pinnacles. To the south, the valley closes, but the mountains continue, massive and steep, casting shadows on each other.
Below the saddle, a semicircle of buildings is gracefully set into a large natural balcony under row upon row of fine stone terraces believed to represent the wing of a partridge (Pisac meaning “partridge”). 3.5km by road northeast of Pisac.
At the top of the ruins, the citadel’s Temple of the Sun is equal to anything in Machu Picchu and more than makes up for the efforts of the steep climb (20-30 minutes from the parking lot). Reached by many of the dozens of paths that crisscrossed through the citadel, it does suspend in a flat mount on a large spur jutting north-south into the Sacred Valley.
The temple did build around an outcropping of volcanic rock, its peak carved into an Intihuatana, a “mooring post” for the sun. The mooring post itself is intriguing: the angles of its base suggest that it may have been used to keep track of essential stars or to calculate the change of seasons with the precision so critical to the smooth running of the Inca Empire. Above the temple are still more ruins, mostly unexcavated, and several ancient burial sites do hide among the higher crevasses and rock ledges.
Around late September and early October each year, local festivals and celebrations occur around Lamay and Calca, dating back to at least early Inca times. The central theme of the local ritual for the festival is water, and there are strong links to a mythical experience high in the hills and tied to the moving shadows of Nevado Pitusiray.
In early October, the mountain casts shadows on neighboring peaks and cliffs every year. For several days, the shadow of Pitusiray, considered a natural sundial, moves in a dynamic and prominent representation of a prostrate Inca who is jumped and transformed by a black puma.
The festival is held on the first Sunday of October in the Inca ruins of Urco, also dedicated to water, which is a 2 km walk above the town of Calca. For information about the festival, ask at the tourist information offices in Cusco.
First, travel by Kondor Path Tours bus between Pisac and Urubamba to Lamay; then, it’s a 2-hour uphill hike. Cross the bridge over the Vilcanota River to the city’s west and follow the 3km path to the ruins.
The first significant town between Pisac and Urubamba is Lamay, just 12 km from Pisac and the access point to the little-known and little-visited ruins of Huchuy Qosqo. The Huchuy Qosqo archaeological center does lay out on a natural platform carved into the hillside of the mountain at the heights of the Vilcanota river. Huchuy Qosqo means “Little Cusco” in Quechua; Due to the similarity of its layout with the city of Cusco, it did build by order of the ruler Viracocha.
It did then know as JAQUIJAHUANA (“place to see lightning” in Quechua), a name that becomes evident once the impressive panoramic views of the valley do contemplate from the natural viewpoint of the settlement. The most impressive are the Inca terraces, but a series of stone and adobe constructions can also be distinguished, including a Kallanka (great hall), some irrigation canals, and some restored below the leading site Qollqas (barns for storing meat and crops).
Note the two-tier construction, which helped keep the content fresh.
In Huchuy Qosqo, Gonzalo Pizarro -Francisco’s brother- found the mummified remains of Viracocha, which he had burned. However, the ashes were later collected and hidden by the Incas to be revered in secret. Pisac dies to locate 3.5 km west of Lamay, high up on the mountainside.
About halfway between Pisac and Urubamba is the town of Calca, notable only for its proximity to the famous thermal baths of Machacancha (daily 7 am to 6 pm; S/20), 7 km northeast of the town and arrives in a frequent combi or an hour and a half. Signposted halfway, located under the hanging glaciers of the Nevado Sahuasiray, the Incas favored this place for the fertility of its soil, and much corn cultivation can still be seen here. The baths consist of three indoor pools with an average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius.
Yucay has in Peruvian history when, under the Incas, Huayna Capac, father of Huascar and Atahualpa, had his palace here. You can admire the ruined but finely clad stone walls of another Inca palace (probably the country house of Sayri Tupac, though also associated with an Inca princess) in Plaza Manco II, one of two green spaces in the city on either side. Sides of the church. Several good lodges are here if you prefer a quieter setting than bustling Urubamba. The small town of Yucay, 3.5 km east of Urubamba
About 80 km from Cusco via Pisac or about 60 km via Chinchero, URUBAMBA is a short drive down the main road from Yucay’s Plaza Manco II, and it is here that the Vilcanota River becomes the Urubamba River (although many people still refer to this section as the Vilcanota). Although it has little apparent historical interest, the city has good facilities.
It does often used as a base for day trips to Machu Picchu in preference to the much more touristy Ollantaytambo just up the valley. It is attractively situated in the shadow of the beautiful, albeit dwindling, Chicon and Pumahuanca glaciers. On weekends there is a large market in Jirón Palacio. On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, the new Farmers Market does pack with cattle of all shapes and sizes being traded, an event that often spills onto the main road.
The quiet and attractive Plaza de Armas has palm and pine trees surrounded by lovely ornamental gardens. At the heart of the plaza is a small fountain topped by a sculpture of a corn plant, but it all goes back to the red sandstone Iglesia San Pedro, with its columns stacked beneath two small bell towers. The frescoed interior of the church has a sizeable three-tiered gold leaf altar, and at noon light streams in through the glass-topped dome.
Due to its convenient location and ample facilities, Urubamba is an ideal base to explore the mountains and lower hills around the Sacred Valley, full of great splendor sites.
The eastern side of the valley does form by the Cordillera Urubamba, a series of snow-capped peaks dominated by the summits of Chicon and Verónica. Many of the ravines can be walked alone or with local guides (found only through the leading hotels and lodges), and on the walk from town, you can enjoy great views of Chicon.
An impressive Inca site, part agricultural and part ceremonial center, Moray is located about 5 km west of the town of Maras on the side of the Chinchero River, within a two to three-hour walk from Urubamba.
The ruins are deep, bowl-shaped depressions in the earth. The largest comprises seven concentric circular stone terraces, facing inward and tapering in a radius like a multi-layered roulette wheel.
Hike 5 km northeast of Moray and 4 km north of Maras – The Salinas de Maras are still in use after more than four hundred years, and these days are a popular stop on many tours of the Sacred Valley so arrive come early to avoid the crowds.
If you are on foot, cross the river over the pedestrian bridge in Maras-Salt Mines, turn right, then 100m downstream along the river bank, turn left, past the cemetery, and up the canyon along the salt stream.
After this, you cross the creek and follow the path cut into the cliff to reach the salt flats, soon visible if there is still considerable uphill walking. The trail offers spectacular views of the valley and mountains, while the Inca salt flats sit gracefully against an imposing mountainous backdrop. Bags of pink salt do sell as souvenirs.
A scenic trail (approximately an hour’s walk) leads through the salt flats and to the Urubamba River, where there is a pedestrian bridge that crosses to the town of Tarabamba, which is on the way to Urubamba (6 km) or Ollantaytambo; buses run every twenty minutes or so in both directions.
CHINCHERO (“Pueblo del Arco Iris”), an old colonial settlement with a large market, is located at 3762 m above sea level, 28 km (40 min) northwest of Cusco and off the main road, overlooking the Sacred Valley, with the Vilcabamba mountain range and the snowy peak. Salcantay peak dominates the horizon to the west.
The bus ride takes you to the Pampa de Anta, once a large lake but now a relatively dry pasture, surrounded by the snow-capped Nevado. The town itself is a small, rustic place, where the local women, who crowd the main square during the market, still wear traditional dress “built mainly of stone and adobe.”
The town blends in perfectly with the magnificent display of Inca architecture, megalithic ruins and rock carvings, and relics of Inca veneration of nature deities. The best time to visit is September 8 for the lively traditional festival. The Sunday morning market in the lower part of town, reached via Calle Manco II, is smaller and less touristy than the one in Pisac but has attractive local handicrafts for sale, textiles in particular.
Uphill from the traditional Pisac Market, along the cobblestone streets and steps, you will find a large plaza, which may have been the original Inca market.
It is delimited on one side by an impressive wall reminiscent of the walls of Sacsayhuaman, although not as solid: it did also build on three levels, and ten classic trapezoidal Inca niches can be seen on its surface.
On the western perimeter of the plaza, the raised Inca masonry is dominated by a carved stone throne, near which are formations of pumas and monkeys. There is also a tiny two-room site museum that exhibits historical artifacts and some paintings from Cuzco.
Chinchero’s adobe colonial church dates back to the 17th century, built on an Inca temple or palace. Perhaps it belonged to the Inca Emperor Tupac Yupanqui. He particularly favored Chinchero as a seaside resort outside the city; aqueducts and terraces were built under his command, many of which are still in use.
The church itself has frescoes; they are lovely and evoke the colonial past. Many belong to the Escuela Cuzqueña and the celebrated local artist Mateo Cuihuanito, the most interesting depicting the forces led by the local chief Pumacahua against the rebel Tupac Amaru II in the late 18th century. Although well-preserved Inca stonework, the official archaeological complex does locate behind the church.
The quaint little town of OLLANTAYTAMBO, with its cobblestone streets and old irrigation canals, serves as an excellent base for hiking and biking. Going down the valley from Urubamba, the river flows gently between a series of impressive Inca terraces that gradually decrease in size. The railway line reappears just before the town, and the path climbs a small hill to an old square.
As one of the tourist hotspots in the region and a popular overnight stop on the way to Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo can be very crowded in the high season, making it difficult to escape the crowds of other travelers.
At heart, however, it is a small but still very traditional settlement, which is worth enjoying for a few days, especially during its colorful festivals, when local folk dances take place in the main square.
Many women still wear traditional clothing. It is common to see them gathering in the plaza in their intricately woven manta shawls, black and red skirts with colorful zig-zag patterns, and inverted red and black hats.
Beyond Ollantaytambo, the Sacred Valley becomes a mighty subtropical river, surrounded by imposing mountains and dominated by the snow-capped peak of Salcantay; the city is also a popular base for rafting trips.
The Ollantaytambo valley was occupied by a series of pre-Inca cultures, notably the Chanapata (800–300 BC), the Qotacalla (500–900 AD), and the Killke (900–1420 AD). The Incas dominated only until the year 1530, when the Spanish arrived.
Legend has it that OLLANTAY was a rebel Inca general who took up arms against Pachacutec for the affections of the Inca Lord’s daughter, the Nusta Cusi Collyu.
More prosaically, historical evidence shows that a 14 km canal, which still feeds the town today, was built to bring water from Laguna de Yanacocha, which was probably Pachacutec’s private property. The later Inca Huayna Capac is believed responsible for the trapezoidal Maynyaraqui plaza and the largely unfinished but impressive megalithic temples.
Ollantaytambo’s vibrant fiestas are a sight to behold, particularly the Fiesta de la Cruz, Corpus Christi, and Ollantaytambo Raymi (usually the Sunday after Cusco’s Inti Raymi). At Christmas, when locals dress decorative flowers and grasses on their hats, The Fiesta del Señor de Choquequilla celebrates the patron saint of Ollantaytambo for several days coinciding with Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter).
It’s the usual heady mix of indigenous and Catholic customs involving non-stop dancing, elaborate costumes, processions, and general parties. On the Fiesta de Reyes, around January 6, there is a solemn procession around the city of the three Niños Reyes (Children Kings) – sacred Inca images – one of which is brought from the holy site of Marcaquocha, about 10 km away in the Patacancha Valley, the day before.
Ollantaytambo was built as an Inca administrative center. It is one of the few surviving examples of an Inca grid system, with a plan that can be seen from vantage points high up, especially from the hill in front of the fortress.
An incredibly productive sector of the Urubamba Valley, at 2,800 m above sea level and with comfortable temperatures of 11 to 23 °C (52 to 73 °F), good alluvial soils and water resources, this area was also the gateway to Antisuyo (the Amazonian corner of the Inca Empire) and center for the collection of tributes from the surrounding valleys.
As strategic protection for the entrance to the lower Urubamba Valley and an alternative entrance to the Amazon through the Pantiacolla Pass, this was the only Inca stronghold to overcome persistent Spanish attacks.
The Plaza de Armas of Ollantaytambo is the center of civic life. The alleys leading from here line with stone water channels, which are still very useful during the rainy season. They carry the orderly gushing streams away from the city and into the Urubamba River.
Downhill from the main square, just across the Patacancha River, is the old Inca Plaza Mañya Raquy, dominated by the fortress. Market stalls fill the plaza, plus a few artisan shops and nearby cafes, mainly in front of the beautiful little church, the Templo de Santiago Apóstol. Built-in 1620, it has an almost Inca-style stone belfry containing two large bells supported by ancient wood. The church’s main entrance does surround by a simple but attractive mestizo floral relief.
As you ascend through the fortress, the solid stone terraces and natural contours of the cliff face remain frighteningly impressive. Above them, vast blocks of red granite mark the unfinished Temple of the Sun near the top, where, according to legend, the mummified internal organs of the Incas were buried.
A dangerous path leads from this upper level around the cliff to a large sector of agricultural terraces that follows the Patacancha River uphill. From above, you can see down to the great Inca Plaza and the impressive stone aqueducts that carried the water supply.
The Inca terraces of Mollequasa look like a pyramid when viewed from across the Urubamba Valley (a twenty-minute walk down the track from the train station).
Ollantaytambo does surround by impressive landscapes and mountain peaks that rise like skyscrapers and offers many exciting options for day trips.
It’s easy enough to pick a path that leads into the eastern hills and see where you get to, remembering that you’ll need a tent or have to return to town by nightfall. Either route will be a good walk, giving you close contact with the local people in their gardens. There are also several organized tours available from Ollantaytambo and agents in Cusco.
The area around Ollantaytambo is perfect for trekking in the hills. Here you can take walks from half a day to a week or more; they all have Inca ruins along the way. For a half or full-day, try going up the Patacancha River from the town to the little-visited Inca ruins of Pumamarca, to the left of the river where the Yuramayu River joins the Patacancha under the shadows of Nevado Helancoma.
The main road follows the right bank of the Patacancha River through several small peasant villages: Pallata, Colqueracay, Marcacocha, Huilloc, and Patacancha, before crossing the pass, with the Nevado Colque Cruz on the right-hand side. It then follows the Huacahuasi and Tropoche rivers to the valley and the community of Lares, just before which there are some Inca baths.
Beyond the town are several more ruins on the way to Ampares, from where you can walk back to Urubamba, travel by road back to Cusco, or head towards Quillabamba. It’s at least a two-day trek from Ollantaytambo to Ampares, and you’ll need camping gear and food, as there are no facilities. Other good day hikes are to Intihuatana, while what can also start multi-day hikes nearby Chilca (Km 77).
The Cachiqata Inca quarries can be reached in three hours on horseback with a tour company from Cusco or Ollantaytambo like KONDOR PATH TOURS. It is also possible to camp here and visit the site of an Inca portal or Intihuatana “Wayracpunko.” There are also the closest ruins of Pinkuylluna, less than an hour on horseback, or the Inca ruins of Pumamarca half a day away.
Most options include a shuttle to the top of the mountain and a quick ride down. The most popular route is the 50km, 1,500m switchback descent from the dramatic pass and continental divide at Abra Málaga (en route to Paucartambo and the hydroelectric station) to Ollantaytambo. Still, there are plenty of thrills coming down a similar path. But off-road. You can even combine a trail with a visit to the traditional town of Patacancha and a weaving workshop.
High up on the other side of the Patacancha River, behind Ollantaytambo, are rows of ruined Pinkuylluna buildings that were initially thought to have been prisons but are now considered likely to have been granaries. Against these, it is pretty easy to make out a gigantic, grumpy-looking profile of a face carved into the rock, possibly an Inca sculpture of Wiraccochan, the mythical messenger of Viracocha, Peru’s greatest creator-God.
According to the stories of the 16th and 17th centuries, such an image was carved once, depicting him as a man of great authority; the frown of this particular image certainly implies presence, and this part of the mountain was also known as Wiraccochan Orcco (“Viracocha’s messenger’s peak”).
From here, looking back towards the main fortress of Ollantaytambo, it is possible to see the mountain, the rocks, and the terraces forming the image of a mother llama with a young llama, apparently representing the Catachillay myth, which is related to the cycle of water and milk. Way. The Sacred Valley of the Incas – Myths and Symbols.
These sites are a brisk day’s hike from Cusco, but you’ll probably want to dedicate a whole day to Sacsayhuaman and leave the rest until you’re more adapted to the thin air.
Sacsayhuaman Although it seems relatively close to the center of Cusco, it is a rather steep 40-minute, 1km climb to the Sacsayhuaman ruins from the Plaza de Armas. The easiest route is to C Sweden, then right along Wayna Pata’s narrow cobbled street to Pumacurcu, which climbs steeply, offering superb city views.
It’s just another 10-minute walk, following the path to the ruins. By now, you have passed the urbanized areas of Cusco and are walking through the countryside. And there is a well-trodden path and a rough stairway that leads you right into the heart of the megalithic fortress.
An easy 20-minute walk from Sacsayhuaman; head towards the Cusco-Pisac highway down a path from the guardian’s hut on the northeast edge of Sacsayhuaman. Qenko is just across the main road; The route is straightforward and signposted.
Walk for 20 minutes uphill and through the trees above Qenko. Walk right of the small hill, along the path (keeping the houses on your right), then out into the fields and turn right. It is also possible to walk to the Plaza de Armas from nearby Cusilluchayoc via interconnecting trails that initially pass through some new neighborhoods on the main Cusco-Pisac highway and then descend to San Blas.
Chakan can be reached safely, though not easily, in the dry season (May-September) by following the main road from the slider at Sacsayhuaman for about 50 minutes; turn left onto the dirt road, walk about 30 minutes or so until you see a small manufactured lagoon on your left. Continue on the road for another 5 to 10 minutes; you will see a path on your left. Follow this road for about 15 minutes until you reach Chakan.
A challenging hike leads from Chakan up the Tica-Tica creek (stay on the right side of the creek and stay well above it) to Quispe Huara. You need a local map or guide to find your way with certainty.
Puca Pucara Between one and two hours of cross-country walking, uphill from Sacsayhuaman -4 km as the condor flies- and Qenko (longer if you follow the winding main road).
Tambomachay walks for less than 15 minutes along a marked trail that leaves the main road north of Puca Pucara.