Cusco and the Sacred Valley are top-rated destinations throughout Peru, and for a good reason. We found these places so captivating that we couldn’t resist exploring as many sites as possible and experiencing the best this region offers.
Undoubtedly, the Sacred Valley should be included in your Peru travel plans.
The Sacred Valley holds mysteries, a rich Inca history, innumerable ruins, stunning stone terraces, and dazzling natural landscapes sculpted by the Urubamba River. Its beauty is truly incomparable.
The combination of the engineering marvels of the Inca civilization, its historical importance, and the stunning landscapes have captivated travelers for decades.
One of the main reasons why the Sacred Valley and Cusco are on the wish list of all travelers is their proximity to the iconic Peruvian site, Machu Picchu, as well as the starting points of some of the most magnificent hikes in the world . . . .
Whether planning to do the legendary Inca Trail Route to Machu Picchu or embark on the equally beautiful Salkantay Hike with its spectacular views, Cusco and the Sacred Valley is the perfect starting point before and after your adventures.
This valley, spanning approximately 100 kilometers, is a destination that cannot be overlooked.
After having enough time to explore the Sacred Valley, we are excited to share our knowledge with you, our readers, so you can start planning your trip.
This Sacred Valley travel guide includes practical tips and, most importantly, highlights the best attractions and activities to make the most of your visit.
Cusco is considered by most travelers as the ideal place to stay, thanks to its excellent tourist infrastructure and unique charm.
Cusco is an important tourist center for all those who visit Peru. The city itself is fascinating, but when you embark on one of the many day trips from Cusco, you appreciate the beauty of this ancient Inca region.
It is no secret that Peru, like many other South American countries, faces significant corruption problems. However, this problem is particularly evident in Cusco, which generates millions of dollars annually through tourism. We couldn’t help but wonder where all the money would stop.
Of course, no investment is made in improving infrastructure or maintaining public spaces. It may sound naïve, but we believe that substantial tourism revenues should be visible in some way and contribute to the prosperity of local communities.
However, putting this concern aside and focusing on the positive side, the history, and architecture, we must admit that Cusco has something captivating.
The historic center of Cusco is full of churches, narrow cobbled streets, and wide squares. The city is cataloged as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, many Inca buildings were destroyed by Spaniards who arrived in the 16th century and built churches and houses in European and colonial styles.
Interestingly, the few remaining structures from the Inca era have withstood several devastating earthquakes. At the same time, more recent Spanish constructions had to be rebuilt repeatedly, as they were not as resilient.
Cusco is not only impressive from an architectural point of view but also has enormous historical importance. It was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th century.
The Incas ruled their vast empire from this place, and Cusco flourished during their reign. Many remarkable structures were erected, and numerous legends of that time still reverberate today.
One such legend suggests that the city was designed in the shape of a puma, an animal sacred to the Incas.
To put this legend to the test, before venturing into exploring the Sacred Valley, the easiest way is to climb a hill that offers panoramic views of the city and check for yourself if it is true.
A hundred-kilometer valley stretches from the Pisac Ruins and the Pisac Village (20 kilometers from Cusco) to the citadel of Machu Picchu.
In Inca times, the valley was not only an essential area for building several checkpoints (now ruins or archaeological sites) and the main route from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
But thanks to stable year-round temperatures, a sustained water source (from the Urubamba River), and two distinct seasons, the rainy and dry seasons, the area was (and remains) perfect for agriculture.
The Incas were experts in plant cultivation, and traveling through the valley, one can notice agricultural terraces which, to us, are beautiful to contemplate but which the local people still use to grow their crops.
Nowadays, visiting the Sacred Valley is mainly about admiring the fruits of the labor of the Inca civilization, combined with views of deep valleys, mountainous landscapes, and snow-capped peaks in the distance.
When exploring the Sacred Valley, you should be prepared for one thing: you will see a lot of ruins and terraces.
Honestly, we never tired of them and always looked forward to seeing new ruins, even after having visited some well-known sites in the country, like the enormous walled city of Kuelap in northern Peru or the most significant pre-Columbian adobe city in America of the South, Chan Chan, to mention a few.
Here is a list of the main places and attractions you should not miss on your tour of the Sacred Valley.
One of our favorite archaeological gems of the Sacred Valley was the Pisac Ruins.
The Inca ruins are located at the top of a hill above the Pueblo de Pisac: the central part is on the top itself, but other ancient buildings or sometimes heaps of stones are scattered through the grass-covered ground.
Due to its location at the top, the primary purpose of the Pisac Ruins was to protect Cusco from possible attacks.
There are two ways to visit the Pisac Ruins, by car or on foot. If you have half a day and are in good physical shape, we strongly recommend the second option, which is very picturesque.
But first, you must get to Pisac. There is a road that leads directly to the entrance of the archaeological site, so you can take a tour from Cusco (tours usually combine several places, including Pisac, and cost around $25 when booked in Cusco), take a taxi from Cusco or arrive in a minivan to the village of Pisac and from there take a taxi to the gate.
Since parts of the ruins are all along the road leading to Pisac, you won’t be able to see everything, just the busiest section of ruins.
Instead of traveling by car, we decided to hike from Pisac village to the Pisac Ruins.
The whole trail climbs uphill, so it is an excellent way to prepare for other hikes in the high mountains of the Andes. The distance from the village to the highest point of the ruins is 4 km and should take approximately two hours each way.
Of course, you can drive to the entrance and walk downhill. When traveling on this trail, you will enjoy beautiful views, an almost abandoned hike, and more ruins.
The village of Pisac is famous for its traditional markets, so if you like shopping, you should not forget to stop here.
It is easy to get to Pisac independently. Take a collective on Puputi Street in Cusco for S/5. The vans leave when they are full from 7 AM.
To return to Cusco, take a regular minivan on the main road through Pisac.
There is a high probability that you will visit Ollantaytambo more than once during your stay in Cusco, as most travelers take the train to Aguas Calientes from here, a city that serves as a base for visiting Machu Picchu.
But there is another reason to visit Ollantaytambo separately: the Ollantaytambo Ruins.
An ancient Inca administrative center and a checkpoint for entry into the Inca Empire’s Amazon region are approximately two hours from Cusco.
For this reason, it is best to combine this site with other attractions along the way.
The Ollantaytambo Ruins are a vast site characterized by an extensive set of agricultural terraces that are higher and wider than typical Inca terraces.
Another distinctive element is the ancient warehouses that can be seen from the ruins when looking across the valley, as well as the Sun Temple that rises above.
The most fantastic sensation is when you find yourself on top of the ruins, look across the valley, and realize that all the large boulders come from the quarry on the other side of the valley, approximately 5 kilometers away.
But the most impactful moment comes when you realize that the Incas did not use animals or wheels to move the stones from place to place; everything was created through human labor and power.
You can reach Ollantaytambo by bus from Cusco for S/10 from Calle Grau. We visited these ruins as part of a tour that included all the sites mentioned below, including Pisac (which we visited separately).
The tour costs S/80 per person and includes lunch.
Well, at these heights, you’ve probably seen so many ruins you can’t tell one from another. But we can promise you will remember Moray Ruins because they look different.
Like an Inca theater, scientists thought the Incas probably staged theatrical performances here when they discovered the Moray Ruins.
Although the Moray Ruins terraces are circular, they had a different purpose.
It is no secret that the Incas were geniuses at agriculture and plant cultivation, and today it is believed that they used these ruins as an agricultural laboratory.
Each level of the terraces has a different temperature and a different microclimate, and the design and orientation to the sun suggest that the Incas experimented with plants and crops here.
Experiments have also shown that the soil comes from several regions of Peru, and although this region suffers flooding during the rainy season, the Moray Ruins never flood. A pretty exciting data?
Otherwise, it would be best to take a minivan from Cusco to the village of Maras for S/7; it takes approximately one hour. From here, you should take a taxi for S/50 (this price usually includes a stop at the Maras Salt Flats).
When you walk towards the main square of Cusco and look up, you will see a large white sculpture of Jesus Christ.
The most important Inca ruins of Cusco, Sacsayhuaman, are at the same height but just a little to your left.
It is a favorite trip for people staying in the city for just a day or two, as it is easily accessible by public transport (take a collective to Cristo Blanco or a minivan to Pisac and ask to be dropped off at Sacsayhuaman) or walking downhill up from downtown for approximately half an hour.
By the way, the correct pronunciation is similar to ‘Sexy Woman. ‘
Sacsayhuaman was a fortress, and even the Spaniards who arrived in Cusco in the 16th century admired the precise Inca stone construction.
To this day, some of the stones are so fitted together that not even a piece of paper fits between them.
There are three other ruins less than 8 kilometers from Cusco. Although Sacsayhuaman is the most impressive, you can take a bus to Pisac and ask the driver to drop you off at Cusco’s furthest ruin, Tambomachay, and from there, walk back to the city, passing through Qenqo, Pukapukara, and Sacsayhuaman.
As most places near Cusco are at great altitudes, the city is almost 3400 meters above sea level, so visiting the nearby ruins is perfect for proper acclimatization.
A beautiful Adobe church and a colorful market will tell you; you are near the Chinchero Ruins. At these heights, you may have realized that there is too much to do in the Sacred Valley, which probably makes the site of Chinchero go a bit unnoticed.
The village of Chinchero and these ruins are usually visited during Sacred Valley tours from Cusco and are often ignored by independent travelers due to the lack of reliable public transportation here.
The Chinchero ruins consist of a series of tiered terraces built for agriculture; some are still used today.
The soil of Chinchero is fertile and one of the best in the Sacred Valley for growing potatoes.
However, the main reason Inca Tupac, son of the famous Pachacútec, used Chinchero was quite different. He maintained it as a kind of retreat in the countryside: a place to relax and rally forces to rule the Inca Empire.
We can’t blame him because the surroundings of Chinchero couldn’t be better.
When the weather is perfect (as during our visit), you can see many high mountains, including one of the most significant, the Salkantay.
The only place we visited in the Sacred Valley that is not a ruin is the salt mines at Maras, but it has a connection with the Incas, who used this place to extract salt over 500 years ago.
Today, thousands of salt ponds still belong to hundreds of nearby families.
Traditionally, salt mines were available to anyone who wanted to harvest salt; the person had to be a community member, and the size of the pool he received depended on the size of the family.
Although salt mines are still in use and it is possible to buy salt in nearby shops, tourism has become the primary source of income.
The Tourist Ticket is not valid here, and an entrance fee of S/15 has to be paid.
Salt harvesting can only occur during the dry season, so when we visited in mid-November, no people were working, but the view of the thousands of salt ponds was incredible.
You certainly couldn’t think that a tourist attraction of such importance would be free.
Technically, upon entering the Sacred Valley, you do not need to pay anything: you can travel freely by car, bus, or train and enjoy the beauty of the place.
However, you must pay an entrance fee when visiting each ruin in the valley, and the price is relatively high.
If you plan to visit multiple sites, the best option is to buy a comprehensive ticket. This ticket costs S/130 and is valid for ten days, which allows you to visit 16 sites (museums and ruins) in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
But here’s the detail. The Peruvian government has smartly divided all the sites into three circuits, which means that if you wish to visit two sites that are not in the same circuit, you must buy two tickets or acquire the ten-day pass directly.
Almost all sites in the Sacred Valley require the purchase of the Tourist Ticket; only a few can be visited with an individual ticket.
The traditional access point to the Sacred Valley is Cusco, so you must get there first. Fortunately, Cusco is well connected to all major cities in Peru.
Buses to Cusco regularly leave from Lima, but it is best to fly from Lima to save time.
Many bus companies also have routes from Nazca (home of the mysterious Nazca Lines), Arequipa (read more about the Arequipa and Colca Canyon tour), Puno or Copacabana in Bolivia (visit the famous Sun Island), among other places.
You can take an organized tour of the Sacred Valley from Cusco or use public transport.
The only downside to public transportation is that each destination in Sacred Valley has a different bus station.
You should always find out which is the correct bus station. Besides, when you have little time, it is better to tour and see more places in one day, as visiting all the sites separately would take much more time.
iPeru tourist information center in the main square (in the BCP bank building) for more information.
We have already mentioned several ways to explore the Sacred Valley, and although we like to explore places on our own, we opted for the tour as it seemed pretty reasonable.
The price was not too high, and it was efficient in terms of time.
We have selected the most popular tours, so you can review them and decide if you want to follow this option.
Remember that traveling independently remains an option. Just like us, you can combine these transportation options.
Here are some essentials you should pack for exploring the Sacred Valley.
We have already mentioned that we believe Cusco is one of the best places to stay before you start exploring the Sacred Valley.
Of course, you can find hotels in smaller towns in the valley, but we recommend them only if you want a quieter experience.
When choosing a hotel, consider several criteria. In this case, check your hotel’s distance from the bus station or if travel agencies offer pick-up and transfer service at your accommodation.
We have selected the three best hotels in Cusco for each budget category. Feel free to be inspired by them:
Budget: Cusco Bed and Breakfast: This hotel offers spacious and clean rooms, comfortable beds, a quiet atmosphere at night, and an excellent location.
Medio: Tierra Viva Cusco Downtown: This hotel offers a quiet atmosphere and beautiful rooms and has one of Cusco’s best-valued locations.
Luxury: JW Marriott El Convento Cusco: This hotel features stunning interiors, a charming colonial courtyard, and luxury rooms, and the cathedral and main square of Cusco are just three blocks away.