The Sacred Valley in Peru is most known for the Inca Fortress, Machu Picchu, but there are multiple Inca sites to be explored in this region -- all deserving of exploration during any traveller's trip to Peru. Come meander with me to discover some of the Inca sites in the Sacred Valley.
The Inca road system was pretty amazing. It stretched for about 40,000 kilometres, all the way from Quito in Ecuador to Argentina. The meticulously planned and built roads included paved sections, stairs, bridges, and all sorts of clever constructions, These roads were essential to the Inca Empire, allowing goods, messengers, and people to travel across the Inca Empire, which was massive, covering almost 2 million square kilometres and home to around 12 million people.
The roads were peppered with handy buildings like relay stations for messengers, rest stops, and even storage centers for goods. Plus, they had fortresses at the edges of the empire. The roads started in Cusco and headed off in four directions, corresponding to the Inca provinces: North, South, East (including the Amazon region), and West (along the Pacific coast). Interestingly, a lot of these roads were built on top of older routes made by civilizations like the Wari Empire and the Tiwanaku culture.
Today adventurous travellers to Machu Picchu may choose to hike along parts of the Inca roads. These hiking tours usually begin in Ollantaytambo culminating in your arrival at Machu Picchu following the same road the Inca would have followed. Today's guide was created for those who choose to explore the Sacred Valley without the arduous hike.
Where to Stay in the Sacred Valley
It is possible to visit all these sites as day trips from Cusco but those day trips will start very early, usually with hotel pick-ups between 05:30 and 06:00. I recommend spending at least the night before your visit to Machu Picchu in Aguas Caliente to ensure you are well-rested for your visit and to be on-site for the sunrise view.
For travellers looking for a quiet location with good transportation connections and tourist support, Ollantaytambo is a great base town for exploring the rest of the valley.
I spent a week in Cusco, two days in Aguas Calientes, and a week based in Ollantaytambo during my Sacred Valley adventures.
Cusco, often considered the historical capital of Peru, is a vibrant city nestled in the Andes. It's a fascinating blend of Inca and colonial Spanish architecture, with cobbled streets and ancient ruins scattered throughout the city.
Staying in Cusco is an excellent choice for its central location and accessibility to various Inca sites, including the famous Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, and Tambomachay. It's a hub for culture, dining, and shopping, providing a great base for exploring both the city and nearby archaeological wonders.
Of the places listed as a place to stay, Cusco is the highest elevation. Visitors to elevations over 3,00om are more likely to suffer some form of elevation sickness. Don't plan anything too active for the first day or so in Cusco. For more ideas on how to reduce the possibility of suffering altitude sickness, see this post.
Aguas Calientes is a small town situated at the base of Machu Picchu. It's surrounded by lush mountains and offers a picturesque setting with hot springs.
Staying in Aguas Calientes is ideal if you want to experience the wonder of Machu Picchu, as it's the closest town to the archaeological site. You will be able to access Machu Picchu early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
This post shares some of the highlights of the town of Aguas Calientes.
Ollantaytambo is a charming town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It boasts well-preserved Inca ruins and a historic center with cobblestone streets and adobe buildings.
Ollantaytambo is located between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, making it an excellent stopover for exploring both the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. It's home to the impressive Ollantaytambo ruins, and you can catch a train to Aguas Calientes from here. Ollantaytambo has a more serene and less touristy atmosphere compared to Aguas Calientes. Check out my detailed post about Ollantaytambo here
Urubamba is surrounded by lush, terraced fields and imposing mountains and offers a serene and scenic backdrop to its rich history. The charming town includes a thriving local market where visitors can find a variety of handicrafts, textiles, and delicious Peruvian cuisine. This is another great option for a quieter and less touristy base for explorations.
How to Get to the Inca Sites in the Sacred Valley
Most Peru travellers take a short flight from Lima to Cusco, the main city in the Sacred Valley. I had the luxury of time, so I chose an inter-city hop-on, hop-off bus service called Peru Hop. I highly recommend this option for those who have more time. Not only is the service outstanding and inexpensive but you'll be able to see more of the diverse landscapes of this incredible country and adjust to the high altitudes more easily. Check out my post about travelling to Cusco via Peru Hop here.
To get to Aguas Calientes (gateway to Machu Picchu0 from Cusco, there are two tourist train companies, both with glass viewing windows. Inca Rail and Peru Rail. Both offer a wide range of options and schedules so check the official websites. The 'Cusco' train station is a fair way from the center of Cusco, so you'll need to use a taxi or collective to get there. The views along the train route are incredible.
Once in Aguas Calientes, there is a regular shuttle service between the town and the fortress. If your goal is to be on-site for sunrise, be prepared to line up around 03:00 a.m. to make the first busses.
After selecting Ollantaytambo for my explorations in the Sacred Valley, I used collectivos to travel to the ancient sites. Collectivos are usually small non-descript vans that collect passengers along the route. There is no set schedule, they leave when they have enough passengers. Another option is to join group tours that visit multiple sites in a day.
What to Expect
The fortresses and ancient sites in the Sacred Valley are built in strategic locations in the Andes Mountains. Built high atop hills and mountains to ensure the widest views possible -- to enjoy the stunning views but more importantly, to spot approaching enemies. Many of the sites were small cities that housed many people.
For the traveller, this means that the sites will require uphill walks, climbing rough ancient stairs, and large areas to walk around. Few sites include any amenities (toilets, cafes, etc) but there is often a market set up near the entrance. Sturdy walking shoes and a full bottle of water are essential. Trekking poles will be appreciated. (Helpful hint: reasonably priced trekking poles are available everywhere!)
Helpful Hints and Tips
Be aware of altitude sickness. Don't rush around for the first couple of days. Drink more water, walk slowly, take deeper breaths, and drink some coca tea.
Plan ahead. Machu Picchu should be booked before leaving home. There are limited entrances per day. You will need a guide to enter the site. Your ticket only gives you half a day on-site.
Consider hiring a local guide/driver or joining a day trip tour.
Dress in layers. When I visited in July, it was cold in the evenings and mornings but once the sun came out, it was often toasty.
Wear sunscreen. The sun is intense at higher elevations.
Drink lots of water. Higher elevations increase dehydration and increase the chances of feeling the effects of the altitude.
Be aware of the local culture. Ask permission before taking photographs of locals and be prepared to offer tips in return.
Consider purchasing the "Boleto Turístico del Cusco" (Cusco Tourist Ticket) which gives access to multiple archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley, including Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and others. It's a cost-effective option if you plan to visit several sites.
The Inca Sites of the Sacred Valley
For an interactive map, click here
Machu Picchu is the crown jewel of the ancient archeological sites of the Sacred Valley. It is the number one attraction for most visitors to Peru. The sheer size of the complex makes it impossible to see everything and do the mountain hikes in a single visit.
The "Lost City of the Incas" is an ancient Inca citadel perched high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. This iconic archaeological site, built in the 15th century, boasts breathtaking terraced landscapes, intricate stonework, and well-preserved structures that offer a glimpse into Inca culture and history. Visitors can explore its temples, plazas, and the enigmatic Intihuatana stone while taking in the spectacular surrounding scenery. For a deeper dive into the treasures of Machu Picchu and an in-depth exploration of its mysteries, check out the detailed post "Lost City of the Incas: Exploring Machu Picchu's Treasures".
Sacsayhuaaman is an impressive fortress that was once the main military and religious center of the Incan empire. It is known for its massive stone walls and terraced ruins. I was impressed by the incredible engineering involved in its construction. The basalt stones are huge. They were quarried about 4km away from the site and brought here for shaping and building.
Nearby is Cristiano Blanco (a large white Jesus, similar to that in Brazil) which was a gift from Arabic Palestinian refugees who came to Peru after WWII. For more details, see this post.
Q’enqo is a mortuary and sacrifice area. The guide told stories of animal and human sacrifice as a part of the Inca beliefs. Preparations for death rituals were made in caves underneath this area.
This unique site was also an astronomical center and is known for its carved stone chambers and underground passageways. The study of astronomy was very important for the Inca people. I was fascinated by the carvings and structures designed to capture the sun on important days and festivals throughout the year.
For more details, see this post.
Tambomachay was a resting point for messengers between Machu Picchu and Cusco. This was a religious and therapeutic centre famous throughout the Inca Empire for its carved stone baths and channels. The Inca were masters in water distribution. Complex irrigation household plumbing and bathing options can be seen throughout the former Inca Empire.
Pisac is a captivating town known for its rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning natural beauty. Set against a backdrop of majestic mountains, Pisac offers a unique blend of Inca heritage and colonial charm. The town is most known for its vibrant Sunday market, where visitors can explore an array of colourful textiles, handicrafts, and fresh produce.
The Pisac Ruins. boasts an impressive archaeological complex that includes terraced ruins, ceremonial plazas, and ancient agricultural terraces. The town also offers a variety of hiking opportunities, including the hike to the Intihuatana, an ancient ritual stone, which rewards adventurers with panoramic views of the surrounding valley.
My base in the Sacred Valley was the town of Ollantaytambo, with the ruins of the same name. This gigantic ancient fortress was once the military and religious center of the valley and is considered one of the best-preserved Incan sites in Peru.
These well-preserved ruins were once a strategic military, agricultural, and religious complex. The site is characterized by its massive stone terraces that ascend the mountainside, showcasing the incredible precision and engineering skills of the Inca civilization. The Ollantaytambo Ruins also feature a ceremonial center with finely carved temples, plazas, and a Sun Temple, where the famous "Temple of the Sun" stands as a testament to the Incas' astronomical prowess. The site's layout and architecture provide valuable insights into the Inca's mastery of urban planning and construction techniques. Its unique history, combined with the breathtaking backdrop of the surrounding Andes mountains, makes Ollantaytambo a must-visit destination for history buffs, hikers, and travellers seeking a deeper connection with Peru's ancient heritage.
Chinchero is even higher elevation than Cusco and is located between Cusco and Urubamba. It is a small town that claims to be the birthplace of the rainbow. The town is full of steep roads and many stairs.
Chinchero is an example of the Spanish destruction of important Incan sites. Incan Tupac Yupanqui, son of Pachacutec, used the town as a holiday and relaxation center. He ordered the building of aqueducts and terraces. The Spanish destroyed most of the original palace and built a Catholic Church in the area. The murals are a combination of bible stories and Incan artists.
The Inca walls and terraces remain. The terraces were built for decoration and to prevent erosion. Farming continues deep in the valley below. Aqueducts and channels ensure water goes safely into the valley and Urubamba River.
The soil of Chinchero is some of the most fertile in the Sacred Valley. The most popular crop continues to be potatoes. Peru has over 3,000 varieties of potatoes. They also grow quinoa, oca, and fava beans.
Moray, famous for its circular terraces, was built not only to take advantage of the microclimate but also as homage to the great creators, male and female. This site was used mainly for farming. Each major platform has a slightly different average temperature, which was used to choose which crop would be planted at which elevation. Many crops adapted to grow here, the only difference is the length of the growing season
Bonus: Maras Salt Mines
A fascinating day trip is a visit to the Maras Salt Evaporation mines. Again, the brilliant Inca engineering used terraces to control water. A small salty stream is directed into each of the privately owned salt ponds. (Most salt miners own 5-10 ponds). As the water evaporates over about a month, a salt crust forms. Once it has achieved this initial crust, the miner stomps it down and waits for more evaporation. When the water is fully evaporated, the salt is divided by quality and then sold to a local co-operative.
The Sacred Valley is full of Inca history and culture, with multiple Inca fortresses and ancient sites deserving of exploration. I urge fellow history and hiking buffs to linger in the Sacred Valley, Climb around the fortresses, hike the ancient trails, and soak in the awe-inspiring views.
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