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Machu Picchu may be one of Peru’s most incredible destinations, but you should definitely plan some time to explore the Sacred Valley while you’re in the neighborhood. This area —which includes the Andean mountains and the valley surrounding the Urubamba River — once formed the epicenter of the Inca Empire. From harrowing mountain peaks and rural villages to roaming llamas and alpacas, here’s everything you need to know about visiting Peru’s legendary Sacred Valley.
You Can Use Cusco as Your Base
Cusco is just a one-hour flight from Lima, Peru’s capital city — be prepared for expansive mountain views with a side of light turbulence. Once you land, most of the attractions in the Sacred Valley are an hour or so away by car. It’s possible to book all sorts of tours, hikes and guided adventures online, as well as at the agencies and tour offices all over Cusco. You can also rent or buy any camping equipment or hiking gear you may need. Remember to stop and enjoy the city while you’re passing through — the Plaza de Armas, pictured below, is lovely.
The Altitude Is High in Cusco but Lower in the Valley
At 11,152 feet above sea level, you may have trouble adapting to the altitude while in Cusco, but at least the rest of the Sacred Valley — including the cities of Pisac and Urubamba — has a lower altitude of 9,514 feet. If you’re concerned about altitude sickness, it may be better to stay overnight in the Valley first while you explore some of the sites, and once you’ve adjusted, head to the higher city of Cusco.
Explore Inca Ruins — And Not Just at Machu Picchu
The large stone terraces that form Ollantaytambo are a must-see. Perfectly combined with a trip to Machu Picchu, you can stop here to explore, then board the train to Aguas Calientes, the gateway city to the most popular Inca ruins in the world. Ollantaytambo’s ruins are extremely well-preserved and having a guide explain the history and other curiosities about the area enriches the experience even more. See if you can spot the Inca face in the mountain from the top of the ruins in the photo below.
Pisac’s ruins are a another spot not to be missed, with its vast agricultural terraces and steep mountain drops — there’s even an ancient cemetery where 3,000 Inca are said to be buried within the mountains’ stone crevices. The complex has several levels and sections including areas with houses, a temple, courtyards and tunnels. Make sure to get a ride up here, though, because it’s a long walk from the village of Pisac, below.
The less-visited ruins of Q’enqo consist of a unique stone labyrinth once used for sacrifices and other important Inca rituals. Another spot worth checking out, Sacsayhuaman, is located just outside Cusco — the stone formations here are impeccably preserved. Once you wander around the enormous stone walls, check out fantastic views of the city and beyond from the nearby Cristo Blanco, Peru’s version of the Christ the Redeemer statue.
Take a Hike
Rainbow Mountain — also known as Vinicunca — is one of the most famous spots in Peru for a morning trek, though it’s a few hours away from Cusco. With a height of 14,000 feet, this mountain may test your altitude adaption, but it’s worth it to see the beautiful colors that inspired its name. Prepare to hike in sandy conditions and make sure you wear plenty of sunblock. Hiking to Tambomachay — known as “the Inca spa” for the crystal-clear, fresh water that tumbles of out of its natural stone fountains — is also a pleasant one-day activity. Note that even though you may see tourists drinking the water there, we’d still recommend sipping from your bottle instead, just in case.
Trekking to Huchuy Qosqo along old Inca roads is a special experience ideal for those who want to enjoy a two-day hike. A more grueling three-day adventure is the Cachicata hike, a 19-mile walk that starts in the village of Socma before passing through the ruins and waterfall of Perolniyoc and over an almost 15,000-foot-high mountain pass, eventually leading you to Ollantaytambo. Finally, if you’re ready for a serious outdoor adventure, the four-day trek to Choquequirao, Machu Picchu’s sister city, gives you a chance to see Inca ruins that are almost entirely untouched by the modern world.
Visit Salt Mines and Agricultural Terraces
The Sacred Valley has endless places to see even if you’re tired of checking out stone ruins. Delicately situated inside a red-rock canyon, the Maras salt mines can look white, brown, beige or red depending on the angle and light. Created and fed by a nearby stream, the salt is harvested by local families, each with their own small, shallow salt pool.
Moray was once the Incas’ very own agricultural experiment, consisting of giant holes in the ground where they built vast terraces. Each one has its own microclimate and was used to test out growing different crops at varying conditions — there’s actually a difference of 27° Fahrenheit from top to bottom. No one knows how these giant bowls were formed in the ground, and since the Inca architects left no written records, it may just remain a mystery.
Shop for Local Goods
If it’s shopping you’re after, there are plenty of bargains to be had in the Sacred Valley — remember, you can always barter with the locals. The market in Urubamba is an interesting spot where you might stumble across pottery or other prizes to take home. Pisac also has a market ideal for purchasing souvenirs, silver jewelry and items made from alpaca fur. Shops in the small town center of Maras sell salt from the nearby salt pans, a great gift for anyone who loves to cook. Checking out a weaving collective in a village like Chinchero shows you how locals extract, clean and dye the alpaca hair and how they weave traditional handmade items, which are also available there for purchase.
You Can Have Epic Adventures Beyond Hiking
It’s possible to partake in almost any adrenaline-pumping adventure you could ever imagine in the Sacred Valley, so paraglide over the Andes, raft in the river or rev a quad through dusty mountain roads if you so desire. One of the highest bungee-jumping spots in South America is located in the Sacred Valley and you can combine a jump with a 360-foot zip line over the jungle. You can also zip down what is supposedly the longest South American line, with a length of nearly 7,000 feet. Bikers can ride a number of different routes — downhill, flat or extreme — through the mountains. Rock climbing and bouldering are also other ways to see the mountains up close. For those wanting a calmer adventure, horseback riding is also an option.
If you want to continue your adventure into the evening, consider spending the night in a Skylodge Adventure Suite, a small glass pod that dangles at the edge of a cliff. Bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of a capsule hotel, they’re high up enough that anyone who suffers from vertigo may want to sit this one out.
Use up Those Points and Miles for Hotel Stays
You can use your points and miles to stay at unique properties around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Starwood gives you the choice of staying at what was once an Inca palace in Cusco, aptly named the Palacio del Inka, where rates start at $193 or 10,000 Starpoints per night. Or if you need to rest your head at a lower altitude, the Tambo del Inka property is located in Urubamba, with rates from $223 or 12,000 Starpoints per night. The luxurious JW Marriott El Convento in Cusco was once a 16th-century convent and has rates from $164 or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. Fans of the Wyndham Rewards Points program will be happy to know there are three properties in Cusco they can stay at for just 15,000 points per night or around the $100 mark — sometimes less.
Buy the Tourist Ticket
Buying the tourist ticket is essential — it costs 130 sol (~$40), and provides entry to many of the aforementioned sites — Pisac, Chinchero, Moray, Saqsayhuaman, Tambomachay, Q’engo and Ollantaytambo — as well as other museums and historical sites you’ll want to see while you’re in town, plus, it’s valid for 10 days and lets you visit each site one time. You can purchase this multi-use ticket at the entrance of any of these attractions or at an office in Cusco. There are different rates for a partial ticket, which allows entrance to only some of the attractions mentioned. Students with a valid ID can also receive discounted rates. The staff at the entrances of participating attractions will probably check your passport and you’ll definitely need it to purchase the ticket, so make sure to have it with you.
Have you been to Peru’s Sacred Valley? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author except where otherwise noted.
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