While Machu Picchu is the undisputed King of the Peruvian countryside, those who explore this southern corner of the Andes should make sure they give themselves time for another key attraction: the Sacred Valley (El Valle Sagrado).
Located within striking distance of regional hub and former Inca capital, Cusco, the Sacred Valley is a valley measuring some 97 kilometers (60 miles) from east to west, bookended by the market town of Pisac on one end and the remarkable ruins of Machu Picchu on the other.
It’s one of Peru’s prettiest and most enchanting regions, home to a beguiling history of Andean civilization and often referred to as the Sacred Valley of the Incas for its importance to this once powerful empire. Find scattered archaeological ruins, agricultural traditions dating back millennia and the brutal battles between Inca and the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century.
What’s more, it’s on the route to Machu Picchu; most people leave by train from Ollantaytambo or on-foot by the trailhead for the Inca Trail further up the valley. With the Sacred Valley clocking in at an altitude between 2,050 meters (6725 ft.) and 3,000 meters (9842 ft.) above sea level, it’s also great place to acclimate towards the heights of nearby Machu Picchu or a good place for escaping if the lofty elevations of Cusco get a bit too much.
So here are our 11 favorite things to do and see in Peru’s Sacred Valley, which are guaranteed to give you a keen insight into one of South America’s most fascinating regions.
Depending on which route you take into the Sacred Valley, you may well arrive first into Pisac. An hour’s drive from Cusco, this market town is a typical example of how local people in the region live.
Its best known for its daily market, a chaotic and noisy affair that is best visited on Sundays when hundreds of local people from the surrounding villages flood into the town to sell their wares.
Everything from traditional, delicate alpaca wool textiles to not-so-traditional “Made in China” keyrings and polyester jumpers (if it’s too cheap to be a handmade textile then it probably is) are available.
Those with an open-mind can even sample another traditional delicacy: cuy. This is the Spanish name for guinea pig and you can find them in both live and roasted form at the various restaurants that surround the market.
While far better-known for its market, Pisac is actually home to an archaeological site that’s often considered as impressive – if not more so – than the one in nearby Ollantaytambo (more on that below). It’s also considered to contain buildings equal in splendor to those seen at Machu Picchu. Despite this, it gets far fewer visitors than most of the Sacred Valley sites.
Built onto a mountain spur high above Pisac, this stone citadel was built by the Inca; the assiduously built terraces and magnificent stonework could be by no other. It and would have played a strategic role in protecting the valley from attack, particularly as you can see from miles around from its fortifications.
One its most remarkable buildings found in among these Sacred Valley ruins is the pink-granite Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), thought to have played a role in both worship and astronomy. Either climbing up to the ruins or hiring a taxi and walking back down is sure to rank among one of the most enjoyable things to do in the Sacred Valley.
While Pisac is a thriving hub of tourism, if you’re looking to get off-the-beaten track – while making a difference to the local economy – the town of Chinchero is an ideal destination.
Lying closer to Cusco (just a 40-minute drive) and in the mountain-top Pampa de Anta plain above the Sacred Valley, Chinchero is also a market town and former Inca resort. Here, you’ll find a relic of Spanish conquest in the form of the Inglesia de Chinchero.
Following the defeat of the Inca in Cusco in 1537, the Spanish began evangelizing the local indigenous population. One of the central ways they achieved this was by building churches onto former Inca religious sites; the Inglesia de Chinchero is an example of this. Furthermore, around the town, you can also spot other examples of the once spectacular Inca stonework that has since fallen into ruins.
Chinchero is also famed for its weaving associations. Local women lead demonstrations in ancient Andean textile traditions for tourists where you can learn about the influences on their art; namely he rainbows that are regularly spied above the rooftops – and which are responsible for the town’s name, which means “Birthplace of the Rainbow”.
The Inca themselves spent plenty of time on-foot, and whether you’re preparing for the long hike to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail (see below) or just fancy stretching your legs, there are plenty of hiking trails in the Sacred Valley.
One of the best is the short path to the Catarata Perolniyoc, a picturesque, 80-meter (260 ft.) high waterfall whose crystalline waters crash into a pool – and the perfect spot for a dip to recover from the hike!
Just above the waterfall lies the small archaeological site of Racaypata, which has a privileged viewpoint back down towards the Sacred Valley and beyond.
If there’s one thing that you learn from a trip to the Sacred Valley it’s that the Inca had a real penchant for high-elevation living. One place that proves this well is the fortress of Ollantaytambo, wedged up on the valley sides and overlooking the pretty town below.
Most travelers pay a visit to Ollantaytambo, which lies on the west of the Sacred Valley and is the main gateway to Machu Picchu by train. But a hike up to the citadel above is an essential addition to any trip.
This citadel is impressive in its size and grandeur: a maze of stone corridors and ruined buildings, don’t miss the spectacular Templo del Sol (Sun Temple) and the dramatic terraces that were carved into the valley sides as a form of defense from invading forces. These were used by the Inca in their ultimately doomed final stand against the Spanish colonizers.
While you can breathe in the history that seems to reverberate through the stone buildings, it’s the views back down towards Ollantaytambo and along both sides of the valley that are the most dramatic feature of the visit.
7. Learn about the agricultural exploits of the Inca at Moray
Just up the road is another dramatic example of how the Andean people have adapted the natural world to their needs. Comprising a clutch of bowl-like depressions, each of which have been carved into concentric circle terraces that become smaller as they go deeper into the ground, Moray is a fascinating place to learn about another Inca pastime: agriculture.
What looks like the relic of some strange alien invasion is in fact believed to have been an agricultural laboratory. Here, the Inca are believed to have been able to experiment with different micro-climates, learning exactly what they could cultivate at different temperatures (the terraces had a range of approximately 15˚C (59˚F) between top and bottom), therefore enabling them understand where different crops would best grow in their vast Empire. Ingenious stuff!
8. See pink salt being panned at the Salineras de Maras
Ruins aren’t the only main attraction of the Sacred Valley. No: structures that are still in use, hundreds of years after their construction, are the order of the day here. To see what we mean, head out to the Salineras de Maras, aka the Maras salt pans.
Stepped into a hillside as its dips into a deep valley, these salt pans are pools of chocolate-colored water surrounded by stark white crusts of salt. As you step cautiously between the different pans, it’s likely you’ll encounter the local people who own them, busy harvesting pink salt the same way they have since before the time of the Inca. To support the local economy – and for the pure novelty of it – be sure to buy a bag of the produce in the on-site shop.
While first-class regional gastronomy is one thing, going right to the source of the food is another. As has been proven, the Sacred Valley has a remarkable richness of produce that can be grown in its vicinity, with two of the most surprising is its high-altitude coffee and chocolate plantations.
The former has been winning awards in Peruvian coffee competitions and you can try the berries roasted to perfection of the hipster café Three Monkeys in Cusco. The latter have long been celebrated in the fantastic ChocoMuseo in Cusco, where you can learn about Peruvian chocolate and the process from bean to bar.
But if you want to go further, you can head deep into the Sacred Valley on a tour of the coffee and cacao plantations. This off-beat thing to do in the Sacred Valley introduces you to the families who cultivate the two plants on their organic smallholdings. A tour is an excellent opportunity to learn all about the process of growing and harvesting coffee and cacao, all while appreciating the beauty of Peru’s countryside.
With glacier clad mountains ringing the Sacred Valley, it should come as no surprise that the locals have found interesting uses for the pure, Andean water. One of the best is at the Cervecería Sacred Valley, located near Urubamba in the center of the Sacred Valley.
This brewery specializes in experimental beers using local ingredients, all of which are pegged to seasonality: think passionfruit, pumpkin and even cacao, all of which grow in the region.
With ingredients constantly shifting, you can never quite guarantee what you’ll get, although the cozy brewery bar has plenty of space for you to sit and enjoy supping on your new-found (if temporarily) favorite beer.
Because of the brewery’s small size, you can only find their beer in a handful of other places outside of the Sacred Valley (about 80% remains in the region), so you’ll want to get your fix while you’re there!
With local food and drink a primary reason for exploring the Sacred Valley, it makes sense to go one further and experience what it would be like to actually live here. That’s right: homestays with local families in the Sacred Valley are becoming a popular means of getting under the skin of the region.
On a homestay, you get the opportunity to dine with your host family, chat about their daily life, traditions and share stories about your own, before retiring to bed in a cozy private bedroom in their home. If you’ve even wanted to travel like a local, this is a perfect way to do so, offering you a truly unique place to stay in the Sacred Valley. .
How to visit the Sacred Valley without a tour
It’s fully possible to get from Cusco t the Sacred Valley by micro; these minibuses depart for all of the towns on a regular basis and can cost as little as $2 USD per journey.
However, if you only have a short window of time, or you plan on visiting specific archaeological sites (which aren’t necessarily served by direct local transport), we strongly recommend you take a Sacred Valley tour (which can easily be combined with a trip to Machu Picchu). These can be easily arranged from Cusco, with many of the best Sacred Valley tours flexible enough to enable you to explore plenty of the sites we’ve listed above.
Taking a Sacred Valley tour is also far more efficient than going independently, as it’ll give you a practical and serviceable Sacred Valley itinerary, while the knowledge provided by the local guide will considerably enhance your appreciation of the sites.