Just an hour’s drive from Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru is named after its importance to the Inca, whose ruined citadels and former agricultural terraces are dotted along the valley’s course.
It’s an awe-inspiring place to visit, flanked by serrated mountains and lush with corn that grows beside the Río Urubamba that flows right along the valley floor. For any visitor to Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is an unmissable spot on your trip to Peru.
Avoid just passing through on the way to the epic Inca fortress of Machu Picchu and instead spend a few days exploring one of Peru’s largest and most dynamic artisan markets, pre-Colombian salt mines and even one-of-a-kind hotels installed high up on the valley sides. Join us as we rundown the eleven Must Visit Sites and best things to do in the Sacred Valley.
Spoiler: yes, AMAUTA Spanish School offers Spanish classes at this amazing location (see #11)!
Built as an administrative center for the Inca, where tributes were gathered from rural communities, Ollantaytambo is also home to one of the most well-defended of all the Inca fortresses.
Indeed, it was useful in protecting against an attack led by Spanish Conquistador Hernando Pizarro who attempted – and failed – to storm the valley. It is home to a series of impressive agricultural terraces that lead up to the unfinished Temple of the Sun, the latter of which would likely have had a role as a type of Inca calendar.
Exploring the fortress is the top thing to do in Ollantaytambo and entrance is included in the Boleto Turístico that you need for most attractions within Cusco and the Valley. The fortress is easily accessible from the town or as part of a Sacred Valley tour from Cusco.
Expertly-woven textiles in a rainbow of colors are piled high next to baby alpaca jumpers and Inca-style ceramics at this famed market in the heart of Pisac. Sunday is the best day for a more authentic experience, when hordes of farmers from the Sacred Valley descend onto the town to sell their wares.
Look out for the guinea pig runs – although, you’ve guessed it, they’re not being sold as pets!
High above the town, the ruined Pisac citadel is another example of the Incas’ exceptional skills with stone and defence. Like the Ollantaytambo ruins, this old Inca fortress has exceptional valley views – necessary for defensive purposes – and a wildly more impressive Temple of the Sun, which used angles of the rock to chart the changing seasons.
Entrance is included in the Boleto Turístico. It is a tough 90-minute walk or short taxi journey up to the top of the ruins, from where you can easily walk back down again, passing through the maze of ruins as you descend, back to the Spanish School in the Sacred Valley.
On the flattened plain above the sides of the Sacred Valley, Moray comes as a bit of a surprise after the more conventional ruins dotted around the rest of the region. Moray is a striking set of bowl-like depressions or concentric circles carved into the earth. Although they look significantly different the standard terraces that you see all over Inca sites in Peru, these were also used for agriculture.
However, research has suggested that by carving terraces into different levels of the earth, the Inca were able to create a type of agricultural laboratory where they cultivated different crops. There’s a remarkable difference of 15˚C between the top and bottom terraces, which would have been integral in allowing them to grow different types of tubers and other crops.
As with most of the sites in the Sacred Valley, entry is with the Boleto Turístico. To get here, it’s an hour’s walk or a taxi journey from the Salinas de Maras.
If you’ve ever wondered how salt is farmed, head over to the dramatic Salinas de Maras. This system of salt pans clinging dramatically to the edge of the hillside is where local people still toil in back-breaking work to farm the salt. It’s an incredible place to take photos, while you can buy the pink-hued salt of the earth from the onsite shop.
The salt mines are one of the Sacred Valley’s most unique attractions and entry costs S/10 (not included in the Boleto Turistico). Travelers can arrive via a ‘colectivo’ from Cusco, although many Sacred Valley tours include the site on their itineraries*
The Spanish program in the Sacred Valley with AMAUTA includes
Read more and Learn Spanish in the Sacred Valley
Questions? Contact AMAUTA Cusco
For an introduction to Peruvian gastronomy with a unique Inca twist, don’t miss out on dining at Mil, the newest addition to the culinary repertoire of Virgilio Martínez, whose other restaurant, Central in Lima, is ranked sixth best in the world.
All of the dishes at Mil in Moray use ingredients only found at 3,500 meters above sea level or higher and most are researched using the assistance of local indigenous communities who know exactly what can grow at this high altitude. The menu takes the form of eight courses, paired with delicious infusions. Reservations are essential and expect lunch to last at least three hours.
They might have caused some controversy when they were first built, but it’s indisputable that a night in the Sky Lodge capsules offer a truly unique experience. Clinging to the edge of the valley side – and hanging some 400 meters above the valley floor – these singular pods answer the question of where to stay in the Sacred Valley.
Guests must climb up a via ferrata of 170 metal steps to reach the bedrooms, while getting down is the quicker matter of a zipline. The views from this Sacred Valley hotel are astounding – but certainly not for vertigo sufferers.
The Inca weren’t known for their love of beer, but you can be sure that they’d have embraced the concept at the scenic Cervecería del Valle Sagrado, the valley’s first craft brewery in Pachar. Having won plenty of awards for their brews, this vibrant watering hole offers half a dozen types of beer on tap, which incorporate traditional Peruvian flavours such as maracuyá (passionfruit) and even salt from the nearby Moray mines.
Events are held here regularly and it’s a sociable place to stop after a long day of exploring the Sacred Valley.
Just 30 kilometers northeast of Ollantaytambo, where the Rio Urubamba has cut deep ribbons through the mountainous landscape, the “Lost City of the Inca”, Machu Picchu lies. A trip to the Sacred Valley is normally combined with a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage citadel and the best way to visit? By train.
There are six different types of train that you can take to Machu Picchu, all depending on your budget and all offerings sublime views of the sculpted, verdant landscape of the Andes Mountains as the train departs from the Sacred Valley.
If you fancy reaching Machu Picchu the way the Inca once did, another unmissable thing to do in the Sacred Valley is embark upon the world-renowned Inca Trail – one of Peru’s ultimate hiking adventures. Starting from just outside Ollantaytambo, the Inca Trail travels 26 miles through the mountains of the Sacred Valley, reaching passes at 4,200 meters above sea level before climbing back down to Aguas Calientes. From here, a set of steps carved into the mountainside (or a bus) lead the final short distance to reach Machu Picchu.
This four day, three night route forms part of the Qhapaq Ñan, a network of Inca roads darting across what was once the Inca Empire. When they were in use, they were estimated to have covered anything from 23,000 to 45,0000 kilometers.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu needs to be booked several
*Please A Peru Trip Counselors for updated information
Like many who’ve come before you, you might find yourself quickly falling in love with the Sacred Valley, one of Peru’s most beautiful rural locations.
If you do, there is an answer: spend a few weeks studying Spanish at the heart of the Sacred Valley, in the barely-visited town of Yanahuara.
It’s a unique way of appreciating the valley’s one-of-a-kind atmosphere, all the while having the time and opportunity to enjoy the Sacred Valley’s most unmissable attractions.