The Sacred Valley is a valley in the Andes region of Peru, close to Cusco - the capital of the Inca Empire. This valley was formed by the Urubamba river and according to recent researches it encompasses the "heartland of the Inca Empire".
We visited several sites of the Sacred Valley. Having a car helped a lot to visit these archeological places since we could go when we wanted and stay the time we felt enough to explore it. Otherwise we would need to integrate organized tours, which is something we usually don't like.
Although it's not part of the Sacred Valley itself (because it is very close to the city of Cusco) one place not to be missed is Sacsaywamán. This place was one of the most important defensive and religious places of the Inca empire. Some sections were first built by the Killke culture, a pre-Inca civilization, but it was expanded around the 13th century when the city was conquered by the Inca culture. The altitude of this place is 3,701m and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for its protection and recognition in 1983.
You need to buy the Boleto Turístico to visit this place. You can buy it at the tourist office in the city center of Cusco or you can buy it directly at the main entrance of Sacsaywamán. There are also several touristic guides which we recommend if you can make a small group - we joined another couple and we just paid 10S per person (less than 3 Euros for 1h30 of historical and archeological explanations!)
Also included in the Boleto Turístico was Q'enqo, a small site famous for its zigzaging channels and a mysterious subterranean cave. We didn't find this specially interesting but maybe because there were no explanations anywhere and it was a bit confuse to understand...
8km northeast of Cusco, in the same road of Sacsaywamán and Q'enqo, we visited Tambomachay, a beautiful ceremonial stone bath channeling crystalline water through several stone fountains (like a SPA nowadays!). We can easily see this place with the Boleto Turístico and in less than 30 minutes.
A bit farther away (33km northeast of Cusco) is Pisac, one of the most impressive places we saw in the Sacred Valley. The base is a spectacular (and huge!) stair-like mountain. Some of these Inca constructed agricultural terraces on the steep hillside are still in use today and allowed the production of surplus food. Above the terraces is an Inca citadel with a big ceremonial center, religious temples, several water channels and a military area. It is also possible to see the biggest Inca cemetery, with hundreds of tombs caved on the rocks. The entrance is also part of the Boleto Turístico.
Our next stop (and where we slept for one night) was Ollantaytambo, the "best surviving example of Inca city planning, with narrow cobblestone streets that have been continuously inhabited since the 13th century" (Lonely Planet). All town is an authentic Inca citadel: houses, restaurants and roads embraced these ruins and built their places. It seems we traveled back in time!
To visit the main ruins you will need the Boleto Turístico too and it will take you between 1h30 and 2h to visit this site. The huge steep terraces that guard Ollantaytambo's spectacular Inca ruins require a bit of courage! Always remember that this was one of the few places where the Spanish lost a major battle. But this places was not only a fortress but also served as a temple and ceremonial center. Some of the walls were under construction at the time of the Spanish conquest and have never been completed. The view from the top of the ruins is also very good and it is possible to see an Inca quarry on the opposite side of the river.
We also visited the impressively deep amphitheater of Moray. This site can be seen quickly (less than 30 minutes) and it offers fascinating views from upstairs. Several levels of concentric terraces are carved into a huge earthen bowl, each level having its own micro-climate. According to some researchers, this place was used as a laboratory to determine the optimal conditions for growing crops of each species (agricultural purposes).
We still had time to visit the famous Salinas - thousands of salt pans that are used for salt extraction since Inca times. There's a hot spring at the top of the valley with salt water that is the main source of these salt flats. The landscape is beautiful, specially the overall effect from the viewpoint of the main road.
Next stop: Machu Picchu (Peru!)
- If you have a car you can visit all these places by yourself. No need to hire any organized tour. The only thing that can be useful is to pay a local guide in some of the sites (usually between 10 and 15 Soles per person).
- If you don't have a car you can also travel using a mix of bus and local taxis. To visit Sacsaywamán and Q'enqo you can walk from Cusco (a taxi will cost you between 20-25 Soles one way). There are local buses to go to Pisac and Ollantaytambo. From Ollantaytambo you can hire a local taxi to take you to the Salinas and/or Moray.
- Main costs: Boleto Turístico (130S/person and includes several sites as explained above), Salinas de Mara (10S/person)