Sacred Valley Travel Tips: The Heart of the Incan Empire
Everyone visits Peru for Machu Picchu but there are so many great spots to visit in the Cusco area. Sacred Valley is in the Andean highlands and is the heart of the Inca Empire. Sacred Valley stretches for about 60 kilometers and is loaded with traditional Peruvian culture, home to windy roads, colonial towns, Incan ruins, and weaving villages.
After arriving in Cusco we were lucky enough to not experience altitude sickness (we did take Diamox). We had budgeted one day before Machu Picchu and one day after to explore the Cusco area depending on how our bodies were feeling. At 6pm on the first day we decided we wanted to do a tour of Sacred Valley the next day. After looking into tour services we decided to create our own tour and hire a Taxi service to take us to the points we were most interested in. We used Taxidatum - they were very responsive, answering our email right away at 7:30pm. We booked a day tour for a total of $85. We split it two ways to pay $42.50 per person but if you are a group of 3 or 4 it would still be $85! However 4 would be tight in the taxi cab sedan.
We recommend starting your day at 8:00 am and packing breakfast and lunch for the road. The taxi will meet you wherever you like (hotel or elsewhere) so you could even get picked up from Jack’s cafe in Cusco which opens at 6:00am.
The taxi drivers know the geography and have a good sense of timing to get you to where you want to go, but feel free to speak up if there is a site that you would want to spend more time at, they will gladly accommodate. Also, by leaving at 8:00 am you are ahead of the group tours so the sites aren’t as packed.
Just be aware, the taxi drivers are fast but efficient drivers. The roads are windy and bumpy, so if you get car sick take some medicine before hand or just simply ask your driver to slow down.
The first stop on our tour was the Weaving Centre - Centro Textil URPI in Chinchero (Note: there are others around that are mostly all the same). They give you a 15 minute demonstration of the process from taking the sheep shearings or alpaca and turning it into yarn, including spinning and dying (a process that uses various natural colours eg. purple corn, coca leaves, and beetles from cactus). They then show you how they get the yarn onto the loom and the weaving process. Only the women learn the traditional weaving techniques and patterns. Once the demonstration is finished you have another 15 minutes to sample the goods - mostly them pressurising you to buy something. But there’s free tea and you can feed the alpacas and guinea pigs!
After the weaving center it is a short drive through the town to the Chincero Ruins. To enter the village and archeological ruins you must purchase a tourist ticket at the gate. This includes 16 sites and costs 130 PEN for the Full Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistica del Cusco) that includes everything; and is valid for 10 days. To avoid being bombarded by more market vendors, immediately turn left after the entrance gate, and follow the path up to the ruins. There are however more vendors hawking their rugs, sweaters, scarves, and more here. Go past all of this to find the ruins on the hillside. You can purchase a guided tour back at the gate if you so desire (we opted not to). We later learned these ruins were designed to be a resort for Inca Tupac Yupanqui and included various terraces where agriculture took place. If you are interested in buying something, the markets here were by far cheaper than Cusco or anywhere else we visited. They were also very willing to drop their prices too.
The third stop on this day-long tour is Maras Salt Mines, which is about a 30 minutes drive from Chinchero. You will need to pay 10 PEN per person to enter (this is not included in the tourist ticket you bought to enter Chinchero and the remaining sites). During rainy season the salt pools will be more tan/muddy in colour. A natural salt water spring flows from the mountain and drains into the pools through an aqueduct system. Eoghan tasted the water and confirmed it was extremely salty. You are allowed to wander around via the designated paths to take pictures of the patchwork scenery the salt mines create.
Moray ruins are close to Maras but along a very bumpy road. These ruins were designed in a circular pattern. It is unknown why they were created but it is thought to be 27 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) difference in temperature from the bottom tier to the most top tier. Researchers don’t know the reason for these ruins but it could possibly have been for experimenting with agriculture methods to see what would grow at different temperatures.
Ollantaytambo is a cute little town where we stopped first to have lunch before visiting the ruins. We ate at La Esquina where we ordered a slice of carrot cake with tea and coffee while eating the sandwiches we packed for ourselves. We didn’t spend much time in town but you could wander around checking out more shops, markets and cafes - Here is a great article to reference.
We arrived at the ruins around 2pm and it was quite crowded. You could easily spend three or more hours exploring the different areas of the ruins but we only spent 45 mins. There are many stairs so if climbing stairs isn’t for you I would stick to the first two ruins.
The next three sites are totally optional at this point or you could switch out others that we did for these depending on your interests. After the Ollantaytambo ruins it was about 3pm and we were exhausted. We decided instead to return to Cusco, which would be about a two hour drive.
Awana Kancha Alpaca farm - we decided not to stop here because we knew we would see some “more in the wild” alpacas in Machu Picchu. (This picture was taken at the weaving center)
Pisac - these ruins were also in the tourist ticket but it looked as exhausting as Ollantaytambo. If you want to get your money's worth stop by and see, the taxi can always turn back around if you change your mind.
Sacsayhuaman- these ruins are the closest to Cusco and also get pretty crowded. Since it was the end of the day we decided to skip and potentially return for another day’s activity.
Overall we were very pleased with doing the tour on our own. You will miss out on having a guide but we just listened into other tour groups and wrote down any questions we had for google to answer when we returned home. To check out how to spend the rest of your days in the Cusco area visit our Cusco article and Machu Picchu article.