Top 11 Places to Visit in Sacred Valley Peru
Peru’s Sacred Valley is the stuff of legend. It’s riddled with trekking routes that skirt rocky mountain ridges and paths once laid by pre-Columbian civilizations. There are bustling market towns where Incan weavers and farmers ply their trades, along with gushing rivers and strange salt pans carved into the Andes. And that’s not even mentioning the wealth of bucket-list UNESCO sites and archaeological digs that pepper the highlands, including the instantly recognisable terraces and temples of Sacred Valley ruins like Machu Picchu. Tempted? We thought so. Here are the Top 11 Places to Visit in Sacred Valley Peru.
Every odyssey through the Sacred Valley should begin and end at Cusco. This is the ancient capital of the Inca, a city steeped in myth and legend, perched on the cusp of the high Andes, and brimming with culture and history at every seam.
Cusco is the first port of call for trekkers heading off on the iconic Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Thousands come for Sacred Valley route orientations, to acclimatize (Cusco itself sits at a whopping 11,200 feet (3,400 meters)) and to stock up on last-minute gear (there are plenty of outdoors outfitters in town).
But it’s also way more than just a jump-off point for the trails. Cusco enthrals with stunning conquistador-era architecture. Head to the bustling Plaza de Armas to be faced with one of the finest Baroque cathedrals in South America. Go to San Blas for cobbled alleys and sweeping views of the UNESCO centre. Or feel the pulse of the city at the San Pedro Market and in the backpacker bars that come alive after dark. The city is the perfect place to start for all things to do in the Sacred Valley.
2. Maras Salt Mines
A mind-blowing 4,500 salt pans cascade down the sides of Qaqawiñay mountain at Maras. The spot constitutes yet another of the amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Sacred Valley. It offers a glimpse at the engineering ingenuity of the pre-Incan civilisations that inhabited this corner of the Andes, who constructed the pans to farm salt crystals from a brine-rich underground river some five centuries ago.
But the mines are no historic relic – they are still being used for salt production to this day! Harvests take place once a month, with the highest-quality salt (the famous Peruvian pink salt) coming during the dry season between May and October.
Today, visitors can take tours of the salty pans and buy all manner of salt-related paraphernalia from the local Maras community stores. There are a few small walking routes around the area that reveal spectacular vistas of the site, which unfold in a patchwork of marble-white amid a lush valley of rugged hills. No wonder it’s a photographer’s dream.
For more ideas about travel in Peru, check out our blog on The 13 Best Places to Visit in Peru in 2021.
If you’re eager to escape the buzz of the city, then you can swap the lively plazas of Cusco and head to this small town straddling the Urubamba River about an hour’s drive to the north.
It’s a compact place of gnarled plane trees and avenues that purr with auto rickshaw taxis. The top draws are probably the arts market and the craft workshops. They burst with a kaleidoscope of local goodies, from alpaca-knit vests to organic Peruvian coffee beans to exotic fruits and vegetables plucked straight from the surrounding fields.
Talking of the surroundings – Urubamba has plenty on the doorstep. It’s possible to do tours of nearby Chichubamba, a community of agriculturalists and craftspeople that’ll serve up baked pork and intriguing handmade ceramics. What’s more, both the Maras Salt Mines and the fascinating Inca growing terraces of Moray are within striking distance.
The charms run strong in little Pisac. Nestled into a fold of the Sacred Valley about an hour of hair-pinning roads out of Cusco, this pint-sized town is abuzz with life and energy. Most travelers explore the central plaza. There, crooked cobbles and ramshackle trader stalls explode into life when the farmers and the craftspeople descend for the Sunday bazaar. Don’t miss the Bazaar if you’re on the hunt for an alpaca-thread hat or a multi-coloured Peruvian rug! The main streets filter away to the north and south, past little whitewashed churches and cantinas that sell steaming broths and stuffed chillies.
The famous Pisac Ruins overlook the Andes just above the town. You can climb to those on marked paths that begin at the end of Intihuatana Street. It’s not easy, ranging up to 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) above sea level. However, the reward is an exceptionally well-preserved Incan settlement, with pristine stone buildings and panoramic views south across the Sacred Valley.
Of all the Incan spots that surround Peru’s Sacred Valley, we’d say Moray is one of the most impressive. Instead of grand monolithic temples and astrological altars, this one’s all about cold, hard science. In fact, it’s sometimes referred to as the Agricultural Laboratory of the Incas, because the site was primarily used by pre-Columbian settlers to advance their understanding of agriculture and seed cultivation.
Moray is centered around a deep, amphitheatre-like structure that sits more than 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) up in the Andes past the small town of Maras. It’s built in a series of stepped terraces, each of which is thought to have had unique microclimate conditions that let the Incas experiment with different plants and vegetables.
Moray still isn’t a part of the popular visitor circuit around the Sacred Valley and it’s not on the Inca Trail. Instead, tours typically leave from Cusco or Urubamba and are often coupled on a Sacred Valley itinerary with a trip to the nearby salt mines.
6. Huchuy Cusco
Huchuy Cusco is the onetime estate of the eighth Incan ruler, Emperor Viracocha. Its history reaches back more than a millennium, but it hit its zenith around the 1400s, when it rose to become a major citadel fortress and productive farming area.
Travelers entering this site get to explore a vast complex of terraced stone buildings, well-preserved residential quarters, and even a great hall known as a Kallanka, once the stomping ground of the Incan emperors. There are also some intriguing features that aren’t visible at other Sacred Valley ruins, like the elaborate irrigation system, while the views of Mount Veronica across the Cordillera Urubamba are simply jaw dropping.
On a low hillside just above the bustling downtown core of Cusco itself, the Incan ruins of Saqsayhuaman open a window onto the Incan era of the city. They date back to the age of the revered emperor Pachacuti (the onetime ruler of Machu Picchu, no less) and are known for their colossal fortification walls. In fact, some say the stones used in the construction of the citadel are the largest single monoliths found in any ancient site in the Americas!
Saqsayhuaman is anchored on a huge central plaza. Around that, the imposing temple structures and parts of the bulwarks still stand strong, connected by grassy paths and old roadways. Modern-day Inca still use the site for their annual festivities. There are huge parades here for the winter solstice, known as Inti Raymi, and the Warachikuy rite of passage for Incan males also takes place each month.
Ollantaytambo came under the sphere of the Incan Empire during the reign of powerful Emperor Pachacuti. It’s now a fantastic fusion of old and new. You can walk the centre amid pizza joints and pisco sour bars, but also pass over large ancient plazas, see cottages that date back centuries, and seek out monolithic temples lurking on the hillsides above town.
Perhaps more than anything, Ollantaytambo is known as the prime starting point of the train to Machu Picchu. For those travelers looking to see this famed UNESCO site, you can come here from Cusco and tour the whole length of the Sacred Valley on an amazing site seeing adventure with your guide.
But there are also oodles of things to do in Sacred Valley Peru before you leave. Take the slopes of Pinkullyuna hill, where Incan-era storehouses still stand almost perfectly intact. Or go to the Ruins of Ollantaytambo, which hold fountains and strange astrological clocks.
9. Classic Inca Trail
It’s no secret that most people come to the Sacred Valley with the Classic Inca Trail somewhere near the top of their bucket list. This ancient pathway is one of the world’s top hikes. It weaves through large lengths of the region, linking up some of the most fascinating Incan locations with the fabled citadel in the clouds that is Machu Picchu.
The Classic Inca Trail lasts four days and three nights. It begins in Ollantaytambo and crosses the Dead Woman’s Pass (the highest point at 13,828 feet, 4,215 meters), before delving into the archaeological sites of Wiñay Wayna and offering up glimpses of cloud-shrouded Salkantay mountain on day three.
The final push of the Incan Trail takes you through the most iconic parts of the Sacred Valley. You’ll zigzag up the side of a peak on tracks laid by the Inca themselves. Then, you pass under the Sun Gate to explore Machu Picchu.
10. Aguas Calientes
It’s strange, but Aguas Calientes isn’t actually that old at all. It came into being after the Sacred Valley railway line was completed back in the 1920s. However, it’s still a major destination for history buffs, largely because the most famous site in all of Sacred Valley Peru – Machu Picchu itself – soars just overhead.
Yep, no matter if you’re just completing the Classic Inca Trail, the mind-blowingly beautiful Salkantay Trek, or coming to see Machu Picchu on a day trip from Ollantaytambo, you’re sure to pass through little Aguas Calientes. That means thousands of visitors each year set foot in the pueblo, and there are backpacker hostels and bars that buzz with the excited chatter of people fresh off the trails.
Aguas Calientes does have one other claim to fame. The clue is in the name: Hot water. There are a few natural hot springs here that are a gift for weary walkers. Look for them up a narrow cleft in the Andes to the north-east of the center.
11. Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is the jewel in the crown of the Sacred Valley. Draped over a long col above Aguas Calientes deep in the Andes, it’s arguably the most famous spot in all of South America. A mega 2,500 people visit the UNESCO site every day. They come to wonder at a great Incan estate that dates back 500 years, complete with strange temple complexes, throne rooms, residential areas, and monolithic gateways.
A trip to Machu Picchu begins with a trek or a bus out of Aguas Calientes to the beginning of the site. Others might arrive on the last leg of the Classic Inca Trail through the iconic Inti Punku (the Sun Gate). Once inside, you’ll behold arguably the greatest achievement of Peru’s pre-Columbian peoples. Highlights are the strange cave structures of Intimachay (thought to have been used for astrological observations), the mystical Temple of the Sun, and the festival enclosure of Inti Mach’ay.
I hope you enjoyed this guide on the Top 11 Places to Visit in Sacred Valley Peru. I know that there are even so many more extraordinary places to visit in this country. In fact, I wrote about Rainbow Mountain in Peru in an earlier blog post. I hope you get to visit Peru soon.
If you are interested to learn more about how we can take you to these extraordinary places, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here.
We look forward to seeing you in Peru!
Jeff and The Explorer’s Passage Team
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About The Explorer’s Passage
The Explorer’s Passage (TEP) is the premier adventure travel company on the planet. No other operator provides more dynamic outdoor adventure travel experiences in the most raw and stunningly beautiful environments on earth. Whether you are looking to join one of the world’s great adventures, step back into history through the power of travel, or transform your life and the planet through a socially immersive experience, we have the perfect option for you.
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About Jeff Bonaldi
Jeff Bonaldi is the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, an adventure travel company. His mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to transform their lives and the planet through the power of adventure.