Cut into the majestic Andes Mountains, along the Urubamba River, lies the heart of the Inca Empire: Sacred Valley. Come here for the Inca ruins and some majorly stunning scenery.
You can also come to the Sacred Valley as a precursor to one of the country’s Inca highlights—Machu Picchu.
Or as a way to teach your body how to exist with less oxygen and hope for less altitude sickness when moving on to the stunning but high-altitude Rainbow Mountain, or a slightly less elevated Humantay Lake.
Most often visited from Cusco, Sacred Valley is the roughly 60 km (37 mile) section around the Urubamba River between Pisac and Ollantaytambo towns.
Map of the Sacred Valley
Enjoy magnificent views of Sacred Valley
The actual Sacred Valley is a sight in itself, with towering mountains all around you reminding you how small you are. The main thing people come to see in Sacred Valley are the Inca sites, since the area is culturally rich with Inca ruins and small villages just waiting to be discovered.
Here’s a list of the top things to visit in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, plus three full-day trips just outside of its borders:
Just go and see for yourself!
Is a visit to Peru’s top tourist site really worth a visit? A big, fat yes!
The lost Inca city of Machu Picchu doesn’t need much introduction, you’ve all seen the photos. Machu Picchu are the ruins of a massive Inca city that was built atop a mountain with phenomenal views. And it’s not easy to get to, either, adding suspense, adventure, and a whole lot of spending to actually be able to witness Machu Picchu with your own eyes.
Many people hike to Machu Picchu on the infamous Inca trail, but that requires sleeping in tents, which isn’t something we’re fond of. We did, however, visit the Inca site on our own, without a tour. It’s pretty straightforward once you’ve read up on the logistics and ticket combinations, both of which can be overwhelming at first. Of course, we’ve got your backs and you can get all the info in a separate article with our full Machu Picchu guide.
Tip: Not sure when the best time to visit Machu Picchu is? We have an article just about that, too. See if you should avoid wet season and why we think trying to get to Machu Picchu for sunrise is a waste of beauty sleep.
The only way to get to Machu Picchu
In a nutshell, to get to Machu Picchu, you’ll be taking a train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo, and a bus from Machu Picchu Pueblo to Machu Picchu Inca city. All that will take half a day and it isn’t cheap.
You’ll also need to purchase your tickets to Machu Picchu up to 6 months in advance—that is if you’re visiting in high season—June to August—, and you can choose from several ticket combinations of the Inca city visit + one of three hikes to surrounding mountains.
The hike we took, Huayna Picchu, was certainly steep, narrow, and a little hair-raising, but how else do you want to get those views of Machu Picchu?! Again, see our Machu Picchu guide for details on the individual hike options.
It’s important to know that if you do choose one of the hike combinations, you can’t choose the best, most comprehensive trail within the city. You automatically get entry only to one of the lesser circuits. That alone could be a reason to consider visiting on two separate tickets.
Colorful Rainbow Mountain
Another day trip that we certainly recommend, though only after proper acclimatization in Sacred Valley, is Rainbow Mountain. The mountains have colorful stripes based on the mineral that prevails in whichever stripe, though they aren’t as bright as Instagram wants you to believe.
That’s ok, because yes, it is wonderful seeing a colorful mountain, but the challenge of even getting there and the incredible scenery is what it’s all about. One look at snow-capped, 6,300 m (21,000 ft) sacred mountain Ausangate in the distance and you’ll be happy you took the trip.
It may look all cute and stripey, but the main hike starts at an altitude of 4,600 m (15,000 ft) and continue for 3 km (1.8 miles) with a total elevation gain of about 400 m (1,300 ft). Read up on mountain sickness (AMS) beforehand and don’t underestimate it!
The Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, is not the only rainbow-colored mountain around. In fact, there are many of them in the area, like Palccoyo, which is much easier to hike. There are two basic routes to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca), and the Palccoyo alternative.
Ausangate in the distance
The drive from Cusco to all of the starting points takes 3–4 hours.
The most popular Cusipata trek to Rainbow Mountain will have you sharing the trail with dozens of other tourists, most fighting their own personal fight with altitude sickness, chewing coca leaves, drinking coca tea, and smiling through the pain taking millions of photos. It’ll take about 2 hours one way. You will suffer if you get altitude sickness, but it’s still worth it.
The hike itself would be an easy to medium-level hike, but that factor of not enough oxygen turns it into a hard one.
For a much easier way to see some rainbow-colored mountains, check out the Palcoyyo alternative route. It doesn’t take you to the Rainbow Mountain, but you still see not one but three similarly striped mountains just a little ways away. And the hike only takes 40 minutes.
We have a whole article with details on all of the options to see Rainbow Mountain, along with route information, prices and tips on extra add-ons to each hike.
Now for some tips for day trips just outside of Sacred Valley.
You won’t be able to stay in Cusco for even a day without seeing offers to visit the stunningly green-blue lake bordered by luscious green hills that turn into the sharp, snow-covered peaks of the Andes Mountains. One look at the photos and you know you want to see it for yourself.
The hike is medium difficulty, mainly because of how steep it is and the chance of mountain sickness. The starting altitude is 3,800 m (12,460 ft) at the trailhead in Soraypampa and the lake itself is at 4,200 m (13,780 ft), so the elevation gain is quite substantial over the short trek.
The 2.6 mile loop hike will take you about 2 hours to complete, so it isn’t terribly long. Don’t forget to add on the 3-hour drive from Cusco and back!
Humantay Lake isn’t as high up as Rainbow Mountain, but you can still experience altitude sickness (AMS). Read up on how to prevent it in this article. This is to say that you really want to spend a few days in Sacred Valley and Cusco before heading up any higher to allow for your body to get used to the thinner air.
The bravest can hike all the way up to Salcantay
Humantay is a gorgeous lagoon located under Salcantay Mountain. Some people opt to hike all the way up to Salcantay, and Humantay Lake is one of the stops on that hike. For going to Humantay, you really don’t need a guide, since the trail is clearly visible and you’ll get to the lake in about an hour.
In case you do encounter shortness of breath, there are mules waiting along the way, ready to take you to the lake for a small fee.
There are tour groups going up to Humantay Lake daily from Cusco. Most of them start picking people up at their Cusco hotels at 3 am, making it to the trailhead after the 3-hour drive in the early morning. Take that into consideration if you’re going on your own and plan on arriving later than everyone else so you aren’t stuck in foot traffic on your way up the mountain.
The entrance fee to Humantay Lake is s/10, payable in cash at the checkpoint in Mollepata.
Experimental agricultural laboratory
Another fascinating Inca site, Moray is a giant experimental agricultural laboratory.
The Incas created round, terraced depressions where they would, through trial and error, grow different crops. The terraces were constructed with the direction of the sun and wind taken into account, and the difference in temperature between the top and bottom levels was 5°C (9°F), making each level its own little microclimate. Soil from different parts of Peru was brought in to mimic different conditions on different levels, too.
Of course, there was an irrigation system that fed the terraces with water from the surrounding mountains. The Incas loved their irrigation!
There are 3 different circular sunken terraces at Moray you can walk around all of them and try to understand the ingenuity behind the Inca’s thinking. You’ll need 30 minutes to see all there is to see. The scenery at the site is, no surprise, stunning.
Moray is part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4.
Check out our article about how to visit Moray and Maras for details on getting there, buying tickets and more.
The Inca ruins of Pisac
I know I’ve mentioned great views throughout this article, but the views at Pisac one up everyone else. They are spectacular! Pisac is a former Inca fortification that sits at about 3,000 m (9,800 ft), so it’s like you’re getting views of the views, they’re just phenomenal.
Pisac probably served as protection for the Sacred Valley from the east, just as Ollantaytambo guarded it from the west.
For me the views are the reason to go to Pisac and there just happen to be Inca ruins there as a bonus. They’re nice, it’s just that after so many Inca ruins, you’ll start to feel a little numb to them. Pisac is, however, so photogenic and memorable that I’m in no way saying you shouldn’t go. Go! For the views especially. They’re second only to Machu Picchu itself.
The ruins are not in Pisac town directly. The Pisac archeological site is about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) north of town, so it’s best to have your own car or at least a driver for the day to take you there and back. Otherwise, you can take the 2-hour trek out of Pisac town on your own two feet. It’s steep!
Besides the Inca ruins, you also have the chance to visit Pisac town itself and get a glimpse at rural life in Peru. Pisac is very popular with tourists, so it’s not like you’ll be getting a candid view, but it’s pleasant nonetheless.
If you want to see the Sunday market, go with adequate expectations—it has become very much geared towards tourists, with many stalls selling souvenirs. Of course, you will also see the ladies from nearby villages selling their handicrafts, it’s just that you and other fellow travelers will make up the majority of visitors.
For a more traditional market experience, stop by Chinchero instead.
You’ll need 2 hours at the ruins at Pisac. Add on time for the town if you want, but it’s not necessary if you also plan on going to another Sacred Valley city such as Ollantaytambo or Chinchero.
Pisac is included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket in circuits 1 and 4.
Maras is a whole side of a mountain filled with thousands of salt evaporation pools. It looks like a massive rice terrace area that got snowed on. There are thousands of them!
Again, the Incas are to thank for the construction of the site, though it is to this day actively being used to mine salt by local families.
There’s a salty underground stream that runs through the area, and the Incas learned to gather the water and evaporate it on the sunny slopes of the mountain, leaving them with layers of yummy, salty goodness.
Of course, it’s a process, and the pools get filled with water and evaporated repeatedly before the workers scrape off the salt. The first salt layer is high-quality table salt either white or pink in color. The next layers are only white and gradually worse quality and the last one is used as industrial salt and comes in shades of brown.
You aren’t allowed to walk through the salt fields, but there are viewing platforms and walkways that take you to several different levels, so you still get a good look.
Set aside 30 minutes for a visit to Maras. Tickets cost s/10—Maras is not included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
Check out our article about how to visit Moray and Maras for details on getting there, buying tickets and more.
Ollanntaytambo is worth visiting not only because of the train station
Ollanntaytambo is known as the place where you get on the train to go to Machu Picchu (you have to take the train since there are no roads leading into Machu Picchu Pueblo), but there’s more to it than that! The Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo are some of the best preserved in all of Peru. They’re huge, probably more expansive than the ones at Machu Picchu.
The ruins at Ollantaytambo copy the mountain terrain, so you’ll be doing quite a bit of climbing up and down. But you know what climbing up gets you? Views!
Just like the terraces at Moray, the sunken terraces at Ollantaytambo were used for growing crops that would’ve otherwise not grown at this altitude.
Since this was a full-on city, you can also find storehouses, quarries and defense walls, letting you wonder how the Incas worked with such huge slabs of stone. The stones for the Wall of the Six Monoliths had to be moved 6 km (3.7 miles) from a quarry on a mountain on the opposite side of the river. Say what?! Gotta hand it to the Incas, they were incredibly smart with their architecture! Get a guide at the site if you want to learn more details.
You can also just wander around on your own. You’ll get amazing views from the top levels. A visit will take you 1–2 hours, depending how many Inca ruins you’ve already seen up until this stop and how over-Inca’d you are at this point.
Ollanaytambo is part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4.
Visit a historical center of Chinchero
Have you ever wondered where rainbows start from? Well you’re in luck! Chinchero is the birthplace of the rainbow. No idea why. It’s not why you visit Chinchero anyway, so who cares.
Chinchero is a picturesque town at a respectable altitude of 3765 m, about 30 km from Cusco. Come here for the views of the surrounding scenery and the vibe—people here still wear traditional dress as they go about their business. Visit on a Sunday and experience the vibrant Sunday market. The Quechuas are known for their weaving techniques, so go ahead and buy some souvenirs! You can also take weaving classes.
Or, check out the colonial church. It was built on the foundations of an Inca temple. Nothing spectacular, but interesting to see.
It felt like the Christians hijacking an Inca site wasn’t very respectable, but then I remembered all the mosques-turned-churches in Andalusia that started to feel completely natural after a few weeks of travel in southern Spain, and I just chocked it down to history. It is what it is.
There are also terraced Inca ruins at Chinchero that’ll feel completely abandoned compared to other Inca ruins you’ll be visiting in Peru. They’re located on the north side of the town.
You need a ticket to enter the main plaza with the church and the Inca ruins. Chinchero is included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket circuits 1 and 4 (see above).
Our top tips on visiting Sacred Valley:
Delegate the hard work to someone else—just sit while the horse does the walking
Ok so this isn’t a place per se, but I had to put this on my list because for the right person, it could be epic. I’m allergic to horses, so clearly not the target audience, but in a parallel universe, I could see myself giving this a go.
Tip: My horse allergies are also the reason why we couldn’t take up the offer of the mules helping tourists reach the end of the Rainbow Mountain trail. My head was throbbing so bad from the altitude sickness I experienced there, I actually contemplated if I’d really feel that much worse on a horse, but ended up fearing for my life and kept walking.
We’ve already established that Sacred Valley is beautiful. And obviously you can hike, but there’s only so much you can see on your own two feet. Or maybe you can’t or don’t want to hike.
Enter horses—a chance for you to literally just sit and let someone else do the walking while you’re taking in the views of the valley.
Mules are not as elegant as horses, but can still get you where you want to go
Even though you don’t need experience, some rides are appropriate for “adventurous beginners” because even though you’re sitting on your butt doing nothing, the horses still go on steep paths, sometimes very close to the edge, which can be a little nerve-racking.
There are all kinds of horseback riding treks you can choose from, from 1-hour mini rides and 5-hour rides to Moray and Maras to multiday trips to Inca ruins. Prices start at about USD 80 for the shorter rides, USD 150–200 for the Moray and Maras rides and over USD 1500 for multiday treks.
Several ranches and tour operators offer horseback riding in Sacred Valley. Some we would’ve considered are Frontierlab and Salineras Ranch. The ranch also has accommodation in rustic cabins, and both have gentle horses that are well taken care of and knowledgeable guides with good English.
Sacred Valley views
As you know, we always have our own set of wheels, which makes logistics way simpler than if you’re relying on a taxi or public transportation. We’re not big on organized tours, instead liking our own pace and no pesky strangers in the same vehicle with us.
If you are taking a taxi, always make sure to hire it for the day so the driver can wait for you at each site. If you just get a one-way taxi to Maras for example, you’ll be stuck at the salt pools forever since there will be no way to hail a taxi when you are done there.
Also visit Cusco city
The highlights of Sacred Valley can be visited in a day, but there is so much to see around it that you could easily spend a week in the area. Read up on Cusco highlights and the best day trips out of Cusco to put together a complete itinerary.
Not only that, but really consider staying in the area for 4–5 days before heading anywhere closer to the heavens. You’ll regret it if you don’t!
Altitude sickness can knock you off your feet and put you in standby mode for a day or two. It’s undeniably nicer to spend 2 extra days in Sacred Valley at full energy level than spending 2 days recovering from AMS because you wanted to save a couple of days and didn’t acclimatize beforehand.
Trust me when I say you will not be doing any sightseeing the day after altitude sickness hits you. You will barely make it to the nearest café and people watch for most of the day, hangover-style.
Why is Sacred Valley so sacred?
Sacred Valley was the spiritual base of the Inca Empire.
The Sacred Valley, thanks to its lower altitude (than that of Cusco, the Inca’s home base), also allowed the Inca’s to grow crops they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, including the prestigious corn (or maize).
And they used the corn to make beer! Chicha is a fermented maize drink the Incas drank frequently and in large quantities at numerous ceremonies and religious celebrations throughout the year. They would drink it out of the skulls of their enemies and it apparently played a big part in establishing order and prosperity in the Inca Empire. I mean I love my beer, but it never felt as important as it does now. Now I get it.
Too bad Peruvian beer sucks, it’s the only country ever where I’ve outright disliked the beer.
You’ll see corn in the Sacred Valley and it’s massive! If our corn were Bruce Banner, Inca corn is Hulk!
When I say this corn is huge, I really mean it
The tickets and map we got before visiting Secred Valley
You will be asked to present a ticket when entering most sites in Sacred Valley.
The Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco) has 4 variants. The general ticket (circuit 1) includes almost everything you could ever want to see in Cusco and Sacred Valley, is valid for 10 days and costs s/130. The other more limited circuits that are valid just for a one or two days and cost s/70.
Circuit 1: Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay, Museum of Contemporary Art, Regional Historical Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Qoricancha Site Museum, Qosqo Center for Native Art, Monument to the Inca Pachacuteq, Pikillaqta, Tipón, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray
Circuit 2: Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay
Circuit 3: Museum of Contemporary Art, Regional Historical Museum, Popular Art Museum, Qoricancha Site Museum, Qosqo Center for Native Art, Monument to the Inca Pachacuteq, Pikillaqta, Tipón
Circuit 4: Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray
Tickets can only be bought in person either at any of the sites that accept the ticket or at the Cusco ticket office at 103 Avenida del Sol in central Cusco or at the Directur Tourist office on Calle Mantas in Cusco.
You need your passport to buy a ticket and to use the ticket.
A lot of times only cash is accepted, so don’t rely on your credit card.
Also good to know is that is a site is part of any of the tickets, you can’t just buy entry into that one site. You will need to buy a circuit ticket even if you have no interest in seeing anything else on that circuit.
Some places, like the Maras salt pools, aren’t part of the Cusco Tourist ticket and just sell regular tickets at the entrance to the site.
Besides the obvious choice of staying at a hotel in Cusco, you can also base yourself in Ollantaytambo or in one of the numerous luxury hotels and resorts in Sacred Valley. They make it very easy to stick around for a couple of extra days while adjusting to the altitude.
Cusco has so many hotel options, it really comes down to personal taste. You definitely can’t go wrong with these guys:
Monasterio, A Belmond Hotel, is located in the city center in—you guessed it—a former monastery from 1592. The architecture of the historical building lends the luxurious rooms the unique detail of large, arched windows with views out to the manicured courtyard. It’s extremely well-kept and the staff is top notch.
Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel is another lovely, courtyard-centered hotel in Cusco. It has a great, central location close to Plaza de Armas. Staff treat guests like royalty and breakfasts here are a delight. Rooms and the entire property are sensitively restored and keep their historical charm.
You can check out all the hotels in Ollantaytambo here, or look at these two puppies that we’ve pre-selected for you:
El Albergue Ollantaytambo is a 3-star hotel right next to where the trains to Machu Picchu Pueblo leave from, so it has convenience going for it. The rooms are basic but spacious and very clean, with high ceilings and wooden beams. It ain’t a Hilton but it does the job if you’re just staying a night and want to be close to the trains.
If eco resorts are what you fancy, try the pretty Las Qolqas EcoResort. It isn’t for you if you need all the creature comforts (like walls), but if glamping sounds right for you, take a look at this place. Those views!
Who needs the city when you have the incredible natural surroundings of Sacred Valley at your doorstep! There is a surprising number of luxury properties in Sacred Valley, so peruse the internet before deciding on one. I’m particularly enamored with these two:
Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba is a spectacular estate in the Sacred Valley countryside about 30 minutes from Moray and Maras. You won’t want to leave your private porch with views out to the Andes mountain range. No matter if you stay in the main house or in one of the stand-alone casitas, this is a place to thankful for your fortunate life.
Tambo del Inka, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Valle Sagrado promises a “luxurious and mystical journey like no other” and they aren’t kidding. Located right on the Urubamba River in Urubamba town, you’ll be a mere 20 minutes from Maras and Moray. If you ever get yourself off the property. It offers numerous restaurants, bars and a spa to keep you plenty busy.
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If you only have 3 days for Sacred Valley and Cusco, you’ll be missing out on some good places. But, I’ll try to be a silver-lining kind of guy this time and smash as much as possible into those 3 days in Cusco.
Peruvians are some of the kindest, most helpful and courteous people I’ve met during my travels. Until you put them in the driver’s seat. Then they turn into aggressive, angry, idiotic monsters. Especially in Lima.