When it comes to Peru’s archaeological wonders, Machu Picchu has a tendency to hog the limelight. And fair play – she’s a beauty. But Machu Picchu is just one must-see attraction within Peru’s spectacular Sacred Valley; a magical pick ‘n’ mix of ancient Incan ruins and traditional Andean villages, all steeped in dramatic mountain scenery.
A little bit about The Sacred Valley
Nestled high up in the Andes, Peru’s Sacred Valley refers to the beautiful mountainous region sandwiched between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Formed by the Urambamba River, the Valley was once the agricultural and spiritual base of the Incan Empire and the other-worldly beauty of this place is just as powerful today.
The must-see attractions within the region include Moray, Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, Pisac and the famous Salt Mines of Maras. It is possible to visit all of these sights on day trips from Cusco, but I’d recommend spending at least a couple of nights within The Sacred Valley, itself, to make the most of this unique place and to acclimatise to the altitude, before visiting Cusco.
Ollantaytambo provides the perfect base to do just that. ‘Ollanta’, as it’s affectionately known by locals, is everything you imagine a traditional Peruvian village to be: quaint cobblestone streets, colourful artisan market-stalls, and even its very own Incan fortress. Its location, just a 40-minute drive from Moray and Maras, and on a direct train route to Aguas Calientes (the gateway to Machu Picchu) makes this an ideal stopover for exploring The Sacred Valley.
Read more: The Ultimate Travel Guide to Cusco, Peru
Getting around The Sacred Valley
If you’re on a tight budget, ‘colectivos’ are the cheapest way to explore The Sacred Valley. These shared minivan-taxis run regularly from Cusco (from Pavitos Street to Ollantaytambo, or Pupito Street to Pisac) and from Ollantaytambo’s central square to the main Sacred Valley sites.
However a private transfer or tour is the most convenient and enjoyable way to get around The Sacred Valley. Driving through the valley, with its snow-peaked mountains, zigzagging roads, and panoramic views is a highlight in itself, so being able to pull over for photo stops and to take in the scenery is a huge bonus.
It’s usually possible to arrange a driver with your hostel or hotel. We booked up a 5-6 hour private tour of Moray, Chinchero, and the Maras Salt Mines from Ollantaytambo, with a one-way transfer to Cusco included for just $70 in total (booked via Kamma Guesthouse). Not only did this allow us time to explore at our own pace, but it also gave us a chance to brush up on our Spanish with our fantastic driver and tour guide.
Tickets and admission
The Boleto Turistico (Tourist Ticket) is an essential purchase when visiting The Sacred Valley region. There are several options to choose from, including:
- A full ticket, which is valid for 10 days and includes entry to Moray, Chinchero, Pisac and the Ollantaytambo ruins, as well as a selection of museums and attractions within Cusco (S/130pp);
- A partial ticket, valid for 2 days, which includes entry to Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero & Moray (S/70pp)
It is not possible to pay for attractions individually, so you will need to buy a Boleto Turistico if you plan on visiting any of the Sacred Valley sites. Tickets can be purchased at the Tourist Information centre in Cusco, or any of the visiting points included on your ticket. Find out more about tickets and rates at the official website here.
Machu Picchu and the Maras Salt Mines are NOT covered in any of the Boleto Turistico options. The fee for Maras is S/10 on entry and Machu Picchu tickets must be booked online in advance via the official government website.
Read more: How to plan a day visit to Machu Picchu
The best sights in The Sacred Valley
The terraced, stone rings of Moray are one of the most impressive and mysterious archaeological sites in The Sacred Valley. No one knows why these circles were formed, but it’s believed the area was used as an innovative agricultural experiment by the Incans. Whatever the story, walking along the giant stone terraces is a surreal experience and an absolute must-do when exploring The Sacred Valley. The surrounding region is absolutely breathtaking, so be sure to allow some time to take in the views.
Salineras de Maras (Salt Mines of Maras)
Nothing can prepare you for the sight of 5,000 geometric salt ponds carved out into a deep red-rock canyon, but that’s the view that greets you when you arrive at Salineras de Maras (Maras Salt Mines). These ancient salt ponds once served the entire Incan Empire. Today, each one belongs to a local family and the salt production process remains largely unchanged centuries later!
Tourists can no longer walk among the salt ponds themselves, but head to the main viewpoint for some spine-tingly panoramas. Be sure to stop at the local gift shop and pick up some natural pink salt as a memento, before you go!
Believed to be “the birthplace of the rainbow”, the tiny town of Chinchero is every bit as magical as it sounds. Cobbled streets, lined with white-washed buildings, all lead to a central plaza with a beautiful colonial church at its centre. Throw in some ancient ruins and sweeping mountain views, and you’ve got yourself a little slice of paradise.
Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday is market day in Chinchero, when you can shop for unique handicrafts and see local weavers demonstrating their age-old, traditional craft.
Most tourists rush through Ollantaytambo on their way to the start of the world-famous Inca Trail – or worse, they bypass this pretty village altogether. But Ollantaytambo is a true hidden gem within Peru’s Sacred Valley and deserves at least a day to explore in its own right.
As well as picture-perfect streets and colourful market stalls, Ollantaytambo is home to some seriously impressive fortress ruins that are well worth the climb (you’ll need your Boleto Turistico to enter!) Reward yourself afterwards with a Pisco Sour and a spot of people-watching on the main square – I guarantee you’ll never want to leave.
If you still haven’t had your fill of Incan ruins, then Pisac is a great day trip option, located less than an hour from Cusco. Sunday is the day to visit, as this is when its famous artisan market takes over the historic streets. We decided to give this one a miss, choosing to make the most of our time in the buzzing city of Cusco instead.
Last, but certainly not least, Machu Picchu is Sacred Valley’s most iconic attraction and one of the seven modern ‘Wonders of the World’. The 15th century Incan citadel is made up of more than 150 different houses, temples and royal buildings, all cloaked in those familiar mountains and mist. Guided tours of the citadel are now mandatory and tickets must be booked in advance via the government website.
There are also some epic day hikes to conquer, during your visit to Machu Picchu, including Huayna Picchu (that big old mountain peak you see in every Machu Picchu photo, ever) and Machu Picchu Mountain; a less touristy, alternative trek that promises unbeatable views of the Lost City and the winding Urabamba River, from its towering peak. Both hikes must be pre-booked, at the point of purchasing your tickets to Machu Picchu.
Peru is so much more than just Machu Picchu, so be sure to dedicate some time to the spectacular Sacred Valley region – I promise, you will not be disappointed! Travelling elsewhere in this beautiful country? Read my ultimate guide to Cusco or find out everything you need to know about hiking Rainbow Mountain. You can also read all my South America guides here – happy travels!
Please check all government travel advice before visiting Peru, during the Covid-19 pandemic.