I recently saw someone on Facebook post that they were considering visiting Cusco and not going to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. I am not sure what the thinking was, but as I suggested to them, I think it would be a crime to come to Cusco and not explore the Valley. Even if you choose not to visit MP, which is somewhat expensive, there are many other things in the valley worth seeing.
The Sacred Valley is about an hour from Cusco by bus or shuttle. It is at the heart of the former Inca empire. Unfortunately, when the Spanish entered the valley in the early 1600s, looting and destroying the Inca civilization seemed to be the primary goal. Genocide might not be too strong a word to describe the things they did to the Incas. Much of what you will see are the remnants of what the Incas built, but destroyed by the Spanish. Many of these sites have only been rediscovered in the past 50 years. Machu Picchu was rediscovered in the early 1900s. As late as 2009, looting of some of the more recently discovered sites continued.
There are too many sites in the Valley to list here and speaking with a local guide will enable you to plan your trip, but there are 5 sites I strongly suggest.
- Machu Picchu – This is of course the most well known site in the valley and is certainly worth seeing. The reason that Incas abandoned this site is not fully understood, but it appears that Spanish never made it this far north.
For whatever reason, the Incas seem to have just left. Much is known about the site, as it has been extensively studied since its rediscovery in 1911, but much is still unknown. The Inca knowledge of architecture and astronomy is impressive. Getting to Machu Picchu can be a chore. From Cusco, the trip will take you a minimum of 4 hours. This is important, particularly under the new 2024 rules. Let me explain.
Getting to MP requires traveling from Cusco to Ollantaytambo by some means; bus, shuttle, taxi, etc. This takes about 1.5 hours. From Ollantaytambo, you must take a train (or a multi-day hike) to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which is another 1.5 hours. Then from Machu Picchu Pueblo to the park entrance is either a 2 hour hike or a 25 minute bus ride. When you purchase your entry pass, you must select an entry time. The earliest time available is 7AM and since MP is a VERY popular place, that is the best time to avoid the crowds. However, you must enter the park within 30 minutes of your selected entry time, which means staying in Cusco the night before is not an option. There are plenty of great places to stay in the valley between the towns of Urubamba and Machu Picchu Pueblo, so choose your accommodations with the travel and park entry times in mind. Staying in Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu Pueblo, or Aguascalliente puts you close to the park, but they are also the more expensive options.
Tickets for the park can be purchased from the official seller (https://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/), but a new company took over this role on January 1st and there have been difficulties. There are some very good resellers, along with many scam sites. Be careful when buying online. I suggest Peruways.com. They not only sell entry tickets, but can arrange all the necessary transportation along the way. A bit more expensive than getting everything separately, but very convenient. You MUST purchase your tickets well in advance. During the high season (April – September) tickets will sell out weeks or months in advance. A small number of tickets are supposed to be available same-day, but this has been one of the issues that the new company is struggling with. By next “high-season” this will hopefully be better.During the off-season, weather becomes an issue and it is possible that rain and clouds can obscure the famous views of MP from above. Bring a raincoat.n the past, it was possible to tour MP without a guide, but I have been told that it is now required. In any event, it is worth the money to have one. The history of the area is impressive and there is not much support for un-guided touring. You can hire a guide in the towns you pass through or at the park entrance. Ask for a group tour in order to get lower prices.
MORE PHOTOS: HERE
- Ollantaytambo – This is where the train leaves from for Machu Picchu, but is an impressive place on its own. This Inca community and temple marks the furthest north in the Sacred Valley that the Spanish reached, and as such shows the damage that they inflicted.
The temple is on top of a hill looking down on the town. Half of the town is more recently built, but much of the original Inca town can still be seen. The Inca system of small aqueducts is on display here as is their penchant for terrace building.
MORE PHOTOS: HERE
- Maras Salt Mines – This is not a large site, but it is interesting to see where salt has been mined since the time of the Incas and continues today. According to my guide there are large saltwater “lakes” under the mountains which are the remnants of ancient seas that filled the valley. It is more likely that there are large salt deposits left from those seas and rain water flowing through the deposits is the source of the salt.
At Maras, a salt water spring flows out of the hillside. During the dry season, the spring is diverted into many small pools, then the water is allowed to evaporate and the salt is harvested.
MORE PHOTOS: HERE
- PIsaq (or Pisac) – This high mountain community is an incredible example of Inca agricultural knowledge. The mountainside was terraced for over 1000 vertical feet and different crops were planted based on the elevation. Fruits and other crops requiring a warmer environment at the bottom and other heartier plants such as potatoes nearer the top. This is also the site of a major burial ground and was only discovered in the 1990s. Over 3000 mummified bodies were found. Unfortunately, this is one of the sites that was actively being looted until about 2009. If you can, plan to visit this site before 2PM when the light will be better for photography.
- Rainbow Mountain – While south of Cusco, and not really in the Sacred Valley, this is well worth a visit. Located about 3 hours south of Cusco, Rainbow mountain is HIGH…about 5200m (17,000’). It is a hard hike to reach the top. You can drive or take a shuttle from Cusco to about 4500m, but the last 700m is a hard hike up. This is well beyond the ability of many people.
For those not able or willing to do the hike, you can ride up on ATVs or hire someone to take you up by horseback or motorcycle. Most people will suffer from at least minor altitude sickness here and many who attempt the top will turn back. Weather is an important factor. It is possible to get to the top and be able to see nothing. Your chances of good weather are much higher April – September, but even during the rainy season there are often brief times during the day when the clouds and rain will clear. Hail and snow are not unheard here.
MORE PHOTOS: HERE
There are literally hundreds of sites to explore within a few hours of Cusco. Guides can help you plan a custom tour, but there are plenty of pre-packaged tours as well. This area is very popular even in the off season, Be prepared for crowds. Even on Rainbow Mountain in the off season there will be a thousand or more people hiking the trail every day.