Sacred Valley, Peru

Posted by on Oct 29, 2013

Sacred Valley, Peru

The city of Cusco was the centre of the Inca imperial empire but it is in the nearby Sacred Valley that many of the ruins and places of interest can be found. Walking around the city of Cusco, one is offered endless tours mountain-biking, horse riding and trekking from or to Machu Picchu. There are also day tours which carry bus-fulls of tourists from one site to another in the Sacred Valley within 9 narrated whirlwind hours. After having done the ‘City Tour’, which includes nearby sites in the same manner, I was loath to repeat the experience in such a special place as the Sacred Valley.

I was not alone in these deliberations. Steve from Canada, who I had met on the boat to the Isla del Sol in Lago Titicaca in Bolivia, and who had travelled on the same schedule to Cusco, was of the same opinion. Having bought our ‘Boleto Turístico’ or ‘Tourist Ticket’ in Cusco, we had access to many of the sites in the sacred valley. We decided to do our own tour, be our own guides and take our own time, so we took the bus to Písac to view the ruins on the hill above the town of the same name.


People advised us to take a taxi to the top and walk down, saving a long steep climb up. I would reiterate the advice. For the not so special price of S/ 20 (20 Nuevo Soles) a taxi will take you from the town to the top of the ruins letting your walk your way back down to the town over 2.5 hours.

From the top, Písac is an impressive complex beginning with a cluster of stone buildings and following the contours of the slope around to the baths and fountains. Stone terraces accentuate the gently curving mountain side guiding the eye away to more stone buildings clinging to the side of the slope. The mountain is steep and the engineering feat of the 15 foot stone terraces which follow its sides is impressive. These terraces enabled crops to be grown which would not normally grow at 3,500 meters above sea level. Beyond the narrow path and stone steps, an impressive vista of the valley is spread out below. Q’allaqasa, the strategically located citadel is perched on a natural spur with an unimpeded view up two valleys.

Following the path around the cliff we passed watch towers built on impossible outcrops and, walked down steep, narrow stone steps to view further terraces on the lower slopes and below that the town of Písac in the valley beside the river.

At Písac there are Inca and Pre-Inca ruins, the former recognisable by its perfected symmetry and geometry in the masonry; huge stones cut into squares, rectangles, trapezoidal or even more complex shapes and fitting together perfectly without mortar. The latter is of cruder workmanship, with a calcium/mud mixture used to bind stones of more natural shape. It is worth mentioning here that this exact geometry and almost obsessive attention to detail in perfect symmetry which was employed by the imperial Inca with such mastery served another interesting purpose: Walls and doorways often slope inwards towards the top and every tiny gap is filled by cutting stone of perfect shape for each setting made these structures earthquake-proof. Structures built in the 15th century remain perfectly intact while colonial era structures, build on Inca ruins centuries later crumbled hopelessly when the earth moved beneath them. Such was the case at Q’oriancha, the Temple of Gold in Cusco. Not only did the Inca constructions not topple, but the exact alignment of the windows and alters built to capture the sun at specific times in the year remained perfectly aligned, confirmed by laser measurements.

Stopping to eat lunch on the grassy terrace in the shade of the stone walls behind us reminded us of why we were doing this ourselves, so that we were free to do just this and enjoy the unique experience and beautiful location which surrounded us.

Písac is a must for anyone who is fortunate enough to find themselves in Cusco – take a S/ 30 day tour and live someone else’s schedule, or take the bus from Cusco for S/ 2.5. Visit the market and enjoy your choice of food and timeframe.

Moray is an interesting site, something like an agricultural food bowl in function as much as shape. The site is a series of terraced concentric circular depressions in a natural valley. I mean, I don’t know that it was an agricultural site but irrigation systems can be seen in the stonework. It is said that between the top terraces and the lowest there is a thermal amplitude of 15 degrees. The rules of agriculture at 3,500 meters wouldn’t apply in this protected micro-climate.

The main site is 30 meters deep and another beautiful picture of Incan symmetry and perfection. Wooden supports can be seen on the eastern side. Apparently higher than normal rains in the 09-10 year damaged the site with water continuing to be a problem. There are other perhaps ‘experimental’ terrace structures at the site, smaller and of cruder workmanship, but from the bottom still impressively large.

Its use as an agricultural site is postulated from its shape and the presence of a sophistic ad irrigation system, similar to that present at Pisac and Ollantaytambo. A regular ‘chink’ in the concentric terraces allows water to descend from higher levels before, presumably, spreading out in both directions to provide water to the terrace all the way around.


There is a precision, but it is not at odds with the surroundings having been carved into a natural amphitheatre shaped depression in the landscape and in certain ways its regular wave-form shapes serve to accentuate the natural contours of the hillside. Modern consciousness would cut into the landscape, or build a cantilevered square box which sticks out on the hillside so someone can get a glass frontage of what they’ve partially destroyed.

If you arrive by private tour you’ll get dropped in the car park, herded to the edge and talked at, but if you want to make your way there, take the bus from Urubamba, or to Urubamba, and get of at the desfío de Maras; the Maras turnoff. From there you’ll be offered a taxi and it’s up to you to negotiate the price. If you don’t like the price of S/ 30 then include the Salineras nearby and work the bundle price down. Expect the driver to wait for 45 minutes to an hour at the site/s.

So after Moray we took the same taxi to Las Salineras de Maras, the handmade salt pans tucked into a valley to the southwest of the town. From above the small pans resemble a patchwork of different colours from white to pink to brown. Set against the red earth and rock of the surrounding valley, it is an interesting study in colour.

Just with popular sites throughout Cusco and the Sacred Valley, people will be selling you souvenirs, whether it’s Llama keyrings, Puma & Condor statuettes in stone or a myriad of knitwear made of synthetic and authentic fibres. Here you can expect to find statuettes of salt, salt and the usual overpriced bottles of water.


The S/ 7 entrance fee is not included in the Tourist Ticket but gives you entrance to the site and freedom to wander at will among the small pans perched on the steep slope. One can see people working the salt with very rudimentary tools and observe the impressive irrigation system that winds down from above, splitting into a web of intricate channels to feed the many flat pans – each a slightly different shade of white and pinky brown. Piles of salt are common along the side of the path and the keen visitor can grab a few handfuls of the delightful crystals and sheepishly fill a resealable plastic sachet. Pink Peruvian Sacred Valley Salt. Of course, one can buy the same product above, and a clever collection of the various salt grades is available for a few soles. Let your conscience find the right balance.

Afterwards we continued on down the valley, trudging the winding stony path the sides of the river in the valley below where we had a lunch of bread, avocado, tomato, gouda cheese, olives, black pepper and some of that salt.

The highway is on the other side of the river, and a bus or minivan will stop en route to Ollantaytambo, the next site for Incan ruins some 10km further up the road. 20 people in a van is not a rare occurrence here, but as a tall foreigner with an annoying amount of legs it was….cosy.

Figure out a way to stay here when you’re working your way through the Sacred Valley. We didn’t but it’s worth it. It’s really touristic and absolutely charming. The centre of the town is built on old Incan ruins and maintains the peculiar stone walled squares used by the Incas. Many of the tiny cobbled streets are pedestrian only, by necessity, giving it an appealing tranquillity and authenticity that is destroyed by shiny metal vehicles or noisy motorbikes and the eternal infernal beeping of horns that is an unmitigated disaster in most of South America.

Just across the river that runs through Ollantaytambo are the main ruins. Once again stone terraces and stone buildings of Incan and pre-Incan contraptions are perched on the hill, in some cases, impossibly so as seems to have been the want of the industrious Incas. On the sheer slopes of the hill behind the town, visible from the ruins across the river is the old prison. If you were bad or the boss just didn’t like you, you had to make the gruelling climb to the stone building sitting in clear view above the township to think on your sins in a masterfully created stone room. You won’t escape through the cracks, there are none. Worse than being in prison was dying. If you died you had to make and even more gruelling climb to the even more precariously situated graveyard higher on the sheer slope of the same mountainside to rest forever from exhaustion with a view of the valley that would just be to die for, kissed by the sun and lashed by the elements and the hungry lenses of the thousands of tourists who swarm the lower terraces.

Ollantaytambo was razed and rebuilt in the 15th century by the Emperor Pachacuti who rebuilt it with the impressive stonework still present today. It was intended to house nobility and served as a stronghold against Spanish conquest for a brief period in the 16th century. Today the happily situated hamlet, seated at the confluence of two rivers where the Patakancha River runs into the Urubamba, is a tourist Mecca and a popular starting point for the famous Inca trail expedition of about four days to Machu Picchu. The train that runs from Poroy (near Cusco) to Machu Picchu stops at Ollantaytambo en route and for a measly $95 you can join the party. Peruvians and Cusqueñas pay S/ 15, foreigners, USD100. Bleed that fat white pig. Whoops, sorry students and intrepid travellers without big budgets. You can take the four hour bus and then walk the rest. I find it hard to believe that money is lacking to restore the Moray site properly.



Stay in Ollantaytambo, not Chincheros. We had this fancy notion to do paragliding nearby, knowing that it was nearby that tour agencies did it. Well, there was nothing in Chincheros. I mean, there are some cool ruins and many weaving cooperatives which make for great daytrips, but the discerning traveller can’t find descent food or an open hostel. After wandering around with a fierce appetite and the dream of some creative Peruvian cuisine, we settled for roast chicken with chips and salad. Afterwards we banged on the doors of a deserted hostel before ringing the number hanging on the wall nearby.  We sat down on the curb and ate some fruit, waiting ten minutes for the person with the key to arrive. Needless to say, we were the only guests and got a large room with four beds and a lounge. One of the beds collapsed when sat on and the other had blood on the sheets. 30% discount. I said four beds, so we were fine. Then we got locked inside the hostel without warning or a key while the guys went off for a meal. Three hours later, bored shitless and frustrated from a lack of response to my phone calls we ripped the lock off the main door and went in search of dessert and a pack of cards leaving the hostel wide open in retaliation. Consistent with the letdown that it was, everything was shut by 10pm Saturday night in Chincheros.

Machu Picchu is included in the Sacred Valley and, as Steve and I did, can be included in a trip through the Sacred Valley. If you’d prefer to find your own way to this historic site and save a pile of plata in the process, it actually makes sense to do it this way. Head around the back – sure it takes longer and there’s no fantasy train ride through the mountains, but if you can get over that romantic myth from travel brochures on South America it can still be really special. More on this in it’s own article.