The 10 Best Inca Ruins to Visit in the Sacred Valley and Cusco
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The mighty Inca Empire stretched along the west coast of South America, spanning 6 countries. The empire was divided into four regions, all of which met up at the Incan capital of Cusco. Cusco and the nearby Sacred Valley of the Incas is filled with centuries-old ruins. While one might immediately think of Machu Picchu, this area has so many more impressive sights that might even rival the great lost city of the Incas. This list ranks the 10 best Inca ruins in Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
All of these ruins (except Machu Picchu and Maras Salt Mines), are included as part of the Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco). You buy your ticket at the first ruin you visit. It costs 130 soles (47 USD) and is valid for 10 days across 16 attractions in and around Cusco. Along with these ruins, it includes access to a few museums in Cusco. You are only allowed to visit each attraction once.
Read our Post on 11 Things to Do in Cusco, Peru
While historically a very interesting sight, Tambomachay, the Inca baths, ranks last on our list. Only 8km away from Cusco, Tambomachay was a place for rest and a temple of water. The site includes a few fountains, aqueducts, and empty baths. Water, due to its vital importance, was honored and celebrated here. The man-made aqueducts flow water underground from the mountains, the exact source still unknown. At the time, the aqueducts filled up the baths with fresh water. The water is still flowing, hundreds of years later, but is no longer drinkable.
The site is rather small and a bit underwhelming. The entire structure can be seen in the photo above. There is a small walk to the fountain up an uneven stone street. I would still recommend visiting if visiting Puka Pukara as well (which is just across the street) and going with a guide.
Tambomachay and several of the below-listed ruins are best visited with a guide. There are no information placards or brochures for the ruins, so without a guide, you'll have little idea the significance or function of the ruins. We visited Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, Qurikancha, and Sacsayhuaman as part of a full day guided tour of Cusco.
9. Puka Pukara
From Tambomachay, hop across the road to Puka Pukara (Puca Pucara). Puka Pukara means “Red Fortress” or “Red Fort” in Quechua. While it is not known if it was a Fortress like the Spanish believed, Puka Pukara was an important site for the Incas. It was an Inn used by soldiers, messengers, or visitors to the Tambomachay baths. Throughout the complex, there were storehouses used by transporters moving goods across the empire. There were freshwater fountains coming from Tambomachay, to provide drinking water and irrigation for crops.
Compared to the larger, more extensive ruins further down on the list, Puka Pukara is smaller and less complete. However, it is worth visiting for the views alone. It is typically not very crowded and can be visited in less than 30 minutes.
Just a few minutes down the street from Puka Pukara and Tambomachay is Q’enqo (or Kenko, Q’enko). Larger than the previous two, Q’enqo was a religious site for the Inca. It was primarily used for funerals and sacrifices. The name, Q’enqo, means labyrinth, which is fitting because of all the caves and tunnels carved in the limestone rocks that you can walk through.
Here, there were sacrifices of llamas and humans, but also surgeries to save a life. The Incas, after having learned from a previous culture that lived in this area, were one of the first to do brain surgeries. Soldiers after battle often had a build-up of pressure in their brains. Inca surgeons knew to drill holes into the skull to relieve the pressure, a practice that is still being done in modern medicine.
In the Sacred Valley, about an hour and a half away from Cusco, Moray is known for being one of the first agricultural science experiments. This archaeological site is made up of three circular terraced depressions. These terrace rings were man-made to study crops at different micro-climates.
There is no written text to prove this was for agricultural experience, but the evidence around the site seems to point to it. The terraces have different types of soil that had to have been brought from other parts of the Inca Empire. The largest pit is 30 meters deep. The temperature difference between the top and bottom varies by 15ºC, with intermediate temperatures in the middle. That temperature difference is similar to the conditions experienced across the Inca region. Crops would likely be rotated through the terraces to determine ideal locations to grow those crops.
Along with the ingenious ways they built their structures without mortar and able to withstand earthquakes, the Inca’s experimentation and knowledge of agriculture is another reason they were such a remarkable and prominent culture.
We visited all of the Sacred Valley sights by a private driver, booked through Taxi Datum. We hired a taxi on our first day to take us to Pisac and an animal sanctuary on our way to the Sacred Valley from Cusco. The second day, we hired another Taxi to take us to Moray, Chinchero, Moras, and Ollantaytambo. Both were reasonably priced, efficient, and trouble-free.
45 minutes from Cusco, the Chinchero ruins are surprisingly located in the village of Chinchero. Believed to be a summer resort for the Inca royalty, Chinchero had a palace (destroyed by the Spanish) and many aqueducts and terraces for farming. The stone walls and terraces spill down the hill from the church, which sits on top of the hill.
The real highlight of Chinchero is the views. From the terraces, you can see believe snow-capped mountains and expansive fields. The Inca believed Chinchero was the birthplace of the Rainbow.
Chinchero has more to offer than just the ruins themselves. There is a colonial church that was built on the remains of an Incan palace – while an unremarkable church on the outside, the interior has been ornately painted. In the plaza of the church, locals host a daily textile market for tourists visiting the ruins. If you visit on Sunday, there is a larger market that brings in Peruvians from nearby towns and is less tourist-oriented than the one in Pisac.
Up the hill from Cusco, Sacsayhuamán is a large fortress and temple complex that was once part of the former Inca capital of Cusco. Like Moray, this site is especially important for understanding the prowess of the Inca. This complex was built starting in 1438. It is made up of massive stones that perfectly fit together – no mortar necessary. Thousands of laborers and carvers were used to finely-cut the stones to interlock together. Each laborer could only work for a few months before being swapped due to arthritis.
The end result were strong and unbelievable Inca walls that can withstand earthquakes. Nearly 600 years of earthquakes. Even nowadays, most modern construction crumbles in the face of earthquakes. While the Inca had bronze tools to help them carve, they never invented the wheel. They somehow were able to move stones that weighed over 100 tons down a mountain, perfectly in place.
Sacsayhuamán had many functions, each in its own section throughout the complex. They had a large water supply, with a huge well for storage and a system of aqueducts. There was an area for fun, with slides for children and patios/terraces. You can still slide down the Inca slides now. They had a religious area with a shrine and a tower for astronomical observations. In the middle of the complex is the large main square, where llamas roam today.
Many of the stones that were once part of Sacsayhuamán were taken by the Spanish to build their own buildings down below in Cusco.
If you visit during the winter solstice (mid-June), you could be part of the huge Inca celebration of Inti Raymi. This is the shortest day of the year (for the Southern Hemisphere). The multi-day celebrations include music, dancing, costumes, and food! Reenactments of the old Inca festival activities are done in the main square of Sacsayhuamán.
An hour away from Cusco, the Pisac ruins sit hill up on a hill overlooking the spectacular Sacred Valley. The drive up from the city of Pisac below takes you along mountain switchbacks for miles. Why not experience a bit of anxiety to appreciate just how high up you are. Once you get uphill, expect an absolute mess of cars and large buses parking on the sides of a narrow inclined road.
Pisac was vitally important to the Inca, as it served as a boundary into the Sacred Valley. This citadel looked out upon the Urubamba Valley to the agricultural farms below. It was an important trading post, temple for the sun, and agricultural hub. It also has countless mountain-side graves. Along the mountain cliffs next to the Pisac Ruins are many small holes dug into the rock, almost resembling nests for birds. These are actually graves for Inca, who were buried in the fetal position, being returned back to Mother Earth when they die.
These last four are all an hour or more outside of Cusco, in the Sacred Valley. It is so important to venture out from Cusco. While we love exploring cities while we travel, the Sacred Valley was superior to Cusco for us.
Read our Post on How to Spend 3 Days in the Sacred Valley
On the opposite end of the Sacred Valley from Pisac is Ollantaytambo. This Inca fortress is known for being the only place in Peru where the Inca defeated the Spanish. The Spanish eventually came back and took over Ollantaytambo, but they did not stay for long. The Spanish mostly left the fortress be, making it one of the best-preserved ruins. However, it was never actually finished. The Inca at Ollantaytambo were able to hold off the Spanish while they were still in the process of building. Building this fortress on a steep hill was an ingenious method of defense.
From the top of the ruins, you can get an incredible view of the town of Ollantaytambo below and the river valley. The hills around the area have other ruins, including Inca storehouses. The city of Ollantaytambo is the location of the train to Machu Picchu, so you will likely need to pass through there to visit the number 1 ruin.
Make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes and have acclimatized to the altitude a bit. To get to the main part of the ruins, you have to walk up – what felt like – thousands of steep steps (it is actually about 200). This is not one to see on your first day at the high altitude.
2. Maras Salt Mines
The Maras Salt Mine beats out Ollantaytambo for its uniqueness. There is no place in the world that is quite like these salt mines. Operational for more than 500 years, there are thousands of shallow pools of salt water dug into the mountainside. The salt water comes from a subterranean natural spring in the Andes Mountains that was channeled down into the salt pans. The salt pans themselves are man-made, but the source of the salt water is all natural, derived from ocean water that got trapped in the mountains after tectonic plate movement. After the salt water is guided into the salt pans, it gradually evaporates leaving the crystallized salt.
Each salt pan is owned by different local families, who carefully scrap the salt out, once all the water is evaporated. They then fill up the pool with salt water and do it all over again. You can buy the different types of salt from a small market near the mines or they are sold in local shops around the Sacred Valley. We also found some salt from these mines in shops in Lima.
The practice started in Inca time and has continued since. It has expanded to over 6,000 individual salt pools. Each pool is roughly 13 square feet and 1 foot deep.
The salt mines are not included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket and will cost an extra 10 soles ($3). It is worth the price. You can walk along the top of the salt mines, taste the water the feeds the salt pools, and watch the workers extracting the salt.
Here we are. The unbeatable Inca ruin: Machu Picchu. Going into our trip, I was extremely skeptical that Machu Picchu would be able to live up to its reputation. Everyone has that magical, iconic picture of Machu Picchu in their head – is that actually what it looks like in real life? Why yes, it is. No other place in the world quite matches pictures as Machu Picchu. That picture is reality. Walking around the upper agricultural district of Machu Picchu, you constantly look back down at the city below with amazement. It is right there in front of me.
To Read more about Machu Picchu, see our post on taking a Day Trip to Machu Picchu
You then walk down into the city proper, through the main gate, and the wonder continues. Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish and lost for centuries. Full height walls have persisted. You can walk into what would have been a small family’s house or a schoolroom.
I am a bit upset with myself for putting Machu Picchu as number one since it is overemphasized in any Peru itinerary. There are so many amazing Inca ruins in the area, that are far easier and cheaper to get to. However, none of those ruins exude the feeling of magic and awe like Machu Picchu does.