3 Days in Peru’s Sacred Valley

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With most visitors beelining to the incredible bucket-list destination of Machu Picchu, the rest of Peru’s Sacred Valley is often forgotten. To fully experience this area, spend a few days outside of Cusco in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. This river valley in the Andes Mountain range is less than an hour drive from Cusco and spans 60 kilometers from Pisac to Ollantaytambo. It is full of Inca ruins, Spanish colonial villages, fertile farmland, and colorful local markets. While most of these sights can be visited as day trips from Cusco, staying in one of the towns along the Urubamba river as a base saves you time, eases altitude sickness, and lets you enjoy the breathtaking views all day and night.

3 Days in Sacred Valley of Peru

Where to Stay:

There are three main cities in the Sacred Valley: Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo. Each has their own advantages. Pisac is closest to the Cusco airport meaning a shorter drive on your first day. The town is picturesque with good restaurants, a famous market, and the nearby ruins. Urubamba is in the middle of the valley and has most of the larger and nicer hotels. There are no ruins in Urubamba, but there is a lot of good restaurants, a market, and a more local atmosphere. Ollantaytambo is a beautiful village that is conveniently located at the train station that will take you to Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo also has one of the best ruins in the Sacred Valley.

We decided to stay in between Urubamba and Ollantaytambo at Tierra Viva Valle Sagrado. This more remote hotel had beautiful views of Sacred Valley, was only a 15-minute drive to Ollantaytambo train station, and was cheaper than comparable places in Ollantaytambo. Like many hotels in Peru, an extensive breakfast was included in the price. The only downside being it was not within walking distance of any restaurants other than the one inside the hotel complex.

Where to Stay in Sacred Valley - Tierra Viva Valle Sagrado
Where to Stay in Sacred Valley - Tierra Viva Valle Sagrado

Other Great Hotels in the Sacred Valley:

  • In Pisac:

    • Pisac Inn – A colorful and charming hotel with a great location in the center of Pisac

    • Casa Intihuatana – Hostel with both dormitory and private rooms a bit away from the center of Pisac, budget friendly

  • In Urubamba:

    • Tambo del Inka – A Luxury Resort & Spa with a private train station to Machu Picchu and large rooms

  • In Ollantaytambo:

    • Intitambo Hotel – Cozy hotel in old town with a roof-top patio with views of Inca ruins

    • El Albergue – Located within walking distance of the train station, this hotel has a beautiful garden growing organic fruits and vegetables served to the guests

Day 1: Alpacas and Pisac

We had an overnight flight from the United States into Peru. We arrived in Lima at 5 am and then hopped on a flight to Cusco at 7 am. We had pre-arranged a driver to pick us up from the Cusco airport when we arrived at 9 am and take us to our hotel in the Sacred Valley, with a few stops along the way. It is highly advised that you do not drive yourself in Peru, your only real option for getting to the Sacred Valley from the Cusco airport is by taxi.

If you speak Spanish and knowledgeable about the area and acceptable prices, you can get a taxi after you arrive at the airport. If you would like some peace of mind or worry about communicating with the driver, you can book your taxi ahead of time. We paid 200 soles ($65) for a taxi to take us to our hotel with 4 stops along the way, 6 hours in total. For a direct route straight to your hotel, it would cost $37. Our driver only spoke Spanish, but he knew our route and we could easily communicate with his minimal English and our minimal Spanish.

If you want to visit Pisac with a return to Cusco or would prefer a guide, you can book a tour like this.

ccochahuasi animal sanctuary

The drive from Cusco Airport (CUZ) to Ccochuasi is about 40 minutes depending on traffic within Cusco. Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary is a private family organization located on a small farm right on the main road. The family started the sanctuary in 2007 and cares for dozens of endangered or injured animals. Most of their animals they rescued from the illegal wildlife trafficking industry or from being mistreated by humans. It is a small place but they have Andean Condors, Alpacas, Llamas, Pumas, Vicunas, a Tucan, and many others. You are lead around by a guide that shares the stories of each of the animals and lets you into the cages of the domesticated ones. The end finale is one of the large Andean Condors flying over your head. At the exit, there is a handicraft demonstration and a place to buy real baby alpaca textiles.

 Alpaca

Alpaca

 Andean Condor

Andean Condor

 Woman weaving a baby Alpaca blanket

Woman weaving a baby Alpaca blanket

It was well worth the quick stop and the small admission fee which goes towards feeding the animals and a Condor breeding program. You can buy tickets for Ccochahuasi in advance or once you arrive.

Time Spent: 30 minutes

Cost: 10 soles ($3) per person

Awana Kancha

In case you did not get enough Alpacas, Awana Kancha, an alpaca and llama farm, is just a short way up the road. Awana Kancha literally means “Palace of Weaving” and it not only has alpacas and llamas but many women weaving the wools they get from the farm. You have the ability to feed llamas and alpacas alfalfa or pet them. Be careful though, as they are prone to spitting. If you want to buy some handmade woven items, this place has a large selection with good quality. It is very expensive due to the quality of the wool and the time it takes to weave or knit.

As an Alpaca enthusiast, both Ccochahuasi and Awana Kancha I found worth visiting and offered something unique.

 Feeding Alpacas at Awana Kancha

Feeding Alpacas at Awana Kancha

 Alpacas at Awana Kancha

Alpacas at Awana Kancha

 Alpaca at Awana Kancha

Alpaca at Awana Kancha

 Naturally dyed Baby Alpaca wool

Naturally dyed Baby Alpaca wool

Time Spent: 20 minutes

Cost: No entry Fee, donations Accepted

Pisac Ruins

 Agricultural Terraces at Pisac Ruins

Agricultural Terraces at Pisac Ruins

 View of Sacred Valley from the Pisac Ruins

View of Sacred Valley from the Pisac Ruins

These extensive ruins are found up on a hill near the village of Pisac. These ruins were our first impression of Incan culture. The ruins include spectacular terraces, storage houses, and hundreds of graves in the side of the mountain. You need a lot more time to see everything than we had. The further you walk away from the entrance, the fewer people around – a lot less busy than Machu Picchu. The ruins also offer incredible views of the Valley.

 Graves in the Mountain at Pisac

Graves in the Mountain at Pisac

 Pisac Ruins

Pisac Ruins

We did not have a guide while visiting but still got a lot out of just walking along the paths.

Time Spent: 40 minutes

Cost: Part of Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 soles or $47 for 16 attractions)

Pisac Market

After a quick drive down the mountain from the ruins, we arrived in the center of Pisac. The town of Pisac has a daily market that runs along a cobblestone street. There are plenty of souvenirs to buy. You will likely notice many of the stalls are selling similar, if not identical, items – suggesting that most of it is not handmade and/or not made with traditional alpaca wool. However, if you want these souvenirs get them in Pisac. The same items in Cusco or elsewhere are slightly more expensive. We got two nice hats and two alpaca figurines for less than $12. They expect to haggle but it is not always guaranteed you can get it down much lower than the price they offer.

While it is open every day, it is biggest on Sundays when locals come from nearby small towns to sell their fruits and other produce. This part of the market is mainly for locals. I would be hesitant about buying this produce or other street foods especially if you did get the necessary vaccines or you are not able to wash it before eating with bottled or filtered water.

Pisac Market
Pisac Market

Along the street and in the main square there are several young girls dressed in traditional clothes holding baby sheep or llamas repeating “photo” to any tourist that passes. If you get a photo with them, they expect a small tip of 1-2 soles. Short rant incoming. Like in many parts of the world, child beggars stay on the streets asking for money because tourists give them just that. Giving the 1 sole to one little girl just so you can get a picture continues the cycle of begging and poverty. If they are able to make money this way, what is to encourage them to stay in school? It also turns what should be a human interaction into a transaction, the traveler is just a walking dollar bill and the local child is a collection box.

Time Spent: 30 minutes

Our driver then took us to our hotel, Tierra Viva Valle Sagrado. At this point, we were exhausted from the lack of sleep on the red-eye flight and the high altitude. We fell asleep around 6 pm after dealing with altitude-induced nausea and headaches. We skipped dinner and instead had a granola bar. While adjusting to the altitude it is best to avoid heavy meals, you will likely not have an appetite to begin with.

Day 2: Inca Ruins

Like the previous day, we pre-arranged a driver through Taxi datum to pick us up to explore more of the Sacred Valley. We paid 200 soles ($65) again for the driver. The stated route on the website only includes Chinchero, Maras & Moray, but we also included Ollantaytambo to the itinerary at no additional cost. The taxi dropped us off at each stop and waited in the parking lot until we were finished. If the parking lot was far from the entrance, we negotiated a time that we would be done so he could pick us up. Just having a driver and not being a part of a guided group tour was highly advantageous at these stops. They are fairly self-explanatory or understood by reading a few lines from a guidebook, so a guide isn’t needed, and they are much better enjoyed by yourself and at your own pace. To try to beat the tourist groups, we had the taxi pick us up at 7:30 am after a filling breakfast from our hotel.

Chinchero

Church at Chincheros

After a short drive passing kids going to school and going up switchbacks, we arrived at Chinchero a bit after it opened at 8:10 am. There were two or so tour groups that beat us there, but overall the ruins were mostly empty.

 Agricultural Terraces at Chinchero

Agricultural Terraces at Chinchero

 View from Chinchero

View from Chinchero

 Market at Chinchero

Market at Chinchero

Chincheros is a small Andean village with charming cobblestone streets, an old church, a textile market, and some Incan ruins with impressive views of the Sacred Valley. The Incan ruins are mainly a set of nested agricultural terraces. On top of the terraces is the church dating from the 1600s. The church was closed when we visited but it is supposed to spectacular on the inside if you get the chance.

Time Spent: 40 minutes

Cost: Part of Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 soles or $47 for 16 attractions)

Maras Salt Mines

A highlight of the Sacred Valley, the Salt Mines at Maras have been around for 1000 years. These pre-Inca salt mines were formed to pool salt water that flowed down the mountain from a subterranean natural spring. Eventually, the water in salt water pools evaporates leaving high-quality salt crystals. This area used to be part of the ocean (hard to believe with how far inland it is) but after several tectonic plate events, saltwater springs are buried in the mountains. The salt mines started prior to the Incas, but the Inca people expanded the area up and down the mountainside. Over 6000 salt ponds.

Maras Salt Mines
Maras Salt Mines
Maras Salt Mines

There is a set path to walk through the top of the salt mines. You can try the water that comes directly from the mountain spring or the more concentrated salt water in one of the pools you pass. It is pretty much how you’d expect: very salty.

 Family harvesting salt at Maras

Family harvesting salt at Maras

 Walking path for Maras

Walking path for Maras

It is still being mined today by various families. You can buy the different varieties of salt in one of the stalls by the exit for a very reasonable price. So reasonable that I was so shocked at how low the price was I forgot that I should possibly try to haggle. A one kilo bag costs us 5 soles ($1.5). When bringing the salt back into the United States, it did have to be checked a couple times to make sure it wasn’t a bomb, but we got it home okay.

Time Spent: 30 minutes

Cost: 10 soles ($3) per person

Moray

Moray
Moray

These magnificent concentric agricultural terraces are believed to be one of the first agricultural experiments. The man-made craters are 150m (490ft) deep with each terrace about 6 ft below the previous. This slight change in elevation and light intensity creates different microclimates to allow the Inca to grow many different types of crops. There is a 16º difference from top to bottom. The crops were rotated throughout the terraces to determine the conditions for optimal growth. There is three separate agricultural complexes close together in this area.

Time Spent: 30 minutes

Cost: Part of Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 soles or $47 for 16 attractions)

 View of Sacred Valley

View of Sacred Valley

 Urubamba River

Urubamba River


Ollantaytambo

We drove back down the mountain’s switchbacks on a scenic road into the valley. As mentioned above, the town of Ollantaytambo is best known for having a train station that takes you to Machu Picchu, but it also has stunning Inca ruins. Ollantaytambo was an Inca fortress, the location of one of the greatest victories that the Inca had over the Spanish. It was one of the last Inca strongholds, even though it never was fully finished. You will understand why it was such a great fortress for defense as you climb up the steep ruins to the top of the hill. The Spanish did not spend long here after they did conquer the Inca as they were looking for the hidden gold rumored to be further north.

Ollantaytambo Ruins
Ollantaytambo Ruins
View of Ollantaytambo from the Ollantaytambo Ruins

Walking up the ruins is a bit difficult due to the altitude, but it is well worth it for the view from the top. There are plenty of longer hiking paths from the main area that could occupy you for hours.

Time Spent: 1 Hour

Cost: Part of Cusco Tourist Ticket (130 soles or $47 for 16 attractions)

In the town of Ollantaytambo, before meeting our driver, we picked up food from the Sunshine Cafe to eat back at our hotel. Our first actual meal in Peru and it was amazing!

Day 3: Day Trip to Machu Picchu

For our last full day in the Sacred Valley, we visited the renowned Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is a bit more difficult to access than other Inca sights. If you are forgoing the Inca Trail or similar Treks, you will likely have to take the train. If you are departing from the Ollantaytambo station (compared to the Poray station near Cusco), the train will be shorter and cheaper. There are two main train companies that operate this route: PeruRail and Inca Rail. We chose PeruRail simply because they had more and higher rated reviews. Likely they offer a very similar service at a similar price, however, I cannot adequately compare as I only used PeruRail. The train takes you to Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Town, from which you have to take a bus or a long steep hike up to the ruins.

Many people when visiting Machu Picchu take a late train into Aguas Calientes, spend the night there, and then visit Machu Picchu the next morning. The city of Aguas Calientes is nothing special. It only exists as a gateway to Machu Picchu. It is not worth wasting an extra day to visit Machu Picchu when it can be done far less time. Machu Picchu is a beautiful, breathtaking place and you may think you need hours and hours to fully experience it – you don’t. We walked at a very slow pace, stopping every couple of feet to take pictures and video, and still barely managed to stretch our stay to 3 hours.

Tip: You will need your passport several times this day: to get on the train, get a bus ticket, and get into Machu Picchu. It is also wise to bring bug spray. Machu Picchu is at a lower elevation, in the jungle, and does have many mosquitos and the risk of mosquito-borne infections.

8:00 am : Perurail Train to aguas calientes

For the train to Machu Picchu, we chose the mid-range price option – the vistadome. The Vistadome train has more windows, nicer seats, a drink, and a snack. The train journey is quite scenic along the Urubamba river with views of a few Inca ruins and part of the Inca Trail. We were given a slice of carrot cake as a snack that was average quality. I am still a bit undecided whether the extra price ($30 more per person) was worth it to take the Vistadome train.

 View of Inca Ruins from Train to Machu Picchu

View of Inca Ruins from Train to Machu Picchu

 Mountain View from Vistadome Perurail Train

Mountain View from Vistadome Perurail Train

 View from Machu Picchu Train

View from Machu Picchu Train

The train ride takes an hour and a half. We spent all of that mesmerized by the views out the window. The time flew by.

Cost: $95 per person

Machu Picchu

After arriving in Aguas Calientes, we found the store to buy the bus tickets up (after a bit of asking around). There was no line for the bus at 10 am, so we hopped on the first bus and drove up the mountain. It is about a 30-minute drive up the unnerving switchbacks.

Machu Picchu

A recent policy change for Machu Picchu dictates that you must visit in one of two timeslots: morning or afternoon. You must buy your tickets ahead of time either directly through the government website or via a 3rd party site that is easier to navigate (note that you need to get the foreigner ticket). For the morning ticket, you can enter between 6 am and noon. You are allowed to exit and re-enter once as long as it is within that time window. They will not kick you out of the ruins if you got a morning ticket and stay past noon (however, eventually you might need to use the restroom or eat, which are all after the exit). For the afternoon ticket, the time slot is noon to 5 pm.

Machu Picchu

We had anticipated some sort of delay getting to Machu Picchu (long line for the bus, train delay, etc), so we got the afternoon tickets. The afternoon slot is also cheaper, far less crowded, and typically better weather and visibility. We arrived up at the entrance to Machu Picchu at 10:30 am, when talking to the entrance guards, they said they would not allow afternoon ticket holders in until 11:30 am. It was a bit of a bummer to be so close to this wonder of the world and yet not be able to see it for another hour. We found a free spot on the ground to sit with the several other groups of people waiting. When 11:15 am rolled around, we walked back to the entrance gates where there was a large mass of people waiting to get in. In all honesty, it is an inane system to wait until they have a crowd of several hundred people and try to get them in all at the same time with only 4 entrance guards. Just as they told us, they started letting people in at exactly 11:30 am.

 Main Square of Machu Picchu

Main Square of Machu Picchu

The other new policy for Machu Picchu is that you must enter with a registered guide. This is not being enforced and I cannot imagine how it could be with the craziness of entering with hundreds of people. We visited on a less crowded day so there were several guides out front of the entrance who speak many different languages if you wanted one. Instead of a guide, we downloaded an unofficial audioguide app on our phones and used AirPods to listen as we walked around. The app we used is called Tupuy, you have to pay for and download the Machu Picchu guide separately in the app ($2.99). I would highly recommend this option. Far cheaper than a regular guide, you can go at your own pace, and you still learn a lot about Machu Picchu.

Ruins at Machu Picchu
Llamas at Machu Picchu

When visiting any of these famous places, I am always a bit apprehensive that they are overrated and won’t live up to my expectations. Machu Picchu is an expensive and difficult place to get to. This day alone we spent about $460 for the two of us just to see Machu Picchu. When the day before we visited Ollantaytambo, an incredible set of Inca ruins, that you can visit for less than $10. I am happy to say that Machu Picchu is extraordinary. When you see pictures of Machu Picchu, it looks like such a magical place and that is exactly how it feels when visiting.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

After walking around the ruins for 3 hours on the set one-way path, we left just as it was about to rain. There was a LONG line to get a bus down. Our train was not until much later so we did not have to worry. However, the line moved quickly and we were on a bus 30 minutes later.

Time Spent: 3 Hours

Machu Picchu Bus: $24 round trip per person

Machu Picchu Entrance Cost: $44 per person


6:20 PM : Train back to Ollantaytambo

We had expected a long wait for the bus and to spend more time in Machu Picchu, so when we got back down to Aguas Calientes it was only 3:30 pm. Our train didn’t start boarding until 5:50 pm. Once we got off the bus, it started pouring rain. We tried to run around and find someplace to eat without getting too soaked. We ended up at a restaurant a few blocks away from the bus stop. The food prices in Aguas Calientes are excessive compared to the rest of Peru. We split one of the cheaper entrees for $10.

With the rest of the time we had to kill, we found an ATM and bought chapstick. We still arrived at the train station an hour and a half early. The station has a waiting room with wifi, so we were set. I would still probably book the same train times, even though we ended up with over an hour cushion on both sides of the trip. It was nice to have the option to stay longer at Machu Picchu or in case there was a delay along the way.

Since our train back was at night, there was no need to upgrade to the Vistadome train. We were not going to be able to see anything out the bigger windows anyways. The lowest price option is the Expedition service. It was a slightly older train car, but still great quality seats and large windows. Most of the train ride back we listened to podcasts, closed our eyes or played phone games.

Cost: $65 per person


In the morning to get to the train station from our hotel, the taxi that our hotel ordered cost $9. When we arrived back at the Ollantaytambo station, they initially quoted us 60 soles ($18). I was able to talk them down to 40 soles ($12), which I still feel was overpriced.

SO NOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT WE SAW, WHY DON'T YOU WATCH IT: 

 
 

With most visitors beelining to the incredible bucket-list destination of Machu Picchu, the rest of Peru’s Sacred Valley is often forgotten.  To fully experience this area, spend a few days outside of Cusco in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. 3 Days in the Sacred Valley #Peru #MachuPicchu #SacredValley

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