While Machu Picchu is the primary reason for making pilgrimage to the heady heights of Cusco, it would be a mistake to skip the Sacred Valley. Squashed between the city and the citadel, it’s a region of hilltop ruins and dramatic agricultural terraces, where ancient customs are still very much alive.
The elevation here is high, but then so are the rewards; these day trips into the Sacred Valley will prepare you physically and culturally for traveling onwards to Machu Picchu.
Situated only 5mi (8km) away from the city, Tambomachay is an easy independent day trip and excellent for acclimatizing. These ceremonial baths – most likely used by Inca nobility – sit at 12,467ft (3,800m) elevation, so boarding a cheap collectivo (shared minivan) destined for Pisac from Calle Puputi, getting off at Tambomachay, then hiking back down via Sacsayhuaman is far more pleasant than walking both ways.
From the ruins, take the main road and then the path bearing left. As it meanders down towards Cusco, you’ll pass a clutch of archaeological sites, including the man-made caves of Q’enqo, before the formidable dry-stone walls of the great fortress Sacsayhuaman rise up before you.
It’s said that Cusco, former capital of the Inca empire, was originally built in the shape of a puma – Sacsayhuaman is its head, and the terraced walls form the cat’s teeth.
A gentle 20-minute hike then takes you back down into Cusco.
Rising out of the hillside above the village of Pisac, the Inca Písac citadel is a comparatively unvisited backwater compared with many of the other Sacred Valley treasures. It’s made up of agricultural terraces, an Inca cemetery, and a temple complex, with vast, valley-length views to boot, but unless you’re superbly fit and acclimatized (it’s a gruelling 90-minute hike up), hire a taxi to the top and wander down through the ruins.
Back in Pisac, savor the chaos of its market, with Sundays hitting full throttle as the stalls burst with alpaca sweaters, pyramids of colorful powdered dyes, and elaborately painted Andean pottery. Don’t forget to barter, it’s all part of the fun.
Ditch the expensive bus tours for the Moray Terraces and Salinas de Maras and instead hop on a collectivo (this time from Calle Pavitos for S/. 10 or US $3) to be dropped off at the turning for Moray.
From here, a short taxi ride brings you to the Inca’s agricultural laboratory. Spiraling up the hillside, these circular terraces differ 59˚F (15˚C) in temperature between the highest and the lowest, creating unique microclimates that allowed the Inca to experiment with growing crops.
A 5.6mi (9km) hike back via the village of Moray brings you to the equally spectacular Salinas de Maras, a shimmering landscape of salt pools etched into the hillside. Local families have been extracting the white stuff here for millennia – it’s back-breaking work, so make sure you buy salt from the shop before taking the path on the left of the pools down into the Sacred Valley and a bus back to Cusco.
The small-yet-perfectly-formed town of Ollantaytambo has more to offer than just the train to Machu Picchu.
Give yourself a few hours here and climb the stone steps up Temple Hill, the ruins perched above the village. The sweeping perspective of the gorge from the top makes the strategic placement of this fortress clear.
On the road back to Cusco, hop on any collectivo and get off at Cerveceria del Valle, a nearby craft brewery, whose six beers on tap and seasonal menu of pub grub is an excellent reward for an afternoon’s hiking.
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