Discovered by Haram Bingham in 1913, Machu Picchu is synonymous with the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru. The tourist juggernaut ensures a steady stream of over a million visitors every year to see the site and it does indeed live up to the hype. Watching the sun rise over its ancient stones is a memory that will last a lifetime. However, the Incas were a complex civilisation and there is far more to the Sacred Valley than just Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo, apart from its imposing fort, has stone streets that date from before the arrival of the Spanish. Moray and Moras are testimony to the advanced scientific abilities of the Incas and both are postcard perfect places that will delight any budding photographers. Chinchero, home to traditional textile markets and historic sites, is well worth a few hours. Finally, locals generally agree that the best views of the entire Sacred Valley are found at the fortress of Pisac, where you can also also wander through another of the region’s best markets.
Of course, Machu Picchu will leave you awestruck, but there much more to see- so much more!
A place you will regret leaving
Charm, charm, charm. Walking through stone streets dating back to Inca times, you cannot help but notice the quality that this little town possesses in abundance. The sound of running water from the streams that crisscross the town will provide a soundtrack to your walk and the houses that you will pass are built on the foundations of the original Inca settlement. The big draw of a visit here is the fortress, the site of the last great Spanish defeat in Peru. Consequently, during the day Ollantaytambo is invaded by tour groups from Cusco making a beeline for the historic ruins. In the evening, when those buses depart, people play volleyball in the main town square and the little cafés and restaurants provide a quiet refuge in the cool nights.
Ollantaytambo is an excellent transport hub for visits to the Sacred Valley. Trains run from here to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Buses to Urubamba cost S /3 and it is possible to make a day trip to Pisac by taking a connecting bus there. Sit in the main square and taxi drivers will offer you a full day trip to Moray, Maras and Chinchero (you may have to make your own way back from Chinchero via Urubamba). The going rate for these taxis at busy times is usually 150 soles, but you can cut your costs by clubbing together with other travellers. Due to its historic ruins, access to Machu Picchu and the fact that its climate is a little gentler than that of Cusco, Ollantaytambo offers plenty of accommodation choices. Ollantaytampu Hostel Main Square, just metres from the top corner of the main square, is a great option for travellers. Single rooms cost about $30 per night and the helpful staff speak both English and Spanish.
The highlight of your visit here will undoubtedly be the fortress. Due to its impregnable location, this is the spot where the Incas retreated once they had been driven out of Cusco, and to which they lured a large contingent of Spanish soldiers headed by the brother of the infamous Francisco Pizarro. The result was a rout for the Spanish, one of the rare defeats that they suffered in their conquest of the Inca Empire. Today climbing the stone steps here will afford you views across the town and its enclosed valley, all the better if it’s a sunny day. In order to visit the fortress, you will need to have the ‘boleto turístico’ that can be purchased at the main tourist office in Cusco or at the entrance to the monument. If you suffer from vertigo, note that some of the paths are narrow and overlook vertical drops- come forewarned!
Moray and Maras
Photo opportunities abound!
Moray and Maras provide visual evidence of the sophistication of the Incas, particularly in the areas of science and agriculture, and both sites also offer budding photographers excellent photo opportunities that will wow the folks back home. Easily combined with Chinchero on a taxi trip from Ollantaytambo, or on an organised tour, these are places that will haunt your imagination long after your visit to Peru.
Outside the small town of Moray, you will find the agricultural terracing that astounds in its complexity, even today. Arranged in concentric circles and perfectly measured, there is estimated to be a five degree celsius temperature difference between the top and the bottom terraces. In fact, the reason for this variation in temperature is that each terrace would have been planted with a different crop that required its own specific growing conditions. To enter you will need to show your ‘boleto turístico’ and you cannot actually walk on any part of the site but rather you will be able to explore it from the paths and vantage points above. Take it all in, take photos and relax!
Maras is a postcard perfect representation of Peru. The salt ponds here date back centuries, possibly to the Pre-Inca period. Each salt pond is four metres squared in size, thirty centimetres in depth and they are linked by a natural irrigation system. The result is a vast expanse of white salt ponds stretching across the valley and the audio backdrop is the sound of running water from the little streams that connect the entire complex. With local workers toiling away in individual ponds, blue skies and bright mountain sunshine, you can hardly help but be taken in by the tranquil atmosphere of this unique place.
Since the ‘bolleto turístico’ does not cover entrance at this site, there is an extra S/10 charge to visit the salt ponds at Maras.
More to see than you might think at first glance!
Seen from the window of a bus on the way to Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo, Chinchero looks poverty stricken and grim. However, although its high elevation and cool nights might not make it the best base in the Sacred Valley, its textile traditions and historic monuments certainly warrant a visit. With a longstanding weaving tradition, make sure to stop at the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales at the edge of town. Here you will be able to witness all the stages of textile production from the washing and dyeing of fabrics to weaving the final product. More than anywhere else, this is the perfect location to gain an insight into local culture and traditions. However, the village is more than just textiles. Its colonial church, market and ancient ruins are all located on the same site in the centre of the village. Visit in the late afternoon because, although it may indeed be chilly, the views at dusk are truly breathtaking.
Should you decide not to visit Chinchero as part of a taxi tour from Ollantaytambo, there are regular colectivos to and from Urubamba. These are cheap (S/3), but be warned that there are plenty of steep roads with blind corners and some bus drivers seem to be in training for Formula One.
Favoured destination of many Cuscueños
Many Cuscueños will probably tell you that Pisac is their favourite place to visit in the Sacred Valley. This Spanish colonial town is well-known for its market, of which seasoned travellers will often comment, ‘if only you saw it twenty years ago’. Still, there are good places to eat along the main square and its fortress possibly provides one of the best vantage points of the entire Sacred Valley. Pisac can be visited on a day trip from Cusco or it could be either the first or last stop on an independent tour of the valley.
The fortress at Pisac
It is a long, steep climb up to the fortress and taxis can be booked in Pisac for about S/ 50 soles return. Due to recent accidents involving tourists, there are currently more restrictions on tourists than in the past, so parts of the site may be off limits (July 2016). Be careful of visiting this site on an afternoon tour from Cusco. If your group arrives close to 17:00, you may be permitted to enter the grounds, but not to climb the ruins. To travel independently from Cusco, take a colectivo from calle Puputi, downhill on the left from Recoleta, so a relatively short walk from the San Blas district. The fare is generally around S/4 to the town of Pisac. The taxi ride up to the ruins will cost you far more!
Once there you will again need to show your ‘boleto turístico’ in order to enter. Sloping down from the main path on your left, there are extensive agricultural terraces, but the highlight of a visit here is the view from the top of the fortress. Although the climb is not without its squeamish moments for those who do not have a head for heights, the views on a clear day are genuinely magnificent.
The boleto turistico is required to visit most of the main monuments in the Sacred Valley, although Machu Picchu and the salinas of Maras are exceptions to this rule. The ticket can be purchased at the main tourist office in Cusco or at the entrance to many of these sites. It is valid for only one entrance at each site so, for example, you can use it to enter the fort at Ollantaytambo once and no more. It costs S/130 soles and it is valid for ten days after purchase.
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