Welcome to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
Tell somebody you have been to South America. Their first question may be: Have you been to Machu Picchu? Yes, the site is memorable, but don’t miss the rest of the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Soak in hot springs. Learn all about coffee and cacao in a cool family homestay. Walk through streets where the buildings sit upon ancient Inca foundations. See how the Incas grew their crops and made their salt. Experience crafts and markets. Then, see some of the most amazing sights on the planet. The Sacred Valley is so much more than Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu- The Unmissable Stop
It is famous for a reason. Needless to say, the tourist juggernaut has made its way here. Even the nearby town of Aguas Calientes has been rebranded as Machu Picchu Pueblo. Sunrise over Machu Picchu is a travel experience that nobody will forget. Spend your day exploring or just find a stone to rest upon and meditate.
Agencies in Cusco compete to sell the best deals. Consequently, it may be the best place to start your tour of the Sacred Valley. Note that you will probably have to visit in either the morning or the afternoon when proposed changes to the management of the site come into effect in July 2017.
Santa Teresa- Soothe Your Sore Bones
Located at a short distance from Hidroelectrica, travellers stop at Santa Teresa for a reason. This is the home of the Cocalmayo thermal springs. After a long trek to Machu Picchu, particularly if you have walked to Aguas Calientes or done the Inca Trail, this is the place to rest your aching bones. The Ecolodge here is well worth a night, not that it is particularly luxurious, but rather for the Tarzan experience of sleeping in a treehouse.
Note: There is functioning bank here in case you need to change dollars. However, due to its distance from Cusco, your notes must be in mint condition. Otherwise, they will refuse to exchange them.
Yellow River- The Ultimate Coffee Experience in the Sacred Valley
Quello Mayo is a low-key highlight of a trip to Peru. Floods devastated the area in 1998, so the village is really no more than a hamlet these days. However, this has not prevented a local Peruvian family from opening a homestay with a difference. Visit the farm, do coffee or chocolate workshops, get to know the family, take a walk or just rest. The reviews on TripAdvisor tell the full story. For many, this is one of their favourite experiences in South America.
Quello Mayo is a place to get off the tourist trail and recharge the batteries.
Note: Make sure to have cash because the nearest bank ATM is in Urubamba.
Ollantaytambo is so easily missed on a trip to Peru. Travellers often visit the town’s famous ruins on organised trips from Cusco. This is a mistake- a big mistake! The charm of this town is just being here! Once the buses depart, quiet descends and people play volleyball in the main plaza.
The fortress at Ollantaytambo was the site of one of the greatest Spanish defeats in the Americas. Lured into the valley, the Spanish army was surrounded on all sides and they were thoroughly routed, many only just escaping with their lives. Today, the fortress remains very well preserved. Ascending its paths, you will feel every bit as if you are walking in the footsteps of the Incas as at Machu Picchu. The tourist ticket (boleto turistico) is required and you can purchase this at the entrance to the site.
Across the valley, travellers can access another small fort via a steep path. This is a secret that only those who stay in the town will most likely uncover. A good head for heights is beneficial if you decide to check it out.
Apart from its ruins, Ollantaytambo also has atmospheric old streets crisscrossed by open streams. The buildings were superimposed upon the foundations of the original Inca settlement. Location, atmosphere, history…what other reasons do you need to stay here?
In the evening, have dinner in one of the restaurants around the main square. Sit at a window and watch the tranquil life of this special corner of rural Peru. With the tourists hordes safely back in Cusco, you will know that you have truly discovered an unforgettable place.
Ollantaytampu Hostel Main Square is actually about 50m away from the central plaza. A dynamic young Peruvian with a Dutch sounding name runs it with ruthless efficiency. He has created a real travellers’ corner and breakfast here is an international affair. Expect to meet people from around the world.
Moray, Moras and Chinchero
Travellers can easily visit Moray, Moras and Chinchero on a day trip from Ollantaytambo. If you are travelling alone, try to join with other travellers to split the cost of a taxi.
The first stop is Moray, which is a giant Inca agricultural laboratory. It consists of enormous circles in which they grew their crops. Amazingly, the temperature was different in each circle so that each plant variety would benefit from optimal growing conditions. In fact, the temperature from the top layer to the bottom varies by as much as 5 degrees Celsius. Imagine that they already had this level of knowledge and understanding hundreds of years ago.
Maras is another place that is sure to wow. Why? Imagine a vast expanse of salt evaporation ponds stretching throughout a valley, small streams providing natural irrigation, and people whose work has changed little from Inca times. The sight is visually arresting. Unless you have already travelled to the famous Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, you will probably ask yourself how salt can be so cool! Note that this site is not included in the ‘boleto turistico’, so you will need to pay 10 soles per person in order to enter.
Chinchero may not look like much from the window of a bus. However, looks are deceiving. On the road leaving the town you will find Centro de Textiles Tradicionales where you can observe traditional weaving techniques. They will demonstrate their craft in its entirety from the dyeing of the fabrics to the making of the final product. In addition to its crafts, the town has a beautiful colonial church and a small open air market. Sunset here will leave indelible memories…
Leaving Ollantaytambo, take a bus to Urubamba from where you can then make your onward connection to Pisac. In addition to some spots that foodies will thoroughly enjoy, the Spanish colonial architecture and a busy traditional market make this a worthwhile destination. Also, the fort outside the town attracts tourists in their droves and there is a reason for this…
The views…the views…
The market remains one of the town’s main draws. However, be warned that seasoned travellers to Peru will probably insist that ‘it used to be so much better’. Its fame is due to the fact that people came from all around every Sunday and it was considered one of THE BEST markets in South America.
Hospedaje Samana Wasi Pisac is a good bet for those who want to stay in the town. Book your room here on booking.com.
Recommended by the owner of Ollantaytampu Hostel Main Square, The Blue Llama lives up to its reputation in many respects. The decor is eclectic- colourful murals featuring pastel blue windows that appear to open onto traditional scenes. The café has its own shop retailing traditional handicrafts. Foodies will love the carrot cake. Those looking for something a bit different might try the unusual coffee beans (excreted by wild coatis). The service won’t win any prizes for friendliness.
Elsewhere in the main plaza, you will come across Mullu. Savour the apple pie. It comes with vanilla ice cream and a spicy chocolate sauce. The presentation of the food is impressive (compliments to the chef). Add in a design based on wood, succulent smells emanating from the open plan kitchen, soft piped music and this is a place that should be perfect. However, surly staff don’t do the food or the decor any justice…
The Whole Shebang (Two Weeks)
Spend two days at Machu Picchu before making your way to Santa Teresa for a night in the treehouse. The next day, take a taxi to Quello Mayo where you can spend the next four days relaxing and learning about coffee and cacao. A colectivo will bring you to Ollantaytambo where you can buy your boleto turistico. Visit the fort, take a hike and experience Moray, Maras and Chinchero. After four days of bliss, hightail it to Pisac for two days. Spend a day at the market and then take your time at the mightiest ruins in the Sacred Valley. Return to Cusco after a two week extravaganza in the Sacred Valley.
Whistlestop Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley Tour (5-6 days)
Spend the obligatory two days at Machu Picchu and organise for your bus to drop you off at Ollantaytambo. Budget a day to visit the fortress. Take another day to experience Moray, Maras and Chinchero. Finally, take a bus to Pisac (via Urubamba where you change) and see the market and the ruins in a day. In less than a week, you will have seen the main sights and you will be back in Cusco.
The Coffee Lovers’ Tour (One Week Plus)
Start with the two days at Machu Picchu. Have the bus drop you off at Quello Mayo where you spend the next four days recharging and enjoying the coffee. Hike up the river to Santa Teresa and soak in the hot springs before returning to Yellow River. Take a colectivo from Santa Maria to Ollantytambo and use it as a base to explore Pisac and the the other sights of the Sacred Valley. Return to Cusco from Ollantaytambo.
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 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.
Trains (expensive) leave for Machu Picchu from Cusco and Ollantaytambo. Buses run from Cusco and every agency in town sells tickets. If you book a tour from Cusco, expect them not to want to take you to Santa Teresa or Quello Mayo. If they create a real fuss, take a taxi. Colectivos (shared minibuses) are cheap and easy to use. You can take one from either Santa Teresa or Santa Maria to Ollantaytambo. Based in Ollantaytambo, you can easily connect to Pisac via Urubamba. There are also collectivos from Urubamba to Chinchero.
Accommodation is available for all price ranges. Follow the accommodation links in the article to get up to date prices.
Make sure to bring plenty of cash. Apart from Aguas Calientes and Urubamba, it may not be easy to find ATMs. As stated in the article, there is a bank in Santa Teresa, but they will only accept unblemished dollar bills.