There is no question about it, Machu Picchu is the glittering gem in the coronet that is Peru’s Sacred Valley. The Peruvians know it and guard it fiercely and have built a very slick tourism operation around it. And as a tourist I can only say it lives up to every expectation I held and some. But, yes there is a but, what I had not appreciated is that Machu Picchu is not the only Inca ruin worth exploring in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
I was so fixated on visiting my number one bucket list destination, that I had not given much thought to the other sites my trusty bible, the Lonely Planet guide, spent pages describing. So the quality and quantity of the other ruins on offer in the Sacred Valley came as a total surprise to me, yup I feel ignorant admitting that!
Whilst Machu Picchu tickets must be bought in advance, have a strict daily limit and an entire website devoted to their sale, the majority of other Sacred Valley sites can been visited with a boleto turistico. This can be bought at any of the sites and is valid for 10 days.
I thought the charming little town of Pisac was all about their market and a few little ruins out back. Big mistake, huge mistake. Watching over the township are vast agricultural terraces, which in themselves are pretty impressive but the “oh wow” factor starts at the top of the mountain. And I highly recommend you reach this point via taxi rather than on foot, unless of course you are an Olympic athlete or in training for the Inca Trail.
The Pisac site is massive with ruins of buildings and temples, there are the remains of Inca tombs in the cliff wall alongside working water channels. It is all very impressive, couple this with a scenic location high above a stunning fertile valley and pretty market town, then throw in an enterprising busker playing the haunting pan pipes and you have the complete package.We spent a day just walking down through the ruins to the town of Pisac, being such a large site it is easy to loose the crowds especially as most came and left by bus at the top of the site.
Or Ollanta to her friends, is seen, quite unfairly, as a mere jumping off point for Machu Picchu, as it is from here that you catch the train up to Aguas Calientes. We visited Ollanta the day after Pisac and sat outside a little cafe in town looking up (yes up again!) at the ruins saying not after yesterday no way are we climbing that! I was the first to weaken, as it is included on our boleto turistico I suggested that we could just go in and have a look around the grounds, we didn’t have to climb up all those stairs. Famous last words, not only did we trek all the way to the top we climbed all around the ruins and then when we got down to ground level we explored the numerous water channels. We did however draw the line at the 6km hike to the quarry the other side of the river!
The ruins at Moray are totally different to any of the others in the Sacred Valley. The differing levels of concentric terraces falling away in-front of you make you think of a giant, sunken stone crop circle. This amused me considering its supposed purpose was for growing crops. The theory is that the Incas used the terraces at Moray as a kind of laboratory to determine the ideal conditions to grow certain crops. There are three of these deep grassed bowls dug into a hillside, a short drive from the tiny town of Maras.
With precious few other visitors around James and I enjoyed the chance to explore and photograph in peace. We just sat and marvelled at one of these great bowls with the view of snow capped mountains beyond it with not another soul in site. Where was everybody?
Further along the main road from the Moray/Maras turnoff is the town of Chinchero. From the main road there are no helpful signposts to the ruins so we worked on the principle that most of the sites we had visited were high so we would walk up, good decision. Not far up a dusty little side street we spotted the ruins, showed our ticket and entered the site. There is a lovely old colonial church, which was locked and some wonderful stone terraces and walls but the real star of the show for us was the backdrop of the mountains. Again we had the site virtually to ourselves.
These are just some of many Inca sites barely an hour’s drive from the tourist mecca Cuzco. Every year thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage from Cuzco to Machu Picchu but so few venture from the well trod path and stop to explore the rest of Peru’s Sacred Valley. And believe me it is well worth a look. We had booked to stay three nights in Pisac, but really we could have happily spent a week there. This is a place we will definitely go back to one day.
The best way to get around the Sacred Valley is by the local’s preferred mode of transport the collectivo, or minibus to us. There are no designated bus stops as such, just general areas where the collectivos stop when hailed, the locals with their produce hop on and off around you without giving you a second glance. The fares are only a few sole, so always have a pocket full of change to make it easy for the driver, you pay at the end of your trip. The main bus depot at Urubamba, is a rough and ready affair, but the locals are friendly and helpful and we never felt we were being ripped off.
A boleto turistico can be bought at any of the sites, is valid for 10 days, and will get you into most of the major sites. Machu Picchu tickets must be bought in advance, have a strict daily limit and an entire website devoted to their sale.
Beware of altitude sickness, the Sacred Valley is actually higher than Machu Picchu, so take it slowly the first few days. Talk to your travel doctor about taking Diamox whilst in areas of high altitude, we found it helped us. You can try the local Coca Leaf Tea but trust me it is pretty disgusting and did not really help us.