Here’s my advice to you about the Sacred Valley in Peru: don’t rush it.
Scores of travel agencies in Cusco run tours to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which stretches through the Andes between Cusco and Machu Picchu. It can be done in a day; Machu Picchu is only four hours north of Cusco.
But give it more than one day – each of these places were major points of interest for the Incas.
We caught a shared minibus from Cusco to Písac, a 30-minute journey of twisted mountain road. It cost 3.50 soles per person and dropped us off right in the easily-navigable town of Písac. We walked to the first hotel we saw (above a jewelry store) and got a double room for 50 soles.
Písac instantly became one of the highlights of our trip to Peru. Maybe it was the gorgeous sunny day. Maybe it was the quiet, cheerful village. Maybe it was the warm beers we had in a convenience store with a jolly old Frenchman. Maybe it was the mind-spinning views from the ruins.
Whatever it was, Písac was a welcome surprise.
Besides the Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday markets, Písac’s main attraction is Inca Písac, the ruins of what was once the primary defense for the Southern border of the Sacred Valley.
There are two ways to get to the ruins: by bus or hiking trail. It’s a long 2-hour hike to the top, but it is by far the best way to go.
The views are incredible – I stopped at every bend to get a picture, only to realize that it kept getting better as we got higher. The valley stretches out in front of you and terraced hillsides become more defined. This fortress played several roles: military, religious, and agricultural, and the remains of temples, houses, and farmland are still standing.
From Písac, we took a local bus to Urubamba, where we jumped into a shared minibus to Ollantaytambo. All up, it took about 90 minutes and cost 4 soles each (1.50 for the bus and 2.50 for the taxi). You can also get here via train from Cusco, but then you’d miss Písac.
Plus, the train is about a million times more expensive.
Ollantaytambo, sometimes called simply ‘Ollanta,’ was built on the banks of the Patakancha River, overseen by an indomitable cliffside temple. We didn’t use a guide, but I think it would have been beneficial as we could have learned more about what we were seeing.
This temple is considerably easier to access, with only a brief uphill series of stairs to climb. There were more great views and more interesting ruins, including fountains and storehouses.
We booked a room at ‘Casa de Wow!’, which we obviously chose because of its name – one of the owners is actually named Wow. It was a pleasant place to stay, a little B&B with a great breakfast, friendly hosts, and handmade tree trunk beds with views of the mountain. (Casa de Wow did not sponsor my stay or ask me to say this.)
Entrance to the ruins of Písac and Ollantaytambo are included in the boleto turístico. There are plenty of other places in the Sacred Valley to visit, but we only had time for these two.
Because let’s not beat around the bush – the main reason most people are in the Sacred Valley in the first place is to visit the ultimate tourist destination in Peru: Machu Picchu.
But if you’ve got time, spare a few days for the little places along the way. It’s one of the best things we did.