Touring the Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru
There are many Inca ruin sites near Cusco and throughout the Sacred Valley. Here are the primary ones that I visited and the ones that I enjoyed the most. This region is home to the indigenous Quechua people who speak the Quechuan language – which in 1969 became Peru’s second official language. Quechuas are a collection of several ethnic groups in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina. I had an excellent tour guide, Jose Luis Blanco C., that I hired through the travel agency Responsible Travel of Peru. You can locate Jose Luis through the travel agency or you can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. He speaks very good English and was very informative.
Sacsaywaman, sometimes referred to as “sexy woman”, is located up the hill on the way out of Cusco heading towards the Sacred Valley. Built as a walled fortress, with the earliest occupation dating back a thousand years ago, it has a commanding view of the city of Cusco. It was from this fortress that the warrior Manco Inca lay siege to the Spanish garrison, located in Cusco, in the year 1536. For the most part the siege was unsuccessful and the Spaniards used a good portion of the stone walls, afterwards, to build Spanish Cusco. Today, many of the walls still stand. What makes this site so incredible to visit is to see the precision used by the Incas in building these walls. The stones are massive with the largest one estimated at over 100 tons. The walls were built without using mortar and the stones fit together very tightly which is why they have probably survived many earthquakes since. From here, one can see the large Blanco Cristo statue that overlooks the city. Most half-day city tours include Sacsaywaman on their itinerary late in the day when the sunlight provides great photo opportunities.
This was one of my favorite sites. Located in the heart of the Sacred Valley about a 40-minute drive from the city of Cusco, the Inca ruins are located on the hilltop overlooking the town of Pisac and the Sacred Valley. From the hilltop trails, one has a commanding view of the mountains, the valley and the town below. The agricultural terraces constructed on the steep hillsides, for which the Incas are well known, are still in use today. With portions of the guard towers still present, many believe that Pisac defended the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley. Similar to other Inca sites, Pisac has many trails. Some people hike the trail from the city to the ruins or get a ride to the top and take the easier option of hiking down to the town. In the town of Pisac, there is a very popular market where locals sell handmade clothing, handicrafts, paintings and other souvenir type items.
Many people spend the night in Ollantaytambo upon arrival to Cusco and the Sacred Valley. At 9,000 feet, it makes the transition to the 11,000-foot altitude of Cusco a little easier. It’s easy to reach via the train that connects Cusco, located about 35 miles away, to Machu Picchu. Similar to Pisac, there are a number of agricultural terraces built here. The Incas built storehouses, still visible today, on the sides of the local mountains where the wind and the lower temperatures helped preserve the stored products. Surrounded by mountains, Ollantaytambo was a strategic location for the Incas against the invading Spanish soldiers.
The primary tourist draw is the salt evaporation ponds, which are still in use since Inca times. The ponds are structured on a series of terraces where salty water emerges from a spring and flows through one pond after another. Owners of the various ponds, scrape and pull together the different layers of salt which are later used for various purposes. We timed our visit just right and were able to see several owners working in their respective ponds. The ponds are accessible only by a dirt road.
Another Inca archaeological site, Moray is located near the town of Maras. My tour guide, Jose Luis, called this site an Inca laboratory, which was used to determine the effect on growing crops at different temperatures. The circular, terraced structures, which were built by the Incas, can create a temperature difference of 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit from top to bottom. The dirt roads leading to and from the site provide some of the most beautiful scenery of the whole Cusco and Sacred Valley regions.
There are a number of things to see in the town of Chinchero. There are massive Inca stone walls still in existence today. In the main plaza, there is a colonial church built of adobe in the 17th century where beautiful murals cover the walls. From here, there are good views of the snow-capped Salkantay and nearby mountains. One interesting thing to note is that Chinchero has been selected to be the site of a new international airport which will handle visitors to Machu Picchu, Cusco and the entire region.
I stopped to take a photo of a farmer plowing his field. He called me over and said I should give it a try. It's a lot harder than it looks - especially trying to keep it moving in a straight line.