15 Must-See Destinations in Peru’s Sacred Valley

15 Must-See Destinations in Peru’s Sacred Valley

Peru’s Sacred Valley is a place steeped in legend and wonder. It offers a multitude of trekking routes that wind along rocky mountain ridges and ancient paths crafted by pre-Columbian civilizations. Within its borders, you’ll discover vibrant market towns where skilled Incan weavers and farmers carry on age-old traditions. The valley is adorned with rushing rivers and peculiar salt pans intricately carved into the Andean landscape. And let’s not forget the abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites and archaeological wonders that dot the highlands, including the iconic terraces and temples of Machu Picchu. If you’re feeling tempted, look no further as we present the top 15 places to visit in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

The Sacred Valley holds a special place in my heart. It’s safe to say that my initial visit forever transformed my perspective on the world. I was awe-struck by the harmonious coexistence of countless layers of human history and the breathtaking Andean scenery. One moment, I was immersing myself in the vibrant culture of resilient weaver communities in Chinchero or Upis, and the next, I was traversing cloud forests adorned with vibrant orchids while crossing the majestic Salkantay Pass.

While Machu Picchu is often hailed as the crown jewel of the Sacred Valley, I believe there are numerous other locations that reach unparalleled levels of mystical beauty. The towering, partially ruined temples overlooking Pisac leave a lasting impression. The Sun Temple of Ollantaytambo, perched atop a ridge and overlooking adobe cottages, is a sight to behold. Natural hot springs and awe-inspiring vistas of glaciers emerging from lush valley floors are also part of this extraordinary tapestry. A visit to the Sacred Valley is a must for everyone, offering ample travel inspiration. So, dive into our curated list of the top 15 places to visit in Peru’s Sacred Valley and let your wanderlust ignite.

1. Cusco

Embarking on a journey through the Sacred Valley wouldn’t be complete without starting and ending in Cusco. This ancient capital of the Inca Empire holds a mystical allure, nestled in the high Andes and brimming with captivating culture and rich history at every turn.

Cusco serves as the gateway for trekkers embarking on the renowned Inca Trail and the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. It attracts thousands of visitors who come to orient themselves with the Sacred Valley routes, acclimate to the high altitude (Cusco itself sits at a staggering 11,200 feet or 3,400 meters), and gather any last-minute trekking gear from the abundance of outdoor outfitters in town.

However, Cusco offers much more than just a starting point for adventures. Its stunning architecture from the colonial era captivates visitors. The bustling Plaza de Armas showcases a magnificent Baroque cathedral, considered one of the finest in South America. The neighborhood of San Blas entices with its charming cobblestone streets and panoramic views of the UNESCO World Heritage center. Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of the city by exploring the San Pedro Market and experiencing the lively nightlife of the backpacker bars. Cusco is the perfect launchpad for exploring all the wonders of the Sacred Valley.

2. Maras Salt Mines

In the heart of the Sacred Valley lies the awe-inspiring Maras Salt Mines, where approximately 4,500 salt pans cascade down the slopes of Qaqawiñay mountain. This remarkable site is among the distinguished UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region, offering a glimpse into the ingenious engineering of the pre-Inca civilizations that inhabited the area centuries ago. These civilizations constructed the pans to extract salt crystals from an underground brine-rich river.

What makes the Maras Salt Mines even more fascinating is that they continue to be active today, producing salt through traditional methods. Monthly harvests take place, with the highest-quality salt, including the renowned Peruvian pink salt, being obtained during the dry season from May to October.

Visitors have the opportunity to take guided tours of the salt pans and support the local Maras community by purchasing various salt-related products from their stores. Several walking routes offer breathtaking views of the expansive salt terraces, creating a picturesque mosaic of marble-white set amidst a lush valley of rugged hills. It’s truly a photographer’s paradise.

Moray and Salt Mines of Maras tour
Moray and Salt Mines of Maras tour

3. Urubamba

For those seeking an escape from the bustling city atmosphere, Urubamba offers a tranquil alternative. This small town sits alongside the Urubamba River, just an hour’s drive north of Cusco.

Urubamba charms visitors with its compact size, lined with twisted plane trees and buzzing auto rickshaw taxis. The town’s main attractions include an arts market and craft workshops, where a vibrant array of local products awaits, from alpaca-knit vests to organic Peruvian coffee beans, and exotic fruits and vegetables freshly harvested from the surrounding fields.

Exploring the surroundings of Urubamba is equally rewarding. Nearby Chichubamba welcomes visitors to experience its community of skilled artisans and agriculturalists, offering mouthwatering baked pork dishes and showcasing intriguing handmade ceramics. Additionally, the Maras Salt Mines and the captivating Inca agricultural terraces of Moray are within easy reach, allowing for further exploration and discovery.

4. Pisac

In the enchanting town of Pisac, nestled within the folds of the Sacred Valley and about an hour’s drive from Cusco, charm permeates the air. This small yet vibrant town pulsates with life and energy. Most visitors gravitate towards the central plaza, where crooked cobblestone streets and bustling market stalls come alive during the Sunday bazaar, attracting farmers and craftspeople. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the bazaar and discover alpaca-thread hats or vibrant Peruvian rugs. As you venture further along the main streets, you’ll pass by whitewashed churches and cozy cantinas serving steaming broths and stuffed chili peppers.

Perched above the town, the famous Pisac Ruins command a majestic view of the Andes. Accessible via marked paths that begin at the end of Intihuatana Street, the climb to the ruins can be challenging, reaching elevations of up to 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) above sea level. However, the reward is well worth it. You’ll encounter an exceptionally well-preserved Incan settlement, adorned with pristine stone structures and offering panoramic vistas of the Sacred Valley to the south.

5. Moray

Among the multitude of Incan sites scattered throughout Peru’s Sacred Valley, Moray stands out as a truly impressive marvel. Unlike grand monolithic temples or astrological altars, Moray is renowned for its scientific ingenuity. Often referred to as the Agricultural Laboratory of the Incas, this site served as a platform for pre-Columbian settlers to advance their knowledge of agriculture and seed cultivation.

Located past the small town of Maras, Moray sits at an elevation exceeding 11,500 feet (3,500 meters), nestled within a deep, amphitheater-like structure. Its stepped terraces, carefully designed with varying microclimate conditions, allowed the Incas to conduct experiments with diverse plants and vegetables.

Moray remains relatively undiscovered by mass tourism, not being part of the popular visitor circuit or the Inca Trail. Tours typically depart from Cusco or Urubamba and often include a visit to the nearby salt mines as part of a Sacred Valley itinerary.

Moray and Salt Mines of Maras tour
Moray and Salt Mines of Maras tour

6. Huchuy Cusco

Steeped in history, Huchuy Cusco was once the estate of Emperor Viracocha, the eighth ruler of the Inca Empire. With a legacy spanning over a millennium, this site flourished during the 1400s as a significant fortress and productive farming area.

Exploring Huchuy Cusco reveals a vast complex of terraced stone buildings, remarkably preserved residential quarters, and a grand hall known as a Kallanka, once frequented by Incan emperors. Unique features distinguish this site from other ruins in the Sacred Valley, including an elaborate irrigation system. The awe-inspiring views of Mount Veronica across the Cordillera Urubamba only add to the experience.

7. Saqsayhuaman

Perched on a gentle hillside just above the lively heart of Cusco, the Incan ruins of Saqsayhuaman provide a captivating glimpse into the city’s Incan past. Dating back to the time of the esteemed Emperor Pachacuti (who also ruled Machu Picchu), these ruins are renowned for their colossal fortification walls. Some claim that the stones used in constructing the citadel are the largest single monoliths found in any ancient site in the Americas.

Saqsayhuaman centers around a vast central plaza, where imposing temple structures and remnants of the fortifications still stand proudly. Grass-covered paths and ancient roadways connect these impressive structures. Present-day Inca descendants continue to use the site for their annual festivities, including grand parades during the winter solstice

8. Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo, once under the rule of Emperor Pachacuti, showcases a captivating blend of ancient and modern. As you wander through the town center, you’ll encounter pizza joints and pisco sour bars alongside large ancient plazas, centuries-old cottages, and hidden monolithic temples on the surrounding hillsides.

Most notably, Ollantaytambo serves as the primary starting point for the train journey to Machu Picchu. If you’re planning to visit this renowned UNESCO site, you can travel from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and embark on a breathtaking sightseeing adventure through the Sacred Valley with your guide.

Before departing, there are numerous activities to enjoy in the Sacred Valley. Explore the slopes of Pinkullyuna hill, where well-preserved Incan storehouses still stand. Visit the Ruins of Ollantaytambo, which feature fountains and intriguing astrological clocks.

9. Classic Inca Trail

The Classic Inca Trail is a dream come true for many visitors to the Sacred Valley. This ancient trail ranks among the world’s top hikes, traversing significant stretches of the region and connecting fascinating Incan sites with the legendary citadel of Machu Picchu.

The four-day, three-night journey commences in Ollantaytambo and crosses the challenging Dead Woman’s Pass (the highest point at 13,828 feet or 4,215 meters). Along the way, you’ll explore the archaeological sites of Wiñay Wayna and catch glimpses of the cloud-shrouded Salkantay mountain on day three.

The final stretch of the Inca Trail takes you through the most iconic sections of the Sacred Valley. Zigzagging up the mountainside on paths created by the Incas themselves, you’ll pass under the Sun Gate and arrive at Machu Picchu for exploration.

10. Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes may be relatively new, established in the 1920s with the completion of the Sacred Valley railway line, but it has become a major destination for history enthusiasts due to its proximity to the most famous site in the Sacred Valley: Machu Picchu.

Whether you’ve just completed the Classic Inca Trail, the breathtaking Salkantay Trek, or arrived on a day trip from Ollantaytambo, you’re likely to pass through Aguas Calientes. This bustling town welcomes thousands of visitors each year, with backpacker hostels and bars buzzing with excited chatter from those fresh off the trails.

Aguas Calientes is also known for its hot springs, as hinted by its name. After a long day of hiking, weary trekkers can indulge in the natural hot springs located in a narrow cleft in the Andes northeast of the town center.

11. Chinchero

Located at an elevation of over 12,300 feet (3,750 meters), Chinchero offers stunning views of the Cordillera Vilcabamba and the snow-capped peak of Salkantay. This charming town is known for its rich weaving heritage, with a mix of Spanish colonial churches and ancient Incan agricultural terraces.

The weaving tradition is deeply ingrained in Chinchero, and you’ll find numerous workshops and craft sellers showcasing their colorful textiles. To learn more about this art form, you can visit the Tupay Andean Textile Center, which offers weaving demonstrations and has a shop. While Chinchero is slightly outside the main trekking area of the Sacred Valley, there are some relatively short hikes to explore around Lake Puray and up to the summit of Hatun Luychu.


12. Salkantay Trail

For those seeking a more immersive experience in the raw and untamed nature of the Cusco Andes, the Salkantay Trail is an ideal choice. This five-day, four-night trek diverges from the well-traveled Inca paths that lead to Machu Picchu. Instead, it takes you through breathtaking landscapes, including the gleaming Humantay Lake and verdant cloud forest jungles, nestled between colossal mountain massifs.

The Salkantay Trail is considered more physically challenging than other treks in the Cusco area. You’ll have longer and more demanding hiking days, including conquering the Salkantay Pass at an elevation of 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), which is higher than the highest point on the Inca Trail.

13. Lamay Community

The Lamay Community consists of approximately 6,000 people living in the village center and smaller farming settlements in the surrounding mountains. Situated at the western end of the Sacred Valley, it is about an hour’s drive from Cusco. A visit to Lamay offers a glimpse into the traditional culture and lifestyle of the local people, who cultivate quinoa and corn and create vibrant Peruvian garments from alpaca wool.

The Lamay Community has embraced sustainable and ethical tourism, providing various experiences such as cooking lessons, farm visits, and guided hikes through the Urubamba mountain ranges.

14. Amaru Community

Located at an elevation of 11,600 feet (3,536 meters), the Amaru Community can be reached by a winding road that diverges from Pisac in the northern part of the Sacred Valley. This traditional Andean craft and farming town has remained largely untouched by modern tourism. Visitors are welcomed with musical shows rooted in the Inca period and floral displays offered as gifts to Mother Earth.

The local Alpaca farm is another highlight, where you can learn about the ancient rearing of these resilient Andean grazers and browse the souvenir store. Remote hiking opportunities await, including treks to the lakes on the slopes of Ichhunayuq mountain or the reservoirs of Laguna Azul Concha.

15. Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, perched on a long ridge above Aguas Calientes deep in the Andes, is the crown jewel of the Sacred Valley and one of the most famous sites in South America. Each day, approximately 2,500 people visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, marveling at the remarkable Incan estate that is over 500 years old, featuring enigmatic temple complexes, throne rooms, residential areas, and monolithic gateways.

To reach Machu Picchu, you can either trek or take a bus from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the site. Some visitors arrive via the final leg of the Classic Inca Trail through the iconic Inti Punku (the Sun Gate).


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