Peru is a fantastic destination to visit.
Peru was home to the Inca Empire, one of the most advanced pre-columbian civilizations in the Americas.
For many visitors, it’s the Incan and pre-incan history that creates the main attraction.
But that’s not all Peru offers. Enjoy incredible nature experience, one of the world’s best cuisines, beautiful colonial architecture, and even surfing the sand dunes.
The most famous attraction is the incredible Incan citadel of Machu Picchu for beautiful scenery, the fascinating history and simply to marvel at the engineering feats of this incredible structure.
Before we get into Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and its attractions, here’s a brief introduction to the Inca Empire.
The Inca Empire
The Inca Empire dominated Peru and Ecuador from 1438 to 1533 and was the largest civilization in pre-Colombian America.
The expansion was started by the Emperor Pachacuti.
Pachacuti turned the Kingdom of Cusco into the Inca Empire with conquest and peaceful assimilation of surrounding tribes and kingdoms.
At its strongest, the empire covered Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and parts of Argentina and Colombia.
You can find Incan artifacts in many of the regions they inhabited. However, most of the remains are found near the city of Cusco.
Cusco was the origin of the Inca civilization and became the political hub of the entire empire.
Even the city has some impressive Incan remains. Many of the colonial buildings in the historic centre are built on Incan foundations.
When the Spanish laid siege to Cusco and demolished the city, they didn’t completely remove the Incan buildings but instead used them in the construction of their own houses, churches and squares.
For example, Coricancha was the most important temple for the Inca Empire. The temple was dedicated to the Inti Sun God.
The temple was destroyed in the 1500s by the Spanish, however, the ruins and blocks were used as the foundation for the Santo Domingo Church built on the same ground.
You can see many more examples when walking the cobbled streets of Cusco’s historic center. See how the fine colonial brickwork and terraces merge with the large Incan stone blocks at the foundation.
Cusco’s surrounding region has a high concentration of Incan archeological sites. Many were built by the Inca and some were built by pre-Incan groups and incorporated into the Incan Empire.
The most significant of the Incan archaeological sites are dotted through an area near Cusco called the Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley, Peru
Home to incredible archaeological sights, the Sacred Valley offers beautiful scenery, astonishing Incan and pre-incan remains.
There are also fantastic local markets to find Peruvian textiles and handicrafts.
Officially known as the Río Urubamba Valley, after the winding Urubamba River, you can find the valley about 20km north of Cusco city.
The attractions of the Sacred Valley include all the sites along the Urubamba River between Cusco and Machu Picchu.
The star attractions here are Machu Picchu, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, however, Moray is another of the most fascinating for informed visitors.
Machu Picchu alone attracts over a million visitors a year.
These are by no means the only attractions in the valley, as ancient sites dot the region.
Let’s have a closer look at the Sacred Valley’s main attractions.
Machu Picchu has fascinated the world since its discovery in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. Located just above the Sacred Valley, you can reach Machu Picchu from the city of Cusco.
Built high in the Andes, the structure offers incredible views. Part of the attraction in wondering how and why the Inca built the structure in the first place.
The most likely idea is that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti.
Housing members of the Incan elite, the site was abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest.
It’s hard to believe, but Machu Picchu was completely unknown to the Spanish conquistadors.
The site remained unknown to the outside world until its rediscovery in 1911.
Surrounding Machu Picchu, you can find many terraces used for crop farming. These were mostly used for growing corn and potatoes.
These were staples of the Inca. Potatoes were exported to the rest of the world by Europeans after the Spanish conquest. However, only a few of the thousands of varieties were taken.
Machu Picchu was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
Ollantaytambo Ruins & Town
Ollantaytambo is a historically significant area for the Inca Empire and conquistadors. This is the name of an inhabited town as well as the incredible ruins.
Ollantaytambo is the base where you will begin the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This makes it a fantastic attraction to combine with the famous monument.
The structure was built by a pre-Incan group and was acquired by the Inca after conquest of the region. It later became the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti and the home for many other members of the Incan elite.
Cementing its place in history, this was where the Manco Inca Yupanqui won a battle against the invading Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro. For the technologically advanced Spanish, losing was a rare event and was achieved using the Inca’s knowledge of the site and irrigation system.
The Manco Inca Yupanqui and soldiers were ready at higher ground and flooded the area when the conquistadors entered. Arrows and boulders were rained down on the Spanish and Pizarro announced the retreat.
This would not last long, however, and Pizarro returned with greater forces to take Ollantaytambo.
Aside from its historical significance, the Ollantaytambo Fortress is an incredible area to witness. To give an example of the engineering required to build the structure, some of the blocks weigh over 50 tons each.
Pisac Market & Inca Ruins
Pisac is often visited as a day trip from Cusco and is an area of Incan ruins, as well as a Peruvian village.
This is a great place to enjoy archaeology and to enjoy Peruvian culture while browsing the different textiles and handicrafts.
The Fortress of Pisac is the main draw for visitors.
Perched on a hill, the fortress watches over the valley below. From this vantage point, it’s thought that Pisac defended the entrance to the valley.
You can see the ruins of temples, agricultural areas and remnants of Incan buildings. These areas are split into four different groups.
The market nearby is also a great place to visit and purchase traditional cloth, alpaca clothing, leather products, jewelry and pottery. This makes it a fantastic place for you to buy traditional souvenirs.
Although sometimes overlooked, Moray is one of the most fascinating structures of the Sacred Valley.
The area is visually interesting, as you will find a series of concentric terraces, which can be about 30 m (100 ft) deep.
Initially, the area looks like an amphitheatre given its construction.
The temperature difference from the top terrace to the bottom terrace can be around 15 °C (27 °F). Not only this, but soil from the terraces was found to be from all the regions of the Inca Empire.
The conclusion about Moray was that it was an agricultural laboratory.
It was an area where the Inca could grow and select for all the crop varieties known from the region. Thousands of varieties of potato and maize were grown in this way. Each one suited to a particular region of the empire.
The Quecha translation of ‘Little Cusco’, Huchuy Cusco is another important Incan site in the Sacred Valley.
Although visited less than other sites of the Sacred Valley because of the long hike (around 3 hours), this is one of the most remarkable.
The main structure here is kallanka, which is the remains of a large two-story building surrounded by terraces and smaller structures.
The most likely purpose for Huchuy Cusco was that it was an Incan royal estate for the Inca Emperor Viracocha around the year 1400 CE.
Maras is another thought-provoking archaeological area. Maras is a town in the Sacred Valley and is known for its salt ponds.
The ponds function by collecting salty water from an underground stream. The water evaporates from the ponds leaving behind salt, which is collected by local people.
The salt is still collected in this way and the salt ponds (salineras) have been used since before the Inca civilization.
As a souvenir, you can pick up some Maras salt from the nearby gift shop.
Tambomachay remains more of a mystery than the other areas mentioned.
The area is an Incan ruin with many canals, waterfalls, and aqueducts running through the structures.
The most agreed upon idea is that it was a spa resort for the elite of the Incan empire.
However, it could have also been a sacred site to honor the god of water or even another fortress to help defend Cusco.
You can find Tambomachay 8 km (5 miles) from Cusco city. Enjoy exploring the ruins and seeing the detail and positioning of the stones to wonder about its function. There is also a fortified structure, which was likely linked to defending the area.
Qenqo is from the Quechua word for labyrinth and the site is home to a fascinating canal carved into the rock.
The temple is thought to have been for sacrificial rituals dedicated to the various Incan gods, such as the sun and moon gods. The canal was for an unknown liquid, which is thought to have been either chicha (a beer made from maize), water or even blood.
Fascinating for the archeology and architecture, there are many different tunnels and chambers. These seem to show that the site was used for embalming and sacrifices practised at the time.
To add to the image, the canal branches off and one carries the liquid down to the underground chambers. No matter the fluid carried by the channel, there’s no doubt it would have been a spectacle to witness the rituals or events taking place here.
There are a series of different ruins at the site. You can also see different carvings of animals and writing relating to the Incan gods. The figures to be found include a condor and puma, which are both animals found in the region.
Note that the actual function of Qenqo is unknown. The Spanish thought the site was an amphitheater, and although theories to its origin and function narrow on its use above, the site remains mysterious.
One of the most agreed upon functions of Qenqo was that it helped with studying the sun and stars. The sun, stars and astronomy has great significance for the Inca.
An area at Qenqo shows it helped with measuring the positions of the sun, which would have been linked to identifying seasons or times of significance.
Qenqo is split into a few different areas. Surrounding the main site of Quenco Grande are different stone ruins. These include carved stones with images of snakes and monkeys.
The underground chamber is one of the most fascinating features. The stones making up the walls, tables and chambers are perfectly carved with purpose.
Historians think this was for embalming or sacrificial rituals and the sacrifices could have been human or other animals, such as llamas.
When to visit the Sacred Valley
The best time to visit the Sacred Valley will be when the days are clear enough to see the incredible scenery and monuments, when there’s less rain, and when you can miss the large crowds.
The wet season starts around the 2nd week of November and ends at the start of April. You can expect the most rain in January, February, and December.
Note that this is also the warmer weather months and daytime temperature is 18 °C (64 °F) during the day and 9 °C (48 °F) at night.
It’s not simply the rain directly that starts to be a problem over this time. The trails and rocks are slippery and it becomes harder to appreciate the scenery. This is often a challenge for visitors wanting the iconic photos of Machu Picchu.
As you can imagine, the wet weather months are usually avoided. Of course, this means an advantage of this time of year is that you avoid the crowds.
The most crowds are over the peak season between May and September and also over December.
The dry season is between May and October when you can expect better views of the iconic monuments and scenery. Temperature over this time is around 16 °C (61 °F) during the day and can get down to around 0 °C (32 °F) during the night.
For more information with a month-by-month summary, you can see our guide for when to visit Machu Picchu.
Visiting the Sacred Valley from Cusco
Cusco is often the base to visit the Sacred Valley.
Cusco itself is a fantastic destination to visit and the city offers many attractions. One of the most fascinating areas is the historic center.
In the historic centre, see the fantastic architecture were the find Spanish brickwork merges the large Incan stones.
This has created some fascinating sights as you walk the city and enjoy the attractions.
From Cusco, you can then easily head to the Sacred Valley.
Many people choose to visit the Sacred Valley independently. You can purchase the tourist ticket at the entrance to the attractions or in Cusco city.
For a more comfortable and more fluid experience, you can also enjoy many different package tours including the Sacred Valley.
Packing List for the Sacred Valley
Note that if you choose to visit over the low season during the wetter weather, you may wish to take some ziplock or dry bags and a poncho in your daypack. These fold up small and can offer more protection than a rain jacket.
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Fleece for cold nights
- Waterproof jacket
- Comfortable light clothing
- Brimmed hat
- Sunglasses with UV protection
- Day pack
- Your small travel medkit
- Sun lotion
- Lip balm
- Citronella mosquito repellent
- Camera with a spare battery
- Water Bottle (reduce plastic by taking a reusable bottle)
Surrounding the Sacred Valley
There are many more attractions surrounding Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Enjoy the many different markets and Andean scenery.
There are also many different hikes, such as the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, Salkantay Trek and the trek to Rainbow Mountain.