The Sacred Valley of the Incas is exactly that, sacred. And we can totally see why. After our stint in the jungle, where we lived with a Shipibo shaman, who told us about his second home settled in the valley near Pisac and surrounded by nothing but nature and history, we wanted in.
So when we arrived into Cusco city, impressed but not dazzled, we yearned for the lush green valleys where too many travellers choose to skip, only to explore the city and visit the popular Machu Picchu.
Making a quick getaway from the stone walls and tourist polluted streets, we decided to spend two weeks of our travel time here, and we still wish we had invested more.
If you’re debating whether to take some time to do the same, the simple answer is yes. Enjoy Cusco city and all it has to offer, but save as much time and your budget for the valley. Sure if the highly intelligent Inca race decided it was good enough to call home, surely it’s worth our prying eyes and inquisitive nose.
We wanted to do it all, every town we could, but with only three weeks left on our visa, we picked three of the biggies, and included a visit to Machu Picchu. But like we said, it still wasn’t enough.
So go forth, jump a collectivo, and get your ass to nature, where life is cheap, accomodation is affordable and the food, hospitality, sights, smells and sounds will stay with you forever.
Arriving to Ollantaytambo, we set off on a mental 48 hour escapade to, from and around Machu Picchu. We then returned to Ollantaytambo before making the move onto its neighbour Urubamba.
It was here we rest our aching legs, got greedy at a local food festival and took a trip to the nearby Maras’ Salt Mines.
All dried out, we left Urubamba for a few nights in Pisac. Home to our second favourite Inca ruins, the most chilled out hostel and a lot of beautiful but busy farms.
There are plenty more towns and villages to visit. We barely made a dent but we hope our guide can and will inspire you to do more digging.
So, here’s how we did it:
Our base and starting point for our trip to Machu Picchu, we were not disappointed with our choice in the Inca proud Ollantaytambo.
This quaint and very charming town, sitting along the Urubamba river, is layered top to bottom with the original, Inca-old cobblestones. As your foot first touches stone, step back in time and wow at the surrounding adobe buildings, old Inca drainage systems, and local Andean attire. Hell, even the Puma-head bins are cool. Yet another way for locals to showcase their proud heritage, and love for one of the Inca deities.
Try hide from the glaring Ollantaytambo ruins, a rising ceremonial temple, also a fortress, the long, large and deep steps to the sky are impressive.
From anywhere in the town, just look up! Enriched with history, there are smaller fortresses embedded into the cliffs that hang over the Plaza de Armas. The very beautiful and perfectly square, eh, square, which is busting with hostels, cafes and restaurants to suit every tourist’s need.
The only disruption to this otherwise peaceful paradise are the hundreds of tour busses, large cargo trucks and tons of taxis which flood the streets on a daily basis. Something you need to be careful of. They don’t seem to heed to pedestrians whatsoever!
Forget Cusco city and head here to start your Machu Picchu adventure, become more acquainted with forgotten Inca ruins and just enjoy the fresh air. Altitude or no altitude, this place is heaven.
From Cusco to Ollantaytambo:
In Cusco, collectivos leave from Avenida Grau, a short 15 minute walk from Plaza de Armas.
Large signs for both Urubamba and Ollantaytambo are visibly displayed up on your right hand side, as you turn onto Grau.
It costs 15sol (€4) for a direct car or 10sol (€2.65) for collectivo. Take the comfortable minivan as it’s only a 1.5hr drive. Collectivos leave when full, roughly every 30mins. Be a little patient.
Accomodation in Ollantaytambo:
We were very happy with Wasai Away Hostel, sitting and staring at the main plaza. For €14 per night we got a twin room with private bathroom, and a basic breakfast of eggs, bread, spread and coffee included. The wifi was good, and although it lacked a kitchen there are cheap menu del dias nearby.
Walk out from the hostel, take a right and head towards the market. 50 metres on your left is a sign with menus for 5sol (€1.30) for soup, mains and a drink. The food here is so good! Try the Lomo Saltado, it’s basically a sweet and sour beef curry.
The market is also your best friend, when we don’t have a kitchen we tend to prepare meals such as tuna, avocado and tomato sandwiches, or we buy and prepare a large salad. There are ways around not having a kitchen.
The owners and staff are really friendly, and were more than happy to safely store our bags for free while we take off to Machu Picchu. Thinking we were slightly mad for walking, that morning they gave us more coffee than usually and wished us well on our adventure.
Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu:
For a very detailed guide and account on our experience walking 28km from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, where we stayed the night and visited Machu Picchu the following morning to return back to Ollantaytambo that same day, click here.
This method meant we only paid €56 each to visit the world wonder. That cost includes accomodation in Aguas Calientes and a return public bus. So go forth and be budget proud.
We returned to Ollantaytambo with sore bums, legs and lots of blisters. Of course we had every intention of visiting the nearby and very impressive looking ruins, but instead we decided to spend the day in bed.
However, we do regret not visiting the Ollantaytambo ruins, especially for a sunset. This is yet another attraction that requires a tourist ticket, one we never intended to pay. We heard it is quite easy to sneak into this Inca site, and even found a blog on it – here.
Our plan was to use this guide as a blog and find our own way in. Dear reader, if you manage to complete the mission, please let us know how you got on, and if you have any advice for others doing the same.
Next on our list is the foodie-fanatic Urubamba. A simple town, with streets aligned with tiendas, comedors and some clothes shops, lots of clothes shops, all which lead to the ‘Latin-America-standard’ plaza.
There is nothing major to do in the town itself, we were lucky to arrive during a local food festival. A huge, and free event that provided too much entertainment. Not to mention the grub.
We used Urubamba as a base to visit the nearby Maras Salt Mines. There is also the Maras Ruins, an agricultural site where Incas so expertly grew crops. It is possible to visit both, maybe not in the same day and you will have to attempt to sneak into the Maras Ruins (this too requires a tourist ticket) or you know, you could just buy the boleto turistico for €33.
The Salt Mines however, do not. You can pay on arrival, and to visit via our suggested way includes a scenic walk through a ghost town, beautiful views as you climb a not-so-steep mountain and entry via the back of the Salt Mines which means no tourists and having the place all to yourself.
Ollantaytambo to Urubamba:
Collectivos leave regularly from directly outside Ollantaytambo’s market, just off the main plaza. The ‘foreigner’ rate being a mere 2sol (€0.50).
The shared minivan will drop you on Jiron Comercio in Urubamba. From here it is a straight walk, no more than 10 minutes, to the Plaza de Armas.
Accomodation in Urubamba:
We came across the B&B Sacred Valley Pacacalle on Booking.com and decided to swing by. At just €10 per night, this quirky and relatively new hostel located a little outside the town near the stadium, is beautifully wooden structured home with a fairy lit garden, kitchen, good Wi-Fi and hot showers.
Henna, the female Finnish owner and ex-backpacker now resides in Urubamba and runs a NGO charity that works with disabled children. The income she makes from both this B&B and and another nearby, is donated to the charity, so know your money is going to a good cause.
You know this is a hostel ran by a once backpacker, even though Henna arrived to Urubamba to teach English, and after four years is still there, she certainly hasn’t forgotten her travel roots. Complimentary towels, soaps, plenty of plugs, comfortable pillows and a kitchen etc. This is a backpackers dream.
Henna doesn’t live there but visits a number of times throughout the day. Since we were the only two guests at the time, we felt like we had rented our own apartment.
Urubamba to Maras Salt Mines:
So you are thinking of visiting the Salineras de Maras, the ancient salt mines that dates back to Inca time. In fact, this impressive site with thousands of individual square salt mines, each owned by local families, are not only still in use but said families still use the age old Inca way to mine the salt.
We didnt expect to this visit so much. Our planned one hour turned into at least four, a we hopped, skipped and jumped from mine to mine; meeting families, asking questions and playing ‘Salt Bae’.
From Urubamba’s bus terminal, jump a collectivo to Tarabamba, ask any ticket tout or bus driver for collectivos, avoid the taxi men as they will tell you there are none. It’s all lies, there are plenty of collectivos. When boarding, tell the driver you want to go to the Salt Mines (Salineras de Maras) and if he can drop you at the “el camino” (the wallkway). The bus costs 1sol (€0.30) pp.
At the drop off point, it’s a short and pleasant 30 minute walk.
Cross the train tracks on your right and head down the narrow lane. At the end of the lane, take a left. After no more than 5 minutes, take the first left you see. Follow the road, across the bridge and at the other side of the bridge, there is a women who sells tickets, at the same price as the gate – 10soles (€2.65).
From here, it’s a 2km, 30 minute walk. Here you will find that ghost town we mentioned earlierm Abandoned houses, half built structures, animals grazing, tuc tucs parked, yet not a soul in sight. Walk straight all the way through a remote village, pass the storey houses made out of clay and mud towards the mountain.
At the end of the village, the path veers up. A little intimdatating at first glance but as you gain, you’ll soon see it’s an easy ascent that offers hidden valley views.
The path will split on the hill, follow it to the right less steps that way (something we found out later on).
The salt mines will soon be visible, an impressive sight that nears with every step.
As you arrive, step down into the salt mines and follow the paths through it. Although, do watch your step at all times since the ground can be a little wet and unstable, but not dangerous.
You have entered via the back way and the further you walk the better views, more miradors and photo opportunities. As you gain on the entrance, it will become more and more busy with busses or tourists arriving. So enjoy the peace and quiet, and don’t rush through. We suggest taking as much time here.
Go forth in saltiness and enjoy. We certainly did.
We tried to fit in a trip to the Moray Ruins on the same day as the Salt Mines, but invested too much of our day at our first stop. Despite the heat, the day turned bringing storms and heavy showers, so we knocked sneaking into Moray on the head.However to reach the town of Moray, take a collectivo from Urubamba to the Maras junction and from here you can walk an hour or grab a cheap tuc tuc (don’t take a taxi unless you find passengers to cab share).
Moray Ruins requires the boleto touristico, but in full Ungraceful mode, our plan was to pass the entrance, hike up and around the ruins towards a nearby hill and see the genius agriculture design from above. We looked into this via Google Street view, and it does seem possible.
Please, let us know if you suceed.
Ah Pisac. The last stop on our Sacred Valley town hop, and most definitley our favourite.
Not as beautiful as Ollantaytambo, Pisac is a popular tourist spot due to the many markets crowding the streets and plaza, the farmlands owning the roads that lead in and out, and its famous ruins, our second favourite Inca site.
Urubamba to Pisac:
From Urubamba, local busses leave the terminal every half hour. The journey is 1 hour and cost 4sol (€1). The bus drops you at the side of the road that rings around the town. Depending on accomodation, we heard of a chilled hostel 15 minutes walk from the town itself.
We stayed on the main road and followed it around and back out of the town. If you are looking to head into the main plaza, from the drop off point, walk straight until you reach the tiny bus terminal for Cusco (it will be on your right hand side), cross the road and walk up an narrow street into town. All corridors lead to the plaza.
Accomodation in Pisac:
Casa Intihuatana, a very chilled guesthouse we found about 15 minutes from the plaza. With two young Peruvian owners running the show, the hostel is well facilitated.
A large and fully stocked kitchen, hammocks in the open air, ground floor common room, a ‘movie room’ full of blankets and cushions, free self- laundry service, top floor common rooms and WiFi.
They do accept volunteers, and while we were there we genuinely made friends for life after meeting Mark and Naomi from Liverpool, who were taking a break from the road to volunteer for a few weeks.
We enjoyed our private double room with shared bathroom and balcony for 33sol (€9) per night. Prices for dorm rooms start from 20sol (€5.30).
The longer you stay, the cheaper the room so do negotiate a price. The owners are extremely fair. Our favourite part was our private balcony that lookes onto the next door neighbours farm. Every morning Monica the Moo greeted us, and every morning we sat out and shared a coffee while she munched on hay.
Again, it is a 15 minute walk from the plaza or you can jump a tuc tuc for 1sol. The food market is cheap for both buying and eating. The small shack-like comedors outside the market have menu deals for 5sol (€1.30).
If you fancy a bit of a challenge, and would like to tick off ‘climbed Incan ruins to reach Incan ruins’ then this adventure is most definitely for you.
It’s a fairly easy and a quick walk with some climbing, and by climbing we mean using the rocks that stick out from each Incan terrace all the way to the top.
The starting point is Hotel Royal Inka Pisac, a short walk from the Plaza. When here, take the dirt track to the hotels’ left hand side and follow the path.
Keep the river to your left hand side the whole way. After 15-20 minutes, cross a tiny one-stone-bridge and stay straight along the worn out walkway.
After the bridge, there are a number of stone steps leading up towards a fence and essentially the “main road”. Climb these steps until you see the main road, and before approaching the road, take the dirt path that veers to the left.
Again, follow this track the whole way until you arrive to an open field and a number of wooden houses.
On the right hand side of the field are fences guarding what looks like a dam. Look up and you’ll see the grassy Inca balconies belonging to the Pisac ruins. Head towards the terraces by using the track that leads around the back of the fence and continue down the path towards the river.
Keep the river to your left hand side and walk towards the balconies. You’ll see an easy crossing, with large stepping stones and a path leading up through the balcony ruins.
Whatever top you wish to reach, whether it’s the ruins sitting on top of the mountain to the right, or the ones sitting towards the left (here is the main trail through the ruins to both, so start making your way up the terraces.
Honestly, it looks a lot more intimidating from the ground. We flew up them, much to our surprise. If you’re heading towards the ruins sitting high on your left, after scaling 10 terraces, there is a local path that leads all the way to the ruins. It’s too easy. Way too easy.
Throughout the Pisac ruins, there is a trail that leads from the front gate to the scattered little towns and temples. You’ve joined the trail half way through.
Your best bet is to head right on the trail and walk to the start, near where the busses and guided tours start. Then take the trail all the way back, through Kallaqasa, Inithuantana, Andenes Qhosqa, Wanuwanupata and more.
We spoke to a number of workers and guides on site and no one asked to see a ticket. When one member of staff asked if we arrived on foot or by car, we taught he was onto us and played the dumb ‘I can’t speak Spanish’ gringo. It worked, and he was full of smiles telling us which track to take. But I think we were overly paranoid, and he was just being talkative.
We can also assure you you will not be asked for a ticket as you depart the grounds. That’s right, you do not have to sneak back out and certainly not back down the way you came.
It’s a 40 minute walk from the ruins back to the Pisac Plaza with some hidden gems and views along the way.
We were the only ones heading this way and that feeling of isolation is hard to come by in the touristy Peru.
There is possibly an easier route into the ruins, one that might be worth trying. On our way down the steps as we walked back to the Plaza, we noticed a lot of locals pass by us. We walked out from under a arch which had a sign stating that it’s open from 8am-4pm.
We imagine if you come before 8am, you could get away with walking straight in and up as there were no ticket inspectors, no ticket offices, no ticket signs, nada. It just says ‘welcome’.
There was a building with one man walking the garden perimeter but he simply smiled and waved to us.
At the bottom of the street is the Plaza.
Now, we could be wrong here but if you pass by, it is worth trying! Just remember to arrive and attempt long before the opening time of 8am.
Pisac to Puno via Cusco:
A little “ruined” and ready to take a break from hiking, sneaking and Inca ruins, it was time to heads towards the Bolivian border. Meaning our next and very last Peruvian stop was Puno.
A city that sits on the edge of Lake Titicaca, where tourists fall for the ridiculous gringo-priced tours the fake Uros Floating Reed Islands. We have confirmation from a number of locals that yes, it’s a set up. A show. A “let’s entertain the gringo facade”. Not to worry, we made it our mission to find real floating reed islands, and we succeeded. But that’s for another read.
In the meantime, let’s get you guys to Puno as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Pisac to Cusco:
You can find regular running collectivos near the corner of Calle Pardo and Amazonas. The journey is 1 hour and costs 4sol pp (€1).
If you wish to arrive into Puno before dark, you will need to be at the Cusco terminal before 2pm.
Unless you’re taking an overnight bus from Cusco (10pm), aim to be on a collectivo leaving Pisac no later than 11am. Arrive even earlier as collectivos only leave when full.
Cusco to Puno:
The Puno collectivo drops you at the corner of the street where Calle Landao and Retiro meet.
It’s a short hike to the Terminal Terreste, one we weren’t up for considering our legs and limbs from the Sacred Valley adventures still ached. For 4sol (€1) – do not pay any more, less if you can – grab a passing cab and arrive in less than 10 minutes.
There are plenty of busses to Puno with busses running both in the afternoon and night.
Most companies such as Romaliza, San Luis etc. have overnight busses leaving around 10pm and 10.30pm for 25-30sol (€6.60-€8).
Companies such as Libertad and San Martin have busses leaving in the afternoon, between 2-2.30pm for 20-25sol (€5.30-€6.60).
Depending on which company you choose, the drive can take anything from 6-8hours.
We went for the 2pm Libertad bus paying 20sol each (€5.30). We arrived into Puno just after 10pm.
Honestly, it would probably be worth taking an overnight. Although they are a little more pricey, it is only by 10sol (€2.70) or so.
We originally thought that if we took the overnight, we’d arrive into Puno at 4am. How have we not learned that there are always delays!
So yeah, our recommendation would be to splurge the extra 10sol and avoid wasting the day on a bus. The pro to this is that you should arrive into Puno as the sun rises over Lake Titicaca.
However, the bonus to taking the afternoon bus were the views and the little rural towns we passed through. As dusk fell, so did an electrical storm which lit up the pitch black empty valleys. That was some sight! A silver lightening bolt to every cloud, eh.
Note: There is a small tax for using the bus terminal (we don’t know why, but it applies to locals too) for 1.40sol per person (€0.40).
From the Terminal Terreste de Puno, it is a 20minute straight walk to the Plaza de Armas.
For more on Puno, visit our blog – here.
As ever, our digital door is open. Drop us a line or leave a comment if theres anything we can help with. Happy Sacred Valley-ing, folks!