What To See on a Day trip to the Sacred Valley Peru
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A day trip to the Sacred Valley Peru from Cusco
According to our Machu Picchu tour guide, the majority of visitors to Peru only visit the Cusco and the famous Machu Picchu. For those willing to explore a little deeper, the area between Cusco to Ollantaytambo, where visitors catch the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo is worth a few days of exploring! This area, known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas is full of ruins, classic Peruvian villages, amazing markets and some of the countries most photographic landscapes. For those that have limited time and cannot devote a week to exploring, we list below some of our favorite options for a day trip to the Sacred Valley Peru with kids.
You can read our entire two-week Peru itinerary here.
The altitude of Cusco is 3,399 m above sea level. So, in order to avoid altitude sickness, many visitors to the region (including us) spend a few days exploring the Sacred Valley Peru as a chance to acclimate to the altitude. If you haven’t spent much time at high altitudes, I highly recommend doing this if you are visiting Cusco, as even a brief walk can literally take your breath away. Those looking to skip over the Sacred Valley and make their way straight from Cusco to Ollantaytambo can also take the time to visit the region on the return trip if they choose.
Pisac is only 30 km from Cusco making it an easy option for a day trip to the Sacred Valley Peru. Pisac Peru is home to one of the most famous markets in the country. The Pisac Market is a lively area that features incredible handicrafts, Peruvian pottery, musical instruments and of course, alpaca clothing and blankets.
Although the artist portion of the Pisac Market runs seven days a week, we timed our visit for a Sunday. This is when the main square is filled with indigenous Quechua people selling fruits, vegetables and other goods. Sunday is when the Pisac market is at its busiest, but also its most authentic. Local communities gather their supplies for the week here, much in the same way they have for hundreds of years.
For those visiting outside of Sundays, the Pisac Market artists area is still worth the visit. There is a maze of stalls and stores full of local handicrafts. You can find Peruvian pottery, shell artwork, and gorgeous knitted goods. You do need to be careful if you are looking for Alpaca goods. Many of the sales people try to pass off llama, mixed blends, and even wool as Alpaca. You can often see them rubbing knives and other objects over the material in an attempt to “soften” the fakes to pass as Alpaca goods.
But the main purpose of our visit was to explore the Pisac Archaeological Park. The ancient Incan citadel sits high on a hill above the Sacred Valley of the Incas. And it is possible to do the steep hike from the town of Pisac. However, since we had access to a car, we opted to save our energy for discovering the nooks and crannies of the Incan Pisac fortress. It seems we weren’t the only ones with this idea. The road to the Pisac ruins was heavy with cars, buses, and vans full of those on tours to the Sacred Valley.
Our first exposure to the Pisac ruins was the outstanding view of the agricultural terraces. It was pretty incredible to learn that these terraces are still in use by farmers. The Pisac ruins are divided into four sections: P’isaqa, Inti Watana, Qalla Q’asa, and Kinchiraqay. The area is large and we wished we would have had more time to explore.
After admiring the terraces we headed into the urban settlement known as Qalla Q’asa. The various points of interest are well marked. The kids found the series of ceremonial baths fed by an intricate network of stone channels very interesting. We also learned a bit about Inca culture at the Inca cemetery (many holes of various sizes at the side of the mountain).
Maras Salt Mines Peru
The town of Maras Peru is an often overlooked destination for those spending time in the Sacred Valley. Which is a shame as the town contains ancient evaporation salt ponds. The Salineras de Maras have been in use since the time of the Inca. There is a natural saline spring at the top of the canyon. And an amazing aqueduct system fills the 4500 mud ponds that line the side of the canyon.
The harvested salt is commonly seen as pink salt due to the salt mixing with the mud during the drying process. Today the pink salt of Maras can be purchased at the onsite market. It is also commonly used by restaurants in Peru. The views alone from the top of the Maras salt pans are worth the visit, but getting a taste of the salt makes for a unique experience.
Update: As of June 2019, access to the Salt Mines has been restricted. The Maras Salt Mines viewing platform is still accessible, however, it is no longer permitted to walk among the salt pans. This is due to contaminants such as cigarettes and garbage polluting the Maras salt ponds.
A stop at the Maras salt ponds will only take a couple of hours at most. So there is also time to explore the nearby town of Maras on your day trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We were fascinated by the colorful blue doors that were framed by very intricate doorways. No two were the same! A visit to Maras village gave us a glimpse of Peru from long ago.
The locals were dressed in traditional attire, not for tourist pictures, but because this is how it always been. They went about their day as we watched, feeling like we had taken a step back in time.
Less than 10 km from the Maras salt pans is the village of Moray Peru. Often combined with a day trip to Maras, a day trip to Moray consists of a visit to ancient agricultural crop circles. The Moray ruins are made up of nine concentrations of crop circles (although only three have been excavated).
Each concentration is made up of several circles arranged in a terrace, the circles decrease in size the further down the mountain that they go. Each Incan terrace has its own microclimate and was watered by a complex series of underground aqueducts. This agriculture wonder allowed various plant species to thrive in a relatively small area. The experiments of the Inca at this site helped lead to the development of over 2000 varieties of potato in Peru.
There are pathways that connect the various sections and it is easy to follow so a guide is not needed. We also learned that scientists believe there are many more crop circles in the area but they have not been unearthed. Instead, the focus has been on preserving the current sites. The ruins of Moray can be leisurely explored in an hour. Bring lots of water as there is no shade.
Ollantaytambo is one of the more popular Incan ruins to visit on a day trip to the Sacred Valley Peru. This bustling town is home to a small market and the Ollantaytambo ruins. Also, it is well-known as the starting point for those hiking the Inca Trail on a 4-day trek to Machu Picchu.
And for those taking the train, Peru Rail has a station in Ollantaytambo. And it is where we boarded the Vistadome train for our train trip to Machu Picchu. The Ollantaytambo train station is a hub of activity for those making the trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Even for visitors making a journey straight from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
The Ollantaytambo ruins were originally built as a religious site. However, this fortress was ground zero for a major battle and is where the Inca briefly won against the Spanish conquistadors. The Ollantaytambo fortress is a terraced ruin that involves a steep climb up 300 steps to reach the giant pink granite slabs which make up the unfinished Temple of the Sun. If you have a time on your Ollantaytambo day trip to the Sacred Valley it is also possible to explore the stone quarry from which the massive granite rocks came from.
We spent most of our time exploring the base of the Ollantaytambo ruins. Our favorite was walking around the area east of the Incan fortress that showcased the Urubamba river flowing through the irrigation system and the fountains of the fortress. On the mountain across the valley from the Ollantaytambo terraces, we also saw the storage houses built by the Inca. We wished we had the time to hike up to see them up close. Adjacent to the storage houses, the mountain also has a carving of the face of Viracocha, the creator god of the Incas.
Pro-Tip: For something outside the box, why not join a Ceramic Class in Urubamba? Urubamba is an artist town less than an hour away from Ollaytantambo. It was the highlight for our kids of all the Sacred Valley day trips that we took.
Best Day trip to the Sacred Valley
We enjoyed all of our family day trips to the Sacred Valley. So, which is the best day trip to take if you want to visit the Sacred Valley? I would say that this would definitely depend on your interests. Our favorite market was definitely the Pisac market. The kids favorite Sacred Valley Inca site was the Maras Salt Ponds. And I was in awe at the irrigation system and fountains of Ollantaytambo. Have you been to a day trip to the Sacred Valley Peru? What was your favorite spot?
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