Before visiting Machu Picchu, I spent two weeks exploring the area around Cuzco, Peru. Most of the people I met were simply rushing to get to Machu Picchu and missed out on spectacular ruins and picturesque towns in the nearby Sacred Valley, the nickname for the Rio Urubamba Valley 10 miles north of Cuzco. The dry season in Peru starts in May, which makes it the perfect time to explore and acclimatize to the altitude before heading to Machu Picchu.
Before leaving Cuzco, purchase an official tourist ticket—a boleto turístico for $40—which offers access over a 10-day period to 17 sites, including Cuzco museums and four of the Inca ruins below. Boleto turísticos are required, although you can buy a single-entry ticket for $22 at each site.
Be sure to set aside a few extra days to visit these five amazing places, many of which are an easy day trip from Cuzco.
An Instagram Tour of Peru’s Sacred Valley
- 1 / 61. SacsaywamanAlthough Sacsaywamàn is technically not in the Sacred Valley, these impressive ruins on the edge of Cuzco include three tiers of zigzagged walls, which are significant from both a military and religious standpoint. The Incas believed Cuzco to be in the shape of a puma and the zigzag formations are said to be the puma’s teeth. In 1536, the Incas were tragically defeated here by the Spanish, who tore down many of the walls to build houses.
Sunrise is the best time to visit; the ruins are empty and groups of alpacas wander through, making for perfect photo opportunities. The site is accessible by a 1.2-mile hike uphill from Plaza de Armas or by public bus.Anna Mazurek
- 2 / 62. PisacThe colonial village of Pisac is known for two things: a bustling market and the grand Incan fortress hovering above the town. While Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday are the official market days, the market is so popular that it’s open to some extent every day. On market days, bus tours bring hoards of people into Pisac. The main part of the hillside Incan citadel is a 30-minute walk from the entrance and is rarely visited. (Bus tours do not allow enough time to visit this section.) The best way to visit is to take a local bus from Cuzco to the town of Pisac. Then, hike the steep 2.4-mile trail to the ruins (it takes about 2 hours) or take a taxi from town.Anna Mazurek
- 3 / 63. OllantaytamboThe picturesque town of Ollantaytambo is guarded by an impressive Incan fortress and a temple lined with terraces linked by steep, glute-busting staircases. It is a main transport hub between Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but it’s very peaceful once the afternoon crowds depart. This Incan village has narrow cobblestone streets lined with irrigation channels. It has been inhabited continually since the 13th century. Spend a few days exploring nearby ruins and hiking.Anna Mazurek
- 4 / 64. SalinasSalinas is one of the most spectacular sites in the entire Sacred Valley: a mountain valley filled with hundreds of salt pools. The pools are fed from a hot spring of salt-laden water (the salt is harvested for cattle licks). Getting to Salinas on your own involves multiple forms of transport and wastes a good part of a day, so I recommend a day tour from Cuzco to save time and hassle. Tours are inexpensive (about $10) and typically include a trip to Moray (below). Tours stop at a viewpoint then continue to the main entrance of Salinas. Note: The $1.50 admission is not included in the boleto turístico.Anna Mazurek
- 5 / 65. MorayMoray’s amphitheater-like terraces are stunning. There are three terraces, each carved into the ground like a tiered bowl. Each level has its own microclimate, and it’s believed that the Incas used these microclimates to determine the optimal growing conditions for various species of crops. A day tour from Cuzco is the fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to visit both Moray and Salinas (see above). If you want to skip Salinas, take a public bus from Cuzco, which will drop you off at the Moray turnoff, where taxis gather in high season.
Anna Mazurek is a travel photographer and writer based in Austin, Texas. Follow her adventures and travel advice on Instagram and at TravelLikeAnna.com.Anna Mazurek
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