Our second day trip from Cusco was to El Valle Sagrado (“Sacred Valley”) which is known as the heart of the Inca empire. These Incas, I tell you. They were brilliant people.
The valley is approximately 37 mi / 60 km in length and is home to many mind-blowing Inca sites like Ollantaytambo, Pisac, the Mara salt pans, and Moray. Our tour included visits to Ollantaytambo, the Mara salt pans, the Andean village of Misminay, and Moray. We clocked many hours and miles in the van that day visiting these sites.
Protip: Take motion sickness tablets before you hop into your tour vehicle.
The elevation in Sacred Valley varies from site-to-site but in general, it is higher than Machu Picchu and lower than Cusco. In Ollantaytambo, the elevation is 9,160 ft / 2,792 m. It’s what I call a no-joke elevation where a brisk walk can leave you with shortness of breath.
A “Boleto de Touristico” (tourist ticket) is required to visit archeological sites in and around Cusco and there are four ticket options. Tickets can be purchased (cash only) at the first site you visit so there is no reason to pre-purchase a ticket in Cusco.
The full ticket is valid for 10 days and costs S/130 (~$40 USD). Unless you are in the Cusco region for a couple of weeks and plan on doing multiple day trips, you should think twice before purchasing the full ticket. The other three ticket options are partial tickets with various sites on each ticket and are priced at S/70 (~21 USD). The partial tickets are valid for one or two days depending on the ticket.
We purchased the partial ticket when we arrived at our first site, Ollantaytambo. Our partial ticket permitted entry into Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Chinchero and was valid for two days. Our visit to the village of Misminay did not require a ticket because it is not considered an archeological site.
The incredibly wide and steep stepped terraces are the first thing that catches your eye after walking through the entrance at Ollantaytambo. From ground level, it is difficult to assess the height of each terrace (~9 ft / 2.7 m) because your view of the site is straight-on and the site extends in all directions.
Still recovering from PTSD from hiking Huayna Picchu the day before, I hoped that we would not be climbing up the terraces but at the same time, I wanted to see the view from the top of the terraces. Our guide wasted no time getting down to business and up the stairs we went. He climbed the stairs with ease whilst Jessi, Sara, and I gasped for breath after about five stairs.
It seemed like an eternity by the time we reached our first resting terrace which was only about five terraces up. There was a large oval-shaped stone on the terrace and our guide invited us to have a seat on the “Inca sofa”. We happily accepted.
As our guide explained the Inca empire in detail, I applied sunscreen to my face. The weather was perfect on the day of our visit and I could feel the sun trying to burn my nose off.
Note: The arrow points to the Inca sofa.
Whilst sitting on the sofa, I noticed two buildings built into the mountainside of a nearby mountain. Our guide explained that the buildings were used to store food. They were constructed high up the mountain for two reasons. First, security. Second, the temperatures are cooler (and windier) to help the food last longer.
He told us that the villagers hike to the top of that mountain (Pinkuylluna mountain) once a year.
If our trip were longer and were staying in Cusco for 10-14 days, then I would have reserved a full day to visit Ollantaytambo. My itinerary would have been to visit the terraces in the morning, eat a hearty carb-heavy meal, hike Pinkuylluna mountain in the afternoon, and then eat another hearty carb-heavy meal. In between potatoes and other various carbs, I would have slipped in delicious Peruvian espresso whenever possible.
We continued our journey up the terraces after about an hour on the Inca sofa, eventually arriving at the Temple of the Sun (a small lookout platform).
Aside from the complexity and enormity of the site, one of the most puzzling things about Incan construction is that they perfectly joined the granite stones with no grout or space between the stones. It is said that a feather cannot fit between the stones on an Incan wall.
It’s not known how the stones acquired their smooth edges. Grinding the stones manually would have taken years with manual tools so that theory seems a bit far-fetched. Another theory is that they used a plant that produced an acid-like substance that was used to “polish” the stones. The reality is that no one knows.
The “nubs” are thought to be handles used to carry the stones.
There are six very, very, very large pink granite stones at the Temple of the Sun. The stones are not native to the site and were harvested from a nearby mountain and somehow moved across the valley and up the mountainside to where they reside now.
One theory is that the stones (each stone is estimated to weigh over 50 tons) were transported up the mountainside via the narrow gravel path that wraps around the back of the Temple of the Sun, however, the path is not wide enough for a stone itself so it is not plausible that a stone plus thousands of people were pushing/carrying/rolling the stone up the path.
It’s a rubbish theory in my opinion but I don’t have a better theory. Thinking about this does my head in.
Below is a view of the path that extends behind the Temple of the Sun. It is believed that the pink granite stones were harvested from the mountain on the left in this photo.
To conclude our visit, we walked the opposite direction across the terraces and along a path built into the side of the mountain. It is from this path (to the right of the terraces as you look at the terraces from ground-level), that the steepness of the site can be seen. In total, we were at Ollantaytambo for two hours.
Note: The arrow points to the path on the side of the mountain.
Note: Our day trip to Sacred Valley was on October 3rd, 2019 which is the very beginning of spring in South America.
- Motion sickness medication
- Hand sanitizer
- Sunscreen (apply liberally to your nose)
- 10 Soles for the entrance fee (free toilets)
- Phone charging cords + portable power bank/battery
- Small day pack with a water bladder
- Camera (a proper one since this is a once-in-a-lifetime visit)
It was warm and the sun was shining on the day of our visit. I saw people dressed in beachwear (sandals, shorts, t-shirt) and I saw people dressed in full hiking garb. Anything goes for clothing; just make sure you dress for the weather.
Next, the Mara salt pans.