Cusco serves as the perfect base to explore the numerous sights of the Sacred Valley. Colonial settlements and ancient Inca towns are dotted here and there, while in remote mountain settlements life has largely remained unchanged for centuries. Use this guide to plan your day trips from the ancient Inca capital.

Overview

Sprinkled with ancient Inca ruins, the steep-sided Sacred Valley opens out into a fertile plain that to this day provides Cusco and the surrounding area with fresh organic produce. The area’s rich history and range of micro-climates mean there are scores of natural and man-made sights, as well as a plethora of exciting activities from rafting to trekking, all of which can be enjoyed as day trips from Cusco. In addition to the cultural sites and activities listed below, the Sacred Valley is also home to a number of day hiking routes

Shop at Pisac market

A woman displays her wares at Pisac Market © Kiki Deere

Market vendors from across the Sacred Valley descend to Pisac to sell their wares: stalls heavily laden with fruits and vegetables are dotted here and there, while stands displaying hand-woven alpaca blankets, clothes and crafts sit tightly packed together. A handful of cafes are strategically located on the main plaza so you can watch the world go by, with men and women toing and froing in traditional brightly-colored costumes. This is a great place to stock up on reasonably priced garments and crafts, as well as catch a glimpse of everyday life in the Sacred Valley.

Climb up to Pisac’s citadel

The ancient ruins of Pisac © Kiki Deere

Located at the entrance to the town’s gorge, Pisac’s citadel forms the outline of a giant condor, the world’s largest bird that the Andeans identified as the guardian spirit of the dead. Hundreds of terraces were ingeniously built in places that received plenty of sunlight, sheltered from the wind and heavy rain to obtain better harvests. Once controlling a strategic route that connected the Sacred Valley to the jungle, the citadel is home to fine stone masonry work that easily rivals that of Machu Picchu.

Stroll the cobbled streets of Chinchero

Inca ruins on the outskirts of Chinchero © Kiki Deere

Lying just over 3700m above sea level, Chinchero is a small colonial settlement where life continues as it has for centuries. Buildings are constructed of stone and adobe, while impressive Inca ruins and carved rocks used by the Incas to venerate deities are found on the outskirts of town.

Try and visit on a Sunday when the town’s popular market takes place, with women in traditional dress selling local craftwork. The market is a great spot to grab a bargain, ideal if you’re looking for an authentic Andean experience and a little escape from the tourist crowds of Pisac.

Trek or bike the area around Ollantaytambo

The area around Ollantaytambo is home to impressive mountain scenery, ideal for long hikes and bike rides © Kiki Deere

Keen trekkers and bikers will find the pretty town of Ollantaytambo, with its cobbled streets and ancient irrigation canals, serves as the perfect base to explore the surrounding area. Towering peaks and rocky mountainsides surround the town, with plenty of gentle paths snaking up into the hills to the east. If you’re up for some arduous trekking, there are plenty of hikes of half a day or more through spectacular mountain scenery, bypassing remote Inca ruins. Bikers will not be disappointed either: this is prime mountain biking territory that is sure to keep bikers’ adrenaline pumping.

Horseback-ride to the Inca quarries of Cachiqata

The Sacred Valley offers excellent horseback riding opportunities

The Sacred Valley’s majestic mountain scenery makes for the perfect backdrop for a horseback-riding trip. As you ride through the heart of the Inca Empire on a Peruvian Paso horse, you’ll spot ancient ruins comprising huge stone slabs and learn about the impressive engineering skills of the Inca civilization. You can witness the work of the Incas at the quarry of Cachiqata, an important source of pink granite where large stone slabs were quarried and transported to the nearby town of Ollantaytambo.

Gaze at the Inca site of Moray

Moray is thought to have been an agricultural experiment station © Kiki Deere

Comprising a series of concentric terraces, Moray forms what is no doubt one of the Incas’ most sophisticated sites. The terraces are cleverly engineered to follow a series of natural depressions in the land, with temperatures ranging an impressive 15C on the agricultural surfaces, creating a variety of microclimates. This has lead many to believe that Moray was the world’s first agricultural experiment station – used to study climatic conditions on crops. Ceremonial fountains found in the largest of complexes suggest that the site was partly religious in nature.

Watch local residents harvest the saltpans of Maras

The pre-Inca salt ponds of Maras are still in use today © Kiki Deere

Built on the side of a ravine, the salt pans of Maras have been providing local inhabitants with salt for centuries. A natural spring of warm salt-rich water is channeled to fill small pools that spill down into the valley. Passed down from generation to generation since pre-Inca times, the ponds are still in use today. Once the water has evaporated, the salt crystals are scraped off with simple instruments. You can walk the periphery of the ponds, peering across at men and women painstakingly working the pans.

Go rafting on the river around Ollantaytambo

The Urubamba River provides excellent rafting opportunities to suit all levels.

Slicing through the Sacred Valley, the rushing Urubamba River offers excellent rafting activities year-round. Suitable for beginners, it’s a great place for families and people of all ages who are seeking a little thrill and adventure. Offering impressive mountain scenery, the Ollantaytambo section of the river is the easiest and most accessible, with a smattering of level III rapids. As you glide along this scenic route, your guide will shed light on the area’s impressive cultural history.