When people think of Incan ruins, they immediately think of Machu Picchu. Of course we visited Machu Picchu and we saved it for last, but we also visited some of the lesser known ruins in the Sacred Valley: Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Salineras de Maras.
Most people visit Machu Picchu and take the train there from Cusco, but we opted for the less popular option and set up base camp for the ruins in Ollantaytambo. It was about an hour and a half shared car ride from Cusco. We caught the car from the bus station “Puente Grau” on MAPS ME. We stayed at an adorable hostel Las Portadas, which is run by an older couple that was nothing but pleasant. They helped us figure out how to tackle each of the ruins.
To visit the ruins in the Sacred Valley, you have to buy a tourist ticket. You can buy a complete one for 12 ruins or a partial ticket for four of the twelve ruins. Our ticket was 70 soles and granted us entry into the ruins at Ollantaytambo, Pisaq, Moray, and Chinchero. Our original plan was to visit Pisaq and Ollantaytambo on the first day and then Moray and Maras (not included on the ticket) on the second day, but we ended up spending an entire day in Pisaq so we combined Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Moras into our second day, which was perfect.
The big market in Pisaq is on Sundays, so we made our way there after breakfast.
Directions: Take the colectivo behind the market in Ollantaytambo to Urubuambu for 2 soles. Take a left out of the bus station and walk along the main road for 15-20 minutes. You’ll pass a BCP bank on the left then find the next bus station shortly thereafter. Ask for the bus to Cusco por Pisaq for 5 soles and remind the driver to let you know when to get off.
Once we were at the market we wandered around and made our way to the base of the Pisaq ruins, which is located on a cobblestone road in the back of the market. Multiple people told us to take a taxi to the top, but Machu Picchu was a big budget buster in a few days so we were pinching pennies. We also thought we were in pretty good shape and would be fine starting at the bottom and working our way up. We didn’t realize just HOW much of a hike up to the top of the ruins we would have at the time, but it was completely worth it. Yes, we did the ruins “backwards” and had to hike up, but we had the ruins completely to ourselves on this route since most tourists take a bus or taxi to the top and only venture to the looking point of the ruins which you can find in the first 30 minutes from the top. We were able to visit sections of the ruins that most people don’t even know exist.
We definitely didn’t take the easy route up to the Pisaq ruins, but like John in Turn Right at Machu Picchu said, “ruins + solitude x exertion = happiness.” Our route was well worth the trek.
After the hike we took a colectivo back down to the bottom of the town and wandered through the market. I read in a few places that the Sunday market in Pisaq is the best market in South America to buy trinkets and souvenirs, and I’m not sure if I can say it’s the best, but it is definitely huge and hosts plenty of souvenirs. We ended up buying a large bronze mask with Pachamana and Pachapapa on it to add to our art collection once we return. After the market we made our way back to Ollantaytambo for a relaxing night in.
For our second day exploring the Sacred Valley we had an early start and hit the ruins at Ollantaytambo first thing in the morning. The town of Ollantaytambo is one of the only towns in South America that kept the original street grid of cobblestone alleyways, so even walking through the town to get to the ruins is enchanting. The ruins are significantly easier to access here than at Pisaq, and were filled with many more tourists. Here, I felt like I was walking alongside a bunch of tourists, whereas at Pisaq I felt like I walked where Incas once walked.
These Ollantaytambo ruins however leave you to wonder how the Incas were able to accomplish so much without the wheel or modern technology. How on earth did they carry these massive five ton stones up to their fortresses?
We spent about 2 hours exploring the ruins and then went back through the cobblestone streets to the other side of town to hike up to a free section of the ruins that boasts gorgeous views of the city. The hike up is pretty dangerous though, and without guard rails to keep you at least feeling secure in many spots.
Our afternoon consisted of a split trip to the ruins at Moray and the salt flats at Maras. We took a taxi to Moray and he waited for us there for about an hour, drove us to Maras, then we hiked back from Maras to the main road and caught a colectivo going back to Ollantaytambo.
The ruins at Moray are unlike any other ruins in South America. They are a series of circular terrace fields that are thought to be the crop experimentation labs. It’s difficult to tell from the photos, but the center circle is significantly deeper into the ground than the upper rings. The deepest section is 98 feet deep and due to wind and sun differences between the top and bottom of the terraces, there is a temperature difference of around 27° degrees, creating the perfect agricultural lab.
The salt flats of Maras are another beautiful wonder in the Sacred Valley. Each small section is owned by a different family that is proportional to the size of their family. We bought some chocolate with salt from the Maras at the top and ate it as we ventured through the salt flats. All of the signs say that you can’t walk through them, but everyone was and the worker’s didn’t seem to mind. We even tasted the water and HOLY SALT, it was salty.
We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to fit all three of these ruins into one day, but we turned out to have plenty of time and were happy to have the extra time to really explore Pisaq the day before.
And now, for the grand finale. To get to Machu Picchu, you can book a tour that arranges everything for you, or you can do it on your own, which is by far the cheaper option. Still though, everything about visiting Machu Picchu is expensive. Prices were more along the lines of a weekend in a European city, so we had to just ignore prices every time we bought anything and realized that it was okay because we budgeted for this. We decided to take the train from Ollantaytambo instead of Cusco, which took about and hour and a half on the Vistadome. This is a train that has huge windows on the sides and roof of the train, letting you enjoy a “360°” view of nature as you make your way to Aguas Calientes, which is the base camp town to get to Machu Picchu. We just stayed here the night before, but if we had a little more money, we would have stayed for the night after Machu Picchu as well.
On the train, we met this fantastic couple and had so much fun with them that we all had to stop talking sometimes to just enjoy the views on the train. It was like Hogwarts express to an Inca palace.
Once you get to Aguas Calientes, there isn’t much to do except spend too much money on everything. The weather wasn’t great and the forecast for our hike the next morning wasn’t looking promising either, so we bought some ponchos and ate the food that we brought with us for dinner.
Someone told us that you needed to get in line super early to get up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. They weren’t kidding. We got in line around 3:40AM and there were (what we later figured out) 4 buses worth of people in front of us. And good thing we bought the ponchos because it was raining the entire two hours we waited in line to get on the bus to the top. The bus ride isn’t for the faint of heart either as it hugs the already tiny switchbacks on the mountainside. To think that the Incas walked this anytime they went to this fortress? Mind blowing. You actually have the option to walk up the bus route for free, (free- I couldn’t believe it!) but we had an additional steep hike at the top and we wanted our legs to be in tip top shape. Waiting in line we go.
Once we got on the bus it stopped raining, but the mist and clouds were not promising. The entire ride up the mountain we were swarmed with clouds in all directions. I’m not even sure how the bus driver was able to see anything. We got to the entrance right as it was opening and had about an hour to kill before our additional hike up Machu Picchu Mountain. This is an extra add on expense (of course) that you have to book in advance because only a small number of people are allowed up the mountain each day.
When you first enter the site, you are supposed to be greeted with breathtaking views of Machu Picchu. This is where everyone gets their iconic picture of the site that I’m sure you have seen on facebook. Well, pachamama must have been in a mood because all you could see was clouds. You were trapped by clouds everywhere and could only see white mist in every direction. Seriously - the fog was impenetrable. You could see particles of mist whizzing inches from your eyes and swirling all around you.
Great. We paid all this money to see clouds.
Our entrance to the mountain hike was from 7-8AM and since the clouds were so bad we kind of killed time at the entrance. We did this for two reasons. (1) You can’t backtrack at Machu Picchu, so once you pass certain sections, they yell at you and tell you that you can’t go back the way you came and (2) we hoped that the longer we waited the better chance we had at the clouds clearing up. So we hiked out to one of the initial entrances to Machu Picchu that is no longer open. You can see the shaky “bridge” that people had to cross to use this entrance. People died using it though, which is why it is no longer allowed. Don't worry, you can't cross it anymore.
The hike to the top of Mount Machu Picchu is supposed to have multiple spots to stop and admire aerial views of the ruins, but all we had for the entire 1:30-2 hour hike was views of straight clouds. It was so cloudy that we literally had no idea which direction the ruins were in for the entire hike. The hike wasn’t easy either, it was straight vertical incline rock stairs the whole way up. We took our time though on the hike because again, we hoped that the longer we waited the better chances of seeing the ruins we would have. As frustrating as it was to not see anything, it was a crazy experience being in the midst of a cloud for so long, and being above the clouds even at multiple points.
All our lollygagging paid off though because as soon as we neared the top, the clouds dissipated and we had nothing but beautiful views of Machu Picchu. We spent about an hour at the top of the mountain then headed back down to FINALLY see and explore Machu Picchu.
Side note: If you ever find yourself here, make sure you add on this mountain hike. The views are well worth it.
I could do much more explaining for Machu Picchu, but Instead I’ll let the pictures do the talking for this one.