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Whether you’re trying to get a dose of Incan culture while in Cusco or practice acclimatizing to higher altitudes before a big hike, you’ll probably already have the Sacred Valley on your radar when visiting Cusco, Peru. As soon as you arrive in Cusco, you’ll be inundated with tour operators offering to take you on a day trip to the Sacred Valley. If you’re just looking for the quickest and easiest way to see the region, sign up for a tour. However, if you’re looking for a more authentic and personalized way of exploring the region, follow our itinerary below for exploring Peru’s Sacred Valley without a guide.
What is the Sacred Valley?
The Sacred Valley is a region in the Peruvian Andes that, along with Cusco and Machu Picchu, once formed the heart of the Incan Empire. Geographically, the valley spans east to west from Pisac, near Cusco, to Machu Picchu, and runs along the Urubamba River. Its inhabitants today primarily still speak quechua, the language of the Incans.
Below is a list of some of the main sites to see in the Sacred Valley, from east (closest to Cusco) to west:
Our two day guide covers all of the above except Pisac and Chinchero, as there isn’t too much to do in those two places other than visit the large Pisac Market.
The Sacred Valley is also a paradise for hikers, nature lovers, and adrenaline junkies. While the itinerary below is mainly kept to authentic Incan sites, it does include one of my favorite adventure tours in the entire world: climbing via ferrata and zip lining at the Skylodge Adventure Suites by Natura Vive.
Two Day Itinerary for Exploring Peru’s Sacred Valley Without a Guide
The two day itinerary below starts and ends in Cusco. It can be modified to incorporate more or less hiking, depending on your level of physical fitness and your budget. The more you hike, the lower you’ll be able to keep costs. Keep in mind, however, that most of the region is set between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. If you’re not used to being at altitude, make sure you factor the elevation into your decision to hike.
Day 1: Cusco – Ollantaytambo – Salineras de Maras – Maras Village
Overview of Day 1:
9:00am: Leave Cusco for Ollantaytambo
12:00pm: Arrive at Ollantaytambo and tour the ruins
2:00pm: Leave Ollantaytambo for Media Luna to start hike to Salineras
3:30pm: Arrive in Salineras
4:30pm: Leave Salineras for Maras
You don’t need to get too early of a start on your first day, but you’ll want to be out the door of your hotel by around 9:00am. Head to the “Estación de colectivos para Urubamba y Ollaytaytambo” at the corner of Pavitos and Avenida Grau just outside of the historical city center. Once there, board a colectivo, or a shared minivan, to Ollantaytambo. There will be men standing around on the street corner gathering passengers for their colectivos, so just follow them and make sure you get on the one to Ollantaytambo. The colectivo should cost 10 soles (~$3 USD) per person.
There is no departure schedule for colectivos; rather, the colectivo will depart when it is full. If you are the first person to board the colectivo, be prepared to wait anywhere between 10-30 minutes for the colectivo to fill up. Conversely, if you are the last person to board the colectivo, you can be prepared to leave almost immediately.
The journey from Cusco to Ollantaytambo takes around two hours with no stops between the two cities. In Ollantaytambo, make sure to get off at the first stop at the Ollantaytambo Central Market (Mercado Central), as the colectivo will make an additional stop at the Ollantaytambo Bus Station (Estación de Autobús), which is a bit farther away from the Ollantaytambo ruins.
After getting dropped off in Ollantaytambo, walk through the market to the opposite side from where you were dropped off, and continue down the street called Calle Principal for about five minutes until you reach the end of the street, where the ruins are located. There, you can purchase your ticket to enter into the Ollantaytambo archaeological site. There are several ticket options, but the perfect ticket choice for this itinerary is the partial tourist ticket covering Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, and Moray for 70 soles (~$20 USD). Make sure you ask for this partial tourist ticket (boleto parcial) and not the complete tourist ticket (boleto completo), which covers far more than most tourists will have time for or want to visit in one trip.
What is Ollantaytambo?
Ollantaytambo is an Incan archaeological site and town in the Sacred Valley, about 72 km (45 miles) from Cusco. After Incan Emperor Pachacuti conquered Ollantaytambo in the 15th century, he built a town and terraces with elaborate irrigation systems at the site. The Incan nobility lived in the town, while the workers and lower-class members farmed and lived in the terraces. Ollantaytambo was eventually conquered by the Spanish during the Spanish conquest of Peru around 1540 and later rediscovered by foreign explorers in the 19th century. Today, it is one of the most important tourist attractions in the Sacred Valley, as well as a common starting point for treks along the Inca Trail.
Once inside the archaeological site, you’ll have the option of hiring a guide to take you through the Ollantaytambo ruins and explain its history. I would strongly recommend paying for a guide, as there are no signs at the site, so you really won’t know what you’re walking through or looking at unless you have a guide to explain everything to you.
After exploring Ollantaytambo, head back toward the Ollantaytambo Central Market to catch a taxi to Urubamba, where you’ll start your hike to the Salineras de Maras (salt ponds) and your hotel for the night. If you’re hungry, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants on your right as you exit the archaeological site before boarding your taxi. You can try local cuisines like alpaca steak and local drinks like chicha morada, a corn-based juice originating from the Peruvian Andes, at many of the restaurants here. Just make sure you’re on your way out of Ollantaytambo town by 2:00pm or 2:30pm at the latest so that you have enough time to hike to your hotel in Maras before dark.
Once you find a taxi (or a colectivo, although we were told by the locals that there are no colectivos going from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba), ask the driver to take you to the corner of Media Luna and Pinchingoto (say, in Spanish: “a la esquina de Media Luna y Pinchingoto”), where you will start your hike to the salt ponds. Note that taxis in the Sacred Valley do not look like taxis you’re used to back home. Most “taxi drivers” are just ordinary people who aren’t doing anything at the moment, and most “taxis” are just private vehicles. If you’re looking for a bright yellow car with the name of a taxi company written on the side and identification inside, you’re not going to find it. We paid 5 soles each, or 20 soles (~$6 USD) total for four people, for our ride from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba. If your taxi driver tries charging you an exorbitant amount, like 100 soles, definitely try to negotiate your way down to something closer to 20 soles per car.
One thing I really enjoyed about the Sacred Valley was how helpful the locals were. If you stand around looking lost and confused for a couple of minutes, a local will come up to you and ask where you are trying to go. When we were looking for a colectivo from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba and couldn’t find one, a local man came up to us and showed us to our taxi driver. Everyone is looking out for everyone else, and it’s a system that works.
After getting dropped off at Media Luna and Pinchingoto, take the dirt path on your right. Eventually, you’ll come across a restaurant on your left, and that’s where the dirt path curves right. Follow the dirt path to the right until you see a path leading to a bridge on your left. Cross the bridge, and you’ll see a hut on your left where you can pay your entrance fee for the Salineras. The entrance fee to the Salineras is 10 soles (~$3 USD). The staff will then point you in the right direction toward the Salineras.
Your trek to the Salineras will be flat for the first stretch until you reach the base of the mountain, and then it will be all uphill from there. We had to take several water breaks along the way to catch our breath, as the path was steep and we weren’t used to hiking at nearly 10,000 feet. The views were very rewarding, however, and made the hard work completely worth it.
What are the Salineras?
The Salineras are shallow salt ponds dug into the side of the mountain that allow locals to extract salt for consumption and sales. After filling up the ponds with salt water, workers leave the ponds for the day and let the water evaporate. Once all the water has evaporated from a pond, the worker will go collect the salt that has been left over in the pond.
You should arrive at the Salineras about one hour after you started your hike, and you might see some workers extracting salt from the ponds as you walk by. Eventually, you’ll reach a small market, where you can buy souvenirs like pink salt and salted chocolates, as well as snacks and food from the food stalls in the parking lot if you are hungry.
Leave the Salineras by 4:30pm at the latest to give yourself enough time to hike to Maras, where you’ll be spending the night. If you choose not to hike the last 1-1.5 hours, you can also take a taxi, as the hike is along the car road anyway. If you do choose to hike, it is an uphill climb pretty much the whole way, but you’ll be rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views of the mountains, valleys, and plant life.
Your options for hotels in Maras are limited, and while there are hospedajes, or hostels, you can reserve if you’re on a budget, we decided to splurge on a nice hotel room that night, which ended up being one of the best decisions we made that day. We stayed at Villas de Maras, which is a gated property with large cabin-style rooms and beautiful views of the Andes. We were able to relax in the comfortable couches by the fireplace with a beer and turn in for the night in our spacious, multi-level cabin. Just make sure you book the dinner option in advance, as we didn’t see too many restaurants that looked open when we walked across town to our hotel.
Day 2: Maras Village – Moray – Skylodge Adventure Suites – Cusco
Overview of Day 2:
5:00am: Leave Maras for Moray
7:30am: Arrive at Moray and tour the ruins
8:30am: Take a taxi or hitchhike to the Urubamba bus station
9:30am: Get picked up by Skylodge Adventure Suites for climbing and ziplining
2:30pm: Head back to Cusco
Depending on how burnt out you’re feeling from the previous day, you can either choose to hike to Moray or take a taxi there. If you decide to hike, you’ll want to leave your hotel at around 5:00am to get to Moray at around 7:30am. If you choose to take a taxi, you can plan to leave your hotel at around 6:30am. Since we didn’t finish dinner until around 9:00pm the night before, and Hope was still fighting off a cold, we opted for a taxi.
Even though we arrived at Moray very early, there were already some workers there to check our tickets, which we had from Ollantaytambo. We were the only tourists there when we arrived, and it wasn’t until we had finished walking around the entire site and were getting ready to leave that we saw the first tour bus arrive.
What is Moray?
Moray is another Incan ruin in the Sacred Valley, but no one really knows its history or purpose. The archaeological site is composed of many circular, bowl-shaped terraces that sink down into the ground. Some might see a resemblance between Moray and Roman amphitheaters. The origin or purpose of Moray, however, is still unknown today. Some believe the terraces were used as laboratories to test different plant species, since each level of the terrace is controlled at a certain temperature.
While Moray was interesting to look at, I didn’t feel as connected to it after visiting as I did after visiting the Ollantaytambo ruins. Perhaps that was because I walked away from Moray still not knowing its full history or use, which was a pretty unsatisfying feeling for me. Nonetheless, I’m glad I visited it and would recommend that others add it to their itineraries as well.
While we were originally planning on continuing on to Pisac after Moray, we discovered an exciting climbing via ferrata and zip lining adventure at Skylodge Adventure Suites in the Sacred Valley and decided to go check that out instead. The main thing to see at Pisac is the large market, and none of us were big shoppers or too keen on foregoing a climbing and ziplining adventure to go shopping at the market. We absolutely made the right decision for us, as we all agreed that our climbing and ziplining adventure was one of the most memorable and unique activities we had ever done. I won’t go into detail about it here since we’ve already dedicated an entire blog post to it, so if you’re interested in spending the rest of your day climbing up the side of a mountain and ziplining back down, you can check out our full post here.
As you can see, exploring Peru’s Sacred Valley without a guide is totally possible and much more fun than being stuck on a crowded tour bus and operating on someone else’s schedule. Depending on your fitness level and love (or hatred) of hiking, you can substitute out any of the hikes above for taxi rides, and vice versa. And as much as we tried to include every detail of our two-day adventure through the Sacred Valley in this post, I am sure we’ve left something out that you’re wondering, so please let us know in the comments below if you have any questions, so that we can better help you prepare for your next trip to Peru!
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