Cusco kindly offers a few handy options to see the main attractions all packaged up in one fair price. Here are my thoughts on the sites included in the Tourist Ticket and how we explored the Sacred Valley without a tour guide.
When we arrived in Cusco we were slightly overwhelmed at the number of museums, churches and historical places. Where do you even begin?? Well depending on the number of days you have the 10 day “Boleto Turistíco” gives you access to a great selection of the main ruins: Saqsayhuaman, Qenko, Pucapucara, Tambomachay, Tipon, Pikillacta, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero & Moray. As well as a handful of the museums: Museo de Arte Popular, Museo Histórico Regional, Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo, Museo de Sitio de Korikancha, Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, Monumento de Pachacutec.
Now, there are a couple of different options, one or two day “trails” which package up 3 or 4 of the above depending on location or the full 10 day pass. If you are planning on spending a couple of days in Cusco, then exploring the Sacred Valley independently before making your own way to Machu Picchu (which is what we did and highly recommended) the 10 day ticket will save you a packet, this is how we did it:
Saqsayhuaman: We loved this site, so much so that I wrote a whole seperate blog post on it (read my detailed blog here). It’s just amazing to go up there and soak up the stunning views of Cusco.
Qenko: This site is very close to Saqsayhuaman and can easily be visited in the same trip.
Upon arrival the place just looks like a big rock but on closer investigation you can tell it is a very special place and has a crazy energy about it. The Spanish named it Qenko from the Quechuan word meaning zigzag. This may have come from the compact labyrinth of tunnels which were found underneath, or from the zigzags which are carved into the rocks and believed to have been used during rituals, with blood or chicha poured down them to predict crops for the upcoming season. There is also a huge cave carved into the natural rock formation with an alter inside, this was once used for sacrifices and it’s very easy to imagine.
Colectivos are easy enough to flag down, or you could take a taxi, or just walk from Sacsayhuaman.
Tambomachay: This one is very close to Qenko and can also be visited in the same day. It’s a beautiful example of how brilliant the Incas were with aqueducts and waterways. It’s a series of water fountains and waterways of which the exact purpose is unknown. It’s a very beautiful place so I suspect it would have been somewhere tranquil to recuperate and heal.
The tourist boleto allows you to visit a few museums around Cusco including:
- Museo de Arte Popular
- Museo de Sitio del Qoricancha (museum only, not the Qoricancha site)
- Museo Historico Regional
- Museo de Arte Contemporaneo
We visited the Contemporary Art Museum, the Qoricancha Museum and the Museum of Popular Art. It’s worth poking your head in to whichever ones you can, because hey, it’s included in the pass. But really these places were nothing to write home about and the boleto turistico is more for visiting the ruins and amazing places dotted from Cusco to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.
This is the day we left for the Sacred Valley, it’s super easy to take a colectivo for 12 soles from the stop in Av Grau, its easy to find and is even on google maps. Before we went we thought we would climb up the Pachacuteq monument for a nice view of the city. This is also included in the boleto, as you ascend to the top you pass displays with information about the Inca beliefs and history of the great leader Pachacuteq. It’s worth a look if you have the time.
We got off at Pisaq which is a lovely little market town with plenty of accomodation and lovely restaurants, and in conjunction with its fascinating ruins can be explored over a couple of days.
Pisaq: A small town in the sacred valley known for its amazing market (which is great every day) as well as the ruins that sit overlooking the village. The accomodation we found was called Hospedaje Beho, which was through the market and up the hill. It was 80 soles for a room with private bathroom and breakfast on the deck, looking up through the garden out towards the Sacred Valley. Worth every penny!
We took a taxi to the top of the ruins in Pisaq for about 25 (negotiated down from 50) then planned to work our way back down. The ruins are split into four parts, the most popular section is on top of the hill and TEAMING with tourists, pouring in by the bus load. It features some very interesting structures, including fountains, military stores and terraces which were used for growing a huge variety of medicinal plants and food crops. The most interesting part for me was the cliff face sitting opposite where they excavated hundreds of mummy bundles. It’s thought to be one of the biggest Incan burial sites in the whole of the Sacred Valley.
The next section features a tunnel and an important carved stone chair looking out over the valley where ceremonies are thought to have taken place. Unfortunately part of the way was blocked due to a rockfall… So we snuck past the barrier and ran from the guards. This was naughty and not recommended, but it was very exciting.
The ruins can take a whole day to explore and the markets and little village easily warrant an extra day. Make sure you try the empanadas!
Urubamba: We stayed the night in Urubamba at a place called Hotel Tambo Del Sol (Av. La Convención 113 – B, Urubamba) for 60 soles we had a clean, lovely double room with private bathroom. There’s not much going on in the little town apart from a few nice little cafes, loads of chicken shops and great transport links throughout the Sacred Valley.
Chinchero: This little village is easily reached from Urubamba via public bus. You can buy tickets from the main station which is on the main road, or you can cross the river and flag one down on the road out towards Chinchero (heading back towards Cusco) for 3 soles. The town consists of a nice artisanal shopping street which leads up the hill towards the ruins.
You will need your boleto touristico to get into the Main Plaza as this is where the ruins start, your ticket doesn’t let you into the museum though, that’s an extra 10 soles, so we flagged it. There are loads of women in their traditional clothing selling bright textiles and crafts within the plaza. The plaza is overlooked by a beautiful adobe church which has been built on the ancient megalithic stone base. Inside, the church is beautifully painted and decorated, although you can’t take photos, it’s nice to soak in.
The Incan ruins consist of the base of the church and a giant wall within the main plaza which has 10 of the trapezoidal niches cut into it. Also beyond the plaza are amazing huge terraces, a ceremonial area and a beautifully tranquil view out over neighbouring farmland. It’s a really peaceful spot to bring a picnic and stare at the clouds. You can see how the Incas believed this to be the birthplace of the rainbow. You can also follow the river below the ruins for a scenic hike through the valley.
Moray: This site is a little out of the way, we caught a bus from Urubamba to the Maras turnoff and then haggled with a taxi driver on a price for a round trip including the Moray site as well as the salt mine, the 3 hour “tour” ended up costing us 50 soles ($25aud).
Moray is a very interesting and aesthetically pleasing site which we found really fascinating. Due to there being no written account of what the site was used for no one is 100% sure, but there is some very compelling evidence to suggest that it was an agricultural laboratory of sorts. The terraces are huge and total a depth of around 150 metres, the difference in temperature from the top to the bottom is approximately 15 degrees celsius which fits with the difference in temperature between the coastal and the Andean farmland of the Inca kingdom. Pollen samples taken also suggest the soil in each of the terraces has been taken from different geographical locations. This evidence, coupled with the fact that about 60% of the world’s crops came from the Andes, leads to a strong case for this being a place of agricultural research.
Salinas de Maras: The salt mines of Maras are truely a site to behold, the locals believe the ponds to predate Inca times. They have been used for hundreds of years to extract salt from an underground spring which is fed throughout the valley by an intricate system of small canals. The ponds are no more than 4 feet squared and none exceed more than 30cms in depth, they are positioned in decreasing altitude enabling gravity to feed each pool with the super salty solution. When the sun has evaporated enough water the solution becomes “supersaturated” and crystals begin to form from the outside, the workers will then shut off the water supply to that pool and allow the water to evaporate completely so the salt can be mined. The ponds are owned by the local community and anyone can come and request an unused spot for their family, they can then learn the process of caring for the pond and harvesting the salt to join the mining community. There are also a couple of craft stands and gift shops where you can buy the salt, or you can purchase it sprinkled on dried snacks or try the salty chocolate.
Ollantaytambo: This was my favourite place in the Sacred Valley. The old town consists of a lot of original Incan (or pre Incan) architecture, the houses in town date back to the 1500s and are some of the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings in South America! The streets share similar qualities to Cusco with its giant stonework and cobbled streets but there are also original open water irrigation systems and a lot of the homes in the village are still fed by the ancient streams.
There are quite a few nice restaurants. We ate at a couple of good menu places near the main square which were OK, but more importantly, we found the coolest bar in the world. The bar is called El Ganso and is one block back from the plaza on Horno Calle, the guy who owns it is nice, but it’s the upstairs treehouse room that made this place our new favourite bar in the world. The atmosphere is dark but kaleidoscopic, with swing seats and tables suspended from ropes and dreamcatchers floating everywhere – there is magic in the air. Also, the drinks are well priced and (in case you need more convincing) there is even a fireman’s pole to get down from the second floor and back to the bar to get more drinks. Love it!
Other than a couple of bars and restaurants Ollantay has a big touristy market near the ruins and a pretty basic local food market behind the central plaza, near the colectivo drop off point. There are some beautiful hostels and hotels, but for budget accomodation the section of town next to the market has the cheaper options. We stayed at Mia Antares which cost 60 soles for a matrimonial with private bathroom, it was clean and recommendable (Urb. Pilcohuasi Calle Cusicoyllos, opposite the market 2 blocks).
Apart from being the starting point for the Inca Trail, the biggest drawcard to Ollantaytambo (and the main reason tourist buses flock here daily) is actually the ruins. These are also included in the Tourist Boleto and are among the most impressive and most historically important ruins in the Sacred Valley. Set on a steep hill overlooking the current city and the river Patakancha the site is often wrongly referred to (as with most Incan sites) as a fortress. While there may have been military activity here and Manco Inca defeated a Spanish expedition by flooding a nearby plain, the top section of Ollantaytambo is actually a temple where important rituals took place. The stones around the upper temple section are perfectly cut and fitted together, this is where you find the largest and most impressive stonework. The wall of the 6 monoliths is particularly fascinating and consists of 6 giant stones with smaller stones cut and fitted in-between. They are all perfectly shaped and have strange nodules sticking out of them.
Mainstream archeologists claim this was an Inca site and that in the mid 15th century Emperor Pachacuti built the city and that his men cut and fitted the giant stones using bronze and stone tools. However, more recent theories state that the city was built on top of the ruins of a much older city which dates back as far as 12,000 years ago, if not more. This civilisation is referred to as the Arak people who are thought to predate Adam and Eve, so if this is the case… Could these people actually have been more civilised and advanced than us? And did they have access to a superior intelligence enabling them to build such complex and grand structures? What happened to them? There are parts of the temple that seem unfinished, or have blocks missing from completed sections, leading to the theory that Manco Inca may have been redecorating. However we watched a documentary that suggested perhaps something much more destructive happened here long before the Incas and that the Incas didn’t actually have the capability to put the place back together again so they left things where they were and just built on top of them. There is a HUGE megalithic block in the way of the road as you head further into the Sacred Valley towards Santa Maria, it looks like it’s just been dropped there. It’s all so mysterious!!
On the opposite side of the Ollantaytambo ruins there sits the ruins of Pinkuylluna Mountain. They are free to access and are thought to be where the Inca stored their grain. The Incan terraces, irrigation and drainage systems are absolutely incredible and the agricultural knowledge possessed by this culture, I think, far surpasses our current methods of GM and pesticide gardening.
Walking away from the Sacred Valley I was left with a lot more questions than answers, not only about civilisations past but also about the methods in which our current “civilisation” goes about things. Are we really so naive to think ourselves superior to mother nature? Every one of these ancient sites was built with a clear understanding of the stars and the seasons, the shape of the architecture reflected a healthy respect for earthquakes and natural disasters, and the temples all carry symbols showing worship of Pachamama, the spirit world, the sun and the moon. Nowadays we can go months without even looking up at the nights sky… I hope we as a culture haven’t forgotten that we didn’t inherit the earth, we are borrowing it from our grandchildren.
For more info on Ollantaytambo check out this article: http://www.ancient-code.com/ollantaytambo/