Journey through the Sacred Valley of the Incas – Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Salinas de Maras

A view at Urubamba Valley, Peru.

Our journey through the most beautiful archeological regions of Peru started from Cusco. From here we went towards Machu Picchu, and stayed in a few exceptional places while visiting the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Today, we invite you to visit Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Salinas de Maras.

Písac

At the very beginning of our stay in Cusco we heard about the famous Sunday market, that takes place in Pisac, 33 km away from Cusco. Without thinking too much, still tired after a day long bus trip from Lima, on Sunday morning we went to catch colectivo. After about 50-minutes ride on winding mountain roads we reached our destination.

Pisac is divided into two sections: archeological, from the time of the Incas, which was built high up on the mountainside and contemporary, established after the Spanish colonization, located at the lowest part of the valley. Modern Pisac with its small streets, dusty houses and omnipresent mess looks like slightly bigger, typical Andean village.

Peruvians wearing traditional clothes, selling wooden cutlery on the market in Pisac.
Sunday market in Pisac

Every Sunday, the town comes alive from lazy monotony of everyday life. Indians dressed in traditional Peruvian costumes come to Pisac from the surrounding villages to take part in the Holy Mass celebrated in the traditional language of Quechua. Also every Sunday in the main square and surrounding streets the largest market in the area is held, which attracts hundreds of tourists. You can buy here almost everything – from – mostly hand-made – souvenirs, jewelery and ornaments, through fresh vegetables, fruits and raw meat, usually placed on newspapers or wooden planks lying on the pavement, ending with all sorts of everyday items, such as ceramic pots, plates or clothes.

Hand made textiles on the market in Pisac.
Sunday market in Pisac.

While the market is large and very colorful, in our opinion it’s not the biggest asset of Pisac. This title indisputably belongs to the exceptionally beautiful ruins of the citadel, which was one of the most important places in the whole Sacred Valley in the times of the Inca Empire. It protected the entrance to the valley of Urubamba river, on the route connecting the Inca Empire with Paucartambo, which was situated on the border of the vast jungle in the east.

Defense towers ruins at citadel of Pisac.
Ruins of Pisac

The former Pisac was located high – in a place which offers a breathtaking view of the entire valley of Urubamba. An expanded citadel was fully self-sufficient. The rocky slopes were covered largely with terraces designed for growing plants, which were made by hand and irrigated by water channels cut in solid rock. All the buildings were surrounded by high stone walls, which had only a few entrance gates. Separate parts of the citadel were designated for residential buildings and others for storage buildings called colcas, which were used to store food and other things, in case of a flooding or other cataclysm.

Ruins of Pisac with mountains in the background.
Ruins of Pisac

Located in the upper sector of the ruins was the Temple of the Sun, which magnificence was second only to the temples at Machu Picchu, while in the solid rock, located high above the citadel, a cemetery was created. Approximately 10,000 graves hidden among the larger rock crevices, as well as hand-made cavities.

Tombs created in the rocky slopes in Pisac.
Tombs in Pisac

Although reaching the ruins of Pisac from Sunday market place took us good two hours of climbing (during which we almost felt like dying…), we absolutely don’t regret the effort! These exceptionally beautiful ruins, where we met only few tourists, were among the best places visited by us in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Ollantaytambo

Similarly, we couldn’t skip Ollantaytambo, which is said to be the last town on the route to the famous Machu Picchu. The city, built on two hills, is one of the most monumental complexes from the time of the Incas. Here lived one of the greatest rulers of the Incas – King Pachacutec. Fortress, whose main task was to protect the western ends of the Sacred Valley, was a very important military, religious, astrological and administrative center, with a superbly developed agricultural grounds.

Ruins of Ollantaytambo.
Ruins of Ollantaytambo.

On area of approximately 600 hectares The Incas created a beautiful city, which today is the best preserved example of the old way of planning. From the valley of Urubamba to old Ollantaytambo led only one gate in the surrounding walls, called Punku Punku. The historic center of Ollantaytambo mostly dates back to the times of the Empire, and destroyed buildings were restored with great care on the foundations of old Inca buildings. The residential part of the city is divided into canchas, or blocks, which are separated from each other in the system creating streets between them. Each cancha has only one entrance, which leads to a central courtyard surrounded by buildings.

Temple of the Sun in Ollantaytambo.
Temple of the Sun in Ollantaytambo.

The most spectacular part of the Ollantaytambo since always, however, was the ceremonial center, located on the top of a steep slope covered with extensive terraces. From there stretches an amazing view of both the city and the whole valley of Urubamba.

While most buildings in Ollantaytambo were built with fieldstones, temple part was built with the stones of the highest quality. Huge boulders with smooth surfaces were imported from a quarry located on the opposite side of the Urubamba river, and cut and matched before embedding with the utmost precision. Unfortunately, the construction of the Temple Hill was never completed. Ollantaytambo, like all Inca fortresses, was attacked by the Spaniards.

Ruins of Ollantaytambo.
Ruins of Ollantaytambo.

Thanks to a very secure position, in which no small importance were extensive terraces covering the Temple Hill, Incas successfully defended Ollantaytambo from invaders. Thanks to this Ollantaytambo was the only place in the whole the Inca Empire, which didn’t fall after the first wave of the Spanish conquistadors invasion. Unfortunately, the joy of victory was not long, because at the second attack Incas were defeated by four times larger Spanish forces and had to retreat into the jungle, leaving the city in the hands of the Spaniards.

Moray

Although Moray is not a complex of Inca ruins, it’s definitely one of the most interesting places created by the Incas, which we were able to visit while traveling the Sacred Valley. If we had to use only one word to define what exactly is Moray, we would say that it’s a unique laboratory where the Incas conducted experiments on growing plants.

Terraces of Moray seen from the top.
Terraces of Moray

Moray complex consists of several platforms, each of which is built from the round- or oval-shaped terraces, nested at different altitudes. The height difference between the highest and lowest level of the terraces is around 150 meters. Platforms were created on a hill in such a way, that each of them is exposed to different weather conditions. Due to different angle towards the sun and wind, each of the terraces has a unique microclimate, which allowed for experimenting with the cultivation of plants.

Patrycja and Dawid next to terraces of Moray.
Terraces of Moray

Although the terraces cultivated on the slopes of the mountains were very widely used throughout the Inca Empire, however, Moray was the main center where attempts to increase productivity of plantation and improve the quality of the most widely grown crops (mainly corn and potatoes) were made. There is no denying that it was extremely difficult task, and any other culture besides Incas never succeeded with such complicated engineering task.

Salinas de Maras

Near Moray an equally interesting place, coming from the time before Inca Empire, can be found. On the slopes of the canyon a unique salt mine was created – Salinas de Maras. Salt was collected here by both the Incas and the Spaniards, after taking over the areas of the Urubamba valley, and settling here a large community of Jesuits. One can still tell in which houses in the nearby village priests have lived, since these houses have beautiful carved doors. The tradition is continued today by the locals, who have been working on “their” salt pods for years.

Salinas de Maras seen from above.
Salinas de Maras seen from above.

To this day salt in being produced in the traditional way in each of the nearly 3,000 salt pools. First, highly salted mineral water, coming from an underground source, is directed to selected pools using a network of channels. When the pool is filled, the water supply is closed and the salina is left to dry.

Woman collecting salt at Salinas de Maras, Peru.
Collecting salt at Salinas de Maras

After evaporation of most of the water, the salt crystals are collected manually. They can come in different sizes and colors. Depending on the amount of mineral elements in spring water, including calcium, magnesium, silicon and potassium, and apparently the ability of the person performing the collection, salt crystals may have a color varying from white, through various shades of pink to slightly brown color. And while walking between pools it’s difficult to see the pink salt, you can buy beautiful pink salt souvenir in the shops located at the main entrance.

Practical tips:

  • If you would like visit Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Moray on the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu, we sincerely recommend to purchase a Boleto Turistico. It’s a ticket to the most interesting tourist attractions both in Cusco and surrounding areas of the city, as well as several smaller towns, where you can find beautiful cultural monuments of the Incas. Boleto Turistico can be purchased as one-day tickets for one of three zones, 70 PEN each: zone I – ruins in close proximity to Cusco, zone II – attractions in the heart of Cusco, zone III – ruins in the area of Cusco, including Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Moray. It’s also possible to purchase a 10-day combined ticket for all 3 zones for 130 PEN. For more information about Boleto Turistico visit www.cuscoperu.com.
  • From all the places described in this post only Salinas de Maras is not covered by the Boleto Turistico. To visit this beautiful place you have to buy a ticket separately at the site – the cost is 10 PEN.
  • As we already mentioned, traveling in Peru is very simple. There are good bus connections between all major cities. Several companies offer the purchase of tickets through the internet, including Excluciva or Cruz Del Sur, but when traveling on less popular routes just go to the bus station and buy a ticket at the box office before the departure. The cost of a ticket for a more comfortable bus is usually a much higher, but very often the price also includes a meal.
  • Between smaller towns and on short routes the easiest way to travel is to catch a colectivo. It’s simply a minivan or a minibus that usually starts from a fixed location in the city and goes to a given destination, and does so only when it’s full of passengers (which sometimes may take a while…). It also takes passengers along the way (just wave your hand, and the bus almost always stop), and stops for those who want to get off early (just say bajo aqui, which is Spanish for “I get off here”). Although in theory there are some timetables for colectivo, however, most of them are only approximate. Our route from Cusco to Pisac and Urubamba – and from there on to Ollantaytambo – was done using only colectivo.
  • Buses from Cusco to Pisac leave very often – on average around every 20-30 minutes. The ticket cost us 5 PEN per person (one way), and the journey took less than an hour.
  • There are no direct colectivo buses from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Such a journey requires catching one connection in Urubamba. This is not something extremely difficult or challenging, because in Urubamba all the buses start and end their routes on a shared station. From Cusco to Urubamba buses depart every hour, the trip takes about 3 hours, and the ticket costs 6 PEN per person. From Urubamba to Ollantaytambo buses depart each 20 minutes, the trip takes more or less 40 minutes and tickets cost 1 or 2 PEN per person (we travelled this route 3 times – each time paying different amount).
  • You can take taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Unfortunately, we don’t know how much such a pleasure costs 😉
  • When going to Moray and Salinas de Maras you can try to get there in colectivo, combined with walking or catching a taxi between shorter distances. We chose more comfortable option of hiring a taxi that took us around both places. Because in Ollantaytambo the taxi drivers wanted to charge us 100-120 PEN, so we went to Urubamba in colectivo (paying total of 2 PEN for two of us) and there took a taxi for 60 PEN.
  • The same can be done when visiting the ruins in Pisac. A taxi from the town of Pisac to the top of the mountain – the main entrance to the ruins – costs around 30 PEN.

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