If you’re in Cusco, you have to make the most of it. We didn’t just hang out at the bars. We took advantage of the area, took in the sights, and learned a few new things while we were at it. The Sacred Valley of the Incas is loosely placed between Cusco, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo. The Valley is covered with archaeological sites, places of religious importance, and dramatic natural scenery.
The Qorikancha is located a short walk south of the Plaza de Armas (follow Avenida del Sol). It’s not an expensive visit, and it’s definitely worth it if you’re interested in architecture or history.
The Qorikancha was originally a Quechuan temple, and historians believe it to have been literally covered in gold. When the Spanish took over Cusco, they stripped the gold and sent it back to Europe, building their own church on top of the site. That’s where the architecture gets interesting. The juxtaposition of the Quechuan and Spanish stonework is immediately evident. Large stone blocks, fit perfectly to one another with no mortar, compared to what looks like any rock the conquistadors could find, pasted together with buckets of mortar.
Art is hanging up throughout the structure, with some traveling exhibits upstairs. The exterior of the site overlooks a large garden, accessible from the Qorikancha museum. The museum is a separate site (separate admission fee but included as part of the Boleto Turistico), located underneath the courtyard on Avenida del Sol.
Overlooking the city of Cusco is an ancient Quechuan (Incan) gathering place. Before its militaristic use, the Quechuan people used Sacsayhuaman as religious grounds, and the locals still celebrate Inti Raymi (the Festival of the Sun) there. After the Spanish conquistadors took the city of Cusco, the Quechua resistance used this fort to mount counter attacks on the city. Until they lost this foothold, Sacsayhuaman served as an excellent point of defense as it overlooks the entire city of Cusco.
Sacsayhuaman still holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Cusco, as explained by our guide at the time. It was a symbol, a rallying point for the Quechuan people all those years ago, yet still serves the modern Cusco as a historical and cultural place with special religious significance. Sacsayhuaman and the city of Cusco itself were both added to the UNESCO world heritage site in 1983, and since then, the tourism industry in Cusco has grown significantly
The stonework at Sacayhuaman is simply amazing. You can’t fit a piece of paper in between the stones, just like at the Qorikancha. The Quechua were master masons, you can see this throughout the entire country of Peru. There’s also a certain spot (right where the picture at the top of the post was taken) where your voice echoes from the surrounding stonework, and booms over the field in front of you.
If there’s one place I recommend getting a guide, it’s Sacsayhuaman. Our guide was amazing; he showed us some of the details and explained a history of the site that would have taken me hours to find in the books. If “Guido the guide” is there, take him, he’s an awesome guide, for about 40 soles per person ($15 USD or so at the time we went). We laughed with him at all the different stories that the guides tell. Do a bit of your own research before you go too, or your guide might try to convince you that Sacsayhuaman was a UFO landing site, or worse…
Moray has some interesting history too. The Quechuan people used the massive terraces here as kind of a science experiment. Taking advantage of different altitudes, locations, and times of year, the Quechua tested different crops. I really liked Moray. The path down the side of the site offers an awesome view of the whole area, and you can really get a feel for the magnitude of the terraces. Sitting on the side of the path, overlooking the terraces, you can imagine how the Quechua used to farm the site, and how much work went into building it.
Keep in mind that Moray can only be seen with the Boleto Turistico. We’ll discuss this later.
Salinas de Maras
The salt flats of Maras are the world’s oldest continually operating salt flats. If that alone doesn’t make them interesting, I don’t know what does. Essentially, water runs through the flat rocks here, and collects salt from the rock. When the water evaporates, salt is collected.
The sad part of this story is that we didn’t get to see the Salinas up close, only from a cliff overlooking them (which is why I don’t have a good picture to share with you). Our tour guide said we didn’t have time to go to them at all, but luckily two of our group members were fluent in Spanish, and made him stick to the plan. The guide was concerned that it was getting late, since we hit traffic coming out of the city, and it gets cold and more dangerous on the ATVs at night.
Regarding the ATV tour in general: do it! We got to ride through tons of old farm roads, and the views of the mountains were absolutely breathtaking. We took a van from Cusco to a small town where the ATVs were stored, and then got back to the van around dusk. Riding into the sunset with the mountains behind us was a really cool experience, and I highly recommend it. Go earlier in the day if you can though, to avoid missing out on anything. I can’t remember the name of the tour agency we did our ATV tour through, but I wouldn’t recommend them, due to the issue above and their pricing. If I can figure out the name, I’ll add it in the comments so you know who to avoid.
The Sacred Valley is a great place to explore. There’s way more to do than just Moras and Maray. If you’re planning on seeing more than just one or two sites, consider getting the Boleto Turistico. This includes Moray (but not Maras), the ruins at Chinchero, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Tipon, Pikillacta, and Sacsayhuaman, and some other museums and monuments within Cusco. Some of these sites can only be seen with the Boleto Turistico, so do a little research on where you want to go, and whether it’s worth it for you. There are a few different options on the Boleto Turistico, if you only want to see some of the sites. They also offer student pricing, and you can buy the ticket at most of the places that accept them. Again, check before you go! You don’t want to get all the way out to a site, and then find out that you can’t actually buy the ticket there.
If you have the time, spend at least a week in the Sacred Valley area. There’s plenty to do and see there, especially if you’re interested in the history or the Quechuan culture.