I don’t like tours. I hate having to scramble to the front of a crowded tour group just to see something for a couple seconds, only to be pulled away to the next point of interest and have to wrestle my way through again. I don’t like looking out over an incredible view just to be called back to a bus and whisked to the next site. People say they want to make sure they see “everything” when they travel. Who wouldn’t? In the Sacred Valley there are countless tours that will take you to just about every top sight on Trip Advisor, but that is exactly the problem. By seeing everything, you’ll have seen very little. These tours let you check every site off your list, but you end the day forgetting which place was which, and why it even mattered. So after spending five seconds contemplating which tour was best for exploring the Sacred Valley, I said screw that, I’m doing this my way.
What Do You Want to See?
It is very easy to see the Sacred Valley on your own, and there are lots of ways to do it. All you have to do is choose what you want to see, and then choose how you want to get there. I wanted to see ruins and a local market, so I decided to have us spend our day in the Sacred Valley exploring Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
Pisac has beautiful ruins perched high on a mountain, and a cute town below with a vibrant market on Wednesdays and Sundays. Ollantaytambo is another small town with some impressive Inca ruins and views of Mt. Verónica. Both Pisac and Ollantaytambo ruins have great views of the Urubamba River and the Sacred Valley.
Other popular sites in the Sacred Valley are Chinchero, Salinas, and Moray. If I were to go back and do it again, I would add the Chinchero market, which I have heard is more authentic now that Pisac’s market is pretty well discovered on the tourist trail. Moray has Inca ruins of an ancient agricultural lab and Salinas is a vast stretch of thousands of salt pans. I wouldn’t recommend doing all these sites in one day, unless you like speed-sightseeing. But if that’s the case, you’d like the big-bus-tours, and you should probably just stop reading now.
How Do You Want to Get There?
Getting around the Sacred Valley is actually pretty simple. Coming from Cusco, your options are: bus, colectivo, or taxi. A bus will be the cheapest, costing a couple soles to get to each destination, but also the least flexible and slowest. A colectivo will be slightly more costly, but still only S/.10 ($3.50)or less, and afford a little more flexibility. Colectivos are basically shuttle vans packed full of people who will hop on and off at will. Quick communication is important if you want to get off somewhere specific, though. A taxi will be the most expensive option at around S/.150 ($50) to S/.200 ($70) (total, not per person) for a full day and the driver will wait for you at each place and bring you back. Hiring a taxi will allow you the most flexibility and freedom.
My decision to hire a taxi was entirely based on one single photo I found in a google image search for “road from ollantaytambo to cusco.” Why was I looking at google images for that particular search? Let’s just say I’m an over-planner, obsessed with photographing mountain views and leave it at that. This image captivated me. And what really got me was the description. It was taken from the side of the road between Ollantaytambo and Cusco. Not from some remote village 2 days into a trek through the Andes. From the road. I knew that if we were on a tour, or even if we took public transit, there would be no stopping for photo-ops. But with a taxi, we could stop whenever we wanted.
Why would I not take that opportunity?
Since I would normally pay an arm and a leg to a hire a taxi all day in the US, $70 for a full day of exploring including about three hours of driving seemed worth it. And you know what? It totally was. The driver pulled over at all the best spots for me to get out and take pictures of the jaw-dropping, gorgeous views along the way. We stopped so many times for this mountain-obsessed, shutter-happy traveler that Garren and the driver bonded while I went camera crazy.
What Will it Cost?
Entry to the ruins at Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Chinchero all require the Boleto Turistico (tourist ticket), which I talked about in my post on Sacsayhuaman. Beyond the entry fee and transportation costs, you could spend anywhere from just a few soles to eat tasty empanadas in Pisac to several hundred soles if you eat in touristy restaurants, do a lot of shopping, and not a lot of haggling.
Our combined expenses were:
S/.200 ($70) on the all-day-taxi
S/.35 ($12) on a local guide at the Pisac ruins
S/.37 ($13) on empanadas, coffee, water, and snacks
S/.77 ($26) on hats and mittens for our upcoming Inca Trail Trek
S/.20 ($7) on Garren’s new favorite t-shirt with the Peru logo on it
S/.2 ($0.68) on 2 emergency bathroom trips for me. More on that another time…
Our total combined costs for the day were S/.371 ($129). If we hadn’t done the shopping, we would have easily been under $50/day per person.
Wandering Pisac’s Ruins
Our taxi driver dropped us off at the top of the ruins (to avoid climbing 2 hours up a mountain) by 9am. We had the place practically to ourselves. We asked our taxi driver what a good rate was for a local guide, and not only did he tell us, but he got out of the car and haggled for us with a couple of guides near the entrance. He found us someone willing to give us a tour for S/.35 if we paired with a solo traveler from Colombia, so we said “Sí.” We arranged to meet our driver in town in 3 1/2 hours, and we were off.
The Pisac ruins are sprawling and impressive. Most tourists only see the ruins at the top, but we enjoyed following them all the way down the mountain into town. We spent about an hour and a half touring the main ruins at the top and winding down a short ways with our guide.
Our guide left us, and showed us the way down (just follow the path, you won’t get lost) and we wandered around the ruins for a bit before heading down.
The walk into town was very scenic as we descended into the valley and were funneled right into Pisac’s bustling Sunday market.
Shopping Pisac’s Market
The market in Pisac gets a bad rap for being too touristy and a bit of a sell-out. While, some of that is true, we really enjoyed it. Things don’t get much cuter than little girls dressed in bright colors, carrying baby llamas under their arms.
We found that if we wandered beyond the furry llama stuffed animals and machine-made hats and mittens, we found ourselves amidst giant bags of potatoes from every color of the rainbow, and beautiful textiles hanging proudly behind their makers. This area of the market was mostly full of locals, and it was much more fun to photograph!
Garren and I were both in need of hats and gloves for our trek the next day, so we set off in search of some hand knit goodies. Garren, as always, was a fast and easy shopper. I was a little more difficult, but I eventually fell in love with the perfect pair. I found the merchant, failed miserably at haggling, and still left quite satisfied by the price. People say Pisac’s market is overpriced – and it is by Peruvian standards – but it’s hard for me to complain when a $12 hand knit hat is my most expensive purchase.
We grabbed some tasty empanadas from Pisac’s community oven, and they were delicious! We also caught our first up-close view of the traditional Peruvian delicacy, “cuy,” a.k.a. roast guinea pig. Yum…
Before we knew it, it was time to meet our taxi driver. I called his cell, and we met at the end of the market. The three of us hopped in the car and sped off toward Ollantaytambo.
Exploring Ollantaytambo Ruins
We pulled into Ollantaytambo and my excitement mounted. I knew we would be returning very early the next morning to have breakfast on our way to the Inca Trail. I was both excited and nervous for our upcoming trek. I knew we wouldn’t have time to explore the ruins the next morning, so we headed straight for the unmistakable Inca stone terraces.
Exploring Pisac had been all downhill, and quite easy. Ollantaytambo, was quite the opposite. We climbed steep stone stairs carved into the terraces to reach the top of the ruins. I had to stop a couple times going up, which did nothing to reassure me of my ability to climb a mountain pass in a couple days. But when we reached the top, we were rewarded with an amazing view of snow-capped Mt. Verónica in the distance.
The Ollantaytambo ruins were much more crowded than Pisac had been early in the morning. We were in Olly around 3pm, and while there weren’t crowds, per se, we weren’t alone either. We explored the ruins for about an hour, walking the narrow cliff-hugging trail along the mountain, and then down more Inca steps. As we exited the ruins, we found a small café called Il Cappuccino where we fueled up on cappuccinos made with a legit Italian espresso machine. Yumm!
We had seen where the car was parked when we were high up on the ruins, so we headed that way to meet the driver and make our way back to Cusco.
Driving in the Sacred Valley
We learned a few things about Peruvian drivers that day. They drive really crazy fast, pass a lot, and use the lines on the road as very rough suggestions. They also honk their horns a lot, but not in an angry way like we do in the US, it is used as a warning to other cars, pedestrians, stray dogs, bikes, really anything that moves slower than the car and is in the car’s way. It was like saying “Look out, here we come!” as we swerved around pedestrians.
We passed through small towns with mud brick houses and families smoking meats in their yards as chickens roamed and dogs napped nearby. Many of the houses and buildings had big murals painted on them, often the same mural on several different houses. We asked our taxi driver about it and he said they were campaign ads. The Peruvian elections were coming up and people painted their support on their houses like giant billboards. We asked who he would be voting for, and he laughed. Some of his response was lost in translation, but Garren and I couldn’t mistake the word “corrupto.”
Our morning drive from Cusco to Pisac took us less than an hour and came loaded with beautiful scenery as a preview of what was to come. Our taxi driver pulled over at a lookout so we could see our first glimpse of the Sacred Valley.
Our drive from Pisac to Ollantaytambo was no less scenic. It took us a little over an hour, including a stop in a small town on the way so I could snap this snow-capped beauty.
As we drove from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco, we passed through more small towns and gorgeous scenery. Garren and I nervously exchanged glances when the driver did a hail mary when we went around a blind corner carved into the cliff. A small cross was on the side of the road to warn passing cars. We passed through Chinchero, a teeny tiny town with another popular market, and we saw the Salinas salt flats from a distance. As we got closer to Cusco, one stretch of road was so beautiful, I gasped out loud. Our taxi driver read my signals and pulled over for some photo-taking. We pulled over at 3 or 4 different spots as we wound our way up toward Cusco, each view better than the last. At the last stop, I was taking a series of shots to make a panorama, when Garren and our driver shared a chuckle. Garren muttered “la chica le gusta las montañas.”
It was totally worth the teasing.
Did you create your own adventure on a recent trip? Tell me about it in the comments! Have questions about choosing your own adventure for the Sacred Valley? Post a comment or shoot me an email. I love getting your questions and feedback. 🙂