Having all of our expectations exceeded in Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Note: We dedicated quite a bit of time trying to figure out the best way to visit the Sacred Valley in a cost effective and time effective manner. We ended up with a mixture of a tour, self-guided and a private transfer. It took a bit of organisation so for practical advice, scroll to the bottom, the main body of the blog will be dedicated to the what rather than the how.

We woke up on our second morning in Cusco feeling almost human, if still a little wobbly. After a quick breakfast, we made our way to the meeting point where we were collected by our guide, Roy (a name we suspect was chosen for the ease of tourists), and ushered into the minibus with the other 9 people on our tour. Half were English speaking and the other half Spanish so Roy gave two explanations of everything. This meant that he spoke more or less none-stop for the entire day; he looked completely buggered by the time we left the group. The drive out of Cusco wasn’t particularly thrilling as we fought our way through morning traffic but Roy kept up a constant stream of information about the foundation of Cusco, the Incan Empire and the arrival of the Spanish. It was very interesting but by the end of the day we had been given so much information that we couldn’t begin to tell you what Roy said in that first hour. One thing is for sure, we were getting our money’s worth.

Once we were out of Cusco and into the Sacred Valley the views improved dramatically as we wound between the towering mountains, all fringed with cloud at this point. The valley is incredibly fertile, Roy told us that 60 different types of corn are grown there and 3 types of quinoa. The quinoa plants are red and black and add a splash of colour to the swathes of green.

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The road follows the Urubamba River which is a headwater of the Amazon. That’s nuts, we were on the West of the continent, the Amazon estuary was a seriously long way away.

Our first stop was in Pisac, which is known for its silver but is far more famous for its market. We were taken to a silver shop, which hadn’t been on the official itinerary but fortunately the sales people were not pushy and the explanation of their jewellery making process and the Incan symbolism used in the designs was short and interesting.

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After that we were let loose in the market with strict instructions to be back in 20 minutes. The market is a typical tourist market but decidedly cleaner and a pleasant riot of colour.

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We found ourselves being quite grateful for the short time allowance because we could have easily bought far more than we did; as far as tourist markets go, Pisac was one of our favourites. Should the desire take you, there are plenty of women leading suspiciously clean and fluffy alpacas around, which you can pay to have a picture with. One woman in our group somehow managed to miss their presence and, once informed, was so determined to get a photo that she jumped off the bus and ran down the street for her opportunity, she was so flustered by the whole operation that she got back on the wrong bus.

After the market, we wound our way up to the pre-Incan Pisac ruins, perched high on the hills above town. The town and the ruins are named after a particular species of bird of prey, these can be seen hanging in the sky around the ruins before dropping hundreds of metres on unsuspecting lizards. The ruins themselves are wonderful, this was our first experience of the famous terraces and they are simply amazing, Roy explained how the walls were made from different types of stone, each with different thermal properties allowing for the creation of different micro-climates for crop growth.

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Roy told us that the Incas grew 5000 types of potatoes, we would question this because we have also heard 2000 and 3000, but regardless it’s a lot of spuds. His explanation of the culture was also very detailed and he demonstrated how each of the areas of the ruins were used to accommodate different sections of society. We were quite pleased that the burial chambers dug into the mountainside were off-limits, looking at them from a distance was quite enough for us.

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From Pisac, it was another hour to reach Urubamba, where we would be stopping for lunch. What we saw of the town was not particularly inspiring but there were plenty of restaurants. We suspected that our minibus was populated by people from four different companies as we were all dropped in different places for lunch, we were clearly on the cheapest ticket because we were the only ones who didn’t have lunch included and Roy sort of waved us off vaguely, telling us to be back at 2pm. We’d done a bit of research and decided to go to Peru Buen Gusto, which was highly rated on tripadvisor. The owner speaks not a word of English, which was a testament to it being a local place, but we managed to eventually communicate with each other and ordered up a quinoa risotto and some beef saltado (local stir fry) which were both pretty good and a good deal cheaper than what we would have been provided in the tour recommended restaurants.

After lunch, we were bundled in to the now very warm van to get to Ollantaytambo. The ruins are on the edge of the town and we disembarked right in front of them. One of the women in our group (she of the alpaca photo) had only arrived in Cusco that morning and was suffering from altitude sickness, when faced with the 250 steps up to the top of Ollantaytambo she bowed out and spent the next hour lying in the back of the minibus. Another chap in our group seemed to be struggling with dizziness as well and when we met up again an hour later his face was cut and he was covered in dust, clearly he’d taken a tumble. Altitude sickness is not something that you mess around with, it’s amazing how much it impairs your abilities. Before this however we were all merrily following Roy up the steps, we climbed seven terraces and everyone was already puffing quite hard, the chap who eventually fell over needed to have a sit down. The site itself is amazing and beautifully maintained.

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Over the top of the town you can see the colcas where food and water were stored.

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Another laborious climb took us up to the Sun Temple, which has been all but destroyed although the large flat stone slabs still stand with traces of carvings which Roy deciphered for us. Far across the valley Roy pointed out where the stones had been quarried from and then brought by man-power alone to the top of Ollantaytambo, an incredible feat of human effort. From here we were left to explore ourselves and we set off away from the rest of the group to have a poke around. The terraces, whilst not as large as those at Pisac, were still very cool to see first-hand.

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By visiting the buildings on the edge of the site we were also able to get some distance from a majority of the crowds.

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Back at the bottom of the hill we visited some more of the buildings and investigated the water system, which is still active.

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The ruins also have a couple of resident alpaca.

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Ollantaytambo was beautiful and quite awe inspiring and the mountains surrounding it are like something from a postcard.

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We left the tour at this point, they were heading back to Cusco and we were staying in Ollantaytambo for the night, ready to visit Machu Picchu in the morning.

As a side note: on the day after our Machu Picchu trip we had a couple of hours to spare in the morning so we climbed up to the colcas on the opposite side of the valley, they were pretty cool and offered the best view of the Ollantaytambo site. It’s definitely worth the steep climb if you have some spare time in town.

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We checked in to our hotel; it was serviceable but there was a faint, disturbing odour of a urinal in our room, which we did our best to ignore. We made the most of the late afternoon sun and took ourselves on a short tour of town, which was very pretty and full of dogs for Caro to play with.

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We had an early dinner at Blue Magic (alpaca and quinoa burgers, because when in Peru…) and retired to our room. There was no denying it now, there was a definite smell of piss about the place.

We were up early, eager for our day visiting Machu Picchu. We boarded the comfortable train and took in the river views throughout the 2-hour journey. Alpaca Photo Lady was also in our carriage.

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Once in Agaus Calientes we had a couple of hours to kill until our allotted visiting time so wandered around the purely tourist town, read in the sunshine, stroked the dogs and tasted the truly rank Inka Cola; a hideous bubblegum flavoured drink which is immensely popular in Peru.

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Just as it was time to catch the bus up the extremely windy road to Machu Picchu, it started to rain. This didn’t dampen our spirits, just made us glad that we weren’t walking up!

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There is very little outside the gates of Machu Picchu and the entrance times are strict, our tickets were for 1pm so we had about half an hour to kill before we could go in. We ate our packed lunch and watched a stream of rather soggy and bedraggled people make their way out of the ruins and into the queue from the bus. From what we overheard, some people were very pissed off that it had rained on their day to visit. Machu Picchu is at the top of the mountain, inclement weather, particularly outside of the dry season, is to be expected.

After lunch, we set about securing ourselves a guide; this isn’t remotely difficult, you walk up to the group of guides and wait for one of them to start talking to you. In our case this was Paul; he old us how everything worked and then asked for $40 each for a private tour. This was too steep for us and we told him so, without missing a beat he asked us how much we had expected to pay and came down to a price slightly above it. We agreed straight away and decided not to wait and see if he could get a bigger group together, we preferred to be able to go at our own speed.

15 minutes later we were in, Paul took us straight to the terrace where everyone gets their pictures of Machu Picchu, as we’d chosen to come for the afternoon in shoulder season we only had to wait a couple of minutes for our turn. The clouds kept coming and going but the weather changes every 5 minutes at the top of the mountain so with a teensy bit of patience you can get the photo that you want. Paul told us that there hadn’t been much of a sunrise that morning so we were glad that we had opted for an afternoon visit. The first view out of the citadel and terraces was as amazing as we had been expecting.

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From here Paul led us on the standard circuit around the site, keeping up a near constant stream of information as he went. We will not even attempt to repeat everything that we were told on our tour, Machu Picchu is fascinating and breath taking and everything else that we hoped that it would be. All that we are going to do here is share some photos and add that in the short time we were there we had wind, torrential rain and scorching sun, and none of it mattered in the slightest; it was awesome.

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We loved Machu Picchu and although it cost us an arm and a leg to get there it was definitely worth it. The one piece of advice that we would give, all other practicalities aside, is to take a private tour of the actual site; you’ve paid enough to get there, spend the extra money and really enjoy it.

Back in Aguas Calientes, we had a couple of hours to kill before our train back to Ollanta and we’d sat down for a vastly overpriced cup of tea before we remembered the market right on the edge of the train station. We managed to pass 45 minutes surveying the may “alpaca” wool products on offer and James used his newly discovered haggling techniques to absolutely fleece a woman out of a t-shirt. Caro stood well behind him feeling absolutely mortified; her haggling skills have improved not a jot.

On our third and final day in the Sacred Valley we gave the tours a miss and got a private car to explore further. Unfortunately, we didn’t luck out with a rare, sane Peruvian driver and James closed his eyes and gripped the seat as we did two blind bend overtakes in the first 10 minutes. Our first stop was Moray, the cylindrical terraces which, the prevailing theory claims, were used by the Incas to research and experiment with crops. We both found them fascinating, there is as much as a 15-degree temperature difference from top to bottom and it is assumed that there is a drainage system built in somewhere, although no one knows for sure, because the basins never flood, even in Peru’s punchy rainy season. Nearly everything that we know about the Incan empire is from the records of the Spanish conquistadors, so if the Spanish couldn’t figure it out we are pretty much all left shrugging today. This is the case with Moray and it’s one of the really special things about visiting these ruins.

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Our second stop was at the salt ponds on the outskirts of Maras. These are truly astounding, even if they don’t sound it. Having private transport really paid off here, if you go in a tour bus you don’t get to stop at the amazing viewpoint on the opposite side of the valley.

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And they only get more interesting the closer you get.

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We’d read in a couple of blogs that some people had found this to be the best stop on the Sacred Valley circuit, which we couldn’t fathom until we got there. The salt ponds date back to before the Incas and have been operational the entire time. The site is an intricate network of channels all feed from a spring which brings salt rich water to the surface. You are allowed to taste the water, so we did, and it’s really salty.

Our final stop of the day was Chinchero, a town famous for weaving and more Incan ruins and as being the birthplace of the rainbow in Incan culture. There are several weaving centres and we pitched up at the first one we came across. It was a really interesting experience to understand the process of washing the alpaca wool, spinning it, dying it and then weaving. These purely tourist places often make us feel quite uncomfortable but we were actually fine until they accosted us with the traditional dress at the end, which was super awkward.

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The ruins in Chinchero appear to have been heavily restored and work was ongoing while we were there. A large section right at the top has a Roman Catholic church built on top of the Incan foundations. This was quite common practice by the Spanish conquistadors, as can be seen all over Cusco.

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We strolled among the ruins in the beautiful sunshine. The high quality of the stonework suggests that the site was once of great importance to the Incas.

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Chincero concluded our 3-day tour and our driver whisked us back to our hostel in Cusco. It was full on and tiring, but definitely worth the effort and the cost. We didn’t take the cheapest option at any point but we also didn’t particularly splurge. We are so glad that we had a guide for the first two days, the history of the sites is absolutely fascinating, when it comes to beauty however, the ruins speak for themselves.

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How we organised our Sacred Valley trip

There are 6 key sites in the Sacred Valley:

  • Pisac Market
  • Pisac Ruins
  • Ollantaytambo Ruins
  • Moray
  • Maras
  • Chinchero

(Machu Picchu is obviously the main event but is separate from the standard Sacred Valley tours, which is why we handled it separately.)

Typical tours are one day, return to Cusco and hit only three or four of these sites. Pretty much all of the tours go through Ollantaytambo, which is the boarding point for trains to Aguas Calientes which in turn is the gateway to Machu Picchu. So, our rationale was that it made absolutely no sense to do two separate day trips, returning to Cusco each night, just to get to see all 7 sites and then do a separate journey to Machu Pichu which would probably require a night in Aguas Calientes and involve going to Ollantaytambo for a third time. Instead, we worked out that we could do a day tour from Cusco to Ollantaytambo via Pisac, and jump off in town rather than going back to Cusco spend the night in Ollantaytambo. The next day we would get the train to Aguas Calientes and spend the afternoon in Machu Pichu, returning to Ollantaytambo for a second night. On the third day we would go to Moray, Maras and Chinchero on our way back to Cusco. It made complete sense to us, cutting out at least a day and a lot of meaningless travel. Clear as mud? Don’t worry, we’ve broken it down for you.

Day 1

The day tour was easy, any company will be happy to let you hop off in Ollantaytambo (although they won’t discount the price for this, we tried!) and for $20 each we were happy with the deal. We did the standard tour, Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo (and Chinchero but we had left the tour by then) with SAS travel. They were well reviewed on tripadvisor, the guide spoke excellent English and the tour group was limited to 15 people, although there were only 9 on our tour. These last two bits are the crucial things to clarify when booking; English speaking guide and size of tour group. Just ask to be dropped off at your hotel in Ollanta.

Day 2

Self-planning Machu Picchu is also easy, particularly if you aren’t travelling in high season, we were visiting in April and bought our entry tickets and train tickets in Cusco two days before we planned to visit. If you wanted to visit in the high season you would need to book a bit further in advance, even more so if you want tickets to climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.

Machu Picchu tickets – We’ve heard that getting these online can be a bit challenging, we bought ours at the office in Cusco. When you go in you need to know exactly what date and time you want to enter, the slots are each hour. We opted for the afternoon because we thought it would probably be quieter, which turned out to be true. Technically you are only supposed to stay in the ruins for 4 hours from your entry, we saw no sign of this being enforced.

Train Tickets – Once we knew our entry time to Machu Picchu we went to the Peru Rail office in Cusco (right around the corner from the Machu Picchu ticket office) and found the closest available seats for the cheapest price. The train journey is pretty but we don’t think it’s worth paying any more than the cheapest tickets, there isn’t that much to see and they are already robbing you blind. Bear in mind that there’s a good chance that you will be waiting around in Aguas Calientes for a bit before you catch the bus up the hill, take a book, there isn’t an enormous amount to do there.

Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu – This was possibly the hardest bit, but only because it made zero sense. You buy the bus tickets from a random desk in the corner of a bank in Cusco, we have absolutely no idea why and it was only after we wandered around the bank for a while that someone took pity on us and directed us to the correct desk with a tiny, handwritten sign. The bus tickets are for the day, but not a specific time, you should aim to get on the bus about 45 minutes before your entry time. Again, because we went in the afternoon we didn’t have to queue, we just jumped straight on the bus, in the morning you should factor in some queuing time.

Day 3

Day three was the challenge, it’s not an easy day to arrange via public transport services and, unless we were willing to pay double the price in Cusco, private services could only be arranged once we reached Ollantaytambo. There are plenty of collectivos heading back to Cusco, but these don’t make stops on the way. You could also arrange a transfer directly with a taxi driver but, as we wanted to leave our bags in the car whilst we explored, we didn’t feel comfortable engaging just any old person we met. In the end, we arranged a pre-booked taxi through a tour company, KB Tours, which would take us to the three sites that we wanted to visit and on to Cusco. This worked out slightly more expensive but we felt more comfortable using a service that we could research in advance. We decided that we didn’t need to fork out for a guide for these stops, Caro researched the places online the night before and acted as our guide with screenshots of Wikipedia pages on her iPad.

Good luck and enjoy!

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