At the heart of the former Incan Empire, the Sacred Valley of Peru is littered with enough unique ruins, important landmarks, and natural wonders to engage travelers for weeks. Most famously home to Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley is a bucket list destination well worth a visit, far exceeding most travelers’ greatest expectations.
In this ultimate guide to the Sacred Valley, we share the best things to do in the Sacred Valley, where to stay to get the most out of your trip, and the can’t-miss destinations worth traveling for. Let’s get started planning your dream trip to one of Peru’s most scenic regions!
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Sacred Valley, Peru
Located high in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru, the Sacred Valley – also known as the Urubamba Valley for the river that runs through its heart – stretches for 60 miles through some of the most beautiful and historically significant areas of Peru.
From the Incan fortress at Ollantaytambo to the terraced ruins and indigenous market in Pisac, there is plenty to experience here before you make it to the Valley’s most famous destination. Choose from unique hikes and countless easy day trips, or independently explore the countless ruins, natural landmarks, and beautiful vistas of the area.
The gateway to the Sacred Valley is Cusco, the former capital of the Incan Empire and the transportation hub for travelers visiting the area. Cusco is packed with history and charm, making it easily among Peru’s favorite cities with travelers.
Whether you plan to use Cusco as a base for your trip or prefer to stay in one of the Valley’s charming towns, exploring Cusco is its own unique pleasure! It’s a great place begin to get acquainted with all the Sacred Valley has to offer.
Read More: 25+ Best Things To Do in Peru
Sacred Valley Altitude
Be wary of the elevation you’ll experience in the Sacred Valley. The elevation of Cusco is 11,152 feet (3,399 meters), while the elevation at Machu Picchu is 7,972 feet (2,430 meters).
If you’re traveling from lower altitudes, it can take some time to adjust – you may feel a bit out of breath when walking or exerting yourself. Make sure to drink plenty of water, rest up, and try coca tea, a local remedy used for altitude sickness for generations.
If you’re concerned about how your body may react, you can also bring along altitude sickness prevention pills – I’ve never used them personally, though I’ve heard great things.
I’d recommend adding a day to your itinerary to help you adjust to the altitude. While you may not feel much of the effects of the altitude at all, this should provide a good buffer for you in case you do.
Is the Sacred Valley Worth Visiting?
The Sacred Valley is well worth visiting! Not only is the Sacred Valley worth a visit, but it’s also worth moving to the very top of your bucket list.
Whether you’ve always dreamed of traveling to Machu Picchu or are simply interested in visiting a beautiful, interesting destination, you’ll appreciate all that the Sacred Valley has to offer. It’s packed with fascinating ruins, world-class hiking trails, beautiful towns, interesting markets, and much more. However long you plan to stay here, there will always be something more to do.
What Is the Sacred Valley Known For?
The Sacred Valley is best known as the heart of the former Incan Empire and home to Machu Picchu. While this is enough of a draw for many tourists to visit the area, don’t make the mistake of heading straight to Machu Picchu and missing out on the rest of the incredible destinations in the Sacred Valley.
8 Things To Do in the Sacred Valley
1. Explore Cusco
Most travelers embark on a journey through the Sacred Valley from Cusco, but don’t make the mistake of overlooking the chance to explore all that this city has to offer. Easily one of Peru’s best cities, Cusco is filled with historic landmarks, bustling markets, Incan ruins, and beautiful viewpoints.
With so many things to do in Cusco, it’s impossible to break down everything you’d want to do in this article, but these are just a few highlights:
- Visit the ruins of Sacsayhuaman just above Cusco
- Explore the neighborhood of San Blas
- Eat cuy (guinea pig, a local favorite) at Cuyería Sabor Moqueguano
- Take the WithLocals Cusco food tour
- Rest and relax at the ReEnergize Cusco, or try luxurious spa treatments at Palacio del Inka
No matter how long you’ll have to enjoy the city, you’ll find that Cusco has some incredible travel experiences waiting for you. Remember to get your Cusco Tourist Pass in advance – you’ll need this ticket to access 16 different sites in and around Cusco.
2. Visit Humantay Lake
While there are plenty of incredible day trips from Cusco to consider as you explore the Sacred Valley, I’d recommend Humantay Lake as one of the most impressive spots in the valley, making for a great visit.
This high-altitude turquoise lake sits just below the snow-capped Humantay Mountain, making for a destination you need to see to believe.
Cusco day trips to Humantay Lake are quite affordable – generally around $40 USD – and are by far the easiest way to visit the site. Alternatively, you could take a taxi to Humantay Lake, but you’ll end up paying much more for transportation than you would by just joining a Humantay Lake small group tour.
If you’re looking for more than just a day trip to Humantay Lake, consider adding the Salkantay Trek to your itinerary. This 4-day or 5-day trek includes a visit to the lake on the way past stunning snow-capped mountains on a journey that culminates in a visit to Machu Picchu.
Read More: 9 Best Day Trips from Cusco
3. Hike the Inca Trail
The Sacred Valley is a hiker’s paradise, and its most famous trail is the classic 4-day Inca Trail. While hikers will enjoy walking in the footsteps of the Incas and seeing ruins along the way, the trek culminates in a sunrise arrival to Machu Picchu, a highlight for any trekker and one of the best things to do in Peru.
While the classic Inca Trail is completed in 4 days, you’ll also find options to make the trek in 3 days or 5 days. While these multi-day treks are pricey, it’s a bucket list travel experience that is well worth the money – I’ve never met anyone who has completed the trek and said otherwise!
The tour company TreXperience is the best at these treks, and I highly recommend booking with them. They offer excellent Inca Trail treks that are well worth the money, with their 4-Day Classic Inca Trail Trek being a favorite
4. Hike an “Alternative” Inca Trail
If you love the idea of exploring the Sacred Valley by foot but are looking for a more off-the-beaten-path experience, there are plenty of fantastic multi-day hiking trails through the Sacred Valley to choose from. Whether you’re looking for a route that takes you to Machu Picchu or just a memorable trekking experience, you’ll have your pick from several world-class treks.
The 4-day or 5-day Salkantay Trek is probably the most well-known Inca Trail alternative, but don’t worry, you’ll feel like you have the trails all to yourself compared to the Inca Trail.
Highlights of the trek include vistas of the snow-capped peaks of Humantay (you’ll visit the stunning Humantay Lake) and Salkantay. It’s also an incredible trail for spotting wildlife like alpacas, vizcachas, and even the elusive condor.
TreXperience offers one of the best Salkantay Trek Hike experiences, and I highly recommend checking them out and considering them for your booking.
With passes near Peru’s 5th highest peak, Ausangate, and a day of trekking to the famous Rainbow Mountain, the Ausangate Trek is a highlight for adventurous travelers visiting the Sacred Valley.
While the classic route lasts 6 days, you’ll find companies in Cusco that tack on a few more days to bring trekkers all the way to Machu Picchu.
The Ausangate Trek can be more challenging than some of the other alternative Inca Trail routes, and reaching Machu Picchu takes longer, so it isn’t as popular as some of the others on this list. However, if you’re looking for a unique, off-the-beaten-path challenge, Ausangate is a fantastic choice.
Considered one of the less physically demanding alternative Inca Trail routes, the Lares Trek generally starts from the Lares area north of Cusco. Highlights include incredible vistas of peaks like Verónica, Sahuasiray, Pitusiray, and Chicón, as well as countless opportunities to explore Incan ruins and pass through tiny mountain villages.
Classic Lares Treks usually last three days. This makes the Lares Trek a great choice for a shorter and less physically demanding hike than the others on this list.
5. Explore the Sacred Valley’s Markets
You might be surprised to learn that the Sacred Valley is a great destination for shopping. Skip the big stores and travel gear shops in Cusco and head for the marketplaces for an incredible opportunity to find one-of-a-kind souvenirs, beautiful textiles, and unique handicrafts; you may have to grab an extra suitcase to bring it all home with you.
While Cusco has a few great local markets worth exploring, check out these memorable markets in the Sacred Valley for your trip:
Located in the small town of Pisac, less than an hour north of Cusco, this lovely indigenous market is among the best markets in Latin America. It’s for a good reason: this small town’s Sunday markets spill throughout the entire town, where locals sell textiles, souvenirs, fresh produce, delicious street food, jewelry, and more.
While the market is open in a smaller capacity throughout the week, visiting on a Sunday, you’ll see it in all its glory.
You won’t want to travel to Pisac without planning a visit to the ruins, so save at least half a day for a proper excursion to Pisac. You can find guided tours from Cusco, though Pisac is easily (and affordably) accessible by taxi or public transport from Cusco as well.
Read More: Pisac, Peru: Ultimate Travel Guide
While the Pisac market is the Sacred Valley’s most well-known market, the local market in Chinchero is another spot you’ll be happy you added to your itinerary. In recent years as the market at Pisac has grown more famous, the market at Chinchero remains mostly off the beaten path, meaning you’ll see much more local scenes and products.
Like the market in Pisac, the Chinchero Market is at its grandest on Sundays, though Tuesdays and Thursdays are great alternatives if a Sunday visit doesn’t fit your schedule.
Cusco Tourist Pass
You’ll need to purchase the Cusco Tourist Pass to visit almost any of these destinations – especially the sites with ruins! The Cusco Tourist Pass is an excellent deal and includes admissions to a variety of sites in and around Cusco over a number of days. Book your Cusco Tourist Pass in advance and start planning your trip!
6. Visit the “Next” Machu Picchu: Choquequirao
If you think Machu Picchu is one of a kind, you have yet to hear of Choquequirao. If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure travel experience, a visit to Choquequirao should be at the top of your list.
While Machu Picchu is relatively accessible from Cusco, the ruins of Choquequirao are much more difficult to access. To reach these remote ruins, visitors must prepare for a four-day in-and-out hike. It’s a moderate to difficult trek, but the reward is great: with only 15-20 visitors reaching the site every day, you’ll have these Machu Picchu-esque ruins practically to yourself.
While these ruins aren’t technically located within the Sacred Valley, they’re just 25 miles southwest of Machu Picchu, situated above the Apurimac River. A visit to Choquequirao makes a great excursion from the typical tourist path of the Sacred Valley, and see some of Peru’s most impressive ruins, likely while having this archeological gem all to yourself.
7. Stay in an Eco Resort
Nestled along the Urubamba River in the heart of the Sacred Valley, you’ll find some of the most beautiful and luxurious resorts and hotels in Peru. Among favorites like Rio Sagrado and Tambo del Inka you’ll find Las Qolqas Eco Resort, a beautiful and sustainable resort property for a stay you’re sure to remember.
Las Qolqas features beautiful and spacious high-end tents, complete with every amenity imaginable, making the most of the incredible scenery of the Valley while leaving little trace behind. Las Qolqas is home to an organic garden and sources delicious local ingredients for its restaurant, making it one of the best places to eat in the Sacred Valley.
Just a few minutes’ drive from Ollantaytambo, you won’t have to travel far to enjoy this beautiful resort. It’s the perfect combination of remote for a perfect retreat-like atmosphere and close to the very best of the Sacred Valley.
Guests can enjoy excursions walking along sections of Imperial Inca Trail near the property, as well as a curated collection of experiences like Peruvian cooking classes, guided tours, and even the opportunity to participate in unique indigenous ceremonies.
Read More: 25 Best Eco-Resorts Around the World
8. Visit Machu Picchu
Whether you’re hiking the Inca Trail or boarding a luxury train, if you’re traveling to the Sacred Valley, you’re definitely looking forward to visiting Machu Picchu. One of the most famous landmarks in South America – and one of the most recognizable spots in the world! – Machu Picchu is guaranteed to exceed your expectations. I had high hopes for my visit, and I was truly blown away.
If you’re looking for an experience similar to Machu Picchu without visiting Machu Picchu itself, consider embarking on the 4-day trek to Choquequirao. These Incan ruins just 25 miles southwest of Machu Picchu are extremely similar to Machu Picchu, though the experience of visiting them couldn’t be more different – only about 15 to 20 visitors arrive each day!
Read More: Best Machu Picchu Tours (For Every Budget)
Where To Stay in the Sacred Valley
Plenty of travelers use Cusco as a base for exploring the Sacred Valley. With so many charming boutique hotels and guesthouses, affordable hostels, and luxury palaces, you’ll have plenty of options when choosing where to stay in Cusco.
However, it is worth considering the benefits of staying in the Sacred Valley, outside Cusco proper. You’ll enjoy exploring beautiful Sacred Valley towns and the stunning landscapes of the Valley, away from the hustle and bustle (and high-season tourist crowds) of Cusco.
Whether you’re looking for a retreat space, a boutique hotel, or an eco-lodge, you’ll find it here. In towns like Pisac and Ollantaytambo, you’ll find a range of accommodations for all budgets. Plus, some of Peru’s most exclusive luxury hotels are spread across gorgeous estates, making the most of breathtaking mountain views.
Wolf Totem ($)
Wolf Totem is a favorite hostel in Pisac and the Sacred Valley, and you’ll hear backpackers throughout Peru talk about how much they love this friendly hostel. Nestled in the beautiful hills about a 20-minute walk outside of central Pisac, Wolf Totem feels like a luxury retreat, even if you’re traveling on a backpacker budget.
Hotel La Casona de Yucay ($ – $$)
Located just outside of Urubamba, the charming Hotel La Casona de Yucay is an affordable yet charming property you’ll love. The historic building is stunning, with its traditional colonial courtyard and grounds with incredible mountain views.
Rooms are comfortable and spacious. You’ll feel like you’ve found a slice of paradise in the Valley, while sticking to budget.
Las Qolqas Eco Resort ($$ – $$$)
Come to Las Qolqas Eco Resort to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the Sacred Valley in luxury. The hotel has lovely grounds just outside of Ollantaytambo, and the dining room’s glass roof lets in tons of natural light – and beautiful views of the valley.
The hotel’s restaurant is worth a visit even if you’re not staying here – everything is delicious.
Rio Sagrado, A Belmond Hotel ($$$)
Situated on a beautiful estate beside the Urubamba River, Rio Sagrado is a slice of paradise among the natural beauty of the Sacred Valley that you have to experience to believe. Much more than just a place to spend the night, Rio Sagrado is an absolute highlight of a visit to the Sacred Valley.
Every detail is thought out, from the sumptuous rooms and delicious local fare to engaging excursions and activities, and even llamas on the hotel grounds that guests can feed. Whether you’re looking for some rest and relaxation to acclimatize to the altitude or just want to enjoy a memorable stay, Rio Sagrado is the perfect spot.
Vertical Sky Luxury ($$$$)
Staying at the Vertical Sky Luxury Suites isn’t like staying anywhere else on Earth – it’s truly its own adventure. Perhaps you’ve seen images of this hotel on viral Youtube videos or Instagram – the hotel is composed of glass pods suspended from a cliff hanging over the valley, making for what is sure to be an unforgettable night’s sleep.
Visitors have to climb up and zipline down – consider it all part of the unforgettable visit. You’ll need to book well in advance, as rooms are few (understandably!), and staying here is its own bucket list experience.
Read More: Where to Stay in Cusco, Peru
Getting to the Sacred Valley
Nearly all travelers to the Sacred Valley access the area through Cusco, the Valley’s largest hub. Cusco is well connected to the rest of Peru, with frequent flights arriving at the city’s airport, located just a few minutes from the center of the city.
Cusco also receives frequent buses from other Peruvian cities, though be sure to research just how long of a bus ride you could expect: Cusco is more difficult to reach and further from other popular destinations than you might think.
Once you’ve reached Cusco, the transportation options throughout the rest of the Sacred Valley are endless. With frequent public transportation (buses or “colectivo” passenger vans) through the Sacred Valley, as well as an abundance of taxis, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
Sacred Valley Travel Tips
Take the Altitude Seriously
Plan at least one or two days into your itinerary when you hit the ground in the Sacred Valley to adjust to the altitude. This really should not be optional as you plan your Peru itinerary: it’s a vital part of the trip.
You don’t want to have to push on with planned activities or tours if you feel unwell, and you certainly don’t want to have to skip anything you were looking forward to. Plan to spend a day or two in Cusco or in a smaller town in the Sacred Valley adjusting to the altitude, and count anything you’re able to do these days as an extra bonus.
Book in Advance
Most travelers know that a trip to Machu Picchu must be booked as far in advance as possible, but the same goes for much of the rest of your trip as well. Especially when traveling in Sacred Valley, things can book up fast, especially in the most popular destinations like Cusco and Ollantaytambo.
Book your hotel in Cusco as far in advance as you can (check out our guide to the best places to stay in Cusco for more details!), plus popular tours like Sacred Valley tours and day trips from Cusco.
Read More: 10 Best Day Trips from Cusco
Get Off the Beaten Path in Cusco
Cusco is so, so much more than just a place to spend a day or two to prepare for a trip to Machu Picchu. Filled with museums, historic architecture, Incan ruins, and great restaurants, it’s a city where you could easily spend a week or two and still have things to do.
As you plan your Peru itinerary, try to spend at least three or four days in Cusco, or more if you can. The classic spots in the city like Plaza de Armas and Sacsayhuaman are definitely worth a visit, but spend some time doing things in Cusco that are more off the beaten path to get a more complete picture of this memorable city.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.