The Sacred Valley is probably the most visited area of Peru, and rightly so with it’s meandering river, towering cliffs and abundance of Inca ruins. The jewel in the crown is of course the famous citadel of Machu Picchu, which should be at the top of any Peru itinerary, yet I think that the Pisac ruins are a very close second. Just 45 minutes by car from Cusco, and situated at the eastern end of the Sacred Valley, they’re almost as spectacular, equally fascinating, and far less crowded. Now that new rules at Machu Picchu mean you can only visit with a guide and have to stick to specific timings and pathways, the experience isn’t quite as magical as it was before. At the Pisac ruins there is none of this. Visitors can explore by themselves to their heart’s content, scramble all around the site and if they get the timing right, there might be very few other people around.
What is there to see at Pisac?
The historic Andean town of Pisac was once an important trading post for the Incas thanks to it’s central location. Traders would come here to barter for goods, and today the Sunday market is still thriving with textiles and handicrafts. Yes, Pisac market is quite touristic, but it’s a great place to purchase souvenirs such as local ceramics as they can be a little cheaper than in Cusco. There are also smaller markets on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The main reason to visit however is the Pisac ruins. Perched magnificently at the entrance to a great gorge, the citadel overlooks the Urubamba Valley and town of Pisac far below. Pisac was situated strategically along a road that connected the Inca Empire with the jungles of the east, and the site is an impressive reminder of just how advanced the civilisation was in terms of building and agriculture.
Walking up from the parking area and handicraft stalls near the entrance, we were greeted by an extensive terrace system used for cultivation and irrigation, similar to those we had seen at Moray. Cut into the hillside, these terraces created an environment which enabled the Incas to grow crops such as potatoes (did you know there are around 3,000 varieties of potato produced in Peru?). The sun doesn’t always penetrate the cooler depths of the valleys in Peru, since the cliffs and mountains are so high and imposing. By cutting these terraces into the rock, the Incas ensured as much sunlight as possible reached their crops. Genius.
Climbing on to the highest section of Pisac ruins we discovered that up here the views were even better, and it was fun exploring the remains of buildings, wondering what they had been and who used to live here. There is a residential settlement and several alters, as well as water channels and even ceremonial baths.
There are still unexcavated ruins at Pisac, as well as numerous ancient burial sites in the rock crevices high above the citadel. This helps retain an air of mystery about the site, which is good because imagination has always played an important part in the enjoyment of a place.
Hiking the ruins at Pisac
Many visitors don’t realise that the main part of the citadel at Pisac is actually a half an hour down the hillside from the top. It had been our intention to hike back down to the village along this route, but unfortunately the path was shut off, we think due to a rockfall further along the trail which was most disappointing.
If you want to have a go at this hike, then climb down below the upper ruins and find this doorway which marks the entrance to the temple complex. It’s on the path down from the top, just above where the upper terraces begin.
From here continue down towards the valley, keeping the terraces and fabulous views to your left. The path is a little rough and steep in places but perfectly manageable in the right footwear. Before too long you’ll reach a narrow tunnel (this is where we think the rockfall was when we visited). Carry on through here and you’ll see a residential dwelling on the left, before reaching the main Pisac ruins complex a further 10 minutes down the trail.
It’s here where you’ll find the Sun Temple, which is every bit as good as the one at Machu Picchu. The complex is perched on a ridge and consists of about 12 buildings which surround the ‘D’ shaped temple. There are further water channels and alters here, signifying the sacred importance of the site.
From here the path continues down to Pisac village, with several spectacular viewpoints along the way. It can take around 2 hours to hike from the very top of Pisac ruins down to the village, depending on how often you stop for photos or a rest. Most of the way is downhill except for the initial 15 minutes, so you don’t need to be super fit, but a head for heights will help!
How to visit Pisac
On a tour – one of the most popular days trip from Cusco is the Sacred Valley Tour, which takes in Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the weaving town of Chinchero, all of which are well worth visiting. There are numerous tour operators in Cusco who offer this, or alternatively ask your hotel to arrange it for you.
Go it alone – if you fancy being more independent there are several options. To keep costs to a minimum, take a colectivo (shared van or minibus) from Cusco to Pisac (s/4 – S/6), then a taxi (around s/20 – s/30 depending on your negotiation skills) up to the ruins, unless you want to walk up the steep winding road! If you travelled in by colectivo, ask the driver where to find one for the return journey. Alternatively take a licensed taxi from Cusco which should cost around s/60. To return to Cusco, head to the bridge on Avenida Amazonas which is where the taxis will be. We actually hired a car and driver, arranged by our hotel in Cusco, because we wanted total flexibility and also comfort. This cost us about s/350 for the day.
Best time to visit Pisac
The best time to visit Pisac and the Sacred Valley is during the dry season, which is between April and October. We were there at the beginning of September and although it was quite cool the sun was shining and the skies were blue. It was like this all week during our time in Cusco and Urubamba. Despite the low temperature, we were quite warm from all the climbing, and even got a bit sun burnt, so take that into consideration when planning on what to wear for the day.
Tips for visiting the Pisac ruins
- To visit Pisac ruins you’ll need a Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico de Cusco, or BTC). If you’re spending several days in the Cusco area it’s worth purchasing the Full BTC (s/130), as it covers most of the major sights and lasts for 10 days. If you only have a couple of days, just buy the Partial BTC (s/70), making sure it’s the Sacred Valley Circuit III as this is the one that covers Pisac. It lasts for 2 days and also allows entrance to Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Moray. You can purchase tickets at entrances to any of the sights, or in Cusco at the main BTC ticket office on the Avenida del Sol, or the Tourist Office on Calle Mantas, both of which are near the Plaza de Armas.
- Aim to visit the Pisac ruins during the afternoon to avoid the crowds on day trips from Cusco, many of whom stop here in the morning. It will be hotter after mid-day, but worth it for a bit of solitude.
- Wear sturdy footwear such as trainers or hiking boots if you’re planning on hiking down to Pisac village.
- Take plenty of water as there is little shade on the trail and it is baking hot in the sun. There are often water vendors at the entrance to Pisac ruins, but don’t rely on them being there.
- Likewise make sure you have sun screen with you.