A Day Tour of the Sacred Valley

Day Tour Route - Sacred Valley

On one of our 3 days in Cuzco we did a day tour of the Sacred Valley. We were on a mid-size bus with perhaps 35 people. The tour costs 35 NS per person (1 USD = 2.8 NS). Another option would be to rent a car, but signage on the roads is not very clear, and it was just easier for us to book a tour than to find a car to rent. The tour consisted of a stop at a small set of tourist shops (of course) not too far from Pisac, then the ruins of Pisac, a drive to Urubamba for lunch, then on to Ollantaytambo town and ruins, followed by a drive over a high plateau to the little town of Chinchero, and finally back to Cuzco via Poroy, which is the same town where the trains leave for Machu Picchu. A tourist ticket to visit the ruins below, in addition to others (see my other posts on Cuzco sites) costs 130 NS (about $46), for non-locals. The ticket can be purchased in Cuzco or at your first stop. Unfortunately it’s “all or nothing,” you cannot purchase individual site tickets.

A view of the Sacred Valley from Ollantaytambo

The town of Pisac is quite small (about 4,000 inhabitants), and the ruins are set high in a valley behind the little town. It’s about a 2,000 foot drop in elevation from Cuzco to Pisac, and a very scenic drive. The ruins contain a variety of buildings and varying stone and adobe brick work. This Inca site was thought to contain a bit of everything—religious site, observatory, as well as residences. Due to our limited time with a tour group, we only were able to visit one portion of the site—it’s large, and still being excavated. The views of the valley from the ruins are quite spectacular, even with the heavy mist we had.

A view of the ruins of Pisac

A view of the valley and terraces at Pisac

After lunch in Urubamba, our tour took us to Ollantaytambo, at the northwest end of the Sacred Valley, and the literal end of the road (at least in the direction of Machu Picchu). This is a nice small town, and is laid out on the original Inca city plan. The fortress ruins are very impressive, looking up from the town directly below. There are large terraces ascending straight up a narrow cleft in the mountain to the ruins at the top. This site was largely defensive in nature. The Inca fled here in 1537 after being defeated in Sacsayhuaman by the Spanish. They actually made a stand and won a battle against Pizzaro here, but eventually the Spanish conquered this city. In addition to the main ruins by the town, there are additional ruins on the other side of the small valley, to the southeast of the town. Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuaman were my favorite Inca sites in addition to Machu Picchu. The trains to Machu Picchu make a short stop here on their way to Aguas Calientes.

Looking up at the ruins of Ollantaytambo

The ruins of Ollantaytambo

Temple of the Ten Niches at Ollantaytambo

We drove back down the road to Urubamba, and then south up over a high plateau in the Sacred Valley to the town of Chinchero. On this road are incredible views of the surrounding Andes mountains. This town is 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) in altitude, higher than Cuzco. The Incan past is very obvious in this little town, with the buildings along the streets built upon their original Inca foundations. The Inca, in fleeing to Ollantaytambo, laid waste to this town to slow the Spaniards. Too bad. Chinchero has a very interesting church, built in 1607, with the wood beam ceiling covered in intricate paintings. I could not take pictures inside, but it was very beautiful and worth the visit. We arrived very late in the afternoon, near sunset, so our visit to this interesting town was limited.

Growing crops at 12,500 feet (near Chinchero)

The soaring peak of Lagrimas Sagradas (Sacred Tears) 5,800 meters (about 19,000 ft) high.

A narrow street in Chinchero--houses built on Inca foundations

The 17th century church in Chinchero - built on Inca foundations, and decorated with ceiling paintings

Exploring North Central Peru – Gocta Falls (aka “Gojta”)

A house in Cocachimba

On our 2nd day in Chachapoyas we decided to go to Gocta Falls. These falls (a series of two) are the 3rdhighest in the world. The lower falls is about 500 meters in height, and the upper falls is about 200 meters high. In the travel blogs I had read prior to our trip, it was difficult to know how accessible the falls were. As it turned out, they were pretty easy to get to. As we had done the day before, we went to the main square in Chachapoyas and arranged with a different tour company (simply to spread our business) for transportation to the falls. We paid 30 NS per person for the car and driver and also paid a 5 NS entry fee ($1 USD = 2.8 nuevos soles).

The village of Cocachimba, start of the Gocta Falls trail

On the trail...

Getting closer to the falls...

The lower falls as we arrive...

We were the only ones going to the falls that day, and had a private car and driver. The drive took us north of Chachapoyas about 1 hour (of which only 11km is gravel) to the small village of Cocachimba, where the hike began. The well-maintained trail is 5.3km in length, and it took us about 2 hours to get to the falls. Along the way, there are various signs promoting ecotourism and pointing out some of the natural surroundings (local birds for example). The falls are visible from near the trailhead, and if one did not feel like hiking, just viewing them from the distance would be possible. The trail goes up and down a lot through many ravines, but is not difficult.

The huge falls dwarf our son, Sean...

Standing at the base of the falls, looking straight up 1500 feet is quite spectacular. We had the falls to ourselves. There was a small group of German tourists hiking down as we were going up, and we saw just a few other people along trail. This was a very quiet and an enjoyable experience in the natural beauty of Peru.

A sign for Facebook in the remote village of Cocachimba!

Gocta Falls is 1 hour north (by car) of Chachapoyas

Exploring North Central Peru – Kuelap (“qway-lap”)

On the 2.5km hike to Kuelap

Housing area in Kuelap-the only restored structure on the site

If you’re looking for a less-discovered, uncrowded ancient historical site in Peru, consider Kuelap. It is located 45 miles (which takes about 2.5 hours due to a gravel road most of the way) south of Chachapoyas. The road is much improved from several years ago, when rains would make it nearly impassable. Our tour group included 13 people in a minivan. The tour cost 60 NS (1 USD = 2.8 nuevos soles) per person, and included lunch and the entry fee (10 NS). Most of the tourists were from Peru and other South American countries. When we arrived at the site, we were pleased to see just a few other minivans. After arriving at the parking lot, we hiked about 2.5 km up to the site itself.

The scenery from the mountaintop fortress of Kuelap. The dirt road seen near the bottom of the picture is the road to the site

The massive walls surrounding Kuelap

One of the main entrances to the site

Hiking up into the fortress

I knew little about Kuelap, but enough to know it is one of the great sights in Peru and I wanted to see it. Kuelap dates to the 6th(?) century AD, constructed by the Chachapoyan people, who apparently were warriors, given the defensive nature of Kuelap. We don’t know much about these people, but they were described as a “tall and fair” people by the Inca—supposedly blonde and blue-eyed, and even today I understand that there are some people in the area that fit this description, but they are not European descendants. They were eventually conquered by the Inca around 1472, and Kuelap was inhabited until 1670 when it was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest. It is one of the largest pre-Inca ruins in existence, set on a 10,000 foot mountain top ridge. Massive walls (reaching up to 60 feet high) surround the site, which is 600 meters in length. It is believed that about 2,500 – 3,000 people inhabited about 400 or more homes (most of which are circular) in the site. The site’s construction reminded me of castles in Europe—well built, but not to the exacting standards of the Inca. Based on the skeleton remains and large numbers of skull surgeries at Kuelap, archeologists believe a “medical” school was located here.

Templo Mayor (observatory? prison?)

Another view of the ruins in Kuelap

Decorative stonework in Kuelap buildings

The surrounding mountain scenery is beautiful, and from Kuelap, one is at equal height with most of the surrounding mountains.

Our tour van and restaurant for lunch

A great lunch - Lomo Saltado

Kuelap is 2.5 hours south (by car) of Chachapoyas

Visit now before this incredible site welcomes crowds like those at Machu Picchu!

Exploring North Central Peru—Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is an 8-9 hour (285 miles) bus ride east from Chiclayo

The countryside of Chachapoyas (on the way to Kuelap)

Chachapoyas is a whitewashed town of about 25,000 located in a very interesting and beautiful part of Peru. It would be easy to spend 4-5 days touring the area—we spent two, exploring Kuelap ruins and Gocta Falls. A green, mountainous area, Chachapoyas is located between the very dry northwest part of Peru and the Amazon jungle region to the east.

Getting on the bus to start our overnight journey to Chachapoyas

To get to Chachapoyas, the logistics are as follows: a flight from Lima to Chiclayo, followed by an overnight (about 9 hour) bus ride from Chiclayo to Chachapoyas. Another option would be a flight from Lima to Cajamarca and then an 10 hour bus ride (mainly on a dirt road from what I understand) to Chachapoyas. There are no commercial flights to Chachapoyas, although there is a small airport where some small charter flights operate.

The comfortable semi-cama bus seats

The bus ride is not quite as bad as it might seem. The operator was Movil Tours. The bus is a double-decker, with more comfortable seats on the lower level and typical long-haul bus seats on the upper level. While the bus makes a few short stops, they are only to pick up and drop off passengers. Seats in the economy (upstairs) section cost 45 nuevos soles (NS) and 75 NS in the first class section. A small dinner (not too exciting) was served, with one movie shown (in Spanish of course). ($1 USD = 2.8 NS).

Hotel Vilaya in Chachapoyas

Our room at Hotel Vilaya--about $35/night (checking in at 6 am!)

The bus from Chiclayo arrives in Chachapoyas at about 6 am. Upon arrival, we asked for hotel recommendations, and took a taxi for 2 NS to the hotel, and got a triple room on the spot for 100 NS per night, with (very) early check-in being no problem. There are several decent, but certainly not fancy hotels in the town. After getting cleaned up, we then ventured down to the main square to arrange a tour to Kuelap which left at 8:30 am. The tourism industry here is just developing and at this time of year (October), it was no problem getting a hotel, or booking a tour. There are at least a half-dozen tour agencies on the main square, and from what we could tell, they all offer similar tours and at similar rates. The main tours in the area include: Kuelap, Gocta Falls, Revash, Karajia, Laguna de los Condores, and Quiocta Caves.

One of several tour operators on Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas

Pedestrian street, Chachapoyas

Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas