Pisac's famed artisans' and antiques market draws many hundreds of shoppers on Sunday morning in high season, when it is without a doubt one of the liveliest in Peru. (There are slightly less popular markets on Tues and Thurs as well.) Hundreds of stalls crowd the central square -- marked by a small church, San Pedro el Apóstolo, and massive pisonay trees -- and spill down side streets. Sellers come from many different villages, many of them remote populations high in the Andes, and wear the dress typical of their village. Dignitaries from the local villages usually lead processions after Mass (said in Quechua), dressed in their versions of Sunday finery. The market is much like Cusco: rather touristy, though endearing and an essential experience in Peru. Even if you're not a committed shopper, it's an event. If you're never been to a Peruvian market, this is the place to start, though the market at Chinchero strikes me as considerably more authentic.
The goods for sale at the market -- largely sweaters and ponchos, tapestries and rugs, musical instruments, and carved gourds -- are familiar to anyone who's spent a day in Cusco, but prices are occasionally lower on selected goods such as ceramics. While tourists shop for colorful weavings and other souvenirs, locals are busy buying and selling produce on small streets leading off the plaza. The market begins at around 9am and lasts until midafternoon. It is so well-worn on the Cusco tourist circuit that choruses of, "¿Foto? Propinita," (photograph for a tip) ring out among the mothers and would-be mothers who come here to show off their children, dressed up in adorable local outfits. On nonmarket days, bustling Pisac becomes a very quiet, little-visited village with few activities to engage travelers.
The Virgen del Carmen Festival
Pisac celebrates the Virgen del Carmen festival (July 16-18) with nearly as much enthusiasm as the more remote and more famous festival in Paucartambo. It's well worth visiting Pisac during the festival if you are in the area.
The Pisac Ruins
The Pisac ruins are some of the finest and largest in the entire valley. Despite the excellent condition of many of the structures, little is conclusively known about the site's actual purpose. It appears to have been part city, part ceremonial center, and part military complex. It might have been a royal estate of the Inca emperor (Pachacútec). It was certainly a religious temple, and although it was reinforced with the ramparts of a massive citadel, the Incas never retreated here to defend their empire against the Spaniards (and Pisac was, unlike Machu Picchu, known to Spanish forces).
The best but most time-consuming way to see the ruins is to climb the hillside, following an extraordinary path that is itself a slice of local life. Trudging along steep mountain paths is still the way most Quechua descendants from remote villages get around these parts; many people you see at the Pisac market will have walked a couple of hours or more through the mountains to get there. To get to the ruins on foot (about 5km/3 miles, or 60 min.), you'll need to be pretty fit and/or willing to take it very slowly. Begin the ascent at the back of Pisac's main square, to the left of the church. (If you haven't already purchased a boleto turístico, required for entrance, you can do so at the small guard's office at the beginning of the path as you climb out of town.) The path bends to the right through agricultural terraces. There appear to be several competing paths; all of them lead up the mountain to the ruins. When you come to a section that rises straight up, choose the extremely steep stairs to the right. (The path to the left is overgrown and poorly defined.) If an arduous trek is more than you've bargained for, you can hire a taxi in Pisac (easier done on market days) to take you around the back way. (The paved road is some 9.5km/6 miles long.) If you arrive by car or colectivo rather than by your own power, the ruins will be laid out the opposite of the way they are described below.
From a semicircular terrace and fortified section at the top, called the Qorihuayrachina, the views south and west of the gorge and valley below and agricultural terraces creeping up the mountain slopes are stunning. Deeper into the nucleus, the delicately cut stones are some of the best found at any Inca site. The most important component of the complex, on a plateau on the upper section of the ruins, is the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), one of the Incas' most impressive examples of masonry. The temple was an astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana, the so-called "hitching post of the sun," resembles a sundial but actually was an instrument that helped the Incas to determine the arrival of important growing seasons rather than to tell the time of day. Sadly, this section is now closed to the public, due to vandals who destroyed part of it a few years ago. Nearby (just paces to the west) is another temple, thought to be the Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), and beyond that is a ritual bathing complex, fed by water canals. Continuing north from this section, you can either ascend a staircase path uphill, which forks, or pass along the eastern (right) edge of the cliff. If you do the latter, you'll arrive at a tunnel that leads to a summit lookout at 3,400m (11,200 ft.). A series of paths leads from here to defensive ramparts (K'alla Q'asa), a ruins sector called Qanchisracay, and the area where taxis wait to take passengers back to Pisac.
In the hillside across the Quitamayo gorge, at the back side (north end) of the ruins, are hundreds of dug-out holes where huaqueros (grave robbers) have ransacked a cemetery that was among the largest known Inca burial sites.
The ruins are open daily from 7am to 5:30pm; admission is by Cusco's boleto turístico. Note that to explore the ruins thoroughly by foot, including the climb from Pisac, you'll need 3 to 4 hours. Most people visit Pisac as part of a whirlwind day tour through the valley, which doesn't allow enough time either at the market or to visit the ruins. Taxis leave from the road near the bridge and charge around S/15 to take you up to the ruins.