Pisac

32km (20 miles) NE of Cusco

The pretty Andean village of Pisac lies at the eastern end of the valley. Although prized principally for its hugely popular Sunday artisan market, an obligatory stop on most Sacred Valley tours, Pisac deserves to be more widely recognized for its splendid Inca ruins, which rival Ollantaytambo. Perched high on a cliff is the largest fortress complex built by the Incas, with commanding, distant views from atop the mountain, over a luxuriously long valley of green patchwork fields.

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Pisac (also spelled Pisaq) has few items of interest to most visitors, but two are biggies: the market and the hilltop ruins. You could manage a superficial visit to both in just a couple of hours, but an in-depth visit, especially if hiking to the ruins, requires a full morning or afternoon. The Jardín Botanico, on the other hand, is unknown to most tourists who pass through, though if you have the time, it’s worth a quick visit.

JARDÍN BOTÁNICO FELIPE MARÍN MORENO ★

Set within an interior courtyard just 1 block from Pisac’s main plaza, it’s a wonder why more tourists don’t notice this pleasant botanical garden (tel. 084/635-563). Created in 1917 by Felipe Marín Moreno, a Peruvian botanist and explorer, the garden is where he could experiment with native plants and seeds, as well as those he collected from various institutions and botanists around the world. Of particular interest are the more than 100 types of cactus and 200 types of potatoes in the garden, which is now managed by Marín’s son. The entrance is at Calle Grau 485. Admission is S/6. The garden is open daily from 9am to 4pm, though there’s not always someone at the entrance, so you might need to ring the bell or wait around for a little while until someone can let you in.

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PISAC MARKET ★★

Pisac’s extremely popular mercado, or artisan 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 the rest of the week 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. Traditionally, sellers came from many different villages, many of them remote populations high in the Andes, and wore the dress typical of their village, though this is becoming less the norm as products are increasingly mass-produced and stalls are set up every day of the week. 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: touristy but endearing, and an essential experience in Peru. If you’ve never been to a Peruvian market, this is the place to start, though the market at Chinchero strikes me as considerably more authentic and the finds are much better.

The goods 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 mid-afternoon. It is so well-worn on the Cusco tourist circuit that choruses of “¿Foto? Propinita” (photograph for a small tip) ring out among the mothers and would-be mothers here to show off their children, dressed up in adorable local outfits.

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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.

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).

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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 way to that 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. 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.

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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 hr., though about half that if you stick to the main area by the road. 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 S/20 to take you up to the ruins.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.