Salineras De Maras
10km (6 miles) NW of Urubamba
Near Urubamba (about 6km/3 1/2 miles down the main road toward Ollantaytambo but from there only accessible by foot) is the amazing sight of the Salineras de Maras (also called Salinas), thousands of individual ancient salt mines that form unique terraces in a hillside. The mines, small pools thickly coated with crystallized salt like dirty snow, have existed in the same spot since Inca days and are still operable. Families pass them down like deeds and continue the backbreaking and poorly remunerated tradition of salt extraction (crystallizing salt from subterranean spring water). The site as a whole is extraordinary and photogenic—from afar it looks like a patchwork quilt spread over a ravine, or some sort of sprawling, multilevel cake with white and caramel-colored icing—and it's almost surreal to watch workers standing ankle-deep and mining salt from one of nearly 6,000 pools cascading down the hillside. If you have a good sense of balance, you can walk among salt-encrusted paths to get good close-up photographs. A small fee (S/5) is collected at the entrance; opening hours are from dawn to dusk.
Getting There: To get to Maras, take a taxi from the Maras/Moray turnoff on the road from Chinchero to Urubamba (S/30 round-trip), where there are usually taxis waiting. Most visitors will combine a visit to Maras with a trip to Moray (S/70–S/80 round-trip from the turnoff, or around S/90 from Urubamba). Even better is the walk (7km/3 miles) along a path (a little over an hour) from the village of Maras, a route taken by some of the salt-mine workers (as if their work weren't grueling enough). Still more extreme and rewarding is the trek to the salt mines from the Inca ruins at Moray. It is one of the most stunningly beautiful walks in the region, a fest of blue-green cacti, deep red-brown earth, snow-capped mountains, plantings of corn and purple flowering potatoes, and small children tending to sheep. It's only for those who are in good shape, however; allow about 4 hours to cover the entire 14km (7.5 miles), all the way out to the main Urubamba-Ollantaytambo road.
9km (5 1/2 miles) NW of Maras
Among the wilder and more enigmatic Inca sites in Peru are the concentric ring terraces found in Moray. Unique in the Inca oeuvre, the site is not the ruins of a palace or fortress or typical temple, but what almost appears to be a large-scale environmental art installation. Three main sets of rings, like bowls, are set deep into the earth, forming strange sculpted terraces. The largest of the three has 15 levels. From above, they're intriguing, but it's even cooler to go down into them and contemplate their ancient functions. Many spiritually inclined travelers who come to the Sacred Valley for its special energy find that Moray possesses a very strong, and unique, vibe. The site may have had ritualistic purposes, but most likely, it was an agricultural development station where masterful and relentlessly curious farmers among the Incas tested experimental crops and conditions. The depressions in the earth (caused by erosion) produced intense microclimates, with remarkable differences in temperature from top to bottom, that the Incas were evidently studying. Moray is at its most spectacular after the end of the rainy season, when the terraces are a magnificent green.
Getting There -- Unfortunately, Moray is not easy to get to because it's removed from the main road that travels from Urubamba to Chinchero, with no public transportation of any kind, so it tends to draw only independent travelers and Inca completists, although increasingly Sacred Valley tours are beginning to include the site on their itineraries. The most convenient option is to take a taxi from either Urubamba or Chinchero; the driver will have to wait for you because there's nothing nearby, so the trip is sure to set you back at least S/130. Another option is to take a colectivo or bus that climbs up to Chinchero from Urubamba (or vice versa), getting off on the road to the village of Maras. (Make sure you ask the driver for the desvío a Maras.) From that point, there are usually taxis waiting to take visitors to Moray (negotiate a round-trip price). If you do go to Moray, it's possible to add on to your hike by walking another 9km (5 1/2 miles) along a trail down to the Salineras de Maras. Along the path you'll likely encounter workers from the salt mines, who walk the distance back and forth to work.
28km (17 miles) NW of Cusco
Popular among tour groups for its bustling Sunday market that begins promptly at 8am, Chinchero is spectacularly sited and much higher than the rest of the valley and even Cusco; at 3,800m (12,500 ft.) and far removed from the river, technically Chinchero doesn't belong to the Urubamba Valley. The sleepy village has gorgeous views of the snowy peak of Salcantay and the Vilcabamba and Urubamba mountain ranges in the distance. Sunset turns the fields next to the church -- where child shepherds herd their flocks and grown men play soccer without goal posts -- gold against the deepening blue sky.
It might once have been a great Inca city, but except on the main market day, Chinchero remains a graceful, traditional Andean Indian village. Its 15,000 inhabitants represent as many as 12 different indigenous communities. The town's main points of interest, in addition to the fine market, are the expansive main square, with a handsome colonial church made of adobe and built on Inca foundations, and some Inca ruins, mostly terraces that aren't quite as awe-inspiring today as their counterparts in Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
In the main plaza is a formidable and famous Inca wall composed of huge stones and 10 trapezoidal niches. The foundations once formed the palace of the late-15th-century Inca Tupac Yupanqui. The early-17th-century iglesia (church) has some very interesting, if faded, frescoes outside under the porticoes and mural paintings that cover the entire ceiling. The church is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 9am to 6pm. Across the plaza is a Museo de Sitio (no phone), the rather spare municipal museum that holds a few Inca ceramics and instruments; it's open Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 5pm, and admission is free.
The market comprises two marketplaces: one focusing on handicrafts and the other consisting mainly of produce. The Chinchero market is one of the best places in the entire valley for Andean textiles and common goods such as hats, gloves, and shawls. Even on Sunday, it is more authentic than the one at Pisac (although some visitors might find Pisac more lively and fun). Chinchero's sellers of artesanía -- who are more often than not also the craftspeople, unlike the mere agents you'll find in Pisac and other places -- dress in traditional garb, and even the kids seem less manipulative in pleading for your attention and soles. Midweek (especially Tues and Thurs), there are usually fewer sellers who set their wares on blankets around the main square, and you'll have a better chance of bargaining then.
Through the terraces to the left of the church is a path leading toward a stream and to some finely sculpted Inca masonry, including stone steps, water canals, and huge stones with animal figures.
Getting There -- Colectivos leave every half-hour or so from Tullumayo in Cusco for Chinchero (a 90-min. journey). Buses also leave every 20 minutes or so from the Terminal Terrestre in Urubamba (a 50-min. trip). Entrance to Chinchero -- officially to just the market and church, but, in practice, to the whole town, it seems -- is by boleto turístico. If you try to visit the church and main square without a boleto, you will be asked to purchase one (you can purchase the partial version that covers only Sacred Valley sites if you wish, rather than the entire Cusco ticket). Nearly everyone visits Chinchero on a half-day visit from either Cusco or Urubamba; there's not much else in the way of infrastructure to detain you, although there are a handful of inexpensive restaurants on the main road where the bus drops you off for lunch. There are a just a couple of spots in town to spend the night (the better of the two is the small and inexpensive Hostal Los Incas), unless you want to camp in the fields just beyond the plaza where the market is held. You're much better off visiting during the day and staying elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, where there are considerably more services.
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.