The Sacred Valley of the Inca: Chinchero and the citadel of Pisac

The small village of Chinchero hides a secret. You wouldn’t guess it driving past on the road from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, you wouldn’t guess it as you walk the village’s ancient cobbled streets, not even walking into the plaza outside its ordinary looking adobe church is it hinted at.

Chinchero’s secret is only revealed when you walk through the thick wooden doors of the church itself. Inside, the church is emblazoned with beautiful naive paintings that literally cover every inch of the walls, ceiling and wooden beams. The paintings and frescoes cover all manner of religious subjects, some with angels dressed as conquistadors wielding swords, but it is the simple floral designs that are most attractive.

The adobe church at Chinchero, Peru

Many of the paintings are in poor repair, but somehow that makes them all the more evocative. It isn’t permitted to take photos inside the church, so if you want to see a beautiful example of colonial-era religious art you’ll just have to visit Chinchero.

As with most things in the Sacred Valley, the church sits on top of an important Inca temple and is surrounded by imposing Inca terracing. Pre-conquest, Chinchero was an important Inca religious site and was believed to be the birthplace of the Rainbow.

Inca terracing stretches off into the distance, Chinchero, Peru
Inca stonework next to the colonial church, Chinchero, Peru

It is a lovely village situated on a small hill with tremendous views of the surrounding mountains. Although the once weekly market that fills the plaza outside the church wasn’t on when we visited, the village has lots of beautiful crafts and weavings for sale in the narrow streets that lead to the church.

Typical cobbled street, Chinchero, Peru
Landscape outside of Chinchero, Peru

After the sublime Iglesia at Chinchero, the dramatic location and grandeur of the Inca ruins at Pisac come as a sharp jolt – particularly as when we arrived several tour groups were marauding around decked out in hardcore walking gear as if they were about to set off on a multi-day trek over mountain ranges rather than tackling the somewhat less demanding trails around Pisac.

A former Inca citadel, Pisac sits at a strategic point above the gorge at the entrance to the Sacred Valley guarding Inca trade routes from the highlands down into the Amazon basin. Clambering up to its former battlements gives you a panoramic view over the Sacred Valley that is breathtaking. The site itself is large, much larger than Machu Picchu but also much more spread out along a mountain ridge that extends for a mile or more.

Inca terraces at the citadel of Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru
The citadel of Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

The views over the Sacred Valley from the heights of the citadel are magnificent, but leaving the crowds at the citadel behind the walk along the ridge reveals much more of the landscape of the valley below. The walk passes numerous other Inca ruins and ends at another dramatically located group of ruins set above yet more terracing.

Gateway at the start of the ridge trail at Pisac, Sacred valley, Peru
Views of the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

The trail winds itself around the mountain and you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca architects who designed and built this enormous complex of agricultural terracing and military fortifications.

Ruined fortifications at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru
Impressive ruins overlooking the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru
Inca buildings above terracing, Pisac, Peru
Inca fortifications guarding the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

After a couple of hours of wandering the ruins we went down into the valley to visit modern town of Pisac, which is home to one of the largest markets in the region. Although interesting, the whole of the central plaza and surrounding streets were crammed full of tour buses and tour groups, turning modern-day Pisac into a lucrative hell-hole. We had a drink in the lovely Blue Llama cafe and left.

The fun wasn’t over yet though. En route back to Cusco our taxi driver started acting erratically, until he finally pulled over and stopped entirely. It took a few minutes of questioning to get the whole truth, which was that he wasn’t licensed to take tourists outside of Cusco and that there was a police roadblock ahead where he’d be fined 1500 soles (£360) if we stayed in the car.

So, in the heat of the afternoon we were unceremoniously turfed out of the car to walk for 2kms while he drove through the roadblock and waited for us out of sight on the other side. Whether the police were fooled or what they thought when four Gingos walked past them in the middle of nowhere we’ll never know, but it was clearly a common problem as we met several car loads of people walking the other way.

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