Nestled between the rushing Vilcanota River and the soaring mountains of the Sacred Valley, a tiny town of whitewashed adobe walls and red-tiled roofs boasts two outsized attractions.
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At a glance
Nestled between the rushing Vilcanota River and the soaring mountains of the Sacred Valley, a tiny town of whitewashed adobe walls and red-tiled roofs boasts two outsized attractions.
First, the famous Pisac Market where skilled artisans craft ceramics, textiles, and silver jewelry with Andean motifs, and where indigenous people from surrounding communities come to barter for goods in the local language, Quechua.
Second, the impressive remains of an Incan politico-religious complex, sprawled across a mountain ridge, high above the valley floor. Exploration of the site comes with fantastic views over the valley, from the meandering river, hundreds of meters below, to the tall bulk of mountains with white-tipped peaks.
Pre-Inca (up to 14th c AD)
Agricultural societies occupied the area around Pisac in the Sacred Valley for millennia before the Inca Empire rose to power. Settlements existed either in small villages or in small clusters of a dozen or two extended family units, called ayllus. Archeologists have not found evidence of specialized religious or administrative architecture by pre-Inca groups, although shards of Wari and Killke ceramics indicate that the small communities of the Sacred Valley had ongoing contact with larger Andean polities.
1300 to 1500 AD – The Inca state expanded into the Sacred Valley and gradually incorporated neighboring groups either through alliance or military conquest. As the Incas’ subjects, these groups were required to send tribute and laborers to Cusco.
In the 1400s, the Incas began to use these resources to develop an imperial estate system in Sacred Valley as well as infrastructural projects such as roads, agricultural terraces, irrigation canals, and canalized rivers and streams. In some cases, they built upon existing structures.
Royal estates such as Pisac had multiple functions — administrative, religious, agricultural, and possibly defensive. Apart from Pisac’s name, very little is known about the site. It may have been built under the reign of the Inca Pachacutec, to guard the entrance to the Antisuyu, the rainforest region where modern-day Paucartambo and Manu are situated.
1531-1535 AD – Francisco Pizarro with 168 soldiers arrives on the shores of the Inca Empire, devises the capture of Atahualpa in Cajamarca, and then executes the Inca king, marking the formal end of the Inca Empire.
1535 AD – The puppet ruler Manco Inca flees Cusco after suffering abuses at the hands of Spanish conquerors. He organizes a rebel army to try to overthrow the European invaders. Manco Inca’s forces are successful in the battle of Ollantaytambo in 1537, but later retreat into the Antisuyo region.
1530s – Spanish conquistadors destroy sections of Pisac.
1570s – Coinciding with the capture of the last Inca king, Tupac Amaru, in Vilcabamba, Viceroy Francisco de Toledo begins the massive resettlement of indigenous populations in the Sacred Valley. From the dispersed settlements of Inca times, Quechua people were moved into towns where they could be more easily managed by civil and religious authorities.
The town of Pisac is established on valley floor hundreds of meters below the Inca ruins and in the midst of valuable agricultural lands. The town is built in the Renaissance style, with streets in a rectangular grid pattern and a central plaza flanked on one side by a Catholic church.
1780 – Bernardo Pumayalli Tambohuacso, indigenous leader of Pisac, participates in the Tupac Amaru rebellion. He uses the ruins of Pisac up on the hill as a defensive structure. But during a clandestine meeting in the town he is betrayed by the parish priest, captured and sent to Cusco for trial and execution.
1825 – After Peru achieves independence from the Spain, the Calca Province is established with Pisac as one of its districts.
1911 – Yale historian and professor Hiram Bingham arrives at the ruins of Machu Picchu and his photos in National Geographic magazine bring international attention to the Andean region of Peru.
2004 – Potato Park, or Parque de la Papa, is established to protect hundreds of native potato species and agrobiodiversity in the Sacred Valley region.
2013 – The 400-year-old pisonay tree that previously dominated Plaza de Constitucion in Pisac is felled by lightning. A new tree was planted in June 2015.
Today – Pisac is an obligatory stop on a trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Daily, hundreds of people visit the town for its market and its ruins. Apart from these attractions, Pisac remains a tranquil town.
Departing from Cusco, a winding two-lane road leads up to the high pass at Ccorao and opens up to the spectacular scenery of the Vilcabamba mountains. It’s a scene that never fails to awe first-time (and return) travelers to the Sacred Valley: towering peaks rise steeply from a narrow valley floor carved by the tranquil Vilcanota River. Most strikingly, endless man-made terraces hug the curves of the mountains so seamlessly that nature’s form and the Inca’s work integrate into one. Have your camera ready.
Distances from Pisac:
- to Calca, 18 km / 11 mi
- to Urubamba, 40 km / 25 mi
- to Ollantaytambo, 57 km / 35 mi
- to Cusco, 32 km / 20 mi
Hundreds of meters of elevation separate Pisac town at 2,972 m (9,751 ft) from the highest terraces of Inca Pisac at 3,450 m (11,318 ft). The city of Cusco and the Pisac ruins are located at similar altitude of approximately 3,400 m (11,150 feet).
Like the rest of the Sacred Valley, Pisac experiences a dry season and a rainy season.
- Dry season (April to October) is high season for the Sacred Valley. Days are usually sunny with little chance of rain. Nights get cold, so make sure to bring a warm jacket.
- Rainy season (November to March) is when the region receives constant rain. Mornings are generally cloudy with light showers and afternoons and evenings can bring heavier rains. Average daytime temperatures are typically mild, but you’ll still need that warm jacket at night.
The Pisac ruins are a collection of temples, towers, terraces, colcas (storehouses), aqueducts, fountains, footpaths and tunnels carved from living rock that display the diversity and ingenuity of Inca architecture in a mountainous landscape.
The Incan terraces at Pisac are simply stunning. There are more than 500, built in 14 distinct styles, and spanning elevations from 2,995 to 3,450 meters above sea level. The construction of these terraces represented the ability of the Inca Empire to command a huge labor force for large-scale projects. The terraces also transformed steep mountainsides into arable land and produced a significant food surplus that allowed the Inca Empire to expand and assert their power over subordinate populations.
Like other Inca sites, Pisac had diverse sectors for ceremonial, residential, defensive, and other purposes. Interesting features include:
- the D-shaped Temple of the Sun (similar to the one at Machu PIcchu’s) in the Intihuatana sector
- also in the Intihuatana sector, the remnants of the Temple of the Moon and a ritual bathing complex
- a long tunnel carved from a natural rock fissure at Qalla Q’asa, which is also located on the highest part of the ridge
- 20 perfectly rectangular buildings, thought to be colcas (for storing food) set in an arc pattern in the P’isaqa sector
- an Inca cemetery visible across the narrow Kitamayo river gorge in the Qantus Raccay sector
Location: 9.5 km/6 miles by road from Pisac town & 32 km (45 minutes by car) from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas
Admission: Tourist Ticket
Hours: 07:00 to 18:00 hrs
Temple of the Sun
Within the Pisac archaeological complex, the finest example of religious architecture can be found at the Temple of the Sun in the Intihuatana sector. Terraces on either side of the mountain ridge form a plateau where the temple is situated. Finely polished walls set in the shape of the capital letter “D” enclose a rock outcrop.
In front of the temple there is a large polished stone called the Intihuatana, which translates to “hitching post of the sun.” This stone is frequently called a sun dial, but scholars believe that it was used to measure seasonal changes, which was essential for growing crops.
From the car park entrance to the Pisac ruins, the Intihuatana sector is located at the far end of the complex. (Whereas on the steep trail up from Pisac town, it’s the first structure you’ll encounter.) Given that most visitors arrive by car and don’t have much time to explore the site, Pisac’s Temple of the Sun receives few visitors compared to more accessible sectors of the ruins.
Location: 9.5 km/6 miles road from Pisac town; 32 km (45 minutes by car) from Cusco Plaza de Armas
Admission: Tourist Ticket
Hours: 07:00 to 18:00 hrs
Color is the key characteristic of Mercado Pisac. From the bright chompas (sweaters) of Andean women to the trinkets and fresh produce that they sell, the colors and sounds of the market make this a must-see in the Sacred Valley of Peru.
Traditionally, markets like Pisac are places for trueque or the exchange of products grown at differing elevations. Some commentators dismiss Pisac as a “tourist trap” — and yes, you’ll see lots of the same stuff for sale at any Peruvian market. But if you look beyond the trinkets, it’s also possible to see how the market functions as authentic social and economic space for indigenous people who come not just to do business but also to exchange news and gossip, to eat and laugh.
The market operates daily, but is busiest on Sunday morning. Hundreds of stalls fill the main plaza, tarps are raised as protection against the sun or rain, and every available surface is laid out with goods and wares. If you’ve come to shop for souvenirs, you’ll have plenty to choose from: weavings, ceramics, ponchos, musical instruments, carved gourds, and more. Prepare to bargain.
Hours: daily, 09:00 to 17:00 hrs
San Pedro Apostol de Pisac, “La Capilla”
After the Spanish conquest, when the new Pisac town was founded in the 1570s, the church San Pedro Apostol was placed on one edge of the plaza in the center of a grid of streets.
Today, San Pedro church continues to serves the Catholic population of Pisac, but its location has changed. Between 2011 and 2012, a new chapel was constructed a few blocks from the plaza, not too far from the trail that continues up to the ruins.
On Sundays at 11:00 am, the chiefs of local highland communities, called varayocs, arrive to the church to listen to Mass in Quechua. The chiefs carry cane scepters and are dressed in colorful woven ponchos and hats distinctive to their communities.
Mass Monday to Saturday at 06:30 hrs
Quechua Mass Sunday 11:00 hrs
Señor de Huanca
Eleven kilometers south of Pisac and 3 kilometers from the town of San Salvador, an image of a wounded and bloody Christ painted on a rock surface commemorates the apparition of Jesus to Diego Quispe in 1675. Initially, the sanctuary at Huanca was visited by a small number of Catholics believers from Chinchero, Quispe’s hometown. In subsequent centuries, word began to spread about the power of the image to perform miracles and the cult grew.
Today, the festival of Señor de Huanca on September 14 is one of the largest in South America, drawing hundred of celebrants from Peru and from Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay. The most devoted among them embark on an overnight pilgrimage from San Jeronimo (5km from the Cusco historic center), walking 4 to 6 hours over mountainous terrain on the flanks of the apu Pachatusan and down into a narrow valley that meets the Vilcanota river south of Pisac. However, most people skip the challenge and instead arrive by car to celebrate Mass and then return to San Salvador for the festivities. The sanctuary can be visited at any time of year.
Parque de la Papa
In the mountains outside of Pisac, Potato Park is an association of highland communities with a two-fold purpose: to protect potato diversity in this part of the Andes and to honor the traditional practices, innovations, and practices of Quechua people.
The extreme topography of the highlands can seem, and is in fact, forbidding, but over the centuries the communities have developed a complex agricultural system adapted to the diversity of soil and climate conditions. The Andean principles of duality, reciprocity, balance, and respect for Pachamama (Mother Earth) are essential to survival in this environment.
Visitors to Potato Park can learn more about Andean bio-cultural heritage by taking part in treks (3- or 5-day) through the participant host communities, a 1-day tour by car, or a cooking workshop at Papamanka Restaurant featuring a variety of the park’s delicious and diverse tubers. For information and reservations contact Parque de la Papa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 3 km from Pisac archaeological complex; 1 hour drive from Cusco
Amaru Weaving Community
The highland village of Amaru (also a member of Potato Park) is one of the indigenous communities in the Sacred Valley that is harnessing tourism to preserve ancestral traditions including agriculture, cooking, music and dance, and that is also providing increased economic opportunities for women who didn’t previously have a source of income.
Specifically, the Asociación de Tejedores Tradicionales Laraypas Indigenas de Amaru organizes weaving workshops for visitors interested in gaining an in-depth perspective on the beautiful textile traditions of the Andes. Participants get to see and experience the process of textile-making from start to finish, beginning with a hike through the mountainside to collect plants for natural dyes, continuing with shearing, spinning, and designing, and ending with a demonstration the traditional waist loom.
Location: Amaru community, 1 hour drive from Cusco
Textile tour: http://www.yachaqs.com/en/tours-and-programs/reveiling-andean-textile.html
The Sacred Valley is a fascinating place to visit for it’s mix of old and new. Even in the 21st century, as increased tourism brings in visible changes (gourmet restaurants, boutique resorts, expatriate residents and the like), a strong undercurrent of Andean tradition remains at its base.
Living Andean Culture
A number of organizations in the Sacred Valley are using tourism to provide a source of income for local indigenous communities and to support the preservation of traditional Andean practices. Near Pisac, Potato Park is dedicated to protecting the biocultural heritage of the Andes and provides tours for visitors seeking to learn about ancient environmental practices. Learn more http://www.parquedelapapa.org
Everywhere in the Sacred Valley, you’ll see gorgeous handwoven ponchos, handbags, and blankets. Amaru Weaving Community offers workshops where participants can learn about the process of making textiles using traditional waist looms, alpaca wool, and natural dyes. See the workshop: http://www.yachaqs.com/en/tours-and-programs/reveiling-andean-textile.html
Most indigenous people from rural communities in the Sacred Valley speak Quechua as their first language. Many also speak Spanish. Very few speak English.
At Pisac market, you’re likely to hear just as much Quechua as Spanish. Some souvenir vendors and artisans will likely be able to state prices in English. Common phrases for the market:
- How much…? (price) = Cuanto cuesta ?
- Cheap / expensive = barato/ caro
- Can you show me…? = Puede mostrarme…?
- This one / that one = Este / ese
Important festivals in and around Pisac include:
- Carnival, moveable date in February
- Virgen del Carmen, July 16-18
- Señor de Huanca (11 km south of Pisac), September 14
Pisac town has a temperate climate throughout the year thanks to a protected location on the valley floor. The ruins on the ridge are much more exposed that the town below, with strong sunshine on clear days. Windy conditions can cause temperatures to drop.
- Daytime Average: 20-22ºC (68-72ºF)
- Nighttime Average: 8ºC (46ºF) in the rainy season, down to 1ºC (33ºF) in the dry season
Dry Season Vs. Rainy Season
- Dry season is from April to October. During these months, sunshine is regular with a minimal chance of rainfall. At night, temperatures drop significantly.
- Rainy season is from November to March. Cloudy mornings with light showers are typical and afternoons and evenings can bring heavier rains. January and February see the heaviest rainfall. On average, nighttime temperatures are warmer in the rainy season, colder in the dry season.
When is the best time to visit Pisac?
As one of the major stops on the Sacred Valley route to Machu Picchu, Pisac is busy throughout the year. Peak travel season is during the months of June, July, and August, when the weather is usually clear and dry. Low season in the months December, January, February and March sees slightly fewer visitors. Occasionally, the Urubamba River floods and can cause traffic delays and road closures.
What to pack
In the dry season, T-shirts may be most comfortable, but you may want to wear a light long-sleeve shirt, a hat, sunglasses, and sunblock to protect against UV rays. In the rainy season, you might want to upgrade from jeans or cotton pants to pants made from synthetic material for quicker drying. Also indispensable: a light rain jacket and an umbrella or poncho.
Note: Sacred Valley tours usually allocate 2 hours total in Pisac (town and ruins). But independent travelers can easily spend a full day seeing the market, hiking up to the Inca ruins from town, and/or relaxing on a balcony overlooking the plaza.
Visit Pisac Ruins
- By car: Book an organized tour or arrange your own taxi to take you to the main entrance by road (8 km). This is the best option for travelers who need accessibility. You’ll get great views of the terraces and the Inca cemetery across the narrow Quitamayu gorge.
- By foot: Take the trail from Pisac town, walking up a steep path 45min to 1 hour (one-way) depending on your pace. Requires minimum half-day and a lot of effort, but you’ll see the most exceptional sectors of ruins.
- Combination: You can take a taxi to the top, explore the ruins, and hike back down or vice versa.
There are two entrances to Pisac — through the main car park or on the trail from Pisac town. Both require a entrance ticket (boleto turistico).
Shop at Pisac Market
Knitted hats (called chullos in the Andes), bags, gloves, mittens, alpaca sweaters, blankets, jugs, vases, plate and tea sets decorated with Andean motifs, statuettes, amulets, gnomes, bead necklaces, masks used in the Virgen del Carmen festival — these are just some of the things you’ll see for sale at the mercado (market) in Pisac.
Even if shopping is not your thing or if your suitcase is already packed to its limit, the Mercado de Pisac is a Peruvian market experience you shouldn’t miss. When you’re ready for a break, head to the second-floor balcony of a cafe or restaurant on the plaza, sit back, refuel with coffee or mate de coca (coca leaf tea), and enjoy the people-watching from above.
Pisac market runs daily, but is busiest on Sundays, when indigenous people arrive with bultos (blankets full of goods and produce) on their backs which they lay out on the ground to sell. During the week, Pisac returns to quiet mode, but you can wander the side streets and explore the workshops where artisans make ceramics, jewelry, and crafts from wood and stone.
Witness the Virgen del Carmen Festival
The Virgen del Carmen festival is celebrated throughout Peru and the Catholic world. Pisac’s fiesta is small but spectacular, and was recognized as part of the national patrimony by Peru’s Ministerio de la Cultura in 2104. If you’re in Cusco or the Sacred Valley around July 16th, it’s worth a visit.
The festival spans 4 days and brings together an interesting cross-section of Peruvian village society, from the longtime mestizo residents whose families have resided in Pisac for generations to members of indigenous communities who travel from their village to pay homage to this important saint. The days are filled with parades, shows, dances, while at night, the focus is on folkloric music, more dancing, beer and food.
The hotel industry in Pisac has yet to catch up with the standards of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Our recommendation to travelers is to explore Pisac as part of a day tour and spend the night either in Cusco or in Urubamba or Ollantaytambo where there is a greater concentration of comfortable hotels for all budgets.
For our top pick hotels, visit our Cusco city or Sacred Valley destination page and click on the Hotels section.
Where to eat
To sample a bit of the local fare, head to Calle Mariscal, where you’ll find huge clay ovens baking artesanal empanadas, stuffed pastries filled with cheese, chicken or beef seasoned with diced onions, tomatoes and oregano. Horno Colonial San Francisco, located on 327 Mariscal Castilla, has been baking since 1830.
On the Pisac Plaza and surrounding streets, you’ll find a small selection of sit-down restaurants and cafes including:
- Blue Llama – a great place to grab brunch with views over the Plaza. The cafe also includes a shop where you can browse for handicrafts and check out the quirky art on the walls. Address: Main Plaza of Pisac, southwest corner
- Cuchara de Palo Restaurant – menu of traditional Peruvian cuisine and novo-Andean dishes, including some vegetarian options. Located on the first floor of the Pisac Inn which borders the Pisac main plaza. Address: Main Plaza of Pisac;http://cucharadepalorestaurant.com/
- Cafe Mullu – another popular eatery on the plaza. The menu is stacked with Asian-fusion and traditional Andean dishes. Address: Main Plaza of Pisac, southern side http://www.mullu.pe/
- Ulrike’s Cafe – a stand-by for great coffee, good food, and a lovely rooftop terrace with excellent views to the ruins. Address: Calle Pardo 613
- Prasada – serves a vegetarian and vegan menu at very reasonable prices. Address: Calle Arequipa 306
- Restaurante Doña Clorinda – will fix your craving for homestyle Andean-Peruvian cooking including classics such as quinoa soup, fried trout and empanadas. Address: La RInconada, next to Hotel Paz y Luz
For a greater selection of eateries, continue down the road to Urubamba, which boasts some of the best restaurants in the Sacred Valley.
Get in and around
Most travelers will arrive in Pisac as part of an organized tour, where transportation is included between the town and the ruins. Independent travelers can also find local buses and shared vans that run from Cusco to Pisac to Urubamba. It’s also possible to organize private transport through your hotel. Pisac town is small enough to explore on foot.
Pisac is at slightly lower altitude than Cusco — 2,950 m versus 3,400 meters — and the elevation will continue to drop the further you go into the Sacred Valley.
It’s easy to get dehydrated at altitude. Drinks lots of water and don’t attempt overly strenuous activities immediately upon arrival to Cusco or the Sacred Valley. Drink bottled water only and avoid water from questionable sources. In Spanish, “agua sin gas” is mineral water; “agua con gas” is carbonated water — both are available for sell by vendors outside of ruins and in town, but you should plan to carry your own when you start the day.
Pisac is a very safe town, but you should take standard precautions when walking around the crowded market.
Peruvian soles are the denomination of choice for making purchases at the market and to pay for food and drink. If you find you need extra cash, Pisac does have ATMs, including one on the main plaza.
What to pack
Temperature and weather conditions can change rather quickly in the Andes. If you’re going out on a day tour, bring layers that you can add and remove throughout the day. Your packing list should include t-shirts, long-sleeve tops, a fleece jacket, and lightweight pants. Hiking boots are ideal for walking up to and around the Inca archaeological complex, but any comfortable pair of shoes with good traction will do. Don’t forget your hat, glasses, and sunblock for sun protection.
For daily excursions, bring a daypack with snug straps to carry your water, camera, and other personal belongings. During the rainy season months, pack a waterproof jacket or a travel-size umbrella. Plastic ponchos are also available to buy in Pisac town and outside of the ruins.
What’s the best day to visit the Pisac Market?
The market at Pisac goes into full swing every Sunday. Tuesday and Thursday are also busy. If you visit on other days, the pace is quieter, but you’ll still see plenty of stalls set up in and around the plaza and the many handicraft shops that fill the surrounding streets are also open.
Is there a fee to enter the Pisac ruins?
Yes. Admission to Pisac ruins is included in the Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco). The ticket is valid for 10 days after purchase and must be presented at official checkpoints outside the ruins anytime you visit a site. Your ticket will be marked to indicate you’ve visited the site. Re-entry is not permitted.
What’s the best way to get to the Pisac ruins?
- On a tour: Book a guided tour of the Sacred Valley, including a stop in Pisac. Be sure to inquire beforehand about the tour’s scheduled stops; most tours visit both the market and the ruins, but some visit just one. A typical tour departs from Cusco, stopping in Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo. Some tours return via Chinchero, though you may wish to stay in Ollantaytambo to catch a train to Machu Picchu.
- By taxi: Arrange a taxi or private car to drive to Pisac from your destination. Fares will vary based on time and the number of stops you wish to make.
- Hiking: A popular option for independent and adventurous travelers. Find the trailhead at the end of Calle Pardo, one street over from main plaza. The trail climbs steeply to the Intihuatana and Pisaqa sectors of the ruins.
What’s the weather like?
Pisac, like the rest of the Sacred Valley has two seasons: dry and rainy. In the dry season, day are often sunny, but temperatures plummet once the sun goes down and early mornings can be quite chilly. In the rainy season, cloud covered skies are the norm, rainfall ranges from light showers to heavy downpours, and night temperatures are slightly warmer (8 C/46 F). It’s best to have an umbrella or poncho with since storms are unpredictable.