Cusco and the surrounding area are so much more than just Machu Picchu. In fact, the Sacred Valley (the heartland of the ancient Incan Empire) extends to include everything between Calca and Lamay, Písac, and Ollantaytambo.
Unfortunately, as with much of this part of Peru, exploring the Sacred Valley can come at quite a cost. The boleto turistico is widely recommended to those that wish to discover a number of the more impressive Incan ruins but at a cost of 130 soles ($43 USD / £26) it is simply too pricey for many budget backpackers - and unless you visit EVERY single site on the ticket (a number of which are actually free or pretty rubbish) it can work out to be very poor value.
However, there is an alternative which allows you to see the majority of the Incan ruins within walking distance of Cusco without breaking the bank - and enjoy a beautiful hike in the Andean countryside!
#1 Taxi to Tambomachay
From anywhere in Cusco flag down a taxi. There are a number of 'fake' taxis operating in town so be sure to check that yours has a licence displayed in the front window as well their registration number on the rear doors (inside and out).
The going rate for this twenty-minute journey is around 20 soles. Don't be surprised if the driver initially quotes you more - we had to hail at least five before we found one that wouldn't rip us off.
#2 Tambomachay and Pukapukara
Unfortunately, Tambomachay is one of the sites that DOES actively check for the tourist ticket - and quite stringently. If you arrive before 6.30 a.m. (the official opening time), you're welcome to give it a go but our recommendation is to head back on to the main road and turn right, walking around 300m and check out Pukapukara instead (Tambomachay really wasn't too special anyway).
The site was once a military base, and its position atop a hill makes it a great spot for overseeing the area; you'll enjoy beautiful views over the valley.
#3 Onwards to the Temple of the Moon
When you're done exploring Pukapukara, go back on the the main road and continue walking in the direction of Cusco for around 600m. At this point, just before the village of Huayllarocha, you will notice a track heading left - follow it. Shortly after, it will lead you past a football pitch and then drop down into a valley flanked by eucalyptus trees (hint: don't know what a eucalyptus tree looks like? Just rely on your nose!).
The path continues for another 1 km before taking a bend to the left and entering a marshy area.
Step carefully here as Andrew ended up knee deep in wet mud! From here you will see a set of ruins straight ahead and to the left which are in the process of being restored - instead of heading towards them (there is no solid footpath at present), walk across the marshy area and continue to follow the path.
As the path opens up onto a large grassy area you will be able to make out the 'Temple of the Moon' in the distance on the left atop a rocky hill (it's pretty obvious). Continue along the path across another marshy area until you reach a vehicle track where you should turn left.
This track will lead you to the temple - a site that does not require the ticket.
Here, take a rest at the top of the ruins then explore the cave beneath before continuing on with your trek.
#4 Cusilluchayoc - The Temple of the Monkey
Keeping the Temple of the Moon on your right hand side, follow the path towards the houses about 200m away where the path opens up on to the wide grassy Inca Trail.
Not long after you will reach Cusilluchayoc.
We quite enjoyed the Temple of the Monkey for it's maze like construction although, despite having four pairs of eyes searching, simply could not find any carvings of monkeys for which the ruin was named. Maybe you'll have better luck!
#5 Sneak into Q'enqo
Heading back on to the Inca trail, follow the path for around 20 minutes, all the way to the main road.
From here you should be able to see the rocky outcrop of Q'enqo, but instead of continuing along the main road toward it, you're going to walk straight across the road to the large grassy hill and follow the path that leads to the left.
You will pass a small stone construction on your left (there may be some kids hanging around outside it) as you follow the path around the other side of the hill. Now comes the slightly more tricky part - you need to ascend the hill. It's quite steep but shouldn't be difficult for anyone in good health.
Once you reach the top of the hill, you will see Q'enqo in all its glory! Technically, you need a ticket to enter these ruins, but the inspectors are at the front gates, and you've just come through the back entrance so you should be able to avoid them just fine.
Q'enqo has got some pretty cool caves, and it's well worth a little exploration. For us, it was definitely one of the more impressive sites on the hike.
When you're done, make sure to exit the ruins the same way you came in - if you try to exit via the main entrance, they may request to see your ticket!
Head back on to the main road, and turn left, following it up the hill. You will see a left turning which will lead you past the main entrance to Q'enqo - take it.
#6 The final finish at Saqsaywaman
Continue along the main road from Q'enqo for around another 20 minutes, after which time you will see a turning to your right with a sign for Saqsaywaman (hilariously pronounced 'sexy woman'). There are a number of small shops here to get a cold drink or small snack.
Unfortunately, Saqsaywaman is one of the few sites in the Sacred Valley that constantly has guards and so entry will not be possible without the boleto. However, if you continue to walk past the small shops, you will find a path heading off to the left clearly leading to the ruins. Take it, and continue all the way to the site entrance. You may not be able to enter, but given the size of Saqsaywaman, from here you can appreciate it almost as much as you can from close up.
#6 Getting back to Cusco
With a boleto turistico, getting back to Cusco is very simple as there is a staircase leading all the way back to Plaza de las Armas from Saqsaywaman. Unfortunately, you need to get into the site to access it.
So, from here, you have two options. Either hail one of the many taxis which patrol the road you just passed with the shops, or, heading back on to the main road, follow it all the way back to Cusco.
If you do end up purchasing the boleto turistico, then we'd definitely recommend the above hike as a way to see the ruins over the course of a day; simply shuttling between them with a taxi would not come close the experience of hiking between them.
If you're a student, do remember that the boleto can be purchased for significant discount with you valid student ID. For non-students, three types of 'partial' ticket (70 soles / $24 per ticket) are also available, so make enquiries to check its suitability for your ruins itinerary. Remember that for most of the ruins, you are simply not able to purchase single-entry tickets at the entrance, you can only enter with the tourist ticket; a policy that we think is a great shame.
An excellent overview in English of the different itinerary options available with the boleto turistico and more information on what it allows you to see is available here.