By Ryan Dubé
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- Strategic trekking guides, including two to four days on the Inca Trail, five days on the Salcantay, and an Inca Jungle Trail itinerary, plus focused coverage of Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Lima
- Unique experiences beyond the beaten path: Explore seldom-seen ruins like the Ollantaytambo Temple and visit remote Quechua-speaking villages. Go horseback riding on a caballo de paso in the Sacred Valley, mountain biking to the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuamán, or set up camp on the riverbank after a day of rafting on the Río Apurímac. Sample coca tea and authentic local delicacies, or shop for handmade Peruvian weavings, pottery, and jewelry
- Essential planning information on agencies, tour guides, and porters, food and accommodations, packing suggestions, finding the best airfares, and getting around by bus, train, taxi, car, or motorcycle rental
- How to visit Machu Picchu respectfully, with tips from Lima local Ryan Dubé on and helping the local economy, minimizing your impact, and avoiding over-tourism
- A guide to hazards, precautions, and gear, including how to avoid altitude sickness
- Full-color photos and easy-to-use maps throughout, plus a convenient foldout map
- Thorough background information on the landscape, wildlife, plants, culture, history, and local customs
- Handy tools including a Spanish phrasebook, visa information, volunteer and study opportunities, and tips for seniors, families, visitors with disabilities, women traveling alone, and LGBTQ+ travelers
DISCOVER Machu Picchu
6 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
COUNTDOWN TO MACHU PICCHU
Explore Machu Picchu
HIGH ADVENTURE IN THE SACRED VALLEY
Two Days in Cusco
THE SACRED STEPS OF THE INCA
Two Days in Lima
My first trip to Machu Picchu was more than 15 years ago. I can still recall the excitement of approaching the mist-covered Inca citadel just after sunrise, the conclusion of an arduous trek through the Andes. As my group and I caught our breath, the clouds lifted to reveal one of the wonders of the world, with its perfect stonework backed by the towering mountain of Huayna Picchu. We had found the lost city of the Incas. It was ours to explore for one unforgettable day. A lot has changed since then, but Machu Picchu retains the memorable, mystical aura that left such an impression on me and the many other travelers who have visited the ruins.
Machu Picchu is the culmination of a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. It begins in the relatively comfortable lower elevations of the Sacred Valley, where quiet Inca communities offer access to the ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and continues along one of the three major Inca trails. Each offers a different experience, from the adrenaline-filled adventure of the jungle to the sublime mountain scenery of Salcantay. And then there is the beautiful, schizophrenic city of Cusco, where the Incan and colonial cultures live in a fascinating fusion, resulting in an abundance of attractions.
Whether experienced over weeks or just a matter of days, this trip of a lifetime packs more punch than a pisco sour. Although its empire has been lost, Machu Picchu remains timeless—the jewel in South America’s crown.
6 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Trek to Machu Picchu: There’s nothing quite like making your way to the ancient citadel on foot—whether by the classic four-day Inca Trail, the truncated version, or an alternative—arriving as the mist lifts from the ruins at dawn.
2 Reach New Heights: Climbing to the summit of Huayna Picchu or to Cerro Machu Picchu affords grand views over the ruins.
3 Pedal the Sacred Valley: Biking this scenic circuit takes you to Moray, a complex of concentric agricultural terraces, and Salineras, a centuries-old salt mine. You can also explore this ancient landscape by foot—or on horseback.
4 Hang Out in Cusco: Many visitors make just a quick stop in this compelling city, but it’s worth lingering.
5 Tour Other Inca Ruins: Examine the impressive stonework and agricultural terracing of Ollantaytambo and the hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuamán.
6 Dine Out in Lima: The Peruvian fusion cuisine served in the capital city is considered not only the best in Latin America, but some of the best in the world. It’s worth splurging.
Planning Your Trip
Most travelers arrive at the giddy heights of Cusco (3,400 m/11,155 ft) and plan their trip from there, visiting the Sacred Valley and seeing Machu Picchu on day trips. This is the worst way of doing it. The best plan is to start your Peru trip with 2-3 days in the Sacred Valley and then take a train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu.
Altitude sickness is far less of a problem below 3,000 meters (9,843 ft), so starting your trip by staying in the warmer, lower towns of the Sacred Valley gives you an easier entry point. You may experience light-headedness and breathlessness, but they will be far less severe than in Cusco. Additionally, by staying in the towns of Pisac, Urubamba, or Ollantaytambo, you are afforded far more time to experience the valley’s spectacular ruins. Visiting the Sacred Valley first is also infinitely preferable to seeing it after Machu Picchu, as any ruins seem modest in comparison to the region’s main attraction. It’s far better to build upward in scale, visiting Pisac, Moray, and Ollantaytambo, before Machu Picchu.
You can return directly from Machu Picchu to Cusco, or go back to Ollantaytambo and take a taxi colectivo. At any rate, finish up the bulk of your time in Cusco, which will keep you busy for several days when you are acclimatized and ready to tackle this fascinating city. Before flying home, it’s also worth spending another day or two exploring Lima; because of flight patterns, most travelers end up spending some time in Lima either when coming from or going to Cusco, but doing so on the way home is preferable—it’s much easier to make sense of this huge city after visiting Cusco.
Where to Go
The Sacred Valley
Leave the giddy heights of Cusco behind and head to the Sacred Valley, which the Inca considered paradise for its fertile earth. This charming valley begins 12 miles north of Cusco, starting in the town of Pisac and stretching west along the Río Urubamba to Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. It has a great range of lodging, restaurants, and adventure sports, making it an ideal base for acclimatizing. The temples, fortresses, and terracing of the ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo are second only to Machu Picchu in terms of beauty. Don’t miss the concentric circles of Moray and the shimmering spectacle of the salt mines of Salineras.
Follow the rushing Río Urubamba down toward the cloud forests that surround the Inca’s most fabled achievement: Machu Picchu. The famous lost city is a stunning example of a citadel built in perfect harmony with nature. Stay overnight nearby before and after your visit to maximize your time or, even better, hike the Salcantay route, the Inca Jungle Trail, or the original Inca Trail, a paved stone path that culminates in a bird’s-eye view of the ruins.
After visiting the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, travelers will be acclimatized to Cusco’s high altitude. They are also primed for Cusco’s complex culture, which remains today an antagonistic mixture of Inca and Spanish cultures. The Spanish erected more than a dozen baroque churches atop flawless Inca walls. Cusco must-visits are the artisan barrio of San Blas, the Inca sun temple Coricancha, and the fortress of Sacsayhuamán overlooking the city.
Stopover in Lima
Once avoided by travelers because of its gray weather and grimy downtown, Lima is making a roaring comeback. On the Plaza de Armas, upscale restaurants and cafés now neighbor the country’s most important colonial catedral and the presidential and archbishop’s palaces. The outlying districts of San Isidro and Miraflores offer the greatest range of lodging, bars, and Peruvian cuisine. Bohemian Barranco is the nightlife district and a favored backpackers’ den.
When to Go
The traditional time to visit Peru is in the South American winter, June-August, when dry, sunny weather opens up over the Andes. Because Peru’s dry months coincide perfectly with summer vacation in North America and Europe, this is also the high season when most travelers visit Peru. Prices for lodging tend to go up during these months, and Machu Picchu can be crowded. Especially crowded times are Inti Raymi, the June 24 sun festival in Cusco, and Fiestas Patrias, the national Peruvian holiday at the end of July.
The bulk of the rainy season is December-March, when trekking and other outdoor activities are hampered by muddy paths and soggy skies. The Inca Trail is closed in February.
To avoid crowds, travel in the shoulder months between rainy season and high season. April, May, September, October, and even November are excellent times to visit Peru. The weather is usually fine, and prices for lodging tend to be lower.
Know Before You Go
Passports and Visas
Citizens of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia and residents of any other European or Latin American country, except Venezuela, do not require visas to enter Peru as tourists. Departure taxes for international flights and domestic flights are now usually included in the ticket price. When entering the country, you can get anything from 30 to 180 days stamped into both a passport and an embarkation card that travelers must keep until they exit the country. If you require more than 30 days, be ready to support your argument by explaining your travel plans and showing your return ticket. Extensions can be arranged at Peru’s immigration offices in Lima, Arequipa, Cusco, Iquitos, Puno, and Trujillo.
Getting to Machu Picchu
Most travelers arrive to Peru by plane, and all international flights into Peru arrive in Lima. Travel to Cusco is an additional plane ride.
To get to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, you can trek, take a train from Ollantaytambo (in the Sacred Valley) or from near Cusco, or ride a bus through Santa Teresa. If you take the train, note that only one small piece of hand luggage weighing up to 5 kilograms (11 lb) is allowed on PeruRail and 7.7 kilograms (17 lb) is allowed on Inca Rail.
From Aguas Calientes, shuttle buses run frequently to Machu Picchu. For morning ticket holders, it’s a good idea to catch the first shuttle of the day, which leaves at 5:30am. People begin lining up as early as 3am.
Avoiding Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is a real health concern when traveling to this area. You will know if you’re suffering from this illness very soon after your arrival. Symptoms include shortness of breath, quickened heartbeats, fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, and nausea.
There is no way to prevent altitude sickness altogether, but the best way to minimize its effects is to ascend slowly. After flying directly to Cusco from Lima, go down in altitude to the Sacred Valley, which is below 3,000 meters (9,843 ft), and stay the night. Visit Machu Picchu from the Sacred Valley and return to Cusco after a few days.
You can better adjust to the altitude by avoiding heavy exercise until you get acclimatized and by drinking plenty of water and liquids in general. Avoid alcohol.
Coca leaf tea (mate de coca), taken in plentiful amounts, is the best remedy for soroche, the Quechua word for altitude sickness. A 100-milligram dose of the Chinese herb ginkgo biloba, taken twice a day, seems to work efficiently too. Many travelers carry acetazolamide, commonly known as Diamox, usually prescribed by a doctor in doses of 125-250 milligrams and taken during the morning and evening with meals. However, this medication is not for everybody and can cause drowsiness. If you feel sick, it’s good to know that all hospitals and clinics in Cusco have bottled oxygen.
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail hike to get there are among the most popular tourist attractions in South America, so you need to book months in advance. If you want to hike the Inca Trail during the high season of June-August, look at booking a year before. For the rest of the year, four months is recommended. If you are planning a day trip, you should also book tickets once you know when you’ll be visiting.
Tickets need to be purchased before arriving at Machu Picchu—there are no ticket sales on-site. You can purchase tickets through any travel agency that offers tours to Cusco and Machu Picchu, as well as through the Ministry of Culture’s online ticket page (www.machupicchu.gob.pe).
Trekking in the Andes can be strenuous, especially if you’re not adjusted to the altitude. If you prefer not to do one of the multiday hikes into Machu Picchu, the only other option to visit the site is by train. Plan for a day trip or a two-day stay.
Several tour companies from Lima, Cusco, and abroad can organize both the day trips and the longer hikes. Organized tours from Lima or Cusco are helpful in reducing worry about logistics and other issues. But one disadvantage in Cusco is that they may not give enough time to acclimatize to the altitude. If you go with a tour company, consider arriving a day or two before to reduce chances of altitude sickness.
Reputable tour companies include Fertur Peru (www.fertur-travel.com), which has offices in central Lima at the Plaza Mayor (Junín 211, tel. 01/427-2626) and Miraflores (Schell 485, tel. 01/242-1900) as well as in Cusco (El Sol 803, Ofc. 205, tel. 084/22-1304); Condor Travel (Jorge Chavez 154, Ofc. 701, Miraflores, Lima, tel. 01/615-3000, U.S. tel. 855/926-2975, www.condortravel.com); and InkaNatura (Petit Thouars 2866, Ofc. 101, San Isidro, Lima, cell tel. 971-427-346; Ricardo Palma J1, Urb. Santa Monica, Cusco, tel. 084/24-3408; www.inkanatura.com). All offer tours to Machu Picchu, Cusco, and the Sacred Valley.
Most travelers to Peru get the vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), which include hepatitis A and B and typhoid for the Cusco area.
Explore Machu Picchu
This classic loop starts off in the lush Sacred Valley, where you will explore ruins, experience indigenous culture, and adjust to the altitude. Then you take the train to enjoy the cloud forests and magnificent stonework of Machu Picchu.
At the end of the trip, allow at least two days to take in Cusco, the Spanish Renaissance city built atop Inca foundations.
Begin by flying into Lima, the capital of Peru. Most planes arrive here at night, so you’ll have the choice of either staying at a Lima hotel or hanging out at the airport for an early-morning flight to Cusco. Arrange with your hotel ahead of time for transport from Cusco to Ollantaytambo or Urubamba, villages in the Sacred Valley that are lower in elevation than Cusco, which is better for adjusting to the altitude.
On Day 2 settle in, acclimatize, and explore your surroundings. In Pisac, see the Inca ruins, which include a sun temple and fortress complex. Then hike down the mountain back into town to take in the market and dine in the main square. Spend the night in Pisac. (Skip this day as necessary to save time, and go to Day 4.)
Now that you understand your immediate surroundings, head out and explore farther afield. An excellent option is to visit the weaving village of Chinchero before hiking or mountain biking from the enigmatic circular Inca terraces at Moray to the crystallized salt mines at Salineras. Descend to the Sacred Valley for transport to Ollantaytambo, which has plenty of good restaurants for dinner. Spend the night in Ollantaytambo. (Skip this day for time if necessary, and go to Day 4.)
In Ollantaytambo, explore the ruins in the early morning to beat the rush. Head first to the Temple of the Sun just above town. It’s a great place to understand the layout of both Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley, and you can see where the Inca and Spanish battled for control. In the afternoon, go on a 1.5-hour hike to the Inca granaries just outside the town, where you can explore more ruins and gain splendid views of Ollantaytambo.
Take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, and from there catch a shuttle bus to Machu Picchu in time for your appointed entry hour. After your guided tour, head off to climb the nearby peak of Huayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu entry must be purchased in advance) and explore the Temple of the Moon.
In the afternoon, return to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch and a mug of coca tea. Then board the train to Ollantaytambo followed by a comfortable tourist bus back to Cusco.
Now that you’re used to Cusco’s altitude of 3,400 meters (11,155 ft), you can walk this city’s cobblestoned streets all day long. Start with a morning walk through the neighborhood of San Blas and see the Inca sun temple of Coricancha. Save the afternoon for visiting other museums and art galleries.
Choose between shopping, exploring more museums and churches, or just relaxing in Cusco. Or take a walk above town and visit the ruins of Q’enqo and Sacsayhuamán, the Inca fortress overlooking Cusco. For more suggestions on Cusco.
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2020
- Page Count
- 252 pages
- Moon Travel