My perfect trip: Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley remixed
By Peru specialist Anna
The simple answer is to take advantage of the richness of the activities and experiences you can have in this corner of the world, and to not be afraid of choosing quieter activities that take you away from the main places of interest. To show you what I mean, I’ve created a detailed itinerary for what a trip to Cuzco and Machu Picchu might involve. This particular route also aims to give you a taste of how much there is to see and do in the Sacred Valley — an area often overlooked by most visitors, or rarely given the attention it deserves.
My newly crafted trip is loosely based on this more standard route, but as you’ll see, I’ve suggested some more off-the-beaten-track activities and Inca ruins.
Days 1-3: Cuzco
Day 2: On the tour, take time to wander between the oversized, zigzagging stones of Sacsayhuamán, the Inca fortress high on a hillside overlooking the city, with your guide. You can also amble around the smaller sites nearby, too. There’s the water temple of Tambomachay, or the ruins of Qenqo, with their sacrificial altar tucked away in the penumbra of a rock crevice. Rather than rush back into the city, you could (if you’re feeling up to it) walk back from Tambomachay into the city, passing through grassy gullies and smallholdings with a scattering of llamas and alpacas en route back to urban Cuzco.
Back in Cuzco, you might like to have a good poke around the remains of the Korikancha, a peculiar palimpsest of a building. The Spanish conquistadors built over what was an Inca sun temple — the most renowned in the entire Inca capital with their own elaborate convent, but you can still see the temple’s original footprint. The Inca masonry on display shows how stones were precision-fitted using mortise and tenon joints and other techniques.
Day 3: Today, I’d suggest simply spending time exploring the heart of Cuzco at a leisurely pace. You could head to the covered stalls of the San Pedro Market, just off the Plaza de Armas (the main square), to browse its assorted (and sometimes eccentric) offerings. Here, you’ll find everything from bath mats to dried bats (take a peek at the witch-doctors’ stalls, if you want to see even curiouser traditional shamanic remedies on offer.)
Plaza de Armas, Cuzco
If it were me, I’d spend most of my time pouring over the textiles and woven goods, bartering with the stallholders. I’d also go in search of some subtle and delicious lemongrass teabags I once found here a couple of years ago.
For lunch or a breather, try to find a spot in a cafe on the Plaza de Armas and just watch the world go by. Yes, you’ll see lots of fellow foreign visitors, but you might also see children in school uniforms, men of the cloth (Cuzco is chock-full with churches), and Quechua-speaking ladies in their wide skirts and Stetson-style hats. It’s a good way of observing local life without having to do all that much.
Once refreshed (ideally with a hearty quinoa soup), you might like to lose yourself in the backstreets of Cuzco’s self-styled artisan district, San Blas. You can stroll up to a viewpoint on a hill behind the cathedral in the heart of this quarter and nose around its homemade jewellery and handicraft boutiques.
Where to stay in Cuzco
I like El Mercado, a quirky little hotel a short walk from the Plaza de Armas. The rooms are located over three floors overlooking a courtyard where Cuzco's farmers once traded.
Days 4-6: The Sacred Valley
Pisac, Sacred Valley
Day 4: Leaving the city behind, you drive into the Sacred Valley, a verdant corridor in the Andes between Cuzco and Machu Picchu that many visitors overlook. This is a shame, because there’s so much to do here. It’s also an area that’s of huge importance historically to the Inca Empire, as its lower elevation and warmer climate (compared to Cuzco) made it ideal for growing crops such as maize.
In the latter years of the empire, the upper echelons of Inca society built their country homes and estates here; today, the valley is also strewn with sites and ruins that were of military and strategic importance.
En route to your hotel in the valley proper, visit Písac with your guide. A behemoth citadel complex, it’s a good precursor to Machu Picchu and even occupies a similar lofty perch, with its terraces straddling a mountain spur. If you’re feeling energetic, climb to the top of the ruins to see a former Inca bathing area and some nooks in the mountainside where the Incas stowed their mummified dead.
I also suggest making time to walk around the town’s craft market. But if your first day in the Sacred Valley coincides with a Sunday, skip Písac’s market and head for the nearby town of Chinchero. Its dominical market is one big, joyous riot of indigenous stallholders in traditional dress selling heaps of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Chinchero market, Sacred Valley
Day 5: Throw yourself into the Sacred Valley’s scenery with a full day’s privately guided mountain biking, with an accompanying support vehicle. Skimming between rocky outcrops, fields of quinoa crops, and tiny villages that would never make it into any guidebook, I think mountain biking is a really good way of experiencing the valley’s Inca sites and pastoral landscapes and seeing how its people really live. Another bonus about mountain biking here: it’s all mostly flat and hardly ever uphill.
You’ll cycle to the salt pans of Maras and then to Moray. This is a series of circular agricultural terraces that swirl down into the mountainside in three vast green vortexes.
Day 6: On the morning of your second full day in the Sacred Valley, consider going horseback riding. It’s a delightfully slow-paced way to experience the Sacred Valley. I’d schedule this activity for the morning, and then spend the rest of the day relaxing by the pool of my hotel.
Where to stay in the Sacred Valley
My go-to retreat has to be the Sol y Luna. Not only can you set out on mountain biking and horseback riding trips from here, but it’s also a great place to unwind. Its restful gardens are alive with hummingbirds and butterflies, and you can sit in its pool or Jacuzzi and watch the mountainsides become patterned with rich shades of chocolate and ochre as the sun sets. You can even eat lunch while watching a display of the hotel’s Paso Fino horses.
Days 7-9: Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu seen from the Sun Gate
Day 7: Think about approaching Machu Picchu on foot (rather than train then bus). The good news is that you needn’t take the time and expense to do the four-day Inca Trail, as rewarding as it is.
Instead, today, you catch the train from Ollyantaytambo with your guide, disembarking half an hour before reaching Aguas Calientes (the town that services Machu Picchu) where you cross an inauspicious bridge over the Vilcanota River. This is the start of KM104, a 10 km (6 mile) hike that culminates at Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate.
It allows you to arrive on foot, the way Inca messengers did, but you bypass the three nights’ camping that’s obligatory for the traditional Inca Trail. And, even though the KM104 route is getting increasingly popular, there’s still something intrepid about it. This especially applies to the earlier sections, which see you ascend steeply from the river by climbing some exposed ridges (look out for several delicate orchid specimens en route).
You’ll join up with the Inca Trail proper at the ruins of Wiñay Wayna. This group of llama-haunted Inca terraces concertina down the mountainside and contain the remains of spring-fed baths. From this waymarker, it’s another hour or so to the Sun Gate, where you’ll get your first sidelong glimpse of Machu Picchu. Don’t worry if you see nothing but cloud at first: this is sometimes the case. If that happens, just hang around for a few minutes, and the site will gradually unveil itself.
Day 8: Tour the ruins the following day, once you’ve rested after the hike at your hotel in Aguas Calientes. Get there early with your guide in order to explore before the majority of visitors arrive mid-morning. Try to suppress the need to rush around and see absolutely everything, although, if you fancy a diversion, you might like to wander away from the main ruins and see the (impossibly narrow-seeming) site of the Inca Bridge.
As the crowds arrive, climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain that sits north of the skeletal citadel. Entry to the climb is timed, requires a separate ticket, and is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s worth it for the views of Machu Picchu seemingly suspended amid a great bowl of forested Andean peaks.
Afterward, head back into Aguas Calientes to relax in the jungle-clad grounds of your hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu, rather than rush back to Cuzco (as most people do). Pay a visit to the hotel’s spectacled bear conservation project, soak in its hot tubs, relax in its spa, wander in its orchid gardens, and try to spy some of the many species of hummingbird that jostle around its feeders.
Day 9: To make the most of staying at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu, I suggest staying at your hotel until lunchtime, before taking the train back to Cuzco in the afternoon.
Where to stay at Machu Picchu
The Inkaterra is always my first choice, and it has added attractions to its many good facilities. I love the fact that every room has its own fireplace, and staff will light a fire for you in the grate.