This classic loop starts off in the lush surroundings of the Sacred Valley, where you will explore ruins, experience Inca culture, and adjust to the altitude. Then you are off on the train to enjoy the cloud forests and magnificent stonework of Machu Picchu. At the end of the trip, you’ll have two days to take in Cusco, the Spanish Renaissance city built atop Inca foundations. There is much to do and see in this colonial town—museums, art galleries, weaving stores, Inca ruins, Spanish architecture, nightclubs, volunteer opportunities, and language schools. Cusco, with its cobblestone streets and unique history, is a place many visitors want to return to again and again. Reserving extra time to explore Cusco’s nooks and crannies is a good idea.
Begin by flying into Lima, the capital of Peru. Most planes arrive here at night, so you’ll have the chance of either overnighting 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 either Pisac or Ollantaytambo, two gorgeous villages in the Sacred Valley.
On day two settle in and explore your surroundings. If you are in Pisac, see the Inca ruins, which include a sun temple and fortress complex. Then hike down the mountain back into town to check out the market. If you are in Ollantaytambo, head first to the sun temple 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 over this temple-cum-fortress. In the evening, head out for a meal overlooking the Plaza de Armas.
Now that you understand your immediate surroundings, head out and explore farther afield. Both Pisac and Ollantaytambo have excellent day hikes nearby, as well as horseback riding and mountain biking. An excellent option is to explore the weaving village of Chinchero before hiking or mountain biking from the enigmatic circular Inca terraces at Moray to the crystallized salt mines near Maras. From Moray, descend to the Sacred Valley for transport back to Ollantaytambo.
Catch an early morning train out of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the small town from which to take a bus shuttle to Machu Picchu. Wander around the ruins in the morning before the crowds arrive. Then head off mid-morning to climb the nearby peak of Huayna Picchu 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 and board a comfortable tourist bus back to Cusco.
Now that you’re used to Cusco’s altitude of 3,400 meters (11,150 feet), 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 or Coricancha. Save the afternoon for visiting art galleries.
Today you choose between shopping and exploring more museums and churches in Cusco (there are plenty) or taking a walk above town from the ruins of Q’enqo and Sacsayhuamán. A late afternoon at Sacsayhuamán, an Inca fortress overlooking Cusco, is a great way to end the trip.
Fly from Cusco to Lima as early as you want. Since most planes depart for the United States around midnight, you’ll have a day in Lima to explore. Start in central Lima to see the Catedral, Archbishop’s Palace, Palacio del Gobierno, and the catacombs at Santo Domingo. If you’re hungry and want to shop, skip downtown Lima and head straight to the swanky neighborhood of Miraflores for a cebiche lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean and an interesting variety of museums, shops, and art galleries. In the evening, head back to the airport for the flight home.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Cusco & Machu Picchu.