Visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu: Where and When to Go

Dancers and drummers in colorful garb celebrate the solstice, lining up along the grassy stone terraces.

The Inti Raymi solstice festival. Photo by McKay Savage licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If you have only one week, be sure to visit the Sacred Valley, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. If you’re lucky enough to have an additional week, extend your time in the Sacred Valley to hike, mountain bike, and go horseback riding. Two more exciting options are to either hike the Inca Trail or make the Salcantay trek to Machu Picchu.


The Sacred Valley

Begin your trip to the Cusco area with the Sacred Valley, which the Inca considered paradise for its fertile earth. Up and down the valley, the Inca built a string of their most sacred sites, including temples and fortresses in Pisac and Ollantaytambo. This charming valley is a destination in its own right, with a great range of lodging and restaurants, day hikes, horseback rides, mountain biking, and more.

Machu Picchu

The Sacred Valley is cut by the Río Urubamba, which rushes toward the Inca’s most fabled achievement: Machu Picchu. The fabled lost city is a breath-taking citadel arranged along a jungle-covered ridge. Hiking either the Salcantay route or the Inca Trail, a paved stone highway that culminates in a bird’s-eye view of the ruins, is a memorable way to arrive. The train ride in and out also affords incredible views of the area’s scenery.

Cusco

After visiting the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, travelers are 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 fortress of Sacsayhuamán, and the Inca sun temple Coricancha.


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 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–April, when trekking and other outdoor activities are hampered by muddy paths and soggy skies. To avoid crowds, we heartily recommend squeezing your trip in between the rainy season and the high tourist months. 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.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Cusco & Machu Picchu.


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