This classic loop starts off in the lush surroundings of the 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, there are 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, so reserving extra time to explore Cusco’s nooks and crannies is advisable.
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 Pisac, a well-preserved Inca village in the Sacred Valley.
On day 2 settle in 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.
Now that you understand your immediate surroundings, head out and explore farther afield. 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 at Salineras. Descend to the Sacred Valley for transport to Ollantaytambo, which has plenty of good restaurants for dinner.
In Ollantaytambo, explore the ruins in early morning to beat the rush. 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. In the late afternoon, catch a train to Aguas Calientes and stay overnight.
Take an early-morning shuttle bus 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. Alternatively, walk to the Inca bridge or up to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. 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 other museums and art galleries.
Today you choose between shopping, exploring more museums and churches in Cusco, or taking a walk above town from the ruins of Q’enqo and Sacsayhuamán, the Inca fortress overlooking Cusco.
Fly from Cusco to Lima early in the morning. Since most planes depart for North America around midnight, you’ll have a day in Lima to explore. Start in central Lima to see the Catedral de Lima, Palacio Arzobispal de Lima, 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 Second Edition of Moon Machu Picchu.