Land of the Incans and gateway to the Andes, Peru is as iconic as it is breathtakingly rugged. Largely visited for its well-recognized modern world wonder, Machu Picchu, Peru has many other cultural, archaeological, and geographic wonders that make for a well-rounded itinerary of culinary, historic, and cultural exploration.
Thousands of visitors a year make the difficult journey to the heights of Machu Picchu for a glimpse into the sophisticated Incan city lost in time, undiscovered by Spaniards, and stumbled upon less than a century ago by unsuspecting American historian, Hiram Bingham. It’s little wonder the Incan city remained untouched for so long—it’s quite a journey even by modern standards to reach the entrance of this modern marvel. Entry to the site requires prior arrangement and payment, so securing tickets in advance is an important part of planning a trip to Peru.
If multi-day treks don’t appeal to your style of travel, you can still hike the towering Waynapichu with a second permit. Limited to 400 hikers per day, this is the best option for viewing Machu Picchu from above. A near vertical hike to the summit provides unparalleled vista views not only of the ruins, but of the surrounding Andes, rivers, and cloud forest. Having seen many ruins on multiple continents from Pompeii in Italy to Angor Wat in Cambodia, I felt Machu Picchu strikes even the modern visitor as a remarkably sophisticated city constructed precisely and thoughtfully. I did not expect, however, to be more enamored by the physical landscape itself than even the actual ruins. Miles of lush forest, clouds trapped on the foreboding peaks of the Andes, and lazily grazing alpacas add to the backdrop of intrigue and sheer otherworldliness of the mysterious citadel in the sky.
Unlike many historic sites around the world that are completely surrounded by modern noise, gift shops, and city pollution, Machu Picchu’s remote location, natural surroundings and almost virtual inaccessibility added to its intrigue and, consequently, make it a more rewarding experience than popping into the Acropolis for a few hours.
It is important to secure advance reservations and carefully planned transportation options by local experts rather than “winging it.” Like many third world countries, tourists are bombarded by assertive taxi drivers, questionable tour guides, and local merchants all vying for business. Having the convenience and security of a driver and guide pre-arranged and waiting for you makes an otherwise overwhelming experience much more seamless and safe.
As with any vacation, itinerary order is essential to a positive and cohesive experience. This is even more crucial in a country like Peru, where the altitude change from Lima to Cusco is over 11,000 feet and can cause excruciating altitude sickness (take my word for it). Somewhat unavoidable, it is much more easily sidestepped when the itinerary allows for a few days in the Sacred Valley to acclimate and rest before making the journey to Machu Picchu and then ending in Cusco where elevation is highest. While Lima to Cusco is a short 1.5 hour flight, that change in altitude for our bodies can be rough and requires adequate time and comfortable space to adjust.
The Sacred Valley has its own cache of archeological troves and historic towns, so a good first day includes a visit to a local textile cooperative where you can observe the local technique of dying and weaving alpaca wool. Nearby Chincero is a Spanish colonial town with excellent shopping, and the Moray terraces are a good introduction to the ancient network of aqueducts and farming terraces that sustained the local community. Maras salt mines are a nearby geological marvel that provides the local community with industry in the salt mines. The newly constructed Tambo del Inka was the perfect retreat for a two to three night recuperation from a long international flight and altitude adjustment.
Aguas Calientes is the city just below the entrance to Machu Picchu and accessible via a handful of rail options described above in my review. The Vistadome train was an affordable and comfortable middle-of-the-road option complete with snacks, panoramic views, and pan flute background music to build the anticipation. From Aguas Calientes, a treacherous and winding road up the face of the mountain takes visitors to the entrance of Machu Picchu where lines for buses and entry can be over an hour. Early birds really do make the most of the day by beating the line—although that does involve queuing well before 5am during peak season. While my visit was technically still the last few weeks of peak season, we had heavy rain and overcast conditions which made the peak virtually invisible the first day. I was grateful to have a second day to hike Waynapichu (not coincidentally pronounced “whine-a-picchu”) which was strenuous and not for the faint of heart (or those who regularly skip the gym, myself included).
Our journey ended in Cusco where local markets and impressive Spanish architecture made for a bustling and colorful last stop. Complete with many western conveniences from Starbucks to McDonalds, the city is certainly more cosmopolitan than I had anticipated. Nonetheless, the shopping is fantastic and I highly recommend exploring the museum of Incan artifacts which gives you a more in-depth explanation of Hiram Bingham’s findings, team, and photos from his journey. More importantly, a look at archeological findings from the site and an exhibit on local life as it would have been during the Incan period is a good contextual backdrop for a more complete visit to Machu Picchu.
Overall, I felt Peru was an exciting and intriguing destination. Not without its share of transportation and logistical Tetris moves, it’s definitely a vacation I feel warrants experienced guides and a local onsite to piece together all the tours, transfers, tickets, and details. I witnessed a wide variety of travelers here –from budget backpackers to active hiking groups to 5 star bucket list travelers. From my experience, I recommend insisting on at least pre-arranging transfers, tours, and tickets to save the headache and language barrier involved when doing it on your own. A local onsite was the perfect way to ensure all the pieces were seamlessly connected while still not overpaying for excessive luxury of the Hiram-Bingham variety. While Machu Picchu is the crowing jewel in Peru’s trove of tourist attractions, keep in mind that several cities and archeological sites from Lake Titicaca to Rainbow Mountain are full of equally gratifying experiences awaiting the curious traveler.
To plan your next vacation experience or if you have other questions, please contact Allison Lefferts at Direct Travel.