South America is a continent rich in history, diverse cultures, people, and languages. Nestled in the Andes mountains lies the city of Cuzco, the starting point for a journey to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Most people visit Peru to see Machu Picchu, but there are so many diverse activities to take part in if you have more than 5-6 days to travel there.
Peruvian tourist sites sit at an elevation of 7,500 feet or higher except in Lima. So, when you fly into Lima it’s nice to spend 1-2 days there sightseeing. Lima sits on the coast and is a very tropical climate. Some highlights include the national cathedral, the catacombs, and the Peruvian parliament building all in downtown. The seafood and modern takes on traditional dishes are to die for in Lima.
If you have a longer trip planned I suggest visiting Arequipa, which sits at an elevation of almost 7,700 feet. This will take a few days to adjust to. Altitude sickness is a very real thing and can be debilitating. Spending 2 days or so at this elevation will help you acclimatize before trying to go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Arequipa sits in the shadow of the Andes and several volcanoes. The city itself is beautiful and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old style buildings, modern business people, and villagers all coexist here. Arequipa is famous for domesticating the llama and alpaca for their wool. We did a 12 hour driving tour through the mountains and volcanoes to the Colca Canyon to see the Condor’s Cross. By 6:15 AM we were at 16,000 feet on the top of Chachani volcano.
After leaving Arequipa you can fly to Cuzco on a local airline for a fairly cheap price. From Cuzco you can travel directly to Machu Picchu via the town of Aguas Calientes. We spent a few days driving through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Horseback riding through the Andes is a wonderful way to see the mountains and have an adventure if that’s what you’re looking for. You can also visit the salt terraces that are carved into the mountain, which is one of the major exports and sales in Peru.
If Machu Picchu is the only thing on your radar, then you can take a short train from Cuzco on the Inca Rail directly into Aguas Calientes. The scenery will drastically change from mountainous to rainforest the closer you get to Machu Picchu. What most people probably don’t know is that Aguas Calientes is not Machu Picchu. In fact, the ruins are a fair hike up from the town, or you can take a 30-minute bus ride up to it. From the town to the ruins you change elevation by almost 2,000 feet. Make sure to give yourself an entire day or more to actually see the ruins because they’re bigger than most people realize.
The ruins were home to one of the most successful and secretive groups of Inca that ever existed in the area. The sheer size of the stones and construction that occurred here are remarkable. You’ll be able to see their city center, their living quarters, the house of the higher ups, and their pastures for their livestock. Today there are still wild llamas that inhabit the ruins and simply never leave. One of the key features of the ruins that should not be missed is the fully functional and accurate sundial. This was how they predicted the weather, the moons, and their agricultural seasons. No one is really sure how they were able to know how to set it up so that it would be accurate, but it is one of the great mysteries of the Inca.
There are several hikes you can do from Machu Picchu if that is your thing. You can hike Machu Picchu Mountain, which lies at the back of Machu Picchu ruins. It is a difficult and steep hike with steps. This hike takes 4-5 hours round-trip. You can also hike to the sun gate, which was the mountain entrance to the ruins, and where the Inca finally fled from during an invasion. This is a much milder hike and only takes 2 hours round trip. Both will give you alternate views of the ruins and the surrounding area!
Be sure to save some time to explore the small town of Aguas Calientes below Machu Picchu too! They have some small, traditional, restaurants that serve true Peruvian dishes. There are also several cute boutique hotels nearby that offer tea tours, orchid walks, butterfly gardens, and bird watching. Remember, in Aguas Calientes you are in the rainforest, which means the flora and fauna are much different and more tropical! You can also visit the local market near the train station before heading back to Cuzco. Viva Peru!