Machu Picchu is called the lost city for a reason. Nestled into the mountains roughly five hours from Cusco, it is not really close to anything.
To get to Machu Picchu involves flying from Lima to Cusco, driving from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, taking the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (newly christened Machu Picchu Pueblo), and finally hopping on a bus to reach the famed Inca site. Given plane and train schedules and a park closing time of 5 p.m. sharp, even a headlong rush to Machu Picchu would take a minimum of two days.
Technically speaking, you could check Machu Picchu off your bucket list in four crammed days. Here is a possible itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Lima
Day 2: Fly to Cusco, drive to Ollantaytambo, and take a train to Aguas Calientes
Day 3: Visit Machu Picchu and return to Cusco
Day 4: Fly from Cusco to Lima and then home
Of course, you would miss a lot: marveling at how the Incas were able to fit impossibly heavy stones together so precisely without the benefit of mortar in Cusco, sipping chicha and admiring ancient weaving techniques in the Sacred Valley, bravely sampling baked cuy (guinea pig), and witnessing the melding of colonial and Inca cultures in Qoricancha and Cusco’s cathedral.
A more reasonable schedule is seven days. It would give you time to enjoy what the area has to offer. Here is a possible itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Lima
Day 2: Fly to Cusco and explore it on your own as you acclimatize to the altitude
Day 3: Visit Inca ruins and learn how Inca symbolism pervades religious works in Cusco’s cathedral and Qoricancha
Day 4: Pet llamas in the Sacred Valley, visit a remote community to see a demonstration of ancient weaving techniques, sample chicha, and taste cuy
Day 5: Explore Machu Picchu and soak in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes
Day 6: Have a picnic at the ancient salt pools of Salinas de Maras on the way back to Cusco
Day 7: Fly back to Lima and return home
If your flight home leaves in the evening, you may even have a chance to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites in colonial Lima and enjoy ceviche for lunch.
Interested in visiting Machu Picchu? Check out our 7-day itinerary Machu Picchu Tour by Train.
Coca is everywhere in Cusco, Peru. Many hotels display baskets of coca leaves and serve coca tea in their lobbies. Coca is the star attraction at the Coca Shop in Cusco. There you can sample a range of tasty products in which coca is a key ingredient. Coca is also an important part of ceremonial offerings.
Before I hiked the Inca Trail, I bought a small bag of coca leaves in the San Pedro Market. I brought the leaves to chew while I hiked and to share with our porters. (They really do help prevent altitude sickness.)
In this environment, coca leaves seem innocuous. However, people use these same leaves in the production of cocaine—a not so innocuous drug. As a result, when you reenter the United States from Peru, customs officers are always on the lookout for any type of coca product in your luggage.
I cannot say with certainty that bringing coca products home to the United States is illegal. (After all, you can order coca tea from Amazon.com.) However, it hardly seems worth the hassle. Better to leave coca in Cusco than to risk the ire of US customs officers when they find coca tea, for example, tucked into your suitcase.
Interested in a tour of Cusco and Machu Picchu? Check out our Machu Picchu Tour by Train.
The city of Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu. Tourists travel through Cusco to access the mysterious Inca citadel.
The first time I flew into Cusco, I immediately felt the effects of the altitude (10,560 feet) as I disembarked from the plane. Later that afternoon, I nearly fainted from altitude sickness in the middle of the ancient Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman just outside the city.
I was quite surprised by my reaction. I had skied at altitudes of nearly 12,000 feet before. The only symptom I had experienced then was shortness of breath.
Because many people suffer from the effects of altitude sickness upon arriving in Cusco, many tour operators schedule free time the first day. This allows those travelers who have a pounding headache or queasy stomach to relax in their hotel rooms.
Even if you are altitude-sensitive like me, it is possible to visit Cusco without dreading that first day. I’ve been to Cusco five times since that first trip and each time I hop off the plane, grab my backpack in baggage claim, and head off to a series of meetings I’ve scheduled for that day. How is this possible?
I consulted with my doctor back home and he prescribed Diomox. I start taking it a couple of days before I arrive in Cusco. While I experience some side effects such as tingling in my hands and feet, it seems to take care of the altitude sickness.
I also drink plenty of water and coca tea, and swear off alcohol and heavy food that first day.
Diomox is not for everyone. So, you should definitely consult with your doctor about whether it, or something else, could work for you. Some people cannot tolerate altitude at all.
Altitude sickness is no fun. But with a little planning, an ounce of prevention could be worth a pound of cure.
For more information on altitude sickness, see: http://www.high-altitude-medicine.com/.
On my first trip to Peru, my dad and I were in the same group as a grandfather-grandson pair, Rick and Peter. Rick had given this adventure to Peter as a high school graduation gift. When I first met Rick and Peter and learned their story, I thought, “What an amazing idea for a graduation gift! No boring class ring for Peter! This is going to be an experience of a lifetime—something they will both cherish forever.” And, by all accounts, it certainly was a memorable trip.
I never laughed so hard as when Peter recounted how bats had swooped into their open-air room in the rainforest eco-lodge where we stayed and pooped all over his grandfather’s things. Apparently, Rick had neatly laid out his clothing, shaving kit, and toothbrush on the bare wooden shelves provided. On the other hand, Peter had left his things largely unpacked. So, Peter still had a useable toothbrush while Rick sipped his morning coffee chagrined.
In addition to the bat mishap, the two fished for piranhas, sampled alpaca meat, hiked through Machu Picchu, explored the cobbled streets of Cusco, and even discovered the only edible pizza in town, which we enjoyed with them.
I can’t imagine a more memorable graduation gift, or in this case, a more life-changing one. When Peter returned to New York, he promptly embarked on a six-month adventure to South America, perfecting his classroom Spanish to fluency in the process. I just e-mailed him this week and learned he had completed a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Wow! This trip may have set him on a direction for a career. Can you imagine having that kind of impact on the lives of your grandchildren?
And, while I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that going on such an adventure deepened Rick and Peter’s relationship. I know my Dad and I certainly strengthened ours. No matter what the future holds, we’ll always have Peru, and so will Rick and Peter.
Llama Expeditions' Amazon to Machu Picchu Tour offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience for grandchildren and their still youthful grandparents!
It can be tiring and tiresome hiking at nearly 14,000 feet; every 10 steps or so, I had to stop in an attempt to catch my breath. While the scenery was spectacular, I felt frustrated by my body’s increasing demand for more air than seemed available. So, my guide, Marco, left me to rest on a hilltop while he went to talk to the cook and the arreiro who were traveling at a much faster pace.
I pulled off my daypack, dropped my hiking poles, and sunk down on the damp grass with relief. I gratefully breathed the fresh mountain air. The soft gray mist that had descended that morning muffled sound and created stillness across the verdant countryside. A small herd of dirty sheep milled about a watering hole below. A mud-brick house with a straw roof sat to my left, the door propped open in spite of the fact that it appeared no one was home. I listened to my heart beat.
A couple of dogs barked, and I turned around to see a stout Quechua woman dressed in colorful traditional garb approaching. The deep red of her dress stood out vividly against the green of the pasture she was crossing. A small pack of dogs bobbed and wove around her.
She greeted me in Quechua and sat down to keep me company. Her dogs nestled protectively around her.
After a few attempts to communicate in Spanish, I realized that she could understand me, but she could only speak Quechua. And, of course, I can’t speak or understand a word of Quechua. For a moment, a wave of frustration at my own ineptness washed over me. I was curious about her life in the Peruvian Andes. And, I am sure she was curious about me. We were a study in contrasts—the big city girl with her high-tech hiking gear and the Quechua woman still living according to the ancient ways of the Incas.
I unzipped my daypack and pulled out a small plastic bag of coca leaves. When I offered it to her, she chose three leaves and put the rest in a pocket in her skirt. She fanned out the three leaves between her thumb and forefinger. Then, she gently blew on the leaves to share the gift with the Pachamama—mother earth—before placing them in her mouth to chew.
We sat like that for awhile—surreptitiously studying each other, her dogs shifting restlessly from time to time, just breathing. It felt magical—this meeting of distinctly different cultures, distinctly different people. I had never expected anything like this to happen in my life, and maybe neither had she.
In the distance, Marco appeared as he crested a hill. His call to me broke the spell. The woman slowly got up and ambled to her home to resume her daily chores as Marco reached me.
I got up, slipped on my daypack, and grabbed my hiking poles. An hour later, I summited the 14,000-foot Ipsaycocha Pass.
Learn more about what awaits you when you trek with llamas.
San Francisco, CA, January 10, 2011
— Travelers who crave an adventure off the beaten path have an exciting new option – with a philanthropic twist. Llama Expeditions offers a range of guided tours through Peru, from sightseeing tours to multi-day hikes along the Inca trail. In addition to taking in the stunning scenery and experiencing incredible adventure, these tours also allow travelers to make a personal connection to the country and its people.
“The company fills the spot between responsible tourism and voluntourism,” said Diane Valenti, Founder. “This is a real vacation, for people who work hard and want a chance to relax. We stay in nice hotels and eat in good restaurants. But it’s also a chance for culturally curious travelers to make a meaningful connection with the people and the land of Peru.”
One tour takes participants to a school that serves scholastically gifted children from rural communities in the Peruvian Andes. Travelers meet the children and have the opportunity to present them with gifts of school supplies – notebooks, pencil cases, and boxes of crayons, for example. “The kids’ faces light up,” said Valenti. “You get to see firsthand that you make a difference in their lives.”
On another trip travelers will have the chance to interact with an organization that rescues street children and teaches them to surf to build their self-esteem and heal them physically and emotionally.
“The company makes a donation to these organizations, but our adventurers also have the chance to make a personal gift,” said Valenti. “It’s a truly heartwarming experience.” More information is online at http://www.llamaexpeditions.com.
About Llama Expeditions and Diane Valenti
Diane Valenti, founder of Llama Expeditions, hatched the idea for the company over a home-cooked chicken dinner at close to 14,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes. She has been able to apply her over 20 years as a business consultant working with clients such as Genentech, Nike, and Starbucks Coffee Company to her new enterprise. Diane is now looking forward to introducing her travel clients to the magic of Peru.
A couple of summers ago, I accidentally stumbled upon the best place to enjoy a sunset in Cusco, Peru. I had just arrived in the city with my friend Malia. After checking in to our hotel, we grabbed a cup of coca tea from the lobby and made our way to the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square. We perched on the steps in front of the famous Cathedral of Santo Domingo to sip our tea.
Cusqueños hurried along the paths that crisscross the beautifully manicured gardens of the square below. Ladies in colorful traditional dress sold hand-knit alpaca hats. Children offered to polish our boots. Every now and then, a silver van would stop on the wide avenue to discharge passengers. The sky slowly melted into a muted rainbow of colors and then darkened to an indigo blue. There seemed to be a subtle hum in the air as the street lights came on.
I remember feeling something similar watching the sun set from the steps of Sacré Coeur in Paris. The sunset in Cusco was every bit as magical. Join us on our Machu Picchu tours to experience this magic for yourself!
My neighbor went to Machu Picchu about a month before I did. His partner is a genius at Internet research and vacation planning, so they went on their own. In contrast, my dad and I signed up for a guided tour.
Later that summer, my neighbor and I compared notes over a glass of wine. We had many of the same stunning photos of Machu Picchu. They had discovered a hidden gem restaurant in Aguas Calientes that my dad and I missed when we opted for the buffet at our hotel. My neighbor and I were both satisfied with the quality and the ambience of our hotel accommodations.
They had the freedom to come and go as they pleased. We, however, reaped the rewards of the years of study our guides had undertaken. We learned why the Incas had constructed their doorways in a trapezoidal shape. We found out how the niches in the stone walls were used. We learned the significance of different birds and animals in the Andean religion. Understanding what we were seeing and what it meant really enriched the experience for me.
Tour guides in Peru must complete a rigorous program of study. They take classes to learn about the history, geography, birds, insects, and mammals of an area. They visit archeological sites with their teachers where they must pass practical exams. They go on treks, often at their own expense, so they can get a sense of the best way to guide a group through the terrain.
And, it doesn’t end there. Continuing education on a yearly basis is considered essential to successful guiding. Guides also have first aid training, which can really come in handy at high altitudes. I can attest to this as I fainted at Sacsayhuaman on my first visit to Cusco.
So, yes, I’d say spending money on a guided tour in Peru is an investment worth making.
I found myself Friday night in downtown San Francisco amidst a swirl of holiday shoppers bustling from Macy’s to Nordstrom on a search for the perfect gift. Sweaters, toys, and electronics bulged from the festively colored shopping bags. Skaters circled the ice ring constructed just for the holiday season. A giant Christmas tree towered over it all.
Christmas in the Peruvian Andes doesn’t bubble over with the same kind of excess that it does in so much of America. In fact, much of life there is astonishingly difficult. For example, around 90% of the children in one community in Peru’s Sacred Valley walk three hours to school. They do not have breakfast, and most do not have warm clothing to protect them from the harsh climate. The distance between their school and their village makes it impossible for them to go home each night. Consequently, they end up camping and scavenging for food wherever they can.
Living Heart, a nonprofit organization founded by British expatriate Sonia Newhouse, runs a kitchen to provide food for all the children. We support Living Heart during our Lares Llama Trek by bringing healthy food and warm clothing for the children to this project.
Our Lares Llama Trek planned for this December is perfectly timed to help ensure that the children have a little something extra to celebrate this holiday season. I can already imagine the sparkle in their eyes as they realize that we’ve come bearing gifts. It is sure to be a heartwarming experience for everyone. And, isn’t this what the holiday gift-giving tradition is all about?
You can sign up to participate on this trek until December 15!
One of the coolest things to do near Cusco, Peru is to visit the llama farm. About 30 minutes outside of the city of Cusco, the llama farm showcases all four members of the Andean camelid family: llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas. For a small donation, you can feed the animals. The llama farm provides grasses for this purpose.
The farm’s official name is Awana Kancha which means “Palace of the Weaver” in the indigenous language of Quechua. Various communities work with Awana Kancha to present weaving demonstrations at the farm. There is also a dye exhibit. On the way out, you can shop at the store, which is overflowing with various textile products made of the animal’s fur.
I never tire of going to the llama farm. And, neither do the locals who you’d think would have had their fill of llamas. There is something utterly delightful about observing the animals whether they are a couple of males vehemently spitting at each other as they vie for a tourist’s attention or a baby nursing. And, I love being surrounded by llamas that are willing to be petted in exchange for a little alfalfa.
We include a visit to Awana Kancha on every Cusco tour. So even if you won’t be participating in a llama trek in Peru, you will still have an opportunity to hang out with them.