Machu Picchu may have been the crowning glory of the Incan Empire, but discovering it was just the start: follow the Inca trails that lead out of it, and you will uncover countless archaeological splendours beyond, scattered over the Peruvian Andes
Make sure you’re awake for the last several minutes of your flight into Cusco. Nothing will prepare you for the breathtaking vistas of that magical landscape from above. Placid lakes, glacial peaks, and mountain ranges prelude the landing into the capital of America’s greatest civilization.
Spelled Cuzco in Spanish, or Qusqu in Quechuan – the local language – the city sits at an elevation of 3,400 metres above sea level. The symptoms of altitude sickness range from person to person, but few are exempt from the shortness of breath and slight dizziness from the sudden lack of oxygen. You can ignore this next part if you’re from Lhasa or La Paz.
It takes at least a couple of days to acclimatise. If you don’t feel it at first, you surely will once you start walking up and down the streets of Cusco, which form a maze of steep steps that all lead to Plaza de Armas, the main square.
Do as the locals say: drink a lot of water, and try to avoid alcohol and meat; the latter is advice particularly to those preparing for a trek, as meat is heavier and harder to digest at low levels of oxygen.
You will also find Mate de Coca everywhere. It’s an herbal infusion from raw coca plant leaves, native to the region. Commonly used in the Andean highlands, the tea is either drank or chewed as a stimulant, said to improve blood flow and oxygen uptake at high altitudes. While completely organic and traditionally used in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, the tea is illegal in the United States as it contains alkaloids used to make cocaine base.
Sunday in Pisac: 7km hike + market
A good way to explore Inca ruins while helping yourself acclimatise is to go lower: down into the Sacred Valley. Pisac – a small town 35km from Cusco – is a great option on Sundays when it holds its famous market. At 2,972 masl, you will still have to deal with symptoms, but not to the same degree as in Cusco.
You can shop at the market for local Peruvian fruit and handmade crafts. Many will tell you their ponchos or blankets are alpaca, but walk around and check prices before making a final decision. If you’re hungry, grab a local snack: the choclo is a large-kernel variety of field corn from the Andes, and you can take it boiled, with cheese, or salt as you like.
Take a taxi to the impressive Inca ruins above the town: it’s a 7 kilometre one way hike, but save time and energy for the architectural site. Pisac’s main characteristic are its soaring agricultural terraces, some of which are still in use today.
You’ll need a US$40 Boleto Turístico (ticket) to get in; that price covers ten days and all the major must-sees in and around Cusco. From the main architectural park, there is a trail by the river flanked by cliffs lined with cave-like tombs: the Incas’ vertical cemetery. Follow the trail until it forks by a bridge: turn left and go uphill to the majestic Temple of the Sun. The Incas’ most important god was the solar deity, Inti – hence the Peruvian currency: soles, after sol (sun). From there another trail leads back down to the town centre.
Aside from Pisac, make full use of your Boleto Turístico and explore ruins like Ollantaytambo (an imposing Inca military post in the Sacred Valley), the Saqsayhuaman complex in Cusco (including Q’enqo, Puka-Pukara and Tambomachay), and Moray (also famous for its Salineras de Maras, a picturesque system of salt pans carved on the side of the mountain).
Closer to the gods: The trek to Machu Picchu
And then there’s Machu Picchu. If you want the full experience, take it from the Inca Trail. There are several treks and tours available, ranging from 2-8 days hikes, or even longer. You would need to book this far in advance (think six months), especially if you plan to go during high season. Several ‘luxury’ tours operate the roads to Machu Picchu: they include porters, pack mules, sunset happy hours, expertly trained chefs in Peruvian cuisine… every possible amenity you can think of while journeying through the mountains.
Alternative treks to the Inca Trail would be the Salkantay Trail, which is for more intermediate / expert hikers who want to go through the glacial landscapes up to 5,200 masl. First timers might want to avoid this one. The Lares Trek is less hardcore, but still challenging. It follows the weavers and farmers’ paths through the valley’s villages and rivers. You’ll see a lot of llamas and alpacas along the way, but could you take a guess what they left behind on the trails…
For my recommended trek option, check out my Peru FAQs here
The most luxurious way of getting in and out of Machu Picchu, however, is via Perurail’s high-end train service. The Vistadome and Expedition trains are popular for their panoramic views of the breathtaking scenery (try and get a ride before sunset). Meanwhile, the plusher Belmond Hiram Bingham even features entertainment like live bands playing typical local and international music.
Wake up for sunrise at Machu Picchu (or come at sunset, if you want to avoid the crowds). These days tickets only allow you in with only one re-entry, and soon at specific time slots to limit the amount of visitors on site. The queue for the bus is tends to snake around the corner even in the 4am darkness. Get your bus tickets ahead of time, or you may never even make it up there. And don’t forget your passport – they check.
As soon as you get up there, secure a strategic spot for the moment when the holiest sun breaks over the mist. It may be raining, you mightn’t have showered for days, you could be running on no sleep, but at that moment all will slip away as you stand above a living, breathing rainforest where the Incas built their sublime citadel in the 15th century to get close to the gods.
Legend has it that when the Spanish arrived, the Incas razed all the roads leading to Machu Picchu so the conquerors wouldn’t find it. Hence it was hidden from the outside world until 1911, when American archeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the site in search for the famous “lost” Incan cities.
If you still have energy to climb, you can make for Huayna Picchu, the ‘young peak’ that features in all the famous photos of Machu Picchu. It’s a couple of hours up and down, unless you want to take the longer loop. From the top, you can look down on the archeological site as if you were a bird gliding over it. (Warning: not for the faint of heart)
Beyond Machu Picchu
Finally, where to next? The onward journey can take you to Lima, Peru’s gastronomic paradise, or to the colonial-era capital of Arequipa, flanked by three imposing volcanoes. For more adventure, head to the picture-perfect Rainbow Mountain or Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian border. You might think you’ve come to tick something off your bucket list; little did you know you’d be adding ten more by the end of it.