6 Only-In-Peru Things to Do on Your Way to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the most well-known spiritual and historic places in the world, and until recently, an endangered UNESCO World Heritage site (it was taken off the list of endangered heritage sites last year). Spotted by American archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911, the impressive Incan city — built in the 15th century and untouched by the Spaniards — was perfectly preserved on a hidden, hard-to-reach mountaintop where the dreamy and lush Andes and Amazonian Basin meet.
Today, the fragile ruins have become increasingly affected by tourism, which recently topped more than a million visitors per year — the site, as a result, now limits the number of visitors to 2,500 per day. Save yourself some time and heartache by buying your Machu Picchu tickets online ahead of time for about $43 — if you're particularly athletic or ambitious, buy the $51 ticket that includes hikes on nearby Huyana Picchu mountain — and make a Peru Rail reservation (if you're not hiking the Inca Trail) before booking flights and hotels. The best time to visit is April through October, during the dry season.
Cusco is where you'll want to start your journey, but all flight routes from the US will take you through Lima, Peru, first. Although Machu Picchu is situated at an elevation of 7,972 feet, it's advisable to stay in Cusco — at an elevation of 11,152 feet — for several days to help you get used to the high altitude. It's also a charming city and destination in its own right with plenty to do, taste and see, as is Lima, so I'd recommend staying a few days in each before you head to the mountains. Here are six other only-in-Peru experiences you should enjoy on your way to Machu Picchu.
1. Sip Coca Tea and Craft Cocktails at Points-Hotel Palacio Del Inka
Once in Cusco, acclimate by sipping coca tea alongside Palacio del Inka's absolutely perfect pisco sours — its simple syrup contains not just sugar but orange juice, orange peel and coca leaves. Cocktails aside, the grand, cobalt-doored Palacio del Inka is the ultimate accommodation in the city, and as a Starwood Luxury Collection Category 4 hotel, has award rooms available from 10,000 Starpoints per night. Originally an Incan structure, the property was transformed into a monastery and palace before becoming a five-star hotel that nowadays offers guests plush rooms with courtyard or city views, top-notch dining options and an excellent bar that has daily demonstrations showing how its signature concoction comes together.
Other points-hotel options in the city include the Hilton Garden Inn, nestled into the Cusco hillside, where standard rooms start at 40,000 HHonors points per night, and the JW Marriott El Convento, a Category 7 hotel located inside a converted 16th-century convent near the centrally located Plaza de Armas — award stays start at 140,000 Marriott Rewards points.
2. Meet the Sexy Woman at Sacsayhuaman
Two days in Cusco are doable, and you may feel acclimated to the altitude, but three or four would be more enjoyable. It's easy to walk around, but be cautious crossing the street — drivers do not yield to pedestrians.
For an appetizer to Machu Picchu, head to the northern outskirts of the city and visit Sacsayhuaman, pronounced comically by everyone, even locals, as "sexy woman." You'll find llamas, sweeping views over Cusco and, most importantly, 13th-century Inca ruins containing mindbogglingly giant stone walls that fit together with incredible precision. Just try to wrap your head around how this impressive site was constructed.
3. Experience Everything From Qorikancha to Quinoa in Cusco
Pay a visit to Qorikancha, once an important Inca temple that was turned into the Church of Santo Domingo and gardens by invading Spaniards, located across the street from Palacio del Inka. Check out the artsy San Blas district (the best place for a sunset view) and Mercado Central de San Pedro, a vast public market at the edge of the historic district where you'll see every type of fresh produce and protein imaginable, plus baked goods, flowers and grains you never knew existed. The home of quinoa, Peru also produces a panoply of other unique crops and superfoods. Test your luck with extremely local street cuisine, but whatever you do, don't drink the tap water (or use ice) in Cusco.
The best spot to wrap up an evening of Cusco sightseeing is Museo del Pisco, a fun place dedicated to the indigenous spirit that can get quite lively, thanks to a band and patrons hopped up on cocktails mixed with one of their hundreds of pisco varietals.
4. Delve Into the Sacred Valley
When you've thoroughly explored the city of Cusco, hire a driver and venture out about an hour to Peru's scenic Sacred Valley. Your first stop: Pisac (or Pisaq), a colonial village with a slight New Age vibe, impressive Inca ruins and excellent markets full of vibrant textiles and crafts. In Urubamba, the opulent Tambo del Inka (the sister property to Palacio del Inka and a Starwood Luxury Collection Resort & Spa) makes an ideal home base. For one, it's the only hotel with its own dedicated Peru Rail station on the line to Aguas Calientes (where you'll board the bus up the hill to Machu Picchu), making your early-morning pre-dawn departure much, much easier. Award nights here start at 12,000-16,000 Starpoints per night depending on the time of year.
The train station in nearby Ollantaytambo — also home to incredible hillside Inca ruins worth visiting — is the stop from other hotels and those driving from Cusco. Take the mid-priced Vistadome, with glass ceilings that allow for impactful views during the roughly two-hour journey, or splurge for a trip on the ultra-luxurious Hiram Bingham train. Your other option, of course, is to hike the Inca Trail. The classic path takes about four days and winds more than 50 miles along the railway and up into the mountains — note that separate permits must be arrange to hike the Inca trail before you get there, although these are usually included if you're part of a group tour.
Because there is so much to experience beyond Machu Picchu itself, both Tambo del Inka and Palacio del Inka properties each offer a new way for guests to see even more of the sights: a three-day guided adventure called the Sacred Heartbeat which includes a four-hour bike ride through the Sacred Valley, a visit to the Maras salt mines (mentioned below) and the circular agricultural terraces of Moray, a full-day llama trek through the Valley of Pumahuanca and four hours of lake kayaking with a gourmet picnic lunch, from $943 per person.
5. Work the Salt Mines, in a Good Way
Regardless of where you sleep, don't miss the hundreds of natural crystalline salt pools at Maras, a sight unlike anything you've ever seen. Sacred Wheels is an excellent option for adventurous travelers interested in booking bike trips through the picturesque valley — the company specializes in "soft" adventure, meaning nothing is ever too strenuous, and offers fascinating history, culture and nature lessons along the way.
6. Wherever You Go, Load Up On Lomo Saltado
Be sure to try lomo saltado at some point, a traditional and wonderfully savory beef dish with onions, tomatoes, choclo (giant Peruvian corn), rice and fries. It's available pretty much everywhere — in Urubamba, head to the casual restaurant Kaia for some local flavor, with organic, vegetarian-friendly dishes and lots of hippie charm.
Bottom Line: You're Now an Inca Expert
If you've done it right, by the time you reach the grand finale at Machu Picchu, you should be an expert in all things Inca — that is, after taking planes, cars, trains and buses ($24 round-trip from Aguas Calientes, cash only), the latter zig-zagging up the mountain as you approach the ancient city.
Once you arrive, booking a tour with a guide (or hiring one at the entrance) is the way to go. Guides are incredibly knowledgeable and can share seemingly endless stories about the spiritual, smart, sophisticated people who masterminded it all. Photos just don't do it justice — there's something special about the way the jungle opens up to the manicured city in all its terraced, stone-walled splendor that sparks the imagination. It may just have you daydreaming about what life looked like here hundreds of years ago.
Have you ever been to Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas in this part of Peru? Tell us about your experience, below.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.