First time guide to Machu Picchu and Cusco
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First time guide to Machu Picchu and Cusco
I’d like to introduce my husband, Jason! He kindly wrote this post for me. So enjoy!
When my oldest son, Carter, was 4 years old he was really into tropical rainforests and desperately wanted to visit one. Since I had just graduated from college and started my own business, I didn’t have any money for travel, so I told him I would take him when he was 14.
Ten years seemed like sufficient time to build my business and for him to forget about the rainforest. Unfortunately for me, ten years later he promptly reminded me about my promise, so I then had to come up with the time to book a trip. It took two years, but I was able to appease him when I found fabulous airfare to Cusco, Peru, on Skyscanner (Boston to Cusco for $450 round trip) over the Thanksgiving week, and his dream vacation to the rainforest (and consequently Machu Picchu) was realized (however, he still wants me to take him on a canopy tour of a “real” rainforest).
Upon beginning my research for our trip I realized that there was a whole lot more to see and do in the area than I had originally thought. How could we possibly see even a fraction of what there was in less than five days? However, in the end and with careful planning of our time, we managed to see and do plenty to make the trip very satisfying, if not a bit exhausting. I will lay out what we did on a day-to-day basis just so you will be able to see how we fit it all together.
What gear to you need to take to Cusco and the Sacred Valley?
- Comfortable shoes with traction- You can use hiking boots, sneakers or comfortable sandals.
- A backpack or sling bag that can hold water, sunscreen and money.
- A hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.
- GoPro camera to be able to take amazing shots.
- Take the minimum you will need so you aren’t lugging a ton of stuff up ridiculously high trails.
- Hiking ability! This is not a trip for people who can’t do some hiking.
- Hiking quotes to keep you going when you feel like quitting!
Day 1: What to do in Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes
We took a red-eye flight from Boston to Cusco via Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá is the only international flight into and out of Cusco. We arrived at about 10:15 am and immediately hired a taxi to take us to Ollantaytambo, in the heart of the Sacred Valley. This is a 45-mile trip and takes about 2 hours, but the taxi only cost about US$30. It was much more convenient and versatile than taking an executivo (minibus), but which costs only $4 per person plus the cost of the taxi to Pavitos Street. The advantage of the taxi is that you are able to customize stops along the way. Stop at a roadside restaurant just as you leave Cusco to get some chicharrón to eat along the way. Take a short time to visit the archeological ruins at Chinchero. Drive a bit around the town of Urubamba. They are all on your way to Ollantaytambo and won’t delay you much.
Ollantaytambo (pronounced oy-yahn-tie-tahm-bo) or just called Ollanta (oy-yahn-ta) is the primary location to get a train to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is located at the foot of the steep mountain where Machu Picchu is located. You cannot drive or take a bus to Aguas Calientes–only take the train or walk (via the Inca Trail). There are two train services, Inca Rail and Peru Rail, that depart from various towns like Ollanta, Urubamba, Cusco, and Poroy. However, there are more available times from Ollanta than any of the other towns, and Ollanta is a must-see site on your way.
To do in Ollantaytambo:
Visit the archeological site and former royal estate of the Incan Emperor Pachacuti. Don’t miss the Sun Temple which has the Wall of the Six Monoliths or the water works at the base of the ruins slightly up the canyon from the entrance which has a fountain called the Bath of the Princess.
Tip: For a nominal fee you can leave your luggage at the entrance to the archeological ruins at Ollanta while you explore.
After hiking the ruins at Ollanta, find some good food in one of the many restaurants in town, and explore the artisan markets and the plazas. When the time draws near to board the train, walk down the main street that follows the river. The street ends at the train station. The train ride to Aguas Calientes is about two hours and you will find yourself in a small, dumpy town, where everything is in walking distance. Because the streets are so confusing to navigate, most hostels will offer to send someone to the train station to meet you and walk you to the hostel.
Plan on 3-4 hours in Ollantaytambo including walking the ruins, perusing the market, and a quick meal.
Tip: On your way to your hostel in Aguas Calientes make sure you stop at the ticket booth just over the bridge from the train station to purchase a bus ticket that will take you to the entrance to Machu Picchu the next morning. You’ll avoid long lines the next morning!
Day 2: Machu Picchu, Moray
There are two entrance times to Machu Picchu, the morning shift from 6 am to 12 noon and the afternoon shift from 12 noon to 5:30 pm. To get the most out of your visit, try to get to the entrance as close to the opening time as possible so you have plenty of time to explore. We went in the morning and the mist over the ruins gave the place such a mysterious feel! We had time to explore everything we wanted and felt ready to leave at noon, albeit completely worn out. (Those who enter in the morning shift are supposed to leave by 12 noon, but I’m not sure if and how it is enforced.)
Tips for exploring Machu Picchu
Tip: When you enter the site, go to your left and explore as much of the upper part of the ruins as you want before you descend to the lower part. Once you are in the lower part, the only way to get back to the upper part is to exit the site, then go around to the entrance again. However, you only can only re-enter one time!
There are four ticket types to Machu Picchu. All include entrance to the site but then you can add hiking Machu Picchu mountain, hiking Huayna Picchu (which is the really steep mountain that you see in the background of most of the photos of Machu Picchu), or entrance to the on-site museum.
We chose to hike Huayna Picchu and found out that it was not for the faint of heart! It’s a long and arduous hike but well worth it. The view from the top is like none other. I was astounded that there were ruins all the way up on top! The trail is very steep, and once you’re on top and exploring the ruins be careful, as there are plenty of places right along the edge of a precipitous drop.
Tip 1: Make sure that you hike the smaller Inti Punku mountain whose trailhead you will pass shortly after beginning the trailhead to Huayna Picchu. It won’t take much more time and the view of the ruins of Machu Picchu is actually better than at the top of Huayna Picchu because you are so much closer.
Tip 2: Purchase your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu and train tickets to Aguas Calientes at least a month (but 2-3 months is recommended) before you leave on your trip, otherwise you may not get them!
After getting back to Aguas Calientes, grab a quick lunch at one of the many cafes in town, retrieve your luggage from your hostel, and head to the train station to peruse the huge artisan market before your train departs. We got some great deals on gifts there. If you find something that you like, I recommend getting it right then because if you plan on going back to get it, you may never find the stall again!
Once you are back in Ollanta, you can head to the main plaza to get an executivo back to Cusco or hire a taxi at the train station to take you back. We negotiated a taxi to take us to Moray first, then to Cusco for about $40.
Why you need to visit Moray when you visit Machu Picchu
Moray mostly consists of the circular, in-ground terraces of the Inca that were thought to be used for agricultural micro climates. They are an architectural wonder and fun to see. The site is not busy as it is out of the way, so we had a lot of freedom to explore there.
Plan on 30 minutes. When you have seen one circular terrace, you have seen them all!
Tips for visiting Moray
Tip 1: Make sure you walk all the way to the bottom of a circular terrace and pay attention to the temperature change as you do. You can really feel the differences in the micro climates.
Tip 2: Take a close look at the town of Maras as you pass through to Moray. There are some unique Incan lintels above the doorways to the homes as you pass by.
It was already getting dark as we were driving out of Moray toward the main road to Cusco. We packed in a lot on Day 2, and we arrived to our hostel located 2 blocks from the Plaza de Armas in Cusco well after dark.
Note: If there had been 25 hours on this day, we would have stopped to see the salt ponds of Maras. From photos they seem to be a fascinating place to explore. You can catch a glimpse of the white ponds nestled between the red mountains when you are on the road to Urubamba from Ollanta.
The Best things to do in Cusco
This day was supposed to be a rest day but we ended up walking as much, if not more, than we had the day before (18 miles!). We were both in really good shape and enjoyed the quick-paced walking rather than a slow, stuffy taxi. Here is what I recommend seeing in Cusco if you only have a day–and it’s all within walking distance!
Tip: Purchase a Boleto Turistico that will allow you entrance into a whole host of popular sites in and around Cusco including ruins, cathedrals and museums. You can purchase this ticket at the entrance to any of the participating sites.
Begin your tour of Cusco in the Plaza de Armas, the central square of historic Cusco. There are two cathedrals to explore (Cusco Cathedral and the Church of la Compañía de Jesús), and you can go up into the bell towers for a bird’s eye view. The colonnaded buildings around the plaza house a number of restaurants and shops.
Continue south for a few blocks to get to San Pedro Market, a bustling market for locals and tourists alike. I stocked up on Peruvian chocolate here. You can also get fruit, a fruit smoothie, cheese, or fresh meat (raw). I took a picture of a bucket of pig heads for my youngest son who was back at home. He got a kick out of it! This is not a good artisan market, though.
Several block away and down a busy commercial street (Av El Sol) is the Coricancha with the convent of Santo Domingo. This was the most important temple and center of the Incan empire before the Spanish arrived. Reports from the colonial Spanish stated that the Coricancha was lined with plates of solid gold with gold statues of wheat in the center. Of course the gold was plundered, the temple destroyed and the colonial Church of Santo Domingo was built on its foundations. Today it is an unusual blend of precolonial, colonial, and modern architecture. Parts of the original temple complex are restored inside the courtyard of the convent of Santo Domingo. Make sure you look at the unusual holes and channels cut into the stone of the Incan temple, the purposes of which are still not known.
Down the street a few more blocks is the Museo de Arte Religioso (religious art museum), which used to be the residence of the Archbishop of Cusco. It’s a great example of colonial architecture built on Incan foundations.
Visit the Stone of the 12 Angles
The Museo de Arte Religioso is located at the beginning of Hatunrumiyoq Street with its famous Stone of the 12 Angles. There will be swarms of people around the wall and local street vendors and performers (we saw a Michael Jackson impersonator). Take your picture by the stone and move on. I feel like there are many more impressive angled stones firmly packed together in other places like Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuamán. There are a lot of nice artisan shops in this area as well as women wearing traditional Incan dress carrying baby goats for photo ops (be sure to pay them!).
From there head up the hill to the Barrio de San Blas (San Blas neighborhood) with more artisan shops, restaurants, and a great view of the city. We went up into the bell tower of the Templo de San Blas for this view of the city:
We finished our day in Cusco with a nice traditional dinner of Cuy (pronounced “Kwee“), which is guinea pig. It was a little unsettling to see the claws and buck teeth of this rodent sticking up in the air just before you bite into it, but, hey, when in Cusco….
What to do in Sacsayhuamán and Tipón
I was looking forward to visiting Sacsayhuamán (pronounced “saxy woe-mawn” but think “sexy woman” to remember it!) more than any other place in the Sacred Valley except Machu Picchu. The reason? Read Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock prior to your trip, and you will find out. In fact, I very much recommend reading both of those books before going to the Sacred Valley because they will give you a whole new perspective of the history and architecture of the area.
I recommend walking to Sacsayhuamán and stopping for a few minutes to see the ruins of Qolqampata (just off of Don Bosco Street and behind San Cristobal cathedral). There’s not much there, but the ruins are interesting and on your way. You will enter Sacsayhuamán from the South and follow a trail with stairs that parallels the old Inca path. The first glimpse of the marshmallow-like stones smashed perfectly together as if they had been soft during construction will blow your mind! Sacsayhuamán has two long zigzag walls made up of them. Some of the megaliths are twice as tall as a person with weight far exceeding 100 tons. The sheer size of the stones and how they perfectly fit together is mind-boggling.
Tip: Make sure you walk along the path in the woods above the megalithic walls toward Cusco (South) and you will be rewarded with a great view of the city. Also, make sure that you visit the ruins in the Southwest part (the area called Muyuq Marka) and to the North (the area called Rodadero). Restrooms are located at the Western entrance. On the East side near the road is a moderately long tunnel through solid rock that you can walk through in the pitch black.
Plan on 2-4 hours. We arrived at the opening time of 7 am and spent four hours there, but I could easily have spent the whole day exploring all of the nooks and crannies of this enormous site.
We found it easier and faster to get to the more distant sites by hiring a taxi rather than taking a tour or public transportation. It was more expensive but still quite reasonable. This was the case to get to the ruins of Tipón, located 13 miles southeast of Cusco. This site has wide terraces, like soccer fields, with irrigation canals flowing through them, the “water works” of the Inca. It is such a peaceful site to behold!
Make sure that you hike up to the upper ruins (Intihuatana). You will not be disappointed when you see the ruins of a temple complex that still has running water going through it as it was designed. Follow the man-made aqueduct behind this temple complex up into the mountains for a little while to get a sense of how big the project was to get spring water to the terraces. You may also enjoy seeing the ruins of Pukara, which is a relatively new archeological dig and located at the end of a short trail (less than a mile) behind the Intihuatana.
Plan on 1-2 hours unless you want to go to Pukara, then add an extra hour.
Tip 1: There is very little shade here, so take sunscreen, glasses, and a hat!
Tip 2: On the taxi ride back to Cusco, stop in the town of Saylla as you pass through for some chicharrón. This town is known for it. Keep in mind that chicharrón in Peru is fried pork belly with the meat and fat and is generally served with cancha, which are large corn kernels. If you want just the fried pork skin, ask for toqto (pronounced “toke-toe“). I speak fluent Spanish and it still took me 4 days to find out what fried pork skin was called locally!
Why you should visit Pisac
Pisac is called “little Machu Picchu” and should not be missed! I think that I had the most pleasant time at this site for three reasons:
1) it was not crowded,
2) a spectacular storm passed right over us during our visit with pouring rain and brilliant lightning, and
3) I was alone as I walked the the 2.5-mile trail from the ruins on the mountain to the market in the central square of the town of Pisac in the valley below.
It was also our last stop before heading to the airport for our afternoon flight out of Cusco, so I was taking it all in.
It worked out very well to hire a taxi for this trip. We arranged it the day before to pick us up early at our hostel and eventually drop us at the airport. It cost us around $60 for that entire time (and I gave the driver my New Haven Road Race T-shirt literally right off my back as a tip since he mentioned how much he liked it). When driving to Pisac (about an hour away from Cusco) stop off to see some of the minor sites like Q’enqo, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay. They are all included in the Boleto Turistico and are worth spending a few minutes to see. Have the taxi driver drop you at the entrance to Pisac and arrange to meet you in the town square later. You can leave your luggage in the taxi and hike unencumbered.
There are four primary sections to Pisac that are built along the ridge and mountain side. If you visit them all, then you may as well continue walking down the path to the town square below because you will be walking almost as much to get back to the main entrance. The best ruins (the temple complex) are located about a half mile along the ridge trail from the main ruins that you visit upon entering the site. They are constructed of pink granite stones and very precisely cut and fit together, much better construction than the first section. Water still runs in the channels carved into the stones. The reigning features of Pisac are the bountiful terraces everywhere! Look at a Google Satellite map of Pisac and you will see them all over, including ones that are still used for farming today.
The trail to town will end in the central square of Pisac. On certain days of the week there’s a huge artisan market that takes up the entire square. Pick up last-minute souvenirs and gifts before heading to the airport.
Plan on 3-4 hours for the ruins and some extra time to shop in the market.
Tip: Take sunscreen, hat, sunglasses and a raincoat! It is very exposed on the ridge of the mountain.
It was an exhausting 4 1/2 days in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It would certainly not be possible to cram that much site-seeing in if the whole family had been there. However, for a father and son trip it was perfect! We would definitely like to go back and see the sites again and visit sites that we didn’t have time to see.
How to avoid altitude sickness in Peru
Cusco is located 11,100 feet above sea level and altitude sickness puts a damper on many visitor’s trips. Here are some things that you can do to minimize it:
- Be in great cardiovascular shape before traveling.
- Take a good multivitamin and a good antioxidant supplement several weeks before going and during your stay.
- Use liquid chlorophyl drops in your water during your stay (not a pleasant taste and it will turn your mouth green, but worth it if you don’t get sick).
- Drink a cup or two of coca tea a day during your stay.
- Consider visiting Machu Picchu at the beginning of your trip because it is located at just under 8,000 feet and will give you an extra day or so to acclimatize before staying in Cusco.
- Keep yourself well hydrated.
For more detailed information, including research references to back it up, visit this page of Denver Naturopathic Clinic.
What to do if you get sick in Peru?
If you end up with traveler’s diarrhea, go to a reputable pharmacy and ask for Donafan. It contains Loperamide which is one of the active ingredients in Imodium and can help get rid of the diarrhea quicker. For detailed information on combating traveler’s diarrhea, visit this page at perutravelerblog.com.
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