Just Back from...Peru
July 24, 2011 marked the centennial of discovery of Machu Picchu by Yale University professor and explorer, Hiram Bingham. To this day there remains some controversy over whether the site had been seen prior; surely the local tribes knew of its existence, but it was Bingham who made Machu Picchu world-famous, writing about it powerfully in his bestseller Lost City of the Incas in 1948. About his first impression of the site, he wrote: “Dimly I began to realize that this wall and its adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away. ‘What could this place be?’ “
A week after the centennial, my boyfriend and I stood in Bingham’s shoes, watching the sun set over Machu Picchu’s majestic citadel, a vision as serene and awe-inspiring as it must have been one-hundred years ago. Our own summer pilgrimage to Peru was full of tremendous moments like this one. From mountain biking through the snow-capped Andes to jungle-walking in the Amazon with a local shaman (read about my journey aboard Aqua Expedition’s new Aria vessel), each day brought us closer to Peru’s fascinating local cultures and revealed landscapes more beautiful and photogenic than we could have imagined.
Our journey exceeded our expectations in many ways, making me understand why this adventure tops the wish list of so many travelers. While exploring Peru—with stops in Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco also saw how best to travel the region in style, how to map out a well-balanced itinerary and where to stay along the way. If you are planning a trip, contact our Bookings Team for help creating the trip that’s right for you. Here are some insider tips everyone should know before traveling to this fascinating country.
1/ Peru is not a vacation, but an adventure.
Peru offers a wealth of sights, activities and outdoor experiences, many of which require early wake-up times (like visiting Machu Picchu or going on an Amazon safari with Aqua Expeditions). The weather and altitudes can be extreme, and moderate to difficult hikes are the basis of many of the most spectacular sites, so travelers should be in good shape and expect to be active on their trip.
2/ The altitude is serious.
Nearly all travelers arriving from Lima (sea level) to Cusco (11,000 feet) spend a few days acclimating in the region’s Sacred Valley (9,000 feet). It is crucial to know your tolerance to changes in altitude and plan your itinerary accordingly. See our tips on altitude.
3/ Sample the seafood in Lima.
Foodies should do their restaurant research in advance. Lima is considered the culinary capital of South America and has hundreds of noteworthy restaurants. We tried Huaca Pucllana, a restaurant overlooking Incan ruins in the city center. We found it better for its ambiance than the food. Read about the city’s best restaurants.
4/ Know what to visit in the Sacred Valley.
En route from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, there are several sites to visit. Skip Awanacancha, a llama farm, and Pisac Market, both tourist traps, and focus instead on the Pisac Ruins and Saqsaywuman. Be sure to stop by Huayoccari, a colonial hacienda with its own private Inca museum and stunning views of the Valley. Reserve one of the three tables on the terrace. Lunch is pricier than at most other places, but it’s a nice introduction to your trip. In the Valley, visit Ollantaytambo and the Salinas (salt flats). Those interested in cultural immersion should visit the Sunday Market in Chichero (altitude 12,000 ft) where Andean Quechua people (thought to be descendents of the Incas) barter their crops in traditional garb. The nearby Balcon del Inka, where Quechua weavers demonstrate their trade, is fun, but a very touristy show. Art lovers should not miss Chinchero’s church, widely recognized as one of the most beautiful Spanish churches from the colonial period.
TIP: If you have a history of altitude sickness, you may want to visit some of these once you return to Cusco after adjusting to the altitude in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Consult with your physician about the altitude before you travel.
5/ Expect long drives in the Sacred Valley.
Sightseeing in the Sacred Valley requires a lot of driving; the area is quite spread out. Expect between a 30-45 minute drive wherever you go. There are many Incan sights to see over the course of this trip, so use your time in the Sacred Valley to do something entertaining and active (especially when traveling with kids). Sightseeing is most enjoyable when done in tandem with another activity and the valley offers a host, including hiking, biking, white-water rafting, four-wheeling, paragliding, horseback riding and rock climbing.
6/ Know your hotel options in the Scared Valley.
Despite the opening of the sleek new Starwood property (Tambo del Inka), the Rio Sagrado is still the best place to stay in the Sacred Valley. It’s more authentic and intimate and offers rustic luxury with a sense of place.
7/ Pick the right way to arrive at Machu Piccu.
The only way to travel to Machu Picchu is by train or by foot. If you are interested in making the strenuous hike, note that passes must be obtained months in advance regardless of whether the hike is seven days or three hours. The best train is the überluxe—and expensive—Hiram Bingham. Other options include Vistadome (like an Amtrak) and a backpacker train. All trains leave out of Ollantaytambo (see the town’s ruins beforehand) and arrive in Aguas Calientes (town at the base of Machu Picchu). The trip takes one-and-a-half hours. Read about our Train Savvy tips.
8/ Avoid a 4am wake-up call to see Machu Picchu.
The Machu Picchu area boasts two well-known hotels: the Inkaterra and the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. While the Inkaterra is the lovelier of the two (with hacienda-style accommodations, pools and acres of flora and fauna), Orient Express’ Sanctuary Lodge is the preferred address thanks to its location mere steps from the citadel gates. It’s the only property that affords a quick entrance to the site in the early morning and late afternoon when there are considerably less tourists.
9/ Get the best photo opportunities of Machu Picchu.
For unspoiled views of the citadel make sure to visit Machu Picchu in the early morning (6-8am) and late afternoon (3-5pm). Watching the sun rise and set over the site is truly breathtaking and there are fewer tourists in the way of photos. I would recommend taking a longer informational tour on the first afternoon, having an early dinner and waking up the next morning for additional pictures. Active types can hike up Wayna Picchu (the larger mountain behind the site), a challenging 1.5-2 hour hike that offers unique views over the citadel. Hikers must purchase advance tickets and the morning shift from 7-8am is ideal (it’s cooler and there are fewer people).
10/ Plan in some time to explore lovely Cusco.
Once capital of the Incan Empire, Cusco is a beautiful city, centered around a town square that sets the vibe similar to that of a quaint town in the Alps. Much of the modern-day city was built atop the Incan one, and there are a number of impressive ruins nearby. For touring, travelers should have a half- or full-day city tour and view the basics such as the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas, Qorikancha (the Sun Temple of the Incas) and Sachsaywuman (thought to be an Incan amphitheater), twenty minutes outside the city center. If time permits, venture further from Cusco to some lesser-visited sights: Tipon, an impressive example of Incan crop testing and water circulation, can be found forty-five minutes outside the city. Another twenty minutes down the road is Pikillata, ruins of a Pre-Incan civilization (700-1200 AD). Excavations have led to the discovery of underground houses, made visible to the public. Ten-minutes further, Andahuillas town has a famous Baroque church, built and decorated by the Spanish colonists.
For the ultimate adventure, wind down the trip with an Amazon River cruise.
Launched in April 2011, the 147-foot and thirty-two passenger Aria, is now the second of Aqua Expedition’s ships to traverse the intricate waterways of the Peruvian Amazon. Owner/founder Francesco Galli Zugaro has brought back interior designer Jordi Puig and head chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino to oversee the new venture, which includes the same sleek, design-within-reach aesthetic as its predecessor (the M/V Aqua), but with added lavish amenities. The new ship boasts sixteen design suites, now with floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows and a host of additional public spaces including a boutique, outdoor Jacuzzi and exercise room.
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