Lay of the Land
With the dramatic Andean range as a backdrop, the Sacred Valley offers lush valleys that lead to cloud forests laced with raftable rivers and trails on which hikers pass Inca ruins and rare orchids. In a dusty square, you may enter a primitive-looking church only to discover that its walls are crammed with museum-worthy paintings of the Cusco school. Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuamán draw crowds of tourists from dawn to dusk, but in Ollantaytambo you can climb the vast temple or hike to the Inca quarry and pass fewer than a dozen other people on the way. Cusco has become cosmopolitan, with its steady stream of sightseers, so it’s essential that you step off the beaten path by touring the Sacred Valley. Whether you hike, bike, raft or drive, you will be stunned by the beauty of the landscape and the traditional way of life, which still thrives, centering on weekly markets and sacred festivals. A bit like Bali or Thailand thirty years ago, Peru still feels raw and undiscovered despite its incredible historical and geographical treasures.
To reach the Sacred Valley, most visitors fly from Lima to Cusco, a one-hour flight. Cusco’s high elevation (11,000 feet above sea level) can cause serious altitude sickness, however, so plan to descend via car to the Sacred Valley (a forty-minute drive), where acclimatization is easier. Most visitors spend a few days here before heading to Machu Picchu.
The only way to arrive at Machu Picchu is by train – choices range from the high-end and historical Hiram Bingham to the aptly named Backpacker – but you can explore the rest of the Sacred Valley by car. Indagare can arrange for a car, driver and guide for the day to allow you maximum freedom for discovery. It is also easy to put together an active excursion; you can river-raft, bike or hike in many areas and gain access to spectacular scenery and villages rarely visited by tourists. None of the trains allow large duffle bags or suitcases on board, so be sure to bring smaller carry-on sized luggage, which you can pack the night before and send the rest of your luggage on to your next destination (another reason an Indagare arranged guide is key). Also, be aware that not all of the ATMs in Peru are safe to use; it’s best to use those only in the top hotels or at the airports. There is also a lot of counterfeit currency circulating, so pay attention to the change you are given, if it looks illegitimate or homemade, it probably is worthless.
Tipping: Indagare recommends ten percent at restaurants; $20 per guide per day and $10 per driver per day.
When to Go
Peru’s climate varies considerably among the coast, the mountains and the Amazon rain forest. June, July and August are the best months to visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, and also the rain forest; the coast, however, is permeated by a light sea mist or fog called the garua between April and November. December through March is the sunniest season in Lima but the rainiest along the Inca Trail. All year round weather is quite changeable so it is best to pack all-weather shoes.