Peru and The Sacred Valley
Who hasn’t been captivated by the mysterious Machu Picchu? I wholeheartedly admit that this enchanting Incan site was the basis for our trip to Peru, but the incredible sites of the entire Sacred Valley and the charm of Cusco deserve their own admiration.
Peru, located on the western portion of South America sits in the Urubamba Valley of the Andes. Despite it’s high altitude and location in the formidable mountain range, flights to Cusco are pretty easy to coordinate. From the US, you’ll fly to Lima which from the East Coast usually means a connection through Miami or Atlanta. From there, it’s only about a 6 hour flight to Lima. The Lima airport is basic but there are definitely dining options and some shops to pass the time. Compared with the wildly pricey airport food in the US, you will be very pleasantly surprised at prices for a quick meal here. Cusco is a short flight slightly over an hour from Lima. If you can, sit on the left side of the plane which will give you a better view as you descend into Cusco.
We visited in March. The Sacred Valley has a dry season from May-October with many crowds and a rainy season from November to April. We had only one day of rain and the valley was lush and verdant, filled with shades of green AND rates were significantly less visiting during the rainy season, so for us, March was a winner.
Cusco sits at approximately 11,000 feet and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on exiting the airport. Would we be gasping for breath, have an instant headache with only 2/3 of the oxygen at sea level? I pleased to say none of this happened! and we took a quick shuttle to our chosen hotel, the J.W. Marriott Convento Cusco. We chose this hotel as it was centrally located adjacent to the Plaza de Armas and convenient for walking to all of our planned destinations in Cusco. Cusco is absolutely a very walkable city and unless you have nerves of steel and stellar spacial awareness, I would not advise renting a car in Cusco. We have rented cars and breezed through blizzards in Iceland and conquered the Dalton highway in Alaska, but Cusco is a wild place for driving. The streets are insanely narrow and cars raced up and down them while we, as pedestrians, squeezed against the sides of buildings to avoid being squashed.
From Boston To Peru
Machu Picchu is the draw but the Sacred Valley holds plenty of its own splendor. Cusco is a great city and the Sacred Valley has hiking galore
Breathing Heavy in Cusco
The JW Marriott has a beautiful reception area with an enormous Swarovski crystal display. The highlight though is a spacious open air courtyard where they serve an included breakfast buffet every morning. You’ll also receive a ticket for nightly free Pisco sours and they have oxygen in the rooms if needed. Our favorite employee though was Panchito, the baby alpaca who sleepily poses for photos in the courtyard most mornings.
We arrived to Cusco on Friday at noon and left midday Sunday. I think we packed in quite a bit in our short time there. This was a good amount of time to hit the highlights and get acclimatized but with another day, we would have been able to see more ruins and we barely scratched the surface of the dining scene.
The first day we meandered around the San Blas neighborhood with very steep and narrow cobbled streets known for its many artisans. I was on a mission for a luxurious baby alpaca sweater which I found at Cocoliso. There are also more ‘commercial’ type shops near the Plaza de Armas for purchasing these. Be educated on the types of wool, including vicuna, alpaca, and sheep to know what is authentic and what is synthetic.
A must visit is the ruins of Sacsayhuaman. You can take a taxi up to Sacsayhuaman from Cusco and then descend back down to the Plaza de Armas. It is only about a 10 minute ride and would cost less than $5 USD. However, this would have been way too simple for us. In an attempt to get acclimated on our second day and get a little exercise, we walked…up HUNDREDS of steps. It only takes about 30-45 minutes but at this altitude, your heart will be pounding.
The ruins are the remnants of an old citadel built in the 15th century comprised of massive stone blocks fit so incredibly tightly together that not a sheet of paper could pass through. It’s a miraculous engineering feat. There are also roaming llamas and panoramic views of Cusco below. The walk back down to Cusco is relatively easier though the narrow steps required rapt attention or the fall would be quite steep.
Once back down to Cusco, we overshot our chosen restaurant on the descent and were so exhausted, we were sure if we should/could climb back up to it. Luckily, after a debate sitting on the steps, we looked up to find it was only about 10 steps above. Still tough on the legs! We loved the Limbus restaurant. It is the epitome of cool, with a narrow deck overlooking all of Cusco, fantastic cocktails and small bites. The other restaurant I’ll mention is Greenpoint, delicious plant based cuisine dining located near the Plaza de Armas. They have beautiful indoor space with a lighted tree giving the entire space a nice glow and you feel like you are eating outdoors.
We loved our time in Cusco with its beautiful historic square, quirky narrow streets and a splendor of artisans and activity. The architecture is mesmerizing and the city is a burst of color.
A few words on acclimatization. We live at sea level so a trip to the high altitudes of the Andes was a little intimidating. We weren’t worried about the basic tourist type activities, but having traveled with Explora before, we knew long days of hiking of intense hiking were in our future. First, we tried to get in as much cardio prior to the trip as we could. Though, it is well known that your level of fitness, weight, overall health are often not great predictors for coping at altitude. Some very fit, healthy individuals suffer from altitude sickness. We stuck with our plan of taking it easy on the first day…light walks around Cusco admiring the sites and popping into a few shops and we definitely heeded the advice of attempting to hydrate as much as possible. We drank a lot of water, some fortified with a supplement called Acli-Mate (which to be honest, my husband used more than me. I personally thought it was like drinking a children’s vitamin). However, he really felt it made a difference. We also followed the tip of no alcohol in the first couple of days to really be as hydrated as possible. I found myself forcing down water as at high altitudes your hunger and thirst are reduced. Peruvians swear by coca leaves, which are very prevalent in hotels in Cusco. Most have free coca tea available throughout the day. This science behind how this native plant, which historically the Quechua used medicinally, is a little gray…nevertheless, we had a few coca candies on our hikes. Whether placebo, the sugar or the actual coca…who knows? But I do think it helped prevent a fainting episode for me as we approached 15,000 feet on one of our hikes. For those who are really worried, you could also talk to your doctor pre-trip about acetazolamide which works by acidifying the blood, increasing respiration and arterial oxygenation and speeding acclimatization. We also heard that it is available without a prescription in the drugstores in Peru. Also…most higher end hotels have oxygen available if needed and some very swanky ones oxygenate your room while you sleep!
Overall, go slowly the first couple of days, hydrate and don’t begin strenuous hikes until you’ve acclimatized and you’ll be absolutely fine.
Explora Valle Sagrado
With a few days of acclimatization behind us, we were off to the Sacred Valley. We opted to stay at another Explora property, Explora Valle Sagrado. This lodge is located adjacent to the tiny town of Urquillos along the Urubamba River.
As we have written about previously, the allure of Explora is that everything is included. This means a generous breakfast buffet, a fancy lunch (or a hearty packed lunch if you are off exploring for the day) and a multi course dinner. Alcohol, transportation to the property, and daily guided explorations are also part of the rate. This lodge is set in a beautiful corn plantation with views of the mountains and includes the Pumacahua Bath House which is a preserved colonial house with pool, spa and sauna. It was a great way to soothe tired hiking muscles. The cuisine is developed by renowned Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez. I am not nearly as adventurous an eater as my husband and stick to mostly vegetarian cuisine and there were plentiful options for that (think potatoes of hundreds of varieties and colors including purple! and corn). An excellent mixologist is also on hand to craft delicious cocktails like the Incan Mule or Matacuy Sour. With Explora there is always too much delectable food on hand and they always will try to accommodate any specific requests, including when my husband tried the traditional cuy (shockingly a guinea pig which has traditionally been served on special occasions in Peru since Incan times…I honestly couldn’t even be at the table when it was served. It’s a guinea pig!)
As with all Explora lodges, there are options for half day or full day excursions which include hiking or biking which are categorized from beginner to expert. For the detail oriented/obsessed planners like me, each hike gives distance and elevation gain. For less physical activity, there are also overland expeditions where you can hop in a van to sightsee ruins and surrounding towns. We selected explorations which would show us the more well known Incan sites, and of course, Machu Picchu.
We also elected to go for a day trip to Machu Picchu with Explora. We opted for this because immediately post Covid pandemic crisis, there was lot of conflicting information about visiting, restrictions on the number of tickets, whether you would need a guide, the train operation, etc. If we were to do it again, we would absolutely go solo. Explora has a number of amazing explorations and visiting with their guides is sort of “wasting” a day that you could be doing one of their curated adventures. Furthermore, the town of Aguas Calientes which is where you catch the bus to the ruins was incredibly lively and we wish we had more time to spend there. You can read more about our spectacular Machu Picchu visit here.
Must Visits in the Sacred Valley
Maras Salt Flats and Moray Ruins
The Moray Ruins are one of the most well known sites in the Sacred Valley and are comprised of three circular terraces, each with twelve levels. The sheer size is daunting at 600 feet across and 450 feet deep from the highest terrace to the lowest. You’ll have an appreciation for the size as you descend down through level after level of giant terraces. The purpose of these ruins is an enigma with one popular theory being that they were used an an experimental agricultural farm as the terraces are varying temperatures or microclimates. While most tour buses enter from a main lot, the neat thing about Explora is that they generally craft a unique way to approach even the more popular sites. The Explora day long exploration is a 9 mile trek that starts in a small farming community and descends into the ruins from the backside and then continues to the bottom of the Sacred Valley to the Maras Salt Flats.
The Maras Salt Flats are another must visit in the Sacred Valley and they date back to pre Incan times and are comprised of ~ 5000 salt ponds. Salt is created by the evaporation of brine (a salty water that emanates from an underground spring). Local communities have rights to these salt ponds and work to produce salt that is then packaged and distributed by the Marasol S. A. salt company. From a distance, it appears to be a snowy slope side and as you approach closer and closer, you’ll see a cliffside filled with thousands of geometrically shaped pools.
t was a tremendous day in the Sacred Valley though.. At the conclusion of our day, there were some local vendors selling salt. Unfortunately, we had very little local currency; however, for the equivalent of about 2 USD we got a pretty large bag of salt which was absolutely delicious. We definitely regret that we didn’t have more local currency…many of the popular sites in the Valley have local artisans and vendors so it’s definitely worth getting local currency! They did sell very similar salt at the airport in Cusco but for an enormous mark-up. We were pretty exhausted by the time we finished as we were still getting a bit acclimatized to the altitude but our highest height was up next.
This was our first true altitude test. Paru Paru is a community located above Pisaq sitting at an elevation of ~ 13,000 feet. We started in slightly gloomy weather around 12,000 feet and hiked (painfully and slowly hiked) up to our first summit in the Andes. From there we battled altitude and weather (driving rain and hail at one point) and went peak to peak with emerald green lagoons in between. We even saw a lagoon shaped like a heart with sheep grazing around it. Though the lagoons were beautiful, the fog was a bit tough and the waters probably lacked a big of their usual sparkle. We reached over 14,000 feet on this hike and I definitely felt some weakness in the arms and legs as I struggled in the thin air. I did try one of the coca candies in my pockets after we passed 14,000 which helped (but I really think it was the little kick of glucose more than any therapeutic coca properties). This hike was certainly not a tourist destination and our small group was the only one for miles.
Chinchero is the center of weaving in Peru and Peruvians also know it as the home of the rainbow because they are plentiful here in the rainy season. Here you’ll find Incan ruins that used to be a palace and a colonial church built upon the ruins. We started our day here with a textile demonstration by the women of the Cupper community. They don traditional costumes and explain how they weave and use natural dyes to obtain their brilliant colors. Here is another place where it is essential to have local currency. The wool blankets are intricate, colorful and incredibly inexpensive. I got a lovely pink hued blanket for the equivalent of 20 USD. I regret not buying more as this is absolutely the best place to purchase. We ended this day back near the Explora lodge with a LONG bike ride of about 20 or so miles beginning in Urquillos and running parallel to the Urubamba River. It was mostly flat but at altitude after hiking all morning, this bike ride rated as “easy” didn’t seem so much so. The guide said most people don’t finish but I am proud to say we did … though if we couldn’t there is a van following you so you could bail if needed. We also saw a dog with a rope in its mouth guiding a cow with the rope around its neck like a collar. Only in Peru!
Pisac is a located about 60 minutes outside of Cusco and is known for its narrow cobblestone streets and colorful markets as well as incredible ruins located on the cliffside towering above the village. Many still dress in traditional attire. The ruins are massive with towers, palaces, and a tunnel for which you’ll remove your backpack and shimmy through. There are numerous terraces which were used for agriculture and farming to support the town of Pisac below. Pisac also is home to one of the best preserved Incan cemeteries and the Intiwatana, an astrologic observatory and calendar. After a long hike around the ruins at 10,000 feet, we took about an hour to explore the market. The market itself is quite beautiful with bursts of color in every stall selling any possible souvenir you could imagine.
The ruins at Ollantaytambo served as one of the last strongholds of the Incan resistance against invasion by the Spanish. The fortress and temples that make up the ruins are guarded by huge and steep terraces. The stones were brought here from a quarry 6 kilometers away on the other side of the river and contemplating how the enormous stones were moved across the river to these heights is mind boggling. The construction is truly IMPRESSIVE. You’ll climb many, may stairs to the top where you’ll have an incredible vantage point of the Sacred Valley and the town below. Around the main square in the town are restaurants, shops and hotels.
Ollantaytambo is also close to the starting point if you are hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. We saw many porters rinsing tents and gear in the rivers.
Much like our incredible trip to Patagonia, our splurge here was also booking with Explora,this time Explora, Valle Sagrado. It you want to completely relax and have someone handle all the details, you can’t go wrong with Explora. The lodge is stunning, the rooms are the epitome of beautiful simplicity, and you have 3 meals daily from Virgilio Martinez, Peruvian chef extraordinaire, who is the creator of a Michelin honored restaurant in Lima. Pair that with a very talented bartender and knowledgable/friendly guides who will take you on any type of adventure you desire from lazy to “I’ll probably die on this mountain,” and you have one heck of a Peruvian introduction.
If we head back this way, we definitely plan on a stay at The Skylodge Adventure Suites (https://naturavive.com/web/skylodge-adventure-suites/). These clear luxurious capsules are literally hanging off the side of a mountain before you get to Ollantaytambo where you catch the train to Machu Picchu.
The Hiram Bingham luxury train has pullman style cars with dining, drinks and dancing. It looked amazing but given that we were traveling at the tail end of the pandemic, eating and drinking on the train were prohibited, so it hardly seemed worth the splurge.
Open Rhode Insider
- 1. High altitude = more UV rays! Sunscreen liberally and reapply. Sunburns happen very easily here. Ask my husband how we know (much to this dermatologist’s chagrin).
- Plan on taking it slowly the first day or two. Make sure you are handling the altitude before pushing yourself.
- I know you want that first delicious Pisco sour, but hold off until you’ve acclimatized.
- While Machu Picchu seems logistically challenging, it really was very straightforward in retrospect. You could absolutely plan this without an official tour. We also wished we had one night to stay in Aguas Calientes which looked bustling.
- Buy salt from local vendors around the Maras Salt Flats. We had very little Peruvian currency at the time, so only bought a small bag for about 25 cents. That same bag in the airport was over $5!
- This leads me to my next tip…carry some local currency. There are a lot of beautiful things to buy here from salt, chocolate and my weakness…exquisite baby alpaca sweaters.