Often on many peoples’ travel bucket list, Machu Picchu is indeed a mysterious, interesting, and exciting adventure. Located high in the Andes Mountains in Peru, this 15th century Incan Citadel invites visitors to wander through its stone walls and climb its steep stone terraces. Machu Picchu is said to be the most significant legacy of the Incan civilization (used for religious and other ceremonies, astronomy and agriculture). The city is divided into a lower and upper part which separates farming from residential areas.
At over 7900 feet above sea level, wandering around can leave adventurers gasping for breath and a bit exhausted! Still, the mysteries, including how stone walls consisting of huge blocks are held together by sheer architectural design (no mortar was used), are captivating. Weaving one’s way through the ancient structures, one can’t help by being captivated by the views high above the Urubamba River valley below. Since the area is in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, it’s not unusual to have rain as well as low clouds (which make for fantastic photos). Water proof shells (jacket / pants) are recommended when visiting.
“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” – Unknown
After arranging your international round trip air tickets, purchase your regional air tickets (between cities in Peru). Research your hotels and reserve in advance. Additionally, purchase day passes for Machu Picchu (can be done online – but consult most up to date instructions online) as well as train tickets (we took Inca Rail from Urubamba at the Ollantaytambo Station). There is also a private train station at the Tamba del Inka resort (contact hotel for arrangements). Arrange guides and reserve day trips online. Consider going to a travel doctor and getting up to date on all your important vaccinations as well as asking for a prescription for altitude sickness medication (e.g. Diamox).
The most common way to get to Peru from the U.S. is to fly into Lima, the capital city. We flew from San Diego to Houston (3 hour flight) and then from Houston to Lima (6 ½ hour flight) on United Airlines. Because Lima is at sea level you shouldn’t have any issues with elevation on this first part of your trip. Lima is also only a couple of hours ahead in time from San Diego, so there shouldn’t be any major jet lag issues either. Still, we chose to stay a few nights in Lima to get accustomed to the area and explore the capital city.
There are a lot of fun things to do in Lima as well as great food. We stayed in the Miraflores area, an upscale region south of downtown, which has fantastic shopping and restaurants. Miraflores serves as a wonderful location for exploring the city. We chose the Hilton Lima Miraflores hotel, but there are many other excellent choices and a search on TripAdvisor offers many reviews as well as prices for a variety of different hotel types. An easy way to see Lima is to book some inexpensive tours through a reputable company. We chose Haku Tours from TripAdivsor and had good experiences. We did a half day city tour as well as a Shanty Town tour which explores how a large percentage of the local population lives in Lima. When in Lima make sure to try the local cuisine! Your hotel concierge and TripAdvisor may be good guides to the most popular and tasty restaurants near where you are staying.
Most people fly directly from Lima to Cusco, a city high in the Peruvian Andes which serves as a gateway to Machu Picchu. However, Cusco is situated at over 11,000 feet in elevation so going directly from sea level (Lima) to this altitude may lead to altitude sickness! Altitude sickness symptoms may include headaches, fast heart rate, shortness of breath, poor circulation, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. To help avoid problems, it’s recommended to adjust to altitude gradually by stopping and staying at lower elevations first. Additionally, your travel doctor can prescribe altitude sickness prevention medication (like Diamox) that can work very well. Resting, staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol, eating well, and getting plenty of rest can also help. If still feeling ill after taking all possible steps, then it is recommended to descend to a lower elevation (best below 5,000 feet). Many of the hotels offer coca tea which is legal in Peru and also in room oxygen to help visitors adjust.
Instead of flying directly to Cusco, we chose to visit this beautiful colonial city (around 7,600 feet in altitude and about an hour and a half flight from Lima) to get further acclimated to the altitude. Surround by three volcanoes, the historic center is filled with baroque buildings made from sillar (a white volcanic stone). The Plaza de Armas is the main square which has a beautiful cathedral on one end. The city is great for exploring and sampling the excellent local food. There are many nice places to stay. We chose the Casa Andina Premium Arequipa which was fantastic but higher priced than many other hotels in the area. This hotel was built on the old mint and has many unique architectural features and a fine location near the Plaza de Armas.
Urubamba (Sacred Valley)
After landing in Cusco, take a taxi to Urubamba (Sacred Valley) (1 ½ hour drive) which is closer to Machu Picchu and at a lower altitude (9,400 ft.) than Cusco (over 11,000 ft.). This is a great way to acclimate before staying in Cusco. There are many hotels in Urubamba and we chose the excellent Tambo del Inka (Marriott) resort which is perched on the banks of the Urubamba River. This is the only hotel in Urubamba with its own private train station to Machu Picchu! Be warned, hotel prices near Machu Picchu tend to be very high as this area attracts guests from all over the world. Urubamba is a good location to spend a few nights and hire a guide to drive you around to see different sights. We found our guide on TripAdvisor and arranged services over the internet before arriving in Peru. Our guide took us to many interesting places including the Ollantaytambo ruins, Moray (landscapes with large concentric rings), and the Maras salt mines.
Plan to spend an entire day making the trip to Machu Picchu. You must have your permits to Machu Picchu as well as your Passports. We took an early morning train and came back in the late afternoon (about a two hour train ride each way from Ollantaytambo Station). The train ride itself was interesting, meeting and talking to all of the international travelers heading to Machu Picchu. Allow several hours to hike the steep stone terraces and explore the open air stone rooms of Machu Picchu. We hired a guide outside the entrance (there were lots of them hanging around selling their services) who accompanied us within the park and explained the significance of each area. The guide wasn’t expensive and did provide some value to the experience.
Make your last stop Cusco as this location sits at the highest elevation (over 11,000 ft.). Hopefully by now you have acclimated to the altitude and are feeling great. Allow at least a few days in Cusco to explore this interesting city as well as surrounding areas of interest. There are many fine hotels in Cusco and we chose the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco which was very nice and comfortable.
We enjoyed driving around the open countryside (our guide was doing the driving), exploring the vibrant Pisac marketplace where locals sell produce and young girls show off their little lambs (be ready to take their photos for $1), seeing the Pisac ruins, and venturing even higher than Cusco (over 12,000 feet) to the Chinchero terraces. We felt the altitude while walking around Chinchero – tingling of our fingers! Some venture on even further to see Lake Titicaca. Cusco also has its own Plaza de Armas which is a nice city center to explore. One interesting local dish is the Cuy (Guinea pig). This food is considered a delicacy and has been a staple in the Peruvian diet for over 5,000 years! Perhaps give it a try!
By traveling to several locations in Peru (at different altitudes) beyond seeing Machu Picchu, you will likely have a richer and even more pleasant travel experience. Your body will appreciate having more time to acclimate to the elevation and you will likely get a better understanding of Peruvian culture and cuisine. Machu Picchu is a spectacle to behold but only one piece of an intricate puzzle which makes up this trip.