One of the Modern 7 Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is the undisputed main event in Peru. A quick #machupicchu search on Instagram reveals a daily photo deluge of gringos in wide-brimmed hats and ponchos, llamas and Peruvian school children proving that they’ve been to the Incan citadel. If you follow us on IG, you’ll have seen our proof…
While Machu Picchu played a key role, it was not the only highlight in the Sacred Valley. Our adventure started in the Inca capital, the “Puma City” of Cusco.
Our home-from-home, Cusco will end up as the city in which we have spent the most time by the time we say goodbye to South America. At 15 days/14 nights, we’ve seen a lot of what it offers; it has been a base for day excursions into the nearby valleys; and the hostels and hotels have been a backpack storage solution for our travels further afield. The barrio of San Blas was where we chose to settle, which is a district steeped in history, has great places to eat and drink, and is a short walk to the main tourist attractions.
The city of Cusco was wonderful. For a place its size, it enveloped us into its warm, winding streets, artisanal “Concept Stores” and world-beating chocolate caliente; the darker the chocolate, the better the flavour.
It’s also a city that contained, and was surrounded by, a huge amount of history.
Travel tip: if you have more than 72 hours in the city, purchase a Boleto Turistico del Cusco for 130 soles. This ticket gives you access to 16 sites and museums in the Sacred Valley – Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Chinchero, Pisaq, Tipon, Pikillaqta, Monumento a Pachacuteq, Centro Qusqo de Art Nativo and Museos Art Popular, Historico Regional, Arte Contemporaneo, Sitio Qurikancha. Many of the sites that are outside of Cusco can be reached on day trips.
Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay
All of these sites were on the outskirts of Cusco, and our first excursion was to Saqsaywaman, which can be reached on foot from San Blas. The site was huge, with a number of different miradors of the city, as well as some very well-preserved Inca walls. In general, the masonry on show in Cusco was very impressive, not just in Saqsaywaman.
Our next trip was to the other three sites. After a lot of haggling, we got a taxi to Tambomachay for 17 soles. Our advisor in iPeru said that we could walk there, but we would not recommend it because you would need to climb up a very steep hill.
Conversely, the hike downhill back to Cusco was great. The route took us along the main road, which only had a few cars passing through the small villages; this was an easy way to see the three sites on the tourist ticket. Overlooking Cusco, there was also a beautiful forest near Q’enqo, which provided an excellent vantage point for photos. This excursion was around 6 miles, and the distance added to the time taken to explore the Inca ruins resulted in a full morning trip.
Cusco did provide one scare, and remind us how the Andes came to be. A few days into our stay, we were woken up in our 4th floor apartment by a Richter Scale 6.49 earthquake. Everything was shaking. Sunday mornings are supposed to be restful, not utterly terrifying.
During our time in Peru we have become more comfortable taking excursions without guides. Frankly, it goes to show how easy the country is to travel, with only the distances and night buses being the main drawback. Nevertheless, Machu Picchu was very easy to book and travel, and the distances were short enough to make it a comfortable experience.
Machu Picchu Self-Guide Itinerary
- Machu Picchu entrance ticket & added ticket to hike Machu Picchu Mountain: 200 soles per person
- PeruRail Vistadome train from Cusco Poroy Station to Aguas Calientes: $75 USD p/p
- Taxi to Poroy Station: 25 soles
- Inka Wonder Hostel private room in Aguas Calientes: 110 soles (inc. ensuite and breakfast from 4:00 am)
- Machu Picchu Museum ticket: 11 soles p/p
- Machu Picchu bus to Aguas Calientes: $40 p/p
After much deliberation, we decided to go with Peru Rail over Inca Rail due to price. Cusco Poroy Station at 8:55 am on the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes was fantastic. The Vistadome seats had windows above, which allowed for great views of the Sacred Valley, and even though the journey was only around 3 hours, it was an attraction in-and-off itself.
We departed the train around lunch and had a half-day to kill in Aguas Calientes, which was very chilled because we had a big day the following day. We did go to the Machu Picchu Museum, which was a great idea in hindsight because we got a map of the site and a complete history of the site. Win!
The Day of Machu Picchu Hike
3:45: Our Machu Picchu day started at an eye-watering 3:45 am and 2040m. We’d arranged to have breakfast at 4:30, however upon glancing out of the window we saw the rain was pelting it down, which delayed us by an hour. “Let’s not get soaked before we get to the entrance” we decided.
5:20: We were on our way, the rain just about stopped. Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the mountain trail was a 30 minute walk, and most people chose the bus option so we had much of the walk to ourselves. The only frustration on the way up the mountain trail were the school kids playing loud reggaeton on their smartphones and taking photos of us. Why does no one in South America have sodding headphones?
7:20: The climb up to 2430m to the citadel was over, but we only had a short rest and photo opportunity of Machu Picchu shrouded in clouds before we started the ascent up to Machu Picchu Mountain. “It can’t be that difficult?” we thought.
8:20: Just over halfway up the mountain and it was way more difficult than we had thought. Thankfully, the rain hadn’t started again so the steps up to the summit weren’t slippery. We also met Alfonso, an eccentric Ecuadorian bloke who was in Peru to watch the partido, and he made the climb much easier. It was here where I made my first joke in Spanish…Duolingo was paying off.
9:00: A few more steps to go and we reached the top of the mountain, and were standing at a cool 3064m, making our ascent of over 1000m in less than 4 hours. Crisps and biscuits were devoured and then it was a waiting game to get “that picture” of Machu Picchu. “When were the clouds going to clear? It won’t be that long, surely?”
11:00: It was amazing to be on the summit of a mountain and see the valleys below, however 2 hours standing up looking at clouds dissipate was the hiking equivalent of watching paint dry. Nevertheless, we got “that photo” and began our descent. Not 5 minutes into the steps downwards and Daisy’s knee gave up, so I removed my sweaty knee brace and lent it to her. Delightful.
12:30: Ouch, step, rest. Ouch, step, rest. 90 minutes later and we were at the wooden shack entrance to the mountain. More biscuits, selfies and a short rest, and it was time to explore the citadel.
15:00: Machu Picchu citadel was so interesting. We spent a lot more time exploring the many different parts than other people who had guides, which was a blessing because we were knackered. After a few hours walking around taking photos, we decided to meander our way back to Aguas Calientes. We also chose the bus as an option because of our knees…
Photos and videos on the internet do not do justice to Machu Picchu. Yes, you will want to get “that photo”, but the citadel had a lot more impact on us than we thought before going into the experience. The audacity to build a city perched on top of a mountain is a true feat of human ingenuity.
One additional point of interest is the town of Aguas Calientes. Not often mentioned, Machu Picchu “base camp” was pretty awful, save for an excellent craft beer and burger restaurant called Mapacho. Aguas Calientes felt like a mini Vegas, or a new theme park in on the outskirts of the M25. Either way, if you plan on making a go of Machu Picchu yourself, spend as little time here as possible.
Possibly our favourite place in the Sacred Valley, the small town of Ollanta was a short train journey from Aguas Calientes. It’s not in the cloud forest, which meant very little rain, and a chance to enjoy the sunshine in our hostel’s garden. Mama Simona was slightly out of town but easily walk-able, and was so good we extended our stay by a night.
The immediate area around Ollanta had lots to see, with the main attractions rising up on either side of the town; the Ollantaytambo Ruins (70 soles or included on the tourist ticket) and the Grain Stores (free entry between 7:30-16:00). After an early morning breakfast, we opted to visit the former, which not only was a fantastic ruins to explore, but we missed the tourist rush and had the place to ourselves for thirty minutes. The early bird and all that.
Our hostel recommended a restaurant in the main square – Apu Asugate – which did the menu turistico, a 3-course meal for 15 soles. That’s less than 4 quid! It was a family-owned place, and the food was muy bien. We ate there twice and have no problem admitting that!
Moray, Maras Salt Mines and Chinchero
Our final jolly through the Valley was a day trip to Moray Ruins, Maras Salt Mines and ending on what we thought would be two nights in Chinchero.
Moray was undoubtedly our favourite tourist attraction beginning with “M” on that day. The ruins are set into the base of a small mountain and are surrounded by amazing views. Also, and perhaps our most interesting fact from Peru, historians have a number of theories as to why Moray exists. Our favourite is that the terraces were used by Incan famers to perform agricultral experiements! Apparently, the temperature can drop as much as 5 deg C for each terrace, making the perfect way to test how to grow the best fruit and vegetables. Interesting!
After spending an hour in Moray, Dante con su familia drove us to Chinchero, via Maras. The salt mines in Maras were an odd tourist attraction. Of course, the story behind the centuries-old, Inca salt mine was super intriguing. Salty water is channeled from the nearby mountains into flat pans the traverse the edge of a cliff.
One frustrating thing that we witnessed in Maras was the behaviour of a handful of tourists. Of course it’s a unique site, but it is also a working salt mine, and I am sure that the workers and owners would rather not have people walking all over the salt pans to get selfies.
A few audible tuts and visible displays of disbelief later, we were in the taxi on our way to Chinchero.
In Chinchero, our bed for two nights was supposed to be in Chinchero Boutique Hotel. To our horror, upon arriving we discovered that the lights were not on and indeed no one was home. Date and his wife hammered on the door for twenty minutes but we were out of luck. It was our first “Holidays from Hell” (ITV, circa 2004) experience!
We gave up and asked Dante to drop us at the only other hotel in the area, the significantly more expensive Casa de Barro. Perhaps we were in luck after all, as Antonio and his staff/family at Barro were amazing. The hotel, and Chinchero itself, were clearly a day-trip stop, and once all of the Cusco-bound gringos left the restaurant, Antonio turned off the Peruvian panpipe music and replaced it with early 90s techno
Call him Mr. Raider, call him Mr. Wrong, call him Mr. Vain.Mr. Vain – Culture Beat, 1993
Antonio had great music taste.
The main draw to Chinchero was the Sunday market. Every week, the little pueblo hosts many local, rural communities who sell their produce, crafts and skills. On show was the centuries-old bartering techniques of the local women; it sounded like a fight was starting before we realised it was a debate over the cost of flower petals.
Before we left, we bought a few Christmas presents to various friends and family, and Dante picked us up for our last half-an-hour to Cusco.
If you are still reading, thanks for sticking around. This post was lost twice, which is why it is a bit late. The next part of our adventure began not long after we got back to Cusco, but instead of being high in the Andes we actually went to deepest, darkest Peru.
The Amazon Rainforest.
- El Amazón místico, mágico y monstruoso.
- Machu Picchu y Sacred Valley
- Arequipa y Colca: monjas y rutas de senderismo
- Lima, dunas de arena y cerveza
- Alta altitud: vida in los Andes