Travel guide to Peru : Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco

Peru was one of the many trips that we had planned to go in 2020 before the pandemic hit. But of course with the pandemic we had to reschedule it and I couldn’t wait to go in 2021. I am so thankful that we were able to reschedule it for this summer and cross it off our bucketlist. We only spent 5 days in Peru this time so we split it across the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco. So in this travel guide I will only be covering these areas.

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS TO PERU 

Always check with the latest updates, but here are the travel requirements to Peru (as of July 2021) :

1 ) Negative COVID 19 PCR test taken 72 hours before travel

2 ) Filling up an affidavit of health prior to departure. Your airline will provide this for you.

3 ) Visas : depending on your nationality you may need a visa to enter Peru. So it is worth checking with your closest Peruvian consulate.

Check out more details and any updates here.

 

WHY PERU ?

Peru is utterly stunning and has SO much to offer from history to natural beauty to culture and more. It is so incredibly diverse, you can easily spend upto even 2-3 weeks here and have multiple things to do and have a well rounded vacation. Some of the popular spots to consider for your trip :

  • Machu Picchu and the Incan trails
  • Sacred Valley
  • Cusco town
  • Palcoyo Rainbow mountain
  • Humantay glacier lake
  • Huachachina desert oasis
  • Lima town
  • Iquitos Peruvian Amazon jungle
  • Paracas National park

 

GETTING TO PERU :

There are direct International flights to Lima from LA, Dallas and Miami. If you are continuing onto Cusco or any other part of Peru you will hav eto take another domestic flight. We flew LATAM airlines from San Francisco –> Lima –> Cusco.

 

GETTING AROUND PERU :

While renting a car is always an option, we felt more comfortable having a car and driver with us. We booked all our transfers with Exploor Peru.  

 

 

HELPFUL THINGS TO KNOW :

Best time to go : 

June to September is the best time to go since it is their dry season. Especially if you plan to visit Machu Picchu and Cusco!

How many days : 

We only went for 5 days since we visited 3 main spots in Peru. if you are doing the same as us 5-7 days is more than enough. If you plan to hike to Machu Pichhu definitely add a few more days. Also if you add more places to your itinerary you would need more days.

Language :

Spanish is the main language spoken, it is certainly helpful if you know a bit. Our guides also spoke English so we were okay. But with most local, google translate was our savior!

Currency :

Peruvian Soles. Many places accepted credit card too, but its helpful to carry local currency too.

Altitude Sickness Prep :

This is something I only learnt a few days before our trip! Sacred Valley and Cusco especially are at extremely high altitudes. So consider giving yourself a day or two to adjust to the altitudes before running around to sightsee, hike, etc. I’ll be honest we especially felt it in Cusco! Its a very hilly city and even walking up a steep flight of stairs on the road, you will feel it. ( especially more so cos we were also wearing a face mask). Few things that helped us – Altitude RX pills and local coca tea (you will find this everywhere in Peru!).

PCR and/or Antigen testing :

All hotels are tied with local clinics so it is best to check with your hotel/tour operator so you can book this in advance.

 

 

OUR ITINERARY :

We spent 3 nights in the Sacred Valley and 2 nights in Cusco.

Day 1 : Arrive in Sacred Valley

Day 2 : Day Trip to Machu Pichhu

Day 3 : Sacred Valley highlights

Day 4 : Cusco town

Day 5 : Cusco town

 

PART 1 : SACRED VALLEY

The Sacred Valley is a region in Peru’s Andean highlands. Along with the nearby town of Cusco and the ancient city of Machu Picchu, it formed the heart of the Inca Empire. Stretching roughly 60 kilometers, it’s an area of fertile farmland and Spanish colonial villages like Pisac and Ollantaytambo. This magical valley is an absolute must visit on your trip to Peru – its sheer beauty is so indescribable! We based ourselves here for 3 nights so that it was close enough to most attractions as well as Machu Picchu.

Scenes from the Sacred Valley

 

HOW TO GET TO THE SACRED VALLEY ?

It is about 1.5 hour drive from Cusco town depending on where you plan to stay. My favorite parts to stay in the Sacred Valley are Urubamba and Ollantaytambo.

 

WHERE TO STAY IN THE SACRED VALLEY ?

For our time in the Sacred Valley, we stayed at the beautiful Hotel Sol Y Luna in Urubamba. This is the only Relais and Châteaux property in the Sacred Valley and its location is absolutely phenomenal. Sol Y Luna was also voted as one of the top 100 Best hotels in the world as well as one of the top 10 resort hotels in South America, by Travel and Leisure.

Nestled in one of the most beautiful valleys and encircled by the majestic Andes Mountains, Anush and I instantly fell in love with this place. Its really hard not to! It is the perfect place to unwind, disconnect from reality and soak in the magic and energy of this place. Read more about our stay in my blog post here. 

 

THINGS TO DO IN THE SACRED VALLEY :

WE did a few attractions with a tour from Exploor Peru.  . I highly recommend going with a tour company so they can tailor make your trip based on the attractions you want to see. Here are some of the many things to do in and around Sacred Valley :

1 ) Maras Salt Flats

Mystical & Magical Maras!

The ancient salt pans known as Maras Salt mines or Salineras de Maras are salt mines built in the Incan times ( 15th century) and still mined by local families today for their beloved Peruvian pink salt. There are about 5000 mines strategically dug onto the mountainside and fed by the salt water spring from the mountain. When the salt water evaporates it leaves behind crystallized salt.

2 ) Moray Ruins and Archaeological site :

The Moray ruins were used by the Inca to cultivate particular types of crops to be resistant to the elements.

3 ) Pisac Ruins

Located high above the valley floor and the modern colonial town the Pisac ruins are considered to be one of the finest remaining Inca archeologic sites in the country.

4 ) Ollantaytambo ruins and town

Ollantaytambo, called Ollanta by the locals, is an ancient Inca temple and fortress as well as a village in Peru. The actual town is such a quiant historic  town with ancient Incan architecture.

5 ) Mountain biking or horse riding tours

very popular way to explore the beautiful valley. Many hotels and tour companies have day trips for this.

6 ) Random pitstops to enjoy the sheer beauty of this valley!

Surreal beauty of the Sacred Valley

Roadtrippin’ through the Sacred Valley is just amazing!

 

7 ) Visit a textile cooperative in Chinchero

Textile cooperative at Chinchero

Don’t miss out on feeding the adorable llamas and alpacas!

From feeding alpacas and llamas to learning about textile weaving, we loved visiting this women’s cooperative society. Every fabric takes so long from cleaning the alpaca wool, making it into a thread, dyeing with natural ingredients and then sewing it into a textile. While you get most of these beautiful handicrafts in big towns like Cusco and lima, we wanted to get something directly from the artisans.

 

PART 2 : MACHU PICCHU

The very reason Peru was on my bucketlist was Machu Picchu – a UNESCO world heritage site, wonder of the world and one of the most magical places I have ever been to! I am sure it needs no introduction or reason to convince you to visit it if you haven’t already. Machu Picchu is a 15th century Incan citadel set high in the Andes mountains in Peru above the Urubamba river valley. Built in the 15th century and later abandoned during the Spanish colonization, its renowned for its sophisticated dry stone walls that fuse huge blocks of stone without the use of mortar, intriguing buildings that play on astronomical alignments and its insane panoramic views.

Breathtaking Machu Picchu

Exploring Machu Picchu is like stepping back in time to another era and taking a walk through history. Its sheer magnitude and beauty is something so indescribable. It is mystical, magical and just so surreal in every corner. The fact that this entire well thought of city was built in literally the middle of nowhere in the 15th century blows my mind.

While we didnt stay at Machu Picchu town since we were based in the Scared Valley, we made the day trip to visit the place from Urubamba. For our day trip we booked a private tour with Exploor Peru. To plan a day trip to Machu Picchu there are TONS of things you need to know which I have covered extensively in my BLOG POST HERE.

 

 

HOW TO GET TO MACHU PICCHU ?

Machu Picchu isn’t accessible by car – so in simple words there are 1 of 2 main ways to access it :

1 ) Hiking the Incan Trails ( I wont be covering this since this is not what we did )

2 ) By taking a train to Aquas Caliente and a bus or a 1 hour hike to the citadel entrance. (this is what we did – train + bus)

Note : If you are already staying at Aquas Caliente then you can just take the bus or do the 1 hour short hike to the entrance. Taking a train from Cusco or the Sacred Valley does take 1.5-3 hours one way, so keep that in mind.

Since we were staying in Urubamba we took the train + bus route. Normally the trains do run from Urubamba staying but due to COVID restrictions we had to catch the train from the neighboring Ollantaytambo station. So this is what we did to get to Machu Picchu

  • taxi ride from our hotel in Urubamba to Ollantaytambo train station ( organized by Exploor )
  • train ride from Ollantaytambo train station to Aquas Caliente train station ( with Peru Rail )
  • Met up with our Exploor guide Peter at Aquas Caliente
  • Ride the bus to Machu Picchu citadel entrance
  • repeat the same steps in reverse for our return journey.

Peru Rail Vistadome

Riding with Peru Rail is the best and most scenic way to get to Machu Picchu. We took the Peru Rail Expedition Train on the way and the Peru Rail Vistadome on the return. Both the trains have glass ceilings and wide windows (the Vistadome has bigger windows giving you a much better scenic experience). The 1.5 hour train ride is so so scenic, its an experience by itself. You will be treated to epic panoramas of snow capped Andes mountains, rolling grasslands, gushing rivers and lush landscapes all around. The Vistadome also has cultural entertainment on board so you can also experience a slice of that while you are on your way.

 

 

WHERE TO STAY IN MACHU PICCHU ?

We didnt stay in Machu Picchu and made the day trip from the Sacred Valley. Aquas Caliente (town of Machu Picchu) has plenty of small stays and hostels to stay at if you prefer to be the first one into the citadel. If you are looking for  unique luxury hotel which is the ONLY hotel at the Machu Picchu citadel entrance check out the incredible Belmond Sanctuary Lodge.

 

OTHER HELPFUL TIPS FOR MACHU PICCHU ?

Check out everything in my Machu Picchu BLOG POST HERE.

 

PART 3 : CUSCO

Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, was once capital of the Inca Empire, and is now known for its archaeological remains and Spanish colonial architecture. For the last part of our stay in Peru, we spent it at the beautiful colonial city of Cusco. Voted as South America’s most beautiful city multiple times, Cusco is an absolute dream and a must visit on your trip.

WHERE TO STAY IN CUSCO ?

During our time in Cusco, we stayed at the beautiful Belmond Palacio Nazarenas – an incredible historic hotel with the perfect mix of ancient meets contemporary vibes. It has also been voted as one of the best city hotels in South America by Travel and Leisure. It is located right in the centre of the historic part of the city, a 5 minute walk from the main square – Plaza De Armas, and close enough to walk to most other attractions within Cusco. Read more in my blog post here.

 

THINGS TO DO IN CUSCO :

Listing out all the must do’s in Cusco :

1 ) Plaza De Armas & Cusco Cathedral

Cusco Cathedral (above) and Plaza De Armas (below)

The main square is so lively and such a pleasure to explore in the morning or evening. The iconic 15th century Cusco Cathedral here is truly breathtaking!

 

2 ) Get lost in the charming alleys San Blas neighborhood

San Blas Neighbourhood

L’Atelier Cafe on Calle Carmel Alto

Plaza de San Blas

My favorite part of Cusco is this stunning neighborhood. From its meandering cobbled streets to cute little cafes and gorgeous boutiques it is such a lovely place to spend a few hours. Do not miss L’Atelier cafe on Calle Carmen Alto – hands down the prettiest street in town.

 

3 ) Catch a sunset from one of the many beautiful spots on top of the city with sweeping views of Cusco. 

Cusco sunsets are so magical! Plaza San Cristobal (above) was my fave viewpoint!

My faves are Plaza San Cristobal and Mirador De San Blas.

 

4 ) Shopping in Cusco town and meeting the locals

Meeting the locals (above) and shopping for local handicrafts (below)

Loved shopping for all the stunning handicrafts and textiles in town! Oh and don’t forget to say hi to the locals – how cute is this baby lamb! FYI if you take a photo with the local Quechua women who will have pet lambs/alpacas it is customary to tip them.

5) Sacsayhuaman ruins

The Sacsayhuaman ruins are a walled complex on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco. Known as the former capital of the Inca Empire, it was added as part of the city of Cusco to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983.

6 ) Try out all the delicious local Peruvian Cuisine

Morena (above) and Rucula (below)

Some must try eats – Ceviche, Lomo Saltado, Aji Di gallina, Causas, etc

Some of my favorite restaurants in Cusco :

  • Morena – our fave!
  • Rucula
  • Green point vegan
  • Avocado, toast & more
  • Limbus Restobar – for the best view in town
  • View House

 

THINGS TO PACK :

If you are headed to Peru in the high season like we did (June to September), depending on what parts you go to you will have to pack accordingly. But if you are going to the same places we went to around the same time of year here are some of the things I packed :

  • layers cos the weather fluctuates like crazy from the early mornings to late afternoons
  • lightweight knits, sweaters or ponchos
  • accessories like hats, beanies, scarves, sunnes
  • comfy walking shoes – boots, sneakers, sandals
  • a few dressy options – maxi dresses, two piece sets, etc
  • backpack to carry things while exploring
  • comfy pair of leggings
  • 1 outerwear jacket

 

GET INSPIRED TO VISIT PERU :

Charming and quaint streets of Cusco

 

 

Couldn’t get enough of al the alleys, plazas and vistas!

My fave cafe in Cusco – L’Atelier Cafe!

All the blue doors in San Blas neighbourhood, Cusco

Loved making friends with all the alpacas, llamas, and…

baby sheep!! How adorable is this little lamb

Stunning pool at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas (above) and Hotel Sol Y Luna (below)

Staying in a historic hotel in Cusco is such an incredible experience in itself!

Staying deep in the Sacred Valley is the best way to disconnect and get in tune with the magic of this place!

Colorful Peruvian textile and fabrics

5000 ancient Incan salt pans of Salineras De Maras!

The highlight of our trip, a major pinch me moment – Machu Picchu!

 

Thanks for stopping by! xoxo

Jyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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