Machu Picchu: What You Can’t Miss Out On By Jen Oliak

Have you wanted to visit Machu Picchu? How about other parts of Peru? Last summer, my family and I spent time in the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco before heading off to the Galapagos Islands. 

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Machu Picchu is glorious

Peru is rich with culture, history and beautiful scenery. We loved the people of Peru and found them to be passionate and proud of their country.

We booked our trip through a company called Adventure Associates, which specializes in South American travel.

We booked with them mainly because we were tight on time. We decided in May to take the trip in August, so we didn’t have much time to do our own research.

How to Plan for Machu Picchu

Looking back, I think you can plan the travel on your own for all but the transfers between locations and the Machu Picchu portion. Make sure to book with a local company for 1) transfers from the airport and 2)to each new destination.

We found Machu Picchu to be very confusing. You need to know the rules about the park’s hours, getting tickets, how to get there and to avoid the crowds for entry into the park.

We had our guide escort us from the train in Sacred Valley all the way to Machu Picchu where he took us on the tour of the grounds. Having him by our side made life much easier for this portion of the trip.

Many people want to go to Peru solely to visit Machu Picchu.  But to get to this destination, you need to travel via Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It is worth taking a few days to explore the country on your route to Machu.

What I Would Do Differently

If I had known then what I know now, we would have done the following:

We would have skipped the Sacred Valley.

This is because there was so much history that repeated itself on our tours in Cusco. We could have visited just one location to get the flavor of Peru and their culture.

Although Dave and I loved the informative tours, the kids started to get bored after a few of them as they were more like history classes than adventure/vacation travel. Cusco is more city-like and the Sacred Valley is more rural.  Since we prefer city life, we would pick Cusco over the Sacred Valley as a preferred destination. You’ll see in the pics below that Sacred Valley is also very beautiful. But we felt it wasn’t an efficient use of our time.

Instead of Sacred Valley, we would have taken a 2-3 day hike on the Inca trail to get to Machu Picchu.

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Ta Da!

I feel the Inca Trail is what one should not miss out on when making a trip to Machu Picchu (which we did, unfortunately). The Inca trail hikes range from a few days to 12 days for the full route. We would have taken the 9 or 26 mile hikes at the end of the trail which would have introduced us to Machu in a more dramatic and natural way than taking the bus to the top of the mountain.

So, if you and your family are exploring Machu Picchu as a destination, make sure to research hiking the Inca trail. I agree with much of the reading out there that the journey in getting there makes the Machu Picchu experience even more magical than the visit alone.

In Machu, we would have stayed at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge 

This is the only hotel located at the entrance to Machu Picchu.  The other hotels are a bus ride away from the park.

Had we known how much trouble it would be to get up and down the mountain from Machu Picchu (one very windy narrow road) to the main town where all the hotels are, we would have spent the extra money for this hotel (prices are >$1000 night). The time and headache saved would have been worth the money. The lines for the bus were crazy!

The Following Lists Our Itinerary and Pictures of Our Trip

Despite missing the Inca trail, you’ll see we had a fantastic time.

Day 1

Arrive in Lima: Our flight from LA got us into Lima around midnight and it was recommended we stay the night at a hotel by the airport (Costa del Sol Wyndham) before heading out via plane again to Cusco. We were met by a transfer man who assisted us with our luggage and check in to our hotel, walking distance from the airport.  He saved us from very long lines at the airport!

Sacred Valley: 2 nights

Day 2

The transfer man came back to take us from the hotel to the airport for our short 1 hr 20 min flight over the Andes to Cusco. If he wasn’t with us, we may have missed the fight.  He was able to get us to the front of the lines in ways we would never have done on our own.  Upon arrival to the Sacred Valley, a different transfer man met us and drove us to our first tour stop on the way to the hotel:

Awana Kancha

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We loved the Alpacas, Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos!

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Jake was in heaven

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Doesn’t he look like he can talk?

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We loved how each of them looked different

At Awanacancha we learned about the Llama, Alpaca, Vicunas and Guanacos, how their wool is harvested and natural dying techniques. We had a chance to see native weavers from different areas showing their weaving styles and dress.

Pisac

We visited the market town of Pisac to check out the local artifacts. There is a big artisan market here every day. Many of the local craftsmen come in from the surrounding hills to sell their goods. In the plaza itself is the handicraft market with a wide variety of textiles, carvings, jewelry, ceramics, pots and other items.

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Pisac Market

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Pisac Market

Hotel: Casa Andina Private Sacred Valley 2 nights

I don’t recall this hotel very well which means it wasn’t awesome.

Day 3

Moray

The ancient people of the region took four enormous natural depressions in the landscape and sculpted them into several levels of agricultural terraces that served as an experimental agricultural station for the development of different strains of crops. This was possible due to the discovery of a fascinating phenomenon: the climates of many different ecological zones were present at a single site.

In the thirty or so meters of altitude between the bottom and top levels of Moray’s main depression there is a full 59 degrees farenheit difference in temperature.

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Moray laboratory with many levels of terraces each having its own micro climate for agriculture

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Maras

The Salinas de Mara to which some people call “salt mines” are constituted by about 3000 small pools constructed in a slope of the “Qaqawiñay” mountain. People fill up or “irrigate” the pools during the dry season every 3 days, with salty water emanating from a natural spring located on the top of the complex, so that when water evaporates the salt contained in it will slowly solidify.

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Salt pools at Maras salt mines

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It’s pretty, isn’t it?

We had lunch at a local restaurant and watched the famous Paso Horse demonstration: Peruvian Paso Horses, with their elegance and noble spirit symbolize a centuries-old tradition of cultural fusion and folklore that defines and enriches Peru.

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Ollantaytambo

Located at the western end of the Sacred Valley, the town has been built on top of original Inca foundations and is the best surviving example of Inca town planning.  The town is divided in canchas (blocks) which are almost entirely intact.

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Ollantaytambo

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Ollantaytambo

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Day 4 and 5  Machu Picchu

We were picked up early and driven to the train station for our dramatic 1.5hr train ride to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu.

Aguas Calientes

Once we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we stood in line for the bus to take us to the top of the mountain to enter Machu Picchu. This line was about 1/4 mile long! Our guide informed us the people start to arrive at dawn to stand in line. We stood in line for at least an hour.

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Right after getting off the train, we are excited to see Machu Picchu

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It was fun to see the local kids playing in the street.

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We watched a bit of a soccer game played by locals

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The was the main bridge into town from the train station

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Line to bus for Macchu on right

Machu Picchu

Sitting at 6180 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu is one of the wonders of the world.

A mountain-top city abandoned by the Inca Empire, reclaimed by the jungle and lost to humanity until its rediscovery in 1911. It sits on a mountain site of extraordinary beauty in the middle of a tropical mountain forest.

Machu Picchu was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height, with its giant walls, terraces and ramps.

All the buildings in Machu Picchu follow the Inca classic architectural style: buildings with irregular walls, perfect joints between the stone blocks and a gentle slope, making the base slightly wider than the top. Gates with a trapezoidal shape and niches and sculptures are used as part of the architectural design and decoration.

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We loved the alpacas who lived at Machu. They looked happy and content.

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Four day old Alpaca and this is all the life he knows. Lucky Alpaca!

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Words can’t describe the magic of this place.

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To see tangible evidence of the Inca Empire at the peak of its power and their achievement in building this sanctuary was awe inspiring.

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Imagine the years it must have taken not only to build these structures but to carry the stone from the bottom of the mountain.. hard to believe it happened.

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Pretty happy little alpaca

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See the mountains in the fog? They were crystal clear in person and went on as far the eyes could see into the clouds. They were all covered in green and so majestic.

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These are the irrigation terraces. Aren’t they meticulous?

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It really felt like we were on top of the world. Very beautiful, breath taking destination we are grateful to have visited. It reminds us how small we are in the scheme of things.

It was amazing to see the technical level that the Inca engineers and constructors mastered in their building. The perfect fit of the granite boulders with which the walls, wooden doors, beams and straw roofs were built was hard to believe. In some of the buildings, the joints between the carved rock blocks are such a close fit that it is impossible to fit even a needle in them.

After our tour of Machu Picchu, we had lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge hotel just outside the park (the one I wished we stayed in). It was a great way to end the tour for the day before heading to our hotel. Unfortunately, something Justin ate or drank there gave him a stomach bug that had him throwing up all night and kept him in bed all of the next day.

Hotel: Inkaterra Machu Picchu 1 night

The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is an 85 casitas luxury hotel in an Andean style village within a secluded 12 acres.

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Our room at the Inka Terra

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Jake loved his view of the rainforest

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Justin in bed with food or water poisoning (we think it was the filtered water he drank at the restaurant). Lesson learned – Always drink bottled water, regardless of what the hotel tells you.

Remember how I told you the lines for the bus to get to Machu were crazy? Jake and I went early the next morning to go back to Machu Picchu to hike Huayna Picchu (a more manageable hike for kids). We waited in line for 2 hours before missing our hiking window allotted for us on our tickets (they limit the number of hikers per day).

We heard there were a ton of students at the mountain that day, causing the lines to be even longer than usual. We were ok with this in the end, as Dave and Justin couldn’t join us anyway due to Justin’s illness.  The one day in Machu Picchu was worth the trek.

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Great Family Shot

Day 5 and 6 Cusco

Hotel: El Mercado Mountain Lodges in the heart of Cusco. El Mercado Tunqui is built on the site of a former market located just a couple of blocks from Cusco’s main Plaza de Armas. We loved this hotel for the local but modern feel.

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Hotel Courtyard

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Terrace at hotel just outside our door.

On Day 5

We toured Cuzco on our own and had a great day!

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Cusco’s historical town square was beautiful.

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The boys found a kitten on the street they fell in love with.

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Then they realized it belonged to this bakery so we sat with the kitten for an hour and a half and had cake.

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Cusco was a beautiful, charming city and it was fun just to walk around and enjoy the local sights.

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There were a lot of these women selling baby goat picture posing in town. I wondered where the momma goat was but the boys were so excited we had to let them take pictures.

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See how happy?

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Jake photobombing my attempt to take a picture of a local school’s field trip

On Day 6

We took a half day tour of Cuzco and the Inca sites nearby with a guide. This is when the kids started to fade.

We visited Saqsaywaman, the temple of Koricancha, the churches of La Merced and San Blas, the Museum of Religious Art and the emblematic Cathedral that stands in front of the city’s Main Plaza.

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The boys got a kick out of this name “Saqsaywaman”

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View of Cusco

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Beautiful view point of the city

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These Llamas were aggressive! Looks like they are posing but they were pushing me out of the way to get through!

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Look how tiny we are compared to the boulders. Can you imagine how many men it took to move these when they were building? It was fun to learn about the wars between the Inkas and the Mayans and Spain’s takeover.

Day 7

Head to Quito and Galapagos! Read about our time in both of those destinations which constituted the other half of our summer trip.

So what do you think? Will you visit Peru? Could you please hike the Inca Trail so I can live vicariously? It was a great trip. You only live once. Travel well!

Flavor Your Life with an Ounce of Salt. A lifestyle blog by Jen Oliak.