Peru – Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, a symbol of the old Inca civilization, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven world wonders is a marvel to experience. Sacred Valley, just a 40 minute shuttle bus ride, is a lesser visited site, but this beautiful, peaceful corner of the Andes is filled with quaint villages, and packed with Inca sites. A great way to experience it is on horseback.

Many travelers like to combine a trip to Machu Picchu with a trip to the Galapagos Islands (see our post). We did not want to rush through Peru and decided to visit the Galapagos on a separate trip. We were not disappointed with our decision.

When the road is long, even slippers feel tight – Peruvian proverb

Getting to Machu Picchu and where to stay

Belmont Sanctuary Lodge

Many visitors to Machu Picchu stay in Aquas Calientes, a short bus ride from the Machu Picchu entrance also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, it lies in a deep gorge below the ruins. To get from Cuzco to Aquas Calientes there are several options, all involve taking a train from one of several stations along the way. Once in Aquas Calientes, it is a 30 minute bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. There is every level of accommodation possible in Aquas Calientes as well as resorts short driving distances from the Machu Picchu entrance.

If you are staying at the hotel ( Belmont Sanctuary Lodge) which is located right at the entrance of the park, it is an easy walk to the gates. Although room rates at this hotel are extremely high, the advantages are obvious, you are the first to get to the gate in the morning, thereby avoiding the huge crowds. It is the only hotel at the entrance of the gates. Depending on your budget and time constraints, the Belmont is a great option, although the service and food are average at best, and the views are disappointing.

In spite of the outcries of archaeologists worldwide, a plan to build an airport in Chinchero, a picturesque Inca town about 3,800 metres above sea level (gateway to the Sacred Valley) is underway. It will allow flights directly from major South American cities, such as Lima.

Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary

Many hypotheses exist as to what Machu Picchu was used for before it was abandoned in 1532. The most agreed upon scenario is that Machu Picchu was used as housing for the Inca aristocracy. Alternate scenarios include interpreting it as a prison, a trade hub, a station for testing new crops, a women’s retreat or a city devoted to the coronation of kings.

Climbing Huayna Picchu versus Machu Picchu

Huayna Picchu (aka Wayna Picchu or Wayna Picchu), which means ‘Young Peak’ in Quechua, is the large mountain that sits directly behind Machu Picchu. Climbing one of these mountains is considered for many to be a rewarding part of visiting the area. Tickets are required so it may depend on which one has available space. Let’s assume tickets are not an issue.

You should be moderately fit for both hikes. We would say that Huayna Picchu is a more dramatic hike with the infamous 183 stairs at the top and no railing, while Machu Picchu is generally far less crowded.

Huayna Picchu takes about 1.5 – 2 hours in total including the way up and the way down. Machu Picchu Mountain takes about 2.5 – 3 hours in total. Huayna Picchu does not have a flat summit and it can be quite difficult to move around.

Machu Picchu’s elevation gain is greater but it is a longer hike the Huayna Picchu, requiring a bit more physical long distance endurance.

Huayna Picchu is steeper but a shorter distance to the top (3082m versus 2693m), there are some parts where you need to use your hands for balance. In fact, at the summit there is one large rock that protrudes upward, perfect to sit on for a spectacular picture. With everyone vying for a position on the rock, it is downright dangerous (we witnessed one heavy set man fall off the rock onto huge boulders below).

Huayna Picchu can be disconcerting for those scared of heights, while the Machu Picchu Mountain summit is flat with 360 degree views.

Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley is a region that used to be the Incan Empire’s most important agricultural land. It is situated in Peru’s Andean highlands, and along with the nearby town of Cusco and the ancient city of Machu Picchu, it formed the heart of the Empire. Stretching roughly 60 kilometers, it’s an area of fertile farmland and Spanish colonial villages like Ollantaytambo, an archaeological site and Pisac, home of the famous Incan citadels.

Horseback tours

A great way to experience Sacred Valley is on horseback. Whether you are a novice or expert rider, you will find an appropriate ranch to meet your needs. The trails take you through small villages to high peaks, on the way passing local sheep herders tending their cattle.

Perfect for exploring on horseback – Sacred Valley, Peru

Riding the elegant breed of Peruvian Paso Horse, ideal for beginners, is a wonderful experience and a fantastic way to take in the dramatic scenery of the Sacred Valley. Tours can be one day or overnight with different accommodation levels. There are also tours that require more commitment, they start at Sacred Valley and end at Machu Picchu (up to 10 nights between 2 hotels). Some tours start in Cusco and end in Machu Picchu with a tour through Sacred Valley in between.

Many of the tours accommodate non-riders by having stand-by small vehicles and include walking tours instead. The tour we took was safe and very well organized, the trail guides (2) brought lunch and it was an overall memorable experience we would not have missed. It was a private tour so we went at our own pace, it is very important to let the guides know your riding level.


Ollantaytambo is a village in the Sacred Valley of south Peru known for the Ollantaytambo ruins, a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside. Major sites within the complex include the huge Sun Temple and the Princess Baths fountain. The village’s old town is adorably quaint with an Inca-era grid of cobblestoned streets and adobe buildings. Before you get to Ollantaytambo, a stop at the Moray ruins is reccommended. These ruins served as a natural greenhouse to grow an extraordinary variety of crops at an altitude that they would typically only grow in the tropical Andes.

Ajha Wasi is a small, quaint restaurant in Ollantaytambo run by a woman that is considered a national treasure in this area. It is one of the few places you can get chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer dating back to the ancient Incan Empire. Mrs. Mercedes has been making fresh batches of corn beer for the last 35 years and serves it up to travelers daily. She also raises cuy, guinea pigs which are sold to the locals.

Maras salt mines

The Maras salt mines are world famous and go back to pre-Incan times. As a result of the process they use for extracting the salt, they look more like ponds or pans than mines. Today, the individual ponds are privately owned by individual members of the community who extract the salt and sell it. They used the same methods as their ancestors.

It’s in the top 10 largest salt mines in the world.

Cusco (Cuzco)

Cuzco (or Cusco), the capital of the Incan Empire and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the oldest continuousy inhabited city in the Americas. Archaeologically, it is rich with specimens. Its Spanish colonial architecture is evidenced in its central Plaza de Armas, the Incan ruins are exhibited in the old city and the Baroque Santo Domingo Convent was built on top of the Incan Temple of the Sun (Qoricancha), with archaeological remains of Inca stonework. It also has a Catholic Cathedral with revered icons.

Cuzco Cathedral and the Black Jesus

The Cuzco Cathedral sits between the Church of the Holy Family and the Church of the Triumph and once inside you can go from one to the other. The Cathedral was built in 1559 when the Spanish started to replace the Incan religions with Catholicism. Most revered item inside the church is the Black Christ, although that is not the original flesh tone, it was created from centuries of smoke, dust, buildup of soot from candles and oil lamps, and pigment. The Black Christ is paraded through town once a year and is said to protect the city from Earthquakes (Señor de los Temblores). The cathedral was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site under the City of Cuzco listing in 1983.

Interesting to note, the Incan workforce that built the Cathedral included some of its Incan symbolism. For example, the carved head of a jaguar (an important god or religious motif in ancient Peru) is part of the cathedral doors.

We were not aware that photos are not allowed inside.

Peruvian cuisine

Peru, Sacred Valley, Cuy or guinea pig on plate with apple
Cuy or guinea pig is considered a Peruvian delicacy

Ceviche is Peru’s most famous food, the cooking method involves immersing delicate raw fish in aromatic citrus juices, is an innovative way to slowly “marinade” fresh fish. Habanero chiles add a spicy kick to the dish, balanced out by a mixture of sweet potatoes, corn, and butter and lettuce

Chifa in downtown Lima

 As China first sent its laborers to Peru in the 1800s, mainly from the Province of Canton who settled mainly around Lima, the new immigrants started adapting their cuisine to existing ingredients. Chifa is the Peruvian term for Peruvian–Chinese (Cantonese) cooking.  The Chinese Peruvians began importing seeds from China and planting many new vegetables, which they used in their dishes. Chifa became famous in downtown Lima’s Chinatown. Dishes include Cantonese Peruvian chow mein, Lomo Saltado, Gallina tipa Kay and Pollo Enrollado.

The most important ingredient in all Peruvian cuisine is the potato, as Peru has the widest variety of potatoes in the world.

One traditional alpaca dish is apanado de alpaca, made with breaded alpaca meat, rice, potatoes, and salad. Other ways Peruvians cook alpaca is a chili con carne de alpaca with ground alpaca, black beans, pumpkin and hot sauce or alpaca tenderloin kebabs served with corn husks.

Historical Notes – Machu Picchu:

Machu Picchu has about 200 buildings that are considered architectural wonders, built in the classical Inca style, with polished stone walls. The most notable buildings are; the Intihuatana Stone, (arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice), the Temple of the Sun (semicircular temple), and Inti Mach’ay (special cave used to observe the Royal feast).

After its abandonment in 1532, it was not found until 1911, when Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian set out to find the Lost City of the Incas. Why was Machu Picchu abandoned? Historians agree that there is no evidence that the Spanish conquistadors ever reached the mountaintop, let alone attack it. Many have concluded that the most likely possibility is that the inhabitants all died of smallpox.

In the Quechua Indian language, “Machu” means old and “Picchu” means “ mountain. The whole compound contains more than 100 separate flights of stairs. Most of the individual staircases were carved from one slab of stone, some of which weighed more than 50 pounds. It is also believed that no wheels were used, that the stones were carried to the mountain top by hand.

Being excellent masons, the Inca built with a technique called ashlar (stones that are cut to fit together without mortar) that not even a knife blade can fit in between stones. They were also excellent astronomers. The site was an astronomical observatory, and its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes. Twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone creating no shadow.

Most of the cities built by the Incas were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, but because it was hidden, Machu Picchu was spared.

Mondisti’s Peru Trip Tips

  1. Sacred Valley is a great place to visit as part of your Machu Picchu trip. A tour on horseback, if possible will be a memorable experience.
  2. If budget is no issue, stay at the Belmont Sanctuary Hotel, it will save you time.
  3. Cuzco is an interesting city for a few days’ tour.
  4. The ruins in Sacred Valley – Ollantaytambo is a worthwhile tour and not crowded.