Most visitors to Peru have one thing on their mind — Machu Picchu. The ancient 15th-century Incan ruins, sitting 2,430 metres high in the Andean mountains, is a bucket-list item of the highest order, as many social media selfies can prove.
But there’s more to Peru than its most famous attraction, and much to discover in the area surrounding Machu Picchu, particularly the region called the Sacred Valley. Many travellers will speed through en route to Machu Picchu, but it is worth a long look all on its own — especially for returning visitors who want to explore Peru’s real cultural roots. The food scene, the luxury accommodations, the outdoor pursuits of trekking and mountain biking, all can be found here in abundance. If you have a week, you have time to touch on the highlights of Lima, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, and the ancient city of Cusco. Taken together, the three areas provide context for an eye-opening and culturally enriching trip.
Why not begin your journey with a city tour of Lima, a cosmopolitan urban centre with gorgeous boutique hotels and a food scene that has become legendary.
Check in to the Hilton Lima Miraflores for comfortable accommodations and a great location, walking distance to some of the best photo ops — the crashing surf below the cliffs, immaculate seafront public gardens, a bustling shopping district where you can sample street food in a South American-style, indoor food court.
For a special treat, head out to El Restaurant, housed in the trendy Hotel B, a lovingly restored art gallery of a hotel that showcases a collection of contemporary Latin American and Peruvian artists.
Start the night with a mixology class at the bar, where the instructor will begin with the only drink you need to know for your time in Peru — the Pisco Sour. The signature cocktail of Peru features a Peruvian brandy called Pisco, lime juice, egg white, sugar and a drop of angostura bitters, and its frothy, refreshing presence is the perfect pre-dinner drink. It is served abundantly and frequently.
Lima is home to nearly 10 million people, living in a gorgeous coastal setting on top of centuries of ancient civilization and history. The city comes alive at night — people heading out for dinner at 11 p.m., strolling in the balmy night air.
There is pretty strong evidence that surfing was invented here, based on pre-Inca drawings that depict longboards and waves — not just for fishing, but for the pleasure of the surf. Wave imagery is prominent in many ancient drawings from cave walls to textiles and ceramics, as you may notice when taking in any of the historical offerings — from museums to actual archeological ruins.
Get closer to the real thing with a visit to Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Inca archeological site in the trendy Lima district of Miraflores — where upscale townhomes with floor-to-ceiling windows look out upon the humongous stones of the pyramidlike structure, and the tourists tracing the ancient pathways along it. Never mind the Incas, this entire structure dates back to between 200 and 700 AD.
At the Larco Museum in Lima, you can take in more than 45,000 ancient Peruvian artifacts depicting 5,000 years of history, housed in the most beautiful surroundings — a private museum full of meandering exhibits and courtyards full of flowering gardens and trailing moss, all of it built on top of a pyramid. Don’t think about that too hard. Carry on toward the popular “erotic pottery” exhibit, courtesy of the Mochica culture.
This museum has been voted the best in Latin America, and here you can gain a real appreciation for the layers of history, and entire civilizations that have come and gone.
Head to higher altitude for a few days in Cusco, the oldest city in South America — it has been occupied for at least 3,000 years. Cusco is a place with many layers of history, quite literally visible. For example, a Catholic church was built atop a foundation of Incan ruins. The church itself, now hundreds of years old. This may be why the entire city has been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site.
The timelines are mind-boggling, but to break it down in the simplest of terms: There were the pre-Inca civilizations, then there were the Incas, then came the Spanish colonization. Peru declared independence in 1821.
Check in to the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, a former Spanish monastery built atop a former Inca palace that is now a luxury hotel. Nothing strange about this in Peru.
The hotel exemplifies Spanish baroque style with open air halls, stone arches and peaceful courtyard with a 300-year-old cedar tree and central fountain. A lovely place to take breakfast in the sunshine.
The monastery is in the heart of Cusco’s charming downtown, and it’s a very pleasant stroll down ancient streets past shops and street vendors — by this time you’ll be wanting some alpaca sweaters — to one of the main cultural attractions, the Plaza de Armas and the imposing Cathedral.
This place is worthy of its own tour, you can sign up or just wander through.
Take it one step further with a visit to Sacsayhuaman, the citadel on the outskirts of Cusco, an ancient Inca palace designed in perfect symmetry with the geography of the city. The guide explains that when viewed from above, the city has been laid out to resemble a puma, with the head the heavy stone fortress of Sacsayhuaman (itself a marvel of Inca engineering).
A word about taking all this in, and guides: In terms of logistics, it’s worth looking into some preplanned itineraries for the most efficient way to navigate the many highlights of the country. Reputable sources include GoWay Tours and PromPeru. Even just a half-day tour of Cusco will give you enough perspective to appreciate some of the things you’re looking at, as you prepare to head toward the grand finale — the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. For example, did you know that the Incas always built their walls on a slight incline of nine to 13 degrees, never straight up? That they were built without the benefit of any mortar and that each stone was cut so precisely as to interlock with the next? The quality of the workmanship is clear. Also, these walls are still standing.
Time for a food break. For the foodie traveller, Peru offers an endless buffet of delights. Here’s just one — Causa, a popular appetizer made with a meat filling between two layers of mashed yellow potato. There are more than 1,000 varieties of potato grown in Peru. It’s a staple, along with corn and quinoa, that forms the base of many dishes. And then of course, ceviche, which comes in so many forms it is practically the national dish. Food is often referred to with affection here — for example ‘my little appetizer’ — and presented with love.
After the pleasures of Cusco, it’s time for the Sacred Valley, a 60-kilometre stretch of fertile farmland about 20 km north of Cusco, and home to Spanish colonial villages like Pisac, with a great Sunday craft market, and Ollantaytambo, where you can catch the train up to Machu Picchu.
The fertile valley floor is the base, where corn, potatoes and quinoa grow in abundance, the staples for many Peruvian dishes, and where most of the population, and lodgings, are based. Check into the five-star explora lodge, for an experience designed to suit active travellers with fine tastes — the daily outings are curated to each guest, and guides escort small groups for full or half-day adventures. Guests here plan out a three-day stay that packs in a mix of trekking, cycling, cultural tours and spa time, with the help of a very attentive on-site staff.
And this is where things start to really come together.
Here, you can take a day trip up into the mountains and trek to the Inca remains of Moray, a mountainside site that resembles Incan crop circles, but turns out to be a series of terraces cut into the steep slopes, a marvel of engineering that allowed the farmers at this high elevation to shelter their crops. Or a bike ride along the valley floor, through villages with packs of baby piglets and fields of flowering potatoes and cabbage. Or hike another route that descends to an ancient salt mine.
A morning drive reveals children in Peruvian knitted hats waiting for their school ride, and roadside vendors, most wrapped in traditional bright blankets, offering up roast guinea pig on a stick. Hiking up into the more remote regions of the Sacred Valley, you may see tiny villages, and farmers working in fields. It is customary to offer a small gift, tobacco leaves or a piece of chocolate, to anyone you encounter, especially if you want to ask for a photo (which may still be refused).