Why not Machu Picchu?

We just returned from a “surgical” visit to Peru.   No, this wasn’t medical tourism… we were on a very focused and short familiarization trip.   It’s the kind of thing travel people do from time to time to improve their knowledge of a destination that they recommend to their guests.  

Classic panoramic shot of Machu Picchu - also impressive is the spectacular location.

Machu Picchu is the “cherry on the cake” of a very fascinating visit to the Inca civilization’s heartland.   The Incas were a bit like the Romans in that they started as a small society but rapidly integrated a vast territory into their governance system.  The Incas were originally settled around the Cuzco area as an identifiable group in the 12th century, but within a very short time (early 1400’s to the Spanish conquest, starting in 1536) they managed to dominate a vast territory stretching from Colombia to Chile, and imposed on it their signature culture, architecture, language, road networks and more – all this without the help of the written word, nor of beasts of burden (horses, oxen) – they only had llamas.  They did it all on foot and by hand.  It was an eye opener for me – very fascinating.

 Getting to Machu Picchu requires a bit of effort - plane, vehicle, train, bus...

Though we like to say (and take pride in doing so) that “Galapagos is our only destination”, many people do ask us about the feasibility of adding a trip to Machu Picchu alongside a visit to the Galapagos.   For over 10 years, we’ve been assuring them that it is entirely feasible – and we’ve directed them to a Peru based travel agency with whom we’ve been coordinating things.   But we’d never been there – and we decided that it was time for a visit.   The knowledge we hoped to gain would help us improve quality of our advice to those of you thinking of adding on this fascinating bit to a Galapagos trip.   Here’s what we learned:

  • If possible - go to Peru before your Galapagos trip.

It’s a bit more work.  Visiting Machu Picchu and the surrounding Sacred Valley sites calls for a domestic flight from Lima to Cuzco, and for some additional moving around a little, changing hotels, and driving around rural roads.   The air is thin and you can feel it, particularly when walking uphill, even on the slightest inclines.   Boarding your Galapagos cruise after Peru will enhance the “holiday” feel – you’re at sea level, the air is rich, it’s warm, and there’s no changing hotels or getting in and out of vehicles. 

Women dressed to sell - at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley

  • An absolute minimum of 2 full days based in Cuzco

If you’re terribly short of time yet wanting absolutely to see Machu Picchu while willing to forgo any other component of a fuller Sacred Valley visit, you can do it in as little as 4 days.  Day 1 = arriving in Peru and getting to Cuzco – a 1.5 hour flight from Lima, while day 4 has you flying out of Cuzco to Lima for the next leg of your journey (e.g. flight to Ecuador). 


The Inkaterra Hotel in Aguas Calientes - located in the jungle, just outside of town.  

  • Ideally, plan on 4-5 full days in the region as a minimum (not counting travel days to and from Cuzco).

There are many fascinating secondary sites beyond Machu Picchu – allowing you to better understand the scope of the Inca empire, their technology and culture.   The Sacred Valley links Cuzco at the top end and Machu Picchu at the bottom end.  This was the Inca heartland and original breadbasket.  With its very rich soil and relatively generous flat valley bottom lands, the Sacred Valley was likely the richest part of the empire.    Several fascinating archaeological sites are located here, along with the pleasure of experiencing the mix of modern and traditional Andean / Quechua culture by visiting local markets, the town of Ollantaytambo, and enjoying the delights of a flourishing culinary culture. 


Ultra-precise Inca stonework - eye poppingly impressive.  All done by hand.  Amazing!

When to visit? 

We were there during the warmer rainy season.  It rained very hard – but only at night.  Apparently, we were lucky.   There are fewer people that time of year (November - March).  Our Machu Picchu guide told us that during the cool, dry season (April-October), the site can be quite busy.   So, there’s the trade-off.  Risk of rain, but fewer people, vs better weather, but more folks.  

Cusco - capital of the Inca empire, now a bustling colonial city in the Andes

Greatest surprise

Machu Picchu is served by the town of Aguas Calientes, just 6km (3.5 miles) away.   Aguas Calientes is accessible only by train.  There are no roads leading to this town of perhaps 2,000 (possibly doubled by the number of visitors).  It is tucked in the folds of a steep mountain, on the shore of the Urubamba river – the same that runs through the Sacred Valley.   We stayed only one night here, at the lovely Inkaterra hotel – but would have preferred at least 2 nights, which would have given us the time to relax a little. 

The train to Aguas Calientes - a very well managed and relaxing 1.5 hour ride into the jungle. 

Let us know if you might be interested in adding this extension to your Galapagos trip - we would be happy to help you consider options.   

The Palacio Nazarenas hotel in Cuzco - not too shabby!