A Pilgrimage Through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to the World's Greatest Archaeological Site
Day 1: Lima, Peru
Arrive in Peru's capital where your journey to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley will commence. For travelers extending to Machu Picchu following a Galapagos trip, on the final day you will fly from the Galapagos Islands to Guayaquil, where our representative will be waiting outside baggage claim to assist you with the transfer for your international flight to Lima. On arrival in Lima, you will be met outside baggage claim and escorted to your accommodations conveniently located at the airport. For travelers extending after our Great Amazon River Cruise, on the final day of your trip, you will fly from Iquitos to Lima, where you will be met outside baggage claim and transferred to the Wyndham airport hotel. For travelers doing Machu Picchu as a custom stand-alone itinerary, your tour begins on your arrival at the Lima airport, where you are met outside customs and transferred to your hotel.
Day 2: Cusco
Fly this morning to Cusco, heart of the once-grand Inca empire, and meet our Expedition Leader on arrival. From the indigenous Quechua word qosq’o
, Cusco means the “navel of the earth.” Set in a high Andean valley, Cusco was founded in the 12th century and thrived until Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca civilization in their 16th-century colonial quest. Our accommodations at a restored colonial palace evoke the material splendor of that era. Parts of the building date to the mid-1500s when Francisco Pizarro, the first Spanish governor of Peru, was its occupant. We learn more about this fabled city on a guided walking tour this afternoon.
Day 3: Sacred Valley of the Incas
The treasures of the Sacred Valley unfold today as we follow the Urubamba River past tawny hillsides dotted with traditional villages, small farms and Incan architectural ruins. The original vast empire of the Incas was connected by a network of 10,000 miles of stone roads woven through the imposing terrain of the Andes. Suspension bridges spanned rivers and aqueducts carried water from mountain streams to irrigate terraced fields of crops, vestiges of which we see on our journey today, backdropped by knife-edged peaks. We visit the salt mines at Maras, 3,000 small pools mined by the Incas centuries ago and still worked by locals today, and Chinchero, a small Andean village with terraced ruins located high on the windswept plains of Anta. From here, we have dramatic views over the Cordillera Vilcabamba and snowy summit of Salcantay dominating the western horizon. In Inca legend, Chinchero is the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. With a focus on less-frequented sites in the Sacred Valley, we may also stop at the market in San Pedro or meet a local shepherd. This afternoon, there's time to relax amid the inviting garden environs of our charming hotel before dinner.
Day 4: Machu Picchu
This morning we board the train at Ollantaytambo for a 1-1/2-hour journey along the Urubamba River, which narrows into turbulent whitewater as we travel deeper into the mountains. At the village of Aguas Calientes, we disembark and board a bus for the short remaining drive to Machu Picchu. Little prepares one for the spectacle that awaits. As we ascend into the ruins, there’s a sense of wandering through a mystical city in the sky, surrounded by green mountain ramparts that soar into the clouds. A local Machu Picchu tour guide joins us to help interpret all we see as we explore the labyrinth of granite houses, temples, walls and cisterns. Llamas wander among terraced steps that once grew maize and potatoes for some 1,200 inhabitants.
Archaeologists believe Machu Picchu may have been a royal estate and religious retreat, based on its sacred geography and astronomical orientation. Important ceremonies were conducted here, including a winter solstice rite at which a priest would “tie the sun” to a hitching post stone to prevent it from disappearing altogether. We stay tonight at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in private casitas built of stone, tile and cedar, surrounded by the thick greenery of the cloud forest. More than 300 varieties of orchids grace the grounds of this secluded luxury retreat on the river, and a network of trails on the grounds invites a serene stroll.
Day 5: Machu Picchu / Cusco
This morning we return to Machu Picchu for further exploration, our time unscripted for personal discovery. Among the ruins there’s opportunity to ponder, in Hiram Bingham’s words, the “bewildering romance” of a place that “appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed.” Or, for those who wish, hike to the top of Wayna Picchu, the imposing mountain that provides the famous backdrop for the ruins in classic photos. The Incas built the original trail to the top, where they built temples and farming terraces. Local myth holds that the summit of Wayna Picchu was the residence for the high priest of the ancient city. This challenging hike takes 2-3 hours and climbs approximately 1,200 feet from the base at Machu Picchu, ascending a steep face using stairs and cables for support. This hike is not recommended for guests with physical limitations or those with a fear of heights. Should entrance tickets for Wayna Picchu be sold out, an equally challenging hike to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain will be available.
This afternoon we make the return journey to Cusco by train and bus, stopping en route to explore Ollantaytambo, a small rural town surrounded by steep terraced mountainsides. Ollantaytambo rests on traditional Inca foundations and is one of the best surviving examples of Inca city planning. Enjoy a farewell dinner together in Cusco this evening.
Day 6: Cusco / Lima / Depart
This morning we travel just outside Cusco to visit the ruins at Sacsayhuaman, where we witness the most impressive example of Inca walls in the Sacred Valley. The site is still enveloped in mystery, and we ponder how the Incas moved these enormous stones to this site without the advantage of wheeled carts, and how they managed to fit such large, honed granite stones together so tightly that a pocketknife blade cannot be inserted between them. We'll have lunch in Cusco, then fly to Lima late this afternoon to meet departing flights this evening.
Physical Rating: Moderate