Peru is a beautiful country where the topography varies drastically. When I flew into mountainous Cusco from coastal Lima, the beauty (and the altitude) took my breath away! My tour visited some of the popular towns and archaeological sites in and around what is called the Sacred Valley, which runs from Machu Picchu to Urcos along the Urubamba River in the south-central region of Peru. This valley encompasses a large area, so trying to pick a feasible number of destinations within the valley can be daunting. I had an incredible itinerary, including the ancient city of Cusco, the colonial settlement of Chinchero, the agricultural sites of Maras and Moray, the small yet busy Machu Picchu Pueblo, and, of course, Machu Picchu itself.
Perhaps the best place to start exploring the area around the Sacred Valley is from the once capital city of the Incas, Cusco. Cusco is a beautiful city wherein the locals have a strong link to their Inca ancestors, as most structures are literally built on top of old Inca foundations. Central Cusco seems like a complex maze of streets and alleys, but it is surprisingly easy to navigate on foot. The Plaza de Armas is both scenic and centrally located, making it a great place to start exploring Cusco. One structure that shouldn’t be missed is the La Catedral (and the attached Church of Jesus Maria). The ornate cathedral that was built in the 1500s is a great example of the Spanish religious influence in the region. Another Spanish influence is the Portal de Panes—a covered area of sidewalk surrounding the plaza, where numerous handicraft shops and relaxing cafes offer views overlooking the plaza. It makes for an ideal place to sit and have a drink or simply people watch.
Leaving Cusco, driving through the Sacred Valley was incredible; the Andes provide a dramatic backdrop and the random livestock make you feel miles from civilization. We made stops at the Moray agricultural and ceremonial tiered ruins and at the breathtaking, centuries-old Salinas salt pans, but the most moving local experience was our stop at the Chinchero Weaving Cooperative. As we entered the collective I felt bombarded by color. Some 25 women of varying ages worked on some type of loom. The woman who greeted us also gave us a very engaging presentation that explained how these women create such stunning, intricate pieces. We learned how the alpaca and llama wool are turned into yarn, how the yarns are dyed, and how some of the looms operate. It was a thought-provoking presentation and the women working at the cooperative were so welcoming and kind. I later learned that Chinchero means “Village of the Rainbow,” a perfect name and quite befitting of my experience.
The next stop was the town of Aguas Calientes, or what is now called Machu Picchu Pueblo. As I stepped off the train in Aquas Calientes, I was immediately surprised by the change in climate; the chilly breezes vanished and made way for a mask of humid air and a continuous sequence of fog and cloud seemed to roll through the small town perched above the Rio Aquas Calientes. The town itself is rather small and can be explored on foot in a couple of hours. Judging by a conversation we had with locals, most people only spend one night in the town. It is a beautiful quaint town, but when you’re standing in the shadow of a giant (Machu Picchu), it’s tough to truly shine as an attraction. Additionally, Machu Picchu Pueblo is a challenging place to get to, which only adds to the allure of Machu Picchu.
On the day we were to visit Machu Picchu, I awoke early and joined the queue for the buses that drive up to Machu Picchu around 5 a.m. With a bus full of almost palpable anxiety, we ascended for the next twenty minutes, traversing one switchback after another into a thick blanket of clouds. We arrived at the entrance and made our way over to what is known as the Viewing Platform. Despite some light rain and overcast skies, the ruins of Machu Picchu looked glorious. My tour guides gave a very informative tour and I learned a lot about the former residents of the Citadel. However, after hearing about Hiram Bingham and the 11-year-old boy who led him around the area that first time, I had a hard time replacing that image in my head. We spent a few hours walking around, giving us time to see all the angles of the complex. This incredible place moves everyone in a different way and is a rare gem of magnificent ingenuity that truly is a wonder.