How to visit Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu in 5 days.
For as long as we can remember, we have wanted to visit Machu Picchu. We’re obviously not alone in this. In terms of ‘bucket list’ destinations, Machu Picchu is probably near the top of places to visit for most travellers.
Being the adventure lovers that we are, we wanted to trek to the ancient Incan city. Options range from the famous 4-day Inca Trail to the 9-day Choquequirao Trek, and we were keen to do one.
Unfortunately due to some exciting upcoming travel plans to the Galapagos Islands, our time in Peru was quite limited. We only had a few days around Cusco, and were stuck with a tough decision to make – Do we spend our entire time trekking, or spend as much time learning about the Incan society and visiting some different sites as well?
After much debate, we decided to make the most of our short time in Cusco and sign up for a tour to visit a few of the major sites. We can always return and do a long trek, but for now we wanted our history and culture fix. Plus with so many work projects on the go, we also didn’t have much time or energy to plan this ourselves.
We decided to join a 5-night trip with the tour company Say Hueque, called the “Sunrise of the Inca Civilisation” tour, which would allow us to explore the most popular sites around Cusco and the Sacred Valley, while spending two days rather than one in Machu Picchu.
With our transport, local guides, permits and accommodation taken care of, we could arrive in Cusco without wasting precious days trying to organise all of this ourselves.
Check out this article if you want more information about backpacking in Peru.
One Day In Cusco
On our first day we arrived to our hotel, the Jose Antonio, at 11am and checked straight in to our comfortable room. The staff were great, and shortly after dropping our bags off a member from the tour company who was looking after us met up in the lobby.
The guide had brought all of our tickets for the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cusco and the train, as well as some additional information about our plans for the next few days. When everything was sorted we got ready to start our Cusco city tour.
Soon a minibus showed up to the hotel to pick us up and we were driven to the Church of Santo Domingo to begin the excursion.
A licensed, English-speaking guide was waiting for us at the entrance, and our small group were handed audio sets so we could explore the city’s busy attractions and still hear every bit of information we were given.
To start with we walked around Coricancha, where we learnt all about how the once gold-covered Temple of the Sun was the centre of the Incan empire, and was mostly destroyed by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.
In its place the Church of Santo Domingo was constructed, but some of the Incan stonework survived. Today it is a popular tourist attraction, and the grounds are quite pleasant to walk around.
Then it was to the Plaza de Armas, the beating heart of Cusco, and its famous Cathedral. One of the most stunning Catholic churches we have ever visited, the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral is adorned in intricate decorations and fascinating paintings with curious Incan influence. No pictures are allowed inside, but trust us – it’s worth a visit, especially with a guide.
High above the city of Cusco is the ruins of Saksaywaman, an Incan citadel first built in the 11th. This was our next destination, and for just under an hour we walked around the sprawling complex, admiring the enormous stones and marvelling at how the ancient civilisation moved them into place.
With the sun quickly dropping behind the surrounding mountains we visited two more sites – Tambomachay and Qenko, just further outside of town. To end the day we finished at an alpaca clothing centre, and then dropped off back at our hotel.
Having a local guide accompany us to all these sites was sensational, and we felt like we waked away with Cusco with an excellent introduction to the Incan empire. Perfect, as we were about to head into the Sacred Valley…
Two Days In The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley is a fertile stretch of land used for farming in the days of the Incans. Stretching for 60km from just outside Cusco towards Aguas Calientes, it is home to some of the best preserved Incan architecture in Peru.
With only a few days being spent in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, plus there being a baggage limit on the train, we left our big backpacks in the hotel’s secure luggage storage.
We left the Jose Antonio Hotel early in the morning in a transfer towards Moray and Maras, our destinations for the day. Our English-speaking guide (different to the day before) was incredibly friendly, and we chatted the entire way to the Sacred Valley. We were meant to be with some other travellers, but they supposedly had suffered from altitude sickness and could not attend. This meant we had a private trip, which we were pretty stoked with.
It took just over an hour to reach the first destination, Moray. This huge, circular site is a wonderful to see, and the purpose of its design has been debated on for years.
The common theory now is that it was used for experimental agricultural work by the Incas. The terraces drop down up to 30m, and remarkably the way the stones are aligned means there is a huge temperature difference from the top to the bottom, sometimes up to 15°C.
Today it’s believed that this design allowed the Incas to test what conditions allowed certain types of fruits and vegetables to flourish, and to genetically mix different species to survive droughts.
Being on a private tour meant we arrived quite early, which resulted in us having the entire site to ourselves. Walking around Moray without anyone else there was incredible.
Afterwards we jumped back in the van and drove to the Maras salt mines. Another one of the unique sites in the Sacred Valley, these pools have been in constant use since before the Incas.
The mineral-encrusted ponds leave a glistening, white field sandwiched between a barren gorge. A stream is funnelled into the terraces, and by using evaporation techniques workers can extract the salt for personal and commercial use.
What makes these salt mines unique (besides the stunning layout) is that it is actually open to any member of the Maras community. You will see families wandering the pools, scraping up the salt and collecting it for their own use or business. By entering the mines you are welcome to walk around and watch them work.
It was now just after lunch time, and our driver dropped us off at our new home for the next two nights – the absolutely divine Hacienda del Valle in the Sacred Valley.
Beautiful manicured gardens, enormous, decorated villas and lovely views made sure our afternoon was spent relaxing with a cold beer in hand.
The next morning we woke up and met our driver after breakfast. We were transferred to a viewpoint high above the Sacred Valley, where we met our guide and group from Cusco in another minivan.
We drove back down to the village of Pisac and visited their famous markets. After spending so much time in Argentina, Chile and Brazil, it was amazing to visit a market as culturally rich and colourful as the one in Pisac.
After walking around for an hour, sampling some of the local snacks and trying our best not to buy every handicraft for sale, we jumped back in the van and headed towards Ollaytantambo, with a quick stop at a guinea pig barbecue joint (for photos, not to eat), then at a large restaurant for a high-end, buffet lunch.
Ollaytantambo is a picturesque, old village at the end of the Sacred Valley, yet it is best known for its historical fortress carved into the side of a steep hill.
During the 15th century Pachacuti, the Incan emperor, conquered the town of Ollaytantambo and set about building housing and terraces to farm the land for his people.
Later when the Spanish arrived, Ollaytantambo was fortified, and became one of the last Incan strongholds to fend off the invaders. Despite victories in many battles, the leader Manco Inca abandoned Ollaytantambo and moved to Vilcabamba.
The structures at Ollaytantambo survived the centuries, and today its marvellous construction attracts thousands of tourists every year.
We were given a one-hour guided tour of the architectural site, with ample time to take pictures as well. Then it was back to the van for the return to Hacienda del Valle.
Our time in the Sacred Valley was up, and we had managed to visit the most important and popular sites in a very efficient manner. However it was the next stop that would bring the moment every traveller to Peru anticipates.
2 Days In Machu Picchu
The sun had yet to rise when we headed to the hotel’s reception and met our driver and guide, who would transfer us to the Ollaytantambo station for our train to Machu PIcchu.
At the station the guide helped us check in, and waved us off as we boarded the train at 7:15am. The journey by train takes just under 2 hours from Ollaytantambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the Machu Picchu ruins.
We love train journeys, and have been lucky enough to experience everything from luxury trains in Australia to the roughest rides imaginable in China. We are pleased to say that this one in Peru is magical.
Even at the lowest class, the service is impeccable, and the carriages have huge windows to allow views to the spectacular mountains and glaciers above.
The seats are comfortable, and the staff do everything they can to make your journey smooth. We were given snacks and hot drinks, and the 2 hours passed rather quickly.
Upon arriving to Aguas Calientes, a guide from our tour company was waiting outside the train station with a sign bearing our names. He took us the short walk to the Lima Tours office (who were managing our on-the-ground logistics), right next to the bus station, and introduced us to our group of 8 people who would be taking a guided visit to the ancient Incan citadel, Machu Picchu.
We were given headsets, the same as we used in Cusco, and led by our guide to the bus station. The 30-minute ride to the ruins climbs a series of steep switchbacks, and soon enough we were piling out with dozens of people just before 10am.
The Peruvian government has just brought in some new rules for visiting Machu Picchu (implemented in July 2017), which state visitors are given two different times to enter the city: Between 06:00 and 12:00 in the morning, and from 12:00 to 17:00 in the afternoon.
Visitors in theory must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide, although at the time of our visit in September 2017 this was not being enforced.
There are also strict laws about photography and videography inside Machu Picchu, and anything deemed to be commercial equipment must have special permits. We had heard stories of people not being allowed inside with professional cameras, so we were a bit nervous about entering the city and having our gear confiscated.
We did our best to make it look like we had less gear than we did – Leaving our big camera bag at the office, putting different lenses in pockets, hiding a GorillaPod tripod in a jacket, etc – But this proved to be needless, as the security guards didn’t check us. Still we were thankful we took the precautions.
Welcome To Machu Picchu
There’s few things quite as overwhelming as finally seeing a place that you have wanted to visit for your whole life. When we walked up the steep stairs, passed the watch tower, and finally arrived at the terraces that give the iconic view of Machu Picchu that everybody knows, we were stunned.
It was just as beautiful as we imagined it would be. The perfectly-placed walls stretching along a narrow stretch of land, positioned impossibly between two steep mountains really does take your breath away…Even with the hundreds of tourists wandering around.
No one knows what the true purpose of Machu Picchu was, or why it was built in such an incredible and difficult location. However most archaeologists believe it was a housing estate constructed by the emperor Pachacuti in the 15th century.
Our tour guide gave her talks about the history of Machu Picchu, but to be completely honest her enthusiasm was lacking and we found ourselves tuning out a lot while she was chatting.
We had also been paired with a few people with mobility issues, which in a place like Machu Picchu is not ideal. Most of our 2-hour tour was spent waiting for people to climb stairs or take rest breaks, meaning we barely visited a quarter of the site during our tour.
Eventually half the group decided to leave, and the guide walked them out, asking us to wait for her. After 20 minutes of sitting on a rock she finally returned, and we simply said we had had enough and would continue without her.
We weren’t overly impressed with the guide’s service or by being put in a group with people who couldn’t really walk (not that this is those people’s fault, and we applaud their efforts in visiting Machu Picchu despite obvious handicaps, but Lima Tours should have paired the groups better back at the office or split our group up). We felt much better continuing on our own.
Our Tip For Machu Picchu – Pay extra for a private guide. The additional cost is minimal, and your experience will be much better.
Being without a guide for the rest of the afternoon meant we obviously couldn’t ask questions or learn anything about the particular rooms we were seeing or the history of the city, but it did mean we could explore on our own time and take a lot more pictures.
We visited all of the lower parts of the city, found some llamas and took a few minutes to simply sit down and take in the epic views.
One thing that few people realise about the new regulation for Machu Picchu is that despite the tickets being officially marked with times (6am to 12pm for example), once you are in the city you can stay until closing, as well as have one re-entry. Note – this is only if you have a morning ticket.
All of the trails through Machu Picchu are now one-way, which is great for foot traffic, but means if you want to revisit a section you need to actually leave the city and come back in.
At about 2pm we decided to visit the Inca Bridge, and took the exit out of Machu Picchu and re-entered on the same ticket. This time we climbed to the top watch tower and headed on the small walk to the backside of the city.
The hike to the Inca Bridge only takes 30 minutes on a return trip, but access closes at 4pm, so it’s important to get there before then. We wandered out, took our pictures, and returned to the main gate to take the bus back to Aguas Calientes.
Once back in town we collected our bag from the Lima Tours office and were taken to our hotel for the night, which also happened to be one of the nicest hotels in Aguas Caliente, Casa del Sol Machupicchu.
It was perfect timing, as the moment we checked in it started to rain heavily. We relaxed in our room for a few hours, going through all of our photos from the day.
As part of our stay at Casa del Sol we also had a delicious 3-course meal included for dinner. It was delectable, and we passed out quite early, ready for the next day’s final adventure.
Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain
What really stood out for us when joining the tour with Say Hueque was the chance to spend a second day in Machu Picchu. This is one of the most remarkable architectural sites in history, and it felt a shame to rush through it in a few hours.
For our second day in Machu Picchu, Say Hueque had managed to secure two permits for us to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. These need to be booked well in advance, and can only be done at the time of buying your tickets to Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu had been sold out for our date months ahead, so this was our only option to get a bird’s-eye view of the ancient city.
At 4:30am we jumped out of bed and headed straight to the bus station, aiming to be one of the first people in the city for sunrise. Unfortunately about 300 other people had had the same idea, and obviously set their alarms much earlier than us, as the line stretched up the street and around the corner. We stopped by the Lima Tours office to put our backpack with laptops and clothes into a secured locker.
We jumped in line, and took turns going back to the hotel for breakfast, which opened at 5am, so we wouldn’t lose our places. With stomachs full and stocked up on coffee, we waited in the queue until 6am, when the buses finally started driving people up the mountain.
Luckily the line moved fairly quickly, and we managed to jump on a bus at about 06:20, getting us to the gate just before 7.
We basically sprinted through the gate and ran up past the watch tower, where Alesha had scouted a position the day before that she thought might be good for sunrise.
The sun had already peaked above the mountains, but some thin clouds gave off incredible light. Like the pro that she is, she managed to capture a stunning shot of the city.
Our tickets to climb Machu Picchu Mountain were allocated for between 8-9am (there’s a second time from 9-10am as well), and with only 400 permits a day we knew it would be much quieter than the ruins below.
We had our tickets checked by the guard and started climbing the steep, rocky steps towards the peak. The summit sits about 600m above Machu Picchu city, but it only took us just over an hour to reach the top.
The views the entire way up were sensational, but being at the peak was a wonderful experience. Far below us was the ruins of Machu Picchu, and we were surrounded by the snow caps of the Andes Mountains. We had an early lunch (sandwiches that we had bought at a bakery the day before in Aguas Calientes), and admired the view.
After snapping our shots we noticed some black clouds starting to roll in off the mountains, and headed back down to the city. We wandered through once more, stopping to take pictures of llamas as we went, then trekked to the gate and bussed it to town.
As part of our tour Say Hueque included a lunch for us to enjoy, and we headed to one of the nicest restaurants in town to eat. We feasted on Peruvian dishes, downed with boutique beer, then collected our bag for the journey back to Cusco.
At 4pm we jumped on the train to Ollaytantambo, then transferred into a private car for the last 2 hours to Cusco. We checked back in to the Jose Antonio, grabbed our big backpacks and passed out absolutely exhausted after the previous days’ excursions.
It was a tough decision opting to do a tour rather than trekking to Machu Picchu, but overall we’re happy that we did. We’re sure we’ll return to Peru one day, and can always trek then, but just in case we don’t we managed to visit the most important Incan sites and learnt a lot about their history and culture.
Booking with Say Hueque also worked out perfectly, as we were on a tight schedule and didn’t want to waste too much time trying to plan these things ourselves. By leaving it all up to them we knew our trip was in good hands. Accommodation, transfers, permits, tickets, guides – everything was organised for us, meaning we could focus on the destination.
We’d definitely recommend booking a trip to Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu with them if making the most out of limited time in Peru is important to you.
For now our dream of visiting Machu Picchu was complete, llama pictures and all. With the Galapagos Islands on the horizon we had a lot to look forward to, but our time spent around the Sacred Valley is something we won’t forget.
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