Machu Picchu headlines bucket lists for travel to Peru, but going there opens even more discoveries of ancient mystical energy and modern-day wonder. Check out UNESCO World Heritage Sites and rural villages with essential tips to know before you go.
Hang out with the people of Peru. Stare at their mountains and ancient ruins, but stand in the crowds when a parade pops up, and go to the churches for worship, not just sightseeing.
Peru is all about gentle people living in harmony and in balance. The places to visit in Peru connect in astounding ways.
Mother Earth is important to them — learn to say Pacha Mama – and keep an eye out for religious images incorporating her with a triangle-shaped skirt seeming to symbolize nature.
Their mountains are the Andes — with energies different from the Alps or the Rockies or the Grand Canyon. Peruvian people hold close relationship with the Andes mountains, knowing things in their souls.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Talk to the kids (and yourself!) before arriving in Peru about how some cultures engage like friends and family with trees and birds and rivers and mountains. That will allow noticing the energies available here.
Sea Level or Mountain High
Lima is low, and Cusco is high. Machu Picchu, Pisac and Urubamba are in between. Think about that when building an itinerary to visit Peru. Altitude sickness is miserable, and it’s wise to allow some time adjusting to height.
“I’ve been to mile-high Colorado and did just fine” won’t necessarily work in Peru. Cusco is charming, and it’s 11,152 feet above sea level.
Might be wise to discover the Incan capital Cusco last. Be leery early on about Pisac or Urubamba, both at 9,514 feet above sea level.
Machu Picchu where lots of walking is supposed to be fun is still a big deal at 7,874.feet above sea level.
Lima First, or Last?
Sea-level Lima at 505 feet has plenty of wonders to launch this trip, but I found it really hard not to rush off to the heights. Whether front end or heading home, here are a few Lima highlights.
- Miraflores district with hotels, restaurants, shopping and pre-Inca sites and pre-Columbian museums. City tour recommended. Descend into the catacombs of the Monasterio de San Francisco.
- Plaza de Armas in the city center and Huaca Pucilana, a great pyramid of religious power from 200 – 700 AD which my tour guide called a sacred place of encounters.
- MAP -the pre-Columbian Art Museum – presents archeology from every region of ancient Peru in an artistic point of view.
- So many restaurants. I honed in on ceviche for its cooling sensations of fresh seafood with lemon or lime. Keep in mind guinea pig is a national delicacy.
- Barranco is the artists’ quarter and San Isidro a residential area with parks and businesses.
- The shoreline includes high cliffs just right for hang-gliding and paragliding takeoffs.
Since the main airport is in Lima, and Machu Picchu is 312 miles away, exploring Lima can happen on both ends of a trip to Peru.
What Are The Regions of Peru?
Peru is big so advance planning is a good idea. It’s among the world’s top 20 countries in size, and third largest in South America.
Brazil and Bolivia are to the east.
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Three regions figure in travel planning: Coastline—that’s the Pacific Ocean—Highlands – dominated by the Andes – and the Amazonia – tropical rainforests and natural reserves.
Getting situated looking at a map, zoom in south and central to locate Machu Picchu, Urubamba, Pisac and Cusco.
To consider a rainforest experience, look east of those four special places and a bit north to find Puerto Maldonado.
For me, that involved a flight, boats with oarsmen, hammocks and open air sleeping, fabulous fresh food and encounters with native people, healers and wildlife of many sizes.
Sacred Valley of the Incas
This valley is a lovely place to practice deep breathing while acclimating.
I stayed in a guest house named Willka T’ika, meaning sacred flower in the Quechua language.
Wellness retreats happen here too. Join their day trips enriched with guides who live in the Sacred Valley.
Hikers and backpackers can explore winding rivers and high mountain meadows with grazing alpacas and llama.
SheBuysTravel Tip: To go deeper than the beauty – spectacular as it is -spend as much time as possible with local tour guides. Urubamba is the hometown of my guide, Gabriella Menseses, a serious student of sacred traditions in Peru, leading trips regularly.
Say and spell it, this magical place in Peru. Poetic rolling off your tongue after some practice. Ollantaytambo is an Inca fortress in the Sacred Valley.
Climb it for a wide view of the land, and for the cardio benefits! Muse about the people living in a little community here blending their lifestyle of centuries with the arrival of tourism.
Once again on this journey, the stone constructions trigger gasps of wonder from everybody trekking the paths.
I bought a textile from a woman with guinea pigs wandering in her kitchen. Large enough to cover a card table, too precious to use that way.
Catch the train to Machu Picchu from this town in the center of the Sacred Valley. Trains connect also to and from Cusco.
The village of Ollantaytambo is actually the train stop.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Hope to see some sherpas at the train station. They’re the strongest shortest men imaginable, toting voluminous supplies for hikers along the Inca Trail. Perhaps they’re a clue to the cultural strength of those ancestors who built with enormous rocks.
Urubamba is more about hotels and restaurants and not archeological sites.
This immense place of stones so large and so tightly placed compels big imaginative thinking. What theories could possibly explain how people using their hands and backbones lifted and placed these?
Open spaces and inner caves are here too, filled with light and, presumably, symbolism. Historians, tour guides and archeologists are needed for that insight.
Find Saksaywaman in the upper part of the city of Cusco.
Mysterious. That’s what everybody says about the Nazca Lines. They’re deeply imbedded designs in sand dunes looking like monkeys and hummingbirds and fish.
Big ones—-like a 1,640 foot long fish!
Geoglyph is the formal word for the deep designs.
Ica is the city 15 miles to the north of the Nazca Lines. They’re protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Not sure if it’s best to think big views from a hilltop, or valley with handicrafts market when heading to Pisac. Both are important for ancient history merging with life in the moment, and that’s a Peruvian distinctive.
Can we travel sustainably, respecting such ancient cultures? Yes, with intention.
Paracas National Reserve
This is coastal eco-systems magnified! A dozen miles south of Pisac find penguins, pelicans, flamingoes, dolphin, sea lions and sperm whales.
Sail northwest for an hour to the Ballestas Islands where more sea lions and cormorants are protected.
This capital of the Inca world from 1100 to 1400 is a bustling place, with winding steep streets. The Spanish arrived in 1532 and built their idea of fine architecture on top of Inca buildings in this Peruvian Andes land.
Cusco translates to mean “center of the world.” Local legends say the city was founded by two people who rose out of Lake Titicaca which is today considered the highest navigable lake in the world.
On the lake are floating islands made of reeds where the Uro people live, descendants of an ancient Peruvian culture.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Look for signs that both cultures survive today, co-mingling. Architecture, art, foods, events – ancient Inca and colonized city.
Living up to UNESCO World Heritage Site standards means Inca history has to be visible, and that’s tough after earthquake devastation.
Remember, it’s high – 11,152 feet above sea level. Chew the coca leaves in the hotel lobby, and drink lots of water. A slow pace is a good idea.
Mate de coca tea is served lots of places to ward off the headaches and deep fatigue. Often an oxygen tank to borrow too.
Old Mountain may not be a name to lure the family to travel so far to see a place of stone and shapes and terraces, but that’s what Machu Picchu means in the Quechua language, and spelled as one word.
Old it is indeed, a retreat of the 15th century Inca people.
Mystical, and energetic and spiritual too is what many visitors discover. Harmony is a key word, whether geometrical shapes or the way the stone building blocks fit together.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Take the bus up instead of hiking from the little city below to save your energy for the astonishing views, and steep climbs within this Citadel. Better choice to trek up to the Sun God Gate where hikers from the Inca Trail arrive. That worked for me, turning around when I got to the top and pretending I had camped four nights and completed this fabled Trail.
Things to Look for at Machu Picchu
Windows in trapezoid shapes were strategically placed to capture winter and summer solstice shadows. That’s just one of many tips to learn on guided walking tours of Machu Picchu.
The details are remarkable. What about knowing the way pools of water reflect the sun indicate planting times?
If you longed to be here because of beautiful National Geographic-quality photos, expect to be surprised. Looks different when arriving.
Those iconic images are taken from the top——and will resonate after some serious walking. Even a llama or two, or more, wander these ancient grounds.
The llama graze; their land was agricultural terraces for as many as 1,000 people in Machu Picchu’s heyday.
The Inca drawbridge functioned then; for me it was an endpoint of a hike in the cloud forest. Orchids adorn many of the walkways, and not just a few. Peru‘s biodiversity is legendary. My guide said to watch for 180 different orchid types.
Often called the lost city of the Incas, this day trip within the country feels like so much more than an interesting archaeological site. The stories of the condor, for instance.
Praised for its ability to fly from Lima to the Andes, the condor was sacred, representing the heavens as a messenger.
Inca stonemasons carved outspread wings into a natural rock formation: the Temple of the Condor. Into the floor was carved the head and neck.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Since absorbing the depth of beliefs about Machu Picchu and its purposes is really difficult to do, prepare a bit with the kids — and yourself! Learn a few words at least, like “ayni” which means reciprocity and defines Peruvian people’s return-favors lifestyle. Know that “apu” means spirit, and the mountains and the stones are alive in their own way.
Where Else To Go?
Sip a pisco sour, a Peruvian favorite cocktail, and either plan a return trip or resume trekking. Additional bucket list places in Peru include Huascaran National Park, a biosphere with lakes and glaciers and an abundance of protected plant species, or Kuelap, a ninth century pre-Inca city in a cloud forest with a watchtower and a castle.
- Consider Arequipa with modern hotels and international events, fine restaurants and an export center for alpaca and vicuna wool textiles. Plus more beauty: Arequipa buildings are white, built with volcanic stone.
- Colca Canyon in the Arequipa region includes 14 towns, where art, music and festivals maintain pre-Hispanic traditions and ancient farming terraces are used today.
- Watch Andean condors fly here, in their natural habitat. Might want to overnight in Chivay for this experience, at the highest point, Cruz del Condor.
- Iquitos is on the. banks of the Amazon River, and a gateway to the Amazon rainforest. Head from Iquitos to jungle inns. Or, immerse in the biodiversity with 140 species of reptiles alone.
- Trujillo, north of Lima, claims perfect weather, with beaches also loved by surfers. Interesting cultural contrasts here with dance competitions as well as fishermen using reed canoes as if thousands of years ago.
For SheBuysTravel tips about international travel with kids, read this.