Machu Picchu and beyond: what to see and do in Peru’s Inca heartland

Mountain highs

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Perched high in the Andes in the south of the country, Peru’s Inca heartland – taking in  Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu – is the stuff that every traveller’s dreams are made of. Here lost cities sit cradled in jagged mountains, villagers in brightly coloured ponchos till the fields and imposing colonial cathedrals sit cheek-to-jowl with pre-Columbian temples.

Read on to discover the best things to do in the area the Incans regarded as the ‘Navel of the World’…

Acclimatise in Cusco

<p>Sorin Colac/Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Sorin Colac/Alamy Stock Photo

Your journey starts in Cusco, a charming town sitting at an altitude of 11,150 feet (3,400m) that is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was the Incan capital for close to 400 years and makes the perfect base for acclimatising to the heady heights of this part of Peru. Here you’ll find grand colonial buildings, intriguing Incan ruins, sophisticated cafes and world-class restaurants. Start your visit with a coca tea. Locals insist it’s the best way of avoiding altitude sickness and it is offered on arrival at most of the city’s hotels.

Soak up the vibes of Plaza de Armas

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

This grand square is surrounded by the Baroque churches and palaces built over the ruins of the Inca city when the Spanish conquered it in the 16th century. It’s busy but rarely crowded and the benches around the statue of Pachacuti (pictured), the ruler during the city’s Incan heyday, are just as likely to be occupied by locals gossiping as weary tourists resting their tired feet. There are plenty of cafes and bars overlooking the plaza, or wander through the square at night, surrounded by illuminated buildings and the muted chatter of late-night revellers heading home.

Check out the quirky colonial art in Cusco Cathedral

<p>Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Alamy Stock Photo

Cusco Cathedral was built between 1560 and 1664 using stone pilfered from Incan fortress Sacsayhuaman. It sits on the foundations of the Koricancha, a temple dedicated to Inti, the sun god, and is an imposing jumble of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance styles. The 16th century religious art inside is equally idiosyncratic, mixing Catholic themes and Incan symbolism, and best enjoyed in a version of The Last Supper by Marcos Zapata (pictured), where Jesus and his disciples feast on cuy (guinea pig), a local delicacy.

Catch a Saturday morning civic parade

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Can’t make it to Cusco for Inti Raymi, the annual festival honouring the Sun God in June? Fear not. Cusco holds impressive civic parades in and around Plaza de Armas most weekends. Sometimes they celebrate the local emergency services. Other times it might be the home guards or local associations that are celebrated. The day I visited, local council workers were enjoying their day in the spotlight. Each parade is colourful and lively and begins when a group of elders, resplendent in brightly coloured ponchos, blow on conch shells, just as they did in Incan times.

Dine responsibly at Nuna Raymi

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

Tucked up on Triunfo Street, just around the corner from the cathedral, Nuna Raymi is a restaurant whose philosophy is to support and work with local producers, with each community involved proudly displayed on a map on their placemats. The restaurant's suppliers include Jose Cruz, a farmer from Cachin, who says Nuna Raymi has provided both a living and a future for his village, with young people deciding to stay on farms. The food here is as special as the restaurant's intentions too.

 

Find the creatures hidden in the Incan stone walls

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Many of the grand colonial buildings in Cusco are built on the foundations of equally grand Incan buildings. Some, like the Palace of the Archbishop, even incorporate the astonishingly intricate stone walls built by the ancient stonemasons into their design. Stones were cut to shape and assembled like a giant game of 3D Tetris without using mortar. Take a moment to check out the northeast wall and see if you can pick out the shapes of various animals formed by the stones. It’s a bit like spotting constellations, and posters hanging by nearby souvenir stalls (pictured) provide a handy reference.

Lose yourself in San Pedro Market

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Don’t be put off by the touristy stalls around the entrances to this vast covered market on Calle Tupac Amaru. Inside you’ll find a cacophonous maze of stalls selling all kinds of local produce, traditional medicines, flowers and the freshest smoothies in town. It’s a reminder that Cusco is, and always has been, an important market town for the small farming communities that surround the city. Feeling peckish? Head to the food stalls at the back to sample authentic local favourites like Caldo de Pollo (chicken soup), salchipapas (fried sausages and potato) and even ceviche.

Soak up the bohemian vibes in San Blas

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

San Blas is a charming area of steep cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings in the hilly area of Cusco north of Plaza de Armas. Here you’ll find boutique hotels, quirky cafes and stylish stores selling garments made from the finest alpaca wool. The Mirador here offers panoramic views across the city and demarcates the point most tourists don’t venture beyond. Push on a little further and you’ll be rewarded with charming laneways lined with pots bursting with colourful geraniums and hidden corners where little old ladies sit on stools selling local sweet treats for tiny prices.

Try not to be cuy

<p>Ian Wood/Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Ian Wood/Alamy Stock Photo

Cuy (guinea pigs) have been a staple of the Andean diet since the time of the Incas. And even today there are plenty of restaurants in Cusco offering you the chance to try this most Peruvian of dishes. Some use tomatoes and coca leaves to dress them up as Incan warriors, but simply roasted and served with chips is probably best. Consider heading to the food markets held in front of Convento de San Francisco de Asis where they also sell suckling pig and roast chicken, should you baulk at the prospect of eating a distant relative of your childhood pet.

 

Visit the spiritual home of potatoes

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Peru famously grows over 4,000 varieties of potatoes and once you leave Cusco and head into the Sacred Valley, you’re in the heart of their spiritual home. It is the unique composition of the high Andean soil here that gives Peruvian potatoes their vibrant red, yellow, black and purple colouring and the antioxidants that make them the healthiest potatoes you’ll ever eat. Find out everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s favourite carbohydrate at Parque del Papa (The Potato Park) in Pisac, a living museum dedicated to Indigenous knowledge and traditions related to the humble vegetable.

Discover who ruled before the Incas

<p>Courtesy of the Inkariy Museum</p>

Courtesy of the Inkariy Museum

A little further into the Sacred Valley you’ll find the brilliant Inkariy Museum, dedicated to the pre-Hispanic Peruvian cultures that preceded the Incas. You’ll spot it halfway along the road between Pisac and Urubamba, marked by an arresting statue of Viracocha, the great creator deity of pre-Incan civilisations in Peru. There are eight different pavilions all told, each containing important artefacts as well as life-sized figures of each civilisation ‘in action’.

Give Urubamba a chance

<p>Robert Wyatt/Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Robert Wyatt/Alamy Stock Photo

Sitting on the Urubamba River and surrounded by high rugged mountains, Urubamba was once a favourite resort of the Inca. Now a dusty regional centre, it is often overlooked as visitors rush onward towards Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. That’s not to say Urubamba doesn’t have its own charms. The shaded Plaza de Armas (pictured) offers a cool respite from the intense Andean sun. And there’s a bustling traditional market, a line of artisan shops on Avenida Berriozabal and a charming cemetery where families decorate headstones with fresh flowers sold by a flower stall just outside the walls.

Feast on Incan soul food at the AMA

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

Set in a shady trestled garden out on Avenue Mariscal Castilla in Urubamba, the AMA restaurant not only serves up some of the tastiest food in the Sacred Valley, it gives back to the community as well. The locally sourced, nourishing, delicious food served here is prepared by four single mothers, trained by AMA and gives local traditional recipes an exciting contemporary edge. Healthy homemade cooking that feeds the heart and soul, they say. Try the seared trout, straight from the Urubamba River to your plate.

Wander through the terraced salt ponds in Maras

<p>mauritius images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo</p>

mauritius images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

Salineras de Maras is an amazing patchwork of salt ponds that cascade down a steep mountain just 15 minutes from Urubamba. They date back to pre-Inca times and remain the largest pre-Hispanic salt mines in Peru. There are close to 4,500 ponds all told, fed by salt water from an underground spring, channelled to the ponds by rudimentary trenches. The Spanish conquerors never took over the local salt production, leaving it to the locals who continue to produce salt here to this day.

Raise a glass in a local chicheria

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

Chicherias are local pubs where you can sample chicha de jora, the local fermented corn beer. Chicha has been around since Incan times and the methods of making and serving it have changed very little over the centuries. It is served directly from the big ceramic pots it is fermented in and you are expected to tip a little on the floor before you take your first sip as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Most chicherias are little more than a room in a mud brick building with the entrance marked by a stick with a red plastic bag on top.

And play a game of sapo while you’re there

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

While you’re visiting a chicheria, one of the locals may challenge you to a game of sapo. It dates from Incan times too and is a kind of Peruvian version of darts, except that the object is to toss coins into the mouth of a golden toad sitting on a stand with holes around it. Each hole is worth a certain amount of points and getting your golden coin into the frog’s mouth is the equivalent of a bullseye. While drinking chicha does not help with your accuracy, it does make it even more fun.

Sleep in a luxury pod hanging off an Andean cliff

<p>Skylodge Adventure Suites/Airbnb</p>

Skylodge Adventure Suites/Airbnb

The Skylodge Adventure Suites on the outskirts of Ollantaytambo take the concept of ‘room with a view’ to dizzying new heights. Each transparent luxury capsule hangs off the side of a cliff and can only be reached by manoeuvring along a 1,312-foot (400m) mountain route in full climbing gear. The views up the valley are truly breathtaking, but if you don’t fancy staying the night, you can also climb up, have lunch, then zipwire back down.

 

Step back in time in Ollantaytambo

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

People have walked the narrow, cobbled lanes of Ollantaytambo since the 13th century, but it was during the reign of Pachacutec in the 15th century that the town really boomed. The impressive Incan ruins on the edge of the town date from this time and mark one of the few places where the Spanish conquistadors lost a major battle. Today it is a lively trekking town, bustling with restaurants, cafes, hotels and travellers in hiking boots setting off for Machu Picchu. Surrounded by jagged peaks, it’s the perfect place to spend a few days before or after your trek.

Learn to weave with the mammas of Huilloc Alto

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

Thanks to social projects like Awamaki and tour companies like Intrepid Travel, visitors can get a real insight into rural Andean life by visiting communities like Huilloc Alto, a tiny village an hour’s drive up into the mountains from Ollantaytambo. Here you’ll spend the day with the brightly-clad mammas as they weave gorgeous textiles on traditional backstrap looms using tools made from the bones of condors. Take the chance to admire the mammas’ incredibly beautiful shawls and their ‘Montera’ basket hats, perfect for holding flowers as well as modern day essentials like keys and mobile phones.

Enjoy a traditional pachamanca

<p>Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel</p>

Ryan Bolton for Intrepid Travel

Chances are the mammas will also insist you join them for a traditional pachamanca. Pachamanca means ‘earth pot’ in the native Quechua language and is used on special occasions to prepare an Andean feast of meat and vegetables slow-cooked in a hand-dug underground oven covered with hot rocks. The Incans believed that cooking the food underground returned it to the earth and acted as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). It still holds that meaning in small communities today. But increasingly it is simply an excuse to celebrate with family, friends and special guests.

Then bag yourself a truly unique souvenir

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Each item created by the mammas in Hullioc Alto and other small Andean communities is handmade and truly unique. They spin the yarn themselves, dye it using only natural ingredients and spend days weaving each blanket, throw or poncho. More importantly, each piece has its own individual story, incorporating motifs handed down from the Incans or created especially to tell their unique tale. You can buy directly from the mammas, or visit the Awamaki shop in Ollantaytambo where their textiles are incorporated into a variety of amazing leather goods fashioned by local leathersmiths.

Get yourself to Machu Picchu

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

There are many ways to get to the famous Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, including a breathtaking four-day hike following the ancient Inca Trail. The most relaxing way is by train. Services leave Ollantaytambo throughout the day and follow the Urubamba River as it races towards Aguas Calientes through verdant valleys and increasingly lush vegetation. Panoramic windows offer immersive views of the spectacular scenery and a recorded guide points out the important sites along the way, including age-old Incan terraces as old as Machu Picchu itself.

 

Prepare to be humbled

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

At Aguas Caliente a fleet of buses awaits to ferry you up a twisting mountain road to the spectacular Incan citadel of Machu Picchu – the reason so many visitors come to this part of Peru. A short, steep path takes you up a series of terraces and then onto the viewing platform overlooking the main complex. Whatever the weather, it's more dramatic and awe-inspiring than you imagined, and since the introduction of timed tickets, it's less crowded too. Take time to soak up the view before exploring the citadel itself, now populated by a flock of alpacas.

Climb the Huayna Picchu’s ‘Stairs of Death’

<p>lu_sea/Shutterstock</p>

lu_sea/Shutterstock

For a totally different perspective on this most famous of views, consider climbing Huayna Picchu, the 8,835-foot-high (2,693m) mountain directly behind the citadel. The walk along its paths is recognised as one of the most incredible short walks on the planet, but it is not for the faint-hearted. The ruins here once housed a crotchety priest and the stairs are so steep that they are known as the ‘Stairs of Death.’ Only 400 permits to climb Huayna Picchu are issued each day, so make sure to book in advance.

Unwind in Aguas Calientes

<p>Nathaniel Noir/Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Nathaniel Noir/Alamy Stock Photo

Whichever route you choose to take to Machu Picchu, a dip in the thermal baths back down at Aguas Calientes is the perfect way to unwind and soothe aching muscles. These tiny natural thermal springs gave the town its name and are located beside a rushing river on a terrace above the town, about a 10-minute walk from the train station. There’s a bar there too, so you can sip on a Pisco Sour while you relax and contemplate all the wonders that you have seen on your journey through this part of Peru.

Getting there

<p>Peter Moore</p>

Peter Moore

Cusco and the Sacred Valley are served by Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, although long-haul travellers will have to transfer through Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport first.

Peter Moore visited in April 2024 and was a guest of Intrepid Travel as part of the operator's Classic Peru itinerary. His visit with the Huilloc mammas was hosted by the Awamaki local business initiative and the village of Huilloc Alto.

Now take an in-depth look at the secrets and mysteries of Machu Picchu...