Many travelers to Peru rush straight to the Machu Picchu Incan archaeological site, arriving with little or no understanding that Incan culture is still very much alive in the country. For our first visit to the iconic Incan citadel, we chose to get to Machu Picchu the slow and culturally immersive way on the 7-day Sacred Valley & Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu journey. Sometimes just called the Lares trek, this trip includes Incan villages, trekking in the Andes, and lots of traditional Incan food, clothing, and crafts before that big Machu Picchu moment.
To Machu Picchu through Living Incan Culture
Despite the demise of the Incan Empire in 1533 at the hands of gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors, Incan culture lives on in Peru where Incan festivals, traditional dress, crafts, and foods endure, especially in and around the city of Cuzco (spelled Cusco in Peru) which was once the heart of the Incan Empire.
Though often simply called the Sacred Valley, the full name of this area in southern Peru is The Sacred Valley of the Incas because of the importance of the region to the Incan Empire as evidenced by the concentration of Incan archaeological sites in the valley. Descendants of the Inca still live here, some in very traditional ways.
One of the signature trips offered by Mountain Lodges of Peru is a culture-and-adventure-filled journey called the Sacred Valley & Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu. Here’s what to expect day by day.
Day 1: Escape from Cuzco via the Inca Trail
We got to know our guide Enrique Mayta as a van took us, and the seven other travelers in our group, out of the city of Cuzco toward the Sacred Valley. Enrique had been working with Mountain Lodges of Peru for seven years when we met him and he proved to be gregarious, patient, and knowledgeable with great English skills.
Finally free of the grip of Cuzco, we took a quick break in our journey with a stop at the Centro Textil URPI weaving and textile cooperative which was created by 15 local families. During our visit, traditionally dressed women explained their natural dying process (in Spanish and in English), other women demonstrated traditional weaving techniques, and a few penned-up alpacas and suris (the dreadlocked cousin of the llama) served as proof of where the weaving material comes from in the first place.
Of course, there were also lots of textiles for sale, but Enrique urged guests to hold off on any purchases since we would be seeing much more authentic textiles later in the trip, and he was right.
Next, we stopped at the Incan village of Chinchero which includes an Incan archaeological site with terraced hillsides and stone building foundations, and a church that the Spanish built on top of some of the Incan structures in one of their signature power play moves. The church is home to an elaborately painted wood ceiling plus murals and framed paintings in the Cusqueña style. Noted for the religious subject matter and lavish use of gold leaf, this style of painting developed in the Cuzco area during the Spanish occupation. The paintings were often done by indigenous artists and this style continues to this day.
From the colonial church, we got the chance to hike on a section of the so-called Inca Trail. This Andean road system is a 25,000 mile (40,000 km) network of footpaths through Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina along the Andes. Near the church in Chinchero, a section of the original Incan road has been rehabilitated and is open to hikers. It was a 3 mile (5 km) mostly-downhill walk to descend 2, 272 feet (830 meters) from Chichinchero to the town of Urquillos in the Sacred Valley. A hearty boxed lunch kept us going through the beautiful canyon with views of glacier-capped mountains that eased us into our new Sacred Valley surroundings.
After the hike, we piled into our waiting van then made an unplanned stop in a small village where we happened upon celebrations that were part of the annual Virgen del Carmen festival. We watched as the Virgin was paraded out of the town’s Catholic church on the shoulders of the devout as brightly costumed dancers acted out indigenous history. Enrique called this “Incatholicism”, a kind of melding of Incan beliefs and Catholic doctrine.
Soon we arrived at the Lamay Lodge, owned and operated by Mountain Lodges of Peru, which would be our home for two nights. If you like your outdoor adventures with a healthy dose of comfort, then this lodge, opened in 2015, fits the bill with a Jacuzzi in the central garden near a sunken outdoor “living room” with a firepit and large stylish rooms with wood floors, rain showerheads, and plenty of hot water. The food (beet salad, beef tenderloin, garden vegetables) was plentiful and delicious, and when it was time to hit the hay we discovered that hot water bottles had been placed in our bed at turndown.
Day 2: Lunch, Inca style
The next day we hiked uphill for about an hour to reach the village of Amaru located at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) with awesome views of snow-capped peaks including two iconic giants: Veronica and Ausangate. On the way up, Enrique told us about his own childhood in a similar village where he’d be sent out to tend herds of livestock just like the kids we saw all around us as we hiked.
For Enrique, it was a family chore but also the chance to spend time with other herders to share conversations and food and adventures like looking for bird eggs behind clumps of grass, hunting frogs, catching viscacha (a long-tailed rabbit-like critter), and skunks which he said are delicious. Enrique seemed wistful about these memories and we worked hard to keep them coming. His recollections were foreign to us (eating skunks?) but also somehow reminiscent of Karen’s own mountain childhood.
From Amaru, we walked down to the even tinier town of Viacha for lunch cooked by placing meat and potatoes into a hole in the ground along with super-heated rocks. It’s a method called pachamanca and it dates back to Incan times. The name comes from combining the Quechua words for earth (pacha) and pot (manca). The tender meat, including the best cuy (guinea pig) we’ve ever had, and succulent potatoes would have been delicious even without the added spice of history.
After lunch, we walked down to the Pisac archaeological site. The Pisac site (sometimes spelled Pisaq) is a large and rambling site that sprawls along a ridgetop overlooking the Sacred Valley. The Inca used the spot to grow food, conduct ceremonies, and as a residential area. Enrique made sure we saw as many highlights of the site as possible, including a canyon wall where important Incans were buried in niches carved into it.
When the site closed, we returned by van to Lamay Lodge, tired, dusty, satisfied, and ready for the hot tub.
Day 3: Fueled by coca leaves
After checking out of Lamay Lodge, we all got in the van to travel to the Ancasmarca archaeological site. In Quechua, the language of the Inca and other groups, the word ancasmarca means “blue village” or “village inhabited by eagles”.
The origins of the site are unconfirmed, but a leading legend has it that a shepherd’s llama warned him about a coming flood, so he took his six children to the top of Ancasmarca hill which grew in height as the water rose, thus keeping the family alive so they could propagate the human race. The Ancasmarca archaeological site is notable for its round stone buildings that were first used as houses and then for food storage.
We had the whole site to ourselves and as we began to file out after touring it, a small store opened up for us. Enrique encouraged the shoppers in the group to buy textiles at this shop because the products are guaranteed to be made from true alpaca and the artisans get the money directly–each weaver’s name was written on the price tags of the items they made.
After piling into our van, we drove over the Lares pass at 14,636 feet (4,461 meters), then wound down to the town of Lares the on to the nearby village of Cuncani. From there, we had a 2 mile (3.2 km) uphill hike in front of us as part of a long afternoon walk that would take us from Cuncani to the village of Huacahuasi. This seemed like the perfect time to try coca leaves for the first time.
A staple of the Incas and revered as a source of energy, dried coca leaves are still carried and chewed by many. First, Enrique explained, we needed to choose the three most tender and intact leaves in the bag to represent the three levels of the Incan world: the condor in the sky, the puma on land, and the snake below ground. These leaves were then offered up to the four cardinal points in tribute to the mountain gods, called apus in Quechua. Ritual over, we grabbed a few leaves, chewed them slightly, then let them steep between cheek and gum.
The coca leaves tasted mildly bitter, but that subsided and, placebo effect or no, we raced up the climb leaving other guests and the two emergency horses (one loaded with supplemental oxygen, a first aid kit, and water) behind. As we headed up to the Cuzccasa Pass at 13,833 feet (4,216 meters), we passed many grazing llamas and alpacas.
As we descended down the other side of the pass the trail took us past two stunning lakes, one deeply blue and one deeply green.
Our arrival at Huacahuasi Lodge was made extra special by the greeting we got from staff members complete with hot towels and snacks. All rooms at Huacahuasi Lodge, which Mountain Lodges of Peru built in partnership with local residents, have mountain views and private patio hot tubs. The sound of a nearby waterfall lulled us to sleep each of the two nights we spent here.
The most unique part of Huacahuasi Lodge, however, was the staff. Hired from the local village of Huacahuasi, the men and women who work at the lodge were charming and helpful and always impeccably dressed in the traditional style. The men wore short, vibrant ponchos and tasseled hats and the women looked like walking Christmas trees in elaborately embroidered skirts with patterned woven shawls pinned around their shoulders all topped off with bowl-shaped hats with wide, ornamented chin bands. Initially, our “cultural show” radar was tripped, but it wasn’t a costume that employees were made to wear for the benefit of guests. Everyone in the village was dressed the same way.
Day 4: Inside Incan village life
This day was spent exploring Huacahuasi village which was in ship-shape condition with tidy dwellings, a big school, a clean river, healthy-looking horses and llamas, and lots of laughing children. Enrique explained that almost everyone in the region has Incan blood, but these days most people are a mix of ethnicities thanks to decades of immigration.
In the backyard of one home, Karen sat next to the sister of a weaver as she breastfed the baby she had given birth to two days earlier in a clinic in the town of Lares about six miles (10 km) away. Enrique explained that women in the village used to have their babies behind their houses, but now most women go to Lares when they get close to giving birth where they stay with relatives until their time comes and they go to the clinic. The newborn was so tightly wrapped in the woven blanket that all women use to carry bundles on their backs–including gurgling, cooing, human ones–that we never saw its face.
At a different spot in the village, we got another traditional cooking demonstration. This time, locally grown potatoes were cooked in a pile of hot earth and dry horse manure. The tender morsels, dug straight out of the ground and eaten immediately, were very tasty and we were assured that the high temperature kills any bacteria from the horse manure…
Back at the Huacahuasi Lodge, we concentrated on resting up for the following day’s epic hike to the town of Ollantaytambo.
Day 5: Higher, tougher, longer
We were up early and ready to get started on the longest, highest, hardest hike of the trip. The 8 miles (13 km) route between the village of Hucahuasi in the Lares Valley and the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley includes a total ascent of 2,250 feet (685 meters) and a total descent of 2,211 feet (673 meters). In other words, just another day in the Andes.
Along the way, we saw two vizcachas (a rabbit-like animal that lives in rocky boulder-strewn areas) and many birds including noisy southern lapwings and meaty Andean geese. Free-range herds of llamas and alpacas were also almost constant companions and at times it was so quiet that we could hear them delicately munching on the high altitude grasses.
Even non-shoppers in our group were charmed by the smiles of the women who appeared seemingly out of nowhere with bundles on their backs. As we approached, the bundles were quickly unwrapped and the contents pleasingly arranged on a cloth on the ground to display handmade textiles, hats, bags, and more that were all for sale.
After making it up and over the Ipsaycocha pass at 14,646 feet (4,464 meters), we hiked down a bit to Lake Ipsaycocha at 14,212 feet (4,331 meters) where an amazing hot lunch was ready including soup, pasta, wine-poached pears, tea/coffee/hot chocolate, and more all served in a tent with tables and chairs. It was like a mirage, only the food was very real and very delicious.
Near the tent, a few more women had set up their own pop-up shop and we noticed that one of them was selling an unusual bag with an exterior pocket which had been woven into the bag as one piece (not woven as a pocket and then attached to the bag later). During a textile talk in Cusco given by members of the non-profit group Threads of Peru, we’d learned that this ancient weaving technique is now extremely rare because few still know how to do it. With that in mind, we urged a textile-loving member of our group to buy the remarkable bag and she did, directly from its remarkable maker.
Fueled by the incredible lunch, we made short work of the 3.5 mile (5.5 km) sometimes very steep descent to where our van waited to take us to the town of Ollantaytambo. Though still a small town, Ollantaytambo felt busy and bustling after our time in such remote areas of the Andes. Mountain Lodges of Peru does not have its own accommodation in Ollantaytambo, so we made do with one of the standard lodgings in this popular tourist town that’s visited by thousands of travelers on their way to Machu Picchu.
Day 6: Ollantaytambo town
Most travelers pass through Ollantaytambo on their way to Machu Picchu, but the town is home to its own important namesake archaeological site. Our morning visit to the Ollantaytambo archaeological site, was greatly enhanced by Enrique’s detailed and illuminating explanations about the stonework, architecture, and overall importance of the site including agricultural areas and the amazing Sun Temple. If you visit the Ollantaytambo archaeological site on your own, consider hiring a guide to get the most out of this site.
After our visit to the Ollantaytambo site, we walked to the nearby train station to board the Peru Rail Vista Dome train for the 27 mile (43 km) trip to the town of Aguas Calientes directly below the Machu Picchu site. Vista Dome carriages are almost entirely windows to maximize the views during this slow and steady journey.
Before boarding, we each picked up a boxed lunch from the El Auberge Hotel which is located at the train station. The hotel also has an excellent restaurant and its own very large organic garden on land that was terraced by the Inca. That garden produced most of the goods for our meal which included a chicken and pesto sandwich, a quinoa salad wrap, a chocolate brownie, fruit, and a homemade granola bar–far superior to the small slice of cake and wheat roll with butter and cheese served on the train.
Our home for the night in Aguas Caliente was the Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel which has a pool, a spa, and lush grounds. Our Junior Suite included a fireplace, a small sitting area with a couch draped in rustic handwoven blankets, and a large bathroom with a heated towel rack, candles, well-fitting cotton bathrobes, and clever slippers that riffed on the black rubber sandals with soles made from tires that are worn by many Incan groups.
Day 7: Our Machu Picchu moment
Sadly, we were only at the Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel for a few hours since we were up at 4 am and headed for the Machu Picchu archaeological site, a process that starts with waiting in line for the bus up to the site followed by the journey up the curving narrow road to the entrance.
The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and the most iconic and popular destination in Peru attracts thousands of visitors per day. Getting through the turn styles at the entrance is not unlike surviving the crush of fans at a general admission concert as everyone rushes forward in search of a rare private viewing spot or an even rarer photo of the structures before other visitors flood the place.
Of course, Machu Picchu is visually impressive and our first glimpses of the structures and the setting were breathtaking. However, after the previous week’s experiences in living Incan villages, sitting with living Incan descendants still practicing deeply rooted Incan traditions, Machu Picchu was stunning but impossible to connect with on an emotional level.
The crowds didn’t help either. The so-called Lost City of the Incas has certainly been found and as we watched people swarm the site we cherished the private Incan moments we’d enjoyed on our journey to get there.
The following day was the anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu. When we asked Enrique if the Peruvian government or Peruvian people would celebrate that anniversary in any way he said no, adding that he and many Peruvians don’t like or respect Bingham. Enrique pointed out that there was a Peruvian who explored Machu Picchu a decade before Bingham (though the world doesn’t know about him) and Bingham himself was taken to the site by locals. And, of course, the Incans were there first.
For more, here’s our full post about visiting Machu Picchu.
Get a bird’s eye view of some of the scenes from our Sacred Valley & Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu in our drone travel video, below.
Why choose Mountain Lodges of Peru?
Mountain Lodges of Peru is distinct for two reasons. The first is their exclusive lodges which ensure high-level accommodation.
Even better is the fact that itineraries on the Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu trip offer choices of activities every day, essentially offering two distinct itineraries which allow guests to choose exactly what they want to do and see. For example, on Day 2 of this trip, guests can choose to visit the town of Pisaq and its famous market in the morning or do the morning hike that we did before everyone meets up for lunch and then a group activity.
Book a 5-day/4-night Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu trip with Mountain Lodges of Peru ($1,990 to $2,650 per person depending on the season) or book a 7-day Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru ($2,450 or $3,450 per person, depending on the season). All trips are all-inclusive except for alcohol.
Insider travel tips
Summer (November through April) is the wet season in Peru. Winter (May through October) is the dry season which is best for outdoor activities because there will be little or no rain and the skies will be clear.
Bring small denominations of Peruvian soles so you can purchase textiles or other keepsakes along the way. Change is often not available in villages or on the trail.
Peru has a depleted ozone layer and the Lares Adventure takes you to high altitudes which magnify the strength of the sun. To prevent sunburn, wear long sleeves and long pants, wear a hat, and use sunscreen with SPF 50 or higher.
Your Sacred Valley & Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu will begin and end in Cuzco where Mountain Lodges of Peru has three boutique hotels including El Mercado, El Retablo, and X.O Art House. All combine playful design and polished service and make a great base before and after your trip.
Mountain Lodges of Peru hosted us on their 7-day Sacred Valley and Lares Adventure to Machu Picchu trip so that we could tell you about it
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about Adventure Travel
Here’s more about Travel to Machu Picchu