Cuzco to Machu Picchu in a week
This itinerary can be done without a guide and vehicle but we recommend the use of one even if you don’t arrange to use them the whole seven days. The Inca Trail portion can only be done with a guide and group since the government will not allow solo travelers on the trail. Lots of companies offer budget to luxury options on trips to Machu Picchu but all of them have to work with the local trekking companies resident in Cuzco. Most will allow you to mix and match different options, such as driver and guide, budget accommodations, luxury accommodations, etc. Another option would be to hire a taxi for the days you want to be on your own. Because of the altitude, you don’t want to do too much walking early on. It's common for guides and drivers to eat with their clients at meals. If you do not wish this to occur, let the tour operator know upfront so that other arrangements can be made for drivers/guide meals.
There are several choices in getting to Cuzco. Cuzco has flights from several places in Peru but most tourists come from Lima. There is also bus service to Cuzco which can be easier on the body since you adjust better with the altitude.
Day 1: Cuzco - Arrive in Cuzco. Altitude sickness is common here, so take it easy today, and carry water wherever you go. Once you're settled in, you will find a wealth of places to eat in Cuzco but we recommend that you head over to Tunupa for lunch; they offer some of the best guinea pig or alpaca dishes from the local Novo Andino cuisine as well as other local specialities.
If you're feeling good, stop at a market for a bottle of wine (all of Peru's labels are inexpensive, but Tacama is the most reliable). Then start off on the standard city tour, but we recommend you see the sights in this order because it's different from what most tourists do and you won't be stuck behind a tour group - the cathedral, where the biblical paintings include images of llamas and macaws; Santo Domingo/Koricancha, a Catholic church built atop an Incan temple; and the nearby ruins of Tambomachy, Q'enqo, Puca Pucara, and Sacsayhuamán; by the time you finish this last stop, you can pull the wine out and enjoy the setting sun. Ciccolina for tapas among Cusceños in the bar and then dinner in the restaurant.
Day 2: The Sacred Valley of the Incas - Eat hearty since you have a long day ahead of you. Start off by making a beeline for the village of Pisac, which the bus tours visit later on. You'll soon be in a breathtaking landscape: silvery eucalyptus, purplish clay slopes, and the slate-green Urubamba River. Arrange to get dropped off at the Pisac ruins' higher parking lot and walk to the Intihuatana (Sun Temple). Note the caves in the cliff to your right: They are South America's largest pre-Columbian cemetery. Return to the parking lot via the lower path. Then head to contemporary Pisac to spend half an hour at the market. Get to the restaurant Allpamanka, in Yucay, for lunch by 12:30 p.m. which offers a lunch buffet that is popular with tour bus companies; try a local specialty such as causa, a potato casserole. After lunch, head to Moray, a fabulous depression in which, experts theorize, the Incas built concentric terraces to grow crops in different microclimates. Feel free to explore. At the end of the day, rather than head back to Cuzco, get dropped off at the Sol y Luna Lodge & Spa. There's just one more short walk today—to the warm and intimate dining room.
Day 3: The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu - Today you'll be walking part of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This is one of the world's most rewarding day-hikes. The final climb brings you to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, where you achieve your first and most picturesque view of Machu Picchu. Remember that this portion must be booked through a tour group operator. Wake early so that you can get to the train station in Ollantaytambo to catch the 8:05 train. Most tour group companies can arrange for tickets to a stop called KM 104, an hour away. Make sure you have water since there will not be any on the Trail. Follow your guide up to the ruins of Huinay Huayna, (‘Forever Young’), to join the Incas' classic highway from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. Stop here for a snack and water, but save your lunch for the Sun Gate, another hour away. You will find that the Trail is fairly easy until you reach the Sun Gate where you climb a flight of 50 stairs. Machu Picchu is most crowded at midday and clears out by 4 p.m., when the last train heads back to Cuzco, so take your time finishing the hike. Late afternoon is the prettiest time to wander through the intricate stonework. The guards will herd you out at around 5:15, and the last bus down to Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu, departs shortly after the gates close. Aguas Calientes is a boring tourist town with a budget hostel, but crossing the bridge to the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel makes you feel like you are entering Paradise. We recommend that you get a room with an outdoor shower, where the water flows Inca-style from a groove carved into a rock. The dining room in the hotel does pasta, done perfectly al dente.
Day 4: Machu Picchu - People start lining up for the first bus to Machu Picchu in the wee hours of the night, but as long as you leave the hotel by 5 a.m. you should get a seat. Sunrise at the ruins is no secret, but we recommend that while your fellow early risers are gathering at the watchtower, head to the other high point, the Intihuatana (it offers the best vistas, and you'll have it all to yourself). Begin touring with your guide by 7 a.m. so you can be on your way up Huayna Picchu—the sugarloaf in the background—by 10 a.m. It's a steep 45-minute climb, but it ends with another great panorama. Plenty of people take the main route up, but have your guide show you the little-used trail down, via a cave once thought to be the Temple of the Moon. You should be back in time to beat the crowds to the Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant, just outside the gates. After lunch, do a circuit of the restaurant's poster-size photographs from Hiram Bingham's 1911 "discovery' of Machu Picchu. Head back into the ruins for a proper farewell, then take the bus down to the Inkaterra hotel in time for a complimentary pisco sour (Peru's national cocktail) in the lounge and dinner.
Day 5: The Sacred Valley of the Incas and Cuzco - The best way out of Aguas Calientes is on the morning train to Ollantaytambo where, if you wanted, a short bus ride to Cuzco is available. The train doesn't leave Aguas Calientes until 8:35 a.m., reaching Ollantaytambo at 10:05. The main square in Ollantaytambo is usually swarming with hikers and porters, but a few blocks away is a vibrant community still living in pre-Columbian dwellings. If you still have a guide, see if he can take you into one of these houses, where alpaca fetuses hang on the walls (to bring fertility), ancestors' skulls watch over the goings-on from niches in the Incan stonework, and dozens of guinea pigs scoot underfoot (the entrée at some future feast). After checking out the temple ruins across the river, head to lunch at El Huacatay, in nearby Urubamba, where you'll feel like you're a guest in the owner's home. On your way back to Cuzco, stop in the village of Chinchero. The market is only on Sundays, but there are usually women in the plaza arranging their crafts for the bus tourists who come through later, and the shops sell fine weaving at low prices. Don't forget to peek into the elaborately frescoed nineteenth-century church. You should be back in Cuzco by five. Once back at your hotel, make a 7:30 dinner reservation at the stylish Museo de Arte Precolombino's glass-capsule café. The exquisite primitive art collection is open until ten.
Day 6: Cuzco - Follow the locals to the Mercado San Pedro this morning. If you've got last-minute gifts to buy, try the Casa Ecologica for fair-trade textiles or the T'Ankar Gallery for well-made but pricey indigenous weavings and pottery - both are in the same courtyard as Ciccolina, where you had dinner a few nights ago. Have an early lunch at Greens, a vegetarian restaurant with an earthy decor before you leave Cuzco for other places of interest.
Into the Jungle (2-3 Nights) - If you're game, fly to one of the following two lodges between Days 1 and 2, because anything after Machu Picchu is sure to be a letdown. Pack one bag and leave in Cuzco what you don't need. The Manu Wildlife Center, owned by a nonprofit environmental conservation group, has the most creatures but fewer comforts. If you want a taste of the jungle in an elegant setting, go to Reserva Amazónica. The surrounding cattle ranches mean fewer wild animals, but the huts are plusher and there's a masseuse. Reserva is also a better option if you have only two nights (although three is ideal in either location) because the 30-minute charter flights to Manu are highly undependable. Reserva also offers community visits, which Manu doesn't. Wherever you land, take part in as many outings as you can.
Urubamba Weavers' Route Trek (2 Nights) - The classic Inca Trail was the primary route between Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but the Incas traversed hundreds of other paths, and you can as well. Instead of catching the train to Machu Picchu on Day 3, drive to the trailhead of the Urubamba Weavers' Route. This hike from Ollantaytambo to Lares takes you through villages unchanged for centuries. The first camp lies in the shadow of 17,400-foot Terijuay. The middle of Day 2 marks the high point of the trek, literally-14,764 feet-after which a gradual descent leads through potato fields and into the tiny village of Cochayoq. Midway through Day 3, the trek reaches Lares and then you are returned to the Sol y Luna Lodge & Spa.
It is trecommended that you purchase the services of a treking company for this hike since it is at such a high altitude. This is a moderate-to-strenuous trek, with four to six hours of hiking on each of three days and recommended for experienced hikers only. Although the spongy moss underfoot makes this a relatively low-impact route-the Inca Trail, in comparison, is paved with stones-the altitude is a challenge. If you do have trouble, you can always take a hit of oxygen from your guide's canister or jump on the "ambulance horse." If serious symptoms persist, getting to a lower altitude is essential.