Starting your trip in ancient Inca capital Cusco, you will travel to the highlights of the Sacred Valley, picturesque Ollantaytambo and the world-famous citadel of Machu Picchu, before journeying southeast of Cusco to the spectacular and seldom-visited Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain. This 5-day trip takes in the very best of both sides of the Peruvian Andes: both its known and its unknown.

Highlights

  • Explore the ancient yet cosmopolitan city of Cusco
  • Discover the secrets of Machu Picchu Citadel
  • Be amazed by the beauty of Sacred Valley towns like Ollantaytambo
  • Marvel at the magnificent, multi-colored Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Lima; Fly to Cusco: Free Afternoon Cusco
Day 2 Pisac & Ollantaytambo tour; Arrive in Machu Picchu Town Aguas Calientes
Day 3 Explore Machu Picchu; Return to Machu Picchu Town & Back to Cusco Cusco
Day 4 Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain Trek Cusco
Day 5 Adiós: Fly from Cusco to Lima, Depart Peru  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Lima; Fly to Cusco: Free Afternoon

The beautiful neighborhood of San Blas
The beautiful neighborhood of San Blas

After arriving into Peru's capital, Lima, take your domestic flight onward across the Andes to Cusco, where you will be met and transferred to your hotel.

The rest of the day you will spend at your leisure. Remember that Cusco is at 11,000 ft (3000 m) above sea level, so take it easy and remember to drink lots of water.

Cusco was designed by the Incas as a city for walking, so start your exploration of the city's ancient, narrow stone alleyways on foot. Take a stroll through the Plaza de Armas; if the weather is beautiful, it is a perfect place to sit on a balcony or bench and enjoy a cup of coca tea while adjusting to the elevation.

If you feel like doing something more active, Cusco is one of Peru's most cosmopolitan destinations, and jam-packed with museums, galleries and historic sights. Suggestions include:

  • Visit the Qoricancha complex, also known as the Templo del sol (Temple of the Sun). The temple was built by the Incan Emperor Pachacutec (1438 - 1572), and became one of the Inca Empire's major centres of worship. After the arrival of the Spaniards, it then became the basis for the construction of the Convento de Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo Convent), a 17th-century Baroque Church that is a telling example of the clash between Andean and western cultures.
  • Walk up above the city to Sacsayhuamán and next-door Quenqo, both archaeological complexes used mostly for religious and agricultural rituals, located 2.5 miles (4 km) from central Cusco. Built by the Killke people, Sacsayhuamán is a marvel of ancient architecture, a monolithic fortress built from giant blocks of stone, the origins and assembly of which remain shrouded in mystery. 
  • Discover the elaborate Puca Pucara ruins—an architectural complex of alleged military use with multiple plazas, baths, aqueducts, walls, and towers. It is believed that the entourage of the Incan emperor used it while he stayed at Tambomachay, the elaborate estate and baths nearby. The ruins are further along the same road (to Pisac) that Sacsayhuamán and Quenqo are on.
  • Take a walk uphill from the Plaza de Armas to the district of San Blas, one of the city’s most attractive areas with beautifully restored buildings, artesanía (handicrafts) workshops and stores where you’ll find high-quality crafts, comely cobbled streets and quaint little restaurants serving traditional Andean cuisine.
  • Experience the legendary Mercado Central de San Pedro (central San Pedro Market), a large and diverse market famous for its mouth-watering fruit juices, home-style meals, medicinal herb stalls, and rows of various meats, breads, vegetables, and other necessities. 
  • Eat lunch (and dinner too) at a local Peruvian restaurant to sample the distinctive local flavors and cooking techniques of the Peruvian Andes. See here for more on the typical dishes of Peru and where to try them.

Day 2: Pisac & Ollantaytambo tour; Arrive in Machu Picchu Town

Pisac Citadel
Pisac Citadel

This morning you will depart from your hotel in Cusco into the beguiling Sacred Valley, first traveling to Pisac. Photogenically perched on hillside above is one of the most important archaeological sites in the region, Pisac Citadel, built in the outline of a giant Andean condor. Here you will have opportunity to explore ancient Inca burial grounds, irrigation systems, and astronomy centers. Hundreds of terraces were ingeniously built here in places that received plenty of sunlight, sheltered from the wind and heavy rain to obtain better harvests. Once controlling a strategic route that connected the Sacred Valley to the jungle, the citadel is home to fine stone masonry work easily rivaling that of Machu Picchu.

Next, you will head down into the town of Pisac at the valley bottom. This town is famous for its bustling textile market. Choose from a wide assortment of colors, styles, and designs for traditional handicrafts to take home with you.

Afterwards, you will stop for lunch, partaking of traditional Peruvian-Andean cuisine at a restaurant in the town of Urubamba, with a beautiful setting overlooking the rushing Urubamba River. 

This afternoon, you continue deeper into the Sacred Valley to the ancient Inca settlement (and still-thriving town) of Ollantaytambo, one of the few remaining places in the Sacred Valley that have retained its original Inca urban planning. Walk through the streets lined with Inca-era canals, built to Inca layouts and with Inca foundations to many of the the ancient houses still in use today. Climb the impressive agricultural terraces from where you can enjoy an Inca’s-eye-view of the valley. From the top, you’ll be able to see some of the quarries from where the stone for Ollantaytambo was sourced. 

From Ollantaytambo, you will then take the train to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) where you will be staying tonight. The town has many fine places to eat, and you may like to try one of them to recharge your energy levels for tomorrow's adventure.

Be sure to get your sleep tonight: tomorrow you will be exploring what most people deem to be the highlight of a trip to South America: Machu Picchu.

Day 3: Explore Machu Picchu; Return to Machu Picchu Town & Back to Cusco

Machu Picchu: an incredible feat of Inca construction
Machu Picchu: an incredible feat of Inca construction

Staying in the closest town to Machu Picchu, after breakfast it is time to get an early start this morning to beat the crowds, guaranteeing the best possible views of the ancient ruins. From Aguas Calientes, it is an easy 25-minute bus ride up to the entrance of Machu Picchu citadel.

This 15th-century Inca citadel, located at 7,970 ft (2,430 m), is a masterpiece of engineering that served as a sanctuary and retreat for the Incan Emperor Pachacutec and his royal court. Machu Picchu, which means "Old Mountain," is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Yet this incredible complex was abandoned just one century after its construction and remained largely hidden to the outside world until the early 20th century. 

Your guide will lead you around the site and explain the different buildings and curious corners of the complex. Approximately one-third of the site has been rebuilt to its original structure, giving visitors a sense of the grandeur and artistry of the original citadel. After the tour,  you will have time to explore the citadel independently.  

You will next take the bus back to Aguas Calientes. Take time to grab your own lunch in the town center before connecting to your train to Ollantaytambo, and then your transfer back to your hotel in Cusco. 

Day 4: Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain Trek

The vibrant colors of Rainbow Mountain
The vibrant colors of Rainbow Mountain

Whilst yesterday you saw one of the world's most famous and popular historic sites, today it is time for a journey to one of the Sacred Valley region's least-known and least-crowded destinations. The  Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain is only about 12 mi / 20 km from its famous sister Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain but, while Vinicunca attracts thousands of visitors, its smaller sister Palcoyo (altitude 16,000 ft / 4900 m) remains relatively undiscovered.

Today you will be taking a mini-trek to get to the top of the mountain, making this perfect for travelers who want to view one of the colorful Rainbow Mountains on a shorter and gentler hike.

You will be picked up early in the morning from your hotel (approximately 5:30-6 am) to begin the 3.5-hour drive to the trailhead for the trek, stopping for breakfast along the way. The drive will be along the "Red River" (a river at its reddest during the wet season months of January to March, with the hue due to red-mineral mudslides) and you will be able to stop for a short time to appreciate this phenomenon.

Today's hike is short and in just under an hour of hiking you will attain the summit at over 16000 ft / almost 5000 m  via a fairly gradual climb.  Along the way, you are likely to spy llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas grazing the lonely slopes and at the top, the bands of colourful minerals making up the rocky mountainscape are absolutely stunning.

It is then time for you to return back down the mountain for your transport back to Cusco. On the 3.5-hour return drive, there will also be a stop for lunch.

You will be dropped off at your Cusco hotel at approximately 17:00.

The remainder of the evening is yours to spend as you wish. Cusco has many fantastic places to eat and drink, and your final night in the city is the perfect occasion to try one out and toast your trip. 

Day 5: Adiós: Fly from Cusco to Lima, Depart Peru

Peruvian children in typical Andean dress
Peruvian children in typical Andean dress

Today is your last day in Peru! This morning, you will be met at your hotel for a transfer to Cusco Airport, where you will catch your return flight to Lima, and then transfer to your international departure.

Adios (goodbye) and ¡Buen viaje! (safe travels!)