Explore the essential highlights of Peru's Sacred Valley with this short itinerary. Begin with two days in Cusco, touring the textile markets and ancient ruins that the ancient Inca capital is famous for. Take a guided excursion to the top sites of the Sacred Valley, and enjoy a one-day trek on the Inca Trail, ending in Aguas Calientes. Complete your trip with a full day of exploration in the Machu Picchu citadel complex, the perfect grand finale.

Highlights

  • Experience local culture in the imperial Inca city of Cusco
  • Explore the beauty and culture of the Sacred Valley
  • Discover the stunning citadel of Machu Picchu.

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Fly to Cusco - Free day in the City Cusco
Day 2 Cusco City Tour Cusco
Day 3 Sacred Valley Tour: Cusco - Chinchero - Ollantaytambo Ollantaytambo
Day 4 Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Aguas Calientes
Day 5 Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu - Cusco Cusco
Day 6 Fly from Cusco to Lima, Depart Peru  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Fly to Cusco - Free day in the City

Cusco from the Sacsayhuamán ruins
Cusco from the Sacsayhuamán ruins

Head to the Lima airport for your transfer flight to Cusco. This ancient city is the former capital of the Inca empire, which reigned from the 13th to 16th centuries after conquering the Killke settlement on the same location.    

Remember: you will be 11,000 feet (3,000 m) above sea level, so take it easy and remember to drink lots of water. Since Cusco was designed by the Incas as a city for walking, start your exploration of the narrow stone alleyways on foot. Take a walk through the plaza — if the weather is beautiful, it's a perfect place to sit on a balcony and have a cup of coca tea while adjusting to the elevation. 

Suggested activities include: 

  • See the Cathedral, the most imposing monument in the central Plaza de Armas and a repository for Cusco's colonial art. Its construction lasted for almost 100 years, beginning in 1560 and ending in 1654. 
  • 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. 
  • Explore San Blas, an old bohemian quarter famous for its picturesque white walls, blue doors, and creative artisan community. 
  • Eat lunch at a local Peruvian restaurant and sample local flavors and cooking techniques—crackling pork, pickled vegetables, seasonal flavors, bread baked in earthen ovens, roasted vegetables, and sweet donuts make for a delicious and filling meal. 

Day 2: Cusco City Tour

Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman
Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman

Today's tour will begin at the local San Pedro Market. The locals shop at this market every day in order to stock up on produce and groceries making this market experience as authentic as Peru gets. The market is located indoors and includes many different food stalls and vendors. Be sure to try their endless selection of fresh fruit smoothies, which are the perfect refreshing treat.

From the market, you will head to the most important temple of the Inca Empire, the Sun Temple, known as Qoricancha. Here, you can observe detailed and intact architecture, and within the temple, you will see smaller temples dedicated to the moon, rainbow, stars, lightning, and thunder, among others.

From Qoricancha, you will walk to an important religious site called Sacsayhuaman, which features immense stones. Although the site was religious, the Spanish considered it a military fortress because of its location and the way it was built. After your tour, head back to your hotel for some rest.

Day 3: Sacred Valley Tour: Cusco - Chinchero - Ollantaytambo

Maras Salt Flats
Maras Salt Flats

Today you will depart from your hotel in Cusco for a visit to the village of Chinchero, believed by the Inca to be the birthplace of the rainbow. You will see extensive Inca terraces and several small colonial-era churches, before exploring Chinchero's famous textile production and weaving crafts. Tour a weaver's studio and learn about the process of cleaning and producing the wool, then browse the selection of vibrant textiles for the perfect handmade gift. 

Continue to Moray, a series of incredible stone amphitheaters built by the Inca. Considered one of the world's most innovative and architecturally advanced cultures, the Inca likely used these stone complexes for experimental agriculture in micro-climates.

From Moray walk (or take a bus) to the Salinerasthe Maras Salt Flats—an intricate network of stone pools developed by the Inca to harvest salt through evaporation. These salt flats are still in use today and are carefully maintained by a close community with regulations and rules that date back to the time of the Inca. 

Spend the night in the small historic town of Ollantaytambo, high in the Sacred Valley. Explore the surrounding stone fortresses, archeological ruins, and cobblestone streets of the town, which remain remarkably intact similar to their original appearances after construction by the Inca.

Day 4: Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Ollantaytambo - Km 104 - Aguas Calientes

The Inca ruins of Winay Wayna
The Inca ruins of Winay Wayna

Early in the morning, we will take the train from Ollantaytambo to Km 104 where the short Inca Trail starts. By train, we see how the valley turns into a canyon and the scenery begins to alter as the cloud forests appear on our approach to Machu Picchu. We will disembark the train at Km 104 and start the hike along a challenging uphill path. 

Start the trek to your first archeological site—Chachabamba. This beautiful site is very well preserved thanks to its location in the valley and was likely used for religious purposes and as a gatekeeping point for this entrance to Machu Picchu. 

From here ascend for 3 hours to the ruins of Wiñay Wayna (2732 m / 8964 ft), an ancient rest area for travelers on the Inca trail. Here, we'll stop to enjoy our delicious boxed lunch, with superb views of the massive green mountains and native orchids.

The trail then becomes gentler and continues through the semi-tropical cloud forest to Intipunku (Sun Gate) where you'll enjoy your first panoramic views of Machu Picchu. Descend half an hour to the citadel for a short break and an opportunity for photos.

We won't be exploring the ruins today, as it will be getting dark. After passing through the Sun Gate, we'll cross the site to take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, where you'll check into our hotel to rest and relax in anticipation of a full-day visit to Machu Picchu tomorrow.

Maximum Altitude: 2732 m / 8964 ft                     
Minimum Altitude: 2088 m / 6850 ft
Distance Travelled: 10.79 km / 6.67 ml (to Inti Punku)  
Approximate Walking Time: 7 hours

Day 5: Machu Picchu Excursion: Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu - Cusco

Explore the ruins at Machu Picchu
Explore the ruins at Machu Picchu

Get an early start to beat the crowds and get the best views of the ancient ruins. From Aguas Calientes, it's an easy 25-minute bus ride up to the Machu Picchu ruins.

This 15th-century Inca citadel is located at 7,970ft (2,430 m) and 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 considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Built as a seasonal residence for the Inca family, Machu Picchu was rarely home to more than 800 people, and during the royals' absence, a mere 100 servants would remain at the site to maintain the grounds. Machu Picchu was abandoned 100 years after construction due to the Spanish conquest 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 building complex. Approximately one-third of the site has been reconstructed into its original structure, giving visitors a sense for the grandeur and artistry of the original citadel. 

After the tour, take the bus back to Aguas Calientes for lunch and then board the train to Ollantaytambo. Upon arrival in Ollantaytambo, meet your driver for your transfer back to Cusco.

Day 6: Fly from Cusco to Lima, Depart Peru

A pretty street view in Lima
A pretty street view in Lima

Today is your last day in Peru! You will be met at your hotel for a transfer to the Cusco Airport, where you will catch your flight back to Lima and then transfer to your international departure. Alternatively, stay and extend your time in Peru — there's so much to see and explore. ¡Buen viaje!

Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Oct 16, 2019