I was lucky to take three international trips in 2019 and as I look ahead to 2020, I’ve already decided on two of the three locations for next year’s international adventures. Now that we’re entering the holiday season, the content will shift in that direction, so this will be my final travel post of the year, but I wanted to share something really special: my journey through the Sacred Valley of Peru and my visit to Machu Picchu.
I spent a few days with my travel companions exploring Cusco, the home base where most travelers begin their journey to Machu Picchu. Some try to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back in a day but that seemed incredibly exhausting so we decided in advance to spend three days between a few of the towns in the valley using various forms of transportation, this gave us a lot more time to explore.
Here’s how we broke it up. On our first day, we shared a taxi from Cusco to Urubamba with an hour long stop in Chinchero and spent the night in Urubamba. On the second day we took the morning train to Agua Calientes, then the afternoon bus to Machu Picchu where we stayed until closing at sunset. That evening we returned by bus to Agua Calientes and stayed at a hotel. On the third day we took a train from Agua Calientes to Ollaytaytambo with a three hour stop for sight seeing and lunch, then shared a taxi ride from Ollaytaytambo back to Cusco. At the end of these three days, we concluded we had paced it perfectly.
Urubamba is an hour drive from Cusco, and your taxi driver can stop in a little town called Chinchero. It’s a tiny town where textiles are made and gives tourists a brief look at the process and the opportunity to buy them. Llama and alpaca feeding free of charge. ;)
We stayed the night at a nice hotel in Urubamba, ate breakfast then walked the colorful downtown area to get a feel for it. We loved all the tuk tuks the local use to get around!
My travel companions and I had read about the luxurious Hiram Bingham round trip train ride from Cusco to Agua Calientes but realized that ticket is super pricey. We wanted the train experience but not at that price, so we booked the one way Sacred Valley train on Peru Rail from Urubamba to Machu Picchu and it was totally amazing! I almost wrote a single blog post just about this train ride because it was exceptionally fun and now ranks as one of my top five travel memories ever.
Large pieces of luggage are not allowed on this train so we decided in advance we would live out of a backpack for our three day journey carrying nothing but a few toiletries, phone chargers, and a change of clothes. We caught the train at the Tambo Del Inka hotel at 10:30 in the morning and as soon as we boarded we were enchanted.
Riding this train feels just like living in a movie. The classic bar car and polished caboose offer panoramic views and a brass railing along the back of the train where we stood and soaked in the scenery. I loved every detail and every minute!
The passengers are limited to 33 so never felt crowded, and we were lucky to be traveling on a perfectly sunny day. The second half of the journey included a three course lunch with wine in the elegant dining car. The food was simple but tasty (hello aji sauce!) and the dessert was the best tres leches cake I’ve had in years.
As we wound our way to our destination of Machu Picchu, we watched the topography slowly changing as the train followed the Urubamba River from the fertile valley through the mountains then into the jungle. The train continues to wind its way through the valley as the river turns into rapids making its way to Agua Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
We drank our last cup of coffee and gathered up our backpacks for our arrival. The only thing between us and Machu Picchu was the final 20 minute bus ride! Bellies full, we were ready for a hike to one of the modern seven wonders of the world.
To get to the site you need to take a bus, but before we boarded we wanted to store our backpacks first. There are several places in town near the bus ticket office where you can store belongings. Agua Calientes is a charming little town and the only access in and out is via train, so plan ahead. The line for the busses to Machu Picchu can get long too, so allow for time to wait in line as well.
Arriving at Machu Picchu is a thrilling experience, but you can’t there unless you have your bus ticket, site ticket, and your passport. We almost forgot our passports so don’t make that mistake! Once you make it to the top and through the gate, get ready, it’s very exciting because you’re about to witness one of the coolest places in the entire world.
How lucky were we to be there on a sunny day, the shadows cast by the bright sun brought out all the contrast in this UNESCO World Heritage site. Amazing! The hike through Machu Picchu takes about 2 hours if you’re going at a leisurely pace. You can hire a guide or do a self guided tour with some research beforehand, it has a fascinating history.
Avid hikers can skip the bus ride down and hike the trail back down to Agua Calientes. We opted to stay the night to rest after a long day and also so we could experience the nightlife, eat more Peruvian food, and listen to local musicians play pipe music.
Our final day in the Sacred Valley, we ate breakfast at our hotel, then explored Agua Calientes on foot for a couple of hours. It’s here you can pick up any souvenir you’re looking for in the market stalls and shops. This town welcomes thousands of travelers passing through every day.
The last town we wanted to see was Ollaytaytambo, we took the train to this small village where we stopped for lunch and spent a few more hours walking around this little town. There’s a fortress and some ruins to climb here if you have the time!
By the end of this third day we returned to Cusco, exhausted from all the climbing but with hearts full from the sights seen and the laughter shared. This merry band of friends loved every moment of our three days spent in the Sacred Valley!
As I flew home from Peru, I reflected on how fortunate I am to experience traveling to new countries. Peru possesses its own unique culture with its inspiring vistas, savory flavors, colorful textiles, and people who exude warmth and kindness. For me, international travel is the best way to experience humanity because it teaches me things that books never can. Watching how other cultures live and interact, how they eat and celebrate is eye opening and reminds me every time how deep down we’re all alike. We all want the same things in life: a happy home, laughter, good food, great friends, and a few fun stories to tell from our adventures.
My biggest takeaway from my trip to Peru was pure gratitude. It’s a country that lives with far far less of the comforts we enjoy in the United States, and it reminded me how crazy lucky I am, to have traveled with friends who are from Peru and to have had the opportunity to experience its culture, food, and people.
If you haven’t visited, definitely add the Sacred Valley of Peru to your travel bucket list!