In the second chapter of my brief sojourn into South America, we’ll be taking a short two hour plane ride from Lima, the capital of Peru, to the vast city of Cusco. Nestled in an expansive mountain valley 11,150 feet above sea level, this ancient city spreads farther than the eye can see and is populated with many souvenir shops, bars, and cafes. Just a few hours by train from Machu Picchu, the former capital of the Inca empire boasts its own unforgettable landmarks from extravagant churches to towering ancient stone temples and forts. Before setting out on your trip to the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu, you can enjoy a cup of coca tea at the Plaza de Armas, admire the intricately carved wooden altars at the magnificent La Catedral, or explore the remains of Sacsayhuaman, an ancient Inca temple overlooking the city.

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For many visitors, altitude sickness can make or break your trip. Although it can be incredibly exhilarating to be in an entirely new place, being 11,150 feet above sea level can really take a toll on your body. Relax and take it slow when you first get to Cusco, you’ll thank me later. Take Diamox if you’re really nervous about the altitude, but be aware that there are a lot of not so great side effects. Ibuprofen has also been recommended as a great alternative to the medicine. Whether you decide to take medicine or not, you should definitely try the local coca tea, a herbal tea infusion that is said to keep altitude sickness at bay. Take slow walks around Cusco to get used to the air and don’t be afraid to take a nap or two –the sights aren’t going anywhere!

 

MACHU PICCHU

Due to frequent landslides, the journey to Machu Picchu can take almost half a day to complete. After a two hour bus ride up and down the valley, you’ll be catching a train for a scenic two hour trip along the roaring Urubamba river. Enjoy the breathtaking views of the Peruvian countryside as your luxury train takes you closer and closer to the famous village of the mountain.

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Unless you’re staying at the peak, you’ll most likely book a hotel in Aguas Calientes which is just 20 minutes away from Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is pretty touristy and is considered more of a rest stop than a tourist destination, but you’re guaranteed to find great bargains at the bazaars or enjoy a great meal for a reasonable price. Of course, you’re not just here for great bargains so let’s move onto the main attraction: Machu Picchu!

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The most familiar icon of the Inca civilization, Machu Picchu or “old mountain” sits at the center of a crown of giant mountains and is 7,970 feet above sea level. Climbing stairs at this altitude can be a real workout so don’t expect a stroll in the park when you get up to the city. If you’re relatively fit, then you should be fine. Hundreds of tourists, young and old, come to Machu Picchu everyday so it’s all very safe. Don’t let the photos fool you however, Machu Picchu is big. You can spend the whole day here and still find something you haven’t seen. You are allowed to explore at your leisure so I highly recommend walking through the entirety of the city just to understand how much effort and passion was put into the amazing architecture and the close connection between the Inca empire and nature. Sights you should definitely check out include the water mirrors, the Altar of the Condor, the Temple of the Sun, and the Royal Tomb. I recommend hiring a guide so you don’t miss out!

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Despite the ever growing number of tourists in the area, wildlife in Machu Picchu is diverse and plentiful. You’ll notice many well fed alpacas grazing in the plaza or enjoying the sun and breeze on one of the terraces in Machu Picchu. They generally mind their own business. As long as you don’t harass them, the patient alpacas make for very good photo ops. The highlands of Machu Picchu is also home to over 420 species of birds, making the ruins a premiere destination for birdwatchers. In terms of urban wildlife, you’ll find Cusco and countless other towns are home to many dogs (wild and domesticated). Leave them to their business and they’ll leave you to yours.

 

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So you’ve walked around Machu Picchu and you’ve seen all the sights the iconic city has to offer, what next? At the far end of Machu Picchu, there is a gate leading to the mountain that rises over the city. Huayna Picchu, or the “young peak” is 1,180 feet higher than Machu Picchu. With steep and slippery stone stairs, the climb up to the peak can be very challenging. It’s a formidable 2 hour hike and is not for the unprepared. Access to the mountain is limited to 400 per day, so book your trip well in advance if you’d like to get fantastic views of the valley along with a great workout.  scary save

There is only one path up and down the mountain and it’s quite narrow, so expect to give way to your fellow travelers as they disembark or embark. I highly recommend you pack sparingly, a big backpack is not going to do you any favors on those steep and restrictive steps. While we’re talking about restrictive spaces, if you’re claustrophobic you may want to take a rain check going all the way up to the peak as there is a tiny cave you have to literally squeeze through.

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If you’re not put off by the tight squeeze then climb up the ladder and get your perfect photo! The peak of Huayna Picchu is very, very small –I honestly cannot stress this enough. A pile of rock slabs make up the top of the mountain, so I recommend navigating the peak with great care and patience. If there are too many people at the top, wait until they take their pictures and leave before ascending. The view is worth the wait! Once you’ve captured the perfect photo from the peak, enjoy your descent and return to Machu Picchu for a well deserved rest.

 

SO LONG PERU

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It’s hard to put my experience in words (I know, I know), all I can really say is I highly recommend you pack your bags and go see the beauty of Peru for yourself before it’s too late. Due to the influx of tourists, Machu Picchu is slowly deteriorating and will be closed off to the public in just a few years. Take the chance now. Bring a close friend to share the memories, expect the unexpected, explore to your heart’s content, and live life to the fullest!

About The Author

Content Manager

A Hong Kong-native with a penchant for good food and drinks, Kelly Lo has always had a love-hate relationship with fitness. In the past, Kelly has backpacked across a good portion of the Nakasendō trail, gone mountain-biking in New Zealand, and white-water rafting in Australia. Now she dabbles in yoga and kickboxing in her new home, New York City. Kelly enjoys writing about her experiences, as well as promoting the Fitness Luxe mission of health and happiness.