If you tell someone you’re going to Peru, no doubt the first assumption he or she will make is that you’re going to Peru to see Machu Picchu – that iconic, 15th-century ‘lost city’ of the Incas that sits high in the mountains, contains a plethora of architectural mysteries, and is still one of the most recognizable stone sites in the world.
Aside from the heavy volume of visitors and the fact that it’s a bit out of town (most end up taking a bus/train/bus to get there), the fact remains that no matter how many times you’ve seen photos, Machu Picchu is not overrated; emerging onto a meadow full of grazing llamas and hearing nothing but silence, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.
That said, Machu Picchu is by no means the only thing to see in Peru (although it tends to be what the country is most famous for), or even the only thing to see around Cusco, the nearest city. For a variety of reasons (such as time constraints), some travelers cannot make the trip out to Aguas Calientes, the touristy town near the base of the ruins’ mountain – but this shouldn’t put a damper on your Peru trip! There are loads of things to do instead, and some of them are cheaper and can be done all in one day.
Test your courage by whitewater rafting the Urubamba
Day trips to the Urubamba Valley are easy to find and easy to book; you’ll usually spend a couple hours on the river and a couple hours getting to and from. Prices are immensely cheaper than those you’d find for the same sort of activity in the U.S., and what you’ll see along the river’s edge as you soar along – farmers, alpacas – will be hard to take your eyes off.
Although there are some Class III and IV spots, there are still tours that novices can join, and, at the end of the day, it’s all up to Mother Nature anyway. In rainy season, the river can be quite high and fast. Whether or not you have a full raft of people, you should be mentally prepared to get tossed in. Listen carefully to the safety instructions, and paddle like mad when your guide says so! You’ll come out of the trip with a huge adrenaline high, feeling rejuvenated and bold – and isn’t that why you’re traveling in the first place? Plus you get to tell people you went rafting on the headwaters of the Amazon!
Mountain bike through the countryside
The areas around the Sacred Valley (especially those off the well-worn Inca Trail) haven’t changed all that much in the past few centuries, and when you’re on two wheels, you have the opportunity to see a lot more than you would from a bus window. Bike tours often go to the Salineras (salt mines), around Ollantaytambo, and through Andean communities along the way. Some companies offer half-day trips, and skilled riders will find some single-track available as well. If you go with an established company, you’ll have all the equipment you need provided – just expect a few downhill spots to be trickier than you’re used to.
For all manner of tours – whether it be rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, paragliding, etc. – going with as reputable a company as possible is a good idea. South American adventure companies are often just as safe as others in North America, but they are not always held to the same standards (legally), which means many new ones pop up and have less of an idea what they’re doing and might skimp on some of the extra safety features. A good rule is not to go with the cheapest company you come across; settle with one of the middle-priced ones if possible.
So many visitors assume Cusco is a mere stopping point before the ‘real’ attraction of Machu Picchu, but Cusco is a pretty fantastic destination on its own. The cobblestone streets and Spanish architecture are welcome mazes for aimless wandering, and there are museums (like the Inca Museum in the Palacio del Almirante [Admiral's Palace]) and churches (like the Cathedral of Santo Domingo or ‘Cusco Cathedral’) for history lovers.
Although you’ll see repetition when it comes to shopping (all the purses, sweaters, and trinkets tend to be exactly the same no matter where you go), it’s still a good home-base for getting presents to take home. The best sight is the Plaza de Armas at night, when the city is glowing and the lights on the surrounding hills look like stars in the sky. During rainy season, the orange mist gives the entire valley an other-worldly feeling.
Other Inca ruins
If you are dying to see Incan ruins but don’t have time to go all the way to Machu Picchu, you can still explore the Sacred Valley. Plenty of companies sell one-day (even same-day if you’re there early enough) trips – you’ll find loads of people trying to get your attention for said trips in the Plaza de Armas, mostly along the strip opposite the cathedral. But you don’t necessarily even need someone to guide you; buses run most places, and it’s nice to set your own schedule and wander at your leisure (just don’t expect to pack quite as many locations in).
Most people are surprised to learn that ruins are scattered literally everywhere around Cusco. Sacsayhuaman is close by, and Tambo Machay, Puca Pucara, Salumpuncu and Qenko aren’t that much farther. If you only have time for one place, consider going to Ollantaytambo; the ruins may not be as intriguing as others, but the views are unbeatable.
Lastly, if you’re an open-minded, spiritual and one-with-nature type, there are some viable opportunities for ‘traditional healing techniques’ involving hallucinogenic plants. The most common is Ayahuasca (an alternative is San Pedro). This may sound more dangerous than it really is; indigenous shamans have been practicing these rituals for a long time, and if you’re looking to purge yourself of an illness (physical and, to a certain extent, mental), Ayahuasca can do wonders.
Allow a good day/night for the ceremony, since the effects take a while to wear off. If you want to try it and are also headed to Iquitos, keep in mind that it’s common to do it up there as well. Countless people around the world have taken Ayahuasca in the Amazon and come away with incredible experiences – but don’t take the decision lightly, and be prepared for some heavy stuff. It’s definitely not for the lighthearted!
Photos courtesy of Natalie Grant.
- Natalie Grant