The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for South America: Tom Damon of Southwind Adventures.
An experienced trekker and expedition climber, Tom Damon specializes in outdoor adventures and family travel throughout South America. He’ll point you to the best hiking trails—for every skill level—at Machu Picchu and in Patagonia, and the most thrilling jungle adventures in the Amazon, whether by dugout canoe or luxe riverboat. Whether you opt for a private expedition or a small group tour, Tom will ensure you’re in the company of highly trained, highly personal English-speaking guides. As for accommodations, he knows the best-of-the-best wilderness lodges (where he often gets upgrades and other perks), as well as the prime camping spots; his favorite itineraries include both. If you’re looking to cross borders or link multiple regions, Tom is a pro at making the trip seamless, dodging crowds and logistical hassles. Especially in Patagonia or Peru—where a single itinerary might include planes, cars, trains, and boats—he’ll make it all run like clockwork. Tom was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel delights from the moment you enter—by walking across a bridge in the cloud forest into the reception area, where you are greeted with a special ice tea brewed on the spot from leaves grown on the hotel plantation. Secluded casitas are surrounded by tropical foliage and orchid gardens. The best value are the Superior Deluxe casitas, which come with a fireplace and a sitting area. I recommend at least two nights at this hotel for ample time to explore Machu Picchu—and to enjoy the hotel spa (its treatments use a lot of locally grown ingredients). Booking an afternoon train back to the valley allows enough time on checkout day to walk the hotel’s private nature trails. You can also visit the hotel’s spectacled bear conservation project to get an up-close look at South America’s only bear species, now critically endangered.
Restaurants the locals love
In Cusco, Incanto specializes in grilled Andean dishes with an Italian influence: The pastas—made from scratch—are paired with local river trout (smoked) or alpaca loin aji de gallina (a spicy, creamy stew). At Machu Picchu, the chefs at Sumaq Hotel Restaurant are known for their modern twists on traditional Inca dishes and artful presentations. Try their delicious trout or mushroom ceviches or quinoa risotto. Nearby, Indio Feliz is a lively little café full of local color, where you can grab a drink, a savory crêpe, or a dessert.
I could dine my way to Machu Picchu on the soups alone. Go for ones with quinoa (sacred to the Incas as their “mother of all grains”) or potato (more than 3,000 of the world’s 5,000 potato varieties are Andean), and don’t miss the chance to try saralawa, a soup of fresh corn, lima beans, yellow hot pepper, and huacatay (a native herb). Add some zing to any dish with aji—spicy sauce made from tomatoes, cilantro, hot peppers, and onions.
Meal worth the splurge
Limo Cocina Peruana and Pisco Bar in Cusco’s main square serves traditional Peruvian recipes with Japanese influences—try the ceviches, tiraditos (similar to sashimi, marinated in local spices), and seafood rice dishes. I especially like the historic plaza view from the restaurant—situated on the second story, it’s a great spot to see Cusco lit up at night.
What to See and Do
The Sacred Valley of the Incas. If you arrive in Cusco and simply hop the train to Machu Picchu, you are missing out on a jewel of the Andes. Once the breadbasket of the Incas, this region of rugged mountains and colorful market towns is one of my favorite places in all of South America, especially for family trips in Peru. Be sure to allow at least two nights so you’ll have time to visit the vibrant villages of Pisac, with its famous Sunday market and handicrafts, and Ollantaytambo, where the streets date back to the Incan times. You can have an alfresco lunch and take in a Peruvian Paso horse show or explore the valley trails by bicycle, on horseback, or on foot. Near the highland village of Chinchero, try lake kayaking at the Piuray or Huaypo lagoons to take in the beautiful views of the snowcapped Urubamba range rising above a patchwork of farms.
Spending a small fortune just to stay at the Sanctuary Lodge at the entrance to Machu Picchu. It’s hard to justify the minimum $1,000 nightly room rate just for the privileged location. Since the hotel is built into the side of the mountain and surrounded by vegetation, there are no rooms with prime views of the central ruins themselves. Most of the 31 rooms are small (except for the two larger suites) and not a good value for a Belmond property. There is, however, one big advantage to staying at the Sanctuary: You can be among the first in the ruins in the morning (the park opens at 6 a.m.) and the last to leave in the evening.
Best short trek
Don’t have the time to trek for days or don’t want to sleep in a tent for three nights? Then this Inca Trail shortcut is for you! Departing from the Km104 trailhead, it’s a seven-mile hike (or about six hours at elevations ranging from 7,800 to 8,800 feet). At midday, you can join up with the classic stone-paved route and ascend staircases cut by the Incas to reach the Intipunku or Gateway of the Sun. Here, you have a bird’s-eye view of the entire Machu Picchu citadel and the surrounding forested mountains (it’s not unusual for hikers to shed tears encountering this view). Enter the citadel to catch the late afternoon light after the crowds have dispersed.
Best hidden hike
Temple of the Moon, a mysterious, partially excavated corner of Machu Picchu, is tucked away in the cloud forest and accessible only after a 90-minute hike on a lush shaded trail. While most other hikers are busy ascending nearby Huayna Picchu Mountain, you’ll likely have this wonderful place all to yourself. It’s thought that the Incas used the caves here as a burial site for mummies. On your way back into Machu Picchu, head over to the hidden cave of Intimachay, where the Incas built a kind of magic window—it lets in light only on the two solstice days of the year.
If Inca Trail permits are already snatched up for the time you want to go, veer off course with a herd of sure-footed llamas into the nearby Urubamba range. Without permit constraints on this route, I can arrange a three-day glamping expedition with two nights in the backcountry sleeping on plush air mattresses atop raised cots in spacious tents. We bring a chef, a dining table, and a mobile shower/bathroom facility, and can even arrange for a massage therapist to accompany your trek to work out any hard-earned kinks. You walk six to seven miles a day and ascend over two passes, topping out at an elevation of 14,700 feet. One of the best parts about this particular trek is that you’ll pass through traditional Quechua villages and feel like you’ve gone back in time. You’ll see how the locals farm potatoes, raise guinea pigs and llamas, and hand-weave their colorful ponchos and shawls on their backstrap looms. Villagers also graciously welcome Southwind travelers into their modest adobe homes.
At the planetarium at the Casa Andina hotel in the Sacred Valley, you can take in the night sky from the domed observatory to seek out the Southern Cross, Centaurus, and other Southern Hemisphere celestial wonders. Using telescopes and pointers (weather permitting), trained staff help you spot constellations and tell you all about how the ancient Incas studied the stars.
Ever wonder how massive, monumental Machu Picchu could have remained hidden from the conquistadors and the outside world for 400 years? It wasn’t until 1911 that Hiram Bingham and his Yale Expedition brought this lost city to the world’s attention, but a few years earlier, the area was explored and farmed by Agustín Lizarraga (who also happened to be one of Bingham’s guides). I can design a private trek with Romulo Lizarraga, Agustín’s grandson and one of the most knowledgeable and experienced guides in the Andes. He’ll not only lead you in the footsteps of these early explorers but take you deeper into the cloud forests than other trekkers usually go and into the Mandor region, where Romulo still has relatives who work the land. The Museo Inka, housed in Cusco’s seventeenth-century Palace of the Admiral, has an exquisite collection of mummies, jewelry, musical instruments, textiles, and ceramics highlighting pre-Incan life up to the period after the conquest. We can arrange for a private evening visit to the museum and for the museum’s chief administrator to give you an introduction and discuss her work as site archeologist. Take a private tour of Cusco’s resplendent cathedral with Jorge Escobar Medrano, a docent, historian, and the man behind the cathedral’s recent (and extensive) restoration. The cathedral, built in 1654, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and justly famous for its architecture, colonial artwork, and historic artifacts. If you wish, you can also combine the visit to the cathedral to an out-of-town excursion—also with Escobar as your first-rate guide—to the ruins of Pikillacta (a royal Incan capital built in the seventh century) and to the nearby Andahuaylillas Church, known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas for its exquisite baroque interior.
How to spend a Sunday
Sunday is the day for the outdoor markets in Pisac and Chinchero. In Chinchero, watch as locals use an ancient form of barter to buy their goods. In Pisac, you might even catch a glimpse of the mayors from nearby villages gathering for their weekly meeting, decked out in their colorful wool ponchos and wide brimmed hats and carrying silver engraved staffs while sounds of conch shells mark their arrival.
April and May are my favorite months in Peru. Skies are mostly clear, hillsides are green following the heavier rains that end in March, and there are fewer crowds. Temperatures are also warmer on average than the peak (June through August) season.
January through March, when there’s a 50 to 75 percent chance of rain every day (though there’s a higher chance in January and February than in March). Mornings can still be sunny, but clouds build by afternoon with light to moderate rain and the occasional heavy shower between 2 and 6 p.m. It’s still a perfectly fine time of year for a hotel-based soft-adventure kind of vacation, but if you’re planning an active hiking trip, I suggest avoiding January through March.
Not planning soon enough for the Inca Trail trek. Permits generally sell out four to five months in advance. Access to any part of the Inca Trail is closed in February for maintenance and preservation efforts.
Ride the first shuttle at 5:30 a.m. to the Machu Picchu citadel. Find a high perch by the watchman’s hut just as the rising sun begins to burn off the mist to reveal the ancient ruins. You’ll have very few visitors in your shot; maybe just a lone llama grazing the terraces.
The Andes around Machu Picchu are known for high-quality alpaca wool products such as gloves, hats, sweaters, shawls, and vests. You’ll find plenty to choose from at the Awana Kancha textile center on the road from Cusco to Pisac in the Sacred Valley. Also in Cusco, Kuna and Alpaca’s Best have similarly high-quality wares. Elsewhere, make sure you’re buying 100 percent alpaca wool—the finest items are made from baby alpaca, which is the first wool taken from the alpacas, not a substitute made from combinations of rougher llama wool or synthetic fibers. The finest wool is found in boutiques in Cusco, Pisac, and Lima at higher prices than the street markets, which have inferior products that sometimes blend alpaca and llama.
En route to Machu Picchu, you will invariably pass through several rural communities with small schoolhouses with limited supplies. If you want to donate something, consider bringing spiral notebooks, pencils, pens, colored pencils, an atlas, or a map. Toothbrushes and mild toothpaste are also appreciated, or, slightly more fun, a soccer ball or flying disc so you can strike up a game with the kids. Rather than lugging all the stuff from home, buy it there, which also helps support the local community. And whatever items you bring, be sure to give them to a teacher to distribute equitably.
Ask the agent at the airline counter for a window seat on the left side of the plane when flying from Lima to Cusco for a glimpse of the glaciated high Andean peaks of the Vilcabamba range, which soar over 19,000 feet.
Bring small denominations of U.S. dollars and soles (the local currency) for tips and purchases (getting change is not easy). The service charge you see at the bottom of a restaurant bill is not a tip but part of the wages divided among all restaurant staff. Best to give your tip—about 10 percent—directly to your waiter. When trekking, you may realize there are lots of staff to tip (cook, camp assistant, llama handlers). This is especially true on the Inca Trail, where porters carry gear and food. To avoid confusion and tip exhaustion, I include most of these field staff tips in the trip price.
Wi-Fi can be spotty at hotels in the Andes around Machu Picchu. If you need a strong signal, bring along a small wireless extender to boost the hotel’s signal.