How to Avoid Crowds and Explore Real Peru on Your Trip to Machu Picchu
Here's my take on how to explore the lesser known regions of Peru on your way to Machu Picchu. Everything I listed here is within driving distance from Cusco. I'm sharing my first-hand experience exploring "real" Peru without the crowds. I've been all over the southern desert, the amazon jungle in Tambopata as well as Iquitos, and the amazing Chachapoyas region. Not to mention Lake Titicaca. My adventures would not be possible without my business partner Vidal Jaquehua, in Cusco. I cook up crazy ideas and Vidal gathers up a few of our guides, off we go! What I'm going to describe places that anyone who stays in Cusco or Sacred Valley can access. And I'll give you insight to help you decide which activities are right for you.
The majority of travelers going to Machu Picchu stick to what I call "the main tourist corridor" between Cusco and Machu Picchu. This is the Sacred Valley and there are several spots worthy of visiting including Moray, Maras, Pisac and Chinchero.. This is also where you'll find the highest concentration of tourists outside of Cusco and Machu Picchu. I'm including Inca Trail hikes in this category because they're popular and they typically sell out. However, there are many other spots worth exploring for travelers who want to get away from the crowded main tourist highway and see lesser known cultural and archaeological gems. These are spots to feed the soul of history buffs and nature-lovers of all ages. I have highlighted several mini-adventures to lesser known ruins and destinations that are truly "off the beaten path."
Who should do these activities? I have personally visited and explored each destination listed below. I will do my best to explain if there's any potential suffering involved which could offset the enjoyment factor. But first. Let's take a look at Cusco, Peru. This high altitude hub bustles with opportunities for adventure seekers and people who like to explore less crowded or remote areas. The city offers bountiful choices of hotels for every budget. I don't suggest staying in hotels in the Sacred Valley if you intend to explore any of the spots I highlight here, except for a couple, which I will mention. There's no public transportation in the Sacred Valley and the extra driving it takes is not worth the extra cost and time. Lots of people go to Rainbow Mountain but don't know that they can include a trip to Qeswachaka Inca rope bridge for a 2-day mini-adventure. Waqrapukara ruins is a 2-day hike in and out. Pachamanca is a celebratory meal that comes from Qechua culture. 1-day wedding ceremonies can be arranged with a native shaman who chants the ancient prayers and uses non-commercial flowers, fruit and sacred vessels for the ceremony next to obscure Inca ruins. Take the backdoor jungle route to Machu Picchu to avoid excessive tourists.
Native Cuisine in Cusco. The best Chicha corn beer and native Peruvian food in the home of Vidal's family.
For travelers who are short on time but want to enjoy something authentic and local, this is the perfect activity in Cusco.
- Difficulty rating: EASY. For people who can walk around Cusco / San Blas, climb steps.
- Best for Adults. There is no children's menu or entertainment. Non-alcoholic chicha morada is usually available.
- Best time is afternoon. By appointment. Allow 2 hours..Contact me and I will set it up with Vidal.
- Location: San Blas neighborhood / Tour guide will meet you at your hotel lobby and escort you to the location.
- Cost: pay for the food and beverages you consume in cash (Peruvian currency) and tip your guide
Here's a link to a story about Vidal and his mother, who started making corn beer as a young woman in the village where she grew up.
Pachamanca Luncheon in the home of a local Qechua farmer with Pisac archeological park - Day Trip
Begins from your hotel in Cusco or on return from Machu Picchu if you take the morning train to the village of Ollantaytambo. From the Pisac archaeological park you drive another 20-30 minutes to a nearby village and the home of a Qechua family who prepares a Pachamanca feast. Pachamanca is a traditional Peruvian meal baked in an earth oven known as a ”;huatia.” Stones are heated and used to cook meats that in olden days may have included alpaca, llama, guanaco, vicuna, pork, beef, chicken, or guinea pig, marinated in herbs and spices. Other Andean crops, such as potato or chuño (dehydrated potatoes), habas, (fava beans) sweet potato, mashua, oca, ulluco, cassava, yacon, plantain, humitas, ears of corn, and chili, were often included in the baking.
The ingredients in the meals created by our local Qechua family are usually chicken or beef, various potatoes, fava beans and plantains. The food is not spicy hot, but flavors may be enhanced by savory herbs. Vegetarians can be accommodated with advance notice. Soup is served before the main course and muna leaf or coca leaf tea may be offered. The setting is in a traditional mud-brick home in a small rural village. Plumbed toilets are available.
Part of the fun is the opportunity to meet and interact with the family. The meal is shared with your guide, your driver and the family. This is real Peruvian hospitality and some of our groups claim that this experience was the highlight of their trip to Peru.
- Difficulty: EASY. Our driver will deliver you to the doorstep of the home. There is a short walk down several stone steps into the courtyard
- Ideal for families and small groups. There's no children's menu. No alcohol is served.
- Best time is midday/afternoon to allow food to cook and dine before it gets dark and chilly.
- Location: in a village in the Sacred Valley not far from Pisac. This activity can be included with your day trip to Pisac on the way to/from Machu Picchu or Cusco
- Cost: prepay with your Pisac day trip (the cost of the day trip is not included) add $98 USD for minimum of 2 people. Add $20 USD for each additional person
Cusco South Valley Van Tour - Tipon Ruins + Pikillaqta + Andahuaylillas Colonial Church - Day Trip
8:30AM Guide and driver will pickup from hotel and head south out of Cusco to explore the lesser known Tipon ruins known for the engineering of irrigation and aqueducts that still function today. Continue by car to Pikillacta to explore a pre-Inca Wari town constructed of distinctive architecture without any signs of aqueducts. Finally drive to the colonial church of Andahuauylillas, known as the "Sistene Chapel of the Andes." The interior was constructed with ornate and impressive decor as a means to impress and convert the local natives. However, to subvert the potential for theft, they built a simple exterior structure.
Return to your hotel in Cusco. Includes: private driver, private vehicle, private English-speaking tour guide.
- Difficulty: EASY to MODERATE. Tipon ruins have steps, stone stairs and short climbs to see some of the features.
- Ideal for small groups of all ages.
- Best time is morning.
- Location: South of Cusco which is why it's not recommended to start from hotels in the Sacred Valley
- Cost: $250 per day for 1-4 people / more for larger groups. Cost of entry tickets is additional $30 USD per person. You can use your own boleto ticket book or buy one upon entry. Includes private vehicle, driver and English-speaking tour guide. Meals not included.
Perolniyoc hike to hidden waterfalls and remote Inca ruins - Day Trip
What do you get when you combine a myth about hidden Inca gold with a hike to a secluded waterfall and mysterious unknown Inca ruins? You get an amazing step back in time to a lost world where the mysteries of living in ancient times simply cannot be explained. Imagine what it would be like to wander the remote Andes Mountains searching for clues from a past civilization while surrounded by stunning landscapes? Includes: private driver, private vehicle, private English-speaking tour guide.
- Difficulty: MODERATE. Allow at least 1-2 days to acclimatize before you do this.
- Ideal for small groups of active travelers of all ages. Must be fit enough to hike up and down for several hours. Altitude slightly higher than Cusco (12,100 ft) but not excessively high by Peruvian standards.
- Best time is morning. Pickup from your hotel in Cusco or Sacred Valley by 8AM. Return by 4-5 pm.
- Location: Sacred Valley
- Cost: $250 per day for 1-3 people / more for larger groups. Add $20 USD per person for box lunches.
2-Day Rainbow Mountain and Qeswachaka Rope Bridge Mini-Adventure (no camping)
Here's a link to read about our 1 day trip to Rainbow Mountain and the optional 2-day trip with Qeswachaka Rope Bridge.
Lots of people will set up the 1 day trip to Rainbow Mountain. There are buses from Cusco taking groups every day to Vinicunca Pass. However, we prefer to use the Palccoya route because there are less crowds. And less hiking if you are concerned about the altitude. There's also the bonus hike to "Bosque de Piedra" if you're so inclined. (Stone Forest) You can choose the route you want.
Includes: private driver, private vehicle, private English-speaking tour guide, entry fees, 1 night accommodation, trail chef and the following meals, 1 breakfast-2 lunches-1 dinner.
- Difficulty: MODERATE. Save this excursion for the end of your trip to Peru so you have time to acclimatize
- Ideal for small groups of active travelers of all ages. Anyone who is fit enough to walk around Machu Picchu ruins should be fine on this excursion
- Best time is during the dry season from April through early December. Pickup time from hotel in Cusco is 5AM
- Location: Rainbow Mountain and Qeswachaka
- Cost: $492 per person based on minimum of 2 people for 2 days. The cost per person is less if you have more people in your group.
Backdoor Jungle Route to Machu Picchu (3-4 days)
This is the least crowded route to Machu Picchu. But you also need to understand that the infrastructure is limited. It's roughly an 8 hour drive from Cusco one way to the village of Santa Teresa which is near the Hidroelectric station. From there it's a 2-3 hour hike on mostly flat terrain to the back entrance of the village of Aguas Calientes. If you're looking for birdwatching without driving to the jungle, this is the best spot. And you'll also find adventure activities like rafting or zip-lining. These activities are not regulated in Peru. This means the operators are on their own to manage their business any way they choose. We will set up these activities on the jungle route but we're not comfortable using the operatoros in Cusco and Sacred Valley.
You won't find fancy hotels or even hotels that could be rated as 3* tourist class. But if you're flexible and fine with sleeping in family-run hostels that may or may not have hot showers, this is the great route to escape the crowds. The climate is slightly warmer than the Sacred Valley and the food comes from the farms and plantations in the region. This is where coffee is grown and if you've never experienced the essence of roasting coffee beans wafting through the air, you are in for a momentous olfactory treat! I'll never forget the moment when I was hiking in the region and realized that I was literally walking though a bouquet of roasting coffee beans.
Note that the first - ever road to Machu Picchu is now under construction. Guess where that road is going to be? You got it right. The backdoor to Machu Picchu. Due to construction, some roads and bridges are only open for short periods every day. Our team in Cusco is able to find out the schedule for openings and will set up itineraries to minimize the disruption due to road closures.
All 3-4 day excursions include 1 night in the village of Aguas Calientes and a guided tour of Machu Picchu. Then you take the train back to Ollantaytambo where our driver will be waiting to take you to your hotel in Cusco.
- Difficulty: EASY to MODERATE. Activities can be customized to your needs. choose from hikes, birdwatching, river rafting, zip-lining
- Ideal for families and small groups of active travelers of all ages. Everyone needs to be fit enough to hike 2-3 hours to Aguas Calientes carrying a small backpack with everything they need for 1 overnight in a hotel in the village. Luggage will be returned to Cusco with the driver.
- Best time is during the dry season from April to December.
- Location: begins and ends from any hotel in Cusco or Sacred Valley with overnights in small lodges or tents if preferred.
- Cost: varies depending on the size of your group and the total number of days you have. Here is a link to our website to get more details. (biking in the Sacred Valley is optional)
Wakrapukara "Horned Fortress" 2-day hike with 1 night camping
This mini-adventure is perfect for people who like to hike, camp and explore, but don't have alot of time for longer treks. Known as the "Horned Fortress," Waqrapukara was originally constructed by the pre-Inca Canchi people and later occupied by the Inca. The purpose of the sanctuary is still a mystery although it was excavated about 10 years ago.
We have the option to rent extra horses if anyone is concerned about their ability to hike all day for 2 days. Your adventure begins with early pickup from your hotel in Cusco to drive several hours through the Andes to a small village where you meet up with the wranglers. These guys provide the horses and mules to carry the gear while you hike all day with your day pack, through the expansive and scenic Apurimac canyon. After parking outside the village, you begin hiking up to a trail that ultimately reaches 13,500 ft/4100 m. as it traverses the side of the canyon. Spectacular rock formations and canyon views are your reward for enduring the hike to a campground located right in the shadow of the rugged rocky horns. Our staff will manage all the geear, set up camp and prepare all meals. Your job is to keep your mouth closed while hiking through spectacular jaw-dropping terrain. Restrooms are located at the campground.
- Difficulty: MODERATE to STRENUOUS
- Ideal for families and small groups of activie travelers of all ages who are fit enough to hike all day for 2 days
- Best time is during the dry season from April to December
- Location: begins and ends from your hotel in Cusco. With 1 night camping next to the ruins in the mountains.
- Cost: $492 per person based on minimum of 2 people.
Destination Weddings in Peru, Honeymoon Hikes, and Romantic Getaways! Galore!
- We can arrange 1-day wedding ceremonies in lesser known ruins or on a Qechua farm and even at Rainbow Mountain. Click Here for more information.
What you need to know about exploring remote areas in Peru
- We can help you decide when to schedule these activities based on your other travel plans. It's wise to avoid trying to fly in or out of Cusco on the same day as your excursion. Due to high altitude, it's best to schedule some of these activities at the end of your trip to Peru.
- Allow time for delays.
- Be prepared for limited infrastructure. You're not likely to find fully plumbed toilets in remote locations. Toilets may be in outhouses with barrels of water and a bucket for flushing. Or they could be a "pit toilet." At other times, it may be necessary to powder your nose in the bushes on the side of the road.
- Trails are not usually marked and we recommend that you always stay within site of your tour guide.
- Moutainous roads and bridges are subject to unannounced closure. Our local teams always check the status of road closures in advance but there may be last minute changes.
How to get more info or set up one or more of these activities in Peru
Call or email me or my assistant, Heather Corona, in Virginia. Use the contact page from the tab at the top to send an email. Or dial the phone number and talk to a real person. If you have this info, it's helpful for us to know: how many people are in your group and what are their ages? What dates are you planning to travel? Which activity are you interested in?
Ask questions. Galore! We love questions. If you don't ask a lot of questions, we'll think we did something wrong!