Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley are amazing. There are views, historical landmarks, and wildlife that I’ve never seen in my life. But it’s also one of the most hectic and exhausting vacations I’ve ever planned and taken.
I’m not a huge fan of planning. I don’t like to overly structure vacations, because it leads to a lot of running around and sometimes disappointment. But there’s almost no way to visit Machu Picchu without doing an insane amount of planning far in advance.
Since tickets to the site are limited on a daily basis, you need to make sure you secure a spot for the days you want to visit. That means you also have to plan how you’re going to get there. Train tickets to Aguas Calientes, which is the nearest town, are just as limited as tickets to Machu Picchu. So unless you’re okay with an unplanned hike there, you’ll want to book those in advance as well.
A lot of the Inca ruins surrounding Cusco are too far and inaccessible unless you have a car. You can take local buses, but that would severely limit your time. It’s difficult to find day tours or sightseeing trips in advance that are reliable and cheap. Anything you find online will be at least 3 times the price of what you’ll pay by booking in the city. You’ll also get quoted prices arbitrarily, as we found out when two of us emailed the same person to get a tour quote.
If you need the peace of mind that you’ll be able to see the sights you want, then I recommend booking it in advance. But know that you can find at least 6 people a day in Cusco that will offer to take you anywhere you want for a fraction of the cost. Of course, if you do book it in advance, you also have to block off specific days to do certain things. The problem with this, especially in Cusco, is that you may not feel so great on the day of a pre-booked tour.
Planning for altitude sickness
You also have to schedule your activities around the fact that you’re going to feel like dog shit for the first day or two. So if you want to hike Rainbow Mountain (which is higher than Cusco), you need to give yourself at least 4 or 5 days to acclimate so you don’t end up in the hospital. I imagine booking Machu Picchu too early would also be a huge mistake, because though it’s at a lower altitude, it involves a lot of climbing. And that’s one booking you can’t move around at the last minute. The incredibly shaky Inca Rail train ride alone would definitely be enough to make you throw up.
Dressing for extreme weather
This is a hard vacation to plan for because the weather changes a lot throughout the day and in different places. If you go out early, you’ll probably want to dress for the cold. But when you’re hiking uphill in the hot sun, you’re going to be scorching. The second you find shade, it will be cold and breezy. So layers are probably the best idea, especially if they’re not too heavy so you don’t mind carrying them around when you shed them.
These are all things you have to consider simply when planning the trip. And that’s nothing to what you face when you’re there.
Taking the vacation
Of the 9 days we’re spending in the Sacred Valley area, we have to wake up at 4 or 5 am for more than half of the days. It’s actually not so bad for me since I’m probably still on Europe time, but if you’re looking for a nice relaxing vacation where you get to see all the wonders of the Incas, adjust your expectations to getting no sleep, being dehydrated, sore, exhausted, and potentially sick for a good part of the trip.
It’s not an ideal trip for someone who is unfit or unhealthy, because many of the most beautiful and iconic sights include hours of climbing. And unless you have the time to visit for several weeks, you’ll probably have to do more than one of the Sacred Valley ruins in one day. Your knees are going to feel it, your back is going to feel it, and your lungs will feel like they’re collapsing everywhere you go. Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley ruins are breathtaking in a very literal sense.
Tips so you can enjoy it and not die
- Get plenty of rest. Not getting enough sleep is one of the ingredients for horrible altitude sickness.
- Buy Sorojchi pills which you can take every 8 hours to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day. Always take water with you and drink it often.
- Make it an early night if you have an early morning so you’re not miserable and tired.
- Suck on coca leaves for altitude sickness. Eventually that becomes just as nauseating as altitude sickness so you can also buy candy.
- Don’t overexert yourself. Keep a realistic schedule accounting for the fact that you can barely breathe. Whatever time you think it’ll take to do something, add at least an hour.
- Take it very easy on the first day or two. Eat light, rest, and do minimal walking.
If you survive, it’ll be worth it.