Machu Picchu is more than a place and marker in time. It’s a feeling.

Surrounded by sheer, verdant mountains that tower like sentries, it completely absorbs you.

Descending into Machu Picchu’s ancient walls, it’s easy to imagine Incan denizens navigating life on this granite-topped precipice. At the civilization’s apex between the mid-1400s and early 1500s, some 750 Incans built dwellings able to withstand earthquakes and tended crops ranging from corn and potatoes to quinoa and beans.

What was the purpose of this hard-to-reach civilization in the sky? That’s up for debate among archeologists.

The Incans didn’t have a written language. Instead, they practiced oral storytelling to keep their histories. Quipus, a system of knotted cords, kept track of countable things like populations. Colors, knots and the distances between knots on a series of ropes are the closest thing to a physical record kept by the Incans.

Quipus from the Museo Larco in Lima

Most suspect that Machu Picchu, which means old peak in its native Incan language, was either used as a military fortress, ceremonial place or retreat for Incan royalty. Whatever its purpose, it was abruptly abandoned around the time the Spaniards conquered the Incan Empire, which covered 2,500 miles in its heyday.

Built on a narrow ridge at an elevation of 8,000 feet between Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains, the spot had a lot going for it. Everything was there it needed including building material in the form of granite, ample water, land to grow crops and protection via its surrounding mountains.

Planning your time

We had two nights in Machu Picchu, giving us two partial days and one full day to explore the ruins both guided and unguided. Some people visit it in a day, which is doable, but this treasure deserves a slow and contemplative pace. This gives you the chance to see it in a different light as the days unfold.

It’s easy to get lost in the ruins, both literally and figuratively. There’s a lot of territory to cover and enough detail to fully absorb you in what life must have been like here more than 500 years ago.

Friendly llamas roam freely on Machu Picchu.

Just look at the precision of these perfectly fitted stones.

In addition to touring the place itself, there are two hikes that give bird’s-eye views onto the ruins.

The Huayna Picchu trail, which traverses a mountain overlooking the archeological site, is not for the faint of heart. After entering the gate, you might feel like fainting as you look up to see the specks of people who look like they are ascending straight up the crazy-steep mountain with intimidating drop-offs. We took a hard pass on that hike.

Instead, we opted for hiking the longer-distance, but seemingly less dangerous-looking namesake mountain of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu mountain flanks the other side of the ruins opposite of Huayna Picchu mountain. We only made it halfway up the mountain, but we got views I would venture to say rivaled the scarier route up Huayna Picchu.

View from Machu Picchu mountain

We heard the hike got scarier past the point where we stopped. It’s a strenuous climb straight up. You definitely will feel like you’ve gotten a good workout. That was enough for us and I’d highly recommend it.

Stay at the Sanctuary Lodge

After experiencing the thrill of discovery at Machu Picchu, you will appreciate the chill of luxury at the all-inclusive Sanctuary Lodge, just steps from the archeological wonder’s entrance.

Don’t expect views of the ruins, but the hotel’s proximity to Machu Picchu’s entrance makes rolling out of bed and into the site at its first opening a cinch.

We also enjoyed delicious meals with a great selection of wines, a lesson in making Pisco sours and massages at the spa. It was a perfect ending to our days of exploration.

I did not get a photo of the Sanctuary Lodge while I was there. The throng of tourists around the entrance would make this shot impossible, at least while we were there during high season. I pulled this shot off of the Belmond website. Thank you, Belmond.

Every dish we had at the Sanctuary Lodge was delicious. Being an all-inclusive experience, we did not go hungry.

In-room beverages and snacks are included in the rate. When in Peru, try the Inca Kola. Its bubblegum flavor reminded me of a childhood favorite, Big Red.

Arrival and departure by train

While the hike into Machu Picchu would be a worthwhile adventure, we opted for comfort aboard the Belmond Hiram Bingham. I’m so glad we did.

The views were spectacular and there’s nothing like fine dining on a train with wood-paneled and brass-accented interiors recalling parlor cars of the 1920s.

We had a three-course lunch on the way there from the Urubamba Station. The most exciting trip was from Machu Picchu to Cusco, where we dined like royalty on a four-course dinner and joined the adjacent party car for live music and dancing.

The pisco sours flowed and we traveled with a boisterous and fun-loving family from Colombia. I felt I had found my long lost family as the train shook and shimmied down the tracks to Cusco and we belted out pop Latin tunes, danced and played old-school Peruvian musical instruments. These Colombians knew no strangers and instantly made us feel like a part of their extended family.

If you do opt to hike to Machu Picchu, reward yourself with the train ride back to Cusco as several others did on this trip. You will have earned it.

Other trip planning tips

Take the time to acclimate to the altitude.

We started and ended our journey in Lima. The city provided ideal bookends for our trip and made the nighttime flight transition a bit easier.

We acclimated to the altitude in the Sacred Valley, which is about 9,000 feet, for a few days before heading to Machu Picchu at nearly 8,000 feet. You want to feel good when you are in Machu Picchu to make the most of your time in this special place. We could definitely feel the altitude, but by the time we ended in Cusco at just over 11,000 feet, we were feeling pretty good.

Preview Incan civilization at Ollantaytambo.

While you are getting acclimated before your main event, Machu Picchu, visit the town of Ollantaytambo to check out the town and its impressive ruins.

The grounds were once the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, who conquered the region. It later was the stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance against the Spaniards. Now, it’s a common starting point for the four-day hike to Machu Picchu.

These terraces allowed for farming on what otherwise would have been unusable land. The various platform heights created microclimates for a variety of crops.

Be prepared to climb. The views are worth it.

Looking down on the town from the ruins

Storehouses for crops are situated around the hillside.

There are ample souvenir shops to visit in Ollantaytambo. After visiting the ruins, take time to check out the town.

Visit the Maras Salt Mines.

More than 3,000 ponds, locally owned by 600 local families, make up these salt mines connected through an underground network of canals that fill these pools with salt water. The mines date back to sometime between 500 and 1100 AD.

They are an impressive site and worth the visit, especially while you’re visiting the nearby Moray ruins (described below).

Do not rush through Cusco.

This was one of our favorite cities and stays of the trip. You definitely feel the Peruvian culture here. We were lucky enough to be there as a parade snaked through town.

Once the religious and administrative capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco now is an UNESCO World Heritage Site since it retains much of its highly crafted early stone architecture. It also is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Western Hemisphere.

Behold the hairless Peruvian dogs dressed to impress.

Looking back on my photos, I can’t believe I never got a good shot of these national dogs dating back to Incan times. You will find them roaming everywhere in their croqueted sweaters and other outfits. Being hairless, they can get cold and sunburned. Google them. They are cuties despite their hairless state.

This clearly is not a hairless dog, but it is one of many dressed to impress. Peruvians love to accessorize their dogs.

Eat at Central when in Lima.

If you want a true taste and tour of Peru, go to Central. It ranks No. 1 on The World’s Best 50 Restaurants 2023 list for good reason.

It tells Peru’s story through its agricultural staples. They introduce the raw ingredient before serving its inspired dish. Each dish and tale adds to the rich tapestry of your Peru education.

Before we were seated, we got the lay of the land for our upcoming meal.

There are several 14-course menus from which to choose. We opted for the experimental one described as “a journey of exploration, adventurous, with more experimental techniques and products that reach us every day through Mater. A trajectory through 14 ecosystems in our country.” This experiment was a resounding success.

Peru is proud of its potatoes. They boast having more than 4,000 varieties, each with its own unique flavor, texture and culinary application.

One of many gorgeous and delicious courses at Central. This one featured native potatoes, cushuro, egg yolk and beef. Cushuro, a blue-green alga found in lagoons, small ponds, reservoirs of fresh clean water and wetlands high in the Andes mountains, is known as the caviar of the Andes.

Next time, we would book Central’s sister restaurant, Mil, overlooking the Moray ruins outside of Cusco. These Incan circular terraces are worth the visit alone. Many theorize that their origin and function were as an agricultural laboratory. What better place to immerse yourself in a cultural and culinary adventure.

Overlook of the Moray archaeological site

Many experts believe the Moray ruins were used as an experimental farm by the Incas over 500 years ago.

Rent a bike in Lima.

Despite the constant traffic in Peru’s capital city, there are plenty of biking trails from which to explore the city. You will need to watch for merging pedestrians and fellow cyclists, but it’s relatively easy to get around. Walking is great, too, but bikes allow you to cover a lot more territory with limited time.

This biking lane goes through the heart of one of Lima’s shopping districts.

While September is a great time to visit Machu Picchu because it’s drier, the winter months are less hospitable in Lima. It was cool and moist, making us feel cold most of the time. I would love to see Lima during its summer months between January and March.

Your bike path should include El Malcón along the waterfront and the Parque Del Amor (Love Park). Enjoy an eyeful of colorful mosaics.

Of course the Love Park has love locks.

Check out graffiti art in Barranco.

It’s easy to feel instantly cooler with a visit to the bohemian Barranco neighborhood. Colorful grafitti art is the first clue you’ve arrived someplace special. Here you’ll find stylish cafes, street vendors, and quaint streets and squares.

Translation: Let’s make a Peru that we like.

Buying opportunities for local crafts are plentiful in Barranco.

Get an eyeful of artifacts.

While the Incan culture gets most of the limelight when people consider Peru’s origins, its civilization’s history goes back more than 10,000 years ago.

You’ll learn about all of the cultures that have contributed to Peru today at the Museo Larco, a must-visit while in Lima and a great introduction to the country’s history before heading to Machu Picchu. On display, you’ll see examples of their stone carvings, pottery, textiles and metal work throughout the country’s evolution.

A portrait vessel dating back from 1 to 800 AD from the Moche civilization

Shell, stone, bone and wood were common materials used for jewelry in ancient Peru.

In Andean societies, ear ornaments were used to distinguish powerful individuals.

The museum is housed in an 18th century mansion and the grounds beckon strolling among its beautiful gardens. Plan your visit around lunch at its onsite restaurant to soak in the mansion grounds.

To get a start on your Peruvian history, check out the museum’s introductory video.

Stay and book your trip through Belmond.

Our adventure in Peru turned us into big Belmond fans. With accommodations at every important site in Peru combined with luxury train travel, you can’t go wrong booking the entire trip through Belmond. On their website, you can find a variety of travel packages to simplify your planning and provide itinerary ideas.

We were lucky to get upgraded to a presidential suite at the Belmond’s Miraflores Park hotel in Lima. This is our view from the living room overlooking our deck. Unfortunately, it was way too chilly to enjoy while we were there in September.

Our hotel room view

The bar at Miraflores Park also offers a class on making Pisco sours and included a certificate to prove your “mastery.” That night I tried the recommended coca-leaf-infused Pisco sour. Consider yourself warned. My night ended with me losing my phone in an Uber. I blame the drink.

Slow down, savor and drink it all in.

As with any trip, you want to see, do and taste it all. Take your time to savor it one beautiful experience at a time. If you have the flexibility, add extra days especially in Cusco and Lima to fully appreciate each city.

Peru surprised us. Machu Picchu drew us to the country, but we found so much more to love. The warmth of its people, the beauty of its arts and the richness of its history made a lasting impression we’ll remember for years to come.

Pisco sours (without coca leaves) are my drink of choice in Peru. Cheers to this beautiful country!

(Note: This post is dated in April, but our travel to Peru took place in August and September 2022.)