The Sacred Valley of Peru is a feast for the senses—colorful woven fabrics, mountains that soar skyward with little warning (or foothills), an ancient culture full of innovation, and a contemporary cuisine that has emerged from traditional crops, international influence, and creative playfulness among the country’s best chefs. From elevation headaches to photogenic llamas, here’s what to know before your adventure!
If you are into hiking or history and have dreamed about traveling along the ancient Inca Trail traversed by thousands, you need to reserve early. A few years ago, Peru implemented a permit system, limiting the number of entries per day. The permits sell out quickly, so to ensure you get the date that you want, the earlier you make your plans, the better. The same can be said for Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain—two hiking options from Machu Picchu that offer a bird’s eye view of the ruins. Don’t wait until the last minute.
Prepare for a range of micro-climates
Packing light is always recommended (the less you have, the less you have to worry about!), but Peru’s Sacred Valley has a little bit of everything, and weather in the mountains can change on a dime. You will need everything from a warm jacket for the evenings and higher elevation climates to lightweight, quick dry clothing for Machu Picchu and the valleys, which are much warmer and more humid. Many thin layers are better than one or two heavy layers. It will be easier to adjust your clothing to suit your activity and the temperature.
Acclimatize before imbibing
Wait a day before trying a pisco sour. It’s easy to get dehydrated just from flying. But you are also landing in Cusco, which is situated about 11,000 feet above sea level. Your body will thank you for not consuming any alcohol that first day while it works to acclimatize. Drink coca tea instead, but don’t try to bring it home. Coca tea is medicinal and has been consumed by Andean people for hundreds of years to boost energy. It is a wonderful remedy for altitude sickness and does not cause any adverse effects (though drinking too much can leave you feeling jittery, akin to having too much coffee). Since cocaine (illegal in Peru) is chemically produced from the same plant, it is illegal to bring coca tea into the United States.
Ask to take photos of local people, and be prepared to tip
Asking to take photos of anyone is just plain common courtesy, particularly indigenous people and children. While not all your photography subjects will expect a tip, most will. Some situations are obvious; you will definitely see Quechua women in traditional dress, more than willing to pose with their llamas for a small propina. If you’re traveling with a local guide, he or she can offer further guidance but have some Peruvian soles easily accessible just in case.
If possible, arrive one or two days early
Travelers often feel a bit of whiplash when going a great distance, and many prefer to arrive early whenever possible. An old tale captures this notion by suggesting that while traveling, it’s important to pause to ‘let your soul catch up’. Those with less romantic world views may simply call this jet lag. Regardless, extra time allows you to rest, let your bags find you if they are delayed, explore Cusco freely without any agenda, and get used to the higher elevation before the “real” adventure begins.
Foodie? Extend your trip to Lima
The culinary scene in Peru is hotter than ever, and while Cusco has some incredible food, Lima, being a larger city, has many more options and with a bit more international fusion. From street food to contemporary twists on indigenous dishes to Michelin-starred restaurants, Lima is the hub. Guinea pig, or cuy, is a delicacy (and you should try at least one bite!). You may also now indulge in another pisco sour.
Matt Holmes is the Founder & President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.