The Sacred Valley
Tucked under the tawny skirts of formidable foothills, the beautiful Río Urubamba Valley, known as El Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley), is about 15km north of Cuzco as the condor flies, via a narrow road of hairpin turns. Long the home of attractive colonial towns and isolated weaving villages, in recent years it has become a destination in its own right.
Machu Picchu & the Inca Trail
Shrouded by mist and surrounded by lush vegetation and steep escarpments, the sprawling Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is one icon that lives up to every expectation. Like the Mona Lisa, the pyramids and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, this icon has been seared into our collective consciousness, though nothing can diminish the thrill of being there.
Cuzco to the Central Highlands
Traveling by bus from Cuzco to Lima via Abancay and Nazca takes you along a remote route closed from the late 1980s until the late 1990s due to guerilla activity and banditry. It is now much safer, and paved. You should still check recent news reports before heading out this way as rainy season landslides can really slow a trip.
It’s not hard to succumb to the charms of sunny Pisac, a bustling and fast-growing colonial village at the base of a spectacular Inca fortress perched on a mountain spur. Its pull is universal and recent years have seen an influx of expats and new age followers in search of an Andean Shangri-la. Indeed, it's a magnet for spiritual seekers.
Cuzco to the Jungle
There are three overland routes from Cuzco to the jungle. The least-developed, cheapest and quickest goes northwest from Ollantaytambo over the Abra Málaga Pass, to the secondary jungle around Quillabamba and into little-visited Ivochote and Pongo de Mainique beyond. The other two routes are more popular but are rarely accessed by road.
Cuzco to Ivochote
Soon after Ollantaytambo, the road leaves the narrowing Sacred Valley and climbs steeply over the 4350m Abra Málaga. From here it’s a dizzying, scenic, mostly unpaved descent straight into Amazonia. Dusty Santa María has bus company offices and a couple of very basic hospedajes (small, family-owned inns) and restaurants.
Cuzco to Puno
The rickety railway and the paved road to Lake Titicaca shadow each other as they both head southeast from Cuzco. En route you can investigate ancient ruins and pastoral Andean towns that are great detours for intrepid travelers who want to leave the Gringo Trail far behind. Most of the destinations here can be reached on day trips from Cuzco.
Welcome to the jungle! Quillabamba’s tropical vibe is palpable, with heat that becomes oppressive by 9am, music that blares all night, and the land-that-time-forgot feel to most hotels and restaurants. Quillabamba itself has few attractions and sees little tourism, but there are some outstanding, watery natural attractions nearby.
Known to the Incas as the birthplace of the rainbow, this typical Andean village combines Inca ruins with a colonial church, some wonderful mountain views and a colorful Sunday market. On a high plain with sweeping views to snow-laden peaks, it’s quite beautiful. Since it is very high, it’s unwise to spend the night until you’re somewhat acclimated.