Cuzco and the Sacred Valley are no travel secrets – iconic Inca ruins dot the region and world-class hikes wind through its hills, drawing people from all over the globe to check a world wonder off their bucket list.

While the crowds can be noticeable, you don’t have to stick to the same circuit as everyone else; this is our guide to offbeat adventures in Peru’s tourist hotspot.

A girl with short orange hair stands on a high rock ledge with her back to camera, gazing out over a river in the Sacred Valley in Peru
Get off the beaten track in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Find your peace at Piuray

Many people traveling the tourist circuit through this part of Peru have their schedule packed with numerous excursions departing from Cuzco that hit hiking trails and historical sites. If you need a moment to recenter yourself after all that activity, take a short drive from Cuzco to Piuray Outdoor Center, a high-altitude oasis nestled among terraced hills where you can let any vacation stress melt away in the waters of Laguna de Piuray.

A man and a woman sit at a table in an open-air pavilion, with hammocks strung up on either side and a lagoon in the background
Take a moment to relax on the shores of Laguna de Piuray © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

This homegrown operation works closely with the communities on the lagoon’s shore to provide a catch-all of services that help people slow down and take in the nature surrounding them: paddleboarding, camping, hiking, kayaking, yoga and more. The center has a lovely open-air lakeside hangout that hosts entertaining and informative cooking classes, picnics, and delightful lunches showcasing the best of local cuisine.

The Outdoor Center consciously looks to create an environmentally and socially sustainable model – outside sunscreen is prohibited so the lake’s waters remain as clean as possible (the center provides environmentally safe, organic sunscreen that actually works, promise!), and the center hosts free activity and language workshops for their local neighbors.

A woman leans forward holding a sheet of foil, with two ceramic horses sitting on the table in front of her
Berenice Diaz Vargas speaks during her Legends in Process ceramics workshop © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Get inspired with Cuzco’s local artists

While most people come to Cuzco to take in the historic architecture and participate in adventure activities in the surrounding area, the city is actually home to a thriving community of artists working in a variety of mediums. Art Trail Community (ATC) is a tourism project that connects visitors with Cuzco’s traditional and contemporary art culture, organizing tours and art workshops designed to support local artists and organically develop the city’s art scene. Founded by Berenice Diaz Vargas and Tammya Reynoso Arcos, ATC also operates in Lima and has international associate programs in Moldova and the US.

Activities include workshops on colonial glass ceramics, Cusquenian jewelry making, embroidery, and street photography tours through Cuzco and nearby Ollantaytambo. The organization also hosts theater, dance and music performances in collaboration with the Grupo Duarte. Diaz herself runs the Legends in Process workshop in partnership with well-known ceramics artist Julio Gutiérrez, which explores the tradition of the Pucará toritos (ceramic bulls you’ll see posted on the roofs of many homes in town) and allows participants to explore classic and modern painting techniques on their own toritos and caballitos (horses) that they can then take home.

A head-on view of a circular door in a transparent capsule; a valley floor is visible through the doorway
Abolish your fear of heights with a climb up to Skylodge's capsules © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Test your grit at Skylodge

The Skylodge has gone viral in travel-related social media circles, and for good reason. This hotel consists of three transparent capsule pods suspended 400ft above the ground, bolted on a rock wall overlooking the picturesque Sacred Valley. With so few ‘rooms,’ space is obviously at a premium, but don’t fret if the accommodations are all booked up during your Peru stay – there are other ways to experience this truly unique outfit.

Nature Vive, the company that runs Skylodge, also offers afternoon trips up their somewhat harrowing (but safe!) via ferrata that takes climbers up vertical rock faces and across open chasms, along with trips down lengthy ziplines that soar over the valley floor. They also host a lunch package where adventurers take the via ferrata up to a surprisingly atmospheric dining pod, where they enjoy a sophisticated three-course meal (perfectly seared alpaca, anyone?), before zipping back down to the starting point below. Not an activity for those with a significant fear of heights, but an altogether thrilling experience for those looking to push through some adrenaline.

A woman in a white apron smiles at the camera, holding a large glass of beer
Learn how chicha is brewed with Agriturismo Chichubamba © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Support community tourism in Urubamba

While Cuzco and other towns close to renowned Inca ruins receive a lot of tourist dollars, many rural communities don’t often see the monetary benefits that tourism can bring. Agroturismo Chichubamba is working to change that, hosting visitors so they can learn about a number of different initiatives taking place in the community of Urubamba. Stop in the local watering hole to learn about the art of making chicha, Incan beer, or take a pottery painting workshop followed by a homemade lunch. Other options include learning about beekeeping, chocolate making and textile weaving and taking nature walks through the surrounding countryside.

Peru is one of the biggest stars of South America tourism, with 4.4 million international visitors hitting the ground in 2018, and 1.2 million of them heading to the famed Machu Picchu. While the Peruvian government has taken some steps to battle overtourism of one of the world’s best-known historic sites (visitor limits, bans on single-use plastic, regulated visit time lengths within Machu Picchu), it’s the traveler’s responsibility to minimize impact and explore sustainably. While sheer numbers continue to be a question, make sure you’re supporting grassroots organizations and local businesses, and keep worker welfare in mind for all guided trips (particularly the teams working on the Inca Trail).

Bailey Freeman travelled to the Sacred Valley with support from Exodus Travels. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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