Scores of outdoor outfitters in Cuzco offer trekking, rafting and mountain-biking adventures, as well as mountaineering, horseback riding and paragliding. Price wars can lead to bad feelings among locals, with underpaid guides and overcrowded vehicles. The cheaper tours usually take more guests and use guides with a more basic skill set.
The department of Cuzco is a hiker’s paradise. Ecosystems range from rainforest to high alpine environments in these enormous mountain ranges. Trekkers may come upon isolated villages and ruins lost in the undergrowth. Altitudes vary widely, it is essential to acclimatize properly before undertaking any trek.
Of course, most visitors come to hike the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Be aware that it’s not the only ‘Inca trail.’ What savvy tourism officials and tour operators have christened the Inca Trail is just one of dozens of footpaths that the Incas built to reach Machu Picchu, out of thousands that crisscrossed the Inca empire. Some of these overland routes are still being dug out of the jungle by archaeologists. Many more have been developed for tourism, and an ever-increasing number of trekkers are choosing them.
Closer to Cuzco, multiday Sacred Valley trekking itineraries go well off the beaten track to little-visited villages and ruins.
Further afield, recommended treks include Lares and Ausangate and, for archaeological sites, Choquequirao and Vilcabamba.
When to Go
The best time to go trekking in the Andes or the Amazon is during the colder dry season between May and September. Make reservations for treks during high seasons several months in advance, and up to a year in advance for the Inca Trail. In the wettest months of January to March, trails have a tendency to turn into muddy slogs, and views disappear under a blanket of clouds. Note that the Inca Trail is completely closed during the month of February for its annual cleanup. The high jungle Vilcabamba trek is not recommended outside June to August due to heavy rainfall. Temperatures can drop below freezing year-round on all the other, higher-altitude treks, and it occasionally rains even during the dry season.
What to Bring
Modern internal-framed backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and stoves can all be rented in various places in Calle Plateros. Check all equipment carefully before renting, as some is pretty shoddy, and most isn’t modern or lightweight.
Also take water-purification tablets or a purification system from home. Once you’re trekking, there is usually nowhere to buy food, and the small villages where treks begin have very limited supplies, so shop in advance in Cuzco. If you’re on a guided trek, take a stash of cash for tipping the guide and the arrieros (mule drivers). About US$12 per day per trekker is the minimum decent tip to a guide; a similar amount to divide between arrieros is appropriate.
Rafting isn’t regulated in Peru – literally anyone can start a rafting company. On top of this, aggressive bargaining has led to lax safety by many cheaper rafting operators. The degree of risk cannot be stressed enough: there are deaths every year. Rafting companies that take advance bookings online are generally more safety conscious (and more expensive) than those just operating out of storefronts in Cuzco.
When choosing an outfitter, it’s wise to ask about safety gear and guide training, ask about the quality of the equipment used (ie how old are the flotation devices) and check other traveler comments. It’s essential to book a top-notch outfitter employing highly experienced rafting guides with first-aid certification and knowledge of swift-water rescue techniques. Be wary of new agencies without a known track record.
In terms of locations, there are a number of rivers to choose from. Rivers further from Cuzco are days away from help in the event of illness or accident.
Rafting the Río Urubamba through the Sacred Valley could offer the best rafting day trip in South America, but Cuzco and all the villages along its course dispose of raw sewage in the river, making for a smelly and polluted trip. Seriously – close your mouth if you fall in.
Despite its unsavory aspects, the Ollantaytambo to Chilca (class II to III) section is surprisingly popular, offering 1½ hours of gentle rafting with only two rapids of note. Huarán and Huambutio to Pisac are other pollution-affected sections.
There are a variety of cleaner sections south of Cuzco on the upper Urubamba (also known as the Vilcanota), including the popular Chuquicahuana run (class III to IV+; class V+ in the rainy season). Another less frenetic section is the fun and scenic Cusipata to Quiquihana (mainly class II to III). In the rainy season, these two sections are often combined. Closer to Cuzco, Pampa to Huambutio (class I to II) is a beautiful section, ideal for small children (three years and over) as an introduction to rafting.
Río Santa Teresa
Río Santa Teresa offers spectacular rafting in the gorge between the towns of Santa Teresa and Santa María, and downstream as far as Quillabamba. One word of warning: the section from Cocalmayo Hot Springs to Santa María consists of almost nonstop class IV to V rapids in a deep, inaccessible canyon. It should only be run with highly reputable operators. Be very aware, if considering a trip here, that guiding this section safely is beyond the powers of inexperienced (cheaper) rafting guides. This is not the place to economize. It’s not a bad idea to raft another section in the area with your chosen operator before even considering it.
Run from May to November, the Río Apurímac offers three- to 10-day trips through deep gorges and protected rainforest. Apurímac features exhilarating rapids (classes IV and V) and wild, remote scenery with deep gorges. Sightings of condors and even pumas have been recorded. Four-day trips are the most relaxed and avoid the busier campsites, although three-day trips are more commonly offered. Camping is on sandy beaches, which have become increasingly overused. Sand flies can be a nuisance. Make sure your outfitter cleans up the campsite and practices a leave-no-trace ethic.
An even wilder expedition, the 10- to 12-day trip along the demanding Río Tambopata can only be run from May to October. The trip starts in the Andes, north of Lake Titicaca, and descends through the heart of the Parque Nacional Bahuaje-Sonene deep in the Amazon jungle. Just getting to the put-in from Cuzco is a two-day drive. The first days on the river are full of technically demanding rapids (classes III and IV) in wild Andean scenery, and the trip finishes with a couple of gentle floating days in the rainforest. Tapirs, capybara, caiman, giant otters and jaguars have all been seen by keen-eyed boaters.
Mountain-biking tours are a growing industry in Cuzco, and the local terrain is superb. Rental bikes are poor quality and it is most common to find rígida (single suspension) models, which can make for bone-chattering downhills. Good new or secondhand bikes are not easy to buy in Cuzco either. If you’re a serious mountain biker, consider bringing your own bike from home. Selling it in Cuzco is eminently viable.
If you’re an experienced rider, some awesome rides are quickly and easily accessible by public transport. Take the Pisac bus (stash your bike on top) and ask to be let off at Abra de Ccorao. From here, you can turn right and make your way back to Cuzco via a series of cart tracks and single track; halfway down is a jump park constructed by local aficionados. This section has many variations and is known as Yuncaypata. Eventually, whichever way you go, you’ll end up in Cuzco’s southern suburbs, from where you can easily flag down a taxi to get you home.
If you head off the other side of the pass, to the left of the road, you’ll find fast-flowing single track through a narrow valley, which makes it difficult to get lost. It brings you out on the highway in Ccorao. From here, follow the road through a flat section then a series of bends. Just as the valley widens out, turn left past a farmhouse steeply downhill to your left and into a challenging single track through a narrow valley, including a hairy river crossing and some tricky, steep, rocky, loose descents at the end, reaching the village of Taray. From here it’s a 10-minute ride along the river to Pisac, where you can catch a bus back to Cuzco.
Many longer trips are possible, but a professionally qualified guide and a support vehicle are necessary. The partly paved road down from Abra Málaga to Santa María, though not at all technical, is a must for any cyclist. It is part of the Inca Jungle Trail, offered by many Cuzco operators. Maras to Salineras is a great little mission. The Lares Valley offers a challenging single track, which can be accessed from Cuzco in a long day. If heading to Manu in the Amazon Basin, you can break up the long bus journey by biking from Tres Cruces to La Unión – a beautiful, breathtaking downhill ride – or you could go all the way down by bike. The outfitters of Manu trips can arrange bicycle rental and guides. The descent to the Río Apurímac makes a great burn, as does the journey to Río Tambopata, which boasts a descent of 3500m in five hours. A few bikers attempt the 500km-plus trip all the way to Puerto Maldonado, a great hot and sweaty challenge.
Most agencies can arrange a morning or afternoon’s riding. Alternatively, you can walk to Sacsaywamán, where many ranches are located, and negotiate your own terms. Choose carefully, however, as horses may be in a sorry state.
Select agencies will offer multiday trips to the area around Limatambo, and there are some first-rate ranches with highly trained, high-stepping thoroughbred Peruvian paso horses in Urubamba.
Serious birders should definitely get hold of Birds of the High Andes by Jon Fjeldså and Niels Krabbe. One of the best birding trips is from Ollantaytambo to Santa Teresa or Quillabamba, over Abra Málaga. This provides a fine cross section of habitats from 4600m to below 1000m. A good local field guide is The Birds of Machu Picchu by Barry Walker.
For a post-trek splurge, a number of spas offer massage services.