The “Lost City of the Incas” in Peru is a retreat into ancient times, where you can stand beneath the walls and temples of an era long past. Pair a surreal stroll through the ruins with a few days in the culture-filled surrounding areas and you’re guaranteed a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Since most visitors to the famed historic city need a while to acclimatize (letting your body adjust to the thin air), there’s good reason to indulge in the wonders of Cusco, the old capital of the sun-worshipping Incan empire. Its quaint cobblestone streets are lined with museums, markets and cafes, and opportunities for horseback riding, biking, whitewater rafting and, of course, uphill trips to the spectacular city of Machu Picchu abound. Head to the ruins by foot or train, and prepare to be amazed. (Be sure to do your part in preserving the site by booking with a respectful and reputable guide!)
Before You Go: Need-to-know info
Language: Spanish and Quechua (most hotel staff speak English)
Entry requirements: Passport and proof of return travel
Flight time (to Cusco): 12 hours from New York City; 16 hours from LA; 15 hours from Chicago
Getting around: Bus, train, car and foot
When to Go: Machu Picchu at its best
Best weather: June to September. Machu Picchu has a semitropical climate with warm, humid days and cold nights. Rainy season runs from November to April.
Best prices: January to April
What to Do
The big hike: If you’re into for working up nice sweat and sleeping in tents, book a guide and trek to the ruins on foot. This popular journey to the heights of Machu Picchu takes from two to four days and will lead you through a lush cloud forest and dense subtropical jungle. If you have the time (and the shoes) for it, don’t pass up the opportunity. The striking mountain scenery and abundance of orchids, birds and llamas make the expedition more than worthwhile. (Bring your sunscreen — the UV rays here are possibly the strongest in the world!)
Natural hot tubs: Macchu Pichu isn’t all about the trekking. Give those hiking boots a few days’ rest at the town of Aguas Calientes, which is about five miles from the ruins. The town’s name means “hot waters” in Spanish, and here (surprise!) you’ll find a host of steamy thermal pools where you can relax and, according to the locals, be cured of what ails you. Take care which pool you plunge into, though — one is filled from an icy mountain stream! Aguas Calientes is also home to a few hotels, restaurants and a slew of locals selling woven hats and scarves. (There’s not much else, so be prepared to loosen up and entertain yourselves.)
Lazy train: Not up for the hike? Hop aboard an early-morning train at Cuzco for a day trip to the ancient citadel instead. Bring your camera to snap some reminders of the stunning mountain vistas rolling past, and about four hours later you’ll arrive in Aguas Calientes and transfer to a bus for the last few miles to the gates of Machu Picchu.