Top Five Side Trips From Machu Picchu

Don't go all the way to Machu Picchu without having one of these experiences, the perfect way to round out a trip to Peru.

Nasca Lines
An aerial tour of the famed Nasca Lines reveals giant geoglyphs, such as this spider.
Photograph by Robert Clark- National Geographic

For many visitors to Peru, Machu Picchu is the number one draw. But Peru is such an ecologically, topographically, and historically rich country that it’d be a waste to travel all that way without tacking on an extra day or three to appreciate some of the country’s other wonders.

1. Raft a Sacred River

The Andes are veined with whitewater, the inevitable product of steep slopes funneling glacial meltwater into tight canyons. As a result, Peru is a fantastic place to go river rafting. A popular spot for paddling, the Urubamba River, which the Inca revered as a deity, runs through the Sacred Valley near Cusco and eventually winds in an omega shape around Machu Picchu. A typical trip on the Chuquicahuana stretch, a lovely part of the Upper Urubamba, features Class III rapids and can be done as a day trip from Cusco. (Avoid downriver Urubamba trips, which pass through a polluted section of the river.) More adventurous paddlers can tackle the Class IV-V whitewater of the Apurimac River. The translation of its name—“Great Speaker”—offers a hint of the roaring rapids that await.

2. Hike the Colca Canyon

No one’s entirely sure how deep the Colca Canyon is, but scientists have determined that the distance from its rim to its bottom measures more than 10,000 feet. The Colca is also generally agreed to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The immense space within those towering walls is filled with some of South America’s most spectacular scenery: untouched valleys, pre-Columbian agricultural terraces still in use, dormant volcanoes, and green oases. The vicuña, a smaller cousin of the llama, runs wild here. The Colca’s calling card, though, is the majestic Andean condor, a bird whose populations are dwindling elsewhere but which is regularly spotted here at the mountain pass called Cruz del Condor. It’s possible to reach the Colca overland from Cusco, but the easiest way is to take a 45-minute flight to Arequipa, which also happens to be Peru’s most charming city.

3. Visit the Fauna of Manu National Park

There is probably no trip that better illustrates how Peru’s diverse ecosystems are stacked one atop another than the rapid transition from the chilly Andean heights of Cusco to the lush Amazonian jungle of Manu National Park. This biosphere, whose preservation was made possible by its remoteness, is just a 45-minute plane ride away from Cusco (or by road, 8 to 24 hours or more—weather permitting—plus a 45-minute boat ride). Most travel within Manu is done by boat, which allows for eye-level views of one of the world’s greatest preserved swaths of rain forest, one that includes more than 15,000 species of plants. Manu is best known, though, for its superlative variety of animal life: jaguars, tapirs, giant otters, 13 kinds of monkeys, and at least a million different insect species. Manu is in particular a must-see for birdwatchers, since more than a thousand avian species (ten percent of the world’s total and more than can be found in the U.S. and Canada combined) live within its borders.

4. Fly Over the Nasca Lines

A trip to Machu Picchu almost always requires connections in Lima, Peru’s vibrant coastal capital, while arriving and departing. While there, a short flight can be easily arranged to view the Nasca Lines, which rival Machu Picchu as Peru’s greatest ancient wonder. Why the need for an aerial perspective? Because of the immensity of the geoglyphs that appear as if they’ve been etched into the ground below: spiders, llamas, fish, monkeys, and more, some of them stretching more than 600 feet across. (Their extent was unknown until the 1930s, when pilots began flying across the Nasca Desert.) The original purpose of the images remains one of the world’s great mysteries—extraterrestrials are sometimes cited as their source—but the lines are generally believed to have been created by the Nasca people between one and two thousand years ago as part of a religious ritual.

5. Bike the Andes

Two things are never in short supply in the Andes: dirt trails and steep descents. Which is why the area near Machu Picchu and Cusco is prime for mountain biking. It’s possible to arrange your own two-wheel tour, but using an outfitter will give you access to a support vehicle (crucial in an area where bike shops are virtually unknown), local knowledge of Peru’s often confusing road system, and, should you want it, a vehicle to portage your bike up the area’s brutal ascents, so that you can enjoy your vacation instead of playing Lance Armstrong. Some of the best trips include the peaceful Lares Valley; the Inca ruins-rich Sacred Valley, which runs from Pisac to Ollantaytambo; and a one-day, altimeter-busting one-mile-plus descent starting from the Abra Malaga pass, at 13,000 feet. Some outfitters even offer back roads trips from Cusco to within shouting distance of Machu Picchu.

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