Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Travel to South America to visit affordable Peru, where among the ancient Inca laws few boast a greater legacy than ¡Ama quella!—"Don't be idle!" The handiwork of Peru's storied culture remains a marvel, from astronomical observatories in the lost city of Machu Picchu to limestone carvings of indigenous animals at the Inca ceremonial site of Kenko. And the timeless streets of Cuzco bustle even now with traders and artisans, as they have since the 16th century. With more than 25 years of experience in Peru, OAT brings you closer to its diverse offerings on this comprehensive South American travel adventure: rafting on the Urubamba River, exploring the Inca Trail, and visiting the immense Sacsayhuaman ruins. Inside the heart of Peru, our small group encounters the traditional mestizo medicine men as they revive once-dying arts. With its history and traditions so vibrantly alive in Peru, you can't be idle here.
Depart the U.S. this evening on an overnight flight to Peru.
We arrive at the airport in Lima early in the morning and transfer to our hotel. Here, you’ll get acquainted with our Trip Leader and fellow travelers—including those joining us from our optional pre-trip extensions to Ecuador: The Andes & the Devil's Nose Train or The Amazon Rain Forest of Peru.
After an included lunch, you’ll join our Trip Leader and fellow travelers for an orientation walk through the boulevards and plazas around our hotel—situated in the stylish Miraflores district, which is a cultural and artistic center full of small cafés, fine shops, and art galleries.
Founded by the conquistadores in 1535, Lima became Spain’s largest and wealthiest city in the New World. The city has a proud history, including the founding of one of the first universities in South America, the Universidad de San Marcos, in the middle of the 16th century. Today, Lima’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After our walk, we’ll return to the hotel. Dinner is on your own this evening.
After breakfast at our hotel, we’ll explore Lima in greater depth on a colonial tour, where we’ll see some of the city’s most interesting sites. We begin with a guided visit to Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History at Bolivar Square, where we can view the eras of Peru’s history through art: from pre-Incan turquoise figurines to Incan textiles and Spanish paintings. The museum contains an impressive collection of ceramics, gold and silver items, and textiles from the ancient cultures of Chavin, Mochica, Chimu, Tiahuanaco, Pucara, Paracas, Nazca, and Inca. A local guide will then join us as we explore Lima’s colonial streets and architecture—evidence of the city’s Spanish heritage—concluding with a private tour of San Francisco Church, a distinctive yellow building constructed in the Baroque style, known for its beautiful painted ceilings and extensive catacombs.
Lunch is on your own and your are free to make your own discoveries in Lima this afternoon. Tonight, our group gets further acquainted during a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast this morning, we fly from Lima to the mountain-ringed city of Cuzco. Situated at an elevation of 10,909 feet, this city was the capital of the Incan world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upon arrival, we descend into the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, the lower elevation of which eases our transition to high altitudes of the Andes before our visit to Machu Picchu and our return to Cuzco.
After a boxed lunch, we drive to the top of a switchback road leading to the ancient upper city of Pisac, the mythic ruins of which are situated in a spectacular location atop a buttress ridge, with agricultural terraces—constructed by the ancient Inca people—curling around the hill in graceful curves, and gorges on either side.
We take a short trek into the ancient city, where we explore its well-built stone dwellings and temples, and enjoy sweeping vistas both up- and downstream in the Urubamba Valley. Pisac's highly defensible site guarded both the Valley and a high jungle pass to the northeast.
From Pisac, we depart for our hotel in the Sacred Valley. We arrive there this evening, and enjoy dinner at our hotel tonight.
We depart our hotel after breakfast this morning, driving through the Sacred Valley on our way to our first destination, the splendid Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo. Along the way, we'll have the opportunity to observe local residents as they make adobe bricks and use oxen to plow their farmlands, while our Trip Leader shares his or her insights into this region’s rural way of life. At Ollantaytambo, we’ll walk amid the remains of this ancient fortress of gray and rose-colored granite, discover its ancient baths, and climb up the huge terraces guarding its hilltop temples. Then, we'll enjoy a chance to meet some of the local families who dwell in the traditional town nearby.
Our discoveries continue at the Urubamba River, where we embark on a float trip aboard inflatable rafts—yet another enjoyable way to experience the enchanting Andean landscape. It's little wonder why the Incas regarded the Urubamba Valley as sacred ground. Here the Inca culture was born, and here the Incas found a true life-source—the area's mild climate and fertile soil, which yielded an abundance of fruits and vegetables. As we float along the river, we’ll observe the networks of terraces on either side, constructed entirely by hand, which transformed steep mountainsides into acres of arable land that helped feed a civilization, and which remain in use today, centuries after their construction.
Afterwards, we'll enjoy a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family. We'll try our hand at preparing a traditional appetizer and dine on Peruvian specialties—be sure to ask your hosts about cuy, a local delicacy! Later, we return to our hotel. Dinner tonight is at a local polleria restaurant, where we will have the opportunity to taste one of Peru's most popular dishes, Pollo a la Brasa (rotisserie-style chicken).
Today we wake up early for a train trip into the gorge of the Urubamba River and on to Machu Picchu, the legendary “Lost City of the Incas.” En route to the train station, we stop in Ollantaytambo for a short tour of the village and its charming central plaza. We'll enjoy lunch on board the train.
After a scenic train ride through the Sacred Valley, we arrive in the village of Aguas Calientes, where we’ll return after our exploration of Machu Picchu this afternoon. Most travelers visit Machu Picchu on a day trip, which makes for a hectic pace and only limited time at this unique archaeological wonder, while our overnight stay in Aguas Calientes allows us to explore at a more relaxed pace and return to continue our discoveries of this famous city the next morning.
We travel by bus to Machu Picchu, which—like Lima and the city of Cuzco—is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This ancient city was a place little known not only to foreigners, but also to the Inca people—only a select few were ever allowed to visit this mysterious sanctuary. Even though it was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1911, Machu Picchu remained inaccessible until the 1940s, when the Inca Trail was found by an archaeological expedition.
Ensuing explorations uncovered relics indicating that the "Lost City of the Incas" may have been the religious center of Inca life. The temples, astronomical observatory, and a remarkable solar clock named Intiwatana, or "hitching post to the sun" are all signs of the Incas' devotion to their sun god. (The fact that nearly all the unearthed human remains are female also points to Machu Picchu as a site of religious sacrifice.)
As for the fate of Machu Picchu's people, the theories are even more far-reaching (and theory is all we have, for the Incas left no written record). It is known that smallpox decimated the population in the early 16th century, but the remainder may have succumbed to drought or disease, been conquered by the Spanish, or simply abandoned the site.
We can consider this mystery as our own expedition alights on this mountaintop site this afternoon, as our expert Trip Leader and a local assistant give us a complete and compelling look at this fabled "Lost City," explaining the speculation surrounding Machu Picchu’s place in the Inca world. We’ll trek across its terraced landscape, stroll its ancient streets, and discover remnants of its Ritual Baths, Palace of the Princess, Main Fountain, and Sun and Condor temples. We'll have ample time to explore, reflect, and ponder the enigma of this man-made wonder, both with our Trip Leader and on our own.
Late this afternoon, we return to Aguas Calientes and check in to our hotel, then enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
We rise early to drive back to Machu Picchu after breakfast, ascending toward the ruined city as the sun crests the peaks of the Andes. You can remain at the hotel if you wish, but most travelers appreciate this second chance to see the ruins in a different light, well before other visitors arrive on the train from Cuzco later this morning. Among the enigmatic remnants of this Inca sanctuary we find an observatory meant for solstice worship and a stone altar marking the holy center point between the nearby sacred peaks.
You can wander the sprawling ruins on your own, or, depending on which trails are open, choose between two hikes. One brings you to the Inca Bridge, where a trail built with impressive Inca engineering crosses a cliff face. In one spot, the Incas left a deep gap, which they bridged with logs that could be removed to render the trail impassable to enemies. The second option is an ambitious hike to the Sun Gate at the Machu Picchu end of the Inca Trail, which offers a fine view over the ruins.
We descend to the village below to have lunch at a local restaurant, and this afternoon, we travel back by train to Ollantaytambo, and then by bus to Cuzco through the spectacular Urubamba Gorge. This evening, we enjoy dinner together at our hotel.
This morning we explore Cuzco on a walking tour. Called "the navel of the world" by the Incas, Cuzco was laid out in the shape of a puma, a sacred beast in Inca lore. The heart of the puma is also the heart of the city: the Plaza de Armas. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived here, they often built atop Inca structures, leaving behind a fascinating architectural blend. At the Plaza de Armas, you'll view the 17th-century cathedral that was built on the foundation of an Inca palace. This massive structure is one of the significant colonial buildings in the city. See whether you agree with many that it is also one of the most beautiful churches in Latin America. Our tour also takes in the Qoricancha Sun Temple, Cuzco's most important ceremonial structure during the Inca era. Historical records of the time note that its walls were once covered with 700 sheets of gold studded with emeralds and turquoise. When sunlight streamed through the windows, the reflection of light off the precious metals was blinding.
The afternoon is free for making your own discoveries in Cuzco. You might start by joining the city's residents at the local market, which is a wonderful way to learn about the area's cuisine and the local produce and spices that blend to produce the flavors of the region. Perhaps you'll wish to enter the Gothic Cathedral of Santo Domingo, to view its many interior paintings and sculptures, as well as its collections of colonial art and religious relics. Nearby is the oldest church in the city, the Capilla del Triunfo, and also the Company of Jesus Church, both offering interesting artwork. Another option is to relax on a bench at the center of the Plaza de Armas or a seat at a small outdoor café, and take in the rhythm of community life. Lunch and dinner are on your own today.
This morning, we begin a day filled with Peruvian cultural discoveries as we journey to Izcuchaca, a small village in the Río Mantaro Valley, where we'll visit a local market and uncover the region's rich history. Although the village features a pottery center and several humble hot springs, it is best known for its historic stone bridge. According to legend, Incan ruler Huáscar defended the bridge against his brother (and opponent), Atahualpa, during the Inca Civil War. As the brothers fought for control of the Inca Empire, they were completely unaware that their greatest threat was yet to come: the Spanish conquistadores.
Then, we travel to the mountain weaving village of Chinchero, which—at an elevation of 12,500 feet—is a literal high point of our exploration of the Sacred Valley, and provides excellent views of the surrounding mountains. Chinchero was also the site of a 16th-century Inca emperor’s estate, as well as a resting place on the Inca Royal Road. While there, we'll enjoy A Day in the Life of the Chinchero community, beginning with a spirited encounter with some of the children at a local elementary school (when in session) that is supported in part by donations from Grand Circle Foundation. The children welcome us warmly with a presentation on Peru’s culture—including traditional songs and dances—which is followed by a discussion with their teachers and families and some free time with the children one-on-one. Many travelers find this chance to meet the children of Peru to be the emotional high point of their adventure as well. Please note: Today's school visit may occur on an alternate day to accommodate weekends or holidays.
From the schoolhouse, we travel to the center of Chinchero, where we'll enjoy a walking tour of the community and witness an Incan tradition in action during a visit to a weaving cooperative. Here we observe a demonstration on making traditional textiles, and learn how the modern descendants of Peru's Quechua Indians create complex patterns in colorful cloth, like their ancestors have for centuries. We have lunch with the community in Chinchero—our Trip Leader will help us converse with the local people, providing another excellent opportunity to learn about daily life in Peru—before we return to Cuzco. Dinner is on your own this evening.
In the morning, we drive into the hills surrounding Cuzco to visit two important Inca sites. First we'll explore the massive Sacsayhuaman archaeological site on a hilltop overlooking the city. Sacsayhuaman is constructed of huge stones, some weighing nearly 300 tons, and recent excavations have revealed this ancient complex—thought to be a sacred sanctuary to the sun—to be much larger than previously thought. Then we visit the ancient Inca ceremonial center of Kenko, an ancient worship site that provides impressive evidence of the Inca’s unsurpassed talent for carving and piecing together immense limestone outcroppings.
We are in for a special treat later this morning when we get an up-close glimpse of a curandero ceremony, a healing ritual with Inca roots—performed by a mestizo medicine man—that draws on an assortment of ancient and modern substances and symbols, combined with coca leaves and the energy of the sacred mountains and Mother Earth. Watch, listen, and draw your own conclusions about this ancient practice, one that has endured for centuries in the face of modern medical advances.
Your afternoon is free for discovering more of Cuzco on your own. This evening, gather with your traveling companions to celebrate our journey during a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.
Our morning flight brings us back to Lima, where we check into our hotel. After lunch at a local restaurant, we embark upon a panoramic tour of Lima’s Barranco district. Home to many of Lima’s artists, musicians, and designers, Barranco is considered to be both the most romantic and the most bohemian district in Lima. We’ll take in its charming colonial architecture and flower-lined streets, and enjoy striking views of its unique topography, built around ravines and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We'll return to our hotel this afternoon to rest. Later, we transfer to the airport for our overnight flight to the U.S.
If you've chosen our post-trip extension to Peru: Lake Titicaca's Sacred Landscape, you'll depart from Cuzco this morning, travel overland to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and enjoy the Barranco district tour in Lima at the end of your extension. Or, if you're taking the Before the Incas: Peru's Pyramids & the Lord of Sipan post-trip extension, you'll fly from Cuzco to Trujillo in northern Peru today, and also take the Barranco district tour in Lima at the end of your extension.