In the past five years, the Camino Salcantay has begun to emerge as a popular alternative to the Inca Trail, the classic four-day trek to Machu Picchu. In July a network of high-end lodges opened for business along the route. Whether you go it on your own, setting up tent camps, or book the lodges, indulging in a hot shower, Jacuzzi, and a home-cooked meal at the end of the day, the Camino Salcantay makes a perfect centerpiece to any Peru trip.
See photos from the Camino Salcantay >>
There are no direct flights to Cusco from North America, so you'll need to go through Lima. From there you can catch cheap flights to the Andean capital. LAN Airlines offers the most options (www.lan.com).
The Camino Salcantay runs approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) through high Andean peaks, cloud forest, and steamy jungle. It can be done on your own or guided. The most comfortable (and newest) option is a seven-day trip with the Umberts' Mountain Lodges of Peru ($2,500, including four to five days of trekking, food, transportation, and one-day ticket to Machu Picchu; www.mountainlodgesofperu.com). All have private bedrooms, Spanish showers, and outdoor hot tubs (except Lucma). Weekly departures run through December 2007 and from March to December 2008.
Backpackers typically hike from Mollepata to Aguas Calientes in three or four days. Buses to Mollepata depart Cusco at 5 a.m. and 1 p.m.; the three- to four-hour trip costs less than $3. Among the many Cusco travel agencies touting fully catered and portered tented treks, SAS Travel Peru is recommended and offers advance bookings ($380; www.sastravelperu.com).
You could keep yourself fascinated for days exploring Cusco's puma-shaped huddle of cobbled streets, walled with Inca and colonial architecture that stands little changed since Peru gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The plaza in front of Cusco Cathedral is always a hive of activity, bustling with vendors or festival celebrants.
Choquequirao has been called "Machu Picchu's sacred sister," due to its similar design and architecture, but these recently rediscovered ruins are more remote and less developed. Perched 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above the roaring Río Apurímac, they can be reached only on foot or on horseback. Mountain Lodges of Peru plans to expand its network to include lodge-to-lodge treks to Choquequirao; in the meantime, several Cusco operators offer five-day camping treks starting at around $300.
Urubamba Valley, the Sacred Valley of the Inca near Cusco, is a repository of traditional Andean villages and ancient Inca ruins. Visit on Sunday, when campesinos pour in for handicraft markets. Peru Treks & Adventure offers day trips from Cusco to the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo and Chinchero within the valley ($15; www.perutreks.com).
For rafters, some of Peru's best whitewater is found near Cusco. Options range from one-day trips on the tame Urubamba (year-round) to three-day expeditions on the remote Apurímac (May to December only). Mayuc Expeditions runs trips on both rivers ($35 for Urubamba, $180 for Apurímac; www.mayuc.com).
Though the Inca Empire has been reduced to history books, these three festivals reclaim a bit of what was lost.
Day of the Kings (January 6) As Indian dancers reenact events from Inca history, others stage dramatic depictions of the early events in Christ's life.
Easter Week (March/April) Revelers carry the statue of the Lord of the Earthquakes through Cusco on a carpet of red flowers.
Inti Raymi (June 24) Costumed participants dance in praise of the sun, accompanied by flutes, conch-shell horns, and drums.
In Cusco consider the Hotel Monasterio, a refurbished monastery built in 1592 ($470; www.monasterio.orient-express.com). The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel in Aguas Calientes offers bungalow cabins and extensive gardens ($220; 800 442 5042).
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