Long-time readers may recall I first visited Machu Picchu in 2011 when I did the 4-day Salkantay trek.
The whole experience was terrific, from the high-altitude trekking in the shadow of snow-capped mountains to trudging for an hour up the stairs to the entrance of Machu Picchu in the pre-dawn hours.
I was one of the first visitors in the gates that morning, jogging in with another traveler to quickly snap a few photos before the busloads of tourists began to arrive.
When I won the tour, I briefly considered whether to accept it. Would I appreciate Machu Picchu as much the second time around? Was it worth the time and energy to travel back to Peru?
Spoiler: hell, yes!
I'm a huge fan of the food scene in Lima, Cusco's main square is stunning, the Sacred Valley is gorgeous, and Machu Picchu is an incredibly picturesque site.
Machu Picchu Tour
Day 0-1: Lima
Day 1 of the Machu Picchu tour is the day everyone needs to be in Lima. I went down a day early on United, flying from Austin to Lima via Houston.
Tip: One of my favorite tools to search for flights is Skyscanner.
I knew the 10-hour trip would make for an exhausting day, and wanted to give myself time to relax before the tour got underway.
I ordered aji de gallina, my favorite Peruvian dish. It consists of shredded white meat chicken smothered in a creamy yellow sauce, served over boiled potatoes with a side of white rice.
I washed it down with a pitcher of fresh mango orange juice.
The next day, everyone else arrived and checked into our hotel, including my friend Freddy, who I was able to invite as my guest. He's been all around the world, but it was his first time visiting Peru.
Since he runs his own travel hacking and points website he was absolutely thrilled to go.
Day 2: Lima to Urubamba
Fly to Cusco
We were up bright and early the next morning for the hour-and-a-half LATAM flight from Lima to Cusco.
On arrival, we boarded the signature purple G Adventures bus and took off to see our first ruins in the Sacred Valley.
Eye-pleasing Moray is located about 30 miles northwest of Cusco, at a slightly higher elevation of 11,483ft (3,500m).
The concentric circular terraces are believed to have been an ancient method of testing different farming techniques and conditions.
The temperature difference can be as much as 27F (15C) between the highest and lowest terraces.
Plus, studies have shown different soils were brought to Moray from other regions.
Our group didn't have time to fully descend the terraces (and at this altitude, walking up them wouldn't have been fun).
However, several people did go for a walk around the relatively flat upper perimeter.
Las Salineras (Pre-Inca salt pans)
Our next stop, Las Salineras, was another first for me in the Sacred Valley.
As our bus approached from the road above, the scale of the terraced salt pans in the mountainside became evident.
The white of the salty water and the dark brown of the soil created a captivating contrast with otherwise green surroundings.
Throughout at least 600 years, likely longer, pools have been created here to collect natural groundwater carrying salt from underground deposits.
Today, there are approximately 3,000 pools at this site, each no more than a foot deep.
The water is channeled into the pools, where it evaporates, leaving behind the salt to be scraped up. Local families still have the rights to mine the salt here.
For a few dollars, I couldn't resist trying some local chocolate and buying Peruvian salt as a souvenir to cook with when I got home.
We arrived at the San Agustin Urubamba Hotel at about 4:30 pm and had a few hours to rest before dinner at 6:30 pm.
On the menu was a traditional Pachamanca dinner consisting of Andean chicken, pork, and lamb.
I know this dish looks like a mess from the photo above, but trust me when I say it tasted delicious! It was the most memorable meal of the tour.
Day 3: Urubamba
Our third day required another early wake-up. Breakfast at the hotel buffet included scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and coca leaf tea.
The palm-sized discs of traditional bread reminded me of my first trip to Peru when I spent more time in the mountains, including Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca north of Lima.
The first stop on Day 3 of our Machu Picchu tour with G Adventures was scenic Pisac.
These Inca ruins featured the similarly stepped terraces we saw at Moray, which, as you now know, are designed for farming.
It was fun to explore Pisac as it's situated high up on the mountainside, offering panoramic views of the valley.
For those who haven't been to Machu Picchu yet, it offers a taste of what's to come.
Parque de la Papa (Potato Park)
After about an hour of exploring Pisac, we headed to Parque de la Papa to learn about the preservation of native potatoes and traditional weaving.
Upon arrival, we saw a group of alpacas, including baby alpacas, and my eyes lit up.
Alpacas are one of my favorite animals. They're incredibly cute to look at, their hair is woven into fine clothing, and their meat is lean and delicious to eat.
Following our impromptu photo session with the alpacas, we sat down in the shade of a hut to learn about some of the 2,000 varieties of potatoes native to Peru, and the efforts to protect them.
Then, we were led to an outdoor enclosure where we learned more about how alpaca wool is dyed using natural elements before it's woven into finished products.
We paused for lunch at a nearby restaurant, before resuming our tour of ruins in the Sacred Valley.
About 45 miles northwest of Cusco, at the northern end of the Sacred Valley, lies Ollantaytambo.
This fun-to-say-out-loud town and ruins date back to the mid-1400s when Inca Emperor Pachacuti conquered the region.
Later, in the mid-1500s, it served as a bastion of resistance during the Spanish conquest of Peru.
I'd already visited Ollantaytambo on my first visit to the Sacred Valley. However, I felt like I got a much better appreciation for its size and importance this time around.
Ollantaytambo is both on the way to several starting points for the Inca Trail, as well as along the rail line to Aguas Calientes.
Therefore, the town has plenty of cheap accommodation and restaurants aimed at backpackers.
Day 4: Urubamba to Aguas Calientes
The next morning, we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes, a small riverside town that acts as a staging area for visits to Machu Picchu.
Unlike the end of the Salkantay trek, where we walked along the tracks into town, it was nice to be cruising in comfort with a complimentary cup of coca tea and a chocolate chip cookie.
The tracks run parallel to the muddy-brown Urubamba River, and both snake their way through the valley.
Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes, we walked up to the Taypikala Hotel Machupicchu.
While we waited to check-in, a few of us walked further up to the natural hot springs for which the town is named.
Several square-shaped, tiled-lined pools were filled with murky green water. It did not look appealing, despite seeing several travelers soaking in them.
The afternoon and evening offered us free time, a much-needed break from the fast-paced structure of the first few days.
My friend Freddy and I had a casual lunch, followed later by dinner at Mapacho, a Peruvian restaurant serving craft beer.
Aguas Calientes isn't much of a party town, though there are plenty of bars to grab a drink.
Day 5: Machu Picchu Tour
The next morning, we were out the door by 7:30 am and walking to the local bus that would take us up to the park entrance.
At 8:20 am, our G Adventures tour group was catching its first glimpse of mystical Machu Picchu (7,972ft or 2,430m).
The peak of Huayna Picchu (8,835ft or 2,693m) was covered by clouds. However, I knew from previous experience it was likely to clear up in the next few hours.
I climbed Huayna Picchu in 2011 for a birds-eye view of the ruins, so I didn't miss the fact that it wasn't available to us as an optional activity on the Machu Picchu tour with G Adventures.
Our guided tour of Machu Picchu lasted about two hours, at which point we were free to explore and take pictures on our own for up to another two hours (for a maximum of four hours total in the park).
However, when I wanted to go back to a spot near the entrance for photos, I quickly learned you're not allowed to backtrack.
It's one of several new rules implemented to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site from the increasing number of visitors.
On the bright side, the clouds were starting to lift, and it didn't take all that long to make a loop back to the beginning to get the photos I wanted.
When our time was up, we regrouped at the park entrance and took one of the local buses back to Aguas Calientes.
Lunch was at a restaurant in the center of town, offering a view of the passing trains.
By 3 pm, we were back on the train bound for Urubamba.
I made sure to get a window seat this time as the mountain scenery is stunning.
The train ride was followed by our purple bus taking us the rest of the way back to Cusco.
Day 6-7: Cusco
Our last full day in the Sacred Valley was spent in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire, where we were free to explore on our own.
Cusco's Plaza de Armas is one of the prettiest plazas I've come across in Latin America. It's at the heart of the historic city center, where most visitors will be based and spend their time.
The grandeur of the Cusco Cathedral (visible in the photo above) is a reflection of 16th-century Spanish colonial architecture, while the Inca presence can still be seen in some well-crafted stone walls.
A 12-sided stone in one of these walls is symbolic of their expertise.
It's hard to believe they could carve stones with such precision, fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle that's stood firm against earthquakes for 600 years.
In the evening, we had the opportunity to visit the Cusco Planetarium and learn about the night's sky as the Incas would've seen it.
Though small, the planetarium has invested in high-quality equipment, and the knowledgeable staff put on a fun show for us.
The next day, our seventh of the Machu Picchu tour, was a travel day back to Lima.
In the afternoon, Freddy and I met up with a few of the others from the group for a drink at a bar near the hotel to say our goodbyes. We both had plans to stay in Lima longer.
Day 8: Lima
Officially, the last day of the tour was the next day when people were able to depart for their next destination or return home.
Overall, the trip was exactly what I've come to expect from a G Adventures tour: fun, fast-paced, friendly, educational, efficient.
Machu Picchu may be the star attraction. However, the build-up to it with visits to Moray, Las Salineras, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo adds to the experience.
The Machu Picchu tour with G Adventures and National Geographic Journeys is one of the cheapest they offer in South America.
If you've never been to South America, a trip to Peru is an excellent place to start.
Lima is relatively safe compared to other South American capitals, and the tour length is short enough to make it manageable for Americans with limited vacation time.
P.S. Since our trip, my friend Freddy launched PointsPanda.com and now offers Travel Assistance for these unique times.
Disclosure: There was no obligation for me to write about this trip as a result of winning it. It's just what I like to do. That said, if you're feeling inspired to book the same tour with G Adventures, consider clicking one of the links in the yellow boxes first as I'll earn a commission at no extra cost to you.