With a diverse landscape, from the ocean to the Andes to the Amazon; a burgeoning culinary scene; and Machu Picchu, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, Peru is a huge draw for many travelers. It’s ideal for outdoorsy types, history buffs, cultural explorers... and anyone with a camera.

The fascinating narrative of the Incas—who, despite existing for less than a century, achieved incredible technological advances in architecture, agriculture, even medicine—colors any visit to Peru. But it’s not all about the past: The food scene, for one thing, is a vibrant mix of global influences (South American, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese) that’s garnered accolades around the world.

That said, Peru is a complicated place, with multiple attractions spread around the country. Logistics can be thorny—not only are there the train schedules and entry times to decipher, but it’s important to order your activities carefully to avoid altitude sickness. We strongly urge you to use an experienced travel advisor to plan your journey to Peru. Here’s the basic outline of the itinerary we usually recommend for Skylark clients. If it sounds appealing, get in touch with one of our agents and we can tailor a trip to your exact needs. 

By Marley Gibbons
Lima's Main Square
Photo by Shutterstock

LIMA

(2 days)

A stop in the capital is pretty much required, but we usually recommend around two days to recover from the flight and get used to the altitude while exploring Lima’s many charms. Stroll around the historic center, the upscale Miraflores neighborhood on the water, and bohemian Barranco. Cultural highlights include the Barbosa Stern Private Collection, which explores the intermingling of Spanish and Incan artistic styles, and the Larco Museum, which has a lovely café, a garden and an entertaining display of pre-Columbian erotic ceramics.  


Delving into the culinary scene is a must, whether at award-winning restaurants like Central and Astrid y Gastón or hole-in-the-wall spots serving specialties like ceviche or 
anticuchos (kebabs, often made with beef heart). Skylark can set up special experiences like a cooking demonstration with chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who champions obscure Amazonian ingredients in his food at Malabar, or a private dinner at a 16th-century mansion that has been in the same family for 17 generations. 

Where to Stay: The Belmond Miraflores Park has warm, stylish accommodations overlooking Lima’s picturesque shoreline—you can watch paragliders from the rooftop pool. A private mansion turned art-filled boutique in the cool-kid neighborhood of Barranco, the Hotel B has an excellent restaurant as well as cooking and mixology classes. 

Machu Picchu
Photo by Marley Gibbons

SACRED VALLEY & MACHU PICCHU

(3-4 days)

The Urubamba River valley, known as the Sacred Valley, was the cradle of the Inca civilization in the 11th to 15th centuries. It’s home to Machu Picchu as well as other archaeological sites and modern-day villages. We suggest spending 3 days to explore the region, including Machu Picchu, before heading back to Cuzco.

The 15th-century citadel of Machu Picchu is the item every visitor to Peru wants to check off their bucket list—and it really does live up to all of the hype. The level of detail, the advanced technology in evidence, the pristine appearance (everything in Peru is well preserved, thanks in part to the country’s unique and diverse climate)—everything about the place is mind-boggling.  

Note that new regulations, intended to limit human impact on these sacred grounds, mean that you can only visit Machu Picchu in one of two daily shifts, morning or afternoon. The afternoon shift tends to be less crowded, but it’s rare to get a photo without a few other tourists in the frame. We usually recommend taking the train from your lodge, although hiking (including a “glamping” option run by Belmond) is available to hardier souls. Tip: Take the state-run Vista Dome train one way—preferably in daylight so you can appreciate the scenery through the panoramic windows—and return after dark on the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham, when the distractions of its historic fittings and swank dining car are more welcome.

Beyond the ruins, it’s worth exploring the living culture of the Sacred Valley. One worthwhile excursion organized by the Explora lodge (see “Where to Stay” below) starts in the small village of Cuper Bajo, where you will meet the local women who spend months weaving the gorgeous, iconic fabrics, scarves and rugs you see all over Peru—and have an opportunity to purchase directly from them, supporting the local economy (and avoiding inflated prices you’ll find elsewhere). That’s followed by a challenging hike up a shepherd's path to vistas of the lagoons and farmland below. The trip ends up in the town of Chinchero, home to a colonial church the Spaniards built on top of an Incan masterpiece—an example of the region’s fascinating mix of ancient and colonial styles. On my visit, I was lucky enough to watch local children perform a traditional ceremony dedicated to the sun god.  

Where to Stay: As at the company’s better-known locations in Chile, everything about the Explora Valle Sagrado exceeds expectations, from the food to the staff to the organization and quality of the experiences. What Explora does right in Patagonia and Atacama—namely, immersing its guests actively in the local environment and disconnecting from the outside world—is amplified here by Peru’s living culture. Explora’s activities allow guests to not only get exercise and experience the beautiful terrain on foot
, but to learn so much about this cradle of civilization.

Tambo del Inka lacks some of Explora’s authenticity, but it’s great for families who need connecting rooms and kid-friendly rooms and entertainment. Also, its large number of rooms makes it somewhat more affordable and available for last-minute bookings.  

Other options include the ranch-like Sol Y Luna, which gets raves for its family-run hospitality, extensive gardens, and cuisine (it’s a Relais & Chateaux property); and the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, a sprawling resort on the Urubamba River that’s especially desirable if you want an end-to-end experience with Belmond, which dominates the luxury scene in Peru. (But rest assured that if you book with Skylark, your trip will be seamless wherever you stay.) 

City Overview
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CUZCO

(2-3 days)

Think of Cuzco as the Florence of Peru: very picturesque and historic. It’s lovely to walk around and explore the gorgeous colonial and ancient Incan architecture—the main square alone has four churches, including Cuzco Cathedral, with its incredible frescoes and profuse displays of silver and gold. The bohemian neighborhood of San Blas is also worth a visit—it's full of workshops that leave their doors open for visitors and delightful stores and restaurants that would feel at home in Brooklyn. Generally speaking, Cuzco is the best place in Peru to shop for crafts and souvenirs because the artisans who make them are mostly based here. Don’t miss a meal at Cicciolina, which serves traditional Peruvian dishes with an international touch that. For my visit, the restaurant catered a delicious picnic lunch at a beautiful vantage point over the city—an experience Skylark can set up for you as well.  

Where to Stay:
The two best options in town, the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas 
and the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, occupy adjacent palaces. Both are excellent, though we give the Palacio Nazarenas the edge because it’s newer, smaller (55 rooms vs. 122) and has a swimming pool—especially enticing for families. The Palacio del Inka has somewhat dark rooms but a convenient location, right across from the must-see Coricancha Temple. 

Peruvian Locals
Photo by Shutterstock

TIPS:

  • Most flights into Lima from the East Coast are overnight, so consider flying business class to ensure a good night’s sleep.
  • Plan to spend at least a full week to see Lima, Cuzco and the Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu. Ten days will allow for a more leisurely pace; stay longer to see the lakeside culture of Lake Titicaca and its floating villages.
  • Logistics are complicated in Peru—not only are there the train schedules and entry times to decipher, but it’s important to order your activities carefully to avoid altitude sickness. Definitely book your trip with a Skylark agent to help plan everything.
  • You will definitely want an experienced guide for Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley; you should also consider hiring one for at least one half day of sightseeing in both Cuzco and Lima.
  • The weather in Peru varies a lot throughout the day and from region to region—major microclimate alert! Bring layers and a large day pack.