Cuzco Outdoors

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Cuzco Outdoors
Adrenaline junkies and nature lovers alike will find much to tempt them in Cuzco: spectacular scenery, ancient ruins, world-class rapids, and a multitude of treks.
Photo by Blake Burton
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    Trekking to Machu Picchu
    The classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is deservedly one of the most famous treks in the world. The four-day, 26-mile trail follows the original roads used by Incan messengers, or chasquis, whose coca-fueled dashes around the empire are legendary. The trail climbs from the Sacred Valley across high mountain passes with exhilarating views. Later, the Inca Trail descends into cloud forest until reaching the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. There are a number of alternative treks to Machu Picchu; Salkantay and the Inca Jungle Trek are popular options.
    Photo by Blake Burton
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    A New Perspective on Machu Picchu
    Trekkers entering Machu Picchu by the Sun Gate enjoy wonderful views across the site, but intrepid climbers have a number of options to get a fresh angle on the citadel. Huayna Picchu, the oft-photographed mountain behind Machu Picchu, is limited to 400 climbers per day, in two hotly contested cohorts of 200. Fewer people climb Apu Picchu Mountain on the other side of the site: It’s a higher climb but not as steep, and offers spectacular views. If you are staying independently in Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu, the Putucusi Mountain is a grueling climb with some rather precarious ladders. The rewards—views of Machu Picchu enjoyed by only a tenacious few—are well-earned.
    Photo by Camden Luxford
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    Choquequirao: Machu Picchu's Forgotten Sister
    Choquequirao is of similar size and importance to Machu Picchu, but much harder to reach: Only those willing to undertake the incredibly grueling two-day trek can visit the incompletely excavated site. Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao was an important link between the jungle and Andean regions of the Incan empire, with a similarly enigmatic blend of ceremonial, administrative, and agricultural functions. While much Incan stonework features the hidden shapes of animals, the images leap out at you in Choquequirao, rendered in white stone against grey. The Peruvian government is laying plans for an aerial tram to the site, so this isolated place won't remain so for long.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    A Bird's-Eye View of the Sacred Valley
    The Sacred Valley of the Incas—all jagged lines, adobe villages, and blue sky—is best enjoyed from a height. Natura Vive’s Via Ferrata combines this bird's-eye view with a healthy dose of adrenaline for even novice climbers. After climbing 1,000 feet on iron ladders with a steel lifeline, you'll be perfectly placed to contemplate the apus—mountain spirits said to inhabit certain snow-capped peaks. Below, the Urubamba River snakes its way past Ollantaytambo before disappearing around a bend toward Machu Picchu. After lunch, fly back down to the valley floor using six zip lines, or if you prefer, spend the night in one of the hanging transparent bedrooms, suspended between the valley and the stars.
    Photo courtesy of Natalia Rodriguez/Natura Vive
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    White-Water Rafting
    The Urubamba and Apurimac rivers close to Cuzco are popular for white-water rafting, with something for all skill levels. The Urubamba passes through the Sacred Valley; the gentle run between Huambutio and Písac is perfect for novice rafters or those who just wish to enjoy the spectacular Andean scenery at a more leisurely pace. Other parts of the river are more treacherous, and the class III+ rapids can be attempted over a couple of days or combined with a trek to Machu Picchu. The rapids of the Apurimac (which means "speaking God" in Quechua) churn through a remote canyon towards the Amazon; rated up to class V, they can be tackled on a four-day tour.
    Photo courtesy of Activities Peru
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    The Sacred Valley on Horseback
    The Peruvian Paso horse, a descendent of the mounts of the conquistadores, is famed worldwide for its smooth four-beat gait and similarly even temperament. Horseback riding is a wonderful way to enjoy the crisp air of the Sacred Valley while keeping altitude sickness at bay. A number of ruins close to Cuzco itself are easily accessible on horseback, and Ollantaytambo and Písac are good bases for day trips into the Sacred Valley. Sol y Luna offers half- and full-day rides into the valley with bonified chalanes, Peruvian cowboys. Many stables operate multi-day rides, but the truly horse-mad will want to check out Perol Chico’s 11-day Sacred Valley Ride, identified by National Geographic as one of the world’s top ten horseback rides.
    Photo by Nina Fogelman
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    Mountain Biking
    For those who would rather explore the Sacred Valley under their own steam, the steep Andean hills make for some thrilling mountain biking. The salt mines of Maras and the amphitheater-like Incan agricultural laboratory of Moray can be visited on a tremendously beautiful one-day trip that is perfect for inexperienced cyclists. Many operators combine a day's cycling with a visit to Machu Picchu: The exhilarating downhill run on good roads is a great way to reach the zip line and hot springs of Santa Teresa, and onward transport is provided to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. There are plenty of options for hardcore bikers too, with multi-day trips to the hot springs at Lares or the Manu jungle.
    Photo by Antoine Arraou/age fotostock
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    Bird-Watching
    Bird-watchers will find much to love around Cuzco. The marshes of Huacarpay Lagoon, 15 miles out of town, host myriad native waterbirds, including the Andean Lapwing and the Puna Teal. Onshore, look for the Giant Hummingbird and the elusive Bearded Mountaineer hummingbird, found only in Peru. At the high-mountain pass of Ábra Málaga, birders with sufficient reservoirs of patience and good luck may see flocks of Inca Wren or Cuzco Brush-Finch, among others. Meanwhile, the cloud forest around Machu Picchu hides flycatchers, hummingbirds, and parakeets. Wild Watch Peru take in all three sites on their four-day alternative route to Machu Picchu, and are a good source of information on Andean fauna.
    Photo by Glenn Bartley/age fotostock
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    Exploring Cuzco’s Ruins on Foot
    The Incan ruins closest to Cuzco can easily be explored by foot; simply buy a combined Circuit 1 tourist ticket and take an early taxi to Tambomachay to avoid the crowds. Immediately adjacent, Puka Pukara was a military base and fortress for the city of Cuzco, as well as a stopping point for travelers and hunters. From here, the cross-country walk to Qenko is a few miles and follows an old Inca trail—have someone at the checkpoint show you the way, and pause at Qoriwaynachina (the "Inca Jail"), Templo de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), and Templo del Mono (Monkey Temple) on the way. After admiring Qenko’s massive limestone monolith, take your time exploring Sacsayhuamán, the imposing ruins overlooking Cuzco.
    Photo by Camden Luxford
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    Thermal Baths for Aching Muscles
    There’s nothing quite like surging hot water to ease the aches of high-altitude adventure, and Cuzco's thermal baths are worth the effort to reach. The hot baths of Aguas Calientes are a great place to unwind after climbing Huayna Picchu, although the springs at nearby Santa Teresa are far more beautiful. Furthest off the beaten path, the thermal baths of Lares are a wonderful spot for a long evening soak before retreating to one of the private cabins. If the springs are all out of reach, try the spas of Tambo del Inka and Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel, or the Inca Spa in Cuzco.
    Photo courtesy of the Tambo del Inka/Luxury Collection Resort & Spa