We learned from our mistake in Quito and we really got it right for the Sacred Valley in Peru. We hand picked our taxi driver upon arrival in Cusco and on the way to the hotel we asked if he did day tours out to Sacred Valley. Not only did he say yes, but he actually has a travel agency that organizes tours. So rather than pay the JW Marriott travel agency USD $180 per person for a tour, which is highway robbery, nor pay a local agency $320 for the three of us, we ended up paying about $120, and it was only that much because I insisted on paying for lunch for our guide/driver on top of the tip. Score!
But I get ahead of myself. We chose our route to Machu Picchu in advance based on a very common itinerary we'd read about beforehand. Basically, we booked our train ticket out of a small town called Ollaytaytambo which is located within the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We had a ~3p departure out of Ollaytaytambo, so we booked our tour to depart from Cusco at 8a to give us time to see the Sacred Valley Inca sites at Pisac and Ollaytaytambo, plus have lunch in Urubamba. This is a very common thing, though interestingly I couldn't find a travel agency that offered the Sacred Valley as anything less than a full day...hence our need for a private tour.
The Sacred Valley is just outside Cusco and was carved by the Willkamayu River (Willkamayu means Sacred River in Quecha, the language of the indigenous people) which runs through the valley. There are numerous Incan ruins throughout the valley, with major ruins at Pisac, Ollaytaytambo, and other sites. Given our tighter timeline, we spent our day touring only Pisac and Ollaytaytambo, which I think was plenty for us. The ruins were pretty darn impressive in their own right (given I'm writing this after having seen Machu Picchu), giving a very good preview of what makes Machu Picchu so impressive: the Incas tend to build on hilltops that overlook multiple valleys, they extensively terraced the hillsides both for agriculture and structural purposes, and they used incredibly massive stones that are fitted together without mortar. Oh, and all this without using metal tools or pack animals, only stone tools and human labor. Pretty amazing. We also spent some time at the Pisac market and we visited a wildlife rescue area where we got up close and personal with a variety of animals, including the amazing Andean Condor.
After the Sacred Valley we took the Peru Rail train up to Agua Calientes, aka Machu Picchu Pueblo, the village at the base of Machu Picchu. Agua Calientes seems to exist almost exclusively to serve the sizable tourist traffic, complete with a ton of kitschy little restaurants and mediocre hotels and hostels. Case in point: our hotel up there was not as nice as our hotel in Cusco, but was 2x the price. We had dinner at the hotel and then called it a night in preparation for an early morning at Machu Picchu.
In order to avoid the crowds and give ourselves plenty of time at the ruins we got up at about 5:30 and reached Machu Picchu shortly after 7. We had heard that you only need about 3 hours at the site, but I just found that hard to believe. I mean, you travel all this way and pay for all the flights and hotels and trains and then you're only going to spend three hours there? Surely not. Well, by about 10:30 we all agreed we'd seen pretty much everything we needed to see and we started to head down. During those 3+ hours we looped around the ruins 1.5 times and ventured out to see the Inca Bridge built into a nearby cliff. We did not make it up either of the mountains that bookend the ruins as I was concerned about the steepness of the path up Huayna Picchu, the mountain we had tickets to. Having said that, the briefness of the visit doesn't take anything away from the incredible setting and beautiful ruins. And everything is so intact that it doesn't put much strain on the imagination to visualize what it might have looked like 600 hundred years ago when it would have been a bustling Incan village. That's a huge contrast to many of the Sacred Valley ruins, which were destroyed by the Spanish, much less the ruins we saw in Greece which often resembled a random pile of rocks as much as a temple or palace.
Knowing what we know now, if I had it to do again I would have booked myself for the Huayna Picchu climb for the first entrance at 7a and then would have met Walter and Jie at the entrance at 9. That way I could do the climb and they could sleep in a little bit and still get through the ruins before it gets too hot. But as it was we had an excellent day exploring Machu Picchu.
I had booked us on the last train out, again to make sure we had plenty of time, but given we were back to our hotel by noon (we walked down instead of taking the return bus) I went to the train station and managed to move us to the 3p train instead. That got us back to showers a couple of hours early, which was very nice indeed!
As always, lots more photos on smugmug: https://markandjie.smugmug.com/Gap-Year/Machu-Picchu/ and https://markandjie.smugmug.com/Gap-Year/Sacred-Valley-Peru/