(1) Skip Lima, Head to Cusco
Sure, Lima is the major fly-in city in Peru, and it's not that there is nothing to see: the day spent in the Miraflores neighborhood and a photo stop at the Huaca Pucllana did not seem like such a waste, but the decades-old cars-as-taxis, sipping Inka Cola at McDonald's and the difficult-to-navigate, larger-than-life urban sprawl would never be enough to spend a full day on an airplane to experience alone. So fly in and fly out to Cusco, Peru.
Cusco is a beautiful, well-preserved city that bleeds history and culture. You can wind yourself through the cobbled side streets, sample local chocolates, shop for high-end Alpaca sweaters, or encounter women in Peruvian dress. I'd recommend at least two full days to explore. The Plaza de Armas is magnificent, the food is spectacular and you are likely to encounter good shopping as well.
(2) Eat (and Drink!) Like a Local
(3) Spend Time in the Sacred Valley
I WISH someone had told me how incredible, mind-blowing and photographic the Sacred Valley would be. Ok, sure, a lot of people said it's cool. A lot of people said cruising around the Sacred Valley would be a good way to adjust to the altitude prior to taking on the Inca Trail. And a few even mentioned that it's "cheaper than Cusco or Machu Picchu for souvenir shopping", all of which are true.
But no one told me, "Hey, you may just want to stay here until you've photographed every square inch of every stop throughout the entire valley."
So. The Sacred Valley is a series of stops where various historical or cultural sites such as ruins Sexy Woman (or "Sacsayhuaman" if you want to use the local spelling) and my favorites, Moray, Pisac and Chinchero. You can actually purchase a "see all fifteen sights", 7-day pass at any location, which includes a couple museums down in Cusco as well, for 130 Peruvian Soles (priced per date of purchase in November 2015). There are a number of tour buses that will take large groups to several stops, but I would advise doing it the way I did: hiring a local taxi to drive you throughout the Sacred Valley to see it all. I only did one full day, and while I loved that I could explore at my own pace, I truly wished I had a second day so I could go slowly, see literally everything and maybe spend a night at a hotel or inn out amongst the mountains.
The Marasal salt mines, a mountainside where locals were fishing for salt, was another favorite stop! While not included as a destination on the original ticket, it was accessible for an additional 10 Peruvian Soles per person.
Also, be prepared to buy ALL your souvenirs, because there is nothing quite like haggling for Alpaca scarves, carved llamas and other treasures. (Yes, it's cheaper than anywhere else in Peru so bring cash).
(4) Hike that Inca Trail
But hiking the trail allows you to witness the story of Machu Picchu, instead of simply tuning in for the finale. The ruins staggered along the path lead you along pathways traversed through history, and is an experience in and of itself.
(5) But you can't hike alone...
Once upon a time, legend tells us that allegedly the Peruvian government just handed out Inca Trail permits to any would-be trekker with a backpack and a twinkle in their eye.
This is not the case, presently. You must book your standard 4-day, 3-night hike through an accredited trekking company. Upon researching, you can book a tour (good if you are a solo traveler or traveling as a couple/friend duo as my entire group was), and my guide suggested "private" tours are more suited for families with children, large groups or people who wanted to trek at their own pace.
(6) Choose a Responsible Trek Operator
That's debatable, I suppose, but not only did I have an incredible experience (hilarious and knowledgeable guides, premiere campsites, amazing home-cooked Peruvian meals and snacks catered to accommodate all diets all along the trail and a professional entourage of staffers), I am so RELIEVED I booked through Llama Path, for a number of reasons I learned amidst lessons in history and architecture.
While I am not 100% sure this is 100% accurate, it matches what was explained to me by our trekking guides and what my group observed:
(a) If you book a local trek operator, they pay taxes to the Peruvian government and you are not only a tourist, but you are subsidizing the country you are visiting. Non-Peruvian companies (ahem, Canadians) do not pay taxes and therefore the money you paid doesn't stay.
(b) With tourism being one of the biggest industries in Peru AND the fact that our 13-tourist group had two guides, two cooks, and seventeen porters, it is VERY important that these hard-working individuals be treated well. This is not yet a developed country, and while the crew labors to carry everything from our backpacks and tents to their own cooking equipment, anyone who works as a service provider deserves excellent treatment. I am grateful that Llama Path provided enough food to overfeed everyone - employees and trekkers - in our group, and that there was such an excess of food, they could share with employees of less-hospitable companies. They also have a "hotel" for porters in Cusco, so that their employees may rest and have a place to stay between scheduled hikes, whereas many other operators leave their porters high and dry.
While paying slightly more for the experience, it was evident that not only did we have superior experiences to other trekkers, but we were also contributing to a true livelihood for the employees, not simply sustaining poverty.
(7) Hire a Porter
Oh. My. God.
Don't even think about slipping and sliding, gasping for barely-existent oxygen, while stubbornly toting your own 15 kilos of nonsense up the side of some mountain.
They have people for that!
While you're at it, rent hiking poles and possibly sleeping bags (if the over/under on getting skeeved out beats your disinterest in having a sleeping bag on your person throughout your trip).
And keep your personal daypack light!
(8) Collect Passport Stamps
(9) But NOTHING will prepare you for Machu Picchu...
Between all those Incan ruins I'd visited from Lima to the Sacred Valley and in increasing magnificence along the Inca Trail, and the 18 bajillion images I'd seen of Machu Picchu throughout my life, I was not adequately prepared (or perhaps I was under-prepared) for this architectural phenomenon that lay just past the Sun Gate.
I reiterate, not only will you "skip to the finale" if you neglect touring the Sacred Valley (and seriously, if you can hack it, completing the Inca Trail), you cheapen your visit by not understanding the world it was created in. It's fireworks and explosions and Leonardo DiCaprio slipping into the ocean while Kate Winslet lies unconscious on a board.
Live this moment and embrace the story leading up to it. Don't just hop off a train, snap a photo and move on. Get in there and walk through each corridor and marvel at the construction.