Many visitors "do" Machu Picchu in a single day, taking a morning train out and a late-afternoon train back to Cusco. In my book, Machu Picchu is much too important and impressive a sight to relegate it to a day trip, but that's all many people have time for. The Sacred Valley villages and famed markets (especially Pisac and Chinchero) also constitute day trips for loads of travelers. Again, though, the area is so rich and offers so much for travelers with time to do more than whiz through it that the area -- including Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Calca, Chinchero, and Moray.
A Cusco-area ruins hike, either on foot or on horseback, of the Inca sites within walking distance of the capital -- Sacsayhuamán, Q'enko, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay -- makes for a splendid daylong (or half-day, if you make at least some use of public transportation or a taxi) excursion.
Adventure travelers might want to concentrate on other outdoor sports, including treks, biking excursions, and white-water rafting that can be done around Cusco.
110km (68 miles) NE of Cusco
Most visitors who venture to very remote Paucartambo (and there aren't many of them) do so for the annual mid-July Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, one of Peru's most outrageously celebrated festivals (it lasts several days, and most attendees, be they villagers or foreigners, camp out because there is nowhere else to stay). Yet the beautiful, small, and otherwise quiet mountain village might certainly be visited during the dry season (May-Oct), if you've got the patience to venture way off the beaten track. A few travelers stop en route to Puerto Maldonado and the Manu Biosphere Reserve.
The peaceful colonial town, once a mining colony, has cobblestone streets and a lovely Plaza de Armas with white structures and blue balconies, but not a whole lot else -- that is, until it is inundated by revelers donning wildly elaborate and frequently frightening masks, and drinking as if Paucartambo were the last surviving town on the planet. The colorful processions and traditional dances are spectacular, and a general sense of abandonment of inhibitions (senses?) reigns. Mamacha Carmen, as she's known locally, is the patron saint of the mestizo population. During the festival, there's a small office of tourist information on the south side of the plaza. More information on the celebrations is available from the main tourist office in Cusco.
Depending on when you visit, you might be able to get a simple bed at one of two small and very basic inexpensive inns in town: the Hostal Quinta Rosa Marina and the Albergue Municipal (neither has a phone).
Another 45km (28 miles) beyond Paucartambo is Tres Cruces (Three Crosses), sacred to the nature-worshiping Incas and still legendary for its mystical sunrises in the winter months (May-July are the best). Tres Cruces occupies a mountain ridge at the edge of the Andes, before the drop-off to the jungle. From a rocky outcropping at nearly 4,000m (13,100 ft.) above sea level, hardy travelers congratulate themselves (for having gotten there, as much as for the sight they've come to witness) as they gaze into the distance out over the dense, green Amazon cloud forest. The sunrise is full of intense colors and trippy optical effects (including multiple suns). Even for those lucky enough to have experienced the sunrise at another sacred Inca spot, Machu Picchu, it is truly a hypnotic sight.
Getting There -- Gallinas de Rocas minibuses leave daily for Paucartambo from Cusco's Avenida Huáscar, near Garcilaso (departure times vary; the journey takes 4-6 hr.). For the Virgen del Carmen festival (July 15-17), some small agencies organize 2- and 3-day visits, with transportation, food, and camping gear (or arrangements for use of a villager's bed or floor) included. Look for posters in the days preceding the festival. To get to Tres Cruces, see whether any Cusco travel agencies are arranging trips; otherwise, you'll either have to hire a taxi from Cusco or hitchhike from Paucartambo. (Ask around; some villagers will be able to hook you up with a ride.) Make sure you leave in the middle of the night to arrive in time for the sunrise.
23km (14 miles) SE of Cusco
Rarely visited by tourists, who are in more of a hurry to see the villages and Inca ruins of the Sacred Valley north of Cusco, the extensive complex of Tipón is nearly the equal of the more celebrated ruins found in Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. For fans of Inca stonemasonry and building technique, Tipón's well-preserved agricultural terracing is among the best created by the Incas and makes for a rewarding, if not easily accessible, visit. Peter Frost writes in Exploring Cusco (Nuevas Imágenes, 1999) that the terracing is so elaborately constructed that it might have been instrumental in testing complex crops rather than used for routine farming. There are also baths, a temple complex, and irrigation canals and aqueducts that further reveal the engineering prowess of the Incas. The ruins are a healthy hour's climb (or more, depending on your physical condition) up a steep, beautiful path, or by car up a dirt road. The uncluttered distant views are tremendous. The truly adventurous and fit can continue above the first set of ruins to others perched even higher (probably another 2 hr. of climbing). During the rainy season (Nov-Mar), it's virtually impossible to visit Tipón.
Getting There -- Combis for "Urcos" leave from Avenida Huáscar in Cusco; request that the driver drop you off near Tipón, which is between the villages of Saylla and Oropesa. The site is 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the highway; it's open daily from 7am to 5:30pm. Admission is by Cusco's boleto turístico.
Pikillacta & Rumicolca
38km (24 miles) SE of Cusco
These pre-Inca and Inca ruins might go unnoticed by most, were it not for their inclusion on the Cusco tourist ticket. Although the Cusco region is synonymous with the Incas, the Huari and other cultures preceded them. Pikillacta is the only pre-Inca site of importance near Cusco. The Huari culture built the complex, a huge ceremonial center, between A.D. 700 and 900. The two-story adobe buildings, of rather rudimentary masonry, aren't in particularly good shape, although they are surrounded by a defensive wall. Many small turquoise idols, today exhibited in the Museo Inka in Cusco, were discovered at Pikillacta.
Less than a kilometer from Pikillacta, across the main road, is Rumicolca, an Inca portal -- a gateway to the Valle Sagrado -- constructed atop the foundations of an ancient aqueduct that dates to the Huari. The difference in construction techniques is readily apparent. The site was a travel checkpoint controlling entry to the Cusco Valley under the Incas.
Getting There -- Combis for "Urcos" leave from Avenida Huáscar in Cusco and drop passengers for Pikillacta near the entrance. Both sites are open daily from 7am to 5:30pm. Admission is by Cusco's boleto turístico.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.