Beyond Pisco sours and ceviche, what's the first thing you think of when you think of Peru? If you answered Machu Picchu, you'd be in good company. The country's most visited destination and the most important Incan archaeological site in the world is set on a high plateau amid the densely forested, mist-enshrouded mountains and valleys of inland southern Peru.
But, Machu Picchu is a long way from Lima -- more than 683 miles -- which is often the only port of call in Peru for cruises to South America. Even the most ambitious shore excursion can't cover that much ground in a day. Fortunately, for cruisers who don't want to miss Machu Picchu, several cruise lines offer cruises that include Machu Picchu as part of their South America and Galapagos itineraries.
Called cruise tours, these pre- or post-cruise land-based extensions take in Machu Picchu, Cusco and other highlights of the Sacred Valley, as the surrounding area is known. Take note: The journey is still a journey -- It involves flights to Cusco, transfers to points closer to Machu Picchu, buses, train rides or strenuous hikes up to the site, and walking into and around the site itself.
Check out some of the top South American and Galapagos cruises that include Machu Picchu, from familiar big-ship operators to smaller, boutique and ultra-luxe brands.
Cruises to Machu Picchu and Galapagos
Celebrity Cruises: As part of its 14-night "Best of Chile & Peru" cruise on Celebrity Silhouette, Celebrity Cruises offer passengers a quick trip to Machu Picchu and Cusco. The ship docks for three nights in Lima, where the 72-hour Lost City of the Incas trip is an optional add-on. The express trip takes cruisers to their base at a five-star hotel in Cusco, from where they'll explore the Temple of the Sun and the Fortress of Sacsayhuaman -- both in Cusco -- followed by an ascent by train and exploration of Machu Picchu.
The cruise is round trip from San Antonio, Chile, and the Machu Picchu add-on is priced separately. Several 16-day Celebrity cruises to Galapagos and Machu Picchu combine 10 days' exploration of the Galapagos Islands with six days in Lima and the Sacred Valley.
Silversea Cruises: Ultra-luxury Silversea Cruises combines the Galapagos and Machu Picchu by offering four- or five-day explorations of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley as pre- or post-cruise extensions to its San Cristobal to Baltra (Galapagos) itineraries. The five-day Machu Picchu extension includes touring Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Urubamba and Machu Picchu, with luxury accommodations and the journey to Machu Picchu aboard the Hiram Bingham -- named for the Yale University professor credited with discovering Machu Picchu -- or PeruRail's panoramic Vistadome train.
The Machu Picchu extensions are also offered with Silversea's 15-day sailings from Fort Lauderdale to Lima or vice versa on the Silver Moon, with stops in the Caribbean and a Panama Canal crossing.
Tauck: Group tour veterans Tauck offer a combined Machu Picchu and Galapagos cruise and land tour, meaning there's no additional cost for the land portion of your trip (all internal flights, excursions and most meals are included in the price). Its "Peru & the Galapagos Islands" and "Hidden Galapagos & Peru" trips start with six-night tours of Lima, Machu Picchu and Cusco, including accommodations in luxury Belmond hotels, followed by a six- or seven-night (respectively) cruise through the Galapagos Islands on small expedition ships.
Related: Galapagos Islands Cruise Tips
Lindblad-National Geographic: Expedition-focused Lindblad-National Geographic cruises to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu allow travelers to spend nine days exploring the Galapagos Islands, followed by a week of immersion in Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. A highlight of the trip is an early-morning hike to watch the sunrise over the ruins of Machu Picchu. Accommodations include luxury Belmond hotels.
G Adventures: Specialists in small-group adventure travel, G Adventures offers a tempting duo of South American adventures -- a 10-day catamaran cruise of the Galapagos paired with a seven-day extension to explore Cusco and Machu Picchu. There are two options for the extension: the more strenuous "Inca Discovery" includes a four-day trek on the challenging Inca Trail, with overnight accommodations in tourist-class hotels. The "Machu Picchu in Style" trip includes train travel to Machu Picchu instead of the rigorous hike.
Both tours offer the chance to visit local artisan cooperatives and support sustainable tourism ventures on the ground. For travelers who book both the Galapagos cruise and the Machu Picchu extension, G Adventures will pay for the flight from Quito, Ecuador, to Lima.
Editor's Note: Viking Cruises will sail 13- and 15-day Galapagos sailings from Lima to Quito, including Machu Picchu, scheduled to set sail in 2021.
Other Cruise Excursions to Machu Picchu
Princess Cruises: If you want to see Machu Picchu first and then relax into a nice long cruise, or cruise first and then tackle Machu Picchu, Princess Cruises' "Machu Picchu Explorer" offers both options. The 18-day cruises on Coral Princess either start in Los Angeles and end in Lima, or begin in Lima and continue through the Andes, around Cape Horn and on to Buenos Aires, Argentina. A six-night exploration of Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu includes a lot of time spent exploring Cusco and its surrounding archaeological sites.
Holland America Line: Instead of offering Machu Picchu as a pre- or post-cruise option, Holland America's Machu Picchu excursion happens mid-cruise, as part of its 17-Day "Inca and Panama Canal Discovery" itinerary aboard Zaandam. When the ship stops for two nights in Lima, passengers have the option of taking the two-night "Cusco & Machu Picchu Overland Adventure." The trip includes flights to/from Lima to Cusco, a train ride to Machu Picchu, tours and most meals.
Passengers then fly on to Trujillo, where they meet the ship at the port at Salaverry. The Machu Picchu excursion offers either standard accommodations or a deluxe package with five-star hotels and the ultra-luxe Belmond Hiram Bingham train to and from Machu Picchu.
Azamara: Small-ship cruise provider Azamara offers a six- or seven-night tour of Cusco and Machu Picchu that includes a transfer to the Incan site aboard Hiram Bingham train. Pre- or post-voyage tours depart from Lima and finish in Buenos Aires -- or vice versa -- and include five-star hotel stays, gourmet meals and tours. The trip is available as an add-on to several of Azamara's cruises in South America and Antarctica.
Related: South America Cruise Tips
Oceania Cruises: Premium cruise line Oceania offers a three-night Machu Picchu trip as a precursor to its 20-day cruises from Lima to Buenos Aires. The standard package includes one night in Lima and two nights in a five-star hotel in Cusco with a city tour, plus Vistadome train travel and transfers to Machu Picchu. The deluxe pre-tour adds round-trip travel to Machu Picchu on the luxury Hiram Bingham train.
Uniworld River Cruises: Uniworld makes its first foray into South America with a combined cruise and land-based journey through the Peruvian Amazon and the Sacred Valley aboard Aria Amazon. The 15-day trip begins in Lima, followed by a seven-night cruise through the Amazon rainforest. Included at the end of the cruise are four nights in the Sacred Valley, with visits to Machu Picchu and Cusco. Prices include return flights and a one-way upgrade to business class.
Avalon Waterways: Another company offering Machu Picchu and Amazon River tours, river cruise line Avalon Waterways offers several itineraries with Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley built in. Its 11-day "From the Inca Empire to the Peruvian Amazon" cruise and land-based tour starts in Lima and goes directly to Cusco for four nights. The trip includes an overnight near Machu Picchu and two full days spent touring the site.
Then, from Cusco, cruisers are flown to Lima and transferred to Iquitos, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. From there, passengers will transfer to Nauta for a five-night Amazon River cruise aboard the all-suite Delfin III. Avalon also offers an 18-day "Cruise to Machu Picchu and Galapagos."
Editor's Note: It's worth noting that while Norwegian Cruise Line offers South America sailings, the cruise line does not currently offer Machu Picchu cruise tours.
Related: Amazon River Cruise Tips
Machu Picchu Cruise Tips
Be wary of high elevation. As you set off for your trip to the Sacred Valley, remember that the region is part of the Andes Mountains, meaning it's all at high elevation. Cusco itself is at 11,200 feet above sea level, while Machu Picchu is actually lower, at about 7,972 feet. Unless you already live at high elevation, your body will need time to acclimate to the change and you might exhibit symptoms of altitude sickness. These can include headache, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath -- even short walks can leave healthy people gasping for air at these altitudes. If you have any concerns about your health and fitness for a high-elevation vacation, consult your doctor before booking your trip.
Dress for the weather. Due to its high elevation, Machu Picchu has relatively mild summer temperatures and its winters are chilly and frosty. (Remember that when it's winter in North America, it's summer in South Americaand vice versa.) In all seasons, you'll want to bring a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and insect repellant for your journey. Summer months (December to March) can be quite rainy, so pack a lightweight, waterproof jacket. In the dry winter months (June to August), you'll have cool weather and plenty of sunlight -- Long pants and sleeves are recommended, as is a medium-weight jacket.