Peru for First Timers: A Perfect 2-Week Itinerary
Thinking of conquering your bucket list with the long-anticipated trip to Peru? With it's iconic scenery, diverse culture, and of course Machu Picchu, we found this itinerary worked well for a first trip - hitting the major highlights and adding unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences throughout the two weeks. It just might be the inspiration you need to get you there this year.
Day 1 - Fly Into Lima, Then Cusco. drive to Ollantaytambo
For our first trip to Peru we flew into Lima, then hopped another flight to Cusco, arriving at 7:00am. We arranged for a driver to pick us up and drive us to Ollantaytambo.
TIP on Acclimating to High Elevations:
Altitude sickness is a real possibility in Peru. It can happen if you don't ease into it, keep hydrated, and take steps to avoid altitude sickness. Consider starting your trip in Ollantaytambo rather than Cusco. The altitude there is 2,000 feet lower than Cusco, and a few days here helps you acclimatize a bit easier. The train ride to Machu Picchu is also shorter from Ollantaytambo, since it's closer to MP than Cusco!
But first, we needed to pick up our Machu Picchu train tickets in Cusco, and the city was bustling. I ran across the street to avoid being run down by cars driving at breakneck speed and got so winded from the lack of oxygen (11,000 ft - whoa). Kids were walking on their way to school, people on their way to work, and the traffic! It was a free-for-all - no road rules at all, just tons of cars moving in the same direction blowing their horns.
Finally we're on our way out of town, up long mountain roads and out into the scenic Sacred Valley. We stopped at a few scenic vistas along the road to take pictures and buy some small trinkets from local women and girls dressed up in their finest just waiting for tourists to come along. It was so beautiful, I can´t describe the scenery.
How to Get There - You can get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo 2 ways: arrange for private transport or rent a car. Most hotels can arrange for a reputable driver to fetch you at the airport in Cusco and deliver you to the hotel, and many will make sightseeing stops along the way.
Where to Stay in Ollantaytambo
Hotel Pakaritampu in Ollantaytambo. Excellent accommodations, service, and delicious food.
It takes 2-2.5 hours to reach Ollantaytambo. An ancient Inca town, it sits nestled among the mountains of the Urubamba Valley at 9,200 feet elevation, with charming cobblestone streets. The only way in and out is along the river in Urubamba. Narrow streets with little courtyards surround small homes. This was the home of Manco Inca, the Inca King, and a statue of him in the town center faces the mountains.
The town is more of a working town than a tourist town, but that may be changing. Many hotels and backpacker hostels can be seen around the main square in town. Be sure and visit the Ollantaytambo ruins that cling to the side of the mountain. There are a lot of steps, but the views and history are worth it. Many local guides hang out near the entrance so finding a guide to interpret is easy. Just ask questions so you find one you're comfortable with.
Day 2 - Ollantaytambo
The ruins at Ollantaytambo sit smack dab in the middle of town and extend up into the side of the mountains surrounding the town. We hired a guide to take us around (he spoke marginal English but we managed to get by with our limited Spanish). Because of the transportation strike that day, we didn't do much other than tour the town, which gave us more time to really get a feel for the place. Thankfully, the strike didn't affect us at all other than the shops were closed and the streets were deserted. The only sign of a strike that we saw was when five guys came running through town once, yelling and carrying a banner. But back at the hotel we noticed that the place was empty, and the staff told us no guests could get through because the roads were all barracaded with huge boulders and trees. Some guests we talked with had their taxi pelted with rocks, and they had to stop every now and then to move boulders from the road! We were fortunate and had no issues, although planned strikes do occasionally occur.
Day 3 - Hiking Machu Picchu
Without a doubt, most visitors to the Sacred Valley in Peru come for one reason — to visit Machu Picchu. Many go by bus for a one-day excursion. Others take their time, on a slow travel mission to see — to experience — the magical Sacred Valley. Still many others trek the arduous Inca Trail over several days or a week, camping overnight and taking in the amazing Inca culture every step of the way.
No matter how you get to Machu Picchu or how long you stay, the experience will be life-changing…though we recommend staying as long as possible to explore more of the Park away from the crowds.
The backpacker train ride to Aquas Calientes and Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo was incredible - so scenic. For the price, we found the Backpacker train to be very comfortable - it was clean, warm, and they offered hot tea. The train passed through huge mountains and passes cut so narrow in the rock that at times the train cars were only a foot away from the rock walls.
When you arrive in Aquas Calientes, you'll need bus tickets to Machu Picchu and admission tickets. You'll find the bus station and MP ticket office near each other, just follow the crowds from the train. (They only accept Peruvian soles, not American dollars, so be prepared with each or find an ATM machine). You'll hop on a bus that takes you up, up, up the REALLY…STEEP…mountain. The road twists up, then back and forth, following hairpin turns at a sharp angle and just inches from the side of the mountain with no guardrail. Holy cow! But then you arrive and enter the park, and WOW.....there it is. Machu Picchu. Almost unbelievable!
We made our way to the far end of the park so we could be one of the 400 people allowed to climb Wayna (or Huayna) Picchu that day. The park allows a limited number of hikers each day to make the climb, and once you're up there, it's clear why the limit is necessary. Wayna Picchu is the huge mountain spire you see in all the pictures of Machu Picchu. The hike was approximately 1,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu, and an extremely challenging hike, so be well prepared and wear good hiking boots. We climbed up steep stairs carved into the mountain side by the Incas. After climbing into the clouds for about 2 hours, we finally reached the summit. A few final maneuvers, around narrow and tight spaces, and one by one we were cheered by the others who had arrived ahead of us. We spent the entire day at the park and finally caught the last train back to Aquas Calientes. Our train didn´t leave until 6 - plenty of time for a Cusqueña beer and a Pisco sour! A long but truly amazing day.
UPDATE: As of August 2017, the Peruvian government has mandated that all visitors must tour Machu Picchu with an accredited Tour Operator.
TIP: Get your Special Passport Stamp!
Machu Picchu has a special stamp for your passport. Be sure and look for the small covered shelter near the entrance. It's a nice addition to your passport and a great souvenir (check it out here)!
Days 4-7 - Cusco
Cusco sits at 11,200 ft, or 3,400m and its a beautiful ride through the Sacred Valley to get there. Stop at the big market in Pisac with lots of colorful stalls overflowing with alpaca goods, llama woolens, and every other imaginable souvenir. You can also pick up some local street food here, including cobs of corn (called choclo) with kernels so big that you pull them off one by one. They make a great snack.
Not far from Pisac is the Alpaca Farm Co-Op that benefits 420 local families. There are llamas, alpacas, baby alpacas, and vicuña, and artisan women weaving and demonstrating their crafts. The weavings on display are beautiful.
Cusco is a maze of cobblestone streets so narrow that just one car will fit, and there are so many Incan archeological treasures, architecture, churches, and ruins to see, you could spend weeks here.
Things to Do in Cusco
We spent 3 days exploring the city on foot but wish we had more time there. There are Incan treasures, and some of the oldest cathedrals in the new world. Be sure and visit the Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, and spend time walking around the Plaza. A few blocks away is Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, and definitely worth a visit. Two museums to visit - the Museo Inka and Museo de Pre-Colombino - are both excellent. Outside of town, visit the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, which sounds a lot like "sexy woman" when you hear it. But the tour is interesting.
Where to Stay
Rumi Punku in Cusco, a great little hotel with an indoor courtyard, excellent food, and bottomless coca tea throughout the day.
Day 8 - Cusco to Puno
How to Get There - There are several ways to get to Puno from Cusco, rail, private car, or bus. We chose the Inka Express bus, a comfortable, first-class transport which made great time to Puno. The bus often paralleled the train from Cusco to Puno, made adequate rest stops, a lunch stop, and several interesting sightseeing stops, at a fraction of the price of the train. And the views through the Andean highlands, or Altiplano, were stunning.
Where to Stay in Puno
Most travelers to Puno are there to explore the islands of Lake Titicaca, and while there's not a lot to do in Puno itself, it has several very nice lodging options. One of them, the Hotel Quelqatani, offers an easy walk to the lake, restaurants and night markets in Puno. The breakfast is also outstanding.
TIP: The hotel provides secure, overnight storage for your luggage while you visit the islands overnight or for several days, so you don't have to pay for nights you aren't there.
Days 9-10 - The Islands of Lake Titicaca: Uros, Taquile, and Amantani Homestay
Most Lake Titicaca tours begin on the floating islands of Uros. I remember seeing these in National Geographic as a kid, where the islands are made from reeds of thick Altiplano grass.
Local families construct the islands and build small homes on them, always replenishing new top layers as the bottom decomposes from the water. Walking on them is like walking on thick hay in a barn, with the added sensation of floating on waves. Beds, homes and most furniture are made from bundles of tightly bound grass covered by thick wool blankets - quite comfortable actually.
One man showed us the inside of his home, along with his small TV wired through the walls of his home! After exploring the small islands and a pleasant demonstration from the islanders, we were off to Taquile Island for lunch, then on to our destination of Amantani Island. Isla Amantani was the highest elevation destination we visited, at almost 14,000 feet, and although we acclimatized well, we still found ourselves out of breath frequently over the next few days with the amount of walking we did!
Lake Titicaca Homestay
We arranged for a cultural tour and homestay on Amantani Island, and spent one night immersed (at least for a while) in this interesting Quechua culture. Our "family" was so gracious and fun, though communication was difficult at times. But our experience here was priceless and one of the highlights of our trip!
TIP on Language:
The native language in the Lake Titicaca islands is Quechua, so a Quechua phrasebook comes in handy. We also got by with limited Spanish and hand gestures.
TIP for Choosing a Homestay:
I researched homestay programs in Lake Titicaca for months, before choosing All Ways Travel in Puno. In business since 1996, we found their customer service to be excellent, and their local guides are knowledgable and speak English very well. They are also the only homestay company with a dedicated 'cultural tour' along with their homestay program, with fair compensation going directly to the host families.
Day 11-13 - Arequipa, the White City
We arrived in Arequipa after a white-knuckle 5-hour bus ride through the famous Colca Canyon, about 4 times larger than the Grand Canyon! It was a beautiful ride, despite our driver who seemed very anxious to get us there. At times, the bus felt like it might tip over, and seemed to squeeze by oncoming trucks and tour buses.
How to Get There: Inka Express (don't let the white-knuckle reference deter you, we obviously arrived intact) which we highly recommend.
Located about half way between Puno and the Pacific coast, Arequipa is a beautiful colonial-era city with centuries-old cathedrals and interesting museums. Arequipa is beautiful - not as touristy as Cusco with a huge cone volcano called El Misti that towers over the city. The city sits right on the fault line and is highly prone to earthquakes, and it's easy to see how many times it's been destroyed and rebuilt - there are so many styles of architecture, but none more than two stories high. Remnants of the Incan and colonial past are evident everywhere.
After settling in, we visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos (Museum of Andean Sanctuaries), a museum that houses "Juanita", a young 12-14 year old Incan girl who was sacrificed to the gods at the top of Ampato Mountain near Arequipa. She was one of two dozen child burials that were found along the high ridge of Ampato around 1995 and is over 500 years old. Her frozen body was found still wrapped in the beautiful wool in which she'd been buried after an earthquake knocked her loose from her tomb. After an interesting film about the excavation and viewing the pots, toys and others things uncovered with the children, we viewed her remains, in a temperature and humidity controlled glass encasement. It was fascinating and very moving, her small body so well preserved.
Our second day, we spent 5 hours touring the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a 16th century convent, that was opened to the public in 1970 after 400 years. Everything was left as if they'd be returning at any moment - the individual "cells" or nuns quarters, cucinas, chapels, laundry, baños - all intact. The convent also contains an impressive collection of priceless paintings and statues. Historically, the second born female in wealthy families was promised to the Church, and in those days they were well cared for, with 4 or 5 servants each, and they generally lived very well.
But in the 1870's, the Pope demanded an end to the excessive living, so the extravagant lifestyles they enjoyed went back to a quieter existance. The Convent takes up an entire city block, and there are still nuns who live there today, but the main portion is open to tourists. the Convent is truly a photographer's paradise. There were more beautiful colors, archways, windows, and courtyards at every turn.
Where to Stay
Casa Arequipa - a charming hotel just a few blocks from the historic downtown, with sumptuous suites and amazing breakfasts.
Day 14 - Lima
We arrived in Lima after a short flight from Arequipa, and what a culture shock it was. After nearly two weeks in the quiet Andes mountains and the slower pace of Arequipa, Lima was jarring. Tons of people (over 8 million), noise, and smog, as Peru seems to lack any emissions standards. At first, we were afraid it might not be a welcome end to our trip. But we quickly saw a brighter side - great restaurants, friendly people, and the ocean. There was fantastic Chinese food, yummy Peruvian chicken dishes, and of course the best ceviche ever. After all, it's hard to beat the national dish of Peru!
For lunch or dinner, you must try La Mar Cevicheria, the flagship cevicheria owned by renowned Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio. Prices are extremely reasonable, and frankly I'm amazed we were able to get a table without a reservation and just a short wait for lunch. We honestly had no idea this was becoming the IT restaurant of Lima, and weren't surprised when it began gaining international attention - we were still dreaming about the food months later!
Day 15 - Lima
We hailed a cab into the historic downtown area, with plans to visit the Plaza de Armas and the catacombs of Monasterio de San Francisco. But sometimes the best laid plans.....We didn't realize it was a Holy Day. Instead of the large open plaza, we found crowds of people beginning to gather for the first day of an important religious celebration in Latin America, the Senor de los Milagros, or Lord of the Miracles Day.
During Mez Morada, or the Purple Month of October, the Lord is praised for his ability to deliver miracles. A huge ornate Christ figure on a guilded flowered float was barely visible in the corner of the square in front of the President's Palace, and nearby, band music started to play. After a while, the float was raised up by 10 or 12 men who carried it a half block to the Cathedral where the Archbishop's speech echoed through the entire Plaza. Before long, we were surrounded by thousands of worshippers, including many older and infirm people dressed in purple hoping to get their miracle.
At times, the crowd seemed to carry us away, and people shoved their way closer to the procession. Some people were rushing toward it holding up their little children. It was easy to see how people get trampled in crowds like this and are lost for hours, so we slowly made our way back to a safer place. The aroma of church incense burned in the air and all around us, people were on their knees or had their hands in the air singing beautiful hymns. What a sound to hear - thousands of people singing hymns that echoed off the buildings in the square. The procession lasted about an hour and then turned down a side street to make its way around the city.
Things to Do in Lima's Historic Centre
Head for the historic center of Lima - a UNESCO World Heritage Centre - to visit the Presidential Palace, the Catacombs under the Monastery of San Francisco, and MALI, the Museum of Peruvian Art. There's also the Gold Museum of Peru and Weapons of the World, the pre-Colombian Museo Larco in Pueblo Libre, and Museum of the Nation.
Where to Stay
We scored a great last-minute internet deal at the JW Marriott for the last two nights of our trip. The location in Miraflores was ideal. The Marriott overlooks the ocean, is located across the street from the multi-level entertainment and shopping complex of Larcomar, and minutes from the Parque del Amor and El Malecón, a six-mile stretch of parks situated along the cliffs of Miraflores. Adventure seekers will love staying along the coast for the chance to paraglide (even watching them along the cliffs is exciting.) We highly recommend staying in Miraflores or Barranco districts along the coast.
If You Go
Best Time to Visit Peru - May through September is Peruvian "winter". It's the dry season and a popular time of year to visit.
Peru is an amazing place to travel. It's truly a country of contrasts. From flying over the Andes, hiking Machu Picchu which is actually sub-tropical, then further up into the altiplano of Puno and Lake Titicaca, through the canyons and active volcanos of Colca to Arequipa, and the capital city of Lima on the Pacific coast, the country and its people are uniquely diverse. So many experiences and I'm grateful for them all.