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 to Lima, drive to Ollantaytambo
After nearly 11 hours of flying, a few hours of layovers and an overnight in the Lima airport with no sleep, we had a really long day and a half of traveling! We thought might catch some sleep in the Lima airport and be ready to go for the first flight to Cuzco at 5:30am. But with the host of intercomm announcements throughout the night and a rambunctious young sports group traveling for the first time, 5:00am rolled around quickly, leaving us with that slight out-of-body feeling. But it was nothing that anticipation and breakfast on the plane couldn't cure.
We arrived in Cuzco at 7:00am and Luis picked us up as planned up for our trip to Hotel Pakaritampu in Ollantaytambo. First stop was to pick up our Machu Picchu train tickets in Cuzco, 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! Wow, a real 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 incredible mountains.
TIP: Consider starting your trip in Ollantaytambo rather than Cuzco. The altitude there is not as high as Cuzco, and a few days here may help you acclimatize a bit easier. The train ride to Machu Picchu is also shorter from here, since it's closer to MP than Cuzco!
How to Get There: If you stay at Hotel Pakaritampu, they can arrange for a reputable driver to fetch you at the airport in Cuzco and deliver you to the hotel. They'll also graciously make sightseeing stops along the way.
It took two and a half hours for us to arrive in Ollantaytambo after a few stops along the way. An ancient Inca town, Ollaytaytambo 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 seems to be more 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. The second day we hiked the Ollantaytambo ruins that cling to the side of the mountain. That´s really all we can do, since we were told there would be a planned strike that day and no one would be working! I had heard of this, which apparently is a common occurrence. When I asked how long the strike might last, they replied "Oh it'll be over tomorrow. They only last a day or so". Go figure. It sounded more like a planned day off than a strike!
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. We met a young couple from Kansas who barely got through at 5:00am but their taxi was pelted with rocks, and they had to stop every now and then to move boulders from the road! We were fortunate.
Day 3 - Machu Picchu
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.
We arrived in Aquas Calientes and had to find the bus station, then the MP ticket office (oops, they only accept Peruvian soles, not American dollars, so we had to find an ATM machine). Tickets in hand, we finally hop on the bus that takes us 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 we arrive and enter the park, and WOW.....there it is. Machu Picchu, right in front of us. 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 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 day, but truly amazing.
TIP: Pack a few sandwiches to-go from their breakfast buffet for the early train ride to Machu Picchu.
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 - Cuzco
Cuzco (11,200 ft / 3,400m). What a beautiful ride back to Cuzco through the Sacred Valley. We stopped at the big market in Pisac with lots of colorful stalls overflowing with alpaca goods, llama wollens, and every other imaginable souvenir. We made a few purchases including a cob of corn with kernels so big that you pulled them off one by one for a great snack.
Our driver was patient as we shopped and I took tons of photos. He took us to a lovely Alpaca Farm Co-Op that benefits 420 local families. We saw llamas, alpacas, baby alpacas, and vicuña, and artisan women weaving and demonstrating their crafts. The weavings that were on display were so beautiful. I made a few more purchases and we were off to Cuzco, and a great little hotel with an indoor courtyard called Rumi Punku.
Cuzco 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.
I loved Cuzco, and we spent our few days on foot, exploring the city, Incan treasures, and some of the oldest cathedrals in the new world. In hindsight, I wish we´d allowed for a few more days here.
Day 8 - Puno
How to Get There: Inka Express
There are several ways to get to Puno from Cuzco, 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 Cuzco 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.
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
We began our tour of the northern region of Lake Titicaca 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 for lunch, then on to our destination of Amantani. 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!
Our "family host" Martina gathered us at the dock and we followed her up the side of the island along a cobblestone path to her home. We arrived just in time for lunch, a sack of small white and purple potatoes and beans roasted and laid out on the ground, where everyone sat and ate by hand. We spent the night and next day with her and her family. Their lovely home was a simple adobe block structure with no electricity or running water, and a tiny cucina where Martina and her mother Madre cooked us a delicious dinner over a wood fire. Dinner was two large potatoes, fried slices of Andean cheese, and a bowl of delicious vegetable soup. The stock was made from a local Peruvian herb called muña.
If we needed a restroom, the outhouse was just down the dirt path behind the horse stall! That afternoon, we climbed to the top of the mountain (Holy cow - over 13,000 feet!) to the revered site of Pachamama to see the sunset.
The 360-degree view of the lake into Bolivia was well worth the climb. Later, Martina dressed us up in their native clothes (OVER our thick layers of hiking clothes) and treated us to a Fiesta at the local school. Our "family" was so gracious and fun, though communication was difficult at times. Their native language is Quechua, and though my Quechua phrasebook came in handy, we got by with my limited Spanish and hand gestures.
It's difficult to describe the experience we had exploring the islands of Lake Titicaca, especially the homestay in Isla Amantani, other than to say it was priceless and one of the highlights of our trip! Read more about our Homestay experience.
TIP: 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
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.
Located about half way between Puno and the Pacific coast, Arequipa is a beautiful colonial-era city with centuries-old cathedrals and interesting museums. 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 saw her remains, in a temperature and humidity controlled glass encasement. It was fascinating and very moving, her small body so well preserved.
Afterwards, we explored the city and enjoyed one of the best dinners we had in all of Peru at The Istanbul restaurant.
How to Get There: Inka Express (don't let the white-knuckle reference deter you, we obviously arrived intact)
Arequipa is beautiful - not as touristy as Cuzco 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.
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. I can't remember taking so many photos in one place in my life. It is truly a photographer's paradise. There were more beautiful colors, and archways and windows and courtyards at every turn.
We topped off the day with dinner at a local sandwich shop in town, which was delicious and the cheapest yet - pork and bisteca (beef) sandwiches all for around $4.00 with the tip! We stayed at 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 travels. But we quickly saw a better side to where most Peruvians call home - great restaurants, friendly people, and the ocean! There was fantastic Chinese food, 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, 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!
We got a great last-minute internet deal at the JW Marriott (from an internet cafe in Arequipa) 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.
Where to Stay: JW Marriott in Miraflores is extremely nice. For something a bit more unique, try one of the boutique hotels in Miraflores or Barranco.
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, this 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, and the procession carried it a half block to the Cathedral where the Archbishop gave a speech that 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.
Mixed in with the crowd were ambulances and signs stuck up above eye level where people could see them in case of emergency. Squads of police carrying shields held the crowd at bay, and military police with weapons and binoculars lined the tops of the government buildings around the square.
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. Pretty amazing. The procession lasted about an hour and then turned down a side street to make its way around the city. Then it was time to leave, but when we hit the streets to find a cab, all we found was total gridlock and horns blaring everywhere. We finally found a taxi willing to drive us back to Miraflores about 12 blocks away.
Home - Final Thoughts on Peru
What an absolutely amazing place to travel! Just over a two-week trip and I feel like we've been away so much longer. We've seen so much, experienced so many different things, and met so many people - locals and travelers alike (a few Americans, lots of Brits, Swiss, Aussies, French and South Africans). Some things we read in our research described Peru as 'a country of contrasts', and that was very true. The land was incredibly diverse - from flying into the Andes, then Machu Picchu which is actually sub-tropical, then further up into the Altiplano of Puno and Lake Titicaca, then the canyons and active volcanos of Colca and Arequipa, and the huge capital of Lima on the Pacific coast. And the people....the contrast between the indigineous populations of the Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca, and the people of Lima and Arequipa is striking. But there's more to it. A young boy with leprosy approached us in Pukara for money, his nose and hands stricken and disfigured. How is that still possible today? Tens of thousands of indigenous peoples live on and farm the land, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and a poorly regulated mining industry. And just a few hours away people are enjoying gourmet meals and a much higher standard of living. Far be it for me to judge, since the same can be said for where I live.
I won't ever forget Martina and Madre and their generosity (especially when I tried to explain that I got my period early and had no feminine supplies, and they only spoke Quechua and limited Spanish! We figured it out and Madre ran next door to her neighbor who owned a tienda and for 3 soles returned with what I needed. It made for many hearty laughs!) Or the way they live humbly but richly on their beautiful island without cars or electricity or indoor plumbing. Pachamama and Pachatata (Mother and Father Earth) sustain them. Machu Picchu and the remains of their Incan past were so amazing to see. Everyone we met was warm and welcoming. There are so many fantastic experiences we had and I'm grateful for them all. I'm so happy I was able to experience Peru and her people and land. It was humbling, and eye-opening, and a highlight of my life for sure.