Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2014
Main Cities Visited: Cusco – Urubamba – Puno
Overall Experience: Get ready to have your mind blown, because Peru is magical. Its city centers, lush forests, friendly people, exciting cuisine, and unique history will surprise you. It will also literally take your breath away, because the altitude will knock you on your ass. I barely walked two blocks uphill and thought I was having a heart attack! I highly recommend speaking with your doctor about altitude medication before you go. When you are in Peru everyone will push the coca tea to ease the symptoms and by all means drink it but it won’t cure you, only time to acclimate will help.
Logistics: Initially, I planned to book this trip through a Peru focused travel company but when I did the cost comparison, it was cheaper to book everything separately. If you aren’t concerned about costs or don’t feel like doing the research yourself then these companies have excellent customer service and will put together your ideal itinerary, check out www.latinamericaforless.com.
Flights: I booked the flights through Travelocity for $581 each (including all taxes and fees). We flew into Lima and then caught a 2 hr flight to Cusco. On the way out of Peru, we took a shared van from the hotel to the Airport in Julica and had a connecting flight back to Lima. A few words about Julica…. It’s what I imagine a war torn country looks like, there aren’t really roads but mostly dirt driveways littered with potholes and trash. I thought the luggage was going to fly off the roof every time we hit a bump which was the entire trip. It takes about an hour and costs around $20 to get to the airport and you will kiss the ground once you get out of your roller coaster taxi van.
To get from Cusco to Urubamba, our hotel recommended a “cab company” to drive us the hour through the mountains. It was basically someone’s garage with a regular car who took people back and forth. So you may have to wait a bit until they are able to fill up the car with other passengers but it’s a cheap and an easy way to get where you need to go. We got crammed in with two other people exchanged pleasantries and that was pretty much it. Again it cost around $20 plus tip.
To get from Urubamba to Puno: This part can get a little wonky because you have to cab it back to Cusco to get the bus to Puno. Easy to do, your hotel will make arrangements for you but it will be more expensive for them to do it, around $40 per person. The bus to Puno was a tour bus and is aptly called the Inca Express. It stops at a few notable places, including Incan ruins and a museum with Andean mummies and takes you to a very tasty and traditional lunch.
You can get a nonstop bus, but the tour is well worth your time as these small towns and sites are off the beaten path so take advantage of the opportunity. It does take 8 hrs, so bring a book and settle in. You will see a lot of the countryside, including roaming packs of Alpacas. It’s adorable.
Cusco: Hotel Rumi Punku I booked via Travelocity for $100 a night. This hotel is a short walk to the main plaza, Plaza Armas and the Cathedral. The hotel has a traditional feel, the rooms are comfortable and it includes breakfast and Wi-Fi. The interior is a courtyard with the room doors facing the center. The hotel staff are very helpful and are happy to arrange tours, cabs, and provide directions in English. They have coco tea on tap, so drink to your heart’s content.
Urubamba: Tambo del Inka Resort and Spa I booked via Travelocity for $260 a night. You will never stay in a hotel as nice as this. I don’t care how rich you are. They have an on site train station to Machu Picchu. Total luxury. The sheets, the rooms, the robes, the grounds, it’s all impeccable. Literally did not leave the hotel besides day trips, it’s that amazing. I took advantage of the spa and had a massage and sugar scrub. The restaurants and room service are on point. They also boast an indoor/outdoor heated pool and I insist you take a dip at night so you can view the southern hemisphere stars.
Puno: Tierra Viva The hotel has a more modern slant. I booked via Expedia.com for $65 a night. The location is good, there are lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance. It can get noisy due to the central location so you may want to ask for a non-street facing room if you are noise sensitive. The rooms themselves have comfortable king size beds, free Wi-Fi and a helpful staff who all speak English.
Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu – Elevation 7,972 ft
Going to Machu Picchu is probably the primary reason you have traveled to Peru. It was definitely at the top of my list and remains one of the best experiences of my life. However, it’s not a spontaneous trip, it requires early planning to ensure you have transportation and a ticket to enter the site. Once they sell out for that day, that’s it. You will book your timed entry ticket to Machu Picchu (and potentially Huayna Picchu) here: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/. It’s about $40 for Machu Picchu and about $60 for both peaks. If you are physically capable of hiking, I strongly suggest you explore both. I reserved the tickets 3 months in advance without any issues. Now you have to decide how you want to get there.
Getting to Machu Picchu: There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu, hiking the Inca trail being a popular one, but I went through www.perurail.com and took the Vistadome from Urubamba. It has panorama windows and the train chugs along the Urubamba River through farm lands and some ramshackle towns. They have periodic entertainment on the train and provide a few snacks, making the ride pass by quickly. There are no bathrooms on the train so make sure you use the facilities before you get on. Side story: my favorite part of the train was the return trip when it had to stop because the tracks were covered with rocks. The conductor, I shit you not, gets out with what looked like a large Slurpee cup to scoop the rocks off the rails. They don’t need shovels on the Vistadome! He got us back on our merry way in about 15 minutes. Barring any track issues, the ride itself takes about two hours until you reach the town of Aguas Calientes, which is the base town for Machu Picchu.
Aguas Calientes is a really tiny town which revolves around Machu Picchu. Once you get off the train, there is a maze of stores and stalls where you can pick up all sorts of souvenirs. There are a variety of restaurants serving lots of traditional Peruvian dishes, such as hamburgers, pizza, and nachos. Head to the main street where you can either walk to the peak, which takes about an hour, or take a bus up the sidewinder mountain, which takes about 20 minutes, for $10 round trip. In the interest of time, I recommend the tourist bus. They start running at 5:30 in the morning about every 10 minutes from the main street. You will see signs everywhere directing you where to buy tickets and where to get the bus.
Once I finally reached the entrance to Machu Picchu, I was practically sprinting through the gates but alas, there is always paperwork before the fun. Once your ticket is reviewed and checked you are finally on your way. There are quite a few guides for hire milling around the gates and the prices are negotiable if you are interested in an escorted tour. You will also see a “Machu Picchu” passport stamping station for your enjoyment!
Since I bought the Huayna Picchu ticket, I headed straight to that trail first. This also has a timed entry and they only allow 400 people to make the trek per day. Once you trek back down, you have the rest of the day to explore Machu Picchu. You must sign in with the trail officials (I have no idea what their official name is, if you do please leave it in the comments!) stating your name and time of entry…. Just in case something happens. The hike is strenuous, there is a rope/cable to hold onto and steep drops, so be careful when hiking. It takes a little under two hours to get to the top and much less time to get back down. It can be scary at times because there is nothing stopping you from falling to your death, so pay attention to where you are stepping. Once you reach the top, the views are breathtaking. You are sitting in the clouds, surrounded by deep green tropical mountain forests, taking in the Incan retreat site. It’s surreal. I sat at the top for a while just looking around. It was hard to tear myself away but there was an entire other place to explore. Making your way down Huayna is more intimidating than the climb upwards. Some of the Incan steps are still in place and you just vice grip on to them as you take it one by one. You then sign out at the guard (maybe?) station and continue to the famous Incan site.
Machu Picchu is a sprawling and impressive city and you will be in wonder. While experts still aren’t 100% sure about the main purpose of the site, most agree it was used by the Royal Incas as a religious retreat and was most likely abandoned before the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. It is a tremendously popular but because it’s spread across 5 miles, you won’t feel claustrophobic. It’s recommended to visit at sunrise or sunset to have a better chance of a few moments of solitude. If you start early, you will have enough time to crisscross the entire city but there are certainly highlights you must see. When you first enter the gates, if you stick to your left, it will take you past the Caretaker’s hut, well defined terraces, and Funerary Rock, which may have been a sacrificial alter.
It’s in this area where you will have an encompassing view of the entire Inca city. It is perfect. It’s the view you’ve seen in every article, book, or webpage and it’s so much better in person, you will get chills. This is also where you will see lots of exhausted, dirty campers who were super tourists and completed the Inca trail. Be nice to these people. I’ve heard the bathrooms on the trail are more horrific than the scene in Exorcist where Linda Blair is spitting out pea soup. Except the bathrooms aren’t covered in pea soup…. Throw in some spiders too.
Next, walk back into the city and check out the most famous building, the Temple of the Sun. It’s a rounded building with extraordinary stonework, it contains a window that aligns to the direction of the sun for the winter and summer solstice and sits atop a cave which may have been used for religious offerings. Continue on through the terraces, buildings and a small plaza until you reach a clearing where you will see a huge roped off rock, referred to as Sacred Rock, which should look very similar to the peak of the Pumasilla, or Puma’s claw, across the Sacred Valley. The rock is in a geographically significant area of the city and is thought to have served as a meeting place for sacred rituals. The Temple of the Condor is another example of the skilled expertise of the Incan stone masons, as the rock was carved into a flying condor, with the floor carved into the condor’s head and neck with different shades reflecting the feathers. Again, the purpose of the temple is debated, some thought it was a sacrificial alter for prisoners or for rituals related to agriculture, but the condor was considered sacred to the Incan people thus the site had some sort of religious significance. Walking in between the temples and residential areas made me feel like a low grade version of Indiana Jones, you get a peek into a past civilization and your imagination runs wild with what it must have been like to live here in its hey-day. Snapping back into the present, you’ll see alpacas grazing all over the place without a care in the world and I swear it looks like the grass is greener here. Going to Machu Picchu is an amazing place to visit and it will stick with you the rest of your life.
Cusco – Elevation 11,152 ft
Cusco is a vibrant city with a dramatic history and modern day conveniences. It has winding narrow alleys filled with bars and shops as well as wide plazas lined with ornate cathedrals and fountains. There are countless museums and artifacts to see, as well as delicious food to eat. Additionally, the surrounding areas have significant archeological importance to understanding the Incas and are well worth the day trip.
I started off exploring in the Plaza de Armas, also known as Warrior Square, which has a beautiful fountain with a statue of an Incan Emperor adorned in gold at the top. While the surrounding buildings look very Spanish, you will find hints of the Incan building foundations throughout the city. A dead giveaway are the perfectly square interlocking stones. A few blocks from the main Plaza, in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, you’ll find one of the original temples that the Spanish built over with the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo. Originally called the Korikancha, the Temple of the Sun, it takes about an hour to walk through and costs around $10. The courtyard and gardens are beautiful, you can see the old Incan wall and view a replica of the Sun Disc which depicts the Incan Gods.
Next head to the Museo Machu Picchu, which contains the largest collection of artifacts from the famous site. You’ll find lots of interesting pottery, Incan skeletons and skulls, and original photos from Hiram Bingham’s initial exploration of Machu Picchu. It is a small museum so it should take you less than an hour and costs around $5 to get in. Not all of the signage has English translations but they do have guides if you have questions. This museum will enhance what you have seen/or are about to see when you go to Machu Picchu and I highly recommend visiting. On the outskirts of town, there is so much to see! You can get a “tourist ticket” for around $20 which includes transportation and a guide to take you to a variety of sites outside of Cusco as well as stops at a few shops to buy alpaca related souvenirs and clothing.
The most popular is “Saqsayhuaman” also pronounced as “sexy woman” so you’ll be sure to remember it forever. It’s located on a hill overlooking the city and consists of large stone walls and two towers and was referred to as a fortress by the Spanish when they battled and sacked the city. Exploring the site you get a clear picture of what talented builders the Inca people were. The gigantic stones fit together like puzzles pieces and still stand after all these years and earthquakes later.
Next continue the ride to Tambomachay which is called the “Bath of the Incas” and legend has it that the waters that flow here are the fountain of youth. The site is small but consists of a large doorway and a series of canals and waterfalls flowing through the perfect Incan construction. You’ll see quite a few Andean women, children and cuddly lambs around the site who will pose for pictures for a few soles.
Puno – Elevation 12,500 ft.
At first glance, Puno might seem like a tourist focused city, with the endless souvenir shops lining every side street but there is more than meets the eye. This was the highest elevation I had experienced and even after spending almost a week in Peru, I was still struggling with the altitude sickness but nothing that wasn’t manageable. During the day, the city’s main draw is Lake Titicaca butalso has a main plaza and a beautiful Cathedral you can tour in under 30 minutes. At night, it’s a different story….
The nightlife in Puno is pretty exciting as the citizens host multiple lively festivals throughout the year. We stumbled upon one that I still have no idea what it was celebrating but there were CROWDS in the streets, people of all ages including children marching in parades and adults in beautiful and flamboyant costumes. My favorite were the gorillas in bikinis. Go figure.
As mentioned, the highlight of Puno is a visit to the highest lake of its size in the world, the famed Lake Titicaca. There are multiple ways to take in the lake, you might even stay at a hotel along the shoreline. However, the best way to is to take a boat trip to really get a sense of the vastness and visit the unique island cultures along the way.
Lake Titicaca – Islas Uros and Isla Taquile – Elevation 13,287 ft
I booked a full day trip with Suri Explorer Travel Agency which arranges pick up/drop off at your hotel, boat trip, English speaking guide, a traditional lunch and a visit to the Uros and Taquile Islands. The tour is a full day, costs about $60 and is absolutely incredible. The first stop is to the famous floating Uros Islands made of totora (reeds) and it’s incredibly charming. The islanders teach you about their way life and how they build the islands and constantly rebuild with the reeds, how it is a mainstay of their economy and diet. They also talk about the reality of their way of life as more young people move to the main land to pursue educational opportunities. In a few generations, there may not be anyone left living on the floating islands. The people are incredibly friendly and they take you into their family huts and dress you in traditional clothes. It’s a great time and I hope you will fully embrace their generosity. It was such an overwhelming feeling being here. I remember learning about these islands as a kid in Spanish class (thank you Mrs. Cannon!) and now I was actually here, walking along the squishy reeds. The Uros islands even has a post office with special souvenir passport stamp so you can mark your passport (if you remember to bring it, doh). As you pull away, the islanders will sing a song for your send off. I’m not embarrassed to say I got a little misty.
Next up is Isla Taquile which is a larger non-reed island further inward on the lake. The people here also practice traditional ways of life. There are no cars on the island and very limited electricity (there were some solar panels installed), so the villagers carry up supplies and materials from the main dock each day.
The island itself is hilly and there have been Incan ruins and terraces found here. The Taquilenos speak Quechua and are some of the finest textile makers in the world which you can purchase in the main square shop. You’ll also notice the traditional clothing worn by the natives. The men who are married wear red knitted hats and the married women wear red pompoms on their multiple skirts. The tour includes a savory lunch time meal made by the islanders consisting of trout from the lake and potatoes. If you do visit the island, there aren’t any hotels but you can make arrangements to stay with a host family overnight. After a few hours on the island, we returned to the boat and promptly passed out until we reached Puno. It’s an amazing day trip and you would be remiss if you did not check it out if you are in Puno.
Food and Drink:
Peru is home to some of the most delicious cuisine on the planet. It’s extremely underrated but it seems the word is finally getting out about this foodie country. Obviously, Lima is where you will find renowned chefs and five star restaurants, but the other cities will give it a run for its money. There are a few delicacies that Peru is known for including ceviche, pisco sours, and numerous varieties of potatoes and corn which are prepared countless different ways. The dish that will be most surprising to Americans is the Cuy…… the guinea pig, also known as your childhood pet. I pride myself on my ability to eat anything and willingness to try anything. However, I couldn’t eat the Cuy. I saw it prepared on a spitfire and it basically looked like deep fried guinea pig with the little face and its little paws and that was where I drew the line. Sorry I can’t tell you what it tastes like, probably regret.
In Cusco, check out the Salvatore Bistro Lounge during the day for a quiet drink and snack while watching the people shopping in the side streets below. For dinner, I urge you to go to Limo. It’s on the north side of the Plaza de Armas and overlooks the area, and was the best meal I had in Peru. It is more of a seafood restaurant and has the unsurpassed ceviche, it’s fresh and tangy and mixed with interesting fruits and textures. The restaurant is also a pisco bar, which is a like a brandy liquor and is quite tasty when part of a mixed drink.
In Urubamba, I’ve already shamelessly admitted I never left the Tambo del Inka hotel grounds at night because it was like staying in heaven. However, they also had culinary delights on site with amazing ambience so I thoroughly embrace my decision. At the Kiri Bar, try any of their specialty cocktails as well as the alpaca burger. It’s wonderful and you can sit outside on the comfy lounge chairs on their deck facing the mountains, listening to the river and enjoying the starlight.
In Puno, try Mojsa Restaurant off of the main square. The cozy second floor restaurant is first come, first serve seating and has a terrific menu with gluten free and vegetarian items. They have a variety of main dishes but the soups are also delectable and will hit the spot when dealing with the dizzying altitude.
Good to know:
- Sol is the currency but US Dollars are accepted regularly. It’s also easy and cheap to withdraw cash and exchange. However, they will not accept crumpled or ripped dollar bills. You should keep change and small bills for purchases from locals.
- You do not need a visa to enter the country if you are American (as of 02/17)
- Peru has a rainy season (Nov to March) and a dry season (April – October) so plan accordingly
- Bring extra water and snacks with you to Machu Picchu
- The altitude sickness is serious, so take care of yourself
- You will see many people dressed in the traditional Andean clothing, if you want to take a picture they will expect a monetary donation
- At all of the sites, you’ll see people selling textiles, trinkets, etc. I brought back a ton of woven bracelets for my friends – they make great affordable souvenirs