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Essential Peru: Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu

Joel Viruet Travel 3 Comments

There’s so much to see in Peru. From Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to the rich culture you can experience in the imperial city of Cusco. You will fall in love with the people, the food, and their history. We took advantage of the Thanksgiving holidays to visit Peru for a week. It took quite a bit of planning so we want to spare you some research time and recommend you a 6 day schedule that we are sure you will enjoy. If there is something you can call the “essential, must see” Peru, then it’s got to be Lima, Cusco & the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

Day 1. Relax and get settled in Lima

Arrive to Lima and get some rest. The remainder of your trip is going to be filled with early morning flights, trains, hikes, and a lot of other good stuff. To be honest, tourists don’t come to Peru to visit Lima, but everyone has to make a stop here to make it to Cusco. Lima is a big city and like any other metropolis, it comes with terrible traffic, pollution and honking horns. I wouldn’t advise renting a car here for two reasons: For one, taxis are relatively cheap and second, there seems to be an unwritten rule about making four traffic lanes out of two. Recklessness to say the least, so for your own good, do yourself a favor and grab a cab. Now don’t let that scare you away, while Lima certainly doesn’t have the charm that Cusco has, there are areas which you can enjoy before you head out.

parquedelamor-7935Parque del Amor, Lima

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A good place to stay in Lima is in Miraflores. Save yourself the research and just stay here. About 30-45 minutes away from the airport, it’s an upscale residential and shopping district south of downtown Lima with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. If you only have time for a single activity, I recommend spending the sunset strolling by the Parque Miraflores.

lighthouse-parquemiraflores-3192flower-3148The view to the ocean is amazing, and you’ll get a chance to see a few surfers catch some waves at Playa Waikiki. Or if you like flowers, then you can just walk around and enjoy the gardens. For those cat lovers, a 15 min walk to the Parque Central de Miraflores will certainly give you a chance to photograph these local celebrities.

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For dinner, head out to Huaca Pucllana Restaurant. It’s one of the most highly rated restaurant in Miraflores and you can enjoy your dinner while looking at the Huaca Pucllana pyramid ruins.

Airport Transportation

It’s about 60 soles (18 USD) from the airport to the Miraflores district. It’s a flat rate, so if somebody is charging you more, keep on looking. Once you make it out of Customs you will see a bunch of guys by the rental car desks yelling “taxi, taxi”. These are the more expensive taxis that ride either a Mercedes or a Kia, which to me is really odd to be paying top dollar to sit in a Kia, but whatever! Ignore them all and keep walking out. Past the rental car section you will see the main exit. Look for “Taxi Green”, they are a reputable company and their prices are listed at their main desk. If you don’t see them immediately, no worries, they will spot you right away and offer their service. Their prices to different districts around Lima will be listed, but regardless, make sure you agree on the price with the driver before you get in the cab.

Return trip back to the airport costs 50 soles (15 USD) from Miraflores. If you have an early flight just let the hotel know you need a “regular cab” about 15 minutes before you want to head out. Confirm the price with the hotel, and then confirm again with the driver.

I advise you so that you don’t have any uncomfortable moments. I’ve travelled enough to have experienced a couple of times cab drivers trying to rip me off. However, I didn’t have any problems with taxi drivers in Peru, they were all very nice and helpful.

Day 2. Acclimate in Cusco

Take an early morning flight out of Lima to Cusco. This ancient capital of the Inca empire has so much character I guarantee you’ll fall in love. There is so much to see around Cusco it would be just wrong to skip it in order to get to Machu Picchu quicker. In fact, if you can add a day to this 6 day schedule, spend it here and explore the Sacred Valley or the ruins located in the south of Cusco.

plazadearmas-8174Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Set at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, Cusco is one of the most elevated cities in the world. Chances of getting symptoms of altitude sickness are high, so you’ll need to get acclimated. Symptoms include nausea, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and a fast heart rate. If you want to learn more about how to adjust to high altitudes, read our post titled Overcoming Altitude Sickness. But in short, you need to take it easy the first day, drink some coca tea, don’t walk up too many stairs and take breaks often or you’ll be gasping for air before you know it. No matter how fit you are, if you’re not used to altitudes you will most likely get one symptom or another, so please do not take this lightly and follow the precautions.

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Once you had a little rest, head down to the Plaza de Armas. There’s so much going on here! There’s street vendors selling all kinds of local arts and crafts, the guys that sell paintings, and you will definitely see some local women dressed in their typical outfits ready for you to ask them for a picture in exchange for a small tip or, “propina”. So bring some coins and don’t forget your camera!

portrait-8235portrait-8330portrait-8267If you have a bit of time left before nightfall, head out to Plazoleta San Pedro. It’s less that a 10 minute walk from Plaza de Armas. You will find stalls that sell meats, all sorts of corn Cusco is famous for, quinoa and flowers among many other things. It’s a great place to buy a few alpaca scarves for 10 soles (3 USD), beanie hats for 7-10 soles and other gifts and souvenirs. This is as local as it gets, amazing! For those photographer enthusiasts, bring a fast lens (f/2.8 or wider), as it can get a bit dark in some areas.

plazoleta san pedro-3094bread-3108alpacascarves-3092Alpaca scarves from the Plazoleta San Pedro market

Getting your Train Tickets

You can buy the train tickets on PeruRail.com. Especially during the dry months, and peak tourist season, make sure you buy them ahead of time. You don’t want to come all this way and not be able to make it to Machu Picchu, which is only accessible by train, unless you are doing the 4 day Inca Trail hike. Even if you bought the tickets online, you will have to pick them up personally at least 4 hours before departure. We forgot to pick them up the day before and the system cancelled our tickets, so I had to email Peru Rail for a refund and had to buy the tickets again. But you don’t want to go through this ordeal at 6:00 in the morning, so make sure you pick up the tickets first thing in Cusco. The office is located by the Plaza de Armas, you will easily see it when you walk around the square.

For dinner head out to Pacha Papa Restaurant located in “el barrio de San Blas” for some Peruvian cuisine. It’s important to make a reservation, which can be done though their website. If you want to try out the local delicacy, the “cuy” (guinea pig), make sure to let them know a day in advance, or you can also order it on the spot but it’s an hour wait.

If you need some hotel recommendations, we stayed in two different hotels and both were fabulous and their service was outstanding. Check out Hotel Esplendor and Casa Cartagena. Though of the two, Casa Cartagena won us over with its friendly staff and its great location.

Day 3. Explore the Sacred Valley or the Cusco Ruins

On day 3 you have a couple of options. You can do a full-day tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas that will take you to Pisac, Chinchero, Moray and Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is about 1:30-2:00 hours from Cusco, so it might be a good idea to stay the night here since it is on the way to Machu Picchu.

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Another option is to do a half-day tour of the ruins closer to Cusco. This will allow you to sleep in a bit and enjoy the morning breakfast at the hotel before you head out on your tour. The ruins include Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay. This is what we did and it was a blast. While there are many offers from tour companies, we typically like to avoid these big groups and do it on our own. I hired a driver for 200 soles (60 USD) to take us to all these ruins, plus Pisac. Just ask your hotel to make a few phone calls and get some rates for drivers and schedule a pickup time. We had a van just for us two. We started at 12:00 and got back just before 6:00 pm, so it was still a long tour. This may or may not be the better option for you, it depends on your taste of travel. Another option was to hire a tour guide separately, though for this tour I would skip it and just pay one of the guides in Saqsayhuaman, which is the biggest complex of ruins in the circuit.

cusco-8520View of Cusco from Saqsayhuaman

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Buying the Sacred Valley and the Cusco Ruins Tickets

The office is located close to the Plaza de Armas, on Avenida El Sol. You can buy the full circuit, valid for 14 days, which includes all the ruins near Cusco plus the Sacred Valley sites for 130 soles (36 USD) or you can buy the half circuit to Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay for 70 soles (21 USD), but is only valid for the chosen date. There are other options as well so make sure you visit the website for more information.

Day 4. Take the first train to Aguas Calientes

It’s a three and a half hour train ride to Machu Picchu from Cusco, or if you stayed the night in Ollantaytambo, its about and hour and a half ride. I suggest first buying your train tickets before you even leave on your trip, especially in high season, July-August. You book through Peru Rail and you will have three different options of trains. The high-end called Hiram Bingham, the middle called Vistadome and the cheapest option called Expedition. I do not have much information for Hiram Bingham, other than what is listed on the website. This train is much higher in price and can be between $250-$400 each way.

On our way into Machu Picchu, we chose “Expedition”, the cheapest option, which was still $78 USD each way. We departed from the Poroy Station, which is about 25 minutes away from central Cusco. Plus, we had to be at the train station at least 30 minutes before departure, so you need to factor all this in to be there on time.

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It’s a slow train ride, but no matter how tired you are, it is beautiful to watch. You cut straight through towns watching children in their uniforms going to school, and local farmers herding their cattle. You will see many houses built of adobe bricks; composed of mud and hay and other organic material. You’ll also notice tiny clay bulls on top of many of the homes. These little bulls are usually a gift from the family’s godfather, to bring the home good fortune. You see Peruvian women who really dress like the women in the pictures. Tall hats, long braids, big cheek bones and mysterious faces and of course, the most colorful alpaca clothing.

As for the service on the train, it is very friendly. The train attendant ladies take their time to ask where you are from and make small chat and even come by to explain anything that is happening on the train ride. There is also free coffee/coca tea and cookies. There are clean bathrooms in the train and even toilet paper. It’s a good idea to always have tissue and hand sanitizer in your bag, because many public bathrooms do not have paper or soap.

When you arrive, you will actually be in the town of Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu. This is where your hotel and restaurants and markets will be. We had no idea how small and the close proximity of the town was to the train station, so we asked a local women where the taxi’s were, and she laughed at us! “There are no taxis in town.” Luckily, one of the staff guys from our hotel was waiting for their guests by the station. He kindly walked us across the street and our hotel was right there across the train tracks.

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While it’s possible to do Machu Picchu in a single day, we would not recommend it. It’s just too much going on. Imagine a 3+ hour train ride, then exploring Machu Picchu which will take you a minimum of three hours, then having a quick lunch before heading back to Cusco on another 3+ hour train ride. You will be dead by the end of the day. But even if you have all the energy in the world, I wouldn’t recommend it because you won’t be able to do either the Machu Picchu Mountain hike (3:30-4 hours) or the Wayna Picchu hike (2 hours). By the time the train gets there and you take the 25 minute bus ride to Machu Picchu, you’ll be too late to make it to the 10:00 -11:00 AM entrance time. Another reason is you do not get to see the sunrise, which is just amazing as the rays of light cut through the mountains. So for this day, just explore Aguas Calientes and relax in anticipation for the day you’ve been waiting for.

Day 5. Explore Machu Picchu

You’re here, you made it! After all this traveling, this is the day you get to see one of the wonders of the world. It is a city in the heavens, it is breathtaking, and no matter how many pictures you have seen, the effect of actually being there is inspiring. You won’t help but say to yourself, I’m here, I finally made it to the lost city of the Incas! Enjoy the sunrise, head over to the guardhouse and take the iconic shot you keep seeing over and over on your Instagram feed. If you’re lucky, you might even get a selfie with a llama.

To actually get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, you will have to take a 25 minute bus ride up the mountain. The bus is $12 USD each way per person for foreigners. Enough typing, let me show you some of my favorite shots!

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I recommend that you either do the Wayna Picchu or the Machu Picchu Mountain hike, it will make your experience so much better! When you book your Machu Picchu tickets through the official website, you will have options to include either of the hikes. It’s only an additional $4-6 USD to the cost of the main entrance ticket, which is about $35 USD. You will notice that there are time schedules where you are allowed to commence your hike. The options are 7:00-8:00AM and 10:00-11:00AM for Wayna Picchu or 7:00-8:00AM and 9:00-10:00AM for the Machu Picchu Mountain. More importantly, the maximum number of hikers allowed in a day to either trek is 400, so make sure you buy well ahead of time, especially during the peak tourist season.

Wayna Picchu vs. Machu Picchu Mountain!

So which one should you do? Wayna Picchu is certainly the most popular one, and all the locals will ask you if you climbed it. Rising at 8,920 feet, it’s the horn-shaped peak you see in all the classic shots of Machu Picchu. The hike will take you about 2 hours round-trip, maybe a bit less, and it is the steepest and most treacherous of the two. If you want to see what the view looks like, just google “Wayna Picchu” and you’ll get an idea if you’re up for the challenge or not. The lesser known trek of the two, Machu Picchu Mountain is less steep, but takes twice as long to reach the top. So you should account for 3:30-4:00 hours round-trip. It is also set at 10,104 feet, much higher than Wayna Picchu which makes the view absolutely incredible. Let me show you some of our pictures…

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Ride back to Cusco

Once you’ve completed your Machu Picchu exploration, its time to head back to Cusco. This time around we took the Vistadome, the middle-priced train. There isn’t a huge price difference, about $15 USD more each way, but honestly, this train isn’t much better than the Expedition. I would just stick to the cheap train, which was quite pleasant, unless Vistadome has a better timetable for you.

The Vistadome just gives you a heavier snack. Basically, some type of honey roasted peanuts, gooseberries, two tiny little potato slices, and a local corn bread and a drink. They put alpaca placemats on your table when they serve you. The seats are a little fancier too. The only other difference was a fashion show. Yeah, a fashion show! We had just gotten on the train, it was dark, and we had been up since 4:30 AM, and explored the park for 5 hours. Ready to fall asleep and all of the sudden they turned up the music and a lady dressed in a local costume started dancing in the aisles with a mask on and a very glittery dress. Then the train attendants, both male and female, did a fashion show wearing alpaca scarves, coats, and tops. It was so random and funny.

Day 6. Fly back to Lima

Every good trip must come to an end! Explore a few places you might have missed during your first stay in Cusco before you head out to Lima. If you are flying back home on this day, make sure you allow enough time for the layover, it would suck to get stuck in Lima, or any other place, because you didn’t plan accordingly. We actually stayed in Lima on Day 6 and flew out early the next morning. This was the best choice for us given the flight times back to Dallas, TX. Now whatever flight you choose, avoid a layover in Mexico City! It is perhaps the worst airport I have even been to! You have been warned, but I’ll save that for another post!

We hope you enjoyed this post and can find it useful for your planning to Machu Picchu. If you feel we missed any important part of planning, please let us know and we will gladly include it. Let’s all contribute to make traveling better and safer for us all. Safe travels!

Comments 3

  1. Kimberly

    I loved this post about Machu Picchu. It brought back such fond memories of when I visited there and how I feel in love with Peru. I’m glad to read you highlighted Pacha Papa restaurant, as that was our favorite place to eat! Your photos are incredible.

  2. Pingback: Traveller Lifestyle | 2015 Year in Pictures

  3. Fred Mason

    Thank you for a well written report and great memories – the day I and my late partner went there “we walked onto the page of an encyclopedia”.

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