Peru has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and last month my long anticipated trip became a reality! This post will be an overview of our trip only hitting the highlights, with subsequent posts to follow where I will delve into greater details. Due to my training as an analytical chemist, it should be no great surprise that I tend to overanalyze every aspect of a trip. Usually I rely heavily on Rick Steves to hold my hand through the initial stages of planning an international excursion, especially regarding long to stay in each city of interest. However after booking our trip, I was surprised to find there was no Peru based Rick Steves installment for me to lean upon. Instead I bought the Lonely Planet edition of Peru. Alas, I soon grew disenchanted with the lack of detail, personal touches, or history, along with their reoccurring promotion of extreme activities such as zip lining, mountain biking, or white water rafting instead of focusing on the iconic sites. Rant aside, after my disappointment with the Lonely Planet, I found the bulk of my information coming from my fellow bloggers, who thankfully answered many of my questions. Although this method of planning required hours and hours of scouring the web to fill in the gaps. Adding to my frustration was a recent change of rules regarding Machu Picchu in January, resulting in the majority of posts and accounts being outdated. As such, I’m hope to add to the knowledge base out there for other future travelers who face the same questions as I did during this often exasperating planning process.
In January, Spirit Airlines ran a promotion with 75%-80% flights leaving on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Meaning a round trip flight from Detroit, Michigan to Lima, Peru would be approximately $300 total, which was a far cry from the $600-$800 flights we’d been monitoring. Luke, along with my brother (Samuel) and his fiance, Kara all booked our tickets, excited for our next adventure! Sure we were nervous about flying Spirit, based on horror stories we’d heard from friends and such, but would you like to hear a secret that feels dirty to even reveal? We quite often fly Spirit and have never had an issue. We start watching for deals in advance of anticipated trips and usually get a significant discount on our flights. For example, I flew to LA for $55 two years ago and we flew to San Francisco for $60 last year. That being said, along with these deals, I choose to never pay for my seats or a carry on, which can quickly take your flight from a great deal to an average one at best. We made the choice to pack for our six days using just a backpack, which proved to be challenging for a self proclaimed over packer. After much reseach in efficient packing Luke and I both purchased a set of Packing Cubes Travel Organizer- Compression Packing Cubes for Carryon Luggage to assist me in packing as much excess clothing as possible. Needless to say, they were worth every penny as we could fit one large compression bag and two small ones in our Osprey backpacks.
I’m excluding a full day of travel from my overview where we had a nine hour layover in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We made the best of our wait time by taking an Uber to Hollywood Beach where we rented umbrellas and chairs along the ocean, having a moment of relaxation before our brutal itinerary in Peru.
Arriving in Lima at 10:00 PM, we didn’t arrive at our Airbnb until 11:00 PM. We took an Uber from the airport to where we were staying without any issues. Based on reviews, we knew our Airbnb was right on the ocean but not in a great neighborhood. We felt totally safe with the security monitoring the complex and we fell asleep to the sound of ocean waves permeating the apartment. It’s not many times in one’s life that you go for a dip in the Atlantic Ocean in the afternoon and fall asleep to the Pacific Ocean.
We had an early wake up call at 4:00 AM for our first full day in Peru. This was the only official tour that we embarked upon during our whole trip, and it was necessary to fit in the Nazca Lines, Ballestas Islands, and Huacachina Dunes all in one day. There were other comparable tours, however majority of them were by bus. SAS Travel caught our eye due to their option for a private driver at a comparable price ($340/person). Based on the SAS Travel itinerary we would be picked up at 4:30 AM and be back by 10:00 PM. I’ll get into more details in a further post about our much extended day. In short, we enjoyed our driver and tour guide, however the whole day we were running “late”, almost not making our boat tour and then having to skip lunch till almost 8:30 PM due to being somehow behind schedule. Overall, we don’t regret the tour in the least as in particular the Nazca Lines has held my fascination since I was a child.
Our first stop was the Ballestas Islands! Our boat tour boarded at Paracas, with the tour as a whole taking approximately two hours. It took us a half hour to reach the bird filled islands, but along the way we cruised by the impressive Paracas Candelabra. This prehishtoric geoglyph dates back to the 220 BC (well at least the nearby pottery does). Not much is known regarding the purpose of this large image, which can be seen up to twelve miles out to sea. The pictures hardly do justice to the geoglyph as it is carved two feet deep and is even more impressive in person.
After the Paracas Candelabra we continued on to the Ballestas Islands where we encountered thousands of birds and sea lions. Most importantly we saw thousands and thousands of adorable penguins! In the third photo down you’ll see a mass of black penguins along the top of the cliff. We only saw a handful of penguins up close as we watched them waddle down to the water edge and dive right in. There were many other bird species flying about, one of which decided to kindly leave me a present on the back of my arm. That’s right, I got pooped on. Although, I can be thankful that it didn’t plop right on top of my head. You can see the evidence in the fourth photo down. We thoroughly enjoyed our boat ride but I feel like I should address the biggest complaint I saw online before leaving on our trip. Many other tourist complained of the smell of guano, which was indeed powerful once you were around the Ballestas Islands, however I honestly hardly noticed the odor as we were too busy taking in the unique landscape.
Other than the birds, we saw hundreds of sea lions. While there were many sunning themselves on various outcroppings, most of them were congregated on a single beach, with many, many baby sea lions learning to swim in the large waves. In one heart warming scene we saw one baby sea lion, who had become separated from its mother frantically calling for her over and over again. The mother soon came racing to the scene being equally as vocal, until they met in a most emotional embrace.
Following our tour of the Ballestas Islands we were met at the dock by our tour operator telling us we were three hours away from Nazca and running very late for our plane ride so we were going to skip lunch until after the tour. Plus, he promised that we wouldn’t want full bellies during the plane ride which is notorious for making people motion sick. What tends to turn people’s stomach is the back and forth, sharp turns made over every drawing. Circling each geoglyph the airplane rotates over top so the people on the right side can get the best view before changing direction so the left side can get prime viewing. Personally, I greatly enjoyed the flight as it was fulfilling something I’d always dreamed about since I was a kid, however half way through I noticed my brother, Samuel struggling against the wide swings of our little plane. Regardless, we all survived and had varying degrees of enjoyment from the experience but we were unanimously impressed with the Nazca Lines.
Following our Nazca Lines flight tour, we were all more than excited for lunch. Even Samuel whose stomach had felt better. Alas, our tour guide yet again exclaimed over and over again how late we were and that we were never going to make our dune buggy rides at the oasis. So, ever agreeable, yet baffled as to how we were still behind schedule we set out on quite the wild ride. We didn’t even get to climb the promised overlook tower in the sixth photo above. Our driver was passing fellow motorists on the left and passing on the right (even where there was no road). At one point, he drove approximately 20 feet off the road, narrowly threading a gas station pump and a light pole to beat a tour bus. Needless to say, we were all in various stages of motion sickness by the time we finally reached the oasis, just as the sun was setting. The dune buggy ride was $40/per person extra but worth it as we had a lot of fun. The sand boarding was a thrill, however one of the screws caught on my pants, leaving a gaping hole right in my bum for everyone to see. Life happens.
Following our dunes excursion, we finally had a chance to get our “lunch” around 8PM. We scarfed down our delicious meal, as we were still approximately five hours from Lima. Our tour itinerary had us getting home at 10PM, but we didn’t actually get back till just before 2AM. After further inquiries, they do this tour three times a week. I can’t see how they’re ever able to keep the promised schedule. We were four hours behind, with cutting out one scheduled meal and skipping the overlook tower at the Nazca Lines. Overall, we would still recommend the tour as we would not have been able to fit in these sites otherwise, however we wish we would have had a better understanding of the actual schedule.
Our unexpected late night made our early morning flight to Cusco rather uncomfortable, however we were excited to continue our journey ever closer to Machu Picchu. We had a beautiful flight over the white peaked mountains. Grown and raised in flat Michigan, I always have a sense of awe whenever in the presence mountains. Another aspect of living in Michigan that caused much early concern during the planning stage was the change in altitude that rest of our adventure would take place. Cusco sits at the lofty altitude of 11,152 feet, which is a far cry from the 860 feet we call home. The advice we kept repeatedly reading was to fly into Cusco and head immediately to the Sacred Valley, which lies at a friendlier attitude of 9,160 feet (Ollantaytambo) to begin the acclimation process. Machu Picchu resides at an even lower 7,972 feet. With all of these facts in mind, our final itinerary had us flying into Cusco, taking an Uber to Saqsayhuman, the ruins north of town, before attempting to find transportation to Pisac, and ending our day in Ollantaytambo where our hotel was scheduled. It is really popular to take this route by tour, but we decided to bypass the formal tour to add flexibility to our schedule in the event one of us fell sick. We had initially planned on winging our Ubers, location by location, however our driver from the airport seemed very kind and friendly. Utilizing Google Translate, we ended up agreeing on Julio driving us from Cusco, to Pisac, and then to Ollantaytambo for $48. The best part was that while we were at Saqsayhuman and the Pisac ruins he would watch our luggage. Julio was fantastic, stopping at various overlooks along the route to point out amazing views, greatly reducing the unknown aspects of our initial itinerary. He even took us to a local store that’s off the beaten path where we were able to buy baby alpaca blankets and other wool items. We ended up doubling his fare in our appreciation as we ended up spending almost seven hours with him.
When we arrived at Saqsayhuman we were really starting to feel the effects of the altitude. In a surprising amount of time we would become winded, having only climbed a handful of steps. As a result, we walked at a most leisurely pace, taking in the ruin in approximately two hours.
Leaving Saqsayhuman, we continued our journey to the stunning ruins at Pisac, which were approximately an hour drive from Cusco. We stayed approximately three hours in the ruins, exploring and taking in the breathtaking views. The effects of the altitude were still felt, despite having traveling to a lower altitude (9,751 feet). After the desert regions we’d spent the day before traversing, it made the lush green of the Sacred Valley after the rainy season that much more appreciated.
We ended our second busy day in Peru in Ollantaytambo, however as can be imagined we were all in bed early after an exhausting 48 hours. The next two photos are the amazing views from our adorable little boutique hotel room.
Fully rested, we were up early so we could be in the Ollantaytambo ruins right when they opened at 7 AM. It was absolutely worth the early morning as we basically had the ruins to ourselves before the tour buses arrived several hours later.
After our morning hike, we made our way back to the town square where we had a fantastic breakfast. My banana pancakes exceeded any expectations I might have harbored. There were so many stray dogs throughout Peru and Ollantaytambo was no exception as we had several came to visit us during our breakfast.
After breakfast we set out to explore the town in search of a hike we’d espied while at the top of the ruins earlier in the morning. We eventually found the unassuming entrance to the hike, which would take us to the Inca Granaries of Pinkulluna. The hike was totally worth it, especially with the amazing panoramic views of the Ollantaytambo ruins and the town. The walk was by no means easy, with quite a few intimidating turns and steep drop offs.
After our morning excursions, we scheduled a driver through our hotel for $60 to take us to salt pans of Maras that are still in operation and have been so since the Incas. Each pan is mined by one family, with the size of the pond dependent on the size of the family. The sheer size of the operation is hard to comprehend from the images, as even in person you can glimpse only a portion of it from the overlook our driver stopped at along our drive.
The second stop on our drive was to the archeological Incan site of Moray. While the mostly symmetrical circles were aesthetically appeasing, the touted temperature difference from the top of the site to the bottom was surprisingly noticeable. I would have loved to see how the Incas would have actually employed this site. There was much less to do at this site than I was expecting as you can only walk around the outer rim. In the left of the photo below you can see erosion damage, so it makes sense to preserve this site for the future they would limit people crawling to the bottom of the rings.
We made it back to Ollantaytambo with plenty of time to get dinner and catch our train to Agua Calientes. I’ll detail more of this process and our first experience with pick pockets in a later post. Agua Calientes is the last stop before Machu Picchu where the majority of excited travelers board buses to reach this world wonder.
Machu Picchu was the driving force behind our urge to visit Peru and we’d been eagerly looking forward to taking in this world wonder with our own eyes. As popular as this site is to visit, I was caught off guard at the murky, and often conflicting directions and details of the actual experiences I found online. Unanimously, everyone said Machu Picchu was beyond belief but the remainder of the accounts were widely varied. To be completely fair to my fellow travelers, who I relied so heavily upon during this planning process, the Peruvian government has changed the guidelines multiple times over the past several years in an effort to preserve this ruin. In January 2019, new rules went into effect, which you can read about here. I’ll post specifics in a later blog post regarding the details of our day in the clouds, but in here you’ll find the general outline of our experience.
Arriving in Agua Calientes the night before our much anticipated adventure, we’d planned on buying our bus tickets in town, however we’d finally arrived after the closing of the ticket office at 9:00 PM. Foreseeing long lines in the morning, we left our hotel room at 5:00 AM the next morning to get line for the bus tickets, only to walk right up without anyone ahead of us in the queue. This turn of events resulted in us just joining the line for the buses to Macchu Picchu much earlier than anticipated at 5:30 AM. We had a 7:00 AM entry time to Machu Picchu and hiking Huayna Picchu so we had a short hour wait before we were on the buses, driving up the winding route. I was really impressed with the organization this whole process as there were workers holding up signs for your allotted entry time.
When we’d first looked into the recommended hikes at Machu Picchu, we became intrigued by the views and challenges of the Huayna Picchu hike, which summits the peak seen in the photo above. The Huayna Picchu Mountain is in the backdrop of the majority of the photos of Machu Picchu. With only 400 permits granted a day it is recommended that visitors purchase their tickets several months in advance. Thankfully, when we purchased ours two months out there were time slots still available on the day we were wanting to go on this popular hike. We selected the 7:00 AM time, which grants you access to the hike entry gate from 7:00-8:00 AM. There’s 100 hikers that get the slot from six to seven and another hundred during out time. The last two hundred enter from ten to eleven. Much of my anxiety prior to our trip was that I ur ticket granted us access to Machu Picchu’s entry at 7:00 AM too, so with the 20 minute walk to the hike’s starting point there wasn’t much wiggle room for delay, whether it is from getting on a late bus or some delay at the site. With getting on the first 7:00 AM bus, which left Agua Calientes at 6:30, we took a bathroom break before entering the ruins, where we assumed a leisurely pace to the hike entrance as we took in our first glimpses of Machu Picchu. With the aforementioned described pace, along with stopping for pictures we signed into the hike log with plenty of time at 7:37AM.
The hike was challenging and difficult, requiring many, many, many little breaks but the final views were well worth the climb. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful, clear day. The hike took us approximately three hours but we sat at least a half hour if not more at the top taking in the views.
After Huayna Picchu, hikers are forced to exit Machu Picchu and reenter to tour the main grounds. There was some concern as there are signs everywhere warning you that upon exit there is no reentery allowed, but as long as you have a permit for one of the mountains you are are granted entry one more time. Another aspect I was concerned about while researching this trip was if the reentry window had a limited time frame, but my worried were unfounded. This granted us a much appreciated bathroom and lunch break, before heading back in to complete our tour. Upon filling our stomaches, we headed back into the ruins and followed the signs for the Sun Gate. We enjoyed our hike to the Sun Gate that was leisurely in contrast to our morning hike. The Sun Gate is the first glimpse of Machu Picchu for hikers of the Inca Trail and it was wonderful to the huge smiles beaming from the tired hikers as they first caught sight of the goal they’d been working toward for days. In all honesty, combining the Sun Gate and Huayna Picchu in one day may have been a bit much, but we were so grateful for having completed both.
The hike down from the Sun Gate went surprisingly fast and we found ourselves quickly back on Circuit One. We headed up to the Guard Tower for some of the best overall views of the ruins. We didn’t walk all the way to the Inca Bridge, but we hiked part of the way up the path, and it offered my favorite views of Machu Picchu! By the time we finally got around to touring the ruins, the crowds had significantly thinned from the morning rush. Throughout our time we were were shocked with how inconsiderate some of our fellow travelers were with their photos. Instead of just taking one or two and moving on, I watched person after person demanding five plus minutes in key spots, taking an obnoxious amount of photos, even asking others to move out of their frames for the ‘perfect’ photo and then continuing to pose after the fact. I personally love seeing travel photos, however this experience has soured me to them slightly in memory of the rude travelers who were obnoxious and selfish despite being in such a place of wonder. Regardless, this was easily one of our favorite sites we’ve ever explored. Part of Machu Picchu’s new regulations requires tourists to be accompanied by a tour guide, however we did not encounter this rule being enforced. Having bought a guide book, we did not go through Machu Picchu completely blind and were guided though based on the book’s tour. Wildlife wise, we delighted in the abundant alpacas, and were giddy upon Luke spotting a pair of adorable chinchillas as seen below in one of the pictures. From the very first glance, it was obvious why Machu Picchu is considered a world wonder.
Views from the Guard Tower:
Views along the path to the Inca Bridge:
After our day in Machu Picchu, we returned by bus to Agua Calientes where we boarded the train to return to Ollantaytambo, before taking a second bus to Cusco. In our original itinerary, we’d optimistically penciled in a trip to Rainbow Mountain for the following day, however after reaching the summit of Huayna Picchu and hiking to the Sun Gate the previous day we were all tired and footsore. After reevaluating our options we’d decided that we were due for a day in the city. Our disappointment with changing our plans was alleviated significantly upon finding out that our day in Cusco corresponded with one of the biggest festivals of the year, Señor de los Temblores (The Lord of the Earthquakes). During this celebration, the Monday before Easter, a statue is taken from the Cathedral of Cusco and paraded throughout town taking up much of the day. This statue is significant as it is credited with ending the devastating 1650 earthquake that leveled much of the city and was created approximately in 1570. We couldn’t find anything online regarding an itinerary for the day and only the briefest of explanations. After a delicious breakfast, we queried a friendly street vendor in Plaza de Armas regarding the day’s events. He warned us several times that at 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM we would not want to be in the main square because it was full of people. Of course this made us want to experience what would happen even more, although he was absolutely speaking the truth, as I’ll discuss more later.
Coming back from breakfast, we noticed several people getting photos next to specific stone along the street. After some Googling, we realized that it was the twelve angled stone that is of Incan origin and is fantastic example of their remarkable abilities carving stone. You can see my photo of the wall below.
After breakfast, we wandered back to the San Pedro Market that was just around the corner from our Airbnb. The market was an explosion for our senses with so many colors and smells around every corner. We enjoyed randomly perusing the aisles, with my favorite being the one filled with fresh flowers.
Following our market explorations, we ventured back to the main square where we saw a statue exit the Cusco Cathedral that was much smaller than the one I was expecting. A few hours later, as we were leaving the square after lunch, we witnessed the larger statue’s procession around 2:00 PM. It was this larger statue that I’d observed when finding images online. We found it interesting that the presence of the police force greatly out numbered the people mingling in the square. The mystery was solved when during the evening, that balance would greatly shift toward that of the masses. We ventured out around the appointed hour, already surprised at the increase in volume of people out and about. As we neared the Plaza de Armas, the crowds became alarmingly larger, slowing our walking to a snails pace as we were all crammed together, causing us to regret not taking the street vendor’s earlier advice. It took us approximately twenty, very claustrophobic minutes, to bypass the bottle neck causing the uncomfortable quarters. The makeup of the crowds was interesting, as it was composed mainly of families, with small children. We finally made it to the Plaza de Armas with time to spare for the procession carrying the large crucifixion statue to return to the square. We were glad we experienced this festival, and weeks later still talk about how unexpectedly large the crowds were during this celebration.
The next morning marked our last in Peru as we flew out mid morning for Lima to catch our flight back to Michigan later that night. Based on the flight schedules we had approximately ten hours before our evening flight, so with that generous layover in mind we decided to take the afternoon and explore downtown Lima. After a quick Google search, we found that Lima’s airport had luggage storage lockers located in the domestic arrivals area. Unfortunately, after searching high and low, we couldn’t locate the storage lockers, only to eventually realize they were currently barricaded behind construction barriers. So with the mystery solved, we decided to haul our backpacks with us as we adventured out into the city. I hadn’t researched anything regarding Lima before our trip as I’d spent most of my effort focused on Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. My main interest in the area was visiting the Basílica y Convento de San Francisco, which is home to a stunning library that made my list last year of 150 of the most beautiful libraries.
We ordered an Uber to take us downtown, but little did we know the wild ride we were about to embark upon. Lima is the largest city Luke and I had ever been in, ranking 27th in the world. The traffic was utter chaos, with our driver weaving in and out of packed lanes of traffic with the blind faith that the car currently occupying that intended space would make way. Needless to say, we were thrilled to finally have the Uber pull up to our destination.
We loved our tour of the Church and Convent of San Francisco, with the library being just as stunning in person as in the photos. The main draw for tourists to this historic building are the catacombs underneath. It was hard to fathom the catacombs containing the bones of 20,000 souls, with several rooms we walked through being 4-8 meters deep with bones.
After leaving the Convent, we wandered through the iconic Plaza de Armas before catching an Uber for dinner in Miraflores. We tried to visit Huaca Pucllana, a clay/adobe pyramid dating from 200 AD and 700 AD but we missed the closing time by fifteen minutes. After dinner, we had four hours before our plane boarding when we climbed in our Uber back to the airport. Due to it being after dark, our driver recommended taking an alternative route to avoid a dangerous part of the city. Traffic was just as insane as previously, and the new route took us through some backstreets where he recommended the windows being rolled all the way up and doors locks. By the time we stepped out of our Uber we were so ready to be at the airport and headed home.
Lima aside, we loved our time in Peru! Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley exceeded any of our already lofty expectations. We are already plotting a return where we will visit the Amazon and Lake Titicaca.
What were your Peru experiences? Let me know if you are planning a trip and have any questions!
On a side note: Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mommas out there, especially my Mom! 💚