Viva Peru – Backpacking in Cusco and the Surrounding Area

Viva Peru – Backpacking in Cusco and the Surrounding Area

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Objective

This was me and Alex’s first time in South America, so naturally we wanted to see and do everything we could while visiting Peru. On the other hand, we also wanted to keep this trip at an overall slow pace (for a change), to allow ourselves time to really soak up the experience. (Sometimes when travelling, we find it tempting to bounce around from place to place and cram in literally as many activities as possible). We had a difficult time deciding, but ultimately, we narrowed it down to two main activities:

1) Explore one of the New Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu

2) Hike the candy-colored Rainbow Mountains

When We Went

March 2018. In South America, this time of year marks the end of summer and beginning of fall.

March is during the rainy season. Yes, it rained while we were here. No, this did not ruin the trip. Bring a good attitude and a rain jacket and you’ll be just fine.

Length of time

We had a total of 9 days in Peru.

We flew into Lima, and stayed the first night there in a hostel. The following morning, we took a smaller commercial plane into Cusco, the central point for the activities previously mentioned. If we would have taken a taxi or a train from Lima to Cusco, it would have eaten up roughly another day each way, whereas the flight was an easy hour and a half. The next six days were spent in the Cusco area. We then rounded out the trip with the last two days back in Lima, which we spent in the Miraflores district. This post focuses on our time in Cusco and the surrounding area only. (You can read more about our time in Lima here).

Language

Spanish is predominant among the locals. We came across many English speakers as well, but not everywhere we went. I know basic Spanish, enough to get by. I still get intimidated by the speed of the native speakers (we ran into a nice Chilean family on this trip, and the husband joked with us that they talk so fast in Chile they can’t even understand themselves).

Currency

The Sol. Make sure you always have some small bills of the local currency on hand. We came across some places that could not make change for us when we handed them larger bills. I’m afraid this could have given off the impression that we were carrying around larger amounts of money than we actually were, which makes me uncomfortable (this is true anywhere, not just in Peru.) Some places also accepted US dollars and credit cards, and ATMs and exchange buildings were not hard to find. Each time we paid with USD, the bills were thoroughly examined and would not be accepted if they were ripped or tattered in any way, so make sure yours are in good shape.

Map

I wanted to include this map to give you a visual representation of where we were in Peru. As you can see, Lima and Cusco are quite far away from each other. We ultimately opted to fly to save ourselves a couple of days of driving as we were already on limited time.

Tours

We did not book any of our tours in advance.

Pros. We enjoyed going on tours as they generally provided a plethora of information about the location, transportation to and from said location, and even meals along the way.

Cons. The main disadvantage of booking the tours was being on someone else’s schedule, with a limited amount of time spent in each place.

We booked our tours for Cusco, Rainbow Mountain, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and Machu Picchu all after we arrived in Cusco. It worked out for us to do it this way, as they had tours available for the days and times we wanted. I would be careful doing this depending on what you are planning on doing and how much time you have. Tours do sell out during the busy season.

We used a company, Machu Picchu Reservations, for all of our tours (except the Cusco bus tour, we bought that one off a street vendor). Machu Picchu Reservations’ office is located in the Plaza de Armas. We had no prior knowledge of the company, we just walked into the office one day while we were in Cusco and happened to find what we wanted. We enjoyed our experience and I would highly recommend them. They had great customer service and we felt like we paid a reasonable price for what we got out of it.

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Check out what the CDC recommends for travelling to Peru here.

Hygiene

The sewers systems are a bit different than what I’m used to in Peru, you cannot flush your toilet paper or it will clog them up. Little trash cans are set next to the toilets to discard of it instead. Try and remember to grab your toilet paper before you enter the stall when you are in a public restroom, as it is oftentimes kept on the outside. It was also surprisingly common to come across toilets that didn’t have seats on some of the tours we went on. So ladies, be prepared to squat.

 Many of the hostels we stayed at didn’t have soap or towels provided, or if they did, they would charge you for it. We opted to buy our own bar of soap at a convenience store and each brought along our own travel towels.

Health

Drinking Water

We did not drink the water and avoided ice to be safe. I do recall one particular time we ordered drinks and forgot to ask for no ice (sin hielo, por favor), but we downed them anyway. Neither of us got sick to our stomachs on the trip. Do your own research and use your own judgement to decide what is right for you.

Vaccines

We both wanted to double check that we were up to date on our routine vaccines and opted to get a couple that were recommended by the Center for Disease Control as well. Keep in mind that if you are planning on getting any vaccines, you will need to start looking into getting them several weeks in advance based on availability and to make sure they are effective in time for your trip. (This varies depending on what you are getting, of course). Do your own research and use your own judgement to decide what is right for you.

Altitude Sickness

We were both apprehensive about the high altitude of the Andes mountains, Cusco in particular, as well as the surrounding area we were planning on exploring. The altitude of Cusco is 11,152 ft (3,399 m), the altitude of Machu Picchu is significantly lower at 7,972 ft (2,430 m), and the altitude of the Rainbow Mountains are a staggering 17,100 ft (5,200 m). We’d both done a decent amount of hiking in the mountains in and outside the states before with no major issues (maybe a slight headache is all), but the Andes would be a whole new mountain range for us and there’s just no real way to know how your body will react to these kinds of changes.  

We tried to prepare for the high altitude the best we could. We gave ourselves a couple of days to acclimate to the new height before physically exerting ourselves too much (the longer the better). We reminded each other to continuously drink water throughout the trip. We chewed on coca leaves, a natural remedy for altitude sickness and part of the Peruvian culture. We saw them everywhere we went, there were bowls of the leaves set out with meals to chew on their own or make into tea. All sorts of other products ranging from coca candies to soft drinks were readily available to purchase. Yes, coca is the plant that cocaine is produced from. No, I do not know how long it stays in your system, but it you’ve got a drug test coming up soon after, I’d be cautious. Do your own research and use your own judgement to decide what is right for you.

Neither of us had any trouble with the altitude in Cusco or Machu Picchu. The Rainbow Mountains on the other hand, an additional mile higher up, was where we got our first real taste of altitude sickness. We experienced headaches and minor nausea during the climb and woke up to clogged up sinuses and a sore throat the following day. (Keep reading to get my full Rainbow mountain experience.) 

Safety

I would say that some areas we stayed in felt sketchier than others, but as a whole, we felt safe where we went on this trip. We felt comfortable walking around.

There were lots of people around the majority of the time, so make sure you are ALWAYS aware of your surroundings. (Even more so if you don’t know a lot of Spanish).

Insurance

Alex purchased travel insurance, I did not. Most plans cover things such as flights and medical expenses. He did not end up needing to file any claims on this trip, but was consequently less paranoid than myself because he had purchased it. I have heard various costly stories (no pun intended) from people who opted to not get it beforehand. I ended up losing my cellphone on this trip, so maybe I should have gotten it! Alex used World Nomads for his, check out their website here.

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Plane

We flew in and out of Lima, the capital of Peru.

For our international flight, we flew Spirit Airlines. Spirit is of course a “budget airline,” so we didn’t get any free drinks or snacks on the way. You are only allowed to bring one personal item for free, all other bags require an additional fee. We were able to get away with using our giant backpacks as personal items on the way there, but we ended up having to pay for them on the return trip. Some gate attendants are stricter than others on this.

For the flights from Lima to Cusco and back, we used a couple of different Peruvian airlines. Alex booked based on price, dates, and times available:

Star Peru. The Peruvian airline we used to fly from Lima to Cusco.

VivaAir. The flight from Cusco back to Lima. This is Peru’s budget airline. The only issue we encountered was after we booked our flights, I kept getting email notifications saying that we were missing passenger information and that this would need to be addressed before we would be allowed board the plane. After talking to someone who had dealt with this airline before, we decided to just arrive at the airport extra early to address it, and we ended up not having any problems.

Taxi

We used taxis to get from the airports to our hostels. We had several people advise us to make sure we only accepted rides from legitimate taxi companies. Apparently, there had recently been an issue with people putting stickers on their cars pretending to be a taxi service and robbing passengers. We were able to book all of our taxi rides through our hostels, so we did not need to get any directly off the street, although they were readily available everywhere.

On Foot

Most places we visited we were able to get around well enough by walking.

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Hostels

While we were in the Cusco area, we stayed in hostels. We primarily used the app, Hostelworld, to book them so we could shop around and compare prices, locations, and reviews. (Check out their website here.)

We only booked a couple of them ahead of time on days we were doing a lot of travelling. All other nights we purchased while in Peru. We could have just as easily walked around and booked them as we went, we had no problem finding places to stay anywhere. I would be careful doing it this way depending on when you go, I have heard it can be harder to find accommodations during the peak season.

Private Room VS Shared Dormitory

We alternated between getting a shared dormitory style and our own private room. If all you need is a bed and don’t care about people wandering in and out during the night, the shared space is going to be your most economic option. If you’d like a little more privacy and your own bathroom, opt for a private room. Sharing a private room between two people brought the cost down for us as well.

Stay Within Walking Distance of the Plaza de Armas

While you are in Cusco, I would recommend staying on or within walking distance to the Plaza de Armas. This is going to be your central square — or home base, if you will — while you’re here.

We didn’t stay at any hostel long, per our usual nomadic style, never more than a night or two. I felt a little tinge of guilt every time we checked out, the hosts were all so friendly and would go on and on how they’d wished we’d stay with them another night.

Pay Purix

Pay Purix was a basic concrete building in a mundane area of the city we had chosen for our first night after landing in Lima, Peru based on its proximity to the airport, as we had a flight out to Cusco in the morning. The guy at front desk only spoke Spanish (this was common on this trip). He showed us to our beds, in a 12-person dormitory style room, everyone else was asleep when we tiptoed in. We wandered around the hostel a bit, there was a common area downstairs complete with a foosball and pool table. We grabbed a beer and went upstairs to a little patio area with an open-ended roof to look out at what we could see of Lima. All that came to view was a graffitied concrete wall and the occasional tuk tuk (an auto rickshaw) passing by on the streets below (I have yet to ride in one, but it is on my list).

Very, very early in the morning, we were woken up by the obnoxious sound of metal beating on metal. Someone was attempting to break the lock off the door of one of the lockers. I bolted upright in bed (I was in the top bunk), expecting to see someone trying to steal my stuff. It turned out one of the other visitors had lost their key and had any early flight out, so they were trying to bust through the lock so he could retrieve his backpack. Relieved, I went back to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning was served by a plump Peruvian lady, wearing a frilly white apron and a pair of black, thick-rimmed glasses. I remember being embarrassed when she asked me a question in Spanish and I could not comprehend it. I apologized for not understanding and smiled and nodded and we moved on. Everything she had prepared was delicious. Little pan loaves, chunks of some pungent funky cheese, jam, and piles of fresh fruit (the watermelon was very seedy with an almost grainy texture, unlike the watermelon I’m used to). It was all laid out on a wooden table, buffet style. For drinks, we could choose from coffee, tea, or juice, pitchers of pineapple, passion fruit, or mango. There was a bowl of coca leaves and thin, white, triangle-shaped napkins set out as well. The napkins were completely useless as they did not absorb anything, but we encountered these same scraps of paper throughout the trip.

El Labrador

Our second night in Peru and first night in Cusco we stayed at El Labrador, located just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas. We got a little turned around trying to find it (carry a map on you!) The building was constructed with the old, Inca-style architecture. This time we had opted for a private room. It was cute and cozy. I got another opportunity to practice my Spanish with the young man at the front desk.

El Tucco

Our next hostel, El Tucco, was located on the other side of the railroad tracks, in what we had heard was a bit rougher side of Cusco. It was still within walking distance from the Plaza de Armas. The entrance was gated, we were required to buzz in each time. It was a rather plain, very old building with colonial paintings hanging on plain white walls. The wood floors creaked as you walked across them. Our private room was of the same colonial style, the bed exhibited two of the lumpiest pillows I have ever seen. The common area boasted a tube TV (don’t worry, we didn’t come to Peru to watch TV). 

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Pariwana

Our last night in Cusco, we checked into Pariwana, more of a “party hostel,” if your will. There was a bar, restaurant, open-ended courtyard, and various events posted up on the walls. We liked it, but were a little too tuckered out to take advantage of the social scene (we had already hiked the Rainbow Mountains and Machu Picchu at this point of the trip). They had a computer room we used to print our plane tickets for our flight the next day returning to Lima (I’ve encountered several budget airlines that will charge you extra to print your boarding pass for you). We stayed in a dormitory-style room at this one, there were about eight beds total in our room.

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Hiking Gear & Accessories

You’re going to want to bust out your hiking gear.

  • Bring a backpack that’s large enough to fit everything you need and comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time.

We were almost constantly walking around with our backpacks on while in Cusco and the surrounding area. It was very common to see people dressed in full hiking gear and wearing backpacks, and it was also acceptable to go into most places (restaurants included) in this sort of attire. I’m sure if you went into a really nice, upscale place, they might not be so cool with this look, but I wouldn’t know as that’s not normally our style.

  • Bring a durable, comfortable pair of hiking shoes

You’ll be doing a considerable amount of walking. I personally needed to buy a new pair of shoes before we left. I wore them to work for several days to break them in, and they finally stopped hurting my feet and being comfortable a couple of days before we left.  

  • A travel towel, most hostels don’t provide them or will charge you to use theirs.

I didn’t know travel towels existed before this trip. They were compact enough to fit in our backpacks without taking up too much space, and dried quickly.

Clothing

As far as clothing goes, you’re going to need to be prepared to cover a wide range of elements.

From warm and sunny, to cold and rainy, and even a little snow, we pretty much experienced it all while we were in the Andes. Be ready for it to go from sunny to rainy and back in the same afternoon. Keep in mind that it is always going to be a little bit cooler in the mountains than you might expect, and the farther up you go, the colder it will continue to get.

  • A rain jacket
  • Think comfortable layers for clothing, nothing too heavy or bulky
  • Try to always keep an extra pair of clean, dry socks on you. There were numerous times we needed to change ours due to sweat, rain, you name it.
  • Compression bags will save space in your backpack. I wasn’t on board with this idea at first, but they really do work quite well and I was glad we brought them.
  • Consider doing laundry at some point during the trip to save space. Remember you’ll be carrying your belongings on your back the majority of the time.

Electronics and Gadgets

The electricity used in Peru is 220 volts, 60 cycle, which is not the same as the US, 120 volts, 60 cycle. Make sure your devices can handle 220 volts, or you could end up frying them. The only electronics we brought were a tablet and our cellphones, which were all dual voltage, and therefore we did not need to use a converter. The plugs in Peru are typically the 2-pronged flat type, which is the same as the US, so we didn’t need to bring an adapter, either.

Download Whatsapp. I would recommend downloading this app on your smartphone. We did not, but had several people ask us if they could contact us through the app, just in case something happened or a ride fell through. If you decide to download it, make sure you set it up before you go out of the country. We had set our phones to airplane mode so as not to incur any international charges, and so we were not able finish the installation process while we were there in order to use it.  

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Foods We Enjoyed

I tried so many new foods while in Peru. It was a wonderful mesh of new flavors.

Typical Meals

Meals typically included meat portions smaller than what I am used to, and instead were filled with lots of fresh fruits, hearty veggies, rice, and plenty of pan (small, airy loaves of bread). The pan was often served with a sweet jam-like concoction at breakfast. Eating this style of meal resulted in both of us feeling better all around, like we were eating healthier than we would normally be without even trying. We have since tried to keep this in mind when prepping meals at home.

Quinoa

We came across quinoa served a variety of ways, from hot or cold salads, to bars and even desserts!

Cuy

We tried the cuy, which is guinea pig.

We decided our last night in Cusco would be the night we tried cuy, at a joint called Mistora. You can order the cuy served whole, and Alex was interested in trying it this way, but I felt better ordering a smaller portion…less of a commitment.

The cuy was excellently cooked, whatever they used to season it was delicious, however, I could not get past the texture and ended up giving my portion to Alex. It was chewier and fattier than I had anticipated. I was also having a hard time mentally staring at the animal’s foot while I ate it. Alex compared it to rabbit meat. I made a mental note to never order rabbit, either. (On the top plate pictured below, look closely and you can just make out the little foot sticking up in the air.)

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Alpaca

We met several adorable alpacas throughout the trip, but this did not stop us from trying this local favorite meat as well.

The first time we tried it at the restaurant Tawa. We both agreed it was our best meal in Peru. Just picture a nice juicy bovine steak, this particular one was a thinner cut. Served with potatoes and veggies, it was perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of heat to it.

We enjoyed our first alpaca meal so much we ordered it again at Mistora (on the bottom plate pictured above.) The alpaca steak was a thick-cut portion this time, served with a side of sautéed mushrooms. Excellent again.

Complimentary Breakfast

Most hostels we stayed at included a complimentary breakfast, others had it for a small price. If we had an early tour scheduled the next morning, most hostels would pack us a sack breakfast or lunch to take with us. Most of the tours we booked also included meals.

Rooftop Breakfast

My favorite breakfast was one morning at El Labrador, which was served on the upper floor of the hostel. It was an open-ended room filled with small, circular wooden tables. We were up quite high and could see the rooftops of several other neighboring buildings, they almost appeared to be stacked on top of one another. There was a pair of cats fighting on one rooftop, some chasing birds on another. Chickens were clucking around. Roosters were crowing.

Drinks

Fruit Juice

Thick, frothy juices made from fresh fruit were plentiful everywhere we went and were always included with breakfast.

Inca Cola

Inca Cola — a yellow, banana-flavored Coca-Cola product — was a very popular drink. It is a bit of an unexpected flavor and tad overwhelming at first, but we both came to love it and dreaded finishing our last bottle.

Coffee

I poured myself a cup of coffee our first morning in Cusco and was about to take a drink when I noticed the girl waiting on us eyes grow as big as saucers. She was obviously trying to hold back giggles as she motioned to the thermos of hot water that had also been placed on our table. This was when I learned that in Peru, coffee is served highly concentrated and that you are supposed to add it to hot water to taste, then add in your sweetener, etc. I had just filled my entire cup with extremely concentrated coffee and not added a single drop of hot water. I laughed, too.

Beer

Cusquena and Pilsen were the readily available beers, both went down easy, they were light and drinkable (and I am super picky about my beer).

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Pisco Sours

Our favorite new alcoholic drink we tried was a pisco sour, a Peruvian classic concocted with lemon juice, raw egg whites (yes, I said RAW), Pisco and simple syrup.

The first time I ordered one, I got the classic, which was overwhelmingly sour. (By the end of the trip after trying a couple more at different locations, I feel like this particular one was extra sour, or perhaps not made quite right, and that is saying something because I love sour everything). Alex ordered one with dragon fruit, the added sweetness balanced out the tartness of the drink. They had several different flavors to try at many restaurants we visited.

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Arrival in Lima

We landed in Lima late, well past dark. It was a six-hour direct flight from Fort Lauderdale, the longest flight I have been on to date. It felt long. My legs were stiff. When we booked our plane tickets, Alex noticed that this particular flight was the only Spirit plane flying into Lima for the entire week. If we would have run into any cancellations or major delays, I’m not sure if any of the following would have happened…

We stepped off the plane and immediately into a large crowd of people in the greeting area. Everyone we passed was offering us a ride. (No, gracias – it was time to get into Spanish mode). We scanned the crowd until we found our guy, a middle-aged Peruvian man holding a sign that read “Alex.” (Our hostel had offered to arrange the ride for us for a small fee). He was very friendly and knew English. We learned on the ten-minute ride to the hostel that he had never been to the USA, but that when he does go, he wants to take his kids to Disney World.

Cusco

Our First Glimpse of the Andes

We were back at the Lima airport the following day, our flight to Cusco was delayed an hour and a half. It was a small plane we boarded from the outside. The flight attendants came through offering us Inca Cola and amarillo comate (sweet potato) chips. I had a hard time not nerding out when I was handed these items, the unexpected treats were just another reminder of how far we were from home.

A short while later, the Andes mountains were coming into view. Gigantic, yet rolling. Layers of green piled on top of each other, like a child’s stacking ring toy. As we closed in on Cusco, the green of the Andes contrasted with the red of the emerging houses and rooftops that were haphazardly stacked over the hills.

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At night, the lights from these houses twinkled like stars.

Coca Leaves

The second we stepped off the plane, there was a basket of coca leaves, “three leafs free”, a sign read. We obliged. They were earthy and bitter to the taste as we chewed them, time to start acclimating.

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Again, we declined the numerous offers to give us ride from the airport, and looked for another sign with our names on it.

After checking in to our hostel, we went out to explore a little. The cobblestone streets were narrow. Cars didn’t slow down as we crossed them. We passed several ancient-looking churches and decorated cathedrals. Several stray dogs were roaming the streets. The Plaza de Armas was full of restaurants and shops.

Street Vendors

There was a perpetually constant stream of vendors in the Plaza de Armas. While you are walking, you can keep going past them and give a firm “no, gracias” while doing so, but when sitting down, we literally couldn’t go 30 seconds without someone trying to sell us something. It was better to get up and stay moving if we weren’t interested in buying anything.

Many of the vendors were friendly, some were children who would make you feel guilty with their innocent eyes, others were a bit off-putting. We were approached by a few men at different times, all selling the same pictures, who gave off a shady vibe. They used fake names, we met one who called himself Picasso, another was Michael Jordan, yet another was Pablo Escobar.

Schools Out

We happened to be strolling around town just as school was letting out one afternoon, the streets were soon brimming with uniform-clad children and their parents. It was chaotic trying to navigate. We kept on moving.

Semana Santa

We were walking around Cusco one morning when we noticed a large crowd was gathering in the Plaza de Armas. The cathedral bells were ringing. A large number of policemen were stationed along strategic points of the square. Something was up, we made a mental note to inquire about it later on.

Later that same afternoon the Plaza de Armas was beyond crowded, standing room only. The bells continued to solemnly ring, and then, the doors of the cathedral opened and a figure emerged. It was a black-hued Jesus, affixed to a giant cross, being carried by several men down the stone steps and into the crowd, soon to be throughout of the streets of the town for the next several hours. We soon learned it was the start of Semana Santa, it was Monday of Holy Week.

That evening, we settled on a we passed by cafe to grab a bite. Once we sat down, we saw that the TV inside the cafe was broadcasting a live stream of the Semana Santa, which was still processing through the streets outside. (Every other time we saw a TV, it was a fúbol match, the World Cup was only a few months away.) We both started off with juice (per usual on this trip). Alex got a club sandwich, which was served on a pan loaf with chicken, mustard, cheese, and eggs. I ordered what looked like an omelet with lunch meat ham, which came with a side of pan. (I had actually read in a blog post before we left for this trip that it was common to be served lunch meat when you order ham in Peru). We both felt a little underwhelmed by the meal, but then the dessert came. We had ordered something similar to flan, a rich custard with a caramelized top.

As we were finishing eating, we suddenly remembered that we still needed to pick up our tickets for a tour we had prearranged before the office closed…which would be in a half an hour. This meant we would need to go fight our way back through the Plaza de Armas to get there. The crowds were as thick as ever, following the procession. The celebration had started at around 2:00 that afternoon and it was now 6:00. The bells were ringing again, the cathedral doors were opening, it was almost time for the black Jesus to return. We assumed once this happened, the streets would likely become crazier than they were now as the crowd dispersed, so we picked up our tickets and booked it back to the hostel to try and get ahead of the madness.

This was my first experience being apart of a crowd of this magnitude in a foreign country. A very large crowd. Streets full of people. We stuck out a little bit. At 6’3″, Alex was taller than nearly everyone else. Our skin was lighter. Our Spanish was choppy. I think everyone should experience this.

A Bus Tour of Cusco

We decided to book a bus tour to learn more about Cusco (we bought these tickets the day of off of one of the numerous street vendors). We walked about a half mile with the tour group to get to the bus, chatting with a guy visiting from Lima on the way. When we went to show the guide our tickets, he told us this was the wrong tour group. Whoops! We hurried back to the Plaza de Armas and found the man who sold us the tour, he told us we hadn’t missed it yet, and to wait on a bench nearby so we could go with the right group this time.

Our guide started out by giving us an overview of the history of Cusco using a stone map that was located on the side of a building. He gave us a quick rundown of Inca through colonial times. First in Spanish, and then in English. Although Lima is the current capital city of Peru, Cusco is the historical capital of Peru.

We didn’t come across many other Americans the entirety of the trip. There was only one other American couple on this particular tour, and they decided they had to stop at McDonald’s – holding up the rest of the tour. Thank you, for being so unself-aware, and for playing into our stereotype.

We climbed on board a large, red, double-decker bus. It took us up on top of a hill that overlooked the houses and city below. We learned that a cross on top of a house means that the family is catholic. (Catholicism is the predominant religion of Peru). Oftentimes there is also a bull positioned next to the cross, which signifies protection. They put these structures on when the house is finished being built, and nearly all houses we came across had both objects visible.

We passed some Inca ruins and a eucalyptus forest, native to Australia of course, that has now established itself in South America. There were alpacas and llamas everywhere, scattered across the hills, grazing.

Our first stop was a textile shop. The owners showed us some of the goods they had handmade, and how to tell the difference between real and fake alpaca, you really can feel the difference, real alpaca is much, much softer.

Mother Earth Ritual

Next, we went over to a hill where we met an old shaman, who was to perform a traditional Mother Earth ritual. He passed out coca leaves to everyone in the group. Out of habit, I immediately started chewing a couple of them before Alex nudged me, this time the leaves were supposed to be used as an offering in the ceremony. Well, that was embarrassing. I immediately stopped chewing and looked around, hoping no one else had noticed. The shaman put jasmine on our hands, clapped, then asked us all to put our leaves into the fire. We then had a little free time to explore, Alex and I almost ended up missing the bus because we were busy petting some alpacas.

Christo Blanco

The last stop on the bus tour was the top of Pukamuqu, the hill where the Cristo Blanco (White Christ) statue, arms open wide, stands tall protecting the city below. It’s a whopping eight meters (26 feet) high and was a gift from the Arabic Palestinian community to the people of Cusco after they sought refuge here following World War II.

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Carry A Map With You

The tour was complete and dropped us off at a different spot about a mile away from where we’d been picked up in the Plaza de Armas. This sort of thing happened to us a several times on this trip, so we tried to always keep a map of Cusco on us just in case we had trouble orienting ourselves. Lucky for me, Alex has a great sense of direction and a knack for being able to learn the streets of a new city very quickly.

When we got back to the hostel, I dumped the entirety of the contents of my backpack onto the bed, my phone was missing. I had Alex look through it too. Still nothing. I really don’t think I was pick-pocketed, I had been keeping it in one of the inner pockets of my backpack, and Alex had been in the habit of walking behind me. If someone did take it, they would have had to of been really sneaky about it. I must have just dropped it carelessly off the tour bus. I had set it to airplane mode, so I had no way of tracking it down. I had it shut off and changed a few of my passwords to be extra safe, and that was the end of it. Strangely I wasn’t even mad about it, not upset in the slightest. If this was the worst thing to happen the entirety of the trip, then everything was still okay.

Back to What We Did

Rainbow Mountain Hike – A Day Tour From Cusco

Here’s a map to show you where Rainbow Mountain is in proximity to Cusco:

We had heard about the concept of “Peru time,” the social norm where things tend to run about 30 minutes behind schedule. This was not the case the particular morning of our hike, our bus arrived quite punctual at 4 am. We were just rolling out of bed as it pulled up to the hostel, our host yelling frantically at us to get up so as not to miss it.

In total, it was a solid 3-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the start of the hike. We stopped for breakfast on the way and ate thin, pancake-like cakes, fruit, and coffee. Everyone was quiet. We were all still waking up. The roads were steep and narrow as they wound their way through the green layers of the Andes.

Vinicunca

Finally, we reached the start of the Rainbow Mountain hike. Various minerals result in the seven, somewhat unexpected, colors that can be seen in the peaks, and give the range its name. For most of the range, you can see maybe one or two, or even a handful of the seven colors, but not all. Vinicunca, the Montaña de Siete Colores, the famous peak and popular tourist attraction, is the only mountain in the range that exhibits all seven colors quite brilliantly.

The Trail Is Tough

I’m not sure how to best prepare you for the hike to see Vinicunca.

The Elevation Here Is No Joke

There are stretches of flatter terrain, sandwiched in between gruelingly steep ones. We started off at an altitude of 14,189 ft (4,326 m) and ended at 17,060 ft (5,200 m) (it was posted on signs along the way). We had to stop multiple times, about every half mile or so, just to catch our breath. I’d walk for a bit, my head would start pounding to a point, and so I’d stop, drink a bit of water or have some coca, or maybe both. Once the pounding subsided and I caught my breath we’d continue on. There were a couple of times I even felt slightly nauseous, although I did not get sick. This is the first time I think I’ve ever really experienced altitude sickness. Every once in a while, we would pass another sign with what seemed like only slightly higher numbers than the previous.

Caballos (horses) were trotting up and down the mountain, their caretakers with them to provide a ride to the top if you wanted for a small fee. We were told we could only purchase a ride at the beginning of the trail, but we could have gotten one at any time if we were not so stubborn, we wanted to go entirely on foot.

There are signs for baños (bathrooms) along the way, which usually consisted of a hole in ground. Some are free, others you can use for a small fee.

Alpacas were everywhere along the trail.

5200 m high

The top of the mountain. A couple of hours after we started the hike, we were side by side with Montaña de Siete Colores, our reward.

The air was sharp and cold as it blew across our pink-tinged cheeks, the temperature was significantly lower at the top. (But sure enough, there was a girl in thin, light layers of clothing posing, intent on capturing that perfect, Instagram-worthy photo. You just can’t escape these people.)

We soaked it in for a minute.

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Alex joined in singing “Bailando” by Enrique Iglesias with our guide (who knew all of the words). Everyone was happy. Especially this guy who photobombed us.

The walk back down felt better. Not so much stopping. I learned way back when I used to run cross country in high school to never exert your body going downhill, let gravity help you out.

The sun came out. We warmed up a bit.

Soon enough the sun was hidden behind the clouds again and by the time we reached the bus it had started hailing.

On the ride back, we stopped again and they fed us a HOT lunch, it was very much appreciated. The lunch was included in our tour as well. In total, it cost us 60 sols each (20 USD) for breakfast, lunch, the hike, and transportation to and from Cusco.

The Aftermath

We woke up the next morning with painfully dry, sore throats. We figured out that this, as well as other sinus problems, can be symptoms of altitude sickness.

Back to What We Did

The Sacred Valley of the Incas

This map shows all the places we visited in The Sacred Valley of the Incas.

As previously mentioned, we booked the Sacred Valley Tour through Machu Picchu Reservations. The tour included our entrance fees to Chinchero, Moray, and Ollantaytambo (we received a punch card that had all three), transportation, and lunch. It also included a hostel for the night in Agua Calientes, and our transportation and entrance fees to Machu Picchu. The only thing that we had to pay for separately in cash was our entrance fee for the salt mines (10 sols a piece, 3 USD) when we arrived. They even let us drop off our second backpack and kept it safe for us so we’d only have to carry one while on the tour.

Chinchero

The 1st stop on the tour was the town of Chinchero. Just past the main gate, a man was selling empanadas. Delicious.

In Chinchero, you’ll find Inca architecture and ruins as well as a colonial church.

Textiles are big in Chinchero, and we were able to see a demonstration of traditional Andean weaving. Dressed in customary clothing, a lady cleaned the alpaca fleece with a natural shampoo (she joked they don’t take showers). She dyed the fleece using all natural ingredients, even putting some of the red dye on her lips, saying the color would last about 24 hours. Lastly, she spun it into rolls, it was now ready to be woven into hats, sweaters, you name it.

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Moray

The 2nd stop was Moray (more-eye). This was Alex’s favorite stop on the Sacred Valley tour.

Essentially, it was several layers of stones shaped into a circular pattern. The ground stays warmer at the bottom, and cooler at the top. The Incas used this land as an experimental laboratory of sorts, testing the planting of different kinds of seeds. Yet another feat of the Inca culture. There were little stone protrusions that served as steps that allowed them to move from layer to layer.

Maras Salt Mines

The 3rd stop was in the town of Maras to visit the salt mines.

You enter through a shop with salt (no way!) and related goods available for purchase. The salt mined here serves many purposes for the Peruvians, from being used as bath salts to fertility treatments (Alex covered my ears when the tour guide was explaining this part). They passed around some salted chocolate with quinoa for us to sample. Yummy.

Outside were the mines, each individual pool outlined with stones and stacked over the hills. One small stream feeds into all 4,000 pools.

Each mine produces over 50 kilos of salt, which is then harvested during the dry season. Originally, each individual pool was owned by a local family and served as their livelihood. Nowadays, the main source of income in this area is tourism.

A Tree House Lunch

The next stop on the tour (and the best one, the guide joked) was lunch. We pulled up to what looked like a tree house. Up the stairs were several wooden tables set up buffet style. I did a quick scan of the food laid out, most of it I had never seen before and had no idea what it was. I took at least one small scoop of everything to taste. Salad, veggies, quinoa dishes, rice dishes, fried chicken (this turned out to be my favorite, but was very different in texture and flavor than any I had ever had), potatoes, and soup. Fruit, pudding, and jello for dessert.

Ollantaytambo

The 4th and final stop of the Sacred Valley Tour was Ollantaytambo, an old Inca city that has remained almost entirely unchanged since Inca times.

Traditionally, the common folks lived down below, in the valley, and still do today, with much of the original Inca architecture compromising the foundation of the houses. The high priests would have lived up on the hills.

A Sun temple sits high in the hills, the location of which is lined up perfectly with where the sun hits for winter solstice, June 21st in South America. The gigantic stones this temple was constructed out of weigh 7 tons a piece, and originate from the top of a mountain straight across the way from their current location. This of course contributes to some of the lore surrounding the Incas. Did they “have help”? Was it aliens or the Inca people who really built all these magnificent structures? Our guide confirmed one thing for us, without a doubt, he said, was that the Inca people did not use slaves, rather every member of society contributed. They did not pay their taxes through a currency, but rather by working, with whatever skills they had, be that physical labor or something else.

Opposite of where we were standing, cut into the side of a mountain across from us, beyond the “commoner” houses, were gigantic storage units used for grains and other supplies. Literally positioned right into the mountainside. They kept resources safe and dry, and also served as a lookout point.

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The majority of the group was getting ready to head back to Cusco, but we were staying in the nearby town of Agua Calientes for the night and going to Machu Picchu the following day. Agua Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu. We had about 5 hours to kill before we needed to catch the train to Agua Calientes. We stayed at Ollantaytambo until it closed, leisurely exploring the rest of the park, looking at the intricate details, walking through the water temple and garden.

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When the park closed, we grabbed a drink at a restaurant across the street. A couple of cusquenas and a pisco sour to share.

We stopped in Tawa, a restaurant right across from train station, for a quick bite. By the time we got our food, the train would be leaving in 20 minutes. (Alex loves to cut things close, as I, the planning tyrant, get quite disgruntled.)

Peruvian Flute Band

At the train station, we finally ran into a Peruvian flute band. We had been waiting a long time for this moment.

When we arrived in Agua Calientes, there was no sign with our names on it, our pick-up wasn’t there. After waiting several minutes, we decided to ask around. It turns out the hostel was a few blocks away, so we walked (we had made sure to ask for the name of it). A few minutes after we walked in, a man ran in, out of breath, holding a sign with our names on it. There must have been some sort of confusion when he tried to pick us up, but we couldn’t understand everything that he said. We were tired and didn’t care. We had a private room at this hostel (we had asked the guy at Machu Picchu Reservations to see if this would be possible, and he came through for us at no extra charge).

Back to What We Did

Machu Picchu

And Down Came the Rain

We woke up at 4 am (again!) to the sound of rain slamming on the hostel windows. We needed to be at the bus stop at 5, for a pick-up time of 5:30. Thankfully it was right down the street and we could see it from our window. There was already a line forming, and growing quickly.

By the time we got ourselves together and out the door, the line had grown significantly. The rain continued to dump on us, a rain jacket wasn’t cutting it anymore, our layers of clothing and socks were starting to get damp. Not a good sign with a long day outside ahead of us. A lady was walking next to the line, selling ponchos. Fantastic sales tactic. We bought a couple and finagled them over our layers and backpack, we later gave them to a girl at our next hostel.

The road up to Machu Picchu was long and windy, switchback style. 

When we reached the top, it was cold, wet, and (still) raining pretty hard. The visibility was low as we entered the park, everything was covered in a dense haze.

They had a station where you can get your Passport stamped (for free).

El Baño is located outside the entrance to the park, and is not free.

Our hostel gave us a sack lunch that we put in our backpack. We only did this because our guide told us that as long as we were respectful and cleaned up after ourselves that he did not mind people eating food inside. I hate that that is not common these days, for people to be respectful. To leave places as you found them, better if you can. Our guide told us there are well over 3,000 visitors per day, but during Inca times a total of only 600 people lived here. That puts a lot of stress and strain on the sacred area. 100 workers a day are required to maintain the area and keep it up. It is also the largest tourist attraction in South America. It’s a bit conflicting traveling somewhere like this, you want to visit, but also respect it.

It’s More Immense Than You Can Imagine

Machu Picchu served as the summer home for the Inca king. By summer home, we mean an entire city, complete with temples and universities.

A perfect city in seemingly the middle of nowhere, perched on a mountaintop, surrounded on all sides by other mountains. Let that sink in.

Offerings were made here in Inca times. They used human children (a child was considered 20 or younger, but usually they were under 15). They were given alcohol to disorient them and coca leaves to numb the pain, before they were suffocated, so that the body was not damaged. They were then buried in the fetal position to be born again in the afterlife. It was considered a great honor to be chosen as an offering, and it brought honor to your family as well.

Unfortunately, we learned that the USA obtained all the artifacts from Machu Picchu once it was rediscovered after the Inca people mysteriously disappeared. ALL OF THE ARTIFACTS. We agreed to return them all within 3 years but still have not done so all these years later despite them being sacred to the Inca people. They are currently located at Yale University in Connecticut.

The Inca Bridge to Nowhere

We took a moderate trail, which led to the Inca bridge to nowhere (yes, this is what they really call it). It is located on the side of a mountain cliff. As you can see, there is a clearly constructed bridge.

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It leads… off the mountain. You can see the beginnings of a trail on the other side. Where did it lead to? Currently no one knows, it is an ongoing mystery.

The Fog Slowly Lifted

At about 9:30, the fog started to lift. Slowly. The sun was doing its best to peak through the clouds, we got little bursts of it.

(Que angelic choir music) and then just like that the visibility was perfect. A postcard-like image of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu looming behind.

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It got warm quick. We ended up peeling off all of our extra layers. Our socks were toast from a mixture of rain and sweat (bring an extra pair).

We laid down and just stared in silence for a bit.

Soon enough, we circled around back to the entrance to catch a shuttle bus that would take us to the train station for our ride back to Agua Calientes (the tour had our train tickets booked for 2:30 pm and we needed to be on time). The line for the shuttle was long (and hot), so give yourself a little extra time.

Back at the train station, we had a little trouble finding our bus back to Cusco. We didn’t know the name of the company, so we just had to ask around until we found our driver, we knew because he had our names on list. This is something we should have asked for more information about when we made our reservations. If you can’t find your ride right away, start asking around.

It was a weird feeling leaving Cusco. We’d gotten to know the cobblestone streets. We were now navigating them with ease. In fact, we not only knew our way around, but also how to dodge a passing car quite well. We had fallen into our own little groove here. I remember, quite distinctly, how I felt the first time we went walking around downtown back home after this trip. Our guards were lowered a bit. We didn’t stick out so much. We had a bit of a hard time adjusting back to normal, if you will, from the vibe we felt in Cusco.  

A Weekend In Miraflores

But it wasn’t quite time to return home to the United States just yet. We had one more stop to make, a weekend in Miraflores.

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