There is much to be said for utilizing American holidays for certain excursions, especially south of the Equator, where during North America’s wintertime it is quite appealing. Additionally, since no one besides the continental United States celebrates Labor Day or Thanksgiving, the travel prices are less expensive, yet the weather is perfect in places like Peru. We spent 9 days in this amazing country, and to be honest, I would take their ceviche over traditional turkey and stuffing any day! Easily, Peru is one of the best places to see in South America, and late November is one of the best times of year to go.
Our experience was definitely one of my overall favorites of all the excursions we’ve experienced. Using Best Peru Tours, an all-inclusive organizer of guided tours throughout Peru, we were able to book a stay that had us beginning our journey in Lima and flying to Cusco before making the trek to Machu Picchu, then returning for two nights in Lima. If you’re wondering how to get from Machu Picchu to Lima, your escorted touring group will take care of that as well!
While in Lima, you’ll want to stay in downtown Miraflores, which is about an hour from the airport. After your arrival in Cusco, the Inca Rail (a national train liner that goes between Cusco and Machu Picchu) is about a 2.5 hour trip, and brings you to the base of Machu Picchu to experience the real splendor of the location. If you use a company such as Best Peru Tours, the booking of the individual legs becomes rather easy, as they handle this and the hotel booking for you.
Your choice is either to stay some time in Machu Picchu and truly experience Cusco, or perhaps enjoy a rather elaborate day trip from Lima if your time is limited. Along the way, you’ll experience Ollantaytambo and have a chance to see the beautiful Sacred Valley – one of our favorite scenes along the trip. Not only is the Sacred Valley visually enchanting, but its ideal as a places for couples to travel as it doubles as incredibly romantic.
The bus ride up the mountain to Machu Picchu is daunting and thrilling at the same time. Try not to freak out as you look out the nearest window displaying a free falling, tree-lined and rocky mountain face as you wind at nearly 180-degree angles up a dirt road! Oh, there are buses passing you on their way down as well, but from our experience, they are definitely professionals!
(Side note – we didn’t know it was pronounced “Macch-you PEEK-shoo” until we got there! Apparently “PEE-shoo” means, uh, male member, so just a quick FYI, haha!).
In addition to Machu Picchu, a tour to the Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo is a must. The Pisac Market is so peaceful, and the local silver jewelers will show you how they create their beautiful pieces by hand in their workshop. The cost of their pieces is unbelievably cheap compared to US pricing for silver, and there are day trips that frequent the area from Cusco regularly.
Before and after your tours, you’ll stay in the city of Cusco. It is unlike anything we’d experienced before – wild, warm, welcoming, and a lot of wandering (well fed and super friendly) dogs, which we loved! The locals in Cusco, at the base of the beautiful landscape, only require you to speak broken Spanish to get around – because most locals understand basic English – which is embarrassing to any native English speaker from the U.S.
The people are warm and accommodating, used to tourists but not at all resentful of the intrusion on their natural habitat. The tourists that frequent Peru from other destinations leave almost no footprint behind, and instead, a lot of love and appreciation.
Things of note regarding travel in Peru:
YOU CANNOT DRINK THE TAP WATER, but bottled water is inexpensive, and in certain locations can be refilled into your bottles. The environmental concerns regarding plastic waste have to be suspended for personal health reasons, but the walkability of any area and public transportation probably balances it out.
DO NOT FLUSH TOILET PAPER down any of the toilets. The reason for this rule (which is posted in all hotel rooms and public toilets) does not have to do with hygiene, it has to do with the original city planning – the sewer pipes were built too small! They are the size of a small orange in diameter as opposed to what we are used to in the States. You’ll need to place all paper waste into the trash can, which every establishment provides. It’s standard practice, just be respectful and dispose of your full trash bag if necessary!
MOST HOTELS IN CUSCO DO NOT PROVIDE DOUBLE/QUEEN BEDS, which we actually liked, to be honest! After days and days of travel in those full size beds, where we were restless and rolling over each other, we were given 2 separate, soft beds in a clean room which were absolutely perfect. I call them the “Avoid Snoring and Shuffling” travel convenience beds. Well worth it, and the room was so cozy!
Must Do In Cusco
Visit the downtown area and walk around the Plaza de Armas! There are many great restaurants and shops, as well as the impressive Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as Cusco Cathedral. This UNESCO World Heritage site was completed after almost a century of construction in 1654. Within its walls are housed myriad artifacts and relics from the area itself.
The San Pedro marketplace in Cusco is also not to be missed, open from 9am to 6pm, and less than a ten minute walk from the Plaza. It’s a bustling array of great sights, sounds and smells, where you might find local performances in the square, an area surrounded by food and juice carts as well as souvenirs. Across from the square is another large part of the market where you can get freshly prepared food from locals and spend hours wandering around! If you do buy from any one of the endless souvenir stands in the market, feel free to offer a price you feel is reasonable if their initial price is too high.
After walking around the expanse, you might get a little hungry! Try a plate of lomo saltado (stir fried beef), and a big glass of steamed milk, both delicious. The local people here are very friendly and welcoming to tourists, so try something new! We spent quite a bit of time here in this area wandering around for the day.
Quick tip #1: If you do partake in the local juice, make sure to verify that it’s been made with bottled water as the local water is not potable!
Quick tip #2: The “toilets” in the market area are built into the floors in the public areas and manned by locals who charge for toilet paper, and, there are no sinks. Bring a pack of sanitary hand wipes as well as some tissue before you head over.
Must do in Lively Lima
While much of Lima is highly congested and not ideal for tourist, staying in the Miraflores district was an absolute delight. Clean and modern, yet still containing the cultural flair that is uniquely Peru, Miraflores represents the best of Lima.
We stayed at the El Tambo II Hotel, located in central Miraflores near excellent restaurants and prime shopping markets, most of which featured locally made clothes, bags and other goods. Walking out from the El Tambo was a peaceful stroll, along the main thoroughfare in the morning and stopping for a light desayuno and coffee.
The food, no matter where we ate, was incredible. Given Lima’s location as a coastal city along the rough waters of the Pacific, fresh fish was ample. With that in mind, our first dinner stop was El Pez On, a thriving seafood restaurant that provided us with free pisco sour as we waiting for a table under the shimmering Peruvian sun. The setting was incredible, the service was even better, and the ceviche was the best we’ve ever had.
There were numerous other activities in the downtown streets, as we walked to nearby Parque Kennedy. The small park was idyllically situated along a small section of hostels and restaurants, where we had a glass of wine or two and a few appetizers. After, we walked to the benches and fed some of the cats who frequented Parque Kennedy (also known as Parque Gato!).
For calmer fair, Miraflores provided unlimited small cafes and beautiful sitting areas to simply watch the day pass. However, nighttime brings a different vibe. The streets fill with locals and tourists alike soaking in the perfect weather and delicious drinks, often making a stop at one of the local casinos for a draw or two on the slot machine. We stopped in as well, as stopped after our third “pull” paid for a few drinks and a modest meal!
Miraflores truly is a beautiful city to simply walk, as we experienced during our nighttime walking tour of the city, purchased through Viator for only $8 per person. The tour was casual and informative, and truly helped us feel like we knew the city, though the truth was that we had much to learn. If walking isn’t your interest, and perhaps you prefer a bike ride, you can also check out the Urban Bike Ride Tour that goes from Miraflores to San Isidro. It’s a beautiful ride that allows you to view a larger section of Lima, all within view of the rolling Pacific waters.
The Heights of Machu Picchu
The truly glory of Peru, however, is and will always be Machu Picchu. Arriving at the base of this beautiful time capsule was the culmination of a life-long interest we’ve both had, from our early days as a couple talking about the poem by Pablo Neruda to the time spend leering at travel articles and dreaming about the day we would finally see the ancient city.
Standing atop Machu Picchu, walking through it and touching the centuries-old structures truly sends the chill of time through your bones. The wind seemingly blows history through you, and you realize you’re truly in the presence of something grand. Machu Picchu was the ultimate culmination to a trip truly built for a crescendo, and we were provided that.
If you haven’t been to Peru, and more specifically Machu Picchu, you simply must go. The people, the food, the culture and the permeating history make it life-changing experience for any traveler looking for something transcendental.