We recently took a trip to the Cusco region and Machu Picchu in Peru. The trip was our first in South America, and it was fantastic. I’ll share some of our experiences, photos, and tips over the coming posts, but for now here are a few highlights and overall trip tips.
- Exploring Machu Picchu ruins
- Hiking from the ruins near Pisac back to Pisac
- Hiking from the Tambomachay ruins back to Cusco via the Pukapukara ruins and the Saqsayhuamán ruins
- Hiking the ruins by Ollantaytambo (these would likely have come before the ruins north of Cusco on my list had we done them earlier in the trip as we did with those)
- Adobo de costillar de chancho (pork stewed with Peruvian corn beer, onions, and spices) at Pachapapa in Cusco
- Anticucho de alpaca (grilled alpaca skewers) at Pachapapa in Cusco
- Aji de gallina (shredded chicken stewed in an Andean sauce that typically includes chili peppers and local spices) at Puka Rumi in Ollantaytambo
- Pisco sour at A Mi Manera in Cusco
- Cacao tea at the ChocoMuseo in Cusco
- Choclo con queso (boiled corn served with a slice of salty Andean cheese) street food (we tried ours near the train station in Ollantaytambo)
- Empanadas everywhere
- Quoricancha (aka Santo Domingo)
- Palacio Arzobispal
Tips for your visit:
Planning your trip:
- Where to Start: Start your trip with a few days in Cusco to acclimate to high altitudes before visiting Machu Picchu. Cusco is 3228 ft higher in altitude than Machu Picchu, so having acclimated to an even higher altitude will make hiking around Machu Picchu feel a bit less strenuous (although it will still feel more strenuous than equivalent hikes back at home). If you start your trip in Cusco and you’re coming from sea level or another lower altitude, be cautious of altitude sickness.
- Itinerary: Consider planning your trip so that you see incrementally more impressive sights over the course of the trip, but also consider balancing that with planning high-priority activities like Machu Picchu early enough in the trip to have scheduling flexibility if weather changes your plans (we learned this the hard way with our Kauai trip). Here’s the order in which we visited sights and ruins, which worked well for us:
- Arrive + Cusco rest day
- Explore Cusco (and take it easy while acclimating to altitude)
- Day trip to explore the ruins north of Cusco
- Day trip to Pisac to explore ruins
- Travel to Ollantaytambo + rest day + check out train station in preparation for Machu Picchu trip
- Travel to Machu Picchu Pueblo + explore Machu Picchu
- Travel back to Ollantaytambo + rest day
- Explore Ollantaytambo ruins
- Travel back to Cusco + continue to explore Cusco
- Continue to explore Cusco
- Return home
- Entrance Fees: Buy the Cusco Tourist Ticket in Cusco if you plan to visit ruins north of Cusco and ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo (this isn’t exactly intuitive since these ruins are near other cities). You’ll have 10 days to use it for the included sights. Also, if you’re a student, you can only get the student price if you have an ISIC card (which probably isn’t worth getting just for this since most other attractions accept your school’s student ID for the student price).
- Rainy Season vs Dry Season: Peru’s summer is the rainy season and their winter is the dry season. If you visit during dry season, you have better odds of having nice weather for your entire trip, but it’s also a bit colder, prices are higher, and sights are more crowded. Our rainy season visit was great, although we were also pretty lucky that our biggest hiking days weren’t rainy. The temperatures ranged roughly from 40 to 80 degrees during our trip.
- Rainy Season Tips:
- Plan to do most of your hiking/outdoor activities in the morning and museums/indoor activities in the afternoon, as rain often sets in by the afternoon.
- Pack a good rain jacket, quick-dry clothes, waterproof shoes, dry bags to protect cameras/passports/etc. inside your backpack/purse in case you’re caught in a downpour (we were caught in a couple), and a water-resistant or quick-dry bag so that you’re not carrying a waterlogged bag around after it rains. We were very grateful to have all of these, as we were caught out in heavy rains a few times and light rain several times.
- Like I mentioned earlier, plan flexibility into your schedule and budget so that if rain spoils your plans for a hike (or worse yet, for Machu Picchu), you can shift it to another day. You might have to spend extra money to buy Machu Picchu tickets for a second day, or extra effort changing train reservations, but it’s worth it when you consider the likelihood that you’ll be back anytime soon.
- Sun: When you’re at such high altitudes in the Andean mountains, you’ll be more prone to sunburns, dry skin, and chapped or sunburned lips thanks to the altitude. Pack sunblock, lip balm with SPF, Aquaphor for chapped lips, and a strong skin cream like Cetaphil.
Reference books, devices, and Wifi
- Multitask with Your Devices: We eliminated some weight in our luggage by not carrying language dictionaries or guide books, and in the process we were also a little more discreet when looking things up or looking at maps since we could just use our phones.
- Spanish/English Dictionary: We found an awesome free offline iPhone app called Spanish English Dictionary Box. We used it the entire trip. It was much easier and faster to use than flipping through a book, and provided all of the information that a typical printed dictionary would include (like an example sentence or differing words for differing use cases).
- Guide eBook: We decided to try this out since we had some iTunes credit, so we used the Rough Guides Peru eBook on iBooks. I wondered at first if it would be more cumbersome since I’m used to quickly flipping back and forth in guide books, but we really liked it! In addition to the multitasking advantages previously mentioned, the advantages of this format were the ease of skipping around (search function, hyperlinks to related info, mad back/forward links), the ability to view it on multiple devices (iPad on the plane, and smaller iPhone when visiting the sights), and the ability to take screenshots on your phone of things you want to repeatedly reference quickly such as maps. Also, while we didn’t realize it at the time, it looks like you can share a book in iBooks across up to five iTunes accounts, so we also could have shared the book during the trip.
- Wifi: Expect wifi access to be spotty almost everywhere you go, including hostels, hotels, and international chains like Starbucks.
- Cost vs Time Savings: We tried both colectivos and taxis, and taxis are worth the expense. Your time is valuable while traveling, so while taking a colectivo or bus might save money, you’re likely to lose a lot of time on those options while walking to/from their pick-up/drop-off points (which aren’t near the tourist center in Cusco) and waiting for them to gather enough passengers before taking off (which in our experience can take half an hour).
- Colectivos: If you do opt to use a colectivo, try to find a tourist-oriented one. You’re likely to have a bit more personal space, as they have a higher ceiling and individual seats for each passenger, as opposed to the local minivan colectivos with bench-style seats (and seatbelts) for 11 passengers.
- Taxis: If you take taxis, ask the person at the front desk of your hotel/hostel what a fair price for your route is, then go to the nearest plaza and look for a taxi (they usually have a stripe along their side that alternates between red and white). Expect to have to bargain down to the fair price, and don’t be afraid to walk away. This is usually when they’ll come down on the price, and if not, you’ll likely find another taxi within the block.
- Timing: Both locals and tourists tend to eat dinner later here. On this trip, we tended to be hungry for dinner by 6 or 6:30pm, and we were often the only people in the restaurant when we sat down, and about 50% of the time we were still the only people in the restaurant when we left. If you prefer a later dinner and plan to visit one of the more well-known restaurants in Cusco’s tourist center, consider making a reservation earlier that day.
- Service: Restaurant service is typically slow and hands-off. Expect that you won’t eat for an hour after you’re seated, so go before you’re hungry or carry crackers in case you need something to hold you over until food arrives. For that matter, the crackers are also helpful to have on hand in case you get altitude/dehydration headaches and need some food to take with Advil.
- Tipping: We read that tipping isn’t expected, but if you feel the service was good then a 10% tip is appropriate. We found this was generally the case, but that restaurants in tourist centers tend to expect it more, and that law 25988 in Peru permits restaurants to include up to a 13% tip in the bill.
- Unsolicited Food: Contrary to our prior experiences in Europe, when unsolicited food (usually bread or roasted corn) was brought to the table before the meal, no extra fee was added to the meal for it. It doesn’t hurt to confirm, though.
- Paying: Since service tends to be hands-off, expect to ask for the check (la cuenta) when you’re ready to leave, much like in Europe. And likewise, plan to leave soon after paying.
Most won’t have toilet seats, toilet paper, or hand soap, so be prepared to squat and bring travel packs of Kleenex and hand sanitizer. The restrooms in the airports might have one communal roll outside of the stalls to get paper from before you go in, and every hotel/hostel you stay in is likely to have the same baby-powder-scented toilet paper. Also, you’ll likely see signs requesting that you throw toilet paper in a waste basket instead of in the toilet:
I have some doubts about whether anyone does this since the waste baskets were usually empty and it seems like doing this would make restrooms smell. Maybe they empty their restroom trash cans extra frequently. There are some interesting commentaries on it here and here.
Ironically, within a couple of months of returning to Austin I saw a reversal of this sign in a restroom at Buc-cee’s (so maybe people do follow this practice):