Peru is one of the most magical and unusual countries on earth. Whether you want to trek to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, learn indigenous weaving and dying tactics, commune with nature among the llamas and alpacas, or enjoy one of the hottest cuisines on earth, Peru will entrance you.
Here’s what you need to know to plan a visit to this life-changing destination.
1) How to Get the Best Flight Deal
You can nearly always save money by booking your flights to Cusco separately. Use these tips to score a great deal on a flight to South America to get to Lima; that should save you at least $300 over booking round-trip to Cusco from the U.S. Then shopPeruvian Airlines for your ticket from Lima to Cusco. A one-way ticket will typically cost around $125, and you can use the money you’ve saved to explore the rest of the country by bus and train. Note: It is possible to travel from Lima to Cusco by bus. The buses are very comfortable, especially if you choose a top bus line like Cruz Del Sur. However, the trip takes 20+ hours because of the mountains, and it is grueling.
What To Do In Cusco
Cusco is a major tourist destination, with hundreds of hotels and hostels. Rather than taking any travel writer’s recommendations, find the one that’s perfect for you on Hostelworld or Expedia; just make sure the one you choose is close to the historic district, which is quite small and walkable. You’ll have everything you want within a few blocks — dining, shopping, museums, and tour agencies — although walking will still be a struggle, due to the altitude and steep hills. Drinking lots of water and taking things easy for the first day or two will help you adjust, but be prepared for mild headaches and getting winded easily if you’re not used to high altitudes.
Spend your first day or two shopping around the city center and checking out the plaza, cathedrals, and museums. If you have the good fortune to be in town on a Saturday, grab a balcony spot overlooking the plaza at lunchtime so you can enjoy the colorful parade of ethnic dancers and musicians while you eat.
Once you’ve recovered from the altitude, hike up to the ruins at Sacsayhuaman (yes, it sounds like “sexy woman” when you say it out loud). You don’t need a guide, just ask anyone to point you in the right direction and you wan walk up. If you’re in town longer, visit one of the tourist agencies and book another Sacred Valley adventure, like horseback riding.
Visiting Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu (properly pronounced Ma-choo Peek-choo) is the reason most people travel to Peru, and only the most jaded traveler would say it wasn’t worth the trip. The Incan ruins are half the attraction; the other half is the location itself, where you’ll feel like you’re walking in the sky.
Trekking the Inca Trail is the most famous way to reach the ruins, but if you don’t book well in advance you won’t be able to reserve a spot. Some of the lesser-known treks that are just as inspiring and far less crowded. A guide is required; Peru protects these treasured trails by keeping people in groups who must be led by a certified guide. You can book a trek through a U.S. based company like Intrepid Travel, or use a local agency in Peru. If you prefer to support locals, consider Inti Sun Trek. The company, which specializes in small group hikes, is locally owned by a man who started out as a porter on the Inca Trail. If you prefer not to make the three or four day hike, it’s also possible to take a train to Machu Picchu; any travel agency in Cusco can arrange it. Machu Picchu tickets are limited, though, so you’ll want to reserve that as early as possible.
Hiking in Pisac
Pisac is the best place to escape the Cusco crowds and enjoy a bit of hiking on your own.. The market was once famous for offering genuine Incan relics that were uncovered in the ruins that sit above the village, but those are long gone. The market is still a bustling place, perfect for people-watching or souvenir-shopping, but the items for sale are the same ones you’ll find everywhere else in the country, for the most part.
The real reason to visit Pisac is the hiking. There are Incan ruins all over the mountains above Pisac, and they are connected by footpaths. Bus tours of Peru stop here, and the tourists walk to the first couple of sites, but if you’re interested in hiking on your own you’ll have the rest of them nearly to yourself. Any taxi or tuk tuk driver in Pisac can take you to the trailhead and pick you up at the end point. The trail itself is very easy to follow, well-marked and even developed with stairs in spots. The Blue Llama hostel is the most popular in town, or consider splurging a bit on the lovely Casa Del Conde just outside the town. Note: Getting to Casa Del Conde requires walking out of town on your own; taxis can’t get there.
Puno and Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is widely considered a must-see area in Peru, although it’s quite a distance from Cusco. The train is a popular way to make the trip, but insiders prefer to the bus. The Inka Express takes about 7 hours. The trip is broken into segments, with several stops to stretch your legs along the way. You’ll see Incan mummies, the ruins of a luxe Incan suburb, an intricately decorated cathedral, and more; you’ll even have a buffet lunch with live music and a dance show. The $70 ticket includes your lunch and admission to all the museums and sites on the way. You can book through Go2Peru.
The bus will take you to Puno, and from there it’s very easy to book a boat ride out onto the lake to see the floating villages. Locals build everything, including the islands themselves, out of reeds. The colorful village people will give you a demonstration, let you try on their clothes, show you the inside of their homes, and offer you souvenirs and lunch.
(If you plan to visit Bolivia as well as Peru, Puno is the logical place to cross the border.)
If you want to return to Cusco, the train is a good way to get back, but most people head back to Lima from here, or stop in Arequipa.
Arequipa and Colca Canyon
Arequipa is a sweet little city that sits like a mirage in a sea of volcanos and deserts. For the most part, Arequipa is a residential settlement; the main reason tourists come here is to visit Colca Canyon. Colca is a chasm in the earth, deeper than the Grand Canyon and with an otherworldly feel. Book a bus tour to Colca through agencies in Arequipa and you’ll learn a lot about life in this region, which is very different from the Cusco area. You’ll also learn the difference between llamas and alpacas, and catch a glimpse of their elusive wild ancestor, the vicuna.
Back in Lima
Eventually, all roads in Peru lead back to Lima (although from Arequipa it’s easier to fly back on Peruvian Airlines). Lima is an oceanside foodie paradise where you can stuff yourself on the signature ceviche and other seafood delights. The Milaflores area is the most popular with tourists, and is loaded with restaurants. You might also take a surfing lesson in Lima, or shop local artisan galleries for last-minute souvenirs before you return home.