In May 2019, my two friends and I traveled to Peru for two weeks. Our route for our time there began in Lima and moved in a U-shape to Cusco, stopping at locations including Paracas, Huacachina, Arequipa, Colca Canyon and, of course, Machu Picchu along the way. This post will go over our experiences in each of these locations in southern Peru, along with some basic facts everybody travelling to Peru should know.
Upon arriving in Lima, we were bombarded with taxi drivers outside of the airport waiting to take us anywhere we want. We chose to use the taxi service, as our Airbnb was very close to the airport. However, when riding to further locations within the city, we opted to use Ubers, as they were much cheaper. Uber is available in the major cities of Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco.
When travelling from each major location, we used a company called Peru Hop, which we found to be quite valuable. Peru Hop offered many different routes to accommodate the needs of many travelers. Below is the route that we used for our two week trip:
Each of the locations that Peru Hop picks up and drops off have multiple "stops" where the bus will deliver passengers. You must register your name for a specified date/time and location for pick up, which is somewhat limited in options (we met a few people who preferred to take public transport in order to travel overnight and limit their hours lost to bus travel). They offer other accommodations such as discounts on a variety of hostels and places to eat, and will book excursions for you at a discounted rate. We booked an dune-buggy/sandboarding trip and a two day trip to Colca Canyon through Peru Hop. Upon reaching Cusco, we took a plane from Cusco (Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport) over the Andes, back to Lima, where we stayed the night and left for home the next morning.*
Our trip begins in Lima where we landed in Jorge Chávez International Airport. The Airbnb that we stayed in was located in the Callao District near the airport. However, we quickly learned that where we wanted to be was in Miraflores.
Miraflores is a much more lively district with more restaurants, night life, and casinos. There is an outdoor shopping center on the coast of Miraflores, called Larcomar, that over looks the cliffs of Lima, and offers plenty of delicious Peruvian food options. Casinos were also abundant and we spent most of our casino time in the Atlantic City Casino (as it made us feel back home in New Jersey) but it also seemed to be the largest and offer the most table games.
Along with the livelihood of Miraflores, there is a bit of history to the district as well. The ruins of Huaca Pucllana have been preserved right in the middle of the district. One can tour these ruins with a tour guide (both English and Spanish speaking guides) for 10 soles (about $3). This was the first bit of Peruvian culture we got on our two week trip and the tour guide enhanced the entire experience with both humor and knowledge. We spent two full days in Lima and left for Paracas in the early morning of the next day.
Paracas was not originally a planned location for us, but it was an included stop in or bus plan, so we had to stop with the bus. This is an optional stop that I feel you should be informed of if you have the extra time. The bus was stopping for about two hours and we were given three options: Take a boat tour of the Ballestas Islands, tour the Paracas National Reserve, or do neither and wait.
Both tour options were reasonably priced (about 30 soles, or $10) and we decided to do the boat tour of the islands. I recommend the boat tour for those who enjoy animals and geology. The rock formations were stunning and the tour as a whole was well worth it. The Paracas National Reserve tour is for those who would rather not be on a boat but still see beautiful landscapes where the desert meets the ocean. If you choose to do both and have the time, you should consider staying for the day and leaving for Huacachina the next morning.
After our tour in Paracas we continued on to Huacachina. This desert oasis felt like another planet, with massive sand dunes surrounding you on all sides, and a lagoon and palm trees right in the middle. I quickly learned that there is much to take advantage of when completely surrounded by sand. We booked a dune-buggy and sand boarding trip for very cheap that drove us around the dunes until sunset for a beautiful view. Most tours had the "sandboarding" be done on your stomach, but snowboard like sandboards, where your feet are strapped in and you stand, are available for rent. We also enjoyed hiking the massive dunes that surrounded the oasis to get a good view of it at sunset. The view from the highest point of the dune was other-worldly and made me feel as if I were on a different planet.
We stayed at the Wild Rover Hostel, suitable for younger backpackers who plan to party and drink the night away. Payment is through a tab system and you pay the whole bill of your stay at checkout. Music blares until 2am, making sleep nearly impossible until that time. Two people who stayed in my room actually ended up leaving and going to another hostel in the middle of the night. If this is not your scene, there are many quieter sleeping options in the oasis.
Make sure to have a reasonable amount of cash on hand when arriving in Huacachina, as there are no ATM's in the oasis and the closest one is a taxi's drive away in Ica.
It was about an 11 hour bus ride from Huacachina to Arequipa. Places to stay in Arequipa were abundant and we were easily able to get a room without any planning ahead. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru at only one-tenth the size of Lima, and is surrounded by three volcanoes which add to the city's beauty. This city has much to offer including the city's Plaza de Armas, which consists of many restaurants, stores, and casinos.
Arequipa acts as a launching point for those who wish to explore the Colca Canyon, which we highly recommend. Many people travelling to Peru have their minds set on the popular Machu Picchu and don't make time for Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is approximately 3,400 meters deep, which classifies it as the world's second deepest canyon, and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. There are many trekking opportunities in the canyon, but we opted to do a two-day driving tour which cost about $30. We were able to choose from a variety of treks and drives in Colca Canyon from Peru Hop's connections, but it is possible to book them on different websites.
On the way to the canyon from Arequipa, we stopped at many locations for pictures and stayed in the beautiful town of Chivay. We ate an incredible all-you-can-eat dinner that included the more cultural selections of food, including: alpaca, cuy (guinea pig), rice and beans, guacamole, etc. We arrived at Colca Canyon the next day and it was unreal. The canyon rose high in front of you and so far down that you can't see the bottom. The beautiful bird, the condor, flies through the valley of the canyon daily. The canyon spans for miles so there are numerous pull-offs, all with drastically different views that allow for really great picture taking. Don't forget to include a trip here to your itinerary if you are planning on visiting Arequipa.
Cusco is the launching point for those looking to go to Machu Picchu. We rented an Airbnb located close to Cusco's Plaza de Armas which had a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. The Plaza de Armas was my favorite spot in Cusco, as it gave off a very cultural vibe, and there was plenty to do in the area. We only spent about one day exploring Cusco until we left for Aguas Calientes at night.
Machu Picchu is located in the mountains outside the city of Aguas Calientes. The only way to get to Aguas Calientes is by train, either from the Poroy station in Cusco or the train station in Ollantaytambo. We chose to leave from Ollantaytambo as to spend less time on the train. The drive to Ollantaytambo is about an hour and a half to two hours, and buses and taxis there are abundant in Cusco. We got a mini bus ride to the station for only 10 soles, or about $3.
Make sure to book your train tickets a few days to weeks in advance or you might have trouble getting seats in the busy season. However, we waited until the day we had to leave, and bought tickets directly from a Peru Rail store, in person. The downfall to waiting to purchase our tickets was that our only option was to take a night train, which means we wouldn't be able to see the views of the landscape on our way to Aguas Calientes. Be aware that the train tickets to Aguas Calientes are fairly expensive. We got our round trip tickets at about $140 each. The prices are high because it's the only way to Aguas Calientes so people have no choice but to pay it.
The train ride to Aguas Calientes is very beautiful and certain Peru Rails have windows on the ceiling to make it easier to take in the views. This is why we recommend purchasing your train ticket for the day time, and spending the day and night in Aguas Calientes to prepare for the big day in the morning!
Once in Aguas Calientes, you can purchase your shuttle ticket to Machu Picchu for the next morning (you can still purchase them that morning but will have to wait in a long line). The line for the shuttles in the morning is extremely long, but there are more than enough shuttles to accommodate everybody. Keep in mind, the later you get up there, the more crowded it will be. Shuttles will drive up the winding road of the mountain to Machu Picchu and drop you off at the main entrance. You will be required to present your valid passport and entrance ticket upon entering. Guides will be abundant outside of the entrance and you can't get one once you enter, so we highly recommend hiring a guide before you go in. It will tremendously enhance your Machu Picchu Experience. On the other hand, if you choose to hike one of the two mountains that sandwich the ruins, you will hike the mountains first, and be allowed to exit the ruins once to come hire a guide, and then reenter.
Each peak that overlooks the Machu Picchu ruins allow a limited number of hikers on it per day. Huyana Picchu, the more popular hike, allows only 200 people to hike it per day and Machu Picchu Mountain allows for 400 hikers per day. Tickets to hike the mountains should be purchased months in advance, especially if you plan on visiting during the busy season, as tickets are limited. Each hike consists of walking very steep, mostly stone stairs to the peak of each mountain. Both peaks overlook the gorgeous views of the ruins and the surrounding mountains. There is no greater feeling than finally reaching the top of one of these mountains and being rewarded with the view. You can only spend a limited time at the peaks of the mountains until you will be escorted down, to make room for the newcomers. Once you've made it back down to the ruins, you can exit the area to find your guide for the day.
We highly recommend hiring a guide to lead you through the ruins. We entered first without a guide in order to hike Machu Picchu mountain. When we got back to the bottom, we debated hiring a guide to save money. However, we decided that we should and it proved to be incredibly essential to the experience. Without a guide, we were just looking at piles of stones in the formation of houses. With a guide, we understood what each structure was used for and developed a greater appreciation for the intricate architecture. We also learned many facts about how the ruins were discovered, the people who lived there, how they grew their food, etc. A guide cost about 40 soles (~$13) and lead you on about a 2.5 hour tour.
If you booked a round trip ticket to/from Lima, you will need to fly back to Lima from Cusco. Flights to Lima are fairly cheap, and can be found for as little at $40, but average is around $60. Like I mentioned before, Miraflores is the place to be, so look for Airbnb's or hostels there.
Puno is another popular destination that can be included in this route. We did not stop at this location as it was not in our original plan. However, we learned that if you really want to, a day stop to Puno could be added to this itinerary if you time it right. Puno is a town located next to the massive Lake Titicaca. Here you can discover the Uros floating islands, where people live on floating platforms on the lake. If you are interested in this, there can be enough time for a day trip here.*
The Nazca lines are another popular spot that you will most likely pass on your way from Huacachina to Arequipa. The Nazca lines are massive geogylphs formed in the soil by the Nazca culture about 2,000 years ago. The best way to view these lines is by plane, but the fly over can be fairly expensive, somewhere around $100. However, if travelling by bus, certain companies will pull over at the Nazca lookout tower, where passengers can get out, climb the tower, and view a few of the line from a bit higher up. The view from the lookout was not very fulfilling, but still very neat. If you are extra interested in these lines and would love to get a great view of all of them, I would highly recommend a fly over excursion.
Round Trip Flight (1 layover): $400
Excursions/Tourist Attractions (Dune-buggy, Machu Picchu, Colca Tour, etc.): $150
Housing: about $15/20 per night (per person)
Transportation (Peru Hop, Train, Flight, etc.): $450
Food: about $15/20 per day
Other spending (Bars, Tipping, etc.): about $350
Total Trip Cost: about $1,800
$1 USD is equal to about 3.3 PEN (commonly referred to as Soles)
A Visa is NOT required if you only plan to stay 2 weeks (183 days/year maximum)
“Arequipa Travel.” Lonely Planet, 31 July 2019, www.lonelyplanet.com/peru/arequipa-and-canyon-country/arequipa.
“Bus Passes.” Peru Hop, www.peruhop.com/passes/.
“CULTURAL UROS (2 DAYS - 1 NIGHT).” All Ways Travel Titicaca Peru. A Reliable and Socially Responsible Local Tour Operator, titicacaperu.com/tours/cultural-uros-2-1/
Editors, HappyTrips. “Plaza De Armas, Cusco.” Times of India Travel, 7 Apr. 2017.
“Nazca Lines.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 4 Dec. 2017, www.history.com/topics/south-america/nazca-lines.
Sainsbury, Brendan. “Travel - Exploring Peru's Epic Colca Canyon.” BBC, BBC, 15 Oct. 2012, www.bbc.com/travel/story/20121012-exploring-perus-epic-colca-canyon.
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