2 weeks in Peru dream trip – Part Two

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In Part Two of our 2 weeks in Peru dream trip (check part one here), we share with you our itinerary in Puno & Lake Titicaca, Cusco & Machu Picchu and back to Lima.

Itinerary (8 Days)

Day 8 & 9 – Puno & Lake Titicaca

Coming from Arequipa and arriving in Puno, located on the shore of Lake Titicaca, you start to see a difference in landscape between Arequipa and Colca Valley. Volcanoes are no longer part of the scene, but the crystalline colours of Lake Titicaca’s water down below start to emerge. It’s quite something to experience first-hand.

In this part of Peru, the predominant native groups are the ones that speak Quechua and Aymara, some of these indigenous groups precede the Incas. Peru is very culturally diverse and depending on where you are you can see this diversity with your own eyes.

How to reach Puno?

A good way to reach Puno from Arequipa is by bus, modern and comfortable to go on. The drive to Puno was quite scenic, passing the high peaks of the Andes and we stopped in a few spots to take pictures and saw the vibrant flamingos at Laguna Lagunillas, located at an altitude of about 4250m. We arrived in Puno at night with a cold breeze on our backs.

What to see in Puno?

Puno is small, with few museums, one main square, and several churches. The city is considered the folkloric capital of Peru because of its many artistic and cultural treasures. Whilst there, we mostly wandered around exploring its streets, checking the many clothes shops, and marveling at the crafty local women that made these elaborate alpaca wool sweaters. There are so many different colours that you can spend 10-20min just in one booth looking at this diversity.

Head down to the clothing market/Bazar by the port and you will find plenty where to choose from. You can buy them for yourself or as souvenirs. People were incredibly nice and if you speak a bit of Spanish, it will help to chitchat a bit with them. We really enjoyed all these small moments we spent there because we realized at this point that every city, town in Peru has something different to offer.

To get a panoramic view of the city and the lake, climb up to the Cerrito de Huajsapata. It is a bit of a steep climb but is worth it. There, you will find a statue of Manco Cápac, an important figure in the Inca Empire.

Where to eat in Puno?

We had a very tasty meal at La Casa del Corregidor. This restaurant/tavern stands out as a bright colourful corner in Puno. The ambiance is chilled, super well decorated, and offers delicious food at a good price. One delicious starter we tried, which is typical of the region was called “Tequeños” with cheese and guacamole. Super yummy!

Lake Titicaca & Floating/Uros islands

Located between 3000m – 4000m above sea level, Lake Titicaca acts as a natural border between Peru and Bolivia (a distance of 220 km) and is the largest freshwater lake in South America (8300 square km). Considered the “highest navigable lake” in the world, the lake attracts tourists and adventurers from all over the world that even cross it with a kayak (if you read French, check out the book “Déserts D’Altitude”, from the Swiss author Sarah Marquis). 

The lake has 70 floating islands built by the Uru people, who learned how to build them to flee the Incas, centuries ago. Made out of totora reeds, a type of plant that grows in the lake itself, the islands are still inhabited by descendants of the people that created these floating islands. You can visit and sleep there for a few days if you wish and stay with locals.

There are different tours and homestays you can choose from. We didn’t have time so we decided to do only a half-day boat tour that took us to a small island where we learned about these ingenious people and how they managed to build these islands. It was worth spending the day there and if we could, we would’ve spent more time exploring this area. The vastness of the lake is quite impressive, is something we hadn’t seen before and it did feel like we were in a very remote area, surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Andes of more than 6400m. 

Day 9 – Cusco

From Puno to Cusco, we took another bus that took us roughly 6.30h. We were ready for the last highlight of our trip, the sacred city of Machu Picchu. You cannot visit Machu Picchu without a tour, as the Peruvian government is regulating the site. You can buy the tickets online or when in Peru. We booked our trip with Eco Packers and stayed at their hostels in Cusco and Aguas Calientes. They organized everything, from transportation between Cusco and Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu tour itself.

Our first impression of the city was yet again another drastic change in people, landscape, and architecture. The city has a steep hillside that offers great views from the top. We would later regret staying at a hostel up the hill, but the views were worth it! Cusco is surrounded by the Andes that always make you want to look up, and the city doesn’t have any water bodies close to the center. Similar to the other cities we visited, the Spanish influence is obvious in Cusco’s architecture and configuration, but here the Inca presence is stronger and more visible.

During our first day though, as we arrived early afternoon, we were somewhat tired and dizzy from the altitude. We mostly went around getting first impressions of the city and had some lunch at a local bar. Sitting at the top balcony and sipping through delicious Pisco Sour cocktails while people watching. We were getting ready to leave early the next day to go to Águas Calientes. This was the closest town to Machu Picchu, where we would stay for one night. Our plan was to come back to Cusco after and stay there one or two more nights to explore the city properly.

Day 10 – Cusco to Águas Calientes

The trip to Machu is itself a tourist experience. We left Cusco towards Ollantaytambo (a village located in the Sacred Valley) in a van, and from there took a train to Águas Calientes. The van ride was quite smooth and again the landscape started changing from the dry Cusco to luscious green mountain peaks that slowly start to appear on the horizon. Our cameras were on all the time, we just wanted to capture the gorgeous landscape that we saw in our passing, even though it’s impossible as it doesn’t do justice to the real colours and shapes.

The van dropped us at the train station in Ollantaytambo, and from there we would take a train to Aguas Calientes. There were two options: to take the more expensive train called Vistadome or the less expensive Expedition train (check further below for ticket prices). There’s not much difference between the two, as both have comfortable seats and panoramic windows to enjoy the scenic views. The train ride goes along the Urubamba River and in between mountains inside the Sacred Valley. We had snacks and some coffee or tea. It was a very pleasant and comfortable journey.

Arriving in Águas Calientes

Águas Calientes is a small and isolated town between big mountainous landscapes, and it rains a lot there. No cars are allowed inside, only buses that take you to the base of Machu Picchu. Surrounding the train tracks that divide the town in the middle, there are small buildings, stores, restaurants, hotels, hostels, and the Vilcanota River that goes through it. There’s a big Bazar/market type place, where you can find colourful handicrafts (hats, alpaca wool hats, sweaters, etc.). The town was founded as a way to access Machu Picchu, being 5km or 1.5h walking distance from the sacred city.

Where to eat?

There’s plenty of choices for a town of that size, but we recommend eating at the Mapacho Craft Beer & Peruvian Cuisine. The best Risotto/Quinotto we ever tried, mouth-watering really! It is a Risotto essentially but made with quinoa that the locals called “Quinotto”, including zucchini and other delicious local ingredients.

Day 11 – The city of Machu Picchu & La Montaña

We woke up at 4.30am the next day to catch the bus and meet our guide at the base of M. Picchu. 

It was raining heavily and we stood in the queue of people waiting to get in the bus (12$ for a 30 -40mins ride) heading up the hill to reach M. Picchu. We were unlucky as that day it rained most of the time. This made it hard to have a clear view of M. Picchu, when inside. One thing to keep in mind though, here the weather is ever-changing due to the area’s microclimate, so you never know what you can get in one day and we did have small windows of clear sky to take great shots.

We were super excited and anxious to get up and start exploring. Machu Picchu is an incredible feat of human creation and it evokes a mystical feeling. As dark began to become light and the sun rose, it was a dream come true for both when we entered the city. We were in awe of what we saw, of how well preserved the stone buildings/remainings were. To think that people would’ve carried the stones to build this city by foot all the way up a mountain like that, without any machine or vehicle is a feat in itself. Quite incredible!

Where is Machu Picchu?

Nestled between tropical mountain forests in the Peruvian Andes, Machu Picchu’s stones, walls, ramps, stairways blend in into its natural setting. The historical site is believed to have been a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. The city is an example of the Inca’s engineering ingenuity reflected in its architecture, agriculture, and sophisticated irrigation systems.  

Located in an earthquake-prone area, M. Picchu suffered two earthquakes while it was being built. This was something mentioned throughout our time in Cusco. Incas were known to build structures that were earthquake resilient, and that is how they have been able to last for so long until now.

Unfortunately, M. Picchu is slowly deteriorating as more tourists come to the city, and as our guide told us the attraction would probably close in a few years because of this growing pressure. Adding to this, a UNESCO world heritage site like Machu Picchu can’t be restored only maintained, and it should be left as close as possible to its original state. 

How to reach Machu Picchu and what ticket to buy?

There are several ways to reach Machu Picchu. One can hike there, camping along the way via different paths (some famous paths are the Inka trail and Salkantay Trail), in an organized group, or alone (both ways are possible and viable). We chose to go on an organized tour: leaving from Cusco on day 1 and arriving in Águas Calientes, and on day 2 to explore M. Picchu itself and return the same day to Cusco.

Two different trains can take you to M. Picchu and one more expensive than the other: Vistadome and Expedition. We chose the cheaper one Expedition and paid 60USD.  There are also 4 types of tickets you can get to visit Machu Picchu. All include the entrance to the ancient Inca city, but some also offer access to surrounding mountains and interesting museums. The price varies accordingly, and you have to book in advance as they sell out very quickly. Especially the ones that include the additional places.

When to visit Machu Picchu? 

Although we decided to go during the shoulder seasons to avoid the crowds, it still was very full. During our research for the trip, we read that visiting M. Picchu in the afternoon is better because there are fewer people. However, because we bought the ticket M.Picchu + Montaña – which we could only access between 7-11 am – it was best to go in the morning to have enough time to visit everything. Located at 3050 meters above sea level, La Montaña offers panoramic views of the surrounding scenery and of M. Picchu itself. In hindsight, we think it was worth it, even though it was a bit of a climb.

We had a 2-hour tour inside the city, where we got a bit of the history around this sacred location. We were allowed to stay in M. Picchu until 17h when the area was closing, so we didn’t want to linger for too long. 

Trekking La Montaña

Machu Picchu Mountain of La Montaña is where Inca priests used to perform rituals on special dates and public worship ceremonies. On the way up you ascend to the top – 3082m. The trail followed a gradual ascent of diverse stone steps built by the Incas and plain grass/dirt areas to walk on. Throughout it, there were several resting areas/viewpoints, where we could rest and take pictures. Because of ever-changing weather conditions, there’s a limited window during which you can visit it (between 7-11 am). The total hike takes about 2h and to reach there from the entrance of M. Picchu is a 30min walk.

As it was raining the day we went, the path was quite slippery so it took us longer to get up there. Although we should have had panoramic views along the way, most of the time clouds were covering and we couldn’t see anything. Sometimes we had a few glimpses of the surrounding mountains and the river down below, which made you realize how high you were, it was quite something.

As the trail got closer to the summit, the trail became steeper, narrower, and more challenging. By the time we arrived there (after roughly 1h) we only had 30min to enjoy the view, as the guard told us we had to go down asap, because of the bad weather. We were a bit sad that we had to rush it but still took advantage of every second up there.

Inca Bridge

The Inca Bridge is another attraction to check while in M. Picchu. It’s an easy walk of about 30-40min from the entrance. This was used to protect the western entrance to M. Picchu. It was built in a way that in case of an emergency, it could be easily removed and stop a possible invasion. This bridge is built on a stone base with two big carved rocks and a wood table connecting them. 

Our guide told us that the bridge was fenced off recently, because of some drunken tourists that attempted to cross it.

One still wonders how they would cross it back in the day, as the sheer drop down the mountainside is quite scary.

What to consider while in Machu Picchu?

Overall, an important point about visiting M. Picchu is that you should respect the rules and not wander around everywhere. Ropes highlight the walking areas and there are clearly marked paths to follow. From our experience, we had plenty of time to visit everything without feeling stressed. We went early in the morning and finished early afternoon. It was more than enough to enjoy, wander around and take pictures.

On our way back to Águas Calientes, we decided to walk down instead of taking the bus. Our knees were screaming when going down steps and more steps, never-ending steps… Other than that, it was really a great experience and we would go back to see the other attractions that we didn’t have the time for. 

Day 12 & 13 – Cusco

Located at 3400m above sea level, Cusco is actually lower than M. Picchu (2430m). The city was the center of the Incan Empire, and you can find several Incan vestiges and archaeological sites. The city is quite charming, with dark-coloured cobblestone streets mixed with colonial architecture and Inca structures. There’s a lot of steps, especially if you go higher up in certain areas of the city. We enjoyed our time there very much and found it to be quite different from the other cities in Peru we visited.

What to do in Cusco?

Depends on the time you spend in Cusco. When we returned from Machu Picchu, we joined a 3h Free walking tour, which gave us some more info about the importance of the Inca Empire and the Spanish takeover, as well as current topics about the local economy, social and cultural lifestyle. We learned how current Christian churches built by the Spanish, were built on top of Incan infrastructures because they were better suited to withstand the occasional earthquakes.

Along the way, they took us to areas where you had great panoramic views of the city and to places where you could buy souvenirs and support local tourism.

What to do in Cusco?

Cusco is also a base for several day trips you can do in surrounding areas. Originally, we planned to visit the Rainbow Mountain (5200m) but because of a snowstorm, we didn’t go. There’s also plenty of other archaeological sites and natural beauties that you can check and go on day tours from local travel agencies or from hostels like Eco packers.

We really enjoyed our time there! It was very relaxing, we saw some school parade and dance in the main square and had amazing food.

Where to stay?

We stayed at the Ecopackers and at the Supertramp hostels. The latter one is located higher up in the city and the view from the top was quite something. Overall, we wouldn’t recommend it though as we thought the price we paid for what we got was too high. You can find other options that offer better price/quality.

Where to eat?

The best place we ate was at Cicciolina Tapas and Wine bar. It was so enjoyable, it had great ambiance, friendly prices and the food was superb. If you are vegetarian, you should also try another place we found called Organika – it has delicious soups and a very nice chocolate fondant.

Day 14 & 15 – Back to Lima

We flew the next day back to Lima and had a quick shower in the hostel Kokopelli. We decided to stay in the same place because we already knew the area and liked it. Already in Cusco, we started getting some stomach issues, so we weren’t feeling very well. This feeling lasted until the end of our trip, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying it.

Day 16 – Lima/Panama City/Toronto/Dublin

Sometimes things happen when traveling it just comes with the experience. The day we left to take our flight back to Panama City and slowly make our way back to Dublin, we were unlucky with the taxi driver.  After we arrived at the airport and tried to exchange back the change he gave us from Soles (Peruvian currency) to Euros, they told us the money (Soles) was fake.  There was no way we could’ve known. 

We flew with Copa Airlines from Lima to Panama City, our first layover, which was relaxed. After 3h waiting in Panama City, we flew with low-cost Air Canada to Toronto and that was a long, tiring experience. We spent 5h in an overly hot plane that felt like it had no air circulation. The only good thing was that we were sitting in a row of 3 empty seats, so we could stretch ourselves and try to sleep. 

How to reach Peru from Europe and how to travel inside Peru?

We flew with Air Canada from Dublin-Toronto-Lima and Lima-Panama City (Air Canada low cost)-Toronto-Dublin. We flew with Copa Airlines between Lima and Panama City and with Viva Air between Cusco and Lima.  It took us 12h one way and the return flight almost 24h. Overall, we would give a low rate to Air Canada Low cost. This 5h flight didn’t include any food or amenities and the seats weren’t very comfortable. Avoid traveling with them if you can.

To travel inside Peru we used buses most of the time. They are both the cheapest and most comfortable means of transportation. We found a good bus company called Cruz del Sur, which offered wide seats (declinable seats almost like beds) with a lot of space and a small TV to watch movies. The train can be an option to visit the Andes; however, it is more expensive than the buses. If you check Peru Rail on the internet, you can find all the info on their website.

Language, Currency & Visa

Spanish is the main language spoken in Peru, apart from numerous indigenous languages that exist in the country. To understand and speak some Spanish is a great advantage so you can have a better experience as a tourist. 

The Peruvian Sol is the official currency. For the most part, we withdrew money when we needed it, but in most restaurants and establishments, you can actually pay with a debit or credit card. 

For EU citizens, a Visa is not required as long as you don’t stay for more than 90 days. All you need is a valid passport. As we flew via Canada, we had to get a transit visa called ETA (costs 7$) for both ways.

Overall budget estimate

Here is a breakdown of fixed costs for 2 people for 2 weeks: 1629.68€ on flights; Buses: 176€; Hotels: 390€; Tours that incl. accommodation: Colca Canyon 2 days/ 1 night = 204€ + Machu Picchu 2 Days / 1 Night + Mountain = 230€.

It was a great, memorable trip, but 2 weeks are not nearly enough to visit Peru. We only scratched the surface and we would love to go back and explore more. There are plenty of things to see and do that we simply didn’t have time to.

We hope to have inspired you to visit this diverse and interesting place. Peru exceeded our expectations and is probably one of the most interesting countries we ever visited. We will be publishing some more articles on Peru and its charming cities, stay tuned!