Bucket List Item #1, Check

It has been several months since returning from Peru and I am just now writing about the trip, but in my defense, it has been summer time and in northern Wisconsin, you have to soak up every moment of lake time while you have the chance. It's now fall and Im ready to start planing for my next winter trip, and I've decided on.......... THAILAND! I figured this would be a great time to write about my travels to Peru before I begin planning the next adventure.

Peru has been #1 on my bucket list for YEARS! I've studied Spanish since I was 12 and in all those years of learning about Spanish cultures and different Spanish speaking countries, Peru has held a place in my heart, mainly due to the mysterious Machu Picchu ruins. The stories and history of Machu Picchu have always peaked my interest and because its one of the seven wonders of the world, I knew someday I had to see it for myself. One night I was thinking to myself, if I could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? Time goes by so fast and our moments here are so precious. I'm sick of sitting on this couch, Im ready to LIVE.  I called my best friend and asked her if she wanted to go to Peru with me and instead of being confused and questioning my sanity, she simply said... yep. And so it began. 

The Logistics

We decided on going in April, right after the rainy season and before the tourist season picks up. Because we were going to do a 4-day trek through the Andes to end up at Machu Picchu, I didn't want to be sweating my a** off the entire time. April weather was perfect for backpacking. We were so lucky with the weather, 65-85 degrees with a couple rain showers. We stayed for 1 1/2 weeks, giving ourselves 3 days to acclimate to the altitude before beginning the 4-day hike. After the hike, we had 2 days left to explore some more. We booked our tickets in November, flying out of Chicago O'Hare to Cusco. We had a connecting flight in Miami and again in Lima. Overall, travel time took about 24 hours total. Our flight from Miami to Lima took about 7 hours. We arrived in Cusco after a short flight around 10 am the next morning. We arranged for a taxi to take us from Cusco to our first hostel in Urubamba before arrival. The views on the flight from Lima to Cusco were BEAUTIFUL. 

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We wanted to get out of the city where tourist traffic is the heaviest for the first 3 days of our time there so off to Urubamba. Our taxi driver was amazing, super friendly and he spoke great english. He gave us a little tour full of information on the way out of Cusco and he even brought us to a wool dying factory outside of the city. When I say factory, it was actually only about 10 people total working in a small outdoor courtyard. We saw first hand how Peruvians create all of those amazing textiles. This was for sure one of my favorite highlights of the trip. The atmosphere in this courtyard was so peaceful and inviting. We got our first taste of fresh Coca Tea and a full demonstration of alpaca wool to finished product. AND we got to see our first native Alpaca! (I have no idea what this place is called, SORRY!!)

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After that AMAZING pitstop, our driver took us to one of the best places to see full views of the Sacred Valley. I can't even believe these pictures are real you guys. Peru is SO. FREAKING. BEAUTIFUL. 

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Urubamba

We stayed at the Flying Dog Hostel in Urubamba which is at the edge of town with amazing views in every direction you look. The garden is so beautiful and the rooms were updated and clean. With hostel prices, it was hard to beat! We spent the rest of the afternoon catching rays in the beautiful garden (completely necessary after a long dark Wisconsin winter). We wandered into town to find dinner,  came across a pizzeria which was super tasty, took lots of pictures, met a lot of Peruvian dogs (yay) and came across a local street dance party. Because our hostel’s gardens were so beautiful, we picked up some beer and went back to watch the stars for the rest of the night. The hostel had an amazing free breakfast, everything was so fresh and delicious. The first morning we got to the kitchen, this swarm of bike racers had pretty much eaten every crumb. The second morning we were sure to get there early! LOL. There was a Redbull event happening with mountain biking and dirt biking races going on that we sadly missed! Our second day there we actually took a taxi back to Cusco to do all the typical touristy things because we had to check in with our guide company. Our taxi driver was kind enough to stop at a mine/jewelry factory in a small town on the way back to Urubamba. It was really interesting to me, because Im obsessed with crystals and that place was a jackpot! That night back in Urubamba, we walked around town again, went through an amazing pottery studio and shopped at a couple cool boutiques. There is a large market here but we skipped it since we went to the San Pedro market in Cusco that day. 

Stays and Plays

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Ollantaytambo

We had the Flying Dog Hostel call us a taxi to get us to the next town north, Ollantaytambo. This is by far my favorite place out of all the cities in the Sacred Valley, and if I ever come back, I would for sure stay here the entire time. The village is small, quiet, the locals still dress traditional, the streets are cobblestone, it’s clean, quiet, pristine, charming and quaint. I could go on and on. We stayed at the Munay Punku, it was a short walk up hill out of the town's center right along the river. The staff were so friendly and gave us a map and a bit of inside info on the local ruins! We walked back into town, took a few pictures and then found the first ruins we wanted to hike to. The trail head is literally a set of steps right off of the cobble stone street a couple of blocks back from the main square. It wasn't really a hike, rather a climb to the top of The Inca Granaries of Pinkulluna. The views were incredible and you didn't have to pay to enter the ruins unlike the site across town! After our hike we went back into town to chill out and people watch. A Peruvian local came and sat with us and let us take her picture, she was beautiful. We bought a few bracelets from her and then grabbed dinner at one of the balcony restaurants. The next morning we had to get up super early to catch our bus to begin our 4-day trek to Machu Picchu!

Stays and Plays:

  • Munay Punku
  • The Inca Granaries of Pinkulluna (free hike and ruins)
  • Balcony Dinner and Drinks
  • Chat & Shop with the locals
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THE TREK

We did our 4-day trek with Alpaca Expeditions. I chose this company based on trip advisor reviews. They picked us up at our hostel in Ollantaytambo at 6am and we made the 1 hour bus ride to the Inca Trail check in point. For 4 days, we hiked the Inca Trail and got to camp out every night in the jungle and mountain tops. It was truly the experience of a lifetime being out in Peruvian wild (mostly alone). There were several ruin sites to stop at and explore along the trail. Our guide would give us some informational background about each site. At the first set of ruins, the most amazing thing happened. There were two condors that flew in and circled above us. Condors are endangered and the locals told us they never really see them anymore, especially not on the Incan Trail.  This was such an emotional moment for me because of the hawk that follows me back at home. I learned that the condor is the messenger of the heavens in Peruvian/Incan culture. You can imagine how excited, and incredibly emotional I was, standing in thousand-year-old Incan ruins on a mountain top in the Andes, watching two condors fly in to greet us. Tears flowed. Embarrassing, yes. Top 3 most life changing experiences; definitely. The terrain and climate of the trail varies so much. Desert, cobblestone, jungle, forest, mountain, downhill, uphill, climbing up, climbing down, going through villages, smelling a lot of donkey dung, you name it, you'll experience it! The first day of the trek wasn’t too physically challenging. The second day has the best views, but is the most physically exhausting. You have to climb nearly 2,000 meters to conquer Dead Woman’s Pass but it’s all downhill from that point. Day 2, as difficult as it was, was my favorite. On your way down after Dead Woman’s Pass, there are waterfalls everywhere, and the landscape completely changes to something I fail at describing, but it feels whimsical and fairy tale like. Day 3 you get to see 2 more Incan sites that are in my opinion more beautiful than Machu Picchu. Winay Wayna was my favorite. Now that I think of it, Day 3 was also my favorite. You get to conquer your fear of heights by hiking on a 2 ft wide trail on a cliff side that you could easily slip on and fall to your death. Great right?! No, in all seriousness, it was so amazing, all of it. Day 4 was a race to the sun gate in the dark before the sun rises, it was so exhilarating. We got to Machu Picchu by 10am but the crowd (that takes the bus up the mountain like lazy llamas) was already swarming. It was a serious disappointment to hike for 4 days alone in the jungle, having all the ruins to yourself, and then getting to the main attraction and not even being able to get a photo taken because people won’t move out of your way for 2 seconds. The crowd was ridiculous and I honestly couldn’t wait to leave. It was also super foggy and rainy the day we got there so the photos I was hoping to capture didn't happen. HOWEVER, it was still amazing to see how big Machu Picchu is and yes, obviously it is beautiful, but I wish you could experience it alone, or with less people. Consider taking the bus up the next day to experience it again, because it is seriously huge. We didn't see any major wildlife aside from the condors but we did see a ton of hummingbird species, and I spotted a variety of insects like walking sticks and spiders. There are also a lot of orchid species to see if you're into botany! 

Guide Service:

  • Alpaca Expeditions (4 day classic Inca Trail trek)  *Visit their website for all packing and logistical details, they provide immense information that we followed to a T and everything worked out perfectly. We arranged for our additional bags to be brought to our final hotel after the hike), they are extremely accommodating and Alpaca Expeditions treats their employees the best out of all the other guide companies by a milestone. The journey really is what its about, not the actual destination! 

FAQ's:

  1. You won't be hungry, they cook you SO MUCH FOOD! I packed tons of chocolate for pitstop snacks (the only thing that satisfies my hunger when Im backpacking!)
  2. Water: The water is boiled and filtered, no need to worry about bringing your own filter, no one got sick.
  3. Dress: All temperatures. You go from 85 f to 35 f in one day. Sunshine to downpour to snow within minutes, be prepared for all weather!
  4. Don’t forget your camera!
  5. Don't feel the need to keep up with the group like its a race, take your time, go slow, capture the memories! 
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Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu. After your trek with Alpaca Expeditions ends, you take the bus down the mountain and into town. We stayed at the Rupa Wasi lodge which was super cool! Aquas Calientes has a beautiful square, tons of massage parlors, lots of restaurants and a shopping market but we were over it and had done it all already. I did end up getting sick from stupidly drinking a slush margarita (the ice/slush/water is what made me sick, DONT DRINK THE WATER! dumb mistake). After our hike we showered, much needed, went into town and got a massage, also much needed. Then we got dinner and drinks on an outdoor patio and listened to live pan flute musicians play. It was very relaxing! I wanted to check out the natural hot springs which is what the town is named after (hot water) but Leah forgot her suit and wasn't feeling it. We ended up scoring an early train ticket back to Ollantaytambo the next morning because we had done all there is to do and didn't want to waste time there. Upgrade your train tickets to vista dome seats FOR SURE! The train ride was such a great experience and the views are of course amazing. Once we arrived to Ollantaytambo, we had trouble finding a taxi back to Cusco. It was a Sunday and Peruvians don’t really work on Sundays. It was also some sort of independence holiday so that made it even more difficult. Luckily, we went back to one of the restaurants we had ate at prior and the owner called one of his friends to take us back. We got LUCKY!  

Plays and Stays:

  • Rupa Wasi Lodge
  • Get a much needed massage
  • Live pan flute street musicians
  • Hot Springs
  • Train ride
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Cusco

As mentioned above, we spent one full day in Cusco when we did all of the typical tourist attractions. We did a lot of shopping, walking around, and of course we got to hold a baby alpaca (we were later informed that it was actually lamb). We toured one of the cathedrals which was so amazing but they don't let you take pictures so you have to sneak it! The market was interesting, not for anyone with a weak stomach! Theres a starbucks hiding in the plaza too! When we came back to cusco after our trek, we stayed one night at the Tierra Viva Cusco Saphi and went out for drinks with our trek guide David. We bummed around Cusco for the last 24 hours and got an early ticket back to Lima to make our long journey home.

Plays and Stays:

  • Tierra Viva Cusco Saphi
  • San Pedro Market
  • Plaza de Armas
  • Tour of Cathedral De Santo Domingo 
  • Tour of Sacsayhuaman ruins 
  • "Baby Alpaca" photo op! 
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Final Thoughts

I would highly recommend traveling to Peru if you're looking for an adventurous trip. Its not a glamorous destination and we didn't really get to relax. If I could do it over again, I would skip Urubamba and split up my time between Cusco and Ollantaytambo. There are also several other trails you can hike to get to Machu Picchu aside from the classic Inca trail. 

Tips:

  • Take your time planning when to go, April and May seem to be the best times to beat the rain and the hot weather
  • Wear a passport/money belt. I never felt unsafe except for getting in random taxis, and I was thankful to have my essentials hidden. 
  • Do drink Pisco Sours! I didn't try guinea pig but Alpaca meat was delicious! 
  • If you're going to do a hike, go with Alpaca Expeditions, they are the best! 

If you have any questions send me an email, I'd be happy to help you! Wish me luck on my next trip to Thailand!