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Trip Report Peru in May 2012 - A Trip Report (read this one!)

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(Apologies - totally forgot to tag my post as a trip report. Ignore the other one!)

I owe a big THANK YOU to the active members of this forum. You helped me figure things out and plan out an amazing trip to Peru. I wrote this itinerary so people who haven't been before get some information, but hopefully I don't give it all away either. So if you've been, bear with some of the explanations.

Husband and I are in our mid-twenties, moderately active, love adventure. We went to Peru in May for just over three weeks. This trip report is going to be long. I'll be replying to this post with continuations of the story.

Overall impressions: We LOVED Peru. Loved the people, the culture, and all the history. We are hoping to go back some day to explore the northern part of the country as we only saw the southern half.

Original Itinerary:
1 – Travel to Lima
2 – Travel to Paracas
3 – Paracas + Nasca
4 – Nasca (overnight bus to Arequipa)
5 – Arequipa
6 – Colca Canyon tour
7 – Colca Canyon tour (bus to Puno)
8 – Lake Titicaca tour (overnight on Amantani)
9 – Lake Titicaca tour (overnight Puno)
10 – Inka Express to Cusco
11 – Sacred Valley tour (overnight Cusco)
12 – Sacred Valley tour (overnight Cusco)
13 – Inka Trail Hike
14 – Inka Trail Hike
15 – Inka Trail Hike
16 – Inka Trail Hike / Machu Picchu
17 – Machu Picchu (overnight Ollantaytambo)
18 – Sacred Valley tour (overnight Cusco)
19 – Cusco on our own (overnight Cusco)
20 – Sacred Valley tour (overnight Cusco)
21 – Fly to Lima / Lima
22 – Lima / Fly home

Unfortunately a turn of events led us to change our itinerary last minute to cut out Arequipa. The trip we took was very similar but we had to change days 4-7:

4 – Nasca (overnight in Nasca)
5 – Nasca – extra day (overnight bus to Cusco)
6 – Bonus day in Cusco (overnight bus to Puno)
7 – Bonus day in Puno

Now let's get into it!

>> Day 1 – Travel to Lima <<

Hotel: Albergue Miraflores (in Miraflores neighborhood) - Recommend.

We flew Chicago – Houston – Lima. Smooth flights, no issues. When you go through customs in Lima, each person pushes a button. Green light = Enter Peru. Red light = Customs officer looks through all of your stuff. Two green lights for us! We heeded the advice of our hotel and other travelers and used Taxi Green to get to Miraflores. We got to our hotel after midnight and went straight to sleep.

>> Day 2 – Travel to Paracas <<

Hotel: Brisas del Bahia - Recommend
Transportation: Cruz del Sur (bus) - Recommend
Restaurants: Juan Pablo (dinner) - Recommend

The next morning the hotel owner sat down with us over breakfast and gave us a very thorough overview of Miraflores and central Lima. Sights to see, where to eat, store locations, where not to go, etc. After breakfast we walked down the street to a supermarket to purchase toiletries we hadn't wanted to carry on the plane including contact solution, sunscreen and toilet paper (very necessary to carry with you in Peru). We spent the rest of the morning walking around Miraflores. We ate a light lunch of churros and chocolate before heading to catch our Cruz del Sur bus to Paracas at 2:00PM.

We opted to head to Paracas in the afternoon instead of 4AM the next morning to catch up on sleep. (We also had almost two full days in Lima built into the end of our trip.) The bus was great - very comfy seats (we were in "first class" on the lower level), decent food, movies... a great way to get around.

We got to Paracas around 5:30 PM. The bus station itself is highly amusing - just an open-air stand on the grounds of a hotel. We walked about half a mile down the main road to reach our hotel, Brisas del Bahia. We got the feeling we were the only guests that night (we never saw anyone else). After dropping our stuff in our room we walked along the water front area and tried to book a tour for the next morning to the Islas Ballestas, but they were closed. We ate dinner at Restaurant Juan Pablo on the main strip. Husband had tradito, I had arroz con camerrones. Before dinner, we were given free tasting portions of pisco sours and Peruvian "popcorn" (toasted corn kernels). Yum! The town was mostly deserted - most people take day trips from Lima and don't really stay the night.

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    >> Day 3 – Paracas + Nasca <<

    Hotel: Nasca Oasis - Recommend
    Transportation: Cruz del Sur (bus)
    Tour Companies: Paracas Overland (Islas Ballestas) - Recommend
    Restaurants: Los Angeles (dinner)

    Breakfast was bread and jam, eggs, and an all-fruit smoothie. "No hielo!" they always told us. ("No ice!") After breakfast we headed down to the docks early to book our Islas Ballestas tour. No problem booking right then and there, at least at the beginning of May. We ended up on a boat with a bus of tourists who arrived that morning with their own guide who assisted with translations on the boat. Before they allow you to go onto the dock, you have to pay two fees (or bribes, as Husband likes to say). One is to be on the dock itself and one is for the Islas Ballestas park entrance. There were about 30 people on our speedboat. We were super excited to see penguins and sea lions. The skipper got us very close to multiple groups of sea lions (within 10 feet!). We really liked seeing the islands and all the animals.

    After we got back to the mainland we grabbed a fish sandwich as a snack, picked up our bags from the hotel and caught another Cruz del Sur bus to Nasca. The trip takes about 3 hours and we enjoyed watching the land change as we drove away from the coast into the true desert.

    When we arrived at the station in Nasca, we were surprised to find Ivan, the owner of Nasca Oasis, waiting to pick us up. (I do not recall him saying he would, but we'll take a free ride!) Very cute hotel just a mile or so outside town (a whole 4 soles taxi ride).

    As we had the afternoon free, we let Ivan talk us into hiring his nephew/cousin/step-brother twice removed to give us a tour around some of the sights. Renardo was very knowledgeable. He had attended the 2-year institute for tour guides. First we saw one of the Nasca lines from a hill, Las Agujas. Our next stop was the aqueducts. They are so cool! They were built by the Nasca to irrigate their fields and provide drinking water. The aqueducts intersect underground water flows from the Andes. They still function and the people still depend on them. We saw people washing their clothes in them. Up next we explored Los Paredones which was some sort of administrative outpost for the Inca to watch over areas they had conquered.

    We got dropped off in town and stopped by Aeroparacas to book/confirm our flight over the lines the next day. We had emailed with them a few months prior to the trip, but they don't give any kind of official confirmation number or paperwork so we wanted to be sure we had seats on the plane. (We did! We also paid then.) We ate dinner at Los Angeles, a cute restaurant. There were about eight other backpacker tourists there too. Husband enjoyed another fruit smoothie. During dinner we kept seeing costumed kids heading toward the main square. We headed that way and found a festival of some sort. Turned out to be a week-long tourism festival.

    Getting a taxi back to the hotel was an adventure. First, they're not clearly identified as taxis. They are decorated by the drivers even though they don't own the cars. They put names across the dashboard, flashing lights all over... and other people do the same thing to their regular vehicles. Second, no one seemed to know our hotel. We got blank stares even when we handed them a card from the hotel. We did finally find one guy who seemed to know and a random dude going by on a motorcycle overheard and pointed him in the right direction. That was the one downside to Nasca Oasis. On the upside, our room was spacious and comfortable and we had great water pressure! (And hot water!)

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    >> Day 4 – Nasca <<

    Hotel: Nasca Oasis
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Aeroparacas – Recommend; Peru Adventure Tours – Recommend
    Restaurants: Restaurant Paulita (lunch), La Huarango (dinner)

    The next day after breakfast we were picked up by an Aeroparacas worker and driven to the airport. Time to fly! The airport is very small. Husband was impressed the tarmac was paved. We were all weighed (for even distribution) then we paid the 25 soles per person airport tax. We only waited about 20 minutes before our flight was called. Then we headed out to the taxiway and boarded the 8-seater plane. We had two pilots (all the flights do) and 5 passengers. Husband got stuck in the very back as he was the lightest person. He wasn't too thrilled about that. (He is afraid of heights and wasn’t too excited about the small plane.) They let us listen to the pilot-tower communications. Then we were off! It was 35 minutes of 45-degree banked turns. One girl on our flight got airsick, but we were fine. Some people had warned us the figures weren't easy to spot. We thankfully had a clear day and had no trouble finding them. Plus the pilot did a turn around each figure on both sides of the plane. We both felt the flight was well worth it. There is no other way to see the majority of the figures, including all of the popular ones. We never felt unsafe, even though there have been issues in the past.

    We went back into town for lunch. Now, when I say "town", I mean a population of 23,000. Two main streets. One main square. We had lunch at a place on the square, Restaurant Paulita. Way too much food for only 7 soles each!

    After lunch we got picked up at our hotel by Peru Adventure Tours for our sandboarding trip. There were two other people in our group (besides the guide and driver) - a brother/sister duo from Australia. We rode in a dune buggy out to the Usaca dunes. It's a bit of a drive, but we stopped along the way at some archaeological sites. Our first stop was at Cahuachi. It's a religious site with a temple and pyramid which is still under excavation. Next we stopped at the Estaqueria, where there are rows of a specific type of tree potentially used as a calendar and might have been a sight for mummification. Then we stopped at an unmarked location in the rocky, sandy hills. We were sitting in the buggy and our guide asked, "Do you see the mummy?" Yes, there was an actual mummy just sitting in some brush. That was crazy enough. But then we turned around and realized a huge area (at least a square kilometer) was completely covered with scattered bones, materials and pottery shards. Tomb raiders had opened up the graves and strewn the mummies and non-precious items everywhere. The area is not fenced off. Not monitored. If we had wanted to take something, we could have. (Important note: It is illegal to take artifacts out of Peru. Don't do it!)

    Then we drove a bit further and found the desert! Our driver had fun then - charging up a dune, over the top and flying down the other side. It was like a roller coaster where you can't see where you're going. They chose a medium sized hill and it was time to sandboard! We both attempted to stand up on the board (like surfing), but it was too difficult. We opted for riding on our stomachs instead (best steering control). We went down multiple dunes.

    We headed straight to the bus station when we arrived back in town because... there was a STRIKE! Apparently some miners in the area were on strike and not allowing anyone to travel from Nasca to Arequipa, which happened to be our next destination. We were supposed to take an overnight bus that night. We decided to actually use our travel insurance and call Travel Guard to have them figure it out. I caution anyone to use Travel Guard for trip insurance in Peru – they apparently only have one South American expert and they were not available when we needed them. Through mostly work on our end using our hotel’s laptop, we figured out an alternate plan in the case they were still not running buses the next day. Our hotel was happy to extend us for another night. We had dinner back in town at La Huarango, a third-floor, open-air restaurant. Pretty tasty.

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    >> Day 5 – Nasca (bonus day) <<

    Hotel: N/A (overnight bus)
    Transportation: Ormeno (bus)
    Tour Companies: N/A
    Restaurants: La Taberna – Recommend

    The next day we slept in because we were told the bus company wouldn't have any updates on the strike until around noon. We headed into town to see the Museo Didactico Antonini which has tons of artifacts found at the Nasca area digs. We walked back to town to check on the strike situation. No news yet, so we headed to lunch. While there was no official news, the Cruz del Sur employees told us they were not optimistic about the strike ending in time to get a bus to Nasca to go to Arequipa. We went ahead and booked tickets on an overnight bus to Cusco for that night, just in case. We ate lunch La Taberna - they let their customers write on the walls. Tons of fun messages.

    Eventually we got some news on the strike - no buses to Arequipa that day. Guess we weren't going on that part of our trip. We made a game-time decision and cancelled our tickets to Arequipa and went with Plan B - to Cusco! Our goal was to make it to Puno and pick up our original itinerary there.

    Different bus company than the other one we used (Ormeno), but same idea. Comfy seats which recline, food, movies, etc. The bus left at 9:30PM. The trip to Cusco took about 14 hours. The ride started out well. We had earplugs, were served drinks and a movie was playing. We tried to go to sleep pretty quickly. However, what we didn't know is this particular bus route takes you over some of the highest passes in the Andes. You gain altitude extremely quickly. This caused about half the bus to get sick (myself included.) Altitude sickness for me started with a headache. Then I was nauseous. Then I was sick. Repeat for hours. Husband didn't get sick, but in the back of the bus he experienced constant G-forces from the switchbacks. Needless to say, it was not the highlight of our vacation.

    >> Day 6 – Cusco (Random day) <<

    Hotel: N/A (overnight bus)
    Transportation: Don’t remember the random bus company
    Tour Companies: N/A
    Restaurants: Urpi (lunch)

    We arrived in Cusco around 11AM and got swindled on a taxi ride to the hotel we would be staying in the next week. Hey, we had to have at least one stupid tourist move, right? We basically begged the hotel to watch our larger bags until our next overnight bus to Puno. Yes, you read that correctly. One overnight bus after another. This was not the original plan; we just wanted to get to Puno before our scheduled tours. The hotel was very accommodating, especially considering we weren’t supposed to be there yet. More about the hotel when we officially return to Cusco.

    We headed down towards the Plaza de Armas and found Urpi, a cute small restaurant where we stopped for lunch. I had the Peruvian version of pizza (in a wood oven). Husband had Lomo de Alpaca and pumpkin soup. The alpaca was good.

    We decided to take a tour of the main cathedral. An audio tour was included (in English!), but no photos were allowed. Next we went shopping for hats and mittens, two necessities in the Andes and the altiplano (the high flat portion at the top of the Andes). Then we wandered trying to find an internet cafe and a travel agency to set up a tour in Puno since we would have an unanticipated extra day there. We found internet and updated our families on our new travel plans. We waited on the tour as a couple agencies were charging an outrageous fee. We decided to wait until we arrived in Puno.

    We went to dinner at a quaint little place where all the locals were eating something called "Mother-in-law's Tongue" - a flaky pastry with caramel. Husband had one of those and I had an empanada. We also had sandwiches. Husband had Inca Kola too. Tastes like liquid bubble gum. After dinner we hung out in the Plaza de Armas for a while. Then back to the bus station! Very busy and no organization. We eventually went out to where the buses lined up and then guessed which one was ours. (No one told us which one to go to.) This time we were on the upper level (due to the last-minute purchase). We actually slept for most of the ride, thankfully.

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    I'm back with more! Sorry for the delay!

    >> Day 7 – Puno (bonus day) <<

    Hotel: San Antonio Suites - Recommend
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Edgar Adventures
    Restaurants: Don't remember the name, sorry!

    We arrived in Puno at 5:30AM. We headed to the hotel we were staying in that night and asked if we could sleep in a room for a few hours. They were super nice and let us conk out. We woke up again around 9:30AM. We went out to find Allways Travel, the travel agency office for our tour the next day, to see if they could book an extra tour for us that day, but they were closed. Instead we booked our Sillustani tour through another company, Edgar Adventures.

    Then we saw what looked to be a military marching band going down the street. We decided to follow them to Puno's Plaza de Armas. People seemed to be waiting so we sat on the cathedral steps and watched as different branches of the military marched in the square as part of a week-long Mother's Day celebration. I got sick in the middle of it. Yay altitude sickness! Puno is at an altitude of 12,556 feet. I started taking Diamox, an altitude sickness drug, the day we arrived in Puno when it became clear the altitude was affecting me. It seemed to help, but also going back to Cusco which is lower (11,200 feet) helped the most. In my case, I felt weighed down, out of breath, nauseous, and had a headache. But it didn't stop us from exploring! I drank tons of coca tea and mint tea, which are supposed to help.

    We took a look inside Puno's cathedral after the parades were over. Then we took a hike up a hill (very slowly) to see the view of the city and Lake Titicaca. There is a statue at the top of the first Inca, Manco Capac. After climbing slowly back down, we had a snack before getting picked up for our tour to Sillustani.

    Sillustani is an area which has funery towers from both pre-Inca and Inca times. It was about a 45-minute drive away. Very interesting. We’re glad we saw it, especially since we hadn’t originally had time for it. On the way back to Puno we stopped to visit a local family's house. Our guide served us different types of potatoes, cheese, and arcilla. Arcilla is an edible clay.

    When we got back to Puno we had dinner at a "fancy" restaurant where we both had… soup. We were dehydrated and I had no appetite (another symptom of altitude sickness). Husband had potato & asparagus and I had vegetable quinoa. Something to note: Most natives operate on what they call "Peruvian time". Meaning you usually won't get your food served at the same time as your dinner partners, your server won't bring you the check unless you ask for it (and then it comes at least 10 minutes later), and people just generally are not in a hurry. Which is a nice break! Also, multiple places said they take American Express but then it almost never worked when they tried to run it. Be prepared with Visa or cash.

    After dinner we went to bed early to catch up on sleep before our Lake Titicaca tour the next day. We stayed at the same hotel (San Antonio Suites) the night before the tour and the night after.

    >> Day 8 – Lake Titicaca <<

    Hotel: N/A – overnight stay with family
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Allways Travel
    Restaurants: N/A – ate with group and family

    The next morning we got picked up for our Lake Titicaca tour. We chose a 2-day tour with an overnight stay on Amantani Island with a local family. We were taken to the dock to catch our boat. But before boarding, we bought gifts to take to our host family. We chose an assortment of grains and fruit, something our guide told us they don't get often and are difficult to grow on the island. Our guide for the entire trip was great! Spoke Spanish, English, and Aymara, the local island language. Our tour group had around 20 people total.

    First stop: The floating islands of Uros. The native people build them from the totora reeds which grow in the lake. After a demonstration and explanation of how they build the islands, we realized we were surrounded by the island's women. They tapped us on the heads and divided us among themselves. We were shown to their houses and then they marketed their crafts. After we fell victim to some cute crafts, I convinced Husband to climb up a lookout tower with me.

    We headed out from Uros and headed to Amantani where our families were waiting to greet us. There are 10 communities on the island with about 4,000 people total living there. They speak Quechua and some Spanish. The tours rotate through all the communities so the income from the tourists is distributed fairly.

    Our guide matched us everyone with their host families. The mother in our family, Francisca, led us up a hill to her home. I was really worried about this part. I was still sick from the altitude and had read how you might have to hike far up the island depended on where your family lived. We ended up not hiking very far up, thankfully. Our family consisted of Francisca, her daughter Laticia (7 years old), and her mother (never got her name). Francisca served us lunch soon after we arrived at their home. While we waited we checked out our room, the courtyard and the fields outside. There was one lightbulb in the kitchen and one in the bathroom (thank goodness!). None in our room. Lunch was quinoa soup, potatoes and cheese. Pretty much every single meal on the islands consists of quinoa and potatoes. We had mint tea afterwards. Just throw the stems in your mug, pour in hot water, let it steep a few minutes and drink! After a little rest time, it was time to gather what energy I had to climb up the island to regroup with our fellow travelers. The hike wore me out. I don't know how the locals do it while carrying huge loads and/or children on their backs. We met up at the community soccer field. Our guide gave us three options for the afternoon:

    1. Climb up to the very top of the island to see a pre-Inca ceremonial center
    2. Take a "Peruvian flat" hike around the island
    3. Go to a small bar (Yes, they apparently had a bar inside a tiny general store, though we didn't see it.)

    I reminded myself I had to hike the Inca Trail in a few days and started out on Option 1 with Husband. But I quickly gave up and turned back. Thankfully, I was not alone and other people went with me on the "Peruvian flat" option. (To help justify my tiredness, we were at 4100 meters. Pretty high!) If you’ve been to Peru, you understand that “Peruvian flat” doesn't actually mean "flat"... just not incredibly steep. Our little group ended up returning a little later than we intended due to a wrong turn. Laticia had to come looking for me. We headed home in the quickly darkening evening where we found the grandmother had started peeling potatoes for dinner. Husband helped her and Laticia peel them by hand.

    Nights on Lake Titicaca get very cold, and Peru winter starts in June. We layered up, even inside. We were served a sort of pasta soup, potatoes and rice for dinner. We tried to get the family to sit with us at the table, but they refused. After dinner, they dressed us up in traditional clothes for their culture. I put them on over my fleece and shirt, that's how cold it was! (It got down to below freezing.) Then we headed to the community building where the whole group was taught how to dance to live native music. The room only had three light bulbs and one by one they all went out. We slept under many blankets that night.

    (Quick side note: We really enjoyed our overnight family stay. It was eye-opening to see how the island cultures live and get to know people on a more personal level. If you ever consider doing one of these tours: Make sure you book through a travel agent who has YOU pay your host family for your accommodations. We paid our host directly while some people in our group did not and they worried about how their hosts were getting paid. )

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    >> Day 9 – Lake Titicaca/Puno <<

    Hotel: San Antonio Suites
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Allways Travel
    Restaurants: Ukuku’s - Recommend

    The next morning we had breakfast at 7:00. Some sort of pancakes (we suspect quinoa) then headed down to the dock to go to our next destination: Taquile Island. Taquile was an hour away and is slightly smaller (with a population around 3,000). We landed on one side of the island and hiked up a fairly steep hill to a sort of rock "gate". From there we walked 2 kilometers along a "Peruvian flat" path to the other side of the island. We stopped in the main square for a bit where we saw locals setting up for a farmer's festival. We continued around the island to reach the restaurant where we had lunch. Quinoa soup (surprise, surprise), grilled trout, papas fritas, rice and tea. During lunch, our guide explained some native traditions on Taquile. Then we walked down 500 steps to our boat. Yes, 500. We napped on the three-hour boat ride back to Puno and were dropped off at our hotel. We waited for our Inka Express bus tickets to be dropped off (5:00 = 6:10 in Peruvian time). Then we went out to dinner at Ukuku’s. I finally had a little appetite! Husband had "sweet quinoa" for dessert. It was sort of like a soupy rice pudding with pineapple chunks. We went to a convenience store to stock up on water and chocolate (also good for high altitudes) and called it a day.

    >> Day 10 – Puno to Cusco <<

    Hotel: Piccola Locanda
    Transportation: Inka Express (bus)
    Tour Companies: N/A
    Restaurants: Los Toldos (dinner) – Highly recommend

    The next morning we took the Inka Express bus to Cusco. It's about a twelve hour trip. Much longer than on our way the opposite direction because this is the tourist bus and it makes multiple stops. It was a good way to travel, though not as luxurious as the first ones we took earlier in the trip.

    Our first stop was Pukara. Our guide led us through the museum and gave a very detailed overview of all the cultures throughout Peru's timeline. As we drove away, we saw herds of llamas, alpacas and vicunas. Next we stopped briefly at La Raya pass, the highest point in the trip. 14,222 feet! Here we were initiated into an interesting concept - Peruvians are at every place tourist buses stop, even if it's not a spot for a tour, selling their wares. Usually it's similar if not the same merchandise. Soon after we drove away from the pass the scenery started changing. Good-bye, altiplano! We stopped in Sicuani for a buffet lunch where we met up with two other Inka Express buses. One going our way, the other heading the opposite. Very touristy. They had a band playing and walking around for tips and trying to sell their CD. Next up was Raqchi, an Inca temple. It was mostly destroyed by the Spanish. Our final stop before reaching Cusco was to see the Jesuit church in Andahuaylillas.

    When we were close to Cusco we saw one of an Incan structure they've come to call "gates". Very big. Once we arrived at the Cusco bus station, we headed out to find a taxi but were soon approached by a driver from our hotel. (I had forgotten I'd asked them to send someone!) We stayed at Piccola Locanda. It is a super cute hotel. There is only one downside: You have to walk up a hill and then up a set of stairs from the Plaza de Armas to get to the hotel. The hill wasn't too bad. The stairs were rough. (At least, before we came back from the Inca Trail!) We dropped off our bags and headed out to explore. About three blocks away from the main touristy area around the Plaza de Armas we found a supermarket. We stocked up on water, chocolate and juice. (Chocolate is recommended for high altitude hiking.) Then we sought out a guidebook recommendation for dinner. Los Toldos is known for their rotisserie chicken. It was packed with locals (that's how we knew we were on to something). Husband tried the specialty drink of Cusco - Chicha morada. That night was the first night since Nasca that I slept well. I started to feel better at the altitude in Cusco, though I still tired easily and had a headache most of the time.

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    >> Day 11 – Cusco / Sacred Valley <<

    Hotel: Piccola Locanda
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Percy Salas, private guide – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: Bembo’s (dinner) – Do not recommend

    The next morning we ran to get money from the ATM and then met Percy Salas, our tour guide/driver, in front of the cathedral at 9:00AM. We hired Percy for two days before the Inca Trail and then for two days after. We found him through recommendations on this forum. Money well spent! We were able to ask him all our questions, learn more about Cusco from a native, choose which sites we wanted to see and take our time when we were there.

    Our first stop was Sacsaywaman. It's a temple on a hill overlooking Cusco. It's huge! And apparently we only saw about 20% of it. (It’s not all excavated.) There are the terraces they found only recently. We even saw people working on excavations! (Here we purchased the Boleto Turistico – one fee covers the majority of Sacred Valley sights and also museums in Cusco.) Next we went up the hill to Puka Pukara, which they think was a sort of rest stop on the Inca Trail. It has a place where you could pay your tax and sleep. Then you would travel 10-20 kilometers to the next one. We went across the street (and up another hill) to Tambomachay. This site has a fountain fed by a natural spring. Next we drove down the hill to Q'enqo. They think it translates to "labyrinth". What a cool site. You first see this huge rock. Then you walk around the side and see the Inca carved a path into the natural stone. Inside the rock they carved out a chamber along with an altar. Last we went to a factory where they taught us how to tell the difference between real alpaca, real baby alpaca and fakes. We avoided purchasing anything to do price comparisons in town later.

    Once back in town, we headed to a small restaurant recommended by Percy for lunch. 10 soles per person. (About $3.80 each.) I don't remember the name, but it was just off the Plaza de Armas. They have a set menu for that price which includes a giant bowl of soup, your choice of entree (Husband had fish, I had spaghetti bolognese), dessert and a drink. Yes, they do Italian food in Peru. It's pretty popular. Tastes very different from Italian food in the States. After lunch we went to the Museo Historico Regionale. It's inside the house of a famous Cusquenean - Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. He wrote a famous book about Inca customs. We had a great free guide who thought she didn't speak English well. Quite the opposite!

    After the museum we fought with ATMs to get enough money to pay the balance for our Inca Trail hike. Not easy when they only give you $200 maximum and then shut you out after one transaction. (Yes, the Inca Trail is expensive. But so worth it!)

    We spent a little time at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. It had more offices in the building than art rooms, but had some interesting pieces. It was included in our Boleto Turistico, so we were okay with that.

    Next we went walking to find the Peru Treks office where they briefed us on the hike and gave us our duffel bags to fill. Maximum weight limit = 2.5 kilos. That's only about 5 pounds, which we discovered is not very much!

    We grabbed a snack in the form of tasty pastries. We ate them while in line at the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo. The show was also included in our tourist ticket. It was a collection of native dances from different parts of the Sacred Valley. At this point, we had been in Peru for 11 days. Sad to say, we were craving burgers and caved to brave a fast food place called Bembo's. Mistake! Popular with the locals and the french fries were actually fried, but their burgers were strange. No promise it was beef. We dodged multiple touts for tours and massages and headed to the hotel.

    >> Day 12 – Cusco / Sacred Valley <<

    Hotel: Piccola Locanda
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Percy Salas, private guide – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: Don’t know name of one and found the other while walking

    Day Two in the Sacred Valley was a busy and fun one! We met Percy once again in the morning and headed toward Tipon. Unfortunately we found out there was some work being done on the road to the site, so we could only visit during lunch. Percy flipped a few things around in the schedule and we headed instead to see ceramic tile-making. On the way we made a pit stop in the "capital of bread" and bought the cheapest, freshest bread we've ever had. We took it with us to a small town where the majority of residents make ceramic roof tiles, or what we call "Spanish tile" in the U.S. We donated the bread to the family in exchange for watching them work. In the U.S., a Spanish tile roof is expensive and fancy. In the Sacred Valley, it's standard on almost all buildings. And cheap: 1,000 tiles = $140 USD! The families are very poor and work all day to make the bricks by hand.

    Next we headed to Rumicolca - what the Inka Express guide had called an Inca "gate'. Percy pointed out the stairs on both sides. Why would a barrier have stairs allowing entry? There is also an aqueduct running along the top which leads to the nearby town of Piquillacta. Both are around 1,000 years old. Piquillacta is a huge city - about 5 kilometers in length. Current Sacred Valley residents use the same technique to make buildings as they used before - mud bricks (adobe) covered in plaster. At this site archaeologists found a set of 40 small turquoise figurines. Nothing else of value or intrigue has been found there. It was closing in on the lunch hour, so we quickly headed to Tipon to use the whole hour they were allowing us to see the site. This was one of our favorite sites in the Sacred Valley. This site has an intricate system to move water from a natural spring to multiple terraces at different levels. Percy did a fantastic job explaining what archaeologists had found and believed as well as giving the opinion he's formed while growing up in Cusco and giving many tours.

    he day before we had asked Percy to take us to great local restaurants during our lunch breaks with him. This day he took us to have true Cusquenan chicharrones. They are lightly fried pork and are super delicious! The restaurant had no tourists except for us. They served the chicharrones with Peruvian "popcorn", which is really kernels that have been fried but not popped.

    We headed back to Cusco where we packed our duffel bags for the Inca Trail and took them to a nearby laundry lady. We asked her to weigh them (they charge by weight so have hand scales). We were way over the 2.5 kilo limit. But we had next-to-nothing in them. We ended up packing extremely light and worrying our guides would weigh them and force us to carry more than we wanted to. (More on that in the next post.)

    We walked around town and finally tried some of the ice cream we saw everyone else eating. Quick reminder: It's the start of winter in Peru. It's in the 30-degree range at night. But it gets up to 80 during the day. Husband tried the chicha morada flavor (that purple corn drink) along with caramel quinoa and I stuck with mint chip. After our snack, we checked out the Museo de Arte Popular. It was a very strange museum full of figurines and sculptures. We hung out for a while in the Plaza de Armas, then tried some chifa for dinner. Chifa = Peruvian Chinese food. It's not nearly as salty as the American version and the soy sauce definitely tastes different.

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    Great report. Shame you were I'll in Puno. Altitude seems to affect people in so many different ways. We flew into Cusco where I felt terrible, suffering much the same symptoms as you describe. We spend several weeks in Cusco and the SV and when we got to Puno I had no problems. My wife, who had had no problems at all in Cusco, was ill in Puno? Still hasn't put us off returning next year!

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    Continuing on with the Inca Trail!

    >> Day 13 – Inca Trail <<

    Hotel: N/A
    Transportation: Our own two feet!
    Tour Companies: Peru Treks – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: N/A

    The Inca Trail. One of our key things to do in Peru. And it was finally time to start!

    I'll admit, I was nervous. I hadn't been feeling well due to the altitude and wasn't sure how hard the trail would really be. But first, we were mostly nervous about our bags. Here's how it works (at least with our trail operator): You can bring your own sleeping bag, etc, and you can carry it yourself. (Not recommended.) They offer "1/3 of a porter" per person for an extra fee. This has the porter carrying your sleeping bag and mat, as well as a duffel bag with your stuff in it. You don't have to carry it up and down the hills. There was no hesitation in us hiring a third of a porter for each of us. Now, why 1/3? This is because over the years, they have finally put regulations in place which limit how much weight one porter can carry. This is good, because while they still carry an outrageous amount of stuff on their backs, it's at least limited to a certain point. However, this means they told us we had a strict limit of 2.5 kilos per duffel bag. Which is about 5.5 pounds. Which isn't very much.

    I told you previously how we had a laundry lady weigh our bags after we packed them. They were way over the limit. We ended up stripping it down to just one change of clothes (shirt and pants) each. Enough underwear for the trip, but only two extra pairs of socks. And we didn't take things like a hairbrush. They told us they would weigh our bags before we got on the bus and we'd have to move things around if they were too heavy. As in, carry more ourselves. Keep this in mind.

    We did the hike from Saturday, May 19 through Tuesday, May 22. We woke up at 4:30AM to wait for the bus. We ended up getting picked up at 6:00AM. I wish they could narrow down their timeframes, but we just napped on the bus. They did NOT weigh our bags at this point. So we were still worried about them being too heavy and having to carry more stuff on the trail. We picked up more people in Cusco then drove to Ollantaytambo, where the trek starts at Kilometer 82 of the Inca Trail. We had breakfast as a group, then split up to make any last-minute purchases. For us, that included walking sticks (wooden ones - I believe they were 5 Soles each), coca leaves (recommended to chew for altitude acclimatization) and leafta (a catalyst for the coca leaves).

    Then we met by the bus to pick up our stuff. Oh, and our bags? We watched the porters go around with a hand scale. No problems! And we found out ours were very light and we could have packed more! Oh well!

    Our group consisted of 16 guests, 2 guides (Carlos and Manuel), 21 porters and 1 cook. The hikers included a mom and daughter from Sweden (who were in amazing shape!), a family of four from New Jersey (who had hiked Mt Everest last year), a married couple from Vancouver, a married couple from Ohio, three sisters from around the USA (who had also hiked Mt. Everest in the past year) and a lone female traveler from England (by way of Bulgaria).

    Did you catch that? Almost half our group had climbed Mt. Everest in the past year! Husband and I were very intimidated and at this point I figured I would be the person trailing behind the group.

    Before we could even get started we had to wait in a long line to be let into the gate. The park officials were staggering the groups as well as checking passports. There were two lines: Tourists on the right, locals and porters on the left. Across the bridge was the path to get to the official Inca Trail! The first hill was supposed to be "easy". (It was decently steep.) We were surprised by the number of locals we saw, especially those with donkeys and horses. Then we learned there are people living along the Inca Trail. They were there before it because a national park, and were allowed to stay as long as their buildings meet certain codes which keep them in character with the Trail. We would often see horses and donkeys walking along by the themselves. Then eventually we would see the owner a long ways behind. They know the path!

    So we finally were allowed to start! The first hill wasn't fun, but the trail became more Peruvian flat along the way. The first day is called "easy" or a "warm-up" by the guides. It wasn't as easy as walking on flat ground, but it wasn't too difficult.

    We made a couple of stops along the way on the first day. Our guides warned us ahead of time how we were responsible for our own drinking water on Days 1 and 2. On Days 3 and 4 they would boil water for us. People who lived along the Inca Trail operated some "rest stops" where they sold water, snacks, etc. These rest stops grew more infrequent the further we went along the Trail and everything got more and more expensive. At our first stop, our guides recommended trying the prickly pear fruit (from a cactus). We liked it! The terrain varied quite a bit. At first it was dry and desert-like, but it faded into a jungle-type environment. We passed multiple archaeological sites without acknowledgement or explanation from the guides. (Guess they weren't impressive enough!) We kept watching the snow-capped mountains. Our guides told us to take photos today because they would eventually be out of our sight. Let me fill you in on how we tackled the Inca Trail:

    Husband: One walking stick. Backpack containing extra water, chocolate, cookies, first aid supplies, bug spray, toilet paper.
    Me: Two walking sticks. Sunscreen reapplied every hour. Camera bag with camera and sunscreen.
    Clothing: Short-sleeve or long-sleeve shirt. Jacket, gloves and hat in the morning and evening. Mid-height hiking boots. Inner layer of thin socks. Outer layer of thick wool socks. Hat. Sunglasses. Bug spray.

    The weather varies throughout the Trail and throughout the day. It got down into the low 30s at night. Mornings are cold. Afternoons warmed up to the low 80s. Then quickly cooled down as the sun set. For our first lunch along the Trail, we had asparagus soup, trout, mint rice, garlic bread and potatoes. Yum!

    We did stop for a break and talk about Llactapata, which they believe was used primarily for crop production. We made it to our first campsite, Wayllabamba, with time to rest before dinner. We had a total elevation increase of around 500 meters the first day. Our campsite was more like someone's backyard than what you would normally think of for a campsite. In fact, it WAS someone's yard! The owner came down and offered sodas, water and beer for purchase. One of the big things not to do when hiking at high altitude is drink alcohol, so we stuck with water and tea. But the younger guys in our group had some beer. It wasn't cheap, either!

    When we arrived at any of our campsites (for lunch or dinner or camping for the night), our porters had already been there long enough to set up the dining tent, pitch our sleeping tents and start cooking. They also had all our stuff laid out on a tarp. They were amazing! Our first dinner was a semolina soup, chicken and mystery meat kebabs, rice, cauliflower quiche, mashed potatoes, and it ended with a banana flambe!

    That night began a fun tradition with Carlos, our main guide. During dinner, someone asked him when we had to wake up the next morning. He said he'd tell us after dinner. Then someone else asked him how hard Day 2 really is. He again postponed answering. We figured out if Carlos didn't want to answer, it was because we didn't want to know! The first night was the best. The grass was pretty soft and it wasn't too chilly. (But it was still cold enough to need our sleeping bag liners!)

    >> Day 14 – Inca Trail <<

    Hotel: N/A
    Transportation: Our own two feet!
    Tour Companies: Peru Treks – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: N/A

    Day 2 came early – we were woken up somewhere around 5:30AM. The second day is the "challenge day". You hike uphill almost all day and gain 1.2 kilometers in elevation. The first two mornings we were woken up by a porter bringing a selection of hot tea to our tent. Nice way to wake up!

    Our first breakfast (yes, we had two that day) consisted of a sort of toast, fruit, porridge and pancakes. The morning started off in the jungle. We hiked most of the day with the parents from the family group and the couple from Vancouver. We were all about taking it slow and resting. The dad because his knee hurt, the husband because he was sick, and me because I couldn't breathe. But we all agreed it was more fun that way than rushing up the mountain!

    We had two rest stops on Day 2. At the first, Carlos taught everyone how to properly chew coca leaves. Here’s how: Take a pinch of leafta. Roll a bunch of coca leaves around it into a bundle. Stick it in your cheek. Chew a couple times until juice starts to flow. Then just chew every now and then. The taste isn't amazing, but it's not bad. The ladies at this stop sold our group the most expensive water ever. Oh, and rum. Yes, you can buy rum on the Inca Trail! It was not cheap, but some of the guys bought a bottle with the intention of drinking it that night to celebrate getting through the worst day. It was cheaper than the water, though! At one point the trail became mostly stairs. Then it stayed that way until we got to the top of the pass.

    For most of the morning we could see our destination: Dead Woman's Pass. It looked so close! But it took us over 6 hours to get there. And many, many, MANY stairs. We watched the people on the pass grow bigger over time. We had "second breakfast" about halfway up to the pass. Cheese sandwiches, popcorn, crackers and tea. We weren't having lunch until we got down from the pass to our next campsite, but our guides knew we needed sustenance to keep climbing. After second breakfast, the real work began. It was stairs, uphill, all the way to the top of the pass. The stairs were very steep in places, and almost too high for my short legs. Hard to believe the Inca RAN up and down them! At one point we said, "Oh, we're close!" Then climbed another hour and realized, "No, we're not!" But eventually we did make it! Altitude: 4200 meters! It had been a warm climb, but the top was chilly and windy. The other side of the pass was as well.

    Unfortunately what goes up must come down! There is a rule in hiking: Sleep low. We had to climb down 600 meters to our campsite. It was more stairs, and they were very steep! Lunch was very impressive. They started out with ceviche! We also had quinoa soup, fried potatoes, carrot rice, pasta with cheese, and mystery meat with beans. We spent the afternoon resting and hanging out with our group. Our campsite was Pacamayo, where our tents were staggered on different levels. At night it was completely dark - you need headlamps to see your way to the bathroom or around the site. During dinner the Everest alumni admitted the Inca Trail was not as easy as they had anticipated based on having already climbed Everest. That made me feel better!

    A note about the bathrooms: They are squat toilets and as you go along the Trail, they smell increasingly worse. Best not to breathe. And did you notice I didn't mention anything about showers? That's because they do not exist at the first two campsites. If you bring moist towelettes you will feel a little fresher, but that's all you get!

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    >> Day 15 – Inca Trail <<

    Hotel: N/A
    Transportation: Our own two feet!
    Tour Companies: Peru Treks – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: N/A

    The second night was colder than the first and on harder ground. Another early wake-up call had us heading to a way-point building to get our passports stamped. Breakfast was omelets, something close to French toast and hot chocolate. The third day was almost completely in the jungle. We were definitely in the mountains! Day 3 is the fun day. Less height gains and climbing and more stops to see archaeological sites. The porters passed us early on to set up for our early lunch. We did still have to climb, though, as there were two passes to conquer. Our first stop was at Runkurakay. They think it was an outpost or a rest stop for the Inca messengers. The scenery on Day 3 was GORGEOUS. Also very cloudy which helped Husband by covering up some of the steep drop-offs along the path. Coming down from the second pass, we were deep in the jungle. We had to climb through a few rock tunnels. The next site we saw was Sayacmarka. They think it was another outpost for Inca messengers and travelers. The only way in and out is up a steep staircase cut into the side of the mountain. Husband did not like those stairs. But he made it! It was a very cool site. Many different levels and rooms to explore. Manuel (assistant guide) provided all the explanations for the day. His stories were really great. Lunch was pizza, soup, pork in pineapple sauce and rice.

    After lunch we kept going into the jungle and into the clouds. We saw all kinds of plants, including orchids. In mid-afternoon we reached Phuyupatamarca, a really impressive site. The name means "town in the clouds". Very appropriately named! The way in is downhill by a long staircase. Much of Day 3 is downhill stairs. Very hard on the knees, and difficult to navigate as the rocks are smooth and damp. Leaving the ruin was not fun - straight down about one thousand stairs. One THOUSAND! Everyone's knees hurt that night. Before we left Phuyupatamarca, Manuel told us we had two ways to get to the campsite. The fast way (many stairs straight down) or the long way (still stairs, but not as steep and more spread out). The long way went past some terraces. We chose to go that way, crossing our fingers we'd get to camp before dark. A group of us went together. Going this way we saw the one and only guardrail on the Inca Trail! At first I was slightly disappointed to see it as it isn't in tune with the culture, but one look down the cliff face was enough to be glad it was there! We started to be able to see the Urubamba River, which runs right by Machu Picchu. We discovered the llamas love terraces - they graze along the grass. They weren't too scared of us; they see plenty of tourists every day. We did make it to Winay Wayna, our campsite, before dark. And we were one of the lucky groups to get a site at this camp. Those who didn't had to camp further away, which means waking up even earlier than we were going to the next day in order to make it to the Sun Gate by sunrise.

    This campsite was the most uncomfortable. Each group was essentially on a terrace. And on top of hard rock. Carlos told us a funny story about a tourist who had too much to drink and fell backwards off the terrace onto a tent below. We were all careful to watch where we stepped! It started raining before dinner. Dinner that night was golden potato soup, fried chicken, barley with cheese, and a surprise dessert. Cake! We were all impressed with a baked cake and speculated on how they had accomplished such a feat on the Trail. One theory which had us all laughing was the thought of porters from all the tour groups running into Aquas Calientes (still hours away), buying cake, and running back up the Inca Trail with it.

    Part of the last night's activities included tipping the guides, cook and porters. We were a smart group and had the resident CPA figure it all out. All our porters introduced themselves. They were all super shy! We presented their tips to the head porter in a cup and also tipped the cook in his own cup. After the business was done, we shook all their hands and thanked them immensely. Winay Wayna is the only campsite with showers. However, there's a catch. They are cold. And not just normal cold. Mountain spring cold. Husband and I decided waiting another day after three already behind us wouldn't hurt so we skipped out. Plus, it was raining and hovering just above freezing temperatures. We turned in early to catch some sleep before our early wake-up call.

    >> Day 16 – Inca Trail / Machu Picchu <<

    Hotel: Hotel Continental - Recommend
    Transportation: Our own two feet!
    Tour Companies: Peru Treks – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: Can’t remember

    Our wake-up call the next morning was at 3:40AM. Super early! Sadly, it was still raining. There was a mad rush to get everyone up, eat breakfast (something resembling a pancake), and start hiking as fast as possible for... 5 minutes. We all had thought we had to hike for an hour to get to the entry gate. Not exactly. Turns out they just wanted us to be one of the first groups in line so we could get hiking as soon as possible when they opened the gate. So we stood in line, in the rain, in the dark, in the cold, for about an hour. I think. I can't remember - I was asleep on my feet, like everyone else.

    Then it was a fast 1-hour hike in the rain over very slippery stones to get to the Sun Gate. It wasn't too bad until we reached what looked like a rock climbing wall. Straight up we went. We did make it to the Sun Gate as the sun was coming up. Unfortunately, it was still raining and cloudy. We hung out on the terraces for a while, reveling in being so close and hoping the clouds would clear. (They didn’t.) We took off again and headed downhill another hour. The trail from the Sun Gate leads you straight into Machu Picchu. That early in the morning, there were almost no tourists because they hadn't opened yet. It was just the Inca Trail hikers, which was really great. The clouds cleared a little, but it drizzled the whole morning.

    After we basked in our glory for a few moments, Carlos gave us the bad news. Our group had to exit Machu Picchu, get our entry tickets, and then wait in the long line to re-enter the park. It was all very Disney-esque and quite a shock after the peacefulness and quiet of the Inca Trail. After we went back in the park (while it was still raining off and on), Carlos gave us an extensive tour. Eventually the weather cleared up and the sun came out. Husband and I hung around Machu Picchu exploring for a few more hours until it was time to meet back up with our group. We rode the bus down the mountain and met up with our group for one last time during lunch in the town, Aguas Calientes. Carlos distributed our Inca Trail completion certificates. I'll keep it forever! After lunch we found our hotel (Hotel Continental) where we enjoyed long, hot showers with great water pressure. Then we slept for a long time and went out to find dinner. (Can’t remember where we ate.)

    Hiking the Inca Trail really was the experience of a lifetime. I highly recommend it. There were people of all ages with all levels of experience. Our guides were especially awesome in letting you decide your own pace and supporting however you wanted to tackle it.

    >> Day 17 –Machu Picchu <<

    Hotel: Hotel Sol – Highly recommend
    Transportation: Peru Rail (train)
    Tour Companies: N/A
    Restaurants: The name escapes me

    We awoke the next morning to the smell of smoke. Husband poked his head outside the room (into the open courtyard) to find out what was going on. The building next door either had a fire or was on fire, but our hotel manager said not to worry about it. Everyone just went about their business like it is a standard event in their day-to-day life. We headed out from the hotel in search of a restaurant offering boxed lunches. Machu Picchu is on top of a mountain. Aguas Calientes, the only town close to Machu Picchu, is at the bottom. You can hike up to the top, but the more popular option is to take a 25-minute bus ride up. Once you're at Machu Picchu, there are two options for food: A very expensive restaurant with less than stellar food, or a snack hut which is also a rip-off. We were advised to buy boxed lunches and carry them into the park. Unfortunately we didn't want to waste time shopping around and ended up paying more than we could have, but it was fine.

    We headed to the bus station. Here we once again found the tourists. The ride up was a little scary. The road is all switchbacks going up one side of the mountain. The turns are very sharp, and there are multiple buses going up and down at the same time.
    On our agenda for Day 2 at Machu Picchu: Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain. In Machu Picchu, there are two mountains you can climb. Montana Machu Picchu, the mountain MP is situated on, and Wayna Picchu, the mountain rising behind MP in all the famous photos. We chose to do Montana Machu Picchu because I read there were less scary areas for a person with an aversion to heights. And also far less people climb Montana MP than Wayna Picchu.

    We were pretty sore from the Inca Trail, though. At first we wondered what we were getting ourselves into. Also, the day started out cloudy and rainy. Not ideal climbing conditions. But we decided to climb anyway. In total, we saw around 7 other people on this trail. The trail was mostly rock stairs, which just became more and more slippery as the rain came down harder and harder. We did get one nice glimpse of Machu Picchu. Then it started pouring. On came the ponchos. We decided to keep going up in case the weather cleared. It didn't. It was still a nice climb, though! As we descended, the weather started to dry up. By the time we were back on the ground and rested up, it had stopped raining altogether. We counted the rain as luck: Most of the other tourists had been driven away by the bad weather and we ended up almost having the place to ourselves! With a maximum of 2,500 entry tickets being sold each day, it can get very crowded!

    Our next stop was the famed Inca Bridge. Slightly disappointing. It's a cool idea and neat to see, but you can't get very close. After that we were still up pretty high in Machu Picchu, so we decided to just take in the view for a little while. And rest. The park workers start to kick you out around 5:00PM even though the park doesn't close until 6:00. So we decided to explore a little more before we had to leave.
    On the way out, we had to work our way around the grazing llamas. We said good-bye to Machu Picchu, then it was off to the train! We took one of the many trains from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo. Not the fancy Vistadome train - it was dark so we figured it wasn't worth the money. Husband was very excited! The train ride was.... okay. It was hot on the train (we all opened the windows) and noisy. The food was equivalent to domestic airline snacks.

    We arrived in Ollantaytambo and searched out our hotel, Hotel Sol. We ended up in a pretty nice hotel for cheap because I had booked us a room at their sister hotel (Hostal Iskay) and it ended up being overbooked. Error in our favor! Tthe bed was super comfortable, the bathroom was nice (hot water with pressure) and the hotel was beautiful. We went looking for dinner around 8:45PM. Difficult to find open restaurants at that time of night in Ollantaytambo. It's a small town. We did find a place, though. Husband had curry chicken. I had "lasagna" (not very lasagna-like and might have had alpaca in it). Husband liked the native Cusco beer.

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    jeanned - It cost us $510 USD per person for the hike. We added on a third of a porter ($45 each) and a sleeping bag rental ($20 each). So total $565 each.

    More coming now!

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    >> Day 18 –Sacred Valley <<

    Hotel: Piccola Locanda
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Percy Salas, private guide – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: Don Antonio? (Dinner) - Okay

    The next morning we awoke refreshed and ready to resume our touring with Percy. After breakfast at the hotel, Percy picked us up and we headed to the Ollantaytambo archaeological site. We climbed higher and higher. The stairs were much easier after 5 days of hiking and going to a (slightly) lower altitude! After walking around Ollantaytambo, we hopped in the car and drove to Pisac. As we drove, Percy told us all kinds of tidbits of information.

    Our first stop in Pisac was the giant market. We snacked on some corn on the cob. Not just any corn on the cob - the kernels were HUGE! As in, the size of nickels! It was so delicious. We wandered around and purchased some souvenirs. I found it highly amusing they were selling stuff guinea pigs. Guinea pig, or "cuy", is a delicacy in Peru. Food, not a pet. It rained for a few minutes while we ate lunch with Percy. Husband had the Peruvian dish of rocoto relleno - a sort of stuffed pepper. Then we headed up the mountain to the Inca town of Pisac. You can hike up, but it takes around 4 hours. We had enough hiking in the past few days so opted to drive instead. There were workers restoring some terraces. The site has many, many levels of terraces and then a city at the very top. We saw some children walking up the path from town and through the site. Percy told us they walk 2 hours first down the mountain to school and then 2 hours up the mountain home. They are very dedicated to education!

    On the way back to Cusco we stopped at a farm to see llamas, alpacas and vicunas. While we were there, some ladies showed us how they make the natural dye colors. The red comes from the same cactus plant we saw in Nasca they use in lipstick.

    We were back in Piccola Locanda for the next few nights (our last) in Cusco. This time we had a different room. It was on the second story all by itself - almost like being up in a tree house. Dinner that night was very exciting. (Pretty sure it was Don Antonio, but I didn't write it down. It's right off the main Plaza close to the Cathedral.) And not because we were in a touristy restaurant with a cheesy band. It was because we tried cuy! Yes, we ate a guinea pig. They cook it and bring it to you whole. Head, feet, it’s all there. Thankfully you do not eat it looking like that. They bring it out whole for fun, then take it away and cut it up for you. Though it still has feet. And yes, we did eat it! It tastes kind of like dry chicken. I doubt we'll ever eat it again, but we can say we tried it once!

    >> Day 19 –Sacred Valley <<

    Hotel: Piccola Locanda
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: N/A
    Restaurants: Juanito’s (lunch) – Highly recommend; Aldea Yanapay (dinner) – Okay

    The next morning in Cusco we tried to sleep in. No luck - we were wide awake at 7:30. Too many early mornings on the Trail! We had this day to ourselves to explore Cusco. (No Percy until the next day.) We started off at Qorikancha. It's an interesting mix of Inca, colonial and modern styles. The Spanish built their church on top of one of the most sacred Inca temples, of course. The museum was small, dark and dinky, but we had heard that before we went. (It was included in our tourist ticket.) There were morphed skulls, though.

    Later we decided to go check out the Cusco local market. Many sights along the way. We passed multiple shops selling cake by the slice and eventually broke down and bought one. It was delicious! And all for less than $1! We were overwhelmed when we reached the market. It was huge! Whatever you wanted or needed, it was there. Meat? Got it. Cheese? Got it. Bread? That's there too. Vegetables, fruit, clothes, gifts.... it's all there.

    We eventually pulled ourselves away from the awesomeness of the market and headed through the city in search of a particular lunch spot. Juanito's was our destination. We had read about their superb sandwiches, something which is hard to find in Peru. It was well worth the uphill walk! You choose your sandwich, then pick as many sauces as you'd like! Husband had lechon (suckling pig). I had pork chicharron. There were sweet potatoes on my sandwich. Both were delicious.

    Next we went to the best museum we had seen so far: Museo Inka. It has the most complete collection of pre-Incan and Incan artifacts. The museum had most of the finds from the Sacred Valley sites we had seen already. They have the turquoise figurines which were found at Pikillacta, which were awesome to see.

    We had dinner at this trippy, kooky place called Aldea Yanapay. Stuffed animals everywhere and the servers wore crazy hats. Since we weren't very hungry, we just nibbled and played card games.

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    Last part!

    >> Day 20 –Sacred Valley <<

    Hotel: Piccola Locanda
    Transportation: N/A
    Tour Companies: Percy Salas, private guide – Highly recommend
    Restaurants: Chicha (dinner) – Highly recommend

    Our last day in Cusco, and our last in the Sacred Valley, came all too quickly. We were with Percy for our last day. He had a great itinerary planned out. We piled into his car and headed out towards Chinchero. On the way we stopped to take some photos of the beautiful mountains.

    At Chinchero, we first had a weaving lesson. The ladies showed us all the natural dye ingredients and demonstrated how to clean the alpaca fur and prepare it to be woven into blankets and more. On we went to the site itself. Chinchero served as a palace for one of the Inca royalty. The site has been mostly excavated. You can see many rooms at different levels.

    We came across a bunch of potatoes lying in the grass. Percy said a local was drying them out to store for winter. The Spanish came and did their usual - built a church on top of the Inca temple. The church is from the 16th century and still has its original paintings. They are able to keep them in tact mostly because the weather is very dry.

    There were vendors, of course. We were amused by a chess set depicting Inca warriors versus Spanish conquistadors.

    Next we headed to Maras, a valley full of salt pans. If you eat salt in Peru, it most likely came from here. Different families own groupings of salt pans and work them in the dry season to supplement their income. 5 kilograms of salt amounts to about $9.00 USD. That's about $40 per pan. Percy led us straight onto the pans and had us try some salt.

    Our next destination was Moray. On the way we saw more beautiful countryside. Moray is amazing. If you go to Peru and are in the Sacred Valley and don't have time to see all the sites, don't skip this one. As you drive up to the site, all you see is the hill you are walking up. Once you reach the top and look down, you see the terraces. They believe this site was used to genetically select crops to be used at higher altitudes over time. You can climb all the way down, but you have to go via Inca stairs. AKA rocks balanced in a stone wall. Sometimes there are big gaps between the steps - not good for short-legged people! But we were brave and made it down (and up again). Apparently some people believe the very center holds some sort of good karma or magical properties. We saw plenty of people meditating and doing other interesting things there. Husband said he didn't feel anything special.

    On our way back to Cusco, Percy stopped at a reputable location for chicha (corn beer). This woman has been brewing it for a long time, as you can tell by the flowers marking her property instead of the modern tarp "flags". One interesting thing is how people brew their own corn beer. It's called chicha. It is not commercially manufactured. If you want to find some, you have to look for a "flag" which is some sheer plastic tarp wrapped around a long pole. Apparently they used to be actual flags in red, blue or yellow. You just pull over and head in to buy some beer! And it's very cheap. We paid 1 sole which bought us a giant glass. Percy instructed A to first give some to Mother Earth. The next instruction was to not drink very much. Apparently tourists (or anyone not accustomed to drinking chicha) can get kinda sick off it. No problems here (though we barely drank any!).

    Back in Cusco we watched a few street performances at the Festival de Arte Total. Between the two of us we could only catch certain phrases, but the acting was funny. The kids' performance was really cute.

    We had made reservations the night before for one of the "fancy" restaurants in Cusco. It's appropriately called Chicha. The food was very tasty and also very artsy. Husband had beef cheek which he said was delicious. I had Pachamanca. It's a stew of chicken, lamb, pork, fava beans and potatoes topped with Andean cheese and baked in the oven. (Traditionally baked in an earthen oven.) Yum!

    >> Day 21 –Lima <<

    Hotel: Second Home Peru
    Transportation: StarPeru (flight)
    Tour Companies: N/A
    Restaurants: Cesar (lunch) – Recommend; Pardo’s Chicken (dinner) – Recommend (though not as good as Los Toldos!)

    Our time in the Sacred Valley was up. Early on Sunday morning we headed to the Cusco airport to catch our flight to Lima. We managed to somehow not pay the departure tax. (The service desk attendant stamped it as paid on our tickets.)

    Lima looked like it apparently always does in winter - foggy or overcast. There is little to no sunshine. They call it La Garua and it's more than fog but less than rain. We had an issue getting to our hotel. Even though we showed the taxi driver the address and the location on a map, he was pretty incompetent. Eventually we arrived at Second Home Peru, our hotel/art gallery. We pet the resident dogs, dropped off our stuff, then headed to lunch.

    The restaurant was recommended in the guidebook and somehow had three names.
    Guidebook = Mi Causa
    Building Sign = Cesar
    Menu = Belar

    Whatever the name, their specialty is the causa, Peru's version of potato salad. Really closer to mashed potatoes with toppings, served hot or cold. We got one inspired by ceviche (fried fish with onions and marinade) and one vegetarian (spinach potatoes with corn, cheese, artichoke, avocado). Both delicious.

    Another taxi ride brought us to Lima's Plaza de Armas. Beautiful colonial architecture. There were plenty of guards outside the president's house. They were very friendly and fun to talk with.

    We walked to the Monasterio de San Francisco where we had a great tour. Once again, no photos permitted. (I did get a few, though. I’m so bad.) They had the most amazing catacombs. No photos from down there, sadly. (They do sell postcards with good pictures, though!) Scientists estimate about 25,000 people are buried there. They sorted the larger bones when counting the bodies (femurs, skulls, etc) and left then in interesting formations. In the walls, in circular patterns. Definitely worth seeing!

    Next we walked to the Parque de la Muralla (Park of the City Wall). They built a park around the remnants of the original Lima city wall. There's a kids' amusement park there with what I'm sure are licensed characters. There is also a statue of a conquistador most people believe is Pizarro. But apparently it's not! Our walk took us down to La Merced Church where people come to touch the silver cross in hopes of a miracle. Then we sat in a plaza and watched clowns give free hugs and a guy feed a stray dog a churro. Then another churro to try to get him to leave him alone. (Didn't work. If you give a dog a churro...)

    That night we checked out the Circuito Magico del Agua. Colorful fountains lit up by lights. Some are synced to music. It was packed with locals and tourists alike.

    >> Day 22 –Lima & Home <<

    The next morning we took our time getting ready so we could enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean. We were served breakfast in their kitchen. Just us two. There are only 5 or 6 rooms in the hotel, but we didn't see other guests. We were then given a tour of the house, art and studio where the owner's father still works. We got to meet him as well. Very cool hotel.

    We took another taxi back to Lima Central and took a tour of the Cathedral where we saw Pizarro's remains. The cathedral has catacombs as well as tombs of wealthy churchgoers.

    Lunch was a cooking class at Sky Kitchen which is in the chef's top-floor apartment. We made Papas a la Huacachina, Ceviche and Aji de Gallina (chicken in pepper sauce). All very delicious. And super fun.

    After lunch we did a self-tour of the Museo Larco. Another really great museum. They have tens of thousands of artifacts. Most are in the storeroom, which you can also tour. Here we finally found some Inca gold the Spanish had not melted down. Museo Larco is famous for its erotic pottery section. It was very interesting. There were pieces of animals, couples, and also dead people. (If you don’t want to see that kind of stuff, don’t worry – it’s in a separate section entirely.)

    Our flight wasn't until almost midnight, so we got dinner at a sandwich place and hung out in one of the neighborhood parks for a while. While we were sitting in the park, three Policia Turistico walked right towards us. I'll admit: For a second, I was worried. But they just asked if we could let one of them practice his English with us. It was a fun conversation. They told us they prefer to talk to Americans because we are nicer than Europeans. (We were flattered.)

    Then the time had finally come - time to head home. Thankfully uneventful flights. I hope our trip has inspired you to visit this amazing, intriguing country. There's so much to see and do.

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    aviel - The weather varies by region. When we were in Lima, it was moderately warm but overcast and damp (highs around 70/75). Nasca was hot (80s, sun). Lake Titicaca was cold (highs in the 60s/70s, but lows in the 30s). Cusco/Sacred Valley was also chilly (highs in the 70s, but lows in the 30s). Machu Picchu got warmer during the afternoon when it was sunny but was also chilly in the morning and evening.

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    shutterbug85.. What a great report. 4friends and I are planning our trip for October 2014. All your suggestions are great. Question for all your private tour guides you had how much did you pay? What are your recommendation for packing or rather how much to pack? Ps. I'm also in Chicago .

    Take care

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