If you are looking for a truly authentic cultural experience, Peru is the place for you. This was, by far, the most 'real' and immersive vacation of my life. Peru was actually the first place I traveled to outside of the US. Crazy right. Yes, there are areas that are more focused on tourism, but you will have many more opportunities to interact with Peruvians and witness aspects of their daily lives than anywhere else.
Not only is the country extremely beautiful with a variety of different ecosystems, but it is also home to the ancient Inca civilization. What's more, even today, Peru has many indigenous tribes! These tribes are hidden deep in the Amazon have zero contact with the outside world. They still live as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years. Their inhabited lands are protected by the government and it is illegal to enter as well as extremely dangerous. As you would expect, there have been reports of tribe members protecting their homes from non-natives with force. I don't know about you, but I don't think I'd want an arrow flying my way.
In Peru, you will also see many other tribes and natives that have chosen to take part in the modern world. Yes, they have contact with civilization, but still live completely off the land with little to no technological advances. These Peruvians still embrace their culture in the traditional ways. You'll see them throughout your travels wearing authentic Peruvian clothing and tending to their farms and animals.
As always when traveling, take everything in. Pause and look around. It's a humbling experience. You are very very fortunate. Remember that. Be grateful with what you have, because really all those little things don't matter. These people all live within their means. And in that, they are so happy and truly content. It is a life lesson for us all.
In Peru, the primary language is Spanish with other dialects as well. There are many times that you will not hear a word of English. You need to brush up on your Spanish for sure. Many locals, even in touristy areas, do not speak English. Learn the essentials. I honestly took some notes in my phone so I wouldn't forget. This was also before the times of Google Translate. I would suggest downloading the app if you haven't already. If you do go to a more traveled area, most likely you will go to restaurants that have an English menu or at least have pictures to choose from. We didn't have any pressing issues with communication. You might just have a very broken conversation or a lot of hand gestures. It's all good! Since I've discovered my passion for traveling and experiencing, I really gained a large appreciation for language learning and hope to instill that in future generations.
Peru has it's own currency as well. It is called the Sol. It is not commonly requested in the US, so you will need to speak with your bank. Take out a good bit of cash. Yes, the exchange rate highly favors the dollar, but in places like this, cash is king. You will be purchasing a lot of little things here and there from local markets and shops. All cash only. Make sure you ask for a lot of smaller bills, it'll make everyone's lives easier. Keep your coins to give to children in the villages. A tiny bit of money goes a long way. When booking your trip and excursions, use your foreign transaction fee free credit card. You will find ATMs in larger cities, but don't count on them. As always, make sure your banks know you are traveling.
There are many different delicacies in Peru. Their most famous is Guinea Pig (Cuy). I didn't know how I felt about eating a guinea pig, but I tasted a bit. If you didn't tell me, I'd think it was chicken. They also have a lot of meat stir fry-esk dishes with rice as well as stuffed peppers. Potato variations are pretty much served with every meal. Grilled fish and ceviche is also common by the lakes. Don't forget about the fruits and veggies. They are delicious! Try the stuffed avocado, you will be in heaven.
We spent over a week in Peru and wish we had more time. I would love to return again and do a few things that we couldn't fit in, such as backpacking The Inca Trail, visiting The Rainbow Mountains, hiking the snow covered Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range, white water rafting the Rio and so much more. Until we meet again Peru!
From the capital of Lima, you will need to take a quick flight to Cusco. Cusco is a much smaller city, high up in the mountains. It is very pretty with authentic Incan architecture and ruins as well as Spanish influences throughout. Sadly, after the Spanish invasion, Peruvians were forced to change religion, many of their goods were seized and there was a removal of all the ancient relics. That's all you're getting from this little history lesson. You have to go there and learn yourself. But back to it, when I say it's high up in the mountains, I mean high up. The city sits at over 11,000 ft above sea level! Altitude sickness is very common here. Prepare ahead of time and grab some altitude pills before you arrive. I was completely fine, but my husband was acting as if he had the worst hangover of his life. Not a fun way to spend a day of your holiday. The city itself is very unique with the combination of cultures. You will have massive Spanish Cathedrals and then traditional Peruvian vibes right next door. The streets are cobblestone and the city is filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, street markets and more. There are large squares throughout the city that are really the gathering location for locals and travelers alike. We were actually very lucky to be in Cusco during one of their festivals. It was a really cool experience and was similar to what we would consider a parade, just 100% livelier. Everyone was in their traditional Peruvian clothing with dancers, music, singers, alpacas and street vendors all lining the city. Cusco is kind of the hub for onward travel. Most sites you are looking to see have trains or other means of transportation leaving from Cusco. We only spent a day and a half in the city before we continued on our train adventure towards Machu Picchu.
Cusco has a lot of history with quite a range of variety. Both from an ancient Incan civilization perspective as well as from the Spanish conquest. In the city, take some time to learn about the past. You will learn about their culture, their home and many of the hardships that befell the Peruvian people. Throughout town, there are many different museums and churches you can choose to tour. There are also different structures and sculptures throughout the city that tell their story as well.
AROUND THE CITY
Wonder around the city and go up and down the side streets. You never know what you may see or come across. You'll find so many cool little nooks of shops and cafes off the beaten path. Hidden little gardens and tiny oasis's. You will also come across local Peruvian markets that are really really cool. Again, the bright happy colors make everything even livelier. Anything from handcrafted goods, clothing made from alpaca wool, to meats, cheeses, grains and fruits. Artists and artisans are also very prominent at the markets. Honestly, anything you may be looking for souvenir wise, you can find here. Don't forget, cash only!
WALK TO THE SACSAYHUAMAN
Within walking distance from the city center, is the Sacayhuaman ancient ceremonial site of the Incas. It is at the top of a hill and looks down on the city. Be prepared for a little bit of an upward climb. This is a large field of massive stone boulders that fit perfectly together to create walls. This sacred site was actually unearthed. The whole original top half was removed, thanks to the Spaniards. As you walk the fields, read the plaques posted to learn about the ceremonies that transpired. You'll also find some hidden stone animal details within the walls, such as a giant puma paw. What is also neat, is that this ancient site is still used today in celebrations.
Aguas Calientes is a small town below Machu Picchu. It is filled with hotels, shops and restaurants. The layout of the town is kind of odd, you will see what I mean. When you check into your hotel, make sure you take a map from the reception desk. It is easy to get turned around. In town, there is also a small square that is the local gathering point as well as many indoor/outdoor markets. Aguas Calientes primarily exists to support the tourism and you will find prices to be higher here than most places you visit. To be honest, there really isn't a crazy amount of things to do in town. There are thermal hot springs that you can bathe in, if you want. I'm not gonna lie, I found it to be gross and didn't even get in. Usually I'd be all about that, but the area didn't seem sanitary at all with tons of people.
You do not need a crazy amount of time to visit this area. The day you arrive, do things around town as well as the Putucusi Mountain Hike if you are adventurous enough. I would suggest using the following full day to visit Machu Picchu and hike the Huayna Picchu Loop. There are also a few more places you can explore at the top of the mountain as well, all have signage. Again, if we had more time, I would have 100% hiked the Inca Trail that leads straight into the ruins.
To get to Aguas Calientes, it is a little bit of a journey. There are two companies you can choose from; IncaRail and PeruRail. We chose IncaRail for this trip. You begin by taking a bus from Cusco, which then takes you to the train station. The bus ride is an hour and a half. Followed by a train ride of another hour and a half before arriving at Aguas Calientes. The train itself is actually super cool. You can also choose your class of train as well. It was much fancier than I ever would have anticipated, even the cheaper tickets. It is decked out with Amazon Jungle vibes with great Peruvian background music. The scenery you see during your journey is beautiful and keeps you engaged for sure.
LOCAL HIKE OF PUTUCUSI MT.
Ok, so, this is a very dangerous hike and should only be done by avid hikers. If you are not sure footed, are scared of heights, or it has rained, DO NOT attempt. It is probably the scariest hike I've ever done in my life. We casually asked our hotel where we should go to do a hike that is walking distance from town. They sent us here. Not knowing any better, we ended up doing this crazy thing. But seriously, it was incredible with the most epic views of the entire area of Machu Picchu from the top. Getting to the top is what is difficult. It is straight up the entire way. You must also climb many handmade wooden ladders that are just resting against cliffs. Some are in better shape than others. Honestly, if you slip and fall, you could be seriously injured if not die. I actually had my first and only legit panic attack during the climb. My fear of heights was on overload. Just when you thought you were done with the ladders, you look up and there's more. After you make it up, you have to come down the exact same way. It was worth it for sure. But I say that now, with my feet on the ground.
Machu Picchu definitely warrants being one of the wonders of the ancient world. It truly is an incredible site to be seen. Knowing that this Incan civilization existed and created this world high up in the Andes Mountains, is crazy. Imaging how it was built is just mind-blowing. Wonder around and take it all in. You'll find historical plaques throughout to learn about the city and what each of the areas of the ruins were used for. To this day, archeologists are still finding new ruins like this throughout Peru. I suggest getting there first thing in the morning for its opening. There are a lot less people at this time. You can choose to hike from town and see the sunrise at the top, or ride in one of small vans. The single lane dirt roads are crazy steep and windy. Just don't look down. We chose the van option. If you plan to hike, look into how long it will take. Also, you will need to pre-purchase your tickets the prior day in town. You will also receive the van ticket with meeting instructions. Don't worry, the vans run very often, both ways. You can spend as much time as you want taking it all in! Also, pack water, snacks, bug spray and some light layers.
HIKE THE HUAYNA PICCHU LONG LOOP
When standing in the iconic spot on top of Machu Picchu, looking out over the ruins, you are actually staring right at Huayna Picchu. You can actually hike this mountain! There is a short trail and a long trail. If you are a good hiker, take the long trail. Again, hiking here is at your own risk. You actually have to sign a log when you go in and out of the hike. It is very steep with teeny tiny Peruvian rock stairs that are coined 'the stairs of death'. I have small feet, and I was walking on my tippy toes the whole time. I know you want to get great pictures and that awesome selfie, but seriously, don't mess around. Tourists have died on this mountain due to stupidity. This hike can be dangerous if you don't pay attention. Also, there are time slots for hiking this mountain. Double check available times before you go. Tickets can be purchased outside the entrance.
If you are already in the midst of your travels, the easiest way to get to Puno, is from Cusco. You will have to do a little backtracking if you were in Machu Picchu prior. We ended up doing a quick overnight in Cusco again before venturing on. As I said, Cusco is a hub for a lot of the tourist destinations. You can choose to train or bus from Cusco to Puno. You can also get to Puno if you fly out from the capital of Lima.
When you arrive at Puno, you will immediately realize it is much more of a city than Cusco. Puno is right on the Peruvian/Bolivian border. Stay in the touristy areas! We went off the beaten path a little bit and decided to walk up to the massive condor sculpture that looks over the city. We were actually hustled for money by a police officer while we were up there. It was a little intimidating for sure. It is much safer in the main square of Puno. There are many cathedrals, museums, small parks, shops and restaurants you can check out.
But lets be honest, you don't go to Puno for the city! You go to Puno because it is home of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca and as well as the Taquile Islands. As I said, Puno is right beside the Bolivian border. Both countries technically split ownership of the lake. It is said by the Peruvians that they are the 'Titi' and Bolivia is the 'caca' haha.
ENJOY THE TRAIN RIDE TO PUNO
The train from Cusco to Puno, via PeruRail, is an all day affair. It takes over 10 hours to get there, but it is incredible in so many ways. It is considered to be one of the best train rides in the world! The cars are exquisite with fancy lounges, bars, dining cars, observation decks, outdoor areas and more. You will be riding in luxury! Your ticket should include almost everything within the price. If I remember correctly, you are served one 4 course meal on your journey and are also provided snacks, booze and beverages. The train also has live Peruvian entertainment as you travel, including dancers, musicians and singers. You will be exploring Peru as you go. Your journey will be filled with breathtaking views and you will also pass quaint farms. One stop is planned on your ride and you are given a chance to hop off the train at a local village. For a small allotment of time, you can wonder around and grab something from the nearby market. Then hop back on the train and continue your journey.
VISIT THE FLOATING ISLANDS
The floating islands of Lake Titicacca are just that, small islands built out of reeds. These unique islands are home to a small Incan tribe, who live off the lake. They hunt birds and fish as well as weave a lot of tapestries. You will be brought to one of the larger islands and have a chance to interact with the tribe. Some may welcome you into their reed homes and show you all of their incredible work. You will be able to purchase some of their pieces if you would like. Choose to take a ride on one of their reef boats around the island. Spending time here is not only really cool, but a truly humbling experience. The tribe was so happy and are truly proud to show us their craft. This experience really brings about self-reflection and remembering what matters in life. These people are truly content just the way things are. They have roofs over their heads, food in their bellies and the love of family all around them.
EXPLORE THE TAQUILE ISLAND
Further into the lake is Taquile Island. The boat ride takes about an hour and a half each way from the Puno harbor. This peaceful, beautiful little island is just perfect. It has a small village square on top of the hill, which is the heart of the island. Everywhere you look is beautiful scenery. There is a path that wraps from one end of the island to the other with amazing lookout points as well as white sandy beaches. The inhabitants of this island are so nice and welcoming. They are also completely self sufficient. They farm and fish from the island and create goods that they sell on the mainland. You will be brought to someone's home where they will prepare your lunch. It was literally the best meal we had in Peru. We saw a man when we arrived, carrying a large basket of freshly caught fish on his back, straight up a hill. Little did we know, this man just caught our lunch! Fresh grilled fish with rice and vegetables. Talk about the real deal! All ingredients came straight from the island.