Peru (part 1): Exploring nature and history

What I heard about Peru was that it’s a beautiful country with interesting historical sites to see and some of the best food on the planet (and I do love good food). Hence, my first trip to South America was to explore the ruins of the Inca empire and taste Peruvian food, especially that amazing ceviche!

I went realised my trip in September 2016 with a dear friend that came from Europe to Mexico and then we went together to Peru. There’s so much I want to say about a week we spent in Peru, so I will split the blog in two parts. In this, first part, I’ll focus on my travels around the country exploring the beautiful nature and the historic sites (well also some cities); and in the second part, I’ll focus on the food and restaurants.

A weekend in Lima

I have not met anyone that would have loved the architecture or history of the city, but every single person I’ve  spoken to was raving about its culinary scene. And I could not agree more. The nicest area of the city with most of the restaurants & bars is Miraflores. We also stayed in a hotel in Miraflores and I recommend it also because then there is less time wasted in driving between the areas since the traffic is pretty bad.

The famous Lima cliffs (i.e. Lima is sitting on a cliff above the ocean and the views are impressive) are just on the edge of Miraflores. There’s a promenade on top of the cliffs and a shopping complex, called Larcomar, from where the views are very nice both during day and night.

For what ancient history goes, there are some ruins of the Lima culture (pre-Inca culture from 100-650 AD). The most significant site is the Huaca Pucllana also in Miraflores. It’s a strange sort of brick structure that was, mostly due to posterior cultures and modern civilisation, largely destroyed or buried under modern apartment buildings. It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in Lima, but it’s nothing compared to the ruins in Sacred Valley. What is very nice on the site, however, is that they have some typical Andean animals there, such as lamas, alpacas, cuys, etc.

As expected, there’s also a colonial centre, called centro histórico. The nicest parts of the old Lima are two squares, the Plaza Mayor and the Plaza San Martín, together with the street connecting them, the Jirón de la Unión, with several nice (mostly government) buildings and the cathedral. We spent a couple of hours during the morning to walk around these areas. We also walked a bit out, but soon it gets pretty dirty and rough. There is not much else interesting to see and the traffic is very bad, making it very hard to breathe and the noise levels are very high (and I’m used to busy cities like Bangkok and Mexico City).

Visiting Lima or not is a serious challenge for travellers, on one hand the city is not very interesting from a tourist perspective, but on the other the food is mind-blowing. We were pondering for a long time on how many days should we spend in Lima and at the end we decided for 3 nights (2 at the beginning of the trip and 1 at the end). I think it was a good choice that allowed us to get a good taste of the food. But if you don’t care about food, then skip Lima all together and focus on other parts of Peru.

Lake Titicaca (aka gray puma)

Lake of many records, like the largest lake in South America and one of the highest ones in the world. It’s at just under 4,000m above sea level and we could definitely feel the altitude, especially since we ascended directly from Lima at sea level. Fortunately, we didn’t experience mayor problems though, but we did feel a slight headache and stomach bloating the whole time we were there. My travel companion spent some days in Mexico City, which is at 2,500m, just before going to Peru and I think it helped her to adjust to the altitude. That aside, the lake and the nature around it is really something special and hard to describe with words (or do it justice on iPhone photos).

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The main airport is in Juliaca, about 50km away from Puno. We took a colectivo van from the airport and it took about an hour, but there are also private taxis. Juliaca looks rather dodgy, so I wouldn’t want to stay there, but Puno is not that interesting either… well you don’t go there for the cities but for the nature. However, we did like the Libertador Hotel for the amazing views of the lake and the sunset. We went only for an afternoon drink, but next time I’d try to stay there as well.

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One of the main attractions are the floating Uros islands. They are islands made out of layers of totora plant and that’s how they float on the water. Since the totora rots, the islanders have to constantly renew their islands (and houses). We took a trip from the main pier in Puno. No need to book an organised tour, we just showed up and bought the ticket for about S/.10. The boat waited to fill up and then it took us to one of the islands. It seems like there’s an island per family and the chief of the island/family explained about their life and community. They were also very insistent on selling their local crafts (it seems like tourism is their main source of income).

For some extra money (S/.10 pp) the chief took us on his ‘boat’ (that he called his Mercedes) to the main square of the islands (the Plaza Mayor as he referred to it). Well it’s no Plaza Mayor but a little bigger island, where there is a school, a shop and a restaurant. There we tried a fried Titicaca trout… not bad at all, but maybe a bit adventurous (we were fine though).

Train ride from Puno to Cuzco

When we were planning this trip we read about this super luxury and super pricey train that connects Puno and Cuzco in 10 hours. And it is expensive indeed, the ride from Cuzco to Puno is over $300 and the other way is ‘only’ $170, especially comparing to busses that do that same route in the same amount of time for about $60. Nevertheless, we decided that the experience would be worth it and so we took the cheaper direction on the train. It turned out to be a completely amazing experience. The seats are comfortable armchairs, which they arrange based on the number of people travelling together, so we had two armchairs with a table only for ourselves.

In the rear of the train there is a bar &  observation car to see the views of the landscape passing by.

They prepared quite a delicious lunch and an afternoon tea, as well as organised some shows and pisco sour tastings.

And the most important, the views of the landscape as you go along are amazing.

At about half way, the train stops at the highest point of the journey (4,319m!!!). You can get off and have a look at the snowy mountains surrounding the valley, the little church and a market set-up for people from the train.

Imperial Cuzco & the Sacred Valley

Cuzco was a positive surprise, especially after Lima and Puno, we didn’t have high expectations. It turned out to be a true colonial gem in the middle of the Andes. I think it is worth exploring the city for a day.

The Sacred Valley is the real draw for tourists in Cuzco and around. Most of the Sacred Valley monuments are included in the boleto turísitco (S/.130) that is valid for 10 days and includes 16 sites in the valley (there are options for a third of the sites for S/.70, but that didn’t work out for us). Unfortunately, we hadn’t planed enough time in Cuzco or the Sacred Valley. Hence, we only saw some sites in Cuzco itself, the centre with the Plaza Mayor was nice to explore, and the Quiricancha was nice (an Inca temple with a church built on top).

We took a colectivo van to Ollanta (about 2h), because apparently it’s faster & cheaper and the train times were strange. It was cheap indeed, but a very very scary ride. From Cuzco the road first goes up and then steeply descends into the Sacred Valley (I was quite surprised to learn that MP is on a lower altitude than Cuzco). And the driver was not slowing down at all when driving on those narrow roads over steep cliffs.

In Ollanta there are impressive ruins just in the village. They are a nice introduction to the Inca culture before MP.

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The only way to reach MP is by train, which takes you to Aguascalientes (or Machu Picchu pueblo as it’s also referred to). The little village is there only for the purposes of tourism and is quite ugly.

Since we didn’t want to carry all the luggage to MP just for a day, we decided to book the same hotel in Cuzco for the second night and continue just with a small carry on. It was a wise decision as on the trains there’s very little space, we were only passing through Ollanta for a couple of hours. There we left the luggage at the train station, well Peru Rail have a left luggage facility, but Inca Rail don’t, and since we were travelling with Inca Rail, they sent us to leave the luggage at a restaurant for a small fee (it worked just fine).

Machu Picchu

When we were buying the tickets for MP we decided to include the climb up the Huayna Picchu. The only available slot on that particular day was between 7 and 8am, which forced us to spend the night at Aguascalienes – and thankfully we did. It looks like many people decide to do MP on a day-trip from Cuzco, and it’s perfectly doable, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They get to MP at 10-11am and the site is absolutely packed with tourists.

img_2978The morning to climb to MP starts very early. We also bought the ticket for the bus the evening before to save time in the morning. The first bus leaves at 5:30am and to get the first bus they recommended us to start queuing up at 4:30am (!!!) By the time we got there the queue was already several blocks long (not sure when did the first people get there then) and people kept coming and coming.

 

At 5:30 many busses start taking people the 20min ride up the mountain, so we got to the entrance at around 6am. After another queue to check your tickets (and passports – they check your passports even for the bus) we were inside. We wanted to get a good view of the site before tourists flood in, so just after entering (as you see the first Inca houses) we took a left-turn onto a path leading towards another entrance to MP, where the Inca trail gets in and where you can go towards the Montaña (the other mountain you can climb). From there we got the best postcard views almost without any people in sight.

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After taking lots of pictures from there, we walked around for a bit and headed towards the entrance to the path to climb up the Huayna Picchu (that’s the mountain in the background on the picture above). The climb was not too difficult and it took us about 1h. The views from atop were amazing and definitely worth the effort.

After descending from HP we walked around the site a bit more, but around 10-11am most of the tourists arrived and it became very crowded. Slowly we decided to head down slowly to catch our 4pm train back to Cuzco. Intentionally we bought only one way bus ticket the night before because we wanted to have a walk down. It took about 1.5h from MP to Aguascalientes and it was a pleasant walk.

The train back to Cuzco took about 3h, and after the whole day at MP we were quite tired. The worst thing, though, is that the train doesn’t arrive to Cuzco but to Poroy, a small village 30min way. When we arrived there the taxis were trying to charge really high prices and they were not very open to bargaining. Fortunately, we found another two fellow travellers from Brazil and we shared a taxi all together. But for the next time, I think we should have pre-booked a car to wait for us there. Maybe not for lower price, but for safety and less hassle.

The time of the year

We went to Peru in September and that was mainly because of the most famous site. They say that the weather to visit MP is best during the June to October, since it is the dry season. September is also at the end of the high tourist season so we were hoping the sites would be less crowded.

However, in September there is still winter in Peru and it can get quite cold, especially in Lima where the humidity is high. Indeed, it was cold and wet in Lima, though it didn’t really rain much. At lake Titicaca the weather was beautiful and sunny but very cold, and in Cuzco & MP it was mild, sunny and springy during the day and chilly at night (especially during that 4:30am wait for the bus). So we were quite happy we prepared well for cold weather.

Domestic flights in Peru

In general it is quite easy to travel around Peru by air. However, one needs to be careful when buying tickets. If you’re not Peruvian or a resident, you cannot buy the cheapest promo/discount fares on Avianca or Latam, but the flexible fares. I mean, the system will allow you to, but then at check-in you may incur a fine. We were lucky to have read that somewhere, so I can’t actually say if they insist, but since it’s money for them, I’m sure they do.

Because of this the domestic flights can be quite expensive. We paid around $180 for 1h long domestic flights 😦 After I came back home I heard, though, that there are some domestic low-cost carriers that do not apply this rule, but I haven’t checked it myself.

Prices

Peru is not a cheap destination. Due to the large quantity of people wanting to see MP the prices around there and the Sacred valley are quite high. As already mentioned, planes and trains are very expensive, as well as anything in Aguascalientes. Also restaurants in Lima are at par to Western European prices, for example Lima is much pricier than Mexico City.

Summary of our itinerary

Day 1 (arrival to Lima)

  • Landed at around 6pm, headed to hotel
  • Dinner: Rafael (4.5*)

Accommodation in Lima: Radisson Decapolis Miraflores (2 nights). Very well located, nice breakfast, but slightly old and would need a lift-up (4*)

Day 2 (Lima)

  • Morning: walk through Miraflores & Huaca Pucllana
  • Lunch: La Mar cevicheria (5*)
  • Afternoon: walk on the cliffs and Lacromar
  • Dinner: La Rosa Nautica (4*)

Day 3 (Lima and departure to Titicaca)

  • Morning: centro histórico
  • Lunch: Astrid & Gaston (5*)
  • Afternoon: airport for the flight to Juliaca

Accommodation in Puno: Hotel Jose Antonio Puno (2 nights). Nice views of the lake, but a bit far from town in the wrong direction, breakfast very poor (2*)

Day 4 (Titicaca)

  • Exploring the lake, Uros islands, Puno and the Libertador hotel
  • Dinner: Mojsa (4*)

Day 5 (PeruRail to Cuzco)

  • Whole day on the train
  • Dinner: Marcelo Batata (3.5*)

Accommodation in Cuzco: Novotel (1 night). A renovated old building in a cobbled street in the centre of Cuzco – very charming hotel, and the internal patio is lovely. We were upgraded to a room in the old building in the second floor which was really nice (5*)

Day 6 (Ollantaytambo and Aguascalientes)

  • Morning: Ollanta ruins
  • Afternoon: train to Aguascalientes
  • Dinner: El Indio Feliz (3*) – apparently the best restaurant in town, but I bet that’s not hard to achieve

Accommodation in Aguascalientes: El Quetzal Machupicchu (1 night). Very basic, but I think any hotel in Aguascalientes is like this. The staff were very nice, explained how everything worked and even prepared a take-away breakfast for us at 4am (3*)

Day 7 (MP and back to Cuzco)

  • Machu Picchu
  • Afternoon: Train to Cuzco at 4pm

Accommodation in Cuzco: Novotel (1 night). This time no upgrade and we got a ground floor room, which was very basic. Also the staff were very badly organised for our luggage, we left it there just for a night, but they were looking for it for at least 30min.

Day 8 (Cuzco and Lima)

  • Morning: walk around Cuzco, Quiricancha
  • Early afternoon flight to Lima
  • Dinner: Museo Lacro (4.5*)

Accommodation in Lima: Sheraton Hotel (1 night). Nice hotel on one of the main squares, and very close to the centro histórico (10 min on foot). Slightly dated and full of events. We got a super upgrade and it gave us an upgrade to the hotel lounge on the top floor with nice views (4*)

 

 

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