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I can't even remember when I first stumbled on the stunning picture of Machu Picchu and decided, I will make it happen in this lifetime. Unlike many dreamers, I didn't even know about its geographical location, history or the country. With feeble memories, Machu Picchu happened to be on my checklist. Luckily my husband also shared the similar to-do list. We wanted to travel to South America and Peru seemed a good place to kick start our best of Peru in 12-days expedition. There are many fascinating places to travel within Peru and a lot more than just Machu Picchu. I was crazy busy from the time we booked our tickets to Lima, Peru so 99.99% of planning was done by my husband. My job during the 12-day Peru trip was of travel photographer for the year 2016.
So we began with researching the must visit places or things you have to do while in Peru. Being a photographer, I usually search for places and see the kind of pictures are being taken beforehand. Can I get there early morning or late evening to capture the nature's dramatic lighting? Can I capture the essence of its rich culture, tradition and people? On the other hand, my husband's focus is usually on trekking and hiking so bringing these two school of thoughts is one of the most difficult task but we do come together sometimes.
For us, it was about doing the most important things first and get the Andean flavour of Incan footsteps, quinoa and experience the rainforest. So here is how we split 12-days exploring and photographing the best of Peru.
Arrive in Lima, the capital of Peru usually late at night if you are flying from the USA. The city is crowded and quite a bit of traffic even at 11pm in the night. Since we were flying to Cusco the next day, we stayed at Limaq hotel which is an ok hotel and found it expensive considering the value we receive for the price. The only hotel next to the airport is Wyndham and relatively expensive so Limaq at $122 was an ok compromise.
Tip: Use Uber to get an airport taxi and exact fare price.
Leave for Cusco via Avianca (Star alliance flight) in the morning. Spend rest of the afternoon at Cusco getting acclimatise with the elevation (highly recommended). We found an excellent deal at Novotel at just $95 a night with breakfast included. It was one of the best hotel offering really good food, service and ambience. Perfect base for exploring this historic city of Cusco on foot.
Same day evening we had a briefing with our tour agent Inca trail reservation in Cusco for our 2 days express trek to Machu Picchu. If you can avoid this tour company, please do as It was disorganised and confusing at many levels. Although you can't do the trek on your own and have to depend on the local tour companies to do any kind of trekking to or around Inca trail.
6 am pick up was organised by the tour company and we joined another group from the bus station to visit the sacred valley. The best part of this trip was to be able to see ruins of Pisaq overlooking the Urubamba river, the quaint town of Ollantaytambo in Sacred Valley. Lunch was part of our tour which honestly wasn't bad. For non-meat eaters, you can relish all things Quinoa and Picante salad.
We stayed overnight at Casa Andina Private Collection Valle Sagrado Urubamba which was about 20 minutes from the downtown Ollantaytambo. It was an average hotel considering the price you pay ( $145 a night) to receive below average dinner/breakfast. With limited access to get to the village makes it a less viable option unless you want to stay in suburbs and enjoy the hotel amenities.
Tip: If budget isn't a constraint book a taxi from Cusco that can take you to the sacred valley and you get to spend time at leisure rather than being pushed to look at the local market by the tour operator. Alternatively, a colectivo service from the local bus station ( Cusco - Ollantaytambo) is the cheapest ( 3 Soles) way to commute just like locals do.
This day started off with our pick up from Casa Andina in Urubamba to catch the train from Ollantaytambo towards KM 104 (which is a signal point where the train stops) and your pre-booked guide picks you up. It is literally in the middle of no-where to begin your 8 - hour trek ( 12 km) to Machu Picchu plus 4 - 6 km down to Aguas Calientes town.
The trek begins with crossing a suspension bridge towards the first checkpoint before the archaeological sites of Chachabamba. Here agricultural products from other areas were collected to be brought to Machu Picchu. Next was Wiñay Wayna which took about 3 hours to hike to, before making a pitstop at Trekkers lodge for our packed lunch.
After lunch, the hike gets better as you walk at the same elevation and enter via Sun gate. This is the place where you get to see the first sight of Machu Picchu. Honestly, it was so crowded that we quickly took a couple of pictures and continued with our remaining trek for 45 minutes or so. On reaching Machu Picchu, you have the option to either walk down to the town of Aguas Calientes or take the bus ( $12 per person one way), we chose the latter.
The day was very exciting and challenging. It was indispensable to do a lot of planning as you have to pack smartly here and avoid the mistakes we made.
1) Don't stay at a hotel in Urubamba, Sacred Valley on the night of day 3. You will be picked up at 6 am anyways so it's better if you stay at Cusco and ask your tour operator to organise a transport at 4 or 5 am from Cusco. You can easily catch the 7.30 am train from Ollantaytambo - KM 104. This will help you enormously to not carry clothes and essentials for one extra night that we spent at Urubamba/ Ollantaytambo (silly idea).
2) Carry individual backpacks preferably 35 litres as these types of backpack provide the much needed support. Our backpack could have had just the following items:
Strongly recommended - Every little thing you carry adds up and if you are doing this one day trek from KM104, you don't get a porter, you are the porter. Now you can imagine how challenging it becomes primarily when you carry a 25 litre REI backpack like I did (biggest mistake) as it wasn't meant to provide cushion and support your back needs while hiking and gaining elevation. Instead get a Deuter 35 litres or something that really provides the support it is designed for.
We reached our hotel in Aguas Calientes by 4ish and were wowed by all the facilities. Welcome drink, dinner and breakfast were part of the hotel amenities with one of the best wi-fi at El MaPi Hotel by Inkaterra.
Woke up at 2.30am to queue up for the 20 minutes bus ride up to the Machu Picchu. You can also do the trek up to Machu Picchu which generally takes about 1.5 hours but you can only start your hike during the twilight so if you want to beat the crowd, taking one of the first buses was a better option. Our guide got in the queue at 3 am and we joined him at 4 as the first bus leaves from the town at 5.30am and the queues are over a kilometre long. Luckily our guide told us about the long queues the day before so we were among first 100 people to board the bus. You can always shuttle back to the hotel and get a cup of coffee / croissant while your companion waits in the queue. I smuggled oranges in my pockets from El Mapi for my fruit fix in the morning.
Why take the early morning bus?
It's magical to see the fog covered mountains encircling the lost city of Incas and of course beat the crowd.
Tip: Keep the bus tickets handy and passports as my husband somehow misplaced the tickets just when we were about to board the bus. Imagine the panic-stricken situation. Although we found the tickets just in time and managed to board the same bus ( thank god) else I would have been talking about our massive fights for years to come.
Tip: Get to the urban sector first, meet the Llamas and soak in the mystical surrounding while the crowd heads to the top. All they are going to see is fog so you may as well savour the natures bounty and Incas footprints in solitude.
Tip: Book the Huayna Pichu trek beforehand if you want to own the bragging rights of photographing the Machu Picchu from a different angle. The permit is given to only 400 people for 7 am and 1pm slot but unfortunately we couldn't.
Tip: Leave your backpacks / luggage at the hotel cloakroom and walk the town until your departure by train to Ollantaytambo.
A 10-hour journey via Andahuaylillas church - Checacupe site- Raqchi Inca remains - Lunch at Sicuani - La Raya Pukara - Puno All at just $50 per person one way. I think the best $50 ever spent via Inka express bus.
Tip : Do the bus Journey on your way to Puno as you actually get to see the not so popular sites and it is way cheaper than Andean Explorer Rail. Do the Peru rail experience on your way back.
Reached Puno around 5.30pm and took a taxi ( 10 soles) to our hotel Libertador located on the extreme end of Puno on the private island of Esteves. The hotel offers the view of the city of Puno from one end and unobtrusive view of Lake Titicaca on the other. The hotel has a vista point, providing a safe haven for photographers wanting to capture sunrise / sunset of the lake.
Spent half a day relaxing and doing the laundry in the local "Lavanderia" that our taxi driver took us to before heading to Sillustani burial site for elite during pre-incan times.
Tip: Avoid the organised trip and hire a taxi for half a day via hotel that was about 180 soles ( $53 total ) as opposed to $50 per person. I am sure we would have gotten an even cheaper deal but Freddy ( our taxi driver) was trustworthy and known to the hotel travel agent so we didn't quibble.
Tip: Carry a google phone (Project fi) that provides data and you are able to use the translation app. Well worth $20 we spent during our trip
Also had a bingo moment when we were receiving phone network on top of Machu Picchu...yaayy!
Day trip to Uros floating island and Taquile island via boat from Puno booked through Viator.
If you think Machupicchu defines Peru, you have to visit these unique floating islands on Lake Titicaca and meet the lineage of pre-Incan civilisation. The islands are created entirely with the buoyant totoro reeds that grow abundantly in the shallows of the lake. The lives of the Uros people are interwoven with these reeds. Reeds are partially edible (tasting like nonsweet sugarcane), it is also reeds used to build homes, boats and crafts.
Tip: Spend more time here on Uros and if possible stay with them if you really want to experience life on floating reeds. I would avoid Taquile next time as Uros is what I had in mind and was a tad disappointed having to spend most of my time travelling ( 1.5 hours by boat) to Taquile island.
There isn't much to do in the town of Puno and architecture of new houses is very poor. People don't paint their houses here to avoid taxes so all you see is an array of unfinished houses but cleanliness prevails on the streets.
Breathtaking views of the rolling hills, snow capped mountains, the local bazaar on tracks riding in the lap of 10-hour luxurious journey on Peru rail. The train's observatory carriage is the perfect place to see surroundings. They offer fancy food, top class service and most coveted pisco sour. The train stops at La Raya, the natural border between Cusco and Puno, so you can get off and buy souvenirs.
Tip: Keep some change handy just before La Raya and you will see some natives running behind the train to sell their delicate art & craft made from the wool of llamas and alpacas. It broke my heart to see young kids and ladies have to run a mile to earn their living everyday.
Reached Cusco late in the evening around 6.30pm and stayed at Tierra Viva Cusco Centro.
Tip: Just book elsewhere and better still if you get Novotel near the plaza. Avoid this hotel and other hotels in city centre mainly because it is crowded, no decent place to have dinner nearby and this hotel doesn't offer room service or has a dinner serving restaurant. No wi-fi as well and staff was indifferent.
Inching towards the last couple of days of my holiday but I was still as excited as I was on day 1.
There are a handful of travel companies who organise your Amazon explorations but we were booked through Rainforest Expeditions and they didn't let us down. Stay was at luxury yet scary Refugio Amazonas lodge. Scary and adventurous because the rooms are open towards the jungle so clearly not for the faint-hearted person like me. Room price $330 upwards per night included the meals. We did the 2 night 3 days trip and felt it was quite eventful but If you want to explore more add days to your trip. Spend remaining days at Tambopata research centre which is 7 hours boat ride from Peurto Maldonado.
Tip: Bring a telephoto lens and do the photo safari if you are a real animal enthusiast. While we did manage to spot the usual suspects like Caimans, Capivara, Scorpion, Butterflies, beautiful yellow Pendola etc, I realised the photo safari group was able to see a variety of species including the icky Snakes, Jaguar , Harpy and Otters.
My day began with a walk to the canopy tower to experience the real noise of rainforest just before the dawn breaks. It was very very beautiful and surreal, indeed. Returned to the hotel for a quick breakfast and shower before heading out to Ox-bow lake where your guide rows the catamaran while feeding fearsome predator- a school of piranhas. And if you are lucky, you might spot horned screamers, parrots and a lot of butterflies.
The Best Part Of Amazon:
The sunrise from the canopy tower, Clay licks by flocks of McCaws, morning sound of the amazon forest, Pendola bird flying and tweeting in 30 different sounds was simply divine. Other than that the cocktail bar at the lodge ( you need your Tarzan fix to cope with expected crawlies around you, trust me), the foyer area at the lodge where you unwind and meet other travellers. The whole idea of relaxing under the same roof and sharing stories of your day's adventure really brings people closer.
Visit to the local farm was pretty interesting although I would probably replace it with McCaws clay lick experience or zip lining.
Caiman search -We were out at the river’s edge at night, scanning the shores with headlamps and flashlights to catch the red gleams of reflection from caiman eyes. Super scary but I might do it again!
The Night walk - in search of scorpions species that reflect back green colour under UV light. I will not do it again purely because I am super scared of creepy crawlies who tend to see more than you do in the night time.
Yes, 2-hour boat ride and 5 times air-borne in the span of 24 hours sounds hectic and crazy.
Tip: Look for a deal on the business class tickets when flying from SFO to Lima. Total flight cost $2500 for 2 people return trip, so not bad huh?
Best time to travel - Mid August I say:)
If you have made it until here, I sincerely thank you for taking time to read all about my travel expedition. I would love to hear from you in the comments below or connect with me on instagram with your story of Peru.