Peru is full of wonder and majesty. Before our trip, we’d use ‘mysterious’ as another word to describe it.
We had no idea what to expect. We pored through travel books – Fodors, Lonely Planet, and others – and still didn’t have a good idea of how the trip would really go.
I’m big into planning and organization. This trip felt a bit too loose for my liking, and mostly because there aren’t great websites to plan things to a T.
We wondered if we should go with a tour group rather than on our own, but most of the tours we found interesting were already booked. So, we went ala carte, and we’re so glad we did.
1. Medical know-how and tips
Months before you go, make sure you’re current on your vaccinations.
We didn’t get the yellow fever vaccine because we didn’t plan to go into the Amazon Rainforest. But we did get everything updated, including polio, flu, pneumonia, MMR, TDAP, hepatitis A and B, and typhoid fever vaccinations.
Our travel medicine clinic also recommended we get a couple of Z-packs of antibiotics to take with us, in case, and that we steer clear of any vegetables or fruits that would be washed in the local water. We generally take a first-aid kit with us, too, that includes some Pepto, Immodium, Tylenol, bandages, ointment, alcohol swabs, Ace wraps, and cortizone cream.
Also, take altitude sickness seriously. Consider getting medication from your physician before you go, just in case you get sick. If you don’t, you may be dragging and miserable and have to rely on the local coca tea for relief.
Follow the recommendations on bottled water only. Even if the waiters and others say the water is safe, don’t do it. It’s safe for them, not for us. Trust us on this one (my husband wishes he’d followed this tip). And be careful what you eat. You don’t want to get sick as there are not exactly plentiful rest stops on this trip.
2. Consider this perfect 10-night itinerary (read all about the journey at this blog post)
- Overnight in Lima at the attached hotel.
- Morning flight to Cusco, immediately drive into Pisac.
- Spend four nights in Pisac (we recommend the Pisac Inn) to enjoy the market and Pisac Ruins and trips to Moray, Maras and Chinchero.
- Spend one night in Ollantaytambo to enjoy the ruins there and town before catching the train into Aguas Calientes.
- Spend two nights in Aguas Calientes, going to Machu Picchu the afternoon of arrival, then the next morning (book Machu Picchu well in advance online); take the train to Cusco from Aguas Calientes the next morning (which means you have to have all your luggage with you – it can only be backpack or carryon size).
- Spend two nights in Cusco or San Blas, taking in the San Pedro Market and Plaza de Armas and Cusco city after arriving by train, then the next day take a trip to the Incan sites of Saqsaywaman, Qenqo, Pukapukara and Tambomachay. Enjoy excellent cuisine that night before taking the earliest flight you can out of Cusco back to the Lima Airport.
- Check into the airport hotel for the day, as you await your nighttime flight back to the states.
3. Learn Spanish.
If you can’t do that, learn a minimal amount of Spanish. I listened to conversational Spanish lessons on CD while on my daily commute.
If that doesn’t work, there’s an app for that, but get one that doesn’t require wifi or internet connection.
The locals are amazingly friendly and will go out of their way to try to overcome the language barrier. But it’s always great to know enough to get by, and so they know you’ve made an effort as well.
4. Pack light
Another important know-before-you-go tip? Pack light.
You’ll be on cobblestone streets, up stairways, on a train (that only takes a carryon or backpack), and it’s a pain to have too much luggage.
Nearly every hotel will do your laundry for you for reasonable.
Pack a few outfits, with layers, and the bare minimum of extras. You can always pick up a shawl, scarf or other items along your journey.
Keep it to one carry-on suitcase or a backpack. Have a small, light duffel bag you can use for dirties and laundry drop-offs.
You’ll thank us for this.
5. A word on money
Take American cash – $1, $5, $10, $20, $50. Make sure it’s not in any way defective. This means no tears, folds, worn spots, tape. They can’t and won’t accept imperfect bills as they can’t exchange them.
Carry a Visa card or two, without foreign transaction fees. Visa is accepted at many places, whereas American Express, Discover and Mastercard are not.
Keep in mind the sol to dollar is usually worth about a third of a US dollar… so locals are generally happy to get $1 in good shape for something worth 3 sols.
You can and should negotiate with people on prices and feel free to walk away if you don’t feel good about a deal. However, don’t be a jerk about it. They generally offer up goods for a fraction of the price you’ll get back home. They depend on this for their livelihoods, so the extra $1 you’re saving could mean the world to them.
6. When you arrive
Keep your plane tickets on you, with your passports, for customs and immigration. Customs officials will ask for your plane tickets so don’t toss them in the airplane trash bag.
Also hold onto your luggage retrieval stickers because attendants will check when you grab your bags that those bags belong to you. They’ll want to collect the stickers.
Go to the ATM at the Lima airport to get some sols out. Keep in mind that ATMs throughout the countryside are sparse. And you can only take so much out (and have only one transaction in some cases) of one bank’s ATM in a given amount of time. So get your sols in Lima, and keep your American cash handy for most purchases.
They don’t check your luggage through to Cusco. So keep in mind you’ll want to pack light because you’ll be schlepping your luggage everywhere from Lima to Cusco.
You’ll generally arrive in Lima at night. Reserve – well in advance – the hotel at the Lima airport for incoming and outgoing flights. The airport is crazy hectic and tons of people crash on the floor, but you’ll want a room. If you don’t get a room, the hotel may hold your luggage and you could get into the spa or explore Lima. But we recommend a room. It’s overly stimulating at the airport.
7. On the way to Cusco
Before you leave, hire a driver.
We recommend arranging a safe driver through your hotel. The Pisac Inn manager arranged a driver for us once we gave her a list of all the places we wanted to go, on which days, and what time we wanted to leave.
Then, get one of the first flights out of Lima to Cusco. The wind picks up in the afternoon, and later morning and afternoon flights are more likely to be canceled.
When you arrive in Cusco, meet the driver you’ve arranged in advance outside the baggage claim area.
There are people inside the baggage claim area who will try to scam you. They may know your name and where you’re headed (they read the signs your driver carries). Don’t let them touch your baggage. Be firm with a “No, Gracias” and keep your hand on your luggage at all times.
Head immediately down to the Sacred Valley as it’s a lower altitude to acclimate. We recommend Pisac. It’s amazingly authentic, simple, safe and beautiful.
Get the Boleto Turistico at your first Inca ruin or museum – either in Cusco or at the Pisac Ruins ticket shack on the road on the way up to the ruins’ parking lot. It’s so worth it, and you can’t get it at some of the smaller stops.
8. On the way to Machu Picchu
Go first class on the train. It’s a far better experience.
The executive class has no room for luggage and is simply not as enjoyable. Spend the slight amount more for first class.
As soon as you arrive in Aguas Calientes, check into your room or leave your baggage there, then go to the bus ticket shack.
Purchase your bus tickets for the afternoon you get into Aguas Calientes and for the next morning. Make sure to have either Mastercard or cash, and let them know in advance how you’ll be paying.
Go up to Machu Picchu, find a guide of your liking outside the gates (there will be several offering up their services… arrange a fair price in advance and have the cash to give them), and enjoy the afternoon without many others clogging the site.
The next morning, get up extra early to catch the first (or second) bus up to Machu Picchu. It’s glorious.