Inca Trail dos and donts: tips and tricks for trips to Peru

Inca Trail dos and donts: tips and tricks for trips to Peru

How to make the most of your Machu Picchu Inca Trail

There is no better, more adventurous way to fully experience the ancient Inca culture of Peru other than doing the official Inca trail. This is the only way through which you will be able to walk on the sacred Inca ground, to visit sites that are otherwise not accessible to travellers, and to view the sunrise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku. The other hikes may be great, hard, you may get to see amazing landscapes too. But nothing can compare to the experience you will have when puffing and struggling on the only real Camino Inca to Machu Picchu. This is definitely among the best things to do in Peru.

Best things to do in Peru - viewing Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku

Best things to do in Peru – viewing Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku

Places to visit in Peru: one of the many hidden sites, only accessible via the official Inca Trail

Places to visit in Peru: one of the many hidden sites, only accessible via the official Inca Trail

Doing the Inca trail is no easy thing, so here are a few tips to fully enjoy it.

DOs

Do your research: Various companies can organise your trekking to Machu Picchu. Among the most recommended ones there are Llama Path  and SAS. A Lima based agency which is also highly recommended is Peru Tourist Information, whose chief is a real superstar. Prices vary, depending the company you pick and on what you want to include in your trail. They can vary from 450 US dollars for the vary basic, to 800 US dollars for the most pricey company and including a number of extra services.

Do plan ahead: there is no such thing as showing up at an agency in Cusco and asking to do the official Camino Inca. The most it will be able to offer you are alternative routes, such as the very challenging 5 to 7 days Salcantay Trek, or the 3 days Jungle Trek. If you think hiking the Inca Trail is one of the things to do in Peru, you should know that the official Inca Trail permits are issued by the Peruvian government each January, and they are sold out very fast. Only 180 visitors per day are admitted, so if you think this is an experience you want to live, plan ahead, make your reservations well in advance. To give you an idea, I did my trail in April and I had it booked by the end of December. In April, everything was sold out until October.

Top things to do in Peru: hike the Camino Inka-Inka Trail

Top things to do in Peru: hike the Camino Inka-Inka Trail

Do pick a date and stick to it: Inca Trail permits are not refundable – once you pick a date, you have to stick to it and arrange the rest of your travel itinerary accordingly. So, think well before deciding. What I can say is that, no matter the season, you will at some point get the typical inca train weather: rain and extreme chill. April and May are the best months for nature lovers – flowers (especially orchids); September to November are less crowded and December to March rainy, and the trail may be very slippery (but, really, it does rain in any season).

Lush nature on the Inca Trail

Lush nature on the Inca Trail

Do arrive fit: the Inca trek is challenging for anybody. The altitude, the long walks, the fatigue and the little rest you may be able to get sleeping in a tent will eventually hit anybody. So, do train yourself by exercising and eating healthy food well before you embark on this adventure.

Do arrive in Cusco a few days before the starting date: this will allow you to get adjusted to the altitude. Cusco is located at 3300 meters above sea level and the trail starts at around 2800 meters. Being adjusted to the altitude will give you a good advantage. Not to mention, Cusco is a lovely city to hang out, there are numerous interesting sites to see and things to do in Cusco and in its surroundings, great restaurants and an amazing vibe.

Do wear appropriate gear: good hiking shoes, technical pants and a good rain coat are a must; carry along some thermic sweaters and t-shirts against the chill. Paths get slippery because of the rain, and you will surely want to avoid slipping down and breaking a leg: hiking shoes give you extra support; plain running shoes may be comfortable but are not geared to support your feet and ankles in hard conditions. The same goes for the rain coat: it does rain at some point or another and the last thing you want is getting wet and catch a cold, as it would ruin your experience. A good sleeping bag will save you from the freezing night of day 2, when you reach the highest point on the trail.

The Inca tunnel

The Inca tunnel

Inca weather at the back!

Inca weather at the back!

Do carry medications, especially prescriptions: there is no easy way out once you are on the trail. You can walk back after day 1; from day 2, the closest emergency centre would be in Aguas Calientes, and if you do get sick you will have to be carried by porters along the trail and down to the village (this actually happened to somebody in my group). It is definitely not pleasant to be sick while there, and not pleasant for the porters either. Remember that helicopters can’t access the trail as there is no landing point.

Do pack light: whether you decide to carry your own stuff or hire the services of half a porter, do not carry more than 7 kg. Should you chose to give your stuff to the porters, your bag will be weighted. If you want to carry your own stuff, you will want to keep the weight to a minimum. Days are long, and carrying around a heavy backpack will increase your fatigue, especially on day 2 when you will have to walk uphill most of the day and reach the peak of 4200 meters above sea level. All you need is a small bag with a change of clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, a small towel, prescription medications and a headlamp.

Do carry some snacks: food is provided on the trail. You will have 3 main meals per day, plus two snacks. However, you will need some extra energy and having that bar of chocolate or that bag of peanuts will help you to keep walking.

Do carry some cash: you will use it to buy drinks on day one and two of the trail, and to tip the porters at the end of the trail. This is a sort of tradition: remember those porters are the last part of the chain and any extra help matters to them; besides you will want to reward them for their help!

Do be prepared for the “rustic” accommodation: tents are comfortable but they still are tents, and even if you have a mattress, you will still feel like you are sleeping on the floor. Dining tents are tight: you will be sitting elbow to elbow with your companions. Bathrooms are challenging, to say the least: expect filth, terrible smell, and freezing cold water.

Campsite on day 2

Campsite on day 2

Do expext amazing views and spectacular sites: mountains, glaciars, nature, waterfalls, clouds, flowers, jungle and hidden sites you didn’t even know existed. You will get to see all of this, and much more.

Glaciar views on day 3

Glaciar views on day 3

Could it be any better?

Could it be any better?

Another breathtaking view from the Inca Trail

Another breathtaking view from the Inca Trail

Do make new friends: this is a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world, share anecdotes, cheer each other up when it is really hard to walk, when the food is not as good as you would have wanted and when all you want is to rest.

Tired but happy, we reached the Inti Punku just in time to see the sunrise!

Tired but happy, we reached the Inti Punku just in time to see the sunrise!

Do consider your extra options: you can add an extra hike to Huayna Picchu, and enjoy yet another spectacular view of Machu Picchu. You have to book this in advance too, as only 180 visitors are admitted, twice per day.

Do book a dorm bed in Aguas Calientes for the day when you terminate the trek: you will be exhausted and the last thing you will want will be to walk around looking for a place to stay. Denny’s House has decent bed and great showers.

Tired but happy, I finally reached Huayna Picchu

Tired but happy, I finally reached Huayna Picchu

DONts

Don’t forget your camera: you most certainly want to take pictures of the views, of the sites, and with your new friends.

Don’t underestimate the difficulty: it is hard, really hard. While day one is relatively easy (you will be rested after having slept on a proper bed in your hostel), day two is challenging as you will reach extreme altitude and will be going uphill most of the day. Day three is the longest day – 16 km: guides will tell you that you will be going through “inca planes”, which, you will discover, consist of continuous going up and downhill. By day four, you will be exhausted. This is when you will have to wake up at 3 to start walking towards Machu Picchu to get to see the sunrise from the Inti Punku.

Intipunku is reached before dawn on day 4 of the hike

Intipunku is reached before dawn on day 4 of the hike

The highest peak, reached on day 2

The highest peak, reached on day 2

By all means, do not despair if it seems too hard: following my advice, you will make it till the end and will feel a huge sense of achievement.

Don’t worry if you stink on the trail: everybody eventually will stink. You will sweat just like anybody else!

Don’t expect to shower: Showers are out of the equation until day two, but don’t get too excited: they are only cold, freezing cold. Do not shower unless you are ready to risk pneumonia.

Don’t forget to have fun: this is a once in a lifetime experience, and you must fully enjoy it!

If you are interested to find out about more things to do in Peru, click here.

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Find out some tips on how to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu - via @clautavani

 

What to do in Peru: hiking the Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

What to do in Peru: hiking the Inca Trail Hike to Machu Picchu

Opting for the official Camino Inca is the only way to get to walk on the sacred Inca trail, to visit sites that are otherwise not accessible, and to see the sun rise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku. Alternative treks may be great, hard, one may get to see amazing landscapes too. But nothing can compare to the experience of walking on Inca ground. That’s why, when I had to choose on the things to do in Peru, I knew I would opt for the “real thing”.

Things to do in Peru? No doubt, hiking the Inka Trail

Things to do in Peru? No doubt, hiking the Inka Trail!

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: tips advice and recommendations for backpackers on a budget

Planning ahead:

Among the things to do in Peru, this is by far the most amazing, exhilarating experience. But it is one people have to think about carefully and for which they need to do some planning ahead – for concise information on how to organise everything click here. The official inca trail permit is issued by the government of Peru each January, and it always sells out very fast. Only 180 visitors per day are admitted. I knew this was an experience I wanted to live, so I made sure to plan ahead, I did my research and made my reservations well in advance. I did my hike in April and I had it booked by the end of December. In April, everything was sold out until October, leaving last minute travellers to alternative routes such as the very challenging 5 to 7 days Salcantay Trek, or the 3 days Jungle Trek.

Once I picked a date, I had to stick to it. Permits are not refundable. So, I had to think well before deciding. What I can say is that, no matter the season, at some point it gets wet, cold, it rains and fatigue hits the hikers. April and May are the lushest months in terms of nature – flowers (especially orchids); September to November are less crowded and December to March the wettest months, and the trail may be very slippery (but, as I have said, it does rain in any season).

Recommendations:

Arrive fit: spend a few days in Cusco to adjust to the altitude before the start, and stay healthy and exercise. I did not regret it, as there are many things to do in Cusco.

Carry snacks: I got so hungry along the way. Snacks were provided but all the exercise and the walking, as well as the cold temperatures made me starve, so before leaving I bought energetic cereal bars, chocolates, nuts etc.

Pack light and wear appropriate gear: I recommend hiring a porter, especially for the second day of the hike which is all uphill and goes up to 4200 meters above sea level. Porters costs normally around $25 per day, per person and carry no more than 7 kg per person (bags are actually weighted on the first day). Pack as little as possible in terms of clothes. Tshirts, socks, warm sweaters, a hat a scarf and even gloves will be useful. Carry a good rain coat, wear hiking pants and by all means hiking boots. It is slippery on the trail and it is always recommended to wear good shoes that give good support to the feet and ankles. Carry an extra (empty) small backpack: whatever the porters carry, stays with the porters all day till reaching the base camp. I did need an extra bag to carry anything I may need for the day – camera, water, medicines, documents, snacks etc.

Consider that it really is impossible to wash for the duration of the hike. Toilets (or better, latrines) are a disgrace, sinks only have freezing cold water that made me reluctant to even wash my face, and even showers (available from day 2) are only cold: not really an option when it is cold outside and in the tents. I carried wet wipes instead to keep my hygiene to a decent level.

Carry prescription medicines and any other medicine you may need along the trail. There is no easy way out once on the trail. It is possible walk back after day 1; from day 2, the closest emergency centre would be in Aguas Calientes, and if one does get sick porters will have to carry him or her along the trail and down to the village (this actually happened to somebody in my group). Not pleasant for somebody sick, and not pleasant for the porters. Remember that helicopters can’t access and there is no landing for them anywhere along the trail!

Carry some cash: it is needed to buy things such as water along the way (up till day 2), and most importantly it is necessary in the end as it is a custom to leave a tip to the porters, cooks and guides.

What to expect:

Day one is relatively easy. Depending on the company that organises the Inca Trail, people will start walking between 8 am and 11 am, stop for lunch and then walk till they reach their camp where they will stop for the night.

Hiking the Inca Trail is one of the things to do in Peru: what an amazing view!

Hiking the Inca Trail is one of the things to do in Peru: what an amazing view!

On day two, guides will wake people up at around 5:30 am and they will leave soon after breakfast. Many consider this to be the hardest day, as it mostly is uphill and it reaches 4200 meters above sea level. On this day I experienced the typical inca trail weather: it was cold, rainy, and once we passed the highest point and start going downhill, even slippery. This is also the coldest night, as the base camp is at 3600 meters above sea level.

What to do in Peru? Visit one of the many archelogical sites on the Inka Trail

What to do in Peru? Visit one of the many archelogical sites on the Inka Trail

Inca trail weather behind!

Inca trail weather behind!

Mountains and clouds - spectacular views!

Mountains and clouds – spectacular views!

Places to visit in Peru: Runkurakay

Places to visit in Peru: Runkurakay

Slippery, steep Inka steps

Slippery, steep Inka steps

On day three, hikers will be waken up again at around 5:30 am. This is the longest day: a 16 km walk on “Inca plains”, that is along a path that goes up and down continuously until a certain point when it just goes downhill on slippery tight steps. To me, this was by far the hardest day.

The sacred camino inca is among the best things to do in Peru

The sacred camino inca is among the best things to do in Peru

Entering the Inka tunnel

Entering the Inka tunnel

Almost there!

Almost there!

Spectacular view on the way to the base camp

Spectacular view on the way to the base camp

The andes - view from the inca trail

The andes – view from the inca trail

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Glaciars – view from the inca trail

On the final day, the wake up call is at 3:00 am, in order to start walking towards the Inti Punku and get to enjoy the sunrise on Machu Picchu. I have been to Peru twice, and of all the things to do in Peru, this is my favourite one and would consider going just to experience it again! After the sun rises, we walked towards the site and have a guided tour, after which we were finally on our own.

Day 3 - finally at Inti Punku

Day 3 – finally at Inti Punku

Seeing the sunrise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku is one of the best things to do in Peru

Seeing the sunrise on Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku is one of the best things to do in Peru

A spectacular view of Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku

A spectacular view of Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku

The sun has finally settled over Machu Picchu

The sun has finally settled over Machu Picchu

View of Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu

View of Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu

Tents are relatively comfortable: a tent for 4 persons sleeps two. Sure, no matter how good the matresses and the sleeping bags are I did feel I was sleeping on the ground, but by the end of the day I would be tired enough that even that would feel comfortable.

Base camp on day 2

Base camp on day 2

It does get cold, especially at night. Having good hiking clothes and a good sleeping bag is a must, unless wanting to challenge the chill. It also rains on the path, eventually every day at some point. I wanted to be extra sure to enjoy the sunrise from the Inti Punku so I picked a date during the dry season, but I was aware that inca trail weather can be temperamental year round!

Meals can be either very good or very bad, depending also on your personal taste. Either way, it is somewhat amazing to see what the cooks manage to put together in those conditions. Any special requests can and should be communicated in advance (allergies, intolerances, vegetarian options). Expect to have breakfast (which varies every day, and in any case always provides hot drinks), a snack, lunch (consisting of soup, a main course and fruits plus hot drinks), a merenda (usually pop corn and bisquits and hot drinks) and dinner (similar to lunch). By the end of each day, I was normally so hungry that I was thankful for whatever food was provided.

By the time I got to Machu Picchu, I was so exhausted, I was definitely filthy and probably stinky too. I was not ashamed however, but rather proud! This is not something that anybody does, and I had actually achieved it.

By all means, I got what I expected: I saw spectacular landscapes, amazing archeological sites, incredible nature; I made some really good friends in my group and meal times were always fun and chilled. This was a unique experience!

Beautiful nature

Beautiful nature

Prices:

Prices vary, depending on what is included in the trail and on the company picked. They can vary from 450 US dollars for the very basic, to 800 US dollars for the most pricey company and including a number of extra services.

Extras include: service of half porter to carry 7 kg of weight ($25 per day); sleeping bag rental ($25); entrance fee to Huayna Picchu, the steep sided mountain right behind Machu Picchu, a good hour trek uphill along a steep path, offering an amazing view over Machu Picchu ($75, normally done on the day after the you finish the Inca Trek, and the fee includes the entrance to the site so that visitors get to spend more time there).

Finally on top of Wayna Picchu!

Finally on top of Wayna Picchu!

Various companies organise the trail. Among the most recommended ones there are Llama Path  and SAS. I had everything organised by Peru Tourist Information, which is a local agency based in Lima, and I really enjoyed the services and care.

Extra Tips:

Almost any company that organises the Inca Trail also offers other tours, such as that of the Sacred Valley. Buying the Inca Trail, often means getting a good discount on other tours. Also watch out for discount or special rates for large groups.

If buying the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley together, my recommendation is to first do the Sacred Valley tour, get dropped off at Ollantaytambo, where it is possible to spend 2 extra days exploring the surroundings (included the sites of Moray and Salinas), and then get picked up from there to start the Inca Trail.

Remember that there is NO WAY to get into Machu Picchu for free. It is a UNESCO site – a World Heritage Site, and as such it is constantly under surveillance. The only trek that finishes in Machu Picchu directly is the official Camino Inca and this includes the entrance fee to the site. The Salkantay includes a visit of Machu Picchu but what it implies is that on the last day of the trek people go back down to Aguas Calientes, spend a night there, then go back up to enter via the main gates. Furthermore, the Salkantay is a difficult hike – trekkers need appropriate gear, a good guide, etc. It reaches peaks of over 5000 meters so it is important to be safe in those conditions. Remember that it is illegal to enter the site without paying (and, as I have said, impossible), furthermore, it is disrespectful to Peruvians and to all the other travellers who actually pay a fee. Those who can’t afford it, or that don’t think it is worth the money, simply should not go.

I have been to Machu Picchu three times, I hiked the Inca Trail once, and I think it is worth every cent I paid. So much so that I would be eager to do it again.

For more places to visit in Peru click here.

Places to visit in Peru: The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

Places to visit in Peru: The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

In a country of many wonders, one could spend months travelling around and yet leave feeling unfinished. Among the places to visit in Peru (and for a good reason) there are the Sacred Valley of the Rio Urubamba and Machu Picchu.

Sacred Valley:

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is one of the places to visit in Peru. The starting point to visit the Sacred Valley is Cusco. It is possoble to go to the sites independently (purchase a boleto turistico: tourists have two full days to visit Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Moray and Salinas), in which case it is necessary to arrange transportation. There are regular buses from Cusco to Pisac, Urubamba (from where it is possible to catch a but to go to Moray and Salinas) and Ollantaytambo.

The best option is to do a Sacred Valley tour, which is not as expensive as one may think. It really is worth the extra pennies to have a good guide that will explain the history of the places. And there are a few more tips for things to do in Peru for those who are on a tight budget.

Any agency in Cusco will sell a Sacred Valley tour, which usually includes transportation, entrance fees and a guided visit of the citadels of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, and entrance fees to Moray and the Salinas; as well as lunch in one of the many restaurants in Urubamba. Options vary: it is possible to have a private car tour (which is the best option for a small group of friends) or a bus group tour. To help save extra pennies, there even are whole packages which includes the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

Most tours leave between 7:30 am and 9:00 am. Private cars usually leave earlier than buses, in order to let tourists experience the sites without having to push among the crowds of visitors. The tour can take tourists back to Cusco, or drop them off at Ollantaytambo, or even go directly to Aguas Calientes (which is the last stop before Machu Picchu).

Jumping around the Sacred Valley - Ollantaytambo

Jumping around the Sacred Valley – Ollantaytambo

A gorgeous view from Ollantaytambo archeological site, Sacred Valley

A gorgeous view from Ollantaytambo archeological site, Sacred Valley

Places to visit in Peru: Sacred Valley, for a breathtaking view from Pisac archelogical site

Places to visit in Peru: Sacred Valley, for a breathtaking view from Pisac archelogical site

Ollantaytambo:

If there is more time to explore the area, Ollantaytambo is among the places to visit in Peru that, despite tiny, deserves a couple of days. It is charming and a perfectly preserved example of an Inca village, there are various lovely restaurants, a nice crafts market, and life goes on slowly and quietly. The ruins are big, and a guided tour will only visits one side. But if one spends a bit of extra time there, it is possible to access the other side and enjoy a spectacular view of the village from atop the mountain. It is also possible  to fully use your boleto turistico to go to Moray and the Salinas (catch a bus heading to Urubamba).

Where to stay and eat in Ollantaytambo:

There are various options, for expensive taste and for backpackers on a budget. Hostal Chaska Wasi is a decent budget option, but guests have to put up with the moody staff and owner and the temperamental showers. El Albergue, a little outside the village, right on the railway, is a luxury boutique hotel, with huge comfortable rooms and a top notch restaurant in it. For a decent meal, go to Il Piccolo Forno, an Italian run restaurant and pizzeria. It may not be as good as in Italy, but pretty good given what the place has to offer.

What to do in Peru? Spotting the face of the Inca in Ollantaytambo

What to do in Peru? Spotting the face of the Inca in Ollantaytambo

Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu:

Known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes is not particularly interesting if not for the hot springs and for its proximity to the archeological site, and we all know that Machu Picchu is one of the things to see in Peru. Sleeping here is a good way to have early access to it (the site opens at 6:00 am, carry your passport as you will need it to access), by catching one of the many buses that link the village to the archeological site (the first one leaves at 5:30 am, a round trip ticket costs 20 US dollars), or hiking up the trail (about one hour, uphill).

Places to visit in Peru: Machu Picchu - view from the Inti Punku

Places to visit in Peru: Machu Picchu – view from the Inti Punku

Where to stay and eat in Aguas Calientes:

I recommend Denny’s house, a hostel a little off the main centre of the village. Rooms are tiny, so be sure not to carry too much lugguage. But beds are comfortable, breakfast is filling and served very early for those who wake up early to go to Machu Picchu, and most importantly showers are hot and powerful (which never goes without saying in Peru).

There are many restaurants. Most of them will try to offer a set meal, which normally includes a soup, a main dish and dessert for around 20 soles. It is cheap, but not nearly enough food. Opt for a real meal and take time in picking a good restaurant. Chifas (Chinese restaurants) are usually good options for cheap, big and usually good portions of food.

Need to have more information on Peru? Check here.

Things to do in Cusco: a brief guide

Things to do in Cusco: a brief guide

For as obvious, mainstream, touristy and commercial as it may seem, I believe that trips to Peru can’t be considered complete without visiting Cusco. There are so many things to do in Cusco that it is easy to spend a few days there.

Things to do in Cusco:

The city is a wonderful mixture of inca ruins and colonial buildings. Walking around aimlessly took me to its many pretty squares, its various museums and churches. I did not miss a visit of the cathedral and of the Qorikancha, where an inca site forms the base of the colonial church of Santo Domingo. Compulsive shoppers will also find it that one of the best things to do in Cusco is shopping: it was hard for me to resist the many markets and artesania shops.

Since I had a little extra time to spend there before going on my next adventure to the Inca Trail or Sacred Valley, and I was looking for what to do in Cusco, I found out that there are a number of interesting and well preserved inca sites right outside the city, which include Saqsaywaman, Tambomachay and Pukapukara. A tour of these normally also includes also a guided visit of the Qorikancha, so since I was planning to see all of them, I bought the Cusco City Tour (boleto turistico) to avoid extra costs. The sites can be visited independently, and reached by public transportation (hop on a bus bound to Pisac).

It is possible to walk back (Tambomachay is the furthest away at 8 km from Cusco), but only do so before nightfall (it gets dark at around 6pm) and if in a group, in order to avoid attacks. Going on a guided tour gives the services of a guide, which may make the difference in the overall experience. There are plenty of agencies on the main square or the streets nearby that will try to sell tours. Do negotiate the price, just as with anything else!

Viva el Peru Glorioso!

Viva el Peru Glorioso!

Looking at the view over the city: one of the many things to do in Cusco

Looking at the view over the city: one of the many things to do in Cusco

Things to do in Cusco: visiting the cathedral

Things to do in Cusco: visiting the cathedral

Searching for what to do in Cusco? Visit the Qorikancha

Searching for what to do in Cusco? Visit the Qorikancha

Places to visit in Peru: Sacsaywaman

Places to visit in Peru: Sacsaywaman

How to get there:

Cusco is one of the most important and beautiful cities in Peru, the starting point from where to visit the Sacred Valley of the Inca and Machu Picchu, and to start the Inca Trail. It is well connected to the rest of the country, and can be easily reached via land or by plane. Depending on where one is in the country, on the budget, and on the time available, it is possible to decide what mode of transportation is the most convenient and book in advance.

Buses leave every day from Lima, Arequipa and Puno. The trip from Lima takes roughly 24 hours. Cruz del Sur offers the best bus services, with cama and semi-cama seats, making the journey relatively comfortable. However, keep in mind that flights to Cusco from Lima (usually with LAN) are only slightly more expensive than buses and it may well be worth spending a few extra dollars for the extra comfort of arriving there in just a few hours. Extra tip: those who have a frequent flyer card with American Airlines or British Airways, should remember LAN is a partner and they can get mileage for the flight, all of them going towards a reward ticket eventually.

Where to stay:

Cusco altitude makes it fairly cold. When the sun gets out, it is warm. But thunderstorms are guaranteed in the rainy season (November through April).

There are just about a million budget accommodation. Real backpackers won’t want to make reservations but remember that walking around with a heavy backpack at 3300 meters above sea level may not be so easy, even for those who (like me) are in good shape. The thin air gets to the lungs, breathing gets harder and walking increasingly tiring, even more so on those hills (to fight altitude sickness, drink mate de coca, drink lots of water and little alcohol). One of the best things to do in Cusco may then be making a reservation for a dorm, even if just for one night, and hopping on a cab to get there. My humble advice is to get a fairly decent one. It is a party town, and I do care for a good night’s sleep, so I wanted to make sure to avoid party hostels, as well as hostels that are on main streets (there is a lot of traffic and noise), especially in the area around Plaza de Armas. Opt for one that is up on the hills of San Blas, for example, for a top view of the city. Furthermore, given Cusco weather, I had to look for a room that is properly insulated, with enough blankets on the beds to fight the cold.

Many hostels in Cusco are located in old, humid buildings and they get bone-chilling cold at night. Heating isn’t really an option in budget accommodation, and getting out of the shower in that freezing room won’t be pleasant. Another thing I strongly advise to do is to actually check the showers: the majority of hostels  opt for electric showers, which means that the less powerful the water, the warmer it gets. However, electricity issues often mean that the water hardly gets lukewarm, making showering a torture. My suggestion is to look for gas heated showers. Check, or read reviews online for this. Finally, double check that kitchen use is allowed as many places do not actually permit it.

Piccola Locanda in Calle Resbalosa 520 is a lovely bed and breakfast whose profits go in favour of a local charity. It has charming rooms, some of them with a spectacular view over Plaza de Armas.

Cuscopackers, in Prolongacion Av. Arcopata N° 129, has beautiful views over the hills, it is safe, clean, and the staff is nice and helpful. Beware as rooms are on the small side, quite chilly, and showers temperamental. Breakfast (hot drinks, juice, bread and jam and butter) is included in the price of the room, however kitchen use is not allowed. Dorm beds cost around $9.

Hostal Atlantis, in Avenida Lucrepata D – 1 in San Blas, is more of a hotel than a hostel. Rooms are comfortable, they all have flat screen tv and powerful hot showers. Rooms ($20 per person for a double private room) are not well insulated against the cold, and they overlook a rather busy street, so beware in case you are a light sleeper. Breakfast is included and kitchen use is permitted.

Cheaper options are called hospedaje (family run accommodation).

Eating and drinking:

Eating is a feast in Cusco, whatever the budget. There is anything for any palate, from new age vegan and vegetarian to fusion, from pizza to traditional Peruvian cuisine (including ceviche, alpaca meat and cuy), to burgers and Chinese food.

On the expensive side, Papacho, in Portal de Belen 115 2do Nivel Plaza de Armas, has excellent, huge and juicy burgers. Uchu, in Calle Palacio 135, is a great grill house: meat is served on a hot stone so customers can grill it to their liking. Fallen Angel, in Plazoleta Nazarenas 221, has excellent food and an amazing setting – worth going even just to look around. Bodega 138, in Herrajes 138 Cusco, has good wood oven baked pizza (avoid olives, they are extremely salted!).

In the incredible “mercado” – the central market – it is possible to get all sorts of fresh ingredients to prepare meals at the hostel.

The same goes for drinking: plenty of pubs, bars, coffee shops. At just about any time of day one may stop and have a mate de coca (coca tea) which helps in fighting the altitude sickness.

What to do in Cusco to fight the effects of altitude: drink Mate de coca

What to do in Cusco to fight the effects of altitude: drink Mate de coca

Off the beaten path Peru: Marcahuasi

Off the beaten path Peru: Marcahuasi

Off the beaten path hikes: one of the best things to do in Peru

Top things to see in Peru: Marcahuasi

Top things to see in Peru: Marcahuasi

If you are a budget backpacker who can’t find any more things to do in Lima and need to recharge your batteries, there are nearby places that, although only 100 km away, will make you feel like you are on another planet. One of these places is Marcahuasi. Let me not spoil it for you with too much of a description. But be ready to experience its mysticism and its magic, knowing that it is one of the most incredible places to visit in Peru, especially if you are looking for some off the beaten path. It is possible to camp there, but you should be very well prepared with a good tent, excellent gear, and carry all foods and necessities (and walk up 4 km on horses or donkeys to carry all your belongings to the area where you can camp).

Despite not being too far from Lima, Marcahuasi is so isolated and hardly exploited by tourism, and it will take you a good 5 hours to reach it, with a few bus changes. You will hardly meet any tourists on the way. Don’t plan it as a day trip from Lima, even if they may tell you it is doable, as anything may happen along the way (a flat tire on the bus, construction works on the road; extreme fog or rain that may not allow to drive back; buses not leaving for some unknown reason) that may delay your journey and make it impossible to catch the last bus back. Be sure to carry warm clothes (set at 4000 meters above sea level, it does get very cold even during the day) and rain coat, and possibly a good sleeping bag.

What to do in Peru: catching an old bus from Chosica to San Pedro de Casta

What to do in Peru: catching an old bus from Chosica to San Pedro de Casta

Everybody stops - there is a car with an engine problem at the front!

Everybody stops – there is a car with an engine problem at the front!

How to get there

Travellers who have been on trips to Peru will be able to tell you that 100 km in this incredible country may involve hours of travel. Head out well early in the morning: from your hostel in Lima catch a taxi that will take you to the paradero (bus stop) where colectivos going to Chosica stop. That should cost you around 5 soles. Then, hop on a colectivo to Chosica (5 soles) and once there, look for the buses going to San Pedro de Casta (around 10 soles). There is one that leaves at 9 am. The bus will take about 3 hours, along a dirt road that will leave most passengers breathless for the beauty and the fear (it does drive along cliffs, and the road is truly narrow so if a car or bus is coming in the opposite direction, it will reverse until a spot where the road is wide enough to let the other pass!).

Once you get to San Pedro de Casta, there is no way you can get lost: this is most definitely where you will spend the night. The village is truly tiny, and everybody knows each other. Chances are that the tourism office will be closed, but the lovely lady who owns the “restaurant” next door will be keen enough to call the employee in charge and ask him or her to show up, as there are tourists. You will have to register your name in the tourist book (where you will notice that at most there are 2 visitors per day) pay a fee to go up to the site (it is only 5 soles) and, if you want to rent horses, make sure you do require them a day in advance as there are very few in the village. The lady in the restaurant or the person in charge in the Tourism office will also point you to the nearby (and only) hostel.

Where to stay

There is only one, rustic “Hospedaje Municipal” where you can sleep (unless you are brave enough to camp in Marcahuasi): double private rooms with or without bathrooms (between 20 and 30 soles for the room). Forget about hot water: there are showers, but only cold ones, and in those dark, cold rooms you won’t really want to hop in a shower and risk pneumonia.

Not many trips to Peru include visits to San Pedro de Casta

Not many trips to Peru include visits to San Pedro de Casta

San Pedro de Casta

The village has little to offer – 3 rustic restaurants with plain but wholesome food (trout, potatoes, rice and little more), which also serves as tiendas (shops) and where you can drink the much needed mate de coca to fight the side effects of altitude. One of the best past-times in the village is to sit in the main (and possibly only) square to watch life go by: at around 1pm children head out of school and if you sit in the main plaza you will see them all run, rucksacks on, to have lunch in the comedor (eatery); peasants will go up and down the hills with their donkeys; the many village dogs (and a few cats) will be roaming about and bonding with tourists. The village surroundings are gorgeous: mountains, mountains and more mountains. It will get even more fascinating at around 2 pm, when the clouds will cover it and rain will start dropping, softly at first, then a real downpour. That’s when you want to head to one of the restaurants and start sipping mate de coca to fight the altitude, or anything warm, and read a good book.

Plan to have an early night: by 8 pm everybody is pretty much asleep in the village. There aren’t many things to do in Peru most remote village. There are no cars at all, so the only sound you will hear at night are donkeys randomly braying, the sound echoing in the whole village. You will sleep tight, even more so considering how quiet it is compared to chaotic Lima. People in San Pedro de Casta are truly friendly, so practice your Spanish with them: ask about their culture, their traditions, share yours, appreciate whatever help they offer, especially when they show you what to do in Peru when transportation lets you down (the lady from the restaurant next to the Tourism Office, for example, literally saved my trip arranging transportation to get back down to Chosica on a day when the buses decided not to run: she literally spent over an hour running from door to door, making phone calls, arranging a ride) and be thankful.

The trek to Markahuasi

An early wake up is definitely the best way to start. Aim to begin your hike at 6 am, when the sun starts rising. It normally rains later on in the day, with clouds starting to come down at around 10 and rain starting to drop at around 12:30. If you walk up early, you will have more chances to get a clear sky and a perfect view of the mountains and of the site. Make sure you do carry some snacks and plenty of water. It is a hard hike: from the already 3000 meters above sea level of the village, to the 4000 of Marcahuasi, along a steep (but well marked) path of little over 4 km (8 km in total, going up and back). There is nothing along the way – not a shop, not a bar. Only crops, nature and mountains. You won’t meet any tourists. At most, a few peasants and their donkeys (I think I met 3 during the whole hike). Chances are that one of the dogs from the village will follow you. It happened to me, and it felt great to have that quiet company and his incitement to continue walking any time I stopped on the way, exhausted.

One of my few encounters: a peasant and her donkey

One of my few encounters: a peasant and her donkey

Things to do in Peru: watching the sun rise over the mountains in Marcahuasi

Things to do in Peru: watching the sun rise over the mountains in Marcahuasi

Wow!

Wow!

Finally in Marcahuasi, Barbon takes a look around

Finally in Marcahuasi, Barbon takes a look around

You will think you have seen it all along the way – those spectacular mountains, rays of light shining through the clouds, a view of San Pedro de Casta from high up. Then, you will get to Marcahuasi and will feel entranced. Rock formations that resemble human faces, empty spaces, and a cold breeze that will chill your skin, the echo of your voice and your steps. Something is magic about this place, and you will be repaid of the long (and at times scary) bus journey, of the dust you breathed along the way, of the bone-chilling cold you felt during the night. You will know it then: hiking Marcahuasi should definitely be listed among the things to do in Peru.

Hiking Marcahuasi should definitely be listed among the things to do in Peru: the anfitheatre

Hiking Marcahuasi should definitely be listed among the things to do in Peru: the anfitheatre

Barbon and I posing in Marcahuasi

Barbon and I posing in Marcahuasi

Marcahuasi

Human faces carved in the rock – done by nature or by humans?

For more places to visit in Peru, click here.