This past year I took the trip of a lifetime to Peru, wandering south of the Equator to trade in a stateside winter for sunnier skies. For two weeks, I bounced around the country while visiting Martha, my best friend from my exchange semester in Paris. The highlights of our packed itinerary included ringing in the New Year in Cusco, hiking Machu Picchu, eating our way through Lima, and a weekend getaway to Lake Titicaca.
And while I’ve played tourist in a handful of other countries, Peru was the first place I saw through a local’s eyes. We were welcomed in by Martha’s all-too-kind family and friends, who helped us fall in love with the Peru they know; so here’s my take on Peru with a local flair. Hopefully these tidbits help with an upcoming trip — or at the very least bump Peru up a few notches on your travel bucket list 🙂
Stop #1: Cusco, Peru
Our first stop was Cusco, where we spent a total of four days. To be completely honest, I had initially brushed off Cusco as a mere stopover to Machu Picchu, but it wasn’t long before I fell in love with this charming little town and its warm, ski-town vibe. Cusco serves as a base not only for Machu Picchu but also for other Andean adventures like horseback riding, Incan ruin tours, Rainbow Mountain, and more. The city itself is extremely walkable, with lively markets and great food. We spent two days seeing the city and one day touring the Sacred Valley.
1. Plaza de Armas is the main town square in Cusco. A cathedral sits in the middle, and cute boutiques, markets, and restaurants line the periphery.
2. Our first meal in Cusco — grilled chicken, yucca fries, plantains, beets, and chica morada, a classic Peruvian drink made of sweet, purple corn. Cusco sits at 11,000+ feet high (compared to Dallas’ 430 feet), so it’s important to build in a day or two in your itinerary to take it easy and acclimate to the high elevation. Protip: Before you go, be sure to get a altitude pill prescription from your doctor, since there’s nothing you can do to cure altitude sickness retroactively.
3. The hilly, cobbled city views of beautiful Cusco.
4. From Cusco, we took a day-long excursion to the Sacred Valley, arranged through our hotel. This shot was taken in Ollantaytambo, known for its Inca ruins.
5. Another stop during our day in the Sacred Valley was Pisac market. Here, there’s no shortage of handicrafts, colorful alpaca wool sweaters, and street food.
6. A quick stop at Chinchero village and to learn all about the art and science of all-natural Peruvian fabric dying techniques.
7. We got back from our Sacred Valley tour just in time to ring in the New Year with tens of thousands of strangers in Plaza de Armas, celebrating until the sun came up the next day. Local tradition says that making seven rounds around the town square at midnight brings good luck. 2016 was a great year so it just may be true 😉
Stop #2: Machu Picchu
On our final full day in Cusco, we took a day-trip out to Machu Picchu. We booked a private tour through SAM Travel, and our whole trip was impeccably planned. I’m normally not one to use tour agencies, but when we planned this trip (albeit last minute), the government website to book hiking reservations for Machu Picchu was glitching. From tickets to transport, SAM travel took care of it all, and the convenience was definitely worth it.
8. Rainy season in Peru runs from November to April, making it the prime time to see the peaks cloaked in this morning mist.
9. Seen above is Aguas Calientes, the base camp of Machu Picchu. Some choose to spend the night prior to hiking here, but because of our time constraints, our time at Machu Picchu took the form of a long day trip from Cusco. We were picked up in Cusco and transported by van then train for the four hour journey to Aguas Calientes. We visited the city ruins around 7 AM, hiked Huyana Picchu (more on this below) in the late morning, and were back on a train to Cusco by 4 PM.
10. We spent our first few hours in Machu Picchu exploring the ruins, mostly in awe over the architectural and engineering skill it took to build this Incan citadel.
11. From the base camp, there are two major hikes: Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu Mountain. We chose to hike Huayna Picchu, or the “young mountain” – it’s shorter, much steeper, and is rumored to have better views of the city ruins as you hike. Keep in mind, there are only 400 spots each day, so book your reservation to hike early!
12. Spotted from the Huayna Picchu hike. Shown in the image is the Incan citadel; as you make your way up Huayna Picchu, you’ll see the city ruins grow smaller and smaller behind you.
13. The Huayna Picchu hike is not for the faint of heart. The trail is very steep and exposed, and at several points along the way, there are (necessary) metal chains you’ll use to propel yourself up.
14. Breathless and speechless at top, feeling smaller than ever.
15. The classic shot of Machu Picchu, taken from a designated viewpoint not far from the old city ruins. For reference, Huayna Picchu, the mountain we hiked, is that main peak in the background.
Stop #3: Lima, Peru
We spent about a week in Lima, longer than most tourists would in this city. Through staying with Martha’s family and spending time with her friends, we got to see a side of Peruvian culture that I certainly would have overlooked on a typical sightseeing trip. Each day we tried to explore a different neighborhood; Martha then would meet us for lunch or after work and show us the hidden gems her city had to offer.
16. Street art in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood, the city’s hip, bohemian corner.
17. Toasting to cross-country reunions in Lima. The white drink front and center is a Pisco Sour, a Peruvian concoction of egg whites, Pisco (a type of brandy), and lime.
18. Catching the sunset in Miraflores, the trendy neighborhood that lies along the coastline. We spent that evening walking along the coastal cliffs, roaming Larcomar, the partially outdoor mall here, and grabbing a quick bite.
19. Hands down the best meal I had in Peru. This is a classic dish called Lomo Saltado, a stir fry of beef, tomatoes, onions, and french fries, tossed in a soy sauce-like base that’s distinctly Peruvian with a bit of Cantonese flair. This dish was found at Nos, the sister restaurant to Latin America’s #1 restaurant, Central (creation of chef Virgilio Martinez).
20. Calling all fellow cat lovers: Parque Kennedy in Miraflores is locally known as the “cat park.” This little kitten made for the most entertaining of park strolls.
21. Interactive exhibit at MATE – Museo Mario Testino, the famed fashion and portrait photographer. Not to miss in the museum collection are portraits of Princess Diana, which Testino captured for an iconic Vanity Fair shoot.
22. Chifa, Peruvian Chinese cuisine, was born from an influx of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century. Martha taught us that the only correct way to enjoy Chifa is with a side of Inca Kola, the beloved national soda.
Stop #4: Lake Titicaca, Puno, Peru
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at 12,500 feet high. We chose to visit by way of weekend trip, flying into Puno (a port city on the lake), and booking a tour for our time at the lake itself. We left for the lake early in the morning on Day 1, visiting several islands before arriving at Amantani island, where we would spend the night at a homestay. The second day, we hiked around another island all day and were back in Puno by the evening.
23. Our 2 day, 1 night homestay tour at this stunning lake was organized by All Ways Travel. This particular agency has an emphasis on sustainable tourism, something to prioritize when shopping around for tours in the area. Travel responsibly, friends! 🙂
24. The Uros islands are floating islands made of bundled reed. We met with the locals here who walked us through the process of laying the foundation for these intriguing manmade islands.
25. Our method of transport between the Uros islands were boats made entirely of reed.
26. Our next stop was Amantani Island, where we would spend the night in a homestay, living as the locals do and learning about their way of life. The island at night was below freezing with no electricity or running water, but the warm welcome by our host family easily overshadowed those minor inconveniences.
27. Meal prepared by our homestay family with the most natural of ingredients – everything in this meal was grown right in their backyard! Quinoa soup, beets, potatoes, and fried cheese over rice sure made for a delicious welcome to Amantani island.
28. Standing nearly eye-level with the clouds, feeling insignificant in the best possible way during a hike on Taquile Island (another stop during our weekend at Lake Titicaca).
These 28 pictures can’t possibly do the country justice, but hopefully now you can see why this was one of my favorite trips to date. Having Martha as our trusty guide certainly gave us a peek into a Peru off the beaten path, making this such a special trip.
Have a Peruvian favorite I missed? Planning a trip sooner rather than later now? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below 🙂