At the beginning of 2018, I was contemplating where I wanted to go for my big international trip of the year. A friend called in early January after spending several weeks in South America and encouraged me to go to Machu Picchu – STAT! He had traveled all the way from Asia to see it and told me I should go while it was only a (relatively) short flight from the US. He said I didn’t have to spend weeks in Peru, but that I could see the highlights in a few days. He also promised that Machu Picchu would not disappoint.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that within 30 minutes of hanging up the phone with him, I read a short article in Conde Nast Traveller that basically said you only need 4-6 days to see the highlights of Peru. With two sources telling me to go, I thought I should consider it!
When I realized I had enough airline miles to pay for all of my flights, the decision was made, and I started planning. I used the concierge at one of the hotels to book all of the drivers, guides, and tickets to everything I wanted to do and see. It was the best of both worlds for me, because I got to plan the full itinerary (which I LOVE to do), but I didn’t have to go through the headache of booking every detail.
The trip started off a little rocky when I arrived at the Lima airport and learned that the airport lounge I planned to use for my overnight layover was actually closed for renovations. I learned this AFTER going through security, which meant I was stuck in the airport for the night. I purchased a pass in advance and everything. Major bummer to have to sleep on a bench in the terminal with a makeshift pillow and blanket from my luggage. I was also paranoid that someone would take one of my bags while I slept, so I had them both attached to me while I slept. I’m sure I looked absolutely ridiculous. After making it through the night and onto my 5:40am flight to Cusco, everything else went really well.
Cusco sits at a high elevation – more than 11,000 feet, so I planned an easy day to allow myself to adjust. I stayed at Belmond Monasterio, which was gorgeous! It was an old monastery that had a beautiful courtyard and ornate decorations in the rooms.
Most importantly, it was located a block or two away from the main square, Plaza de Armas.
[Dancers and marching bands were out in full force celebrating something. Later in the day, my guide told me that there is always a celebration happening. She had no idea what this one was for.]
I had lunch at Chicha por Gaston Acurio, which was my first of many delicious meals. I had a really delicious octopus salad and an interesting corn soup. Portions were big, so I definitely over-ordered. In case you’re wondering, Gaston Acurio is the chef who put Peruvian cuisine on the map. Because of his influence, Lima now boasts several restaurants on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and even in the other cities I visited, the food was outstanding.
After lunch, I met up with my guide. Her name was Adriana, and we spent three days together. She was amazing! She knew how to give just enough information without bogging me down in too many historical details. I’m not usually one for tour guides, but I knew I wanted a driver to get me from city to city in Peru, and the agency arranged for a guide, too.
During the afternoon, we visited several sites around Cusco. First was the Cathedral, but sadly, no photos are allowed inside. It is one of the most beautiful and unique cathedrals I’ve visited – partly for the ornate gold alters, but also for the sculptures and figurines of biblical figures – many of whom are dressed in actually cloth outfits. The Peruvians love to make clothing and preferred to dress the figures in actual clothes vs. only painting or sculpting clothing.
We also visited the Temple of the Sun (Qoricancha & Santo Domingo), but what remains is mostly ruins, so it was difficult to capture it in a picture.
Cusco was the Inca capital before the Spanish invaded, so it used to be full of Inca temples and palaces. When the Spanish came, they tore down many of these and erected large churches and other buildings.
We also drove up to the edge of the city to see a couple of Inca ruins – Sacsayhuaman (which is almost pronounced like “sexy woman”) and Q’enko. It’s unknown exactly what these were long ago, but what is amazing is the size of the boulders that were used and how they were perfectly fit together.
[Panoramic of the city of Cusco from Sacsayhuaman]
At the recommendation of a friend, I went to dinner at Morena Peruvian Kitchen. I was feeling a little out of sorts (likely a combination of altitude and general exhaustion after my night spent in the airport), but I had a lovely meal. I tried causa, which is mashed potatoes, ground yellow peppers, and lemon juice made into a smooth dough. At dinner, this dough was stuffed with chicken, avocado, and some other ingredients. They top it with mayonnaise, olives, hard boiled eggs, etc. It seemed like a strange combination, but it was good. I also had chicha morada to drink, which proved to be my favorite drink of the trip! It’s a sweet purple fruit juice made from purple corn.
I went to bed really early, and thankfully, I was refreshed and ready to go the next morning. I enjoyed breakfast in the hotel courtyard, since it was such a lovely day!
We left Cusco and drove for maybe an hour or so to Maras where we visited some incredible salt mines. If you ever see Maras salt on a restaurant menu, this is where it comes from. There is a natural salt water spring that feeds the pools in these pictures (which are perched off the side of the cliff). They fill each of the pools about 12-18 inches and then let them dry. When it’s time to harvest the salt, they add some more water to the pool and use a method of scraping the salt with their feet and with something that looked like a combination of a broom and a rake. Different families own and mine different pools, and a few of them were out working while we were there, which was very neat to see.
[Panoramic of the salt mines from the road]
[Looks like this pool is nearly dry and will be ready for harvesting soon]
[Look at the pile of harvested salt!]
[Walking on the narrow pathway through the mines. I admit; I was afraid I would lose my balance and fall into one of the pools!]
Our next stop was Moray to see the concentric ring terraces. There’s speculation that ancient civilizations were exploring how best to farm with terraces or maybe experimenting with different crops on different terraces. There’s also the theory that these were created by aliens. Regardless of what’s true or why they were created, they are very amazing.
For lunch, we went to a private home in Maras called Iskay Home. The owners are a couple who grow produce in a garden out back and cook the food themselves. The fixed menu changes daily based on the seasons and what local ingredients are available. It was delicious, and there were amazing views of the mountains out the window. Ceviche and causa for the main dish.
After lunch we headed to my hotel in the Sacred Valley – Tambo Del Inka. It was a beautiful property. I enjoyed a spa treatment and a room with this incredible view…
I had dinner at the hotel restaurant, and while I didn’t love my ceviche starter, this lamb was really good! I loved being seated by the huge fireplace, and there were a couple of guys playing traditional Peruvian music, which was lovely.
Sunday is market day in Pisac, and I love markets! We backtracked a little bit to make this day work, but I enjoyed it. I bought some fun things in the market, and it was nice to have someone shopping with me who could tell me when something was a good price. Peru is known for silver, so I bought some earrings. They also have beautiful wraps and sweaters made of baby alpaca, which are so soft. I always love the vibrant colors and all of the unique, handmade items.
[Guinea pigs! They eat them in Peru. I didn’t try any at the market, but I did have some at dinner one night on the trip.]
[Empenadas fresh from the oven!]
From Pisac, we drove to Ollantaytambo. As we drove through the Sacred Valley, we passed many small villages. A number of them were grilling guinea pigs on skewers on the side of the road for cars to stop for a snack. We didn’t stop, but it’s definitely the only place I’ve ever seen rotisserie guinea pig!
Because we stayed at the markets too long (which I’m not at all sad about), we couldn’t climb to the top of the fortress. We had just a few minutes to walk in and gawk at the magnitude of the fortress.
We didn’t have much time at the fortress, because I had a train to catch…TO MACHU PICCHU! I saved the best for last on this trip. I took the Vistadome train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (or what seems to have been renamed Machu Picchu village). The Vistadome train has huge windows, so you get panoramic views throughout the ride. And guess who somehow had the very front seat all to herself?! Me! A big thanks to my hotel concierge for securing the best seat in the house!
The train ride was about 1.5 hours, and they served juice and carrot cake as a snack. I took way too many pictures, since there was a beautiful view at every turn. I’ll just share a few of the best ones. We followed the river and saw ancient terraces at different points on the journey.
[DIY train track change over. This worker jumped out of our train to make a change on the tracks for the oncoming train. After the train passed, he changed it back for us.]
[Welcome to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu village!]
I have wanted to come to Machu Picchu for a long time. A number of years ago, I thought it would be amazing to do the 4-day trek on the Inca Trail. After several friends did it, I realized it would be too much for me, so I didn’t hesitate to take the train.
Upon arrival, the train station was OVERFLOWING with people. Thankfully, someone had told me where to anticipate the bellman from my hotel, and sure enough, he was right where they described. I was happy to escape the crowds. He walked me and my suitcase through the town to the bus stop.
Since the entrance to Machu Picchu closes at 5:00 or 6:00pm, and I was arriving mid-afternoon, I was one of two people on the bus. The bus ride is about 20 minutes, and the road winds back and forth up the mountain. Sometimes the bus passes another bus at moments when it doesn’t look like there’s room for two buses. I was warned that it would be a terrifying ride, so I was actually prepared for much worse. We arrived at the top in one piece. Steps from the bus is the entrance to Machu Picchu as well as my hotel for the evening – Belmond Sanctuary Lodge.
There is only one hotel at the top of the mountain opposite the entrance to Machu Picchu. It was a splurge, but I am so glad I chose to do it! The staff was incredibly warm and welcoming, and the grounds are lovely. I took a walk up the Orchid walk and did some yoga on a platform surrounded by jungle and with views into the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu.
After yoga, I curled up with a blanket on the comfy patio furniture to read until the sun set.
Dinner was included with my room rate, and it was magnificent! I tried a Pisco Sour, which is a well known drink in Peru that everyone insisted I try. A little strong for me. I even tried alpaca this meal.
I went to bed early and woke up at 5:00am to enter Machu Picchu at 6:00am. I thought hotel guests were the only ones who entered at that time, but they actually start running buses earlier than 6:00, so there were a few dozen others in line when the gates opened. I was still able to get a number of pictures without any people in them, which was the goal.
Machu Picchu is nothing short of amazing! The ruins are incredible, but so are the surroundings. I couldn’t get enough of it! I hiked for about two hours – all the way to the Inca Bridge and back before heading back to the hotel for breakfast. The weather was great! No rain, not too hot, and not too cold. I’m posting entirely too many pictures, so you can experience it virtually.
[In search of the Inca Bridge…I only passed 3 or 4 other people on this hike. I really enjoyed the quiet morning.]
Machu Picchu was only re-discovered by explorers (Hiram Bingham has the claim to fame) in 1911! When you see how it’s surrounded by mountains and very hidden, it’s easy to understand how it took so long.
You are allowed two entries into Machu Picchu in the same day, so after breakfast, I met my guide, Beltran, and we headed back in to hike Waynapicchu – the big mountain in the background of most of the photos I posted above (and below).
The climb to the top of Waynapicchu is 8,923 feet. They have two entry times each day, and 200 people are permitted at each time. We were first in line for the 10:00 entry. I am super slow, so we definitely weren’t the first to summit. My guide was so patient, even though he told me his record time reaching the top was only 12 MINUTES! I don’t know how he didn’t fall and kill himself. It’s so steep and the steps are so uneven! I had to watch every step. It was hard, but I was so proud of myself for doing it!
[Thank goodness Beltran had a walking stick for me to borrow! It made a huge difference in helping me feel more stable on the steep climb!]
[WOOHOO!!! Made it!]
[Of course, we had to climb to the very tippy top. I was a wee bit terrified to be climbing around on the boulders at the top, and was very happy to take a seat! Another hiker insisted on taking our picture saying that this was an adorable shot. I’m so thankful that Beltran took such good care of me for the day.]
[My guide insisted that I take this photo sitting out on the edge…eeekkk!!!]
[You can see the city ruins way down below]
[Look at the size of the boulders they used when building the city!]
[What an amazing day at Machu Picchu! Wow! Wow! Wow!]
The beauty of staying at the hotel at the entrance is that I could take a shower and have some lunch after my hike. My guide told me that the ceviche at the hotel was the best he had ever had, so I had to try (along with another chicha morada)! It was amazing!!
After lunch, I read out on the terrace until it was time to catch my bus to the train station. I chose to take the Hiram Bingham train back to Cusco (which is approximately 3.5-4 hours). It’s a beautiful, old train, and they serve a lovely 4-course dinner. Makes the time pass quickly!
The next morning, I had just a couple of hours in Cusco to walk through the city and to visit San Pedro Market, which was full of souvenirs, fresh squeezed juice, flowers, and lots of food.
After my visit to the market, I flew to Lima. I met up with my driver and guide for a final few stops in the late afternoon…first, Larco Museum, which had an enormous private collection of Peruvian pottery.
We walked through the Plaza de Armas, which was stunning.
We walked through the Museo del Convento de San Francisco de Asis de Lima before heading to dinner. I tried to get a reservation at Central, which is one of the top restaurants in Latin America, but even signing up in July didn’t work. Instead, I opted for dinner at Astrid & Gaston, which is one of Gaston Acurio’s restaurants (and #39 on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants). It was an amazing meal! I loved having a table where I could watch the kitchen prepare the food. This was the night I tried guinea pig, and it was delicious! And yes – my desert was macarons with ice cream in the center! Yum!!
My trip was short and sweet, but I thoroughly enjoyed it! I ate well, saw so many different things, enjoyed my guides who gave me insight into their lives and their culture, and stayed in beautiful places. I would highly recommend a visit to Machu Picchu (and a hike up Waynapicchu, if you aren’t afraid of heights)! So glad my friend gave me the nudge I needed to plan this adventure!