It has been almost a month since our last update, but the truth is that we have been quite busy and the internet connection has not been the best. Most recently, we spent a few weeks visiting Peru, and we loved it. We focused our visit on Cusco, Machu Picchu, Arequipa, and Mancora. Three very different destinations that are a good representation of the diversity of this country. Here’s a summary of our visit and our main recommendations:
Commonly described as one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Latin America, Cusco did not disappoint. Despite being a huge touristic destination in Peru since it’s the base camp for travellers heading up to Machu Picchu, Cusco has not been ruined by tourists. Although, of course, there are tons of tour operators, typical restaurants and accommodation options, everything blends in with the traditional architecture and the streets are not filled with aggressive signs and banners like we have seen in other parts of our trip.
Cusco has a beautiful, well-preserved downtown area filled with colonial buildings. The Incas originally built the city of Cusco (downtown area today), which was originally called Qosqo, in a puma-shape, since pumas were one of their three sacred animals along with the snake and the condor. You can still see remains of the original Inca city mixed with the colonial buildings. Most of the buildings downtown have an outside wall with a distinct color and shape: big grey rocks, which are different than the walls built atop them. That comes from the original Qosqo, as Incas never built buildings higher than one floor. When the Spanish came, they changed the name to Cuzco and built their colonial buildings on top of the Incas’.
Cusco is definitely not as high as the first part of our trip in Bolivia, where we really suffered from the altitude, but it still is 3399 meters above sea level (~11,150 feet) and you feel it. Especially when going up some of their hills (we recommend the lookout located by the San Cristobal church) you can easily get out of breath.
When it comes to food options, well, Peru is the place to be in South America. Back in Santiago, Chile, some of the best restaurants you can find are Peruvian. This has even been said by the former Chilean president (link in Spanish) which caused some controversy, but it is the truth in my honest opinion.
In Cusco, if you are looking for cheap, good quality food, head to calle Pampa de Castillo, a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas, where you will find cheap restaurants that are filled with locals. Ask for the menu del dia: two-course menus that costs around 7 soles (~2 USD). Given the fact that we would never spend less than $15 USD for the same amount of food at Peruvian restaurants in Santiago, this was a great deal for us. Look for Ceviche (a must), Aji de Gallina, Papas Rellenas or Tallarin Saltado, some of our favourites. Try to avoid expensive restaurants located around the Plaza de Armas, food quality is very similar, but for gringo prices.
Machu Picchu – The jewel of Peru
It was finally time for the main event in Peru. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, and probably the biggest tourist attraction in all of Latin America. Machu Picchu. Being that you have to reserve the Inca Trail months in advance nowadays, and we weren’t exactly sure when we would arrive in Cusco, we opted for the 2 day excursion instead and booked it just a couple days in advance. We left Cusco around 7am to begin the journey. Ten of us piled into a van for the 8 hour ride through the mountains. Although the scenery was pretty spectacular, I don’t know if I would repeat this part of the journey. The roads were some of the roughest and windiest I’ve been on in South America. Guard rails were few and far between and make-shift bridges over hundred foot ravines weren’t uncommon. Finally, after a nail-biting several hours, we arrived at Hidroelectrica – a small town where we would begin our hike to Aguas Calientes. We followed the railroad tracks for about two hours through lush vegetation alongside a river in the late afternoon while chatting with the others in our group and chewing coca leaves to help out with the altitude.
Aguas Calientes is a tiny town and really just serves as the jump-off point for Machu Picchu. It is filled with overpriced restaurants and hotels, but is located in a beautiful area. Nestled into the mountain side, you are almost completely surrounded by greenery. Overall, its not a bad place to spend the night before hiking up to Machu Picchu. Speaking of hiking…if there’s one thing we’ve learned here in South America, it is to not trust the guides or locals when it comes to their judgement of hike-intensity. We’ve been surprised more than a few times by the difficulty of an “easy, couple hour walk”. The trek from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu was no different. Although the entire thing only took about an hour and a half, it was an intense hour and a half. An hour and a half of walking up 2,000 stairs to be exact. We began just after 4:30 am and arrived at the entrance around 6:00 am to meet up with our tour group.
In all honesty, I didn’t have the highest expectations for Machu Picchu. I had met quite a few people saying it was over-rated and packed with way too many tourists. However, when we first turned the corner to see the actual location and a 360 view of the place, it was beyond impressive. If just for the surroundings, it was remarkable. It definitely exceeded my expectations and more. We spent a total of about 6 hours exploring the ruins and climbing to different view points. There is so much to see, and I was glad we arrived right when it opened because as the day went on, the bus loads of tourists kept coming, and tour groups filled the place. By the time we left around midday, it was looking less like Machu Picchu and more like Disneyland. One of the things that surprised me the most, especially with the thousands of people visiting everyday, was that there weren’t really any places that were off-limits. You could pretty much climb to every lookout point and even touch the ruins. This of course was awesome for us, but kind of makes me wonder how long Machu Picchu as it is now, will be around.
Arequipa is a small city of about 1 million people, but it is also Peru’s second biggest city. “Misty”, a massive volcano, watches over the city, making the views quite striking. My favorite part of the days were having breakfast on the rooftop of our hostel and looking out on the mountains and volcanoes. For being Peru’s second biggest city, Arequipa, or at least the city center, still has a small town feeling. All the sights are within walking distance, and you can easily find a delicious and filling lunch for less than $2 USD. After the go-go-go of Cusco and Machu Picchu, it was nice to have some time to relax and take it easy. We spent the few days we were here visiting churches, checking out what was for sale in the local market, and eating delicious helado de queso. Literally meaning cheese ice cream, it really has nothing to do with cheese besides being dairy. The helado de queso is made from cream, sugar, coconut, vanilla, and topped with cinnamon. As an ice cream lover myself, I would highly recommend it. After some down time wandering through the town, we needed to cover some serious ground and head to northern Peru. A luxurious (actually!) 17 hour bus ride to Lima and a flight to Piura awaited us.
We spent our first beach destination and our last days in Peru in Mancora, a tiny city on the northern coast of Peru, very close to the Ecuadorian border. To get there, we flew to Piura from Lima after taking the overnight bus from Arequipa. Then in Piura we took a 2h30m van ride to Mancora. It looks like an awful ride but was definitely worth it.
After two weeks of “intense” travelling: moving from one place to another after just a couple days and taking day tours and hikes very often, it was great to spend a few days doing nothing but swimming in the (very warm) ocean, eating ceviche, and going out at night.
The most famous hostel in Mancora is Loki, the same one we stayed at in La Paz, and which are considered big party hostels. For our first night, Loki was full, so we went to the immediate next option on Hostelworld – The Point Hostel. We decided to book one night, with the idea of going to Loki on the next day. However, our first day there we meet a really cool group of travellers that were going to stay there for a few days so we decided to extend our stay -we loved it.
In Mancora there’s not much else to do than what I described above. There’s also the option to take a day tour to swim with sea turtles but we were quite content on the beach. However, Mancora is a great place to stop and relax for a few days, whether you are going up to Ecuador like we did or down to southern Peru for more adventures.
Peru has been great, but now it’s time to cross the border to our third country on the list: Ecuador. Montañita, Quito, Baños… can’t wait!