When you know next to nothing about a country except for a few highlights you want to hit while you're there, it can be a little intimidating to come up with your itinerary. For Peru I thought I had come up with the perfect plan, however after chatting with a few people that had been there and getting some insider tips, we made some adjustments. It ended up that we spent the perfect amount of time in each destination and never felt too rushed or like we were missing out. I'm sharing our itinerary below so you can use it as a guide for your own trip to Peru along with some very important tips that we learned that you will find come in handy! It's important to note that there are so many other areas of Peru that we would have loved to have checked out, however with only being able to take a certain amount of time off, we'll have to save those areas for another trip!
When you first arrive in Lima from Newark (non-stop on United which is only about a 7.5 hour flight), you land at about 9:30pm. If you're planning to head out to Cusco or another area of Peru instead of going directly into Lima, I highly recommend spending the night at the Costa del Sol Lima Airport which is the Wyndham property that's connected directly to the airport. The neighborhood that the Lima airport is located in is not very safe, so being able to not even have to leave the airport is a major bonus. Simply walk over the short pedestrian overpass et voila - you are in the hotel!
Getting to Cusco from Lima could really not be easier. The flight is only an hour and there are flights nearly every hour, but believe it or not, this could cause some problems. When we arrived at the airport, we couldn't find our flight on the board. Confused, I tracked the flight status on my phone and was surprised to learn that it was cancelled. LATAM Airlines hadn't sent us an email notifying us of the cancellation until way later and the reader board did not indicate that our flight was even cancelled. It simply just wasn't there. We tried to go through security to see if we could get to a gate agent to rebook to which we were turned away and told to go down to the check in area. We tried to rebook the flight on our phones because it was giving us the option to select another flight but this wasn't working either. Very long story, but we ended up criss crossing the airport 4 times from desk to desk because we kept getting sent to different areas to rebook. Finally, we found ourselves in the right place and were able to get on the flight that departed an hour after our regularly scheduled flight. The purpose of me saying all of that is this: because there are flights nearly every hour (sometimes only within 15 minutes of each other) it seems like if one does not fill up, they will cancel it and consolidate the passengers onto the next flight. Keep an eye on your flight and the second it looks like there might be a cancellation try to rebook.
Take it easy your first day in Cusco. For real. People will tell you this and you may think you're used to altitude, but it's really no joke here. Simply walking down the street will cause anyone to get winded and you should be mindful of the amount of oxygen you're getting. I highly recommend booking a hotel that not only pumps oxygen into the guest rooms (check out the Palacio del Inka or the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco), but one that also has an oxygen tank that's free for hotel guest use. I didn't think this was a service we would use, but then I saw how blue my lips had turned from lack of oxygen and had that bad boy delivered ASAP. They delivered it right to our room and let us keep it for 15 minutes each. While there is a lot to see in Cusco, it is not overwhelming which makes that traveler guilt about taking it easy basically non-existent. We would head out to explore and then return to the hotel for an hour or two to take it easy and get some oxygen before heading back out again. I truly think this is what helped us to acclimate so quickly.
Also, make sure that you are eating light on the first day or two and don't drink any alcohol. Altitude sickness can hit out of the blue and you won't want to have just killed a giant steak and 3 beers. Opt for a salad or soup and LOTS of coca tea! Trust me, even the restaurants are cautious of this:
The best place in Cusco to eat light is Greens Organic. Delicious salads (seriously one of the best I've ever had in my life!), soups, smoothies, and teas will leave you feeling ready to tackle the altitude. Greens has their own farm in the Sacred Valley, so it's pretty cool to be able to support that as well.
You're finally ready to head to Machu Picchu! There are essentially two ways to get there: by bus and by train. DO NOT be lured by the cheap bus prices. The road is extremely dangerous and the journey will take well over 20 hours. If you're on a budget, pony up for the train (either Inca Rail or PeruRail) and enjoy the sights along the way. The train companies will tell you that the trip takes only 3.5 hours, however I feel like they don't account for the time it takes to actually get out of Cusco (you zig zag up and out of town in order to get over the mountains) and the other station stops that you will make. The total time of our train trip to Aguas Calientes was about 5 hours from the San Pedro Station in Cusco. It didn't feel that long, however, because they serve you breakfast and then we had some beers and enjoyed the beautiful sights. Along the way, they will come over the loudspeaker and tell you a little history of what you're seeing out your window. The sights are beautiful!
The big question for us was how much time will we need in Machu Picchu? After much consideration, we opted for just one night at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. The property was just a short walk through town and felt miles away. One of the best decisions we made was to stay here. It was beautiful and very convenient. The best part was that a 75-minute Andean hot stone massage cost only $95. We took advantage of that one.
Today's the big day because you're heading up to Machu Picchu! We booked a private guide directly through our resort which was an excellent idea. Opt for the early 7am entrance time in order to beat the crowds (and the crowds will come, that's for sure). You'll walk to town and take the bus up (which is the only way to get up there) which takes about 25 minutes. Take note, though, because this is not a 25 minute straight shot up the mountain. You will wind and curve up the narrow zig zag road (Peruvians love the zig zag!). Be prepared - check out my list of tips for this one.
Once up there, consider hiking part of the Inca Trail up to the Sun Gate which will offer up stunning views of this wondrous site and the surrounding mountains. From there, you can head down to the Inca Bridge which is something to behold. After hiking and snapping selfies with the wild llamas, you can begin your tour through Machu Picchu itself. Our tour with our guide also included lunch at the Belmond which was perfect because we had worked up an appetite. It is important to note that the only bathrooms at Machu Picchu are at the entrance where you present your ticket. Because we were out hiking, we weren't able to hit these up until after our tour which was about 6 hours later. Keep this in mind as you are chugging water and your morning coffee.
Instead of taking PeruRail back to Cusco, we opted to take the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury train which turned out to be one of the most fun experiences of the entire trip. Acting on a tip from a friend, we decided to cut our time in MP short from 2 nights to 1 night in order to snag tickets on the train (they sell out WAY in advance, so buy early!). Your ticket will include tea at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge which sits at the entrance to Machu Picchu (talk about convenience). After lunch, we hung around at the hotel's restaurant drinking coca tea and catching up on emails until the official tea time began at 4pm.
If you choose to take the Hiram Bingham, not only does the ticket include tea time, but it will include a transfer to the train station just for the train passengers. You will only need to buy a one way bus ticket up for the morning.
The bus will depart the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge at 4:45pm and will take you town where you'll be guided to the VIP lounge at the train station where they will serve up champagne drinks and have live music. They'll load your luggage on the train for you and show you to your private table where you'll enjoy a 4-course meal after you whoop it up in the bar car with another live band and unlimited beverages (I cannot stress enough how much fun this was!).
The train will take you to the Poroy station which lies just outside Cusco. It is important that you have pre-arranged transportation to pick you up as the train will get in around 9:30pm (the trip is only 3.5 hours) and there are no taxis to be found. Consider arranging a car from your hotel to get you for the 30 or so minute ride.
You'll be worn out from the Machu Picchu adventure and might not be interested in walking around Cusco any more. We decided to take a cooking class at Marcelo Batata Cooking Class and it was MUCH more fun than I anticipated. The chef was so knowledgable and personable which made it all the more fun while cooking things like ceviche, lomo saltado, and pisco sours. We even did a pisco tasting which was so interesting. I highly recommend it!
A day trip around the Sacred Valley is a MUST! There is so much to see and you'll want a guide to show it all to you. Make sure your tour includes stops in Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero. We considered taking another day trip to the Rainbow Mountain, but was advised against it by many people. It's about a 3 hour drive from Cusco and the only thing to do out there is to hike which is fine, but if you're really just wanting to take some pictures of the sights, it's not worth it. You may even be unlucky and catch a rainy day to which I'm told the colors of the mountain just end up looking as gray as can be. So glad we opted for the Sacred Valley tour instead!
Time to spend some time in Lima! Truth bomb: you really won't need much time in Lima at all. While there are some things to see, it's not filled with massive amounts of activities. Lima is a good place to do some shopping, especially in the neighborhood called Barranco which is filled with these hidden gems that you might almost pass right by. There are definitely some sketchy areas of town, so generally stick to Miraflores and Barranco (the JW Marriott Lima was great and the location could not be beat!). Lima, kind of surprisingly, is known for some of the best restaurants in the world. Make reservations early! Peruvian food is DELICIOUS and one of the trends there is a type of cuisine called nikkei which is Peruvian/Japanese fusion. It is incredible.
The Larcomar shopping center which overlooks the ocean with the JW Marriott Lima in the background
Amazing shopping in Barranco, especially for home decor!
You'll likely take a redeye back to the States and arrive in the morning. We took the non-stop on United once again to Newark which departed at 11pm and arrived at 7:30am. A quick 7.5 hour flight from a country that feels worlds away from home is pretty cool.
Peru is such an amazing country filled with so much history (the Incas were just mind blowing) and friendly people. As I said, the food was so good that I feel like once Americans really discover it, it will become all the craze here. The itinerary I've provided gave us a great balance of exploration and relaxation, so I would recommend following it if you are planning a trip. If you have any questions, send them my way!