For many, Peru is THE South American experience. Culture, scenery, history, friendly people – it’s got pretty much everything. Well, everything perhaps except food-tour worthy food, although for the adventurous there’s always the guinea-pig on a stick option. Otherwise, they always do a pretty good pollo a la plancha.
For most, the journey to Peru begins with the lure of Machu Picchu – the ancient, forgotten city; that over-instagrammed photo of the green, green hills surrounding those strange ruins mysteriously emerging out of the mist.
For us, however, the lure of Peru came from the appeal of South America itself, most particularly, the Andes. And with the Andes, of course, comes the hiking. Hiking, and nature, had become something of an obsession – we had just come off a multi-day trek to the Roof of Africa, and the year prior, had wandered through the majestic southern edge of the Torres del Paine in Chile. The bug had truly bit and I was hooked on the combination of effort + breathtaking scenery.
And so, off to Peru we flew. Fresh off work, and fit from our usual gym routine, we had chosen to load the hiking component of our trip at the front-end of the trip and went straight for the mountains, the Cordillera Blanca. Well… actually, that’s not quite accurate. Coming off an international flight, we had to first fly into Lima so we thought we should probably check it out for a couple of nights. How can I put this delicately? Ummm… let’s just say when the highlight of the city is the “cat park” where all the stray cats in the city hang out and you can go and pat them for free (it’s a thing, the local council pays for their food or whatever), I wouldn’t get your hopes up for much more. For most visiting Peru, a stop in Lima is probably unavoidable, but, unless you’re one of those people that loves to visit Japan’s cat cafes, I would suggest minimizing your time there.
So, the “main” part of the trip started in the Cordillera Blanca. Prior to commencing the overnight hike, we spent a day or two acclimatizing to the altitude (as is suggested). For those experiencing altitude for the first time, it can be fairly anxiety-inducing. Your body is exhausted, but you can’t get to sleep, and you won’t be able to fathom why your breathing is so laboured WHEN YOU’RE LYING DOWN. Everything is an effort. And that pesky headache just won’t shake itself. After “acclimatization”, (read: being accustomed to feeling like shit all the time) we started the real hike; camping for 3 nights in the middle of the Andes (thank you once again for your genius silverchair).
The nice thing about the hike (apart from the incredible scenery) was the fact that it was lesser-known, unlike the Inca Trail you don’t have to book months (years?) in advance, and unlike the W Trek in Chile, or other well-known treks around the world, there weren’t tonnes of other hikers around. Our campsites were fairly isolated, other than a couple of Andes-cows and the burros that lugged our gear. However, because the trek isn’t as well-known, it does make it more difficult to find a trekking company – the choices are ultimately fairly limited. We were pretty happy all in all with our chosen company – except for the return drive on the last day involving several flat tyres – but I think I’ve provided sufficient colour on that traumatic incident previously.
Unlike the Kilimanjaro trek, this one didn’t include a portaloo but rather a porta-tent which would be sent up over a communal poo-hole. Not the funest thing if you can imagine. And I couldn’t help being a little concerned about the choice of hole location – surely at some point the diggers would choose a place that had already been used? Thankfully, this wasn’t my problem, but it does make one think – particularly should the trek become more popular.
Although we didn’t go to Peru for Machu Picchu, if you’re making the trip to Peru, you kinda have to go there right? The gateway to Machu Picchu is Cusco – a fun, tourist town – lots of markets with local woven mats and blankets for sale, people with baby lambs ready to thrust into your arms all for the price of a picture – people dressed in traditional Peruvian dress – the big hats and the embroidered blouses and dresses for the women. We can confirm that locals do in fact still wear the traditional attire and it’s not just for show – it was seen regularly in the smaller villages not far from where our hike in the Cordillera Blanca started.
Machu Picchu is still a bit of a journey from Cusco however. We took the train, stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes, wanting to be as close as possible for the early start.
And man, was it early. From memory, we were up at about 5.30am – breakfast at our hotel had been open from 5.00am and they were already restocking – so apparently we were already late. We got down into town to catch the bus to Machu Picchu at some point after 6am. And then we stood in a line. Don’t get me wrong, all in all, the line moves pretty fast. But the people…. I mean, nothing really prepares you for it. It’s the kind of line where you are seriously confused about where each end actually starts. There are supposed to be a limited number of tickets sold per day – but in reality, it is still a shitload of people. There are no private tours either, unless you’ve walked the Inca Trail straight up there, taking one of the buses is the only way to access the lost city. It’s insane. So, if you wanna tick this one off the bucket list, there’s really no other option but to suck it up.
You can do Machu Picchu easily in a day. We did it in half a day. We didn’t get a guided tour (I know you’re not supposed to say this but we really weren’t that interested in learning the history fascinating as it may be). We wandered the ruins, and did a vertical hike up to an amazing viewpoint which was supposed to take four hours but took us about half that. Then we were done. We got back to Aguas Calientes in time for lunch – luckily the line for buses leaving Machu Picchu was nothing like the bus to get there – although perhaps if you are looking to leave later in the day your experience may be somewhat different.
We ended our trip to Peru with a two day horse ride through the Sacred Valley – setting off from Cusco and staying overnight at a homestay in the valley. While this wasn’t my first time on a horse, it wasn’t far off – but the horses were lovely, and it was a gorgeous way to soak up the scenery alternative to hiking. Plus the homestay experience is always fairly unique – if you get the chance to do it at least for a single night regardless of the country – give it a shot.
- When visiting Machu Picchu pack a truckload of patience. You will wait in line for hours. The crowds are insane – but remember, it’s super famous, so of course the whole world wants to go.
- There is stuff to do at Machu Picchu other than the ruins. There are walks with viewpoints – you don’t have to do a guided tour. Wear decent shoes.
- Don’t get hung up on the Inca Trail. If you must hike to Machu Picchu there are alternative paths. Or if you want incredible scenery (or a more challenging trek) – immerse yourself in the Andes and check out the Cordillera Blanca.
- Be ready to confront the altitude. Although you really can’t do much to prepare yourself for it physically, at least prepare mentally. Even Cusco is pretty high up – I heard stories of people struggling there – although happily it was not an issue for me or the husband.
- No need to plan for too much time in Lima. It’s pretty much a shit hole.
Bottom line: Peru is beautiful and there is more to it beyond Machu Picchu. Do yourself a favour – check it out.