Home of the Incas: Top 5 Things to Do in Peru

When I decided to visit South America, I opted to explore Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Although I had thoroughly researched Peru and knew what I wanted to see and do there, I had no idea how large and diverse the country really is. Using Lima as a base, I eventually had to extend my time in the country to take in everything on my list. This list includes just a few things to do in Peru, so it is by no means exhaustive.

The five truly unique places I recommend visiting are Machu Picchu, Nazca, Lake Titicaca, Caral, and the capital Lima itself. Lima is easily the place with the most things to do in Peru. It has an international airport, along with access to trains, buses, and lots of taxi cabs. Plus, extensive bike paths get you wherever you could want to go. 

Top Five Things to Do in Peru

1. Leave No Stone Unturned in Lima

I usually shy away from big cities unless they have a historic core that is easy to navigate on foot. As it happens, the airport is only 13 kilometers from the center of Lima. I booked a room at the Hotel España, directly across the street from the Basílica y Convento de San Francisco de Lima, in one of the main plazas. I had some difficulty in finding what appeared to my night eyes to be a nondescript building when I arrived late and in the dark. 

In the morning, I found myself in a converted museum adorned with sculptures and beautiful artwork. Hotel staff served breakfast on the rooftop patio, a garden oasis that overlooked the monastery. It was complete with a house tortoise and peacock. The rooms weren’t fancy but the price was quite affordable compared to upscale chain hotels. From there, it was an easy walk into the town square that was surrounded by colonial-style buildings. 

Exploring Lima’s Larcomar

To see the waterfront and the Pacific Ocean, I took a taxi to Larcomar, which markets itself as more than a mall. It’s located on the Malecón in Miraflores, a suburb of Lima. I thought my driver erred when he dropped me off at the curb, in an expansive but empty park. He pointed me in the direction of the water and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I located the mall. 

Not visible from the street, the entire three-level structure is built into the side of a tall cliff that overlooks the ocean. It includes bars, restaurants, movie theaters, stores, and kiddie rides. I sat on a patio with a cold beer in hand and admired a view of the Pacific Ocean from the southern hemisphere. Hang-gliders riding thermals drifted in silence along the shoreline. The sound of the pounding surf on the beach below was absorbed by the mass of air between it and the lofty location of my perch. 

The Larcomar Mall in Lima, one of the coolest things to do in Peru.
Ocean stores

Calle de las Pizzas is at the opposite end of the Malecón, across from Parque Kennedy, a park established in tribute to JFK. This pedestrian laneway lines itself with restaurant patios and bars. Pizza Street is a great place to grab a snack, but beware, after dark as it garnered a seedy reputation before some recent gentrification. The Circuito Mágico del Agua isn’t too far away. This Magic Water Circuit contains various shapes and sizes of illuminated water fountains, some with music and dancing holographic images, and others where both children and adults can play.  

2. Delve into Caral

About 400 kilometers north of Lima there lie ancient ruins which include pyramids predating those in Egypt by 100 years. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was once home to the Norte Chico people, of whom very little is known. Major excavations had only begun a couple of years prior to my visit, but archeologists have made some amazing discoveries since. If you’re interested in pyramids and ancient civilizations, be sure to check out Caral. I got there by bus from Lima.

The Citadel of Caral, one of the best things to do in Peru.
Peruvian pyramids preexist Egyptian ones

3. Pay a Flying Visit to Nazca

About 450 kilometers south of Lima lies another strange and yet unexplained site, the Nazca Lines. These huge petroglyphs are unexplained etchings on the Earth’s surface. With some in the shape of animals, experts believe these massive works of art were created between 1,500 and 2,500 years ago. They were only discovered about 50 years ago and are best viewed from the air. The small passenger plane I took is not recommended for those with weak stomachs. The aircraft made tight circles over the site and it caused a woman behind me to vomit. 

4. Navigate Lake Titicaca

Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is supposedly the highest navigable lake in the world. It is a long way from Lima but there are various modes of transport that can take you there. After traveling from Cusco to Puno, which sits on the western shore of the lake, I continued to suffer altitude sickness. For that reason, I decided not to continue on to La Paz, Bolivia. 

The main attractions on Lake Titicaca are the Uros or floating islands. The Uru people handcrafted these islands by binding together buoyant reeds found in the shallows. Not only do they construct floating islands, but they also use the plants to build their village huts and pontoon-like boats. The indigenous people attired in colorful garb still inhabit the islands, which have to be anchored in order to avoid being blown across the lake. 

5. Make for Machu Picchu

When most people consider Peru, they automatically think of Machu Picchu. The Incan citadel in the Andes Mountains was the highlight of my South American trip. I recommend Cusco as a jumping-off point so that you can acclimatize to the altitude for a day or two. I succumbed to the sickness right off the bus and tried all the local remedies to no avail. Fifty percent of travelers are affected and I am one of that hapless half. 

There are plenty of things to see and do in Cusco, including exploring the colonial city itself. Ruin sites like Ollantaytambo are within hiking distance and located on the Inca Trail. The ruins showcase the lost tribe’s amazing building skills, where they hand-carved and precisely fit massive stones the size of cars for their walls. All done without the use of modern cutting tools, cranes, or mortar. I found the site a good warm-up for what was to come at Machu Picchu.

Women clad in traditional clothes on the street of Cusco, Peru.
Dressed up Cusco style

If you’re an adventurous and avid hiker, the Inca Trail in the Sacred Valley will take you from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It’s a four-day stretch that will take you on a scenic journey through the Andes mountains, with other ruin sites along the way. If you plan to go, keep in mind that the trail closes at certain times of the year and that park managers limit tourist numbers within the park. Book your trip well in advance.

An Inside Tip

I took the glass-topped scenic train from Cusco to Agua Caliente, the last stop. From there, you have to hike or bus your way up to Machu Picchu. Having been told ahead of time, I sat on the right side of the bus to take in the mountain vistas as we climbed into the clouds. Even after a couple of days to rest up, I struggled to acquire enough oxygen from the thin air. Ascending the final stairway to heaven nearly killed me.

Reaching the first viewing platform felt disappointing as clouds shrouded the whole site. But our guide put in a good word with the weather gods and a miracle appeared before my very eyes. It was truly a spectacle, more magnificent than I had imagined. Bronze-colored stone walls stood proudly in contrast with mountain greenery and cotton-ball clouds. My group froze in awe. A woman beside me summed it up perfectly when she broke the silence. Wow!

These are just five things to do in Peru, but there are plenty more for all sorts of adventure-seekers. If you wish to read more about the country or my adventures there, check out my book A Casual Traveler or search my website for more related stories.       

Hospitalized Abroad With Altitude Sickness

Over Christmas break, I made the spontaneous decision to take a solo backpacking trip. I literally booked a flight to Costa Rica twelve hours before leaving the country. I had considered leaving the day before but thought I had misplaced my passport. As soon as I located my passport, I booked my ticket. The plan was to explore Costa Rica for a day or two (I’ve been before) and then hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. Perhaps the hardest year of my life was 2019. Backpacking solo usually helps me to find peace. I often feel God’s presence the strongest in nature, so it seemed like a good idea. Who would have thought that I’d be hospitalized abroad?

The trip started out great. Upon arriving at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, an agent offered me a $225 travel voucher to switch from my overbooked Spirit Airlines flight (which, as I mentioned, I booked the day before) to a JetBlue flight that left a mere hour later (a major upgrade). I quickly made friends with the fellow travelers that were rebooked with me when we all laughed when the Spirit agent asked if any of us had checked bags. Those that travel with just the backpacks on their backs are my kind of travelers. Detachment from material goods allows travelers to be less burdened so it’s easier to explore.

Hiking the Aerial Volcano

Upon arriving in Costa Rica, I rented a car with a few other solo travelers that I had just met and set out to drive to the Aerial Volcano. However, the fog thickened and we only made it halfway, so we purchased a night at a hotel. The next day, we made it to and out of the Volcano and hiked a bit. After the Volcano, I made my way back to the San Jose airport, with intentions of traveling to Peru to hike the Incan Trail. This didn’t go as planned…

solo traveler lima

My first day in Peru was lovely. I explored the capital city of Lima to its fullest. I learned a lot about Peruvian history on a walking trail, visited the mountainous coast, enjoyed Christmas markets, and went to a Peruvian advent mass. Until I arrived in Cuzco the following day with plans to hike to Machu Picchu, I didn’t begin to experience serious problems.

Peru lima mountain

Hospitalized Abroad with Altitude Sickness

I had heard of altitude sickness before but had never thought much about it. I have been hiking and skiing countless times before and had never gotten sick. However, Cuzco, Peru is about 12,000 feet above sea level. For reference, Miami is basically at sea level. I became extremely sick almost immediately when I landed in Cuzco. At first, I thought I felt simply really tired. But after sleeping fifteen hours in the hostel and only feeling worse, I knew something was definitely off. I could hardly breathe and felt extremely faint. I knew I couldn’t hesitate any longer to go to a doctor.

By the time I got to the hospital, my oxygen levels and blood pressure fell so low that they immediately hooked me up to oxygen and an IV for fluids and medicine. They hospitalized me overnight. I had never been hospitalized overnight before. Nonetheless, I felt greatly comforted by the support and care that I received at the hospital in Cuzco.

The doctors and nurses assured me that although I seemed in bad shape, they see countless cases of the same thing every day and that I would be okay. I felt especially touched by a Peruvian nurse who had done her high school and undergraduate studies in the States. Upon learning that I taught ESOL, she made it a point to share with me how strong of an impact her English teachers in Boston had had on her and how important she viewed my role. These encounters often make the world feel “smaller.”

plaza in lima

Heading Home After Being Hospitalized Abroad

When I was finally discharged from being hospitalized abroad, I knew that the best option was to cut my losses and immediately return to Miami. The most effective cure for altitude sickness is declining in elevation. Although there are treatments to adjust to the altitude, it would take more time and money. I made the judgment call that although I was stabilized and starting to feel better, there was no way that I was going to be up for hiking the Incan trail that week. I bought a new ticket (not cheap when booking the day of with limited options) from Cuzco to Miami.

Although this trip obviously didn’t pan out the way that I had hoped, I still gleaned a lot from the experience. People often ask me why I’m not afraid to travel alone. The reality is that I’m not naïve enough to think that nothing bad can happen. It can and sometimes does! However, I trust my judgment to respond appropriately when it does and know when to cut my losses. You cannot live your life on the sidelines in fear. Although I definitely wouldn’t have gotten altitude sickness in Miami, I could’ve just as easily gotten into an accident or came down with some other sickness. To live life to the fullest, you must be willing to step outside your comfort zone. Adventure awaits.

Looking back, I definitely learned some lessons. Suggestions to ensure that you feel prepared include:

  1. Have your health insurance information handy. Since it was Christmas Eve, the hospital in Perú was unable to get ahold of United Healthcare back in the states. I am still trying to receive reimbursement for some of those expenses.
  2. Have a contingency plan. I’m known to be a budget backpacker. However, it’s also important to know when to cut your losses and ensure that safety takes precedence. It’s not cheap to buy a new ticket the day of or seek medical treatment abroad. 
  3. Take reasonable precautions. Anything can happen at any time at anyplace (including your hometown, so this isn’t a reason not to travel). Don’t let this scare you, but also take reasonable precautions. Always register with the embassy of your home country, know emergency numbers to call, and have proper identification and documentation. Also, research common risks and illnesses where you’re going. For example, don’t cancel a trip somewhere with common mosquito-spread illnesses out of fear, but take reasonable precautions such as using adequate bug spray (or tea tree oil) and use a sleeping net. 

Hospitalized Abroad with Altitude Sickness

by Stephanie Best

Ten Days Traveling to Machu Picchu in Peru

This is part four of a four-part series. Catch up on part onepart two, and part three. It was a crazy week after arriving in Peru. I toured Lima, survived Cusco’s altitude, and braved the extraneous hike towards Machu Picchu. Will I finally get to see the much coveted site? Find out in the last part of my series!

Day 7 – Getting to Machu Picchu

It was three in the morning and I had two options: hike up to Machu Picchu or take the bus. Another hike? My mind was telling me yes, but my body… my body was telling me no. So, I walked over to the bus stop and met most of my group. We gave each other knowing grins. Whether you’re doing the hike or taking the bus, you want to be at the respective starting points extremely early. The lines get ridiculously long very quickly.

We zigzagged our way up the mountain and arrived at the main gate as the sun started to brighten the sky. Wilbert wanted us to get the best view before the crowds took over, so we took one of the various routes available at the site that went uphill. When we got to the lookout point and saw all of Machu Picchu in its glory, a flood of emotions rushed into me. The journey to get there was challenging and, at times, exhausting, but I learned so much about myself and what I’m capable of. I would do it a hundred times over again.

Finally at Machu Picchu

As the sun started to peak over the mountains and light up Machu Picchu, we began walking around the site, guided by Wilbert. He gave a wonderful explanation of the area and its many anomalies. The energy I felt there was intense, and I kept trying to imagine what things were like when this place was filled with the bustling Incas. We were shown perfectly laid-out buildings made of perfectly-sculpted stone blocks. These structures have puzzled historians for decades as to how a civilization like the Incas could create something so flawless. We even came across more structures that perfectly aligned with cardinal directions (like the platform from part three) along with the building that we had seen looking down on us.

Unfortunately, Wilbert had to head back to Cusco for the next tour, so I made my way through the rest of Machu Picchu solo. I chilled with some llamas that roamed the area, got my passport stamped, and took in as much as I could before finally heading back down the mountain five hours later. Since I had a couple hours to kill until my train for Cusco departed, I ran into the first massage parlor I could find and had my achy body rejuvenated.

Day 8 – Winding Down in Cusco

I was back in Cusco, now at Mamá Simona Hostel. This was the first time the whole trip that I didn’t have to be up early! I slept until around noon and took my time getting ready. Wanting to enjoy myself, I spent the day doing some souvenir shopping, enjoying the overall ambience of the town, and even watched a small parade in the main plaza full of locals wearing traditional clothing and dancing to traditional tunes. I also may or may not have snuck in another massage. After such an intense few days, it was nice to finally wind down.

Day 9 – Back to Lima

I was on my way back to Lima now. Thankfully, my flight out of Cusco was a lot better than my flight there. For the first time all trip, I was fully able to grasp how high in the air Cusco actually was. The entire flight, we were just skimming over the mountains. I didn’t feel like we were as high as we should have been. But then suddenly, the mountains started to get lower and lower before finally sinking into a sea of clouds that covered Lima.

I had no idea what to do in Lima for my last couple days and quite frankly, I was too exhausted to think of anything. I ended up walking to a Starbucks to try and get some energy. While there, I got to talking with a local Limeña named Lorena. I thought she was an American tourist like me, but it turned out her English was just that good. She offered to show me some parts of Lima that tourists don’t normally get to see. In hindsight, I should have been cautious, but my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders that day. Luckily, nothing bad happened. In fact, the day turned out to be a blast!

Exploring Lima with Lorena

We drove around the neighborhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro for a little bit before stopping to get some lunch at one of Lorena’s favorite restaurants, Segundo Muelle. She couldn’t stop raving about the tiradito, a Peruvian dish influenced by the Japanese immigrants who arrived many, many decades ago. Similar to ceviche, tiradito is made of raw fish. However, while the fish in ceviche is cubed and marinated beforehand, the fish in tiradito is sliced and sauced right before being served. I also ordered some salmon tartare because why not risk gout more than 3,000 miles from home? Everything was more than delicious. Had I not trusted a local, I would not have gotten the chance to enjoy another staple dish of Peru.

After leaving the restaurant, I let slip that I hadn’t touched the Pacific Ocean since I was nine years old. So, Lorena took it upon herself to drive us down to the coast. We ended up walking to the end of a rocky pier that jutted out into the ocean. And by walking, I mean trying not to slip and fall on the slippery boulders. The views of the coast and the cliffs on which the city stood were undoubtedly breathtaking. Furthermore, I finally got to touch the Pacific again! Or rather, the Pacific got to touch me when a rogue wave crashed over the rocks and soaked me. I shouldn’t be allowed outside. In any case, I was really thankful for meeting Lorena because she definitely kept my trip from ending in a boring way.

Day 10 – My Last Day Traveling Peru

My last day was finally upon me. I grabbed a quick lunch with my new friend Lorena where I discovered my newfound love of huancaina sauce. After saying our goodbyes, I called an Uber and headed for the airport. On the way, I thought about how much I had learned about myself and all the challenges I overcame to see what I had seen.

I’ve done many unforgettable things while living in Europe. I once took a train across Bulgaria at midnight to Varna because I got bored in Sofia. I still have my train ticket as a reminder of how I managed to pull that off even though I couldn’t read or speak the language, nor was anybody able to give me a helping hand. Plus, I even keep a rock that I found in Morocco as a reminder of the time I traveled through the country by myself, sticking out like a sore thumb, and hopping into a van with seven strangers before taking off into the middle of the Sahara desert to spend the night under the stars.

But still, never have I had to exert so much physical and mental energy on a trip before this one. I had never been more proud of myself, even if I did have to get two massages. They were heavenly! I don’t care what anyone thinks!

Thank you for reading about my ten-day journey through Peru. If you love good cuisine, incredible culture, and breathtaking views, then you should absolutely make Peru your next destination. You’ll meet amazing people along the way and have the opportunity to see and do things that not many people have not. I hope my travels have inspired you to visit and push yourself past what you think you’re capable of!

 

 

Adventure Traveling in Peru: Biking, Hiking, and More

Adventure Traveling in Peru part three of a four-part series. Click here for part one and here for part two.

Day 4 – Get Your Bags Ready

My adventure traveling Peru is going amazing. The long-anticipated excursion was finally upon me! After packing three days’ worth of clothes into a tiny backpack and leaving the rest in the hostel’s storage room, I patiently waited outside on a cold, dark morning for my guide from Lorenzo’s Expeditions to pick me up. Lorenzo did offer a duffle bag (at a small fee) to put your belongings in so you didn’t have to carry your life on your back while you trek countless miles a day. I, unfortunately, was too stubborn and cheap to go with this option and consequently wound up looking like Quasimodo at the end of each day. What did I say in part one again? Oh, yeah, you live and learn. Don’t be like me.

The Beginning

After a short wait, my guide, Wilbert, scooped me up. Upon entering our van, I was met by the rest of my group. Although we were all a bit tired and quiet at first, once the sun rose and we could see the beautiful landscape, we all warmed up to each other. Accompanying me was a Belgian couple, a Portuguese couple, and two Argentinian women; all of whom were extremely amicable. Our van ascended and ascended as we climbed through the mountains. Soon, some of us (not me) began to feel the effects of the altitude even more (okay it was me). Thanks to Wilbert, this was where I learned the proper way to chew coca leaves (fifteen leaves, chew for five minutes, rest for ten to fifteen minutes). This came in handy throughout my adventure traveling Peru.

abra málaga biking traveling dreams abroad

Abra Málaga: Ripping Down the Mountains

After two hours of driving, we finally stopped at Abra Málaga, roughly 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet) above sea level. For the first time while in Peru, I couldn’t see any tall mountains in the distance because, well, we were actually at the peak of those mountains. Not to mention the fact that we were placed delicately above the clouds. One of the coolest things to see was a little cotton ball of a cloud slowly drifting past us while we changed into our mountain biking gear.

We began our 34-mile descent with Wilbert leading the way and me following closely behind. It didn’t take long for Wilbert to notice that I was itching to go faster. We ended up ripping down the mountain Tour de Peru style, periodically stopping to enjoy the views and wait for the rest of the group to catch up. Along the way, we passed through clouds, small villages, and alongside thick jungle. After three hours, we finally ended our ride in a town called Huamanmarca. As I was getting off my bike, I noticed that I’d had a huge grin the entire time, which had made my cheeks so sore. Worth it.

Vilcanota River

We piled back in our van, passing village after village until we finally reached our bed and breakfast. We dropped our bags off and were served a nice lunch by the owner and his family before heading down to the Vilcanota River that the bed and breakfast overlooked. There, we met another group and some river guides and started preparing for our rafting activity. It turned out I was the only one with rafting experience. Unfortunately, everyone unwisely put their trust in me to keep them alive. I would normally say that our river guide helped us out, but he almost flipped us on some rocks and let us smash into a rock wall. Needless to say, we all got a little banged up. Once again, worth it.

abroad peru tyler black hiking biking mountains

Day 5

The next morning we set off on our hike. I wore pants and a sweatshirt to start off the day because it was a bit chilly with the sun still hidden behind the mountains. I had my sunscreen and bug spray ready since I knew I’d be shedding layers as the sun came up and the bugs woke up. Wilbert explained that diseases such as malaria and yellow fever aren’t prevalent in this part of Peru, but to make sure to apply bug spray often. I did not get any vaccinations before coming, but I highly recommend you do. Better to be safe than sorry, especially so you can make the most of your adventure traveling Peru.

Coffee & Coca Leaves

adventure traveling peru inka trail hikingPassing through the jungle, Wilbert occasionally stopped to show us coffee plant fields. He picked off the beans for us to see what they looked like unroasted. He also explained how the local economies rely on these plants, as well as coca leaves. The first half of the day was spent walking uphill. Nonstop. Eventually, the sun poked its head out and relentlessly made us question why we thought we were capable of handling this. Luckily, Wilbert continued to stop along the trail to let us take a break and get ourselves together.

After seven hours, countless jaw-dropping views, and a delicious lunch, we ended our hike at some hot springs in Cocalmayo. We all enjoyed a nice drink and rested our achy feet in the relaxing water. Once we felt rested enough, we piled back in our van for a short trip to the town of Santa Teresa. We would be staying there for the night in a gorgeous hotel. I hopped into the shower for fear of setting off any alarms with my sweaty scent. I later joined the group for dinner across the street before crashing into my bed for the night.

Day 6

When I woke up the next day, I knew we were going zip lining. But I really didn’t know what that entailed, to be honest. We were shuttled up into the mountains outside of Santa Teresa where we put on our gear. The next thing I knew, I was flying over giant valleys! On one of the lines, they even made me go upside down! Just when I thought my adventure traveling Peru couldn’t get more exciting, we traversed a very wobbly bridge with a 500+ foot drop that turned my legs to Jell-O. The adrenaline rush was unreal. We ended the activity after climbing up a giant cliff and zipping close to a kilometer back to the starting point.

Hiking Towards Machu Picchu

peru machu picchu traveling peru

Right after such an adrenaline rush, it was now time to start hiking again. This time we hiked on a giant dirt trail filled with many other explorers on their own adventure traveling Peru. At one point, Wilbert took a small detour and allowed us to see something he had discovered many years ago. Hidden in the jungle, we happened upon a stone structure which was believed to host sacrifices by the Inca. It gets crazier, though. Each point on this rectangular slab perfectly aligned with a cardinal direction!

But wait, it gets even more crazy! Amongst surrounding trees, there was one clearing which looked high into the mountains. Wilbert took my phone, zoomed into the mountains, and took a picture. What did we see? A building from Machu Picchu perfectly facing us. That’s right: we were at the base of Machu Picchu! Unfortunately, we had to walk all the way around it to Aguas Calientes.

Shower, Food, and Sleep

And so, after another whole day of hiking, we arrived at the cute little town of Aguas Calientes. It was packed with people from all around the world. Just like the night before, I ran for the hotel shower before grubbing with the group and heading to sleep. It was hard to fall asleep this time, though, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what awaited me tomorrow.

Stay tuned for the finale of the trek of adventure traveling Peru!

aguas calientes adventure traveling peru

 

Ten Days Traveling in Peru

Continuing My Adventure Traveling Peru

by Tyler Black

This is part two of a four-part series. Click here to read part one.

Day 2

I woke up early on Monday morning, eager to begin another hectic day of traveling Peru. I walked down to the coast to get breakfast with my new friends and check out the Pacific Ocean. After enjoying a crepe and some orange juice, we made our way back to the hostel, packed up our things, and said our goodbyes. Since Sarah and I had the same flight (if you remember from part one), we decided to share a taxi to the airport. Everything was going smoothly until we had to pay 60 soles for not printing out our tickets. If you fly Vivaair, keep this in mind. Once boarded, I found myself seated in the middle seat of the last row of the plane, so I enjoyed a nice sixty-minute flight with my knees down my throat. Gotta love being tall!

Arriving in Cusco

Now, I love flying more than anyone (I wanted to be a pilot when I was younger) but this might have been the biggest white-knuckle flight I’ve ever taken. You see, Cusco is nestled in the Andes Mountains, making it impossible for planes to just simply fly in straight on. When I heard our landing gear going down, I looked out the window to see us flying in between two humongous, majestic mountains. If that wasn’t bad enough, our pilot then made a sharp left turn (which lasted way too long) before leveling out right over the runaway and putting us down. I typically hate people who clap when their plane lands, but that little maneuver almost had me applauding. Bravo, señor piloto. Bravo.

Now that I was in Cusco, it was time for the moment of truth: how would my body handle the altitude change? The minute the doors to the plane opened, I could feel how much thinner the air was. I was breathing a little bit more rapidly than normal and my chest was a tad tight. Luckily, I had the coca leaves readily available and started to chew on a few. I would later find out that the best method is to put 15 leaves in your mouth and chew for five minutes with a ten to fifteen-minute break in between. Nonetheless, I wasn’t armed with this knowledge as I stepped into Cusco’s mountains. I wasn’t sure what I should have been feeling, but the initial lightheadedness I had went away.

traveling peru plaza abroad walking beautiful

First Day in the Mountains

While I was shoving leaves into my mouth like a damn koala bear, Sarah was negotiating taxi rates to the main square, Plaza de Armas. We were able to get a ride there for a little less than the normal rate (which was already extremely cheap). I realized right away how different Cusco was from Lima. First and foremost, I could see the sky and the sun, and because of this, it was a lot warmer. We were way above the overcast haze that sat on Lima.

Our taxi dropped us off in the plaza, where we made plans to meet up later. We then headed off to our respective hostels. Unfortunately, the walk to mine was entirely uphill. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue. I exercise. I’m relatively fit. But when there’s barely any oxygen, none of that matters. You’ll still feel like a fish out of water. I huffed and puffed my way along, cursing myself for smoking that one cigarette the day before in Lima. All the while, 90-year-old Peruvian ladies were flying past me. And to make matters worse, massage parlor shills were trying to coerce me into their establishments. Don’t tempt me, lady! Whatever. Maybe I wasn’t in as great of shape as I thought. Anyway, I eventually arrived at the Dragonfly Hostel and took a fat nap.

traveling peru plaza de armasto castle abroad

 

A Unique Dinner with a Friend

peru guinea pig dinner abroad

After waking up and showering, I made my way back to the Plaza de Armas to meet up with Sarah for some dinner. It was night now, and the view of the lit-up houses on the surrounding hills was unbelievably awing. We walked around a bit, gauging our options, and agreed to settle on a restaurant called Los Portales. 

It was at this very restaurant that I decided to try something new: guinea pig. I knew I couldn’t leave Peru without giving it a shot, so when I saw it on the menu, I figured I would get it out of the way. Let me tell you, it’s actually not terrible. I don’t think I would ever order it again, but if I was forced to eat another one, I wouldn’t complain. It’s got a very gamey taste and has a bit of fat, but all in all I can see why it’s a delicacy. Sarah was completely disgusted with my choice. She told me so all throughout dinner!

Day 3 

I was up very early the next day because I was going on my first excursion of the trip: riding ATVs to Moray, Maras, and the salt flats in the Sacred Valley. For those with more time in Cusco, other day-long excursions include Rainbow Mountain and Humantay Lake. I booked this activity with Willka Travel – Day Tours through TripAdvisor. Since I had an extra ticket, Sarah agreed to come along as my passenger (my crazy ATV driving definitely scared the crap out of her though!). Our guide picked us up at the hostel, which was very convenient and drove us about an hour outside of Cusco to a small village.

traveling peru salt flats valley excursion mountains

The Excursion

Our first stop was Moray, an archaeological site that contained ancient Inca terraces. Shaped almost like an oval, these layered terraces kind of reminded me of the Roman Amphitheatre. Except, instead of serving as a major source of entertainment, these terraces were for farming and irrigation. Their exact uses are still unknown but, according to our guide, their shape and orientation utilized the wind and sun to create drastic temperature changes between the top and bottom layers.

traveling peru moray abroad archaeological

After a short break to look around, we took off again. We passed through gorgeous, picturesque scenery. Some farm animals here, an abandoned church there, and we finally found ourselves in the village of Maras. Here, we boarded a van and headed to the famous salt flats. The flats were nestled between two large mountains. And when I say nestled, I mean they were at the very, very bottom. I had no idea what I was looking for as we zig-zagged our way down. Eventually, I was blown away by the bright, white ground that contrasted with the greens and browns that made up the surrounding landscape.

An End to a Great Day

Back in Cusco, Sarah and I walked around a little bit covered in dirt from all our outdoorsiness. I bet we probably looked like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. We decided on grabbing an early dinner and enjoying some famous Peruvian lomo saltado. We also ordered the much coveted and surprisingly refreshing Inka Cola. This would be our last goodbye before we went our separate ways. She would be staying in Cusco a couple more nights to do more excursions, like Rainbow Mountain, before seeing more of Peru. I would be starting my four-day hike to Machu Picchu the next day! In my opinion, besides the sights and experiences, meeting people whom you’ll probably never see again is easily one of the greatest things about traveling. It teaches you to get out of your bubble and be who you truly are.

This part two of a four-part series. Click here for here for part three.

 

Ten Days in Peru: Day One Lima

After living in Spain for two years and covering some serious ground in Europe, I began to gaze my eyes south of the equator to see what new adventures I could get myself into. I had many options to choose from like Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. However, with it being winter down there, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the beach life as much as I would have liked. I ultimately found Peru as the most practical choice. I knew it would be a rigorous trip and since I’m not getting any younger, I decided to pull the trigger on a round-trip ticket to Lima on Spirit Airlines for roughly $600. There were cheaper flights on Latam Airlines but their reviews online were abysmal, so I took the less risky option. This is part one of a four-part series.

Day 1 – Lima

I landed in Lima around midnight extremely groggy from my 14-hour journey and attempted to make my way towards the exit without a real clear idea of how I was going to get to my hostel. Thankfully, I didn’t need to think too much because there were about six or seven taxi companies intently flagging me down. I ended up paying 60 soles for a ride to Miraflores, which isn’t terrible. However, I would later find out that there is an airport shuttle that costs between 8 and 15 soles, so keep this in mind if you’re flying into Lima. And at the end of my trip, I would come to discover that Uber’s prices are almost half of the taxi rates. You live and learn, I suppose. I arrived at Hostel Puriwasi, checked in, and promptly went straight to sleep.

Peru lima food travel abroad tour downtown peru tour

A Tour Around Downtown Lima

Six hours later, I was up and ready to see what Lima had to offer. I signed myself up for a free walking tour of downtown Lima, which was run by my hostel. Just like that, my vacation was underway. We took the metro (which was actually an extended bus) and headed for the city center. Passing through various neighborhoods, we even went under the national soccer stadium. Our stop was Jirón de la Unión, one of Lima’s oldest and most bustling streets. The street used to be an aristocratic hotspot for many decades after its construction in the 16thcentury. The street’s age was evident by the European-style architecture that shadowed the walkways. Today, it’s a very popular destination for shopping as it’s littered with high-end department stores and upscale restaurants.

Peru lima food travel abroad tour downtown peru

Plaza San Martin and Plaza Mayor

We took a short walk to Plaza San Martin, a beautiful and relaxing square in the heart of historic Lima. Then, we shot back up Jirón de la Unión towards Plaza Mayor. Along the way, we passed La Iglesia de La Merced, a gorgeous, intricately-designed church built by the Spanish in the early 1500s. We detoured a little bit to see the Basilica of San Francisco(more on this later) before reaching the Governor’s Palace. Thankfully, we happened to enter the grounds at a great time. The Dragoons of the Presidential Guard were performing their ceremonial changing of the guard. We all watched in awe (tourists and Peruvians alike) as the guards, mounted on horseback, carried out the traditional performance across the palace’s front yard. The governor stood tall on the front steps, watching, as they marched to the tune of the military band.

Peru lima food travel abroad tour downtown peru mayor

Shortly after it ended, and one street churro later, our guide, Franco, took us through the back streets of historic Lima. He showed us old Spanish balconies, where women used to hang out together while men romantically serenaded them on the streets below (by singing or playing guitar). Franco tried to get some of us guys in the group to show off our flattering moves, but none of us were brave enough. As if any of us foreigners could come close to that Hispanic charm! We carried on, almost nearing the end of our tour.

Peru lima town food travel abroad tour downtown peru

Lima Upper Downtown

Heading to the north of downtown, we passed through a series of small streets. They weren’t particularly crowded but they definitely had their share of the local Limeños going about their day. There were also Andean families selling handmade jewelry, clothing, and locally grown cocoa leaves. I had been keeping my eye out for cocoa leaves the entire day. I didn’t know how I would react to Cusco’s altitude later on in my trip, so I picked up a large baggy of them along with some cocoa candies. Franco encouraged us to buy some other stuff from the Andean people. Every single day they travel close to a 100 miles down from the mountains to sell their goods in those very streets. I couldn’t imagine how hard of a life that must be. However, you would never know their struggle with their smiling faces and tranquil demeanor. It was definitely an interaction I’ll never forget.

A First-Day Feast

The tour ended in a vibrant neighborhood full of musicians and street vendors. There was a great view of the Andes Mountains in the distance and some of the favelas in the nearby hills. After a group selfie (which I can’t find anywhere!), we all went our separate ways. Two others and I decided that we had to sample some authentic Peruvian food, so we set out to find a decent establishment in the area. We came across a small restaurant with a rowdy crowd watching a World Cup soccer game. We snuck in, grabbed a table, and ordered some Pisco Sours along with our main dishes. Pisco is a traditional Peruvian spirit made from fermented grape juice. It’s kind of like wine, but with a much higher alcohol content. It tastes a lot better than it sounds, I promise.

On the MenuPeru lima food travel abroad tour downtown ceviche

Our food arrived at the table and I feasted on my wonderful ceviche, a spicy dish of raw seafood seasoned with citric juices, onions, chili peppers, and cilantro. My plate also came with roasted corn and potatoes. Interestingly, my body has a great way of showing how delicious a dish is, and that’s by how much my nose runs. And let me tell you what, that thing didn’t stop leaking. It was probably from all the spice but either way, I was in food heaven.

Now stuffed like Peruvian guinea pigs, we decided to go back to the Basilica of San Francisco. Why, you ask? Because it has ancient catacombs, of course. Not as big as the ones in Paris, but still a sight worth seeing (even with the existential crisis it brings). It’s estimated that there were around 70,000 people buried there, their bones scattered in geometrical shapes. The catacombs have even survived the multitude of earthquakes that have devastated Lima over its 500+ year history. The basilica itself was very impressive as well. The interior, with its stone walls and large paintings, reminded me of those I had visited in Spain. Probably because it was built by the Spanish. But still, it made me miss my second home.

Winding Down

The afternoon was winding down to an end. The tour had been a lot longer than expected. In a good way, of course. My new friends and I headed back to the hostel to refresh and hang out at the rooftop bar. With a newfound love for pisco sours, we ordered a round and chatted about our travels and life in general. Sarah, a French girl traveling indefinitely around South America, turned out to have the same flight as me to Cusco. So, we agreed to meet up the next day in order to split a taxi ride to the airport. After an enjoyable few hours, we all eventually called it a night. We all had early mornings the next day. Up next was Cusco.

Click here for here for part two.

by Tyler Black