For many years, visiting Machu Picchu in the Andes mountains has been on my bucket list. I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve read travel blogs and I’ve always wanted to go. With the events of the world the past two years, we are just now feeling comfortable to travel internationally again with vaccines available and as we watched the COVID case numbers decrease. Thanks to some awesome grandparents who came and helped with our kids, we were able to make this incredible couples trip to Peru happen. This post is all about the eight days we spent traveling in Peru and details our tips, tricks and favorite sites.
Wet Season or Dry Season?
When researching Machu Picchu, many websites talk about the wet and dry season in Peru. Wet season is typically November to March which is actually Peruvian summer. This means you can plan to expect intermittent rain showers and warmer weather (most days averaged from 50-70 degrees depending on our elevation). Dry season is typically from April to October with cooler, though still moderate, temperatures. Machu Picchu is open year round, but the Inca Trail closes during the month of February, so if you want to hike the trail, plan ahead. We arrived in Peru the last few days of February, acclimated to the elevation for a few days and hiked the Inca Trail on March 1st, the day it opened. We were one of only 4 small groups hiking the Inca Trail that day. It was incredible!
Sun Gate Tours
After purchasing our tickets to Lima (I like using Scott’s Cheap Flights—the free version for cheap airfare combined with Google Flights), I researched where we would want to go and what things we’d want to do. I found some amazing hotels but was having difficulty figuring out how to get from point A to point B over the course of our trip. Enter Sun Gate Tours! Initially I was planning to use them only for the Inca Trail portion of our trip but after seeing how accommodating, quick to respond and helpful they were, I asked them to quote us the entire trip. Sun Gate Tours gave us a reasonable price for a private 8 day tour of Peru with all transfers, admissions and some food included. They would have happily booked us hotels as well, but I was a little particular about our hotels and am so glad I was. Their tour guides always showed up 10-15 minutes early. They took very good care of us with safety precautions and were constantly checking in with us on how we were enjoying the trip. They booked us the best of the best: from picking the best side of the train to sit on to making sure we had delicious boxed lunches for all our excursions. The combination of Sun Gate Tours and the hotels we booked made this vacation amazing.
- Day 1: Depart Kentucky. Flight to Atlanta. Overnight flight to Lima, arrive around 5 AM.
- Airport Tip: If you are planning a domestic connection from Lima, give yourself plenty of time to get through customs at the airport. We landed in Lima shortly after the airport opened and it still took us 1 1/2 – 2 hours to clear customs with many flights arriving at the same time (very long lines)!
- Day 2: Flight from Lima to Cusco. Check in to hotel and walking tour of Cusco.
- Tip: We booked our flight from Lima to Cusco ourselves with LATAM Airlines. Give yourself plenty of time in the airport to get in between flights.
- Day 3: Tour of the Sacred Valley: Pisaq, Lunch, Ollantaytambo
- Day 4: ATV adventure to Moray ruins and Maras Salt Mines
- Tip: Wear sunscreen on all exposed skin–even on your hands! We put sunscreen on our face and neck and wore long sleeves, but forgot that the tops of our hands were exposed while on our ATV adventure. With the high elevation, you will get sunburned with much shorter exposure time.
- Day 5: Train to Km 104 and hike on the “short” (one-day) Inca Trail into Machu Picchu
- Tip: Wear hiking boots (my favorite for my sensitive feet/heels) here and use a walking stick! Ask your guide if they will provide one for you. If not, bring one. It was invaluable to us on the rocky terrain. I cannot stress enough how helpful it was for getting up and down the terrain especially in some areas that were wet and slippery. Our guide Richard had collapsible versions for us that were very light but sturdy.
- Day 6: Tour of Machu Picchu, Train/bus back to Cusco
- Tip: Pack ponchos! The weather can be unpredictable and it was nice to have the ponchos when we needed them. We had rain jackets but the ponchos helped even more, especially to cover our backpacks during rainy periods.
- Day 7: Hiking Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain
- Tip: This excursion overall was about 10 hours long, with 3.5-4 hours one way by car. If it’s raining, the colors may not be as vibrant. On the city outskirts as you leave Cusco you will pass an area with a lot of local bakeries. Be on the lookout and ask your guide to stop and grab some fresh bread if you’d like.
- Day 8: Tourist Bus from Cusco to Puno
- Tip: Hopefully as tourism increases, the train will begin running again from Cusco to Puno. You also have the option of flying.
- Day 9: Tour of Lake Titicaca
- Day 10: Flight back to Lima, overnight in Lima
- You would probably have enough time to tour Lake Titicaca and still take an evening flight back to Lima on the same day. I would check that out if I was looking to save a day. The airport is located in Juliaca (about an hour outside of Puno).
- Day 11: Morning flight back home from Lima to Kentucky via Atlanta
I typically prefer booking hotels on our own. This way we can get the location and amenities that are important to us. We stayed at one hotel booked through the tour company and while it was totally adequate, it didn’t compare to the hotels we picked ourselves. If you use a service to book your trip, like we did, they will provide you with hotels they use and pricing. We preferred to pay a little bit more for nicer hotels because this was a couples trip. Being able to come back to beautiful accommodations after long days of site seeing and hiking were worth a little bit extra money to us. Below are our favorite hotels from the trip:
- Cusco Hotel Antigua Casona San Blas: This hotel was the perfect location right in the older part of Cusco. Rooms were very clean, the courtyard beautiful and the service was top notch. The hotel supplied filtered water in jugs in the bathrooms to brush teeth with and drink as well as filtered water in the lobby to fill up water bottles. They also held our luggage for us when we hiked on the Inca Trail. Breakfast was delicious (more on the hotel restaurant below), and we reserved the spa one night for a massage, which was incredible.
- Ollantaytambo: Las Qolqas Eco Resort: Another absolutely amazing hotel, nestled right into the Andes Mountains. Located about 10 minutes outside of Ollantaytambo, this resort is picture perfect and has incredible gardens. The service was once again amazing and the location could not be beat. We enjoyed meals made from their gardens, beautiful views, a wood burning stove to keep us warm at night as well as a beautiful spa. I highly, highly recommend this little piece of paradise! Note: Wifi was only available in the lobby of this hotel.
- Lima: Wyndham Costa Del Sol Lima Airport: This airport hotel was nice, but the real reason it is listed here is the location. It is literally steps away from the airport, which makes it very easy if you have an early morning flight or if you get in late. We went when it was not crowded, but I’ve read to book this early during busy seasons because it fills up quickly.
Note: The hotel we stayed at in Puno was not our favorite. We stayed outside of the city a bit and would have preferred staying in the city.
All the food we ate in Peru was delicious. We love trying local food and though we never ate “cuy” or guinea pig, a specialty in Peru, we still ate a lot of local food. Our favorites were lomo saltado, chicken in a yellow sauce and stuffed peppers. Our absolute favorite restaurant we ate at was in Cusco. Piedra & Sal was the in-house restaurant at our hotel, and we highly recommend eating there, even if you don’t stay at the hotel. Everything we ate was incredible. We are still dreaming about the lomo saltado and their amazing house-made pasta. We also enjoyed a few delicious meals in Ollantayambo at our hotel there. All of the food was made fresh using produce from their gardens and it was delicious.
One word of caution: Be careful eating anything that has been washed in tap water (potentially lettuce/other fruits and vegetables). Most of our hotels had water filtration systems but some did not. I found out the hard way about this at the end of our trip when I thought the lettuce in my sandwich would be okay to eat. It was not and I ended up with food poisoning the night before we were leaving.
This is the most common question we got asked, “How was the elevation?” The elevation is manageable. Cusco is actually higher than the Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu, so it is recommended to arrive 2-3 days before going to Machu Picchu so you can acclimate to the elevation. I had a dull headache for the first two days that went away with some ibuprofen/tylenol but after that was fine. My husband drank the coca tea that they offer everywhere and said that he thought it helped him. All in all, I would recommend spending a couple days in Cusco and the Sacred Valley to help acclimate yourself before hiking on the Inca Trail. The highest point we reached on our trip was 16,000 feet at Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain. We planned this toward the end of our trip so the elevation change wasn’t as difficult, but we took the hike nice and slow.
Don’t Miss This On Your Trip to Peru
We booked all of these “excursions” with Sun Gate Tours. They took us on a private tour; just us, our guide and a driver to all of these sites. Sun Gate Tours will plan exactly what you want your vacation to be and give a reasonable price.
- Cusco City Tour: This was a great introduction to Peru, the Incas and the Andes mountain region. We visited Qorikancha, a local market (my favorite) and the Sacsayhuaman ruins. Our driver would drop us off, we would walk for a bit with our guide and then get picked up and taken to the next location of the tour.
- Sacred Valley Tour: We drove from Cusco about an hour down into the Sacred Valley (about 1,000 feet lower than Cusco in elevation) heading toward Ollantaytambo. On our way we stopped for a breathtaking small hike in Pisaq. You can just walk around the site or you can do a small hike from here. We thought the hike was definitely worth it with beautiful views and it helped prepare us a bit for the Inca Trail we would be hiking a few days later. After Pisaq we had a delicious lunch (included in our tour) and then drove the rest of the way to the ruins at Ollantaytambo. The driving time from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was about 2 hours. The Incan ruins and terraces were worth the climb, and we ended our tour in Ollantaytambo.
- ATV Tour to Moray/Maras Salt Mines: We took this excursion, also booked through Sun Gate Tours. We were picked up from our hotel and drove about 45 minutes away to get on the ATVs. We rode through beautiful fields to the ruins at Moray. Make sure to use sunscreen especially on sunny days, even on your hands (or wear gloves). After the ATV ride, we were driven to the local salt mines and enjoyed learning all about the history of these unique mines. We had such a fun day and would highly recommend adding this to your trip if you have an extra day on your itinerary.
- Inca Trail One-Day Hike: We woke up early, met a car (all arranged by Sun Gate Tours) who took us to the train station in Ollantaytambo and transferred our luggage back to Cusco. We carried with us all of our things for the 12 kilometer hike and an overnight in Aguas Calientes. After about a 1.5 hour train ride we got off at Kilometer 104 and met our guide (tell the conductor you are getting off at KM 104 and they will help you to not miss it). We spent the whole day hiking up stone paths built by the Incas into the mountain. We hiked through waterfalls and the incredible ruins of Winay Wayna until we reached the Sun Gate, from which we could see beautiful views of Machu Picchu. The hike ended by walking down into Machu Picchu shortly before it closed and taking a bus down to the city of Aguas Calientes, the city closest to Machu Picchu. One of the benefits of this hike is we had the opportunity to visit Machu Picchu twice–when we arrived directly from the trail (close to the site closing time), and then our ticket was valid for the next day to tour the whole archeological site. The short Inca trail was a difficult but very rewarding hike, especially with the higher elevation. We were glad we did not bring kids (teenagers could probably do it) but we were so grateful we did it!
- Tips: I highly recommend wearing hiking boots (these were wonderful for sensitive feet). They saved my ankles multiple times on this hike! A hiking stick was also invaluable (our guide brought them for us, check with your guide or bring your own). We also liked these ponchos as we experienced a little rain on the trail.
- Machu Picchu: Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the world for a reason! It was absolutely breathtaking. We took a bus from Aguas Calientes back up the mountain to the entry point. You are required to have a guide take you through Machu Picchu. You can find a guide in the city, but we had our awesome guide Richard from Sun Gate Tours. When you arrive you can only enter once (and bathrooms are OUTSIDE the entrance, so be sure to go to the bathroom before entering). It used to be that you could walk wherever you wanted around Machu Picchu. Due to COVID, different paths have been organized to reduce crowding. You now choose a path you’d like to follow (the guides know) and take time walking around on your path. You are not supposed to backtrack on your path. We enjoyed gorgeous views and learning more about the history of such an amazing place. You can also choose to hike up Wayna Picchu directly from Machu Picchu, if tickets are available. We skipped this and just enjoyed a leisurely visit. After our tour, we took the bus back down the mountain, ate lunch and then took the train to Ollantaytambo and a bus back to Cusco. It took us at least 4 hours to get from Machu Picchu back to Cusco. During the dry season the train usually runs from Machu Picchu all the way to Cusco. During the wet season the train only runs to Ollantaytambo and a bus shuttles you the rest of the way.
- Tip: We rode on the Peru Rail expedition train and on the Vistadome train. The Vistadome train had a “show” specifically for tourists and souvenirs for tourists to buy. In non-Covid times I think they have food too. The windows are a little bigger on the Vistadome train but overall we preferred the expedition train and wouldn’t choose to pay extra for Vistadome.
- Palcoyo Rainbow Mountain: Talk about a highlight! This is an all-day excursion from Cusco. We left early in the morning, were provided a box lunch and drove about 4 hours to Palcoyo. The last hour of the drive was beautiful going through the Andes Mountains and seeing hundreds of alpaca and local farming communities built into terraces on the mountainsides. Once we arrived, we had a gentle hike (much easier than the Inca Trail hike, though the elevation was much higher about 16,000 feet) to see a beautiful range of colorful mountains. We hiked on an overcast day, but the colors were still stunning. This area is not yet very built up with tourists, but we expect it will become very popular with its sheer beauty and relative ease of the hike. It was cold at this high elevation, so it is helpful to bring gloves and layers as well as water for this hike. In total we spent about 2 hours at Palcoyo before returning back to Cusco. On our drive home, our guide had us stop and check out the local baking area of Cusco. It was fun to see how much of the bread in the region is made.
- Tourist Bus to Lake Titicaca: I don’t think this is a necessity, but it was a convenient and interesting way to get from Cusco to Puno. We did not have the option of taking a train, and we preferred seeing more of the country instead of flying, so we choose to take the tourist bus. The sites were interesting, but nothing i would go out of my way to see. It included lunch and it was a comfortable ride. The bus goes both directions: Cusco to Puno and back. We only used it one way and would recommend it as a good option instead of flying. However if we had the option to take the train, we probably would have.
- Lake Titicaca: Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake (elevation of 12,500 feet) and is shared by Peru and Bolivia. It is right near the city, Puno with Juliaca being the closest airport in Peru. Lake Titicaca is home to the Uru who live on floating islands. You can choose to stay on the floating islands or just visit them. We enjoyed a day trip boat tour where we learned about their way of life and how they build and maintain the floating islands. We then took a boat ride to Taquile island where we learned about a whole different group of people, walked along the beautiful island streets and watched people celebrating Carnaval. We also enjoyed a traditional lunch with beautiful views of the lake. Because we happened to be visiting over the Carnaval holiday we got to witness the local festivities including parades throughout the town. This tour was unique and a must-do when visiting Puno. Once again, we booked with Sun Gate Tours. If you’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that we were blown away with our tour company: Sun Gate Tours! One of the best tour companies we’ve ever worked with.
What should I pack for a trip to Peru?
We travelled to Peru at the end of February/March during their “wet season.” This also happens to be summer season, so we had temperatures varying between 50-70 degrees. Pack layers! I packed a few pairs of hiking pants, a few t-shirts, some long-sleeves, a sweatshirt and a rain jacket/shell. I also packed:
- good walking shoes
- hiking boots that saved my feet,
- amazing hiking socks (they were so comfortable and not too hot in any weather),
- rain ponchos (these were awesome)
- a hat
- sunscreen (that sun is STRONG)
- headache medication to help the first few days with elevation
- toilet paper/hand sanitizer: carry some toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you–not all the restrooms always had toilet paper/soap
This seems to change from day to day. What I will say: If you are fine masking, you will be fine traveling in Peru! Sometimes you are asked to double mask, wear N95 masks or even use a face shield (differs depending on the mode of transportation). It was not difficult for us to mask on our trip. COVID has really decimated the tourist industry in Peru and we felt very fortunate to be able to visit and hopefully help encourage tourism to come back. Currently many places have reduced numbers (Machu Picchu at the time we went had decreased their visitor limit from 5000 people a day to 2500–and still only around 1000 a day were coming…if that). If you are vaccinated and willing to mask throughout your trip at times, you will be rewarded with very few crowds on your trip. Be sure to bring your vaccination card as you will need it throughout your trip (you must also have your booster to be considered fully vaccinated). Check out this website for more information about COVID-19 in Peru. To get back into the U.S. we needed to have a negative COVID test. Many hotels in Cusco can book you an appointment for a COVID test and send someone to your hotel to test you. We ended our trip in Puno, though and our hotel did not offer that service. Instead, we bought the BinaxNow COVID tests and brought them with us on our trip. One day before our flight left Peru, we took the tests with a virtual person watching us. The tests gave us a quick result that we could send to the airline (we flew with Delta) to get back into the U.S. If you do this, make sure to register using your full name on your passport (we had to enter first and middle name in the first name box because there was no box for middle names, but it gives you the best chance of success when submitting the info to the airlines). Overall, it was a very easy process and we would use those tests again. Bring 1 or 2 extra just in case though!
We had an absolutely amazing trip to Peru! I know we only scratched the surface, but Peru blew us away with its beauty, kind people and amazing food. If you have the opportunity to go to Peru, take it! It was a bucket list adventure that we will never forget.
Frequently Asked Questions
Most likely no. Some of our hotels provided filtered drinking water but it was always labeled as such. We avoided foods that may have been washed in tap water (think lettuce) and we used bottled water to drink and brush our teeth. The locals are just more used to the water and their immune systems tolerate it better, but as a tourist you should avoid it.
We hiked the “short” Inca trail which takes 5-6 hours and is 12 kilometers long. The path is carved into the mountain with the first 2-3+ hours being a hike up the mountain side (somewhat gradual but lots of rocky stairs as well). Once you reach the beautiful ruins of Winay Wayna, the trail is fairly flat with a few up and downs until you have to climb up the stairs to the Sun Gate. After the Sun Gate it is all downhill to reach Machu Picchu. This was a difficult hike and we were exhausted by the end of it. All that to say it is worth preparing for and doing if you can. It was the highlight of our trip, despite the difficulty.
If you live at sea level or close to it, expect to feel some effects from the altitude, but it affects some more than others. Drink the coca tea you are offered and bring some good headache medication with you. I needed it for about 2 days before I acclimated to the elevation. My husband drank the coca tea daily.
If you are coming solely for Machu Picchu, I think it’s worth it. Take a red eye to Lima, spend day 1 in Cusco. Day 2 Sacred Valley. Day 3 Hike the Short Inca Trail. Day 4 Machu Picchu and back to Cusco. Day 5 Head Home. If you’re coming from the U.S. you will likely have little to no jet lag to get over (Cusco was in the same time zone as the Eastern US, but I don’t know if that will always be the case with the US switching to permanent DST). This makes it a lot more do-able for a quick trip than some destinations.
Most tourists heading to Peru and the Andes have heard of Rainbow Mountain. We did not go to the traditional “Rainbow Mountain” known as Vinicunca. This hike we’ve heard is very difficult where you hike for a couple of hours to get to it and you get one iconic view of a “Rainbow Mountain.” Instead we went to the lesser known Palcoyo Mountain, which was incredible. The hike was considerably easier and although for a lot of the hike you get teased with just seeing one Rainbow Mountain, when you get to the top of that mountain you will suddenly see a whole range of them instead of just one. Ask your tour guide about Palcoyo, lesser known but an incredible experience!
We felt completely safe everywhere we travelled. People were very kind and helpful, even when we didn’t speak any Spanish.
We loved traveling during the rainy season. We experienced very little rain, mostly warm weather and low crowds. However, the dry season tends to be more popular with a better chance at dry weather and cooler temperatures.
From everything we read and saw, locals don’t tip much if at all. However, tips are somewhat expected from foreigners. We felt it appropriate to tip our guides, drivers and leave a small tip at restaurants.
You will have to have a plan that allows international roaming, usually this costs a daily fee if you use it. One possibility for a couple is for one person to use it and then turn on a hot spot for the other person when needed. All of our hotels had wifi which we used in the evenings to connect with our kids.
I love writing about our travel destinations and hope that it can help some of you who are planning your own trips. You can read about another of our couple trips here and some of our family vacations here and here.
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