Hiking the Inca Trail is one of those bucket list items, or at least it was for me. I finally got to do it in 2016. The timing worked out well and I was between jobs for the trip, offering me a rare opportunity to disconnect and be fully present while traveling. I absolutely loved Peru! From the bustling cities to the stunning views in the mountains, not to mentions llamas everywhere, Peru offers an incredible mix of modern and ancient, urban, and wild. Our 10 days there gave us just enough time to sample the highlights.
EWR -> ATL -> LIM
1 night in Lima near the airport
LIM -> CUZ
3 nights in Cusco
- Sacred Valley Tour
- City walking tour
Cusco -> Ollantaytambo -> Inca Trail -> Machu Picchu
1 night in Aguas Calientes
- Inca Trail
- Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes -> Ollantaytambo -> Cusco
1 more night in Cusco
CUZ -> LIM
2 nights in Lima
- Larco museum
Similar to our trip to Thailand, this is a trip where pre-planning will save you from a lot of headaches! We pre-arranged transfers everywhere except in Lima, where we Ubered. Due to tricky flight times, we stayed at the airport the first night in Peru and got a day room for our last day. This allowed us to catch the first flight out to Cusco, very important since weather frequently leads to delays or cancellations of afternoon flights. On our last day, it was great to have a room to come back to after touring the city all day to freshen up before heading to dinner then on to the airport.
Since I (mostly) speak Spanish, language wasn’t a challenge, but we did find English to be widely spoken everywhere we were. Restaurants and museums had English menus and signage. Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, but cash is king for tipping guides and in markets. A 10% service charge is included in most restaurants, though we typically added a little extra to bring it up closer to 20%. We read online that guides get $5-10 per day per person, but I think we ended up tipping more like $25 per person for our two-day hike.
Peru uses 220-volt power and plugs are US type plugs, making it easy. It’s not recommended to drink tap water, so we stuck to bottled. I usually bring a bobble charcoal filtered water bottle for brushing my teeth/washing my face.
Peruvian cuisine was excellent! In Lima, we got our fill of ceviche and other seafood. Inland, trout is the go to fish, and it was quite delicious. There’s also a ton of potato and quinoa based dishes.
Altitude sickness is extremely common, particularly in Cusco. With an elevation of 11,152 feet, Cusco is one of the highest cities in the world. Based on my past experience with altitude sickness in Colorado, I didn’t want to risk it with the hike ahead of us. We flew more or less straight to Cusco and spent 3 days acclimating. Another lesson learned in Colorado- don’t drink while acclimating! Alcohol hits most people pretty hard at high altitude, and I am one of those people. I limited myself to no more than 1-2 alcoholic beverages per day while acclimating. Not the most fun way to start a vacation, but it was worth it not to suffer nausea and headaches!
A Few Words on the Inca Trail
The biggest debate we had when booking this trip was whether to book the 4-day vs 2-day hike. The 4-day hike is the traditional Inca Trail experience, starting at kilometer 82, climbing over dead woman’s pass and entering Machu Picchu through the sun gate at sunrise on the 4th day. It comes with 3 nights of camping and 25 miles of hiking.
The two-day hike is a significantly abbreviated version of the 4-day hike. Entering the trail at kilometer 104, it’s a straight climb up* to an alternative trail, passing by the Incan ruin of Winaywayna, then joining up with the main trail to hike into Machu Picchu through the sun gate late in the day. From there, you can walk or catch the bus down to Aguas Calientes. This means no camping, and it covers about 10 miles. In the end we opted for the short hike to allow us time to see Cusco and Lima since we were constrained by only taking off 5 workdays.
We talked with a lot of people who have done the 4-day hike before making our decision. Most people agreed the last day was by far the best day and while the rest of the hike was a wonderful experience, if pressed for time, we wouldn’t miss enough to merit doing the 4-day hike. I really enjoyed our hike, felt like I got to experience the trail, and have no regrets! Plus, we got a mattress and running water. 😜
Regardless of if you opt for the 2 or 4-day hike, you need permits. Since 2002, hikers need permits, and only authorized guides can secure Inca Trail permits. We booked with Llama Path and felt like they did a nice job. However, our guide Jose was AWESOME. Since our hike, he started his own tour company – Salkantay Cusco Trek. I highly recommend him and have friends who have since hiked and booked through his tour group and had wonderful experiences.
*my husband says it wasn’t a straight hike up but it felt that way to me!
Day 1: Travel to Lima
One of the unfortunate things about really cool remote places is they are by definition a pain in the butt to get to. Getting to Machu Pichu involves trains, planes, and automobiles. Thus, our trip began with a short flight to Atlanta (2 hours and 40 minutes), followed by a longer one to Lima (6 hours 45 minutes). While there were direct flights from NY, they were significantly more expensive than taking a layover so we opted to burn the travel day. We stayed at the Manhattan Inn Airport Hotel, which was a basic offsite airport hotel. It included free transfers and breakfast, making it a winner in my book, even if we did have to carry our bags up the stairs (prep for the trail right?).
Day 2: Cusco
We flew pretty early to Cusco, giving us most of the day to explore! After checking in to our hotel – Best Western Los Andes De America – we headed out to walk around town. We also had to check in with our tour company and schedule our tour briefing. While there, we booked a Sacred Valley Tour.
Given that we were wiped from traveling, and I’m sensitive to altitude sickness, we took it easy the first day. We walked around the main square and toured the two cathedrals that line the square. After a low key dinner at one of the restaurants near our hotel, we turned in early to rest up and avoid altitude sickness.
Day 3: Sacred Valley Tour
After grabbing coffee we headed back to Llama Path’s offices to meet our tour bus four our Sacred Valley Tour. We loaded up and drove about half an hour to Pisac. Along the way, we stopped at a scenic overlook or two to take in the sweeping views. Since it was not a market day, we were there for the Incan archaeological site. We hiked out to see the Temple of the Sun and enjoyed learning about the site. Following the visit, we went to a small restaurant for a buffet lunch, included in the tour.
From there, we loaded back up and headed to Ollantaytambo. This site was my second favorite after Machu Picchu, but I didn’t realize how many stairs were involved! Carved into the side of the mountain, the site features agricultural terraces, temples, houses, and fountains. It is also teeming with llamas! The climb up the 200 steps to the top of the site is worth it to take in all the village and temple structures. The waterworks at both Pisac and Ollantaytambo are quite impressive, with stonework laid to carry water throughout the sites. Descriptions and photos really don’t do these sites justice, you need to check them out yourself!
After leaving Ollantaytambo, we went to Chinchero for a demonstration on how to make alpaca wool, followed by some time in the gift shop. We also hiked up yet another hill to see a church. This was a very full day and after getting back to Cusco, we only had enough energy to grab dinner before passing out.
Day 4: Cusco
Finally acclimated to the altitude, we decided to hike up to the highest point in town. The climb was long and slightly confusing (thank god for Google!) but we made it, with a stop for lunch and a beer en route uphill. The views are stunning and we enjoyed taking in Cusco from the top. After walking back down we headed to Qoricancha. Once an important Incan temple, Spanish Conquistadors destroyed much of it, turning it into the Convent of Santo Domingo. However, they preserved the Incan foundations, and the stonework is incredible. Overall the complex is beautiful and well worth the visit. It was my favorite site in Cusco!
After a delicious dinner at Inka Grill, we turned in early to prepare for our 6:00 am pickup time!
Day 5: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Our tour bus picked us up, driving us back to Ollantaytambo for breakfast. After a quick bite and not enough coffee, we boarded the Inca Rail bound for Machu Picchu. The train stops at kilometer 104 and all of the day hikers depart. There isn’t a station. It’s a literal drop on the side of the tracks to begin the hike. After taking our cliche start of the trail photos, we hit the restroom one last time before beginning to ascend. The Incans apparently loved stairs, and we climbed what felt like a million before stopping for lunch. One of our fellow hikers was recovering from some stomach issues, so we took the full hike at a leisurely pace. This meant we got to enjoy lunch by the side of a waterfall as opposed to further up the trail as originally planned.
After lunch (and more stairs), we finished the hike up to the Incan ruin of Winaywayna. The name of the site means “forever young,” which I like, but what I liked most about this site was the views. There are sweeping mountain vistas and llamas run around. The complex itself is cool, but not as impressive as Ollantaytambo or Machu Picchu. From there we headed out and joined the main Inca trail, passing campsites for the 4-day hikers who would hike in the dark for sunrise. I’m not going to lie, I have a ton of respect for those hikers because even in broad daylight, this bit of the trail is tricky. I wouldn’t want to do it with just a headlamp for light!
Finally, around 4pm we reached the sun gate. Walking through the sun gate into Machu Picchu was hands down one of the best travel experiences, and a highlight of the trip for both my husband and me. After a series of victory photos, we continued hiking down into the complex. Since we were on hiking permits that day and not park passes, we had to stop near the main entrance into the complex. The guard allowed us to take photos for a bit, then politely reminded us we should hike on out of there. Collectively, our group decided we would take the bus down instead of descending the stairs and walking to Aguas Calientes.
A note on Aguas Calientes – I was concerned that by doing the 2-day hike we would be “missing something” in Aguas Calientes since we were really only there long enough to eat crash and leave again. However, there is not a lot going on in this town. It is set up to house and feed the masses going to Machu Picchu and that’s about it. No need to spend additional time here.
Day 6: Machu Picchu to Cusco
The next morning we were up early again to line up for the bus back up to Machu Picchu. Our guide warned us that if we didn’t leave the hotel by 5am there would be lines but we didn’t really believe him. As a result, it took us a solid hour-hour and a half to get back to the site. We didn’t make it in until well past sunrise. But, we still had plenty of time to see everything in the complex.
Jose walked us through the complex giving us the lay of the land and an overview of the history of the site. He also taught us the fine art of the llama selfie! After the tour, we were on our own until the prearranged time to meet up to head back to the train. My husband and I walked all over the site and even went to check out the “Inca draw bridge.” We did not get passes to climb Huayna Picchu, but the women we were hiking with did. They said it was a challenging hike and they enjoyed it, but they weren’t sure it was worth the trade-off to not get as much time in the site. If you do want to hike it, make sure to book in advance.
The scenery at the site was my absolute favorite. The Incans certainly knew how to build a room with a view! We also both enjoyed the stonework. I think we took 1,000 photos of stone walls and windows over the course of the week. After the full day exploring, we met up with Jose and the rest of our group and started the trip back to Ollantaytambo. We paid the upgrade to the 360 seats for the train ride home. While the windows are bigger, it’s really not a huge difference from the voyager class seats. However, it does come with a wild fashion show and song and dance performance, which we felt totally made it worth it!
We finally got back to Cusco pretty late, grabbing a late-night bite to eat and crashing hard.
Day 7: Cusco to Lima
After sleeping in, we checked out and grabbed food before heading to the airport. We arrived in Lima later afternoon, leaving us enough time to check out the neighborhood we were staying in – Miraflores- before hopping into an Uber to check out nearby Barraca for dinner.
After dinner, we went to Ayahuasca. This bar is AWESOME! Filling a colonial mansion, the bar keeps going. We spent hours exploring courtyards and basement bars, drinking our fill of pisco sours and beers.
Day 8: Lima to home
Our last day we spent exploring downtown colonial Lima. We grabbed an Uber to Plaza de Armas and walked around, enjoying the architecture and touring a few cathedrals and other sites. We ate lunch in the area then grabbed an Uber to the Larco Museum. After seeing so many Incan sites it was nice to learn more about the history of the empire. The collection is incredible, and there’s even more in their storerooms that they let you explore if you want. I thought this was one of the cooler things I’ve done in a museum. There’s also a separate section of the museum where they house pottery and artwork with more “adult” themes. The museum itself is truly beautiful and worth the visit.
As the day wound down, we headed back to our hotel-the Sonesta Posadas del Inca, showered, changed, and checked out. This is the advantage of having a day room! The hotel held our bags while we went for dinner at the nearby Larcomar shopping center. After dinner, we walked back to the hotel, collected our bags, and headed to the airport to start the journey home.
What I Would Have Done Differently:
I thought this trip was pretty close to perfect with one HUGE exception: I didn’t know that the train to Machu Picchu left from Ollantaytambo. We went to Ollantaytambo on our Sacred Valley tour, then returned to Cusco, only to turn around and drive back to Ollantaytambo! The tour companies will let you drop off the Sacred Valley tour and skip the end, saving you about 3 hours of bus time. You would miss the yarn demonstration, but while this was a fun included part of the tour, I don’t think we would have missed anything by skipping it and staying in Ollantaytambo. Also, there was a lot of walking and hiking, so doing this on day 3 when we were acclimated would have been better as well.
Also, I didn’t take a picture with the women in traditional dress with baby llamas in Cusco. I figured they would also be in Aguas Calientes and the scenery would be better. Wrong. If you want to pay to take a photo with a baby llama, you need to do this in Cusco. Learn from my mistakes!
What I’ll Check Out Next Time:
We only had about a week in Peru, which really limited our options. We chose to focus on enjoying our time in Machu Picchu and Cusco versus trying to cram it all in. This meant we didn’t get to check out the rainbow mountains, salt flats, or Lake Titicaca, all of which remain on my bucket list.