When I bought my plane ticktes, I thought I was being very suave with the return journey- only a couple hours in Lima and we would be on our way home. I booked a hella early flight out of Cusco (6:30 AM) in order to make that 11:30AM international flight.
PLOT TWIST: I booked an 11:30 PM international flight. *face palm So while not being super stoked about the early flight when we could’ve taken a later one, we at least had plenty of time then to explore the beautiful capital city of Lima.
At the airport we stored our bigger bags at the locker facility (you can easily fit 2 carryons and maybe a small backpack on top of that) and booked one of the many many taxi cab services located in the terminal (we were running low on cash so the appeal was being able to pay with credit card). It was a reasonable fare to go all the way to Miraflores (about an hour) at $18- especially considering we could split that cab fare 4 ways among our group.
First thing first, we started with Kennedy Square as that seemed to be the easiest drop off spot. Right by the square was a delicious looking café (that accepted credit cards haha) so we had breakfast there. For $10 I got a latte, fresh squeeze juice, eggs, and a variety of breads. Definitely a worthy brunch if nothing else. The highlight of Kennedy Square is definitely the ART scene. As we ate we watched several artists start setting up there easels. So right after breakfast we headed over to admire the multiple wares and pet the well taken care of stray cats that take residence in the park. (over 100!)
Top things to see in Miraflores
1. The COAST (basically just the walkway along the beach or up on the cliffs checking out the many parks as well as the lighthouse are a great to spend a lazy afternoon) 2. Barranco: If you’re into shopping, this is the spot 3. Kennedy Park to check out the many artists work and maybe purchase a really unique souvenir 4. The Huaca Pucllana ruins which are in the heart of Miraflores and are pre-Inca! 5. If you’ve ever wanted to try out surfing, this is a great place to do it!
One of the many cats roaming around Kennedy Park
We explored the immediate area around the Square enjoying what seemed to be a flash mob aerobics class in the street right next to the cathedral where choir music mixed in to create contrast.
We wandered our way down to the coast admiring the Park of Love and then followed the beautiful coastal path as it wove through lots of parks and little cafes. At this point I was really feeling worn down after the long previous day and little sleep before traveling so I took a break from my compatriots to find a seat on a park bench and nap/ read for a while.
Statue at the Parque de Amor
Stunning views of the coastline
Looking down at the restaurant we’d be eating dinner at later
After saying hello to a few happy dogs on the walkway, I settled into a café I was hoping would have wifi (it didn’t) but did order a drink and churro to pass the time.
The cafe had really cool views (though you can’t tell as well with the gloom hanging down on the ocean)
Enjoying my treats and the “view”
Other top things to do in Lima
1. Take a tour out to the desert and sand surf!
2. Take a Peruvian Cooking class
3. Visit the historic district- most notably the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco to see the catacombs there.
4. Check out the government palace
I proceeded to do none of those things (though I really would’ve done some of them if I had more time to plan my time in Lima… *whoops* but the one masterful idea we had was a recommendation that came from fellow trekkers to Salkantay:
Eat at La Rosa Nautica
I met up with my friends out front and we had some amazing seafood with a 5 star eating experience.
The try all seafood platter I shared with a friend that included fish, clams, mussels, shrimp, squid, octopus, and probably some other things thrown in there I missed. It was awesome getting at least 2 of everything so we were able to try everything and divy up (based on preferred pallets) any extras.
It was a moody gloomy day, but inside was cozy and romantic. (Tip: Make a reservation to get a better spot by a window) This is probably one of the fanciest restaurants I’ve ever dined at considering they had a specialist in wine selection just waiting to make appropriate recommendations, white napkin services, and of course, charged you for the bread! (even if you don’t eat the bread…)
All in all it was a relaxing day in Lima exploring the hip neighborhood of Miraflores, trying divine seafood, petting lots of dogs, and taking it easy on a long layover. I hope you get to experience some of Lima on a layover or longer stay! Enjoy.
Total Cost for day in Lima:
Airport storage locker $16.70 split 2 ways $8.35 pp Taxi to Miraflores Kennedy Square (split 4 ways) $18 – $4.5 pp Breakfast $10 Latte and Churro at Buenavista Cafe $3.60 Dinner at La Rosa Nautica $40 Taxi back to airport $15- $3.75 pp Total: $70.20
A visit to Machu Picchu seems to be on everyone’s bucketlist, as it should be. The ruins incredibly sacred, scenic, and unlike any other in the world. It’s nestled high in the mountains amongst the Andes glacier topped mountains and low valley jungles. Whether you decide to do a trek in or a hike once you are there, here are some basic thoughts for planning your trip:
Tips for visiting Machu Picchu
Purchase your entrance tickets at least 1 month in advance, 3 months if you want to hike Huayna Picchu during the high season. You can purchase them here for the best rate. (use Google translate if needed)
Purchase your entrance tickets for a 6AM start so you can be among the first into the site.
Purchase your BUS tickets for the ride up the night before your visit so that you can get in line at 4:30 AM the day of and be ready to go.
Don’t hike up from Auguas Calientes! (unless you really want to) It is a very steep trail with BIG steps up and traverses the same path the bus takes (so you don’t get any different perspective) Even the most fit people in our group got to the top very out of breath and sweating.
DO get a mountain hike ticket! This ticket gets you 1 re-entrance (the normal MP ticket does not allow for re-entry so if you get hungry or need to pee… you’re outta luck)
Dress in layers. It is COLD in the morning but gets very hot during the day. Dress accordingly.
Pack a snack. As previously stated, there’s no re-entry unless you have a mountain ticket.
We were up at 4 and heading out of our hostel with our guide and group by 4:30 to the bus stop. We got bagged lunches/breakfast from the tour company as our last remaining meal provided by them. By the time we got there (about 4:40) the line was already formed and we were maybe 1-2 bus loads from the front of the line… By 5 AM I’d say the end was 10 bus loads back.
We were stationed right outside some convenience shops which did open their doors early for the queue of people. We sat on the curb in our line spot, some of us cracking into our bag of snacks for some breakfast. Around 5:30 the bus officials came by to inspect both our bus tickets and entrance tickets against our passport. (Make sure you book your tickets under the same name) and by 5:40 the buses were rolling up to start moving people up the mountain.
There were at least 10 buses in droves and we were quickly shepherded onto the bus with our group. The ride lasted about 20 minutes and the first half was pretty dark, but twilight illuminated the views for the 2nd half. At the top we got in line to wait the 5 minutes or so we still had before they opened the gates, and our fellows who hiked up met us in front of the line.
We shuffled in showing our tickets a second time and were among the first people into the site so we immediately headed up to the terraces to get the best view. We took a couple shots of the group in a couple good locations before settling at the top of the terraces with our guide to learn some history.
Most of what we were told were things we actually learned from either the Sacred Valley tour or the day before at Llactapata and it lasted about an hour. I wish we had walked among the ruins for our tour but that is a 1 way journey… so unless you have a re-entry ticket, you don’t want to walk around down there until you are ready to leave.
Crowds moving in to watch the sunrise
It WAS one beautiful sunrise- definitely worth the early morning
Around 7AM we said goodbye to our guide and snapped a few more photos of llamas enjoying all the vantage points we could of the terraces before heading up for our hike to Machu Picchu Mountain.
So many llamas
Machu Picchu Mountain
Now onto the hike which was challenging. I’d say it probably is less so when it isn’t on the heels of a 4 day trek, but it is steep and long. About double the height of Huayna Picchu, this trail takes around 1.5-2 hours to climb at a moderate pace. Expect it will take 3 hours round trip. We checked in at the gate to the start of the trail, showing our tickets once again and signing a registrar. As this trail was really more stairs than anything else, we decided to hike at our own pace and do our own thing for it. (my hiking partner got up to the top in probably an hour or so while it took me 1.5)
I’d say I’ve never seen so many stairs in my life (but that would be a lie after hiking around Mt. Huangshan in China)
How the majority of the climb looks
There are pretty spectacular views as you go. Pictured above is the ridge we climbed over the day before with Llactapata hidden in the clouds and the Llatapata resort seen in that cleared space just below the middle of the picture.
The best part is every couple of flights you get another astounding view down on Machu Picchu. Once you get close to the summit, it takes you around the back which doesn’t mean less stairs, but it does give you a bit of a break on steepness, and makes cresting out on top that much more spectacular
First view of the summit from the stairs
Looking down on the river bend we walked the day before
Awesome views of Machu Picchi and Huayna Picchu
Above the ridge line from the previous days climb but still a little ways to go
The trail has frequent drop offs… Keep that in mind if planning to do this hike and don’t have the head for heights
Finally on top!
On top the view down to Machu Picchu is amazing, but the best part really is being above the clouds and at the top of the world. Across nearby ridges you can see the top of Salkantay Mountain poking it’s head up (amazing to think we started our trek on the far side of that mountain) and the ridge we climbed to visit Llactapata. The entire bend of the river is laid out and it is so much easier to see just how nestled among mountains the Incas built their temple. It certainly provides a post card view from the top.
There’s a lovely little hut for getting out of the sun and a summit sign to pose with. I spent about 20 minutes trying to de-sweatify, taking in the views, and sharing the largest avocado I’ve ever seen with generous fellow hikers. After about 20 minutes, my friend and I headed down hoping to have plenty of time to check out other parts of the site. It took about an hour to get down (making it well and truly 3 hours RT for me. I am perfectly average on the hiking scale! Woohoo!)
The top of Salkantay Mountain! We started our trek on the far side of that mountain!
The trail down with steep drop offs
Once we got down from the hike, we were shocked by the loads of people meandering around so after a quick break in the sun, we decided to head out through the ruins where you guessed it, even more people milled about!
There were loads of guides with 15+ people groups randomly stopping to point things out in narrow corridors. It. Was. Stressful. And in the end we mostly just wanted to get out of there instead of being able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of what should be exploring stunning architecture and ruins.
My advice for dealing with the crowds
In a perfect world, I’d take 2 days to see MP- 1 day to get up early and get there first things so I can then explore the ruins on my own at 6:30 AM (most people don’t head down there as it is 1 way to the exit) maybe even climb Huayna Picchu since you get to walk through the ruins on the way to that mountain. And then I’d plan a second day to climb MP mountain.
I have heard that if you don’t need to catch a train that day, the place empties out a lot an hour or 2 before close so you might also be able to have some peace then if you use you MP mountain re-entry.
So. many. people
It was cool to explore the ruins themselves. It would’ve been nice to have a personal guide walking around pointing out specific structural intricacies that we may not have learned on previous tours.
Magic floating building. The Incas were magicians.
My last glimpse of the mountain as we exited the site.
The exit is definitely a la Disneyland. There was a long line for the bus (took about 30 minutes), it was hot, and people routinely tried to cut in line. Again you had to have your ticket and passport out for inspection before getting on as well. The bus ride itself was much more scenic this time since it wasn’t as dark and Aguas Calientes is a fun town to explore in the afternoon.
Grilled Alpaca, quinoa, and my signature banana milk shake for lunch
Once you’re finished with your Machu Picchu adventure, pick a spot for lunch, enjoy the street performers that seem to be everywhere, and wander the charming streets of Aguas Calientes.
Bonus: If you do a trek into Machu Picchu, then you get to experience the train back to Ollantaytambo/ Cusco for your first time and it is MAGICAL.
All in all- a Salkantay trek is an incredible trekking experience and Machu Picchu the most awesome finale! I will do a summary post on all 5 days of our trek soon but for now, I hope the Salkantay Trek has earned it’s spot on every reader’s bucket list.
Machu Picchu Day Costs:
Breakfast: Included in Salkantay Trek Tour Return bus ticket from Agua Calientes to MP: $25 Machu Picchu entrance + MP mountain $40 Guide in MP (included in Salkantay Trek tour which was $405) Lunch in Agua Calientes at Munaycha $17 Gelato in town: $3.75 Snacks and water purchased from shops: $13.50 Taxi to hotel from tour office in Cusco $13- $3.25 pp Hotel near Cusco airport (with included airport shuttle): $57- 14.25pp
1. The Llactapata Ruins- RIGHT in front of Machu Picchu
2. The various views of Machu Picchu (above, across, below)
3. Getting to hike along original Inca trail
4. Sunrise on a stunning valley
5. Continued jungle wildlife- especially birds
Day 4 Stats:
Distance: ~18km or 11.5 miles
Elevation: ~2,500 feet up, ~4000 feet down
Time: 9 hours with stops
*You can shave off 3 hours and at least half the mileage by paying $30 and taking the train from Hydro Electric to Aguas Calientes.
Our morning started with epic views on the hike uphill to the ridge
Day 4 was our earliest start on the trail, with a wake up of 4:30 aiming to leave 30 minutes earlier. While we had electricity in camp the night before, the power was out for the area in the morning so it was DARK indeed. We ate breakfast using the collection of headlamps our group had ( I can’t imagine how they cooked stuff for us) and packed our stuff up as normal. This was our last morning with our chefs who we tipped and said goodbye to before hitting the trail at 5:30. The first few hours of the trail were steady uphill and we raced to be done with the uphill before the sun heated everything up. Watching sunrise over the valley was STUNNING and overhead flew parrots squawking and making a ruckus so even with a few hours of sweaty uphill, the morning was a killer hike.
The trail this day was 100% Inca made and required permits to enter which our guide supplied at the start booth. After about 1.5 hours of steady sweating, we took a break at the only stand on that side of the ridge where people got fresh orange juice for a dollar and others used the open air toilets (they were pink!) on the back side of the hut with incredible valley view below. There was a cute puppy wandering around we all shared snacks with before pressing on for another 45 minutes or so to the summit of the ridge. Then it was about 20 minutes downhill to the Inca site Llactapata.
View from our break spot- Almost to the top of the ridge!
Adorable dog at our break spot
Even though we were sweaty and most definitely tired of going uphill, some parts of this trail were just complete magic.
The name of this site means elevated place or “at the top of ” and has a direct view across to Machu Picchu (albeit a little higher up) and had an ornamental fountain and gate that framed Machu Picchu perfectly.
A lot of the site was still overgrown meaning what we saw was only the tip of the iceberg here but wow, the views across to Machu Picchu as well as being able to look to the side and see Salkantay mountain was mind blowing. We’d come so far and were within sight of our final destination!
We took another break here, eating snacks and snapping photos while Carlos explained more about the site and its connection to Machu Picchu. He explained it was used as a preparation place for the wealthier/ more important Inca families as they traveled to Machu Picchu. The site was initially reported by Hiram Bingham in 1912 (same explorer who discovered Machu Picchu) but wasn’t actually extensively explored and mapped until 2003.
The main buildings that are uncovered at the site
Can you spot Machu Picchu’s terraces?
The central gate
I loved exploring this site
After a brief rest here, we pressed on another 30 minutes or so down steep, muddy switchbacks to another rest stop called Llactapata Lodge (you could actually spend the night here) where more toilets and snacks were available. At this point a few members in our group were struggling with the downhill (knee pain) so our numbers were spread thin as everyone moved at their own pace. We didn’t stop again for another few hours until reaching a small shack where we stopped to wait for Carlos to catch up at least and guide us on.
He walked us 15 minutes further to our lunch stop at the restaurant Aobamaba while he ran back up to assist the last people in our group. Lunch here was a family owned restaurant right overhanging the river. We had a type of yellow curry over rice that was delicious and were able to rest a while and digest while waiting for the last of our members (who caught up to us) to finish their meal. We were finally about done with the uphill/downhill game but we still had a LOT of walking ahead of us.
View from Llactapata Lodge
Continuing down the trail, we caught site of a beautiful waterfall just in front of the Machu Picchu site. So beautiful!
After the restaurant we came to the long, and a bit scary suspension bridge that spit us out just below a waterfall running down from Machu Picchu.
After the waterfall we reached the small town of Hydro Electric where you have the option (for $30) of riding the train the rest of the way into Aguas Calientes. A couple of people opted for this option to save their feet and knees but the majority of us pressed on for the final 3 hour walk to our lodging for the day. The trail cut across 2 of the switchbacks the train takes through massive banana trees before then just following the train tracks the rest of the way.
Passing along the bottom of the same waterfall we’d seen in the distance. It was HUGE.
Almost to Hydro Electric
At hydro electric looking straight up the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. That line cutting across the center is actually where the Inca Bridge is (you can hike to it from Machu Picchu as part of your ticket)
It was a BEAUTIFUL walk with the river on one side, and often little streams or falls flowing in from the other side of the tracks. In a couple places you were forced to walk ON the tracks as there wasn’t a separate bridge for pedestrians.
The trains passed us pretty slowly allowing for plenty of time to hear and get out of the way. Eventually our guide caught up to us and guided us off the train tracks and down to the road that would take us straight into town. Unfortunately for us, our hostel for the night was on the upper far side of town. We all settled into our rooms for showers to clean up and nap a bit before dinner.
*Tip pack your soap and change of clothes in your day bag for this day as you barely get your duffel bags before dinner. The room was pretty nice in that it was cooler, with decently comfortable clean beds! (after 3 nights in a sleeping bag, the sheets and bedding were a welcome respite)
The trail cutting across the train track switch backs through epic banana tree forest
The train tracks are so scenic
View from the tracks looking straight up to the bottom of Machu Picchu
Crossing the tracks as there weren’t any pedestrian bridges
Watching a train go by.
After 3 hours of flat walking along the train tracks we finally made it to Aguas Calientes. (the launch pad town for Machu Picchu)
We walked as a group from the hostel to a restaurant where we had dinner (in much the same fashion as we had along the trail) and here you could also order drinks but they were not included in the tour price. (It was again difficult to pay for things when we were charged as a group for drinks… try to have close to exact change and small bills)
After dinner we walked as a group to the bus ticket office a block away where we could purchase bus tickets to Machu Picchu for the following morning. Out of the 11 of us including Carlos, only 2 chose to continue the trail and hike UP to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. The bus tickets cost $15 pp round trip and was well worth it as the trail to MP from town was straight up LARGE steps offering no other perspective than what you can get from the bus. After purchasing our tickets, we were able to wander town a bit if we chose and make our own way back to the hostel on our own. But with a VERY early morning the next day, most everyone headed back to bed.
The camp we started at looking up the canyon we hiked the previous day
Highlights of Day 3
2. Soaking in hot springs
3. Visiting and learning about many plantations along the trail
4. Sampling plantation wears.
5. Definitely getting our faces painted with trail side berries
Day 3 Stats:
Distance: ~18 km/ 11.5 miles Elevation: It’s up and down all day ~1000 feet up ~ 2000 feet down Time: 6 hours hiking, 2-3 hours at the hot springs
How our day went:
Day 3- Supposedly the “easy” day which I’d say it was really only easier in the fact that it was the shortest and lowest altitude day. It probably had at least 1000 feet of up and down gain/loss through the jungle and after the previous hard day, it definitely didn’t feel all that easy.
The first of many waterfalls of the day
A sign along the road showing the turn off for the trail
It started the same as before- 5:00 wake up time, 5:30 breakfast, 6:00 Depart. We walked through the outskirts of town along the road for a while passing a magnificent waterfall along the way. We stopped to admire a trumpet flower, and Carlos painted our faces with a berry that is used in textile dye. (We had some pretty ferocious faces after that)
Our trek continued down the road a ways before turning off on a trail crossing the gorge on a really cool bridge- setting the precedent for cool waterfall crossings of the day. Then there was about a 30 minute climb up in which almost all of us sweat our berry paint off. I had to stop at the top of the hill to shed some layers and take a wet wipe to my face. (and some bug spray to the rest of me)
The first (and coolest) bridge we crossed
Check out that face paint (bangs kept mine at a minimal haha!)
Looking back from higher up at the crystal blue water
While there was tons of beautiful scenery on day 3, it all kind of blurred together. We stopped for our first break stop at a passion fruit farm and shortly after that passed a stunning 2 tier waterfall. A lot of the trail had some steep drops off down toward the river and was loose dusty footing. We passed several more fruits and snack stands, stopping at a couple to make use of facilities or make purchases. All in all we walked for roughly around 6 hours in total for the day.
Another bridge crossing some falls along the trail
The biggest waterfall of the day
We followed the river for a lot of the day
The trail was beautiful but more difficult than we all imagined
Steep drop offs from the trail
One of my favorites showing how small we all were in the jungle
Fruits stands along the way- The Popsicles are delightful
A lot of the homes and fruit stands don’t have any roads running nearby but there was a major road on the other side of the river. We passed multiple wires crossing over that had a large basket used for transporting stuff across the way. (at one they were even moving tourists along, I’m guessing those who followed the road and needed to cross over the trail side)
We eventually reached some towns where we stopped for our 2nd break at a coffee farm. Carlos showed us how coffee beans are processed which was really interesting, and we got to sample some as well. (You can even purchase some coffee beans or ground coffee to take home) From there it was going to be another 45 minutes or so of walking or you could opt to take a free van ride to the 3rd camp…. Most of the group chose to walk but as the walk looked to be more through little towns without much change in scenery, I chose to give my feet a break and hitch the ride.
Grinding up the softer outershell of the coffee flower to reveal the beans (still needing to be roasted)
The sample/ shop
When we got to camp, the hosts showed us where our stuff was dropped off and allowed us first pick of the jungle domes. There were the largest of the lodgings but the least ventilated. Definitely DON’T leave your shoes or wet clothes in there. I set out to take a few photos around camp and since we had the place to ourselves, I found the only hammock where I set back to relax and enjoy the nature around me.
Also I’d like to note here you can purchase beer for $2 at the camp here. Another thing to bring cash with you for.
Once our fellow trekkers arrived and checked out their domes, we got lunch which was another spectacular affair. Not only was our appetizer ceviche (a raw fish soaked in citrus juices with some chili/ spices thrown in) the presentation of all our food was the best so far. Lots of fun food critters and of course, everything was delicious
Our 3rd night/ last camp along the trail. The next night would be in town
The orange dome with a hammock
Note the socks and sandals.. It is generally a bad idea to just wear sandals around Peru as there are biting flies and sand flies/ no seeums. Any time I wore shorts I liberally doused my legs in deet but found it easier to just wear socks with my sandals than cover my toes as well.
Lunch = AWESOME
Our app of ceviche
beans awesome details on the turtle!
After lunch we all changed into our swimwear and climbed aboard the Hot pots express (about an hour each way bumpy van ride) that took us to some hot pools by the river in another town. This was one of the add ons you will need cash for and I had NO idea about until the day before our tour. Definitely don’t pass this up!
View from the entrance to the hot springs
There were 4 large pools each marked with their temperature. It was heaven having the place to ourselves when we got there.
We were among the first to arrive there so got to enjoy multiple pools almost to ourselves. *Make sure you shower off before entering as you will get whistled at, and you will have no idea why haha. They had several pools of varying temperatures, with a couple getting VERY hot. You could actually swim lazily around in them, or find seats built into the stone around the sides. At the far end they had cold showers in the forms of waterfalls coming down the rocks, and warm showers you could sit beneath which were wonderful. And just past the pools you could glimpse the raging river so while the pools are not natural, the hot springs and river gave it a natural feel. We had around 2.5-3 hours to spend there and we lasted about 2 hours in the water before getting too pruney.
BRING YOUR BUGSPRAY WITH YOU. While I could typically make the dash between pools and showers without feeling swarmed, the second we actually started drying off, the mosquito cloud was intense. I probably got 8 bites in the 1 minute it took me to dry off and spray myself down. After getting out they have a bar where you can purchase beers/drinks/ snacks until the van ride back.
Entrance to the hot springs
The ride back was almost in the dark and took quite some time, but we all felt much more relaxed and clean upon return. We had our happy hour and dinner in the dark around camp (our last dinner with our chefs) and it was another stellar number.
After dinner, our guide had us move up to the home at the entrace to the camp site where the hosts had a bonfire going! We all sat around enjoying watching the stars and the flames flickering. From what I saw, none of the other groups bunking in our camp (there were maybe 2) got the bonfire treatment so we felt incredibly special. It was a blast of an evening!
From there we were all just about ready to hit the sack when there were 1 or 2 choruses of yelps/ screams from other domes where an invading spider surprised the new inhabitants. Shaenah and I remained blissfully unaware of any visitors in our dome, but that didn’t stop us from taking the bug spray to any spots that were less sealed looking along the ground.
Another incredible adventurous day along the Salkantay trek.
**Note if you choose the 4 day trek instead of the 5 day, you miss out on the coffee plantation, hot springs, and jungle dome camp.
1. THE BEST VIEWS OF THE ENTIRE TREK 2. Experiencing the change of scenery from alpine to jungle 3. The fun jungle huts and being DONE with the hardest day
Day 2 Stats:
Distance: 22km/ 14 miles Elevation gain: 3,000 feet Elevation loss: A whopping 6300 feet Time: 10 hours
If Day 1 was the warmup, Day 2 was certainly the main event, the big kahunas, the “challenging” day. It also set the precedent for our daily routines. We were woken up at 5 by our guide bringing us Coca tea in our beds. (room service as they called it) and with camp 1 being so cold, the tea was definitely a welcome wakeup. Ater that, we were in for QUITE a day.
We had 30 minutes to prepare for the day, arrange our daypacks and repack our duffels, brush our teeth, and re-stuff our sleeping bags. At 5:30 we met with everyone for breakfast which was a quicker affair than other meals but still delicious. We’d have 4-5 platters of food options, a variety of more teas, a breakfast juice, and at the end we’d get our snacks/ purified water for the day. After eating, we’d have about 10 more minutes to use the toilet, and make ready to go with a depart time targeted for 6AM.
The beautiful sunrise on our glass domes
After a VERY rough night for me stomach wise and freezing I didn’t get much sleep and couldn’t eat much breakfast. Luckily one of our comrades in the group brought Imodium pills which is likely what got me through the day.
The hike out of camp was mellow for a bout… 10 minutes before starting to climb up. I wasted no time in breaking my hair tie (again thankful for prepared group members who had extras) and it took around 1 hour to get to our first meeting spot above camp and at the base of Salkantay mountain at Salkantaypampa (13625 feet). It was a beautiful morning, perfect weather and with little pink clouds rolling through the valley. We passed multiple streams and a few llamas (a couple which gave us a show…) and from our break stop we could look down on our progress and see our camp down at the bottom of the valley. All in all, not a bad start to the day with just under 1000 feet of gain. (935 feet)
Llamas spotted running through the meadows
Looking back at the start of our day- our first camp is located in the valley just under that cloud
Behind me you can see uphill climb part 2 which is the start of the dreaded seven snakes
The next section of trail (uphill part 2) would be the most difficult. There was a decently steep climb to the base of the infamous “seven snakes” switchbacks and we reached those just as the sun was coming up. While our group started to take breaks to sunscreen up, I carried on until I was at least IN the sun and shedding layers before I bothered with the the sunscreen and even then I tried to keep my momentum going with minimal breaks.
At these switchbacks we ran into the pony trains which got frustrating as we were forced to let lines of horses past us only for them to stop a few switchbacks up and we’d re-pass them. It was also super having the 50+ people who did NOT hike this section all on horseback trying to tell us good job when I was feeling probably as low as I’ve ever felt on an uphill climb. Luckily it wasn’t too long before I reached the top where a bunch of big boulders with awesome views of Salkantay mountain greeted me along with a few fellow people from my group. I met up with them and we continued to the next meeting/ rest spot at Suyrooocha (14,730 feet) to eat a few of our snacks, use the toilet, and prepare for the last assault. All in-all part 2 of the uphill climb was around 1200 feet (we lost about 100 feet after the seven snakes)
Views from the trail of the Seven Snakes. Straight ahead is the right trail (“shortcut” route) which gains about 100 feet less than the switchbacks as it meets up with the main trail later on. The views were better from the seven snakes but in hindsight- I’d have taken the right fork to avoid all the mule trains.
(However our Salkantay Trekking group shirts say “I survived the trail of the Seven Snakes” so… of course I had to do that route instead)
Reaching the top of the switchbacks
Soaking in the sun and views of the incredible Salkantay Mountain
Our break stop was just past all these boulders
After our daily snacks devoured, we set out for the final climb of the day- only 483 feet to Salkantay Pass. It was a fairly steep climb but after about 20 minutes/ bend in the trail, you could see the final destination which always gives you a little burst to get to the top at 15,213 feet.
The pass was COLD.
While hiking up in the sun with little to no wind had made us sweat, breaching over the pass was very windy and some clouds rolled in as we got there. It was a godsend however that our cooking crew were there with a big thermos of hot coca tea and baloney/cheese sandwiches (I picked the baloney off and settled for just the cheese) We all layered up and took our group/ individual photos for about 30 minutes before getting ready for the next challenge: the downhill.
Looking up the final hill to the pass
Views from atop Salkantay Pass
Looking back from where we came. The trail curves around to the right base of that mountain.
Once again we created an offering to the mountain with stones each of us collected along the trail and carried up with us.
Right away as we started the descent I could tell this would be my favorite stretch of trail. All around us were big peaks playing hide and peak behind clouds, giant boulders and alpine flowers, all with a huge valley splayed out before us.
We were once again allowed to hike at our own pace so I spent a bit of time walking by myself, and bit of time chatting with others from my group who were nearby. It took quite some time to get to our lunch spot (around 2.5 hours of downhill) at Wayracmachay at 12812 feet so we were all pretty ready for a break. Especially considering we’d already descended 2,401 feet in the span of 2 hours.
Starting the trek downhill from the pass
The views of where we were going- it was definitely alpine terrain
Everywhere there were horses and mules grazing- often times amongst old Inca ruins or abandoned farms.
A short breakstop on the way down- only halfway to lunch
Some of the amazing horsemen that carted our stuff ALL THE WAY from our first camp down to our 2nd camp, and then went back up over the pass.
Bridge crossings along the trail
The first sign of civilization we saw in a while- still 30 minutes to lunch spot
An interesting pigpen we spotted on our way to lunch.
We finally made it to the tents that contained our lunch. The meal this day was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. Again we had a small app, soup, and then 6 platters of food including trout which I really liked. We were able to refill our waters (as needed) before then hitting the trail again for another 2,500 feet of loss.
Carlos kept saying it would be more gentle- less rocky after lunch… but honestly it was still just as steep in spots and still a LOT of downhill. If you were using poles, keep them out ! It was definitely a change of scenery as we hit the jungle. Just about everything in the scenery was different and it couldn’t have felt more wild of a transition. There were hummingbirds bigger than my fist, flowers as long as my forearm, and rain forest trees as far as you could see.
Along this route, we only had 1 more meetup stop to make sure everyone was coming and that was at Rayanniyoc (11,460 feet). Bathrooms and snacks were available here and I believe a few people invested in a powerade but most of us were just ready to be done so we didn’t rest for long. Then it was onto the village of Chaullay where our camp would be for the 2nd night at 9,414 feet. (Total loss from the day was 6300 feet!)
Changes of scenery
My favorite flower was those yellow ones that look like birds from a distance
The canopy of trees was UNREAL.
Looking back up the trail, you can’t even tell we were just walking amongst rock giants and snow
Our camp here was the most “rustic” as far as toilets went (only 2 stalls with no toilet seats) but was quiet and nice. The huts were up off the ground about 2 feet with little steps to get in and again there were 2 twin beds with super comfortable mattresses.
We did NOT have electricity here but you could pay 10s ($3) for pretty fast wifi and another 10s if you wanted to take a hot shower. As we settled in, people rushed to get on the sign up sheet for showers (30 minute blocks I believe) and others headed for cocktail hour. (Seriously hot cocoa and popcorn after a long day of hiking might be my new go to) We had a little time after cocktail hour to rest but it got dark very fast so there wasn’t much to do besides hang out around the only light- the mess area or sit in the relative dark of the huts.
The early shower blocks were full and as nice as those sounded (literally you could see the steam and hear the people sighing from the open air shower) I knew once it got dark the bugs would be all about that light in there.. so I forgo the shower in favor of the hot springs/ shower I knew we’d get the next day. We had a slightly later dinner at 6:30 but everything was as delicious as before. It wasn’t too long before we were then all headed for our beds ready to pass out after a 26 km day.
Dinner and Dessert- Stir fry and Red corn pudding
Day 2 of the trek extra costs: $3 for a hot shower $3 for good wifi Cash at any of the stands for powerades or sodas.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for, and most definitely my main excuse for visiting Peru… I give you the Salkantay Trek. I’ll likely write up an overview of this trek/ tour to compare with the Inca trail tours but to start with you may just wonder why choose one over the other? Here’s my top reasons:
Less Crowded (though that is becoming less so as word is getting out about the beauty of this trail)
LESS MONEY– Salkantay treks are much more luxurious (I’ll get into that) for less money
Let me emphasize LUXURIOUS. Our tour had enclosed domes/huts for 3 nights with actual BEDS, 3 course meals, snacks + “happy hour” (more on that later), electricity and showers some of the nights, and the use of horses if needed.
More Flexible. Can be booked only a few months in advance instead of a whole year- plus you get more options for dates you like. Since this trail isn’t permitted like the Inca trail, you don’t have to plan this trip 1 year in advance.
Arguably more BEAUTIFUL. This can be debated but when I looked at photos from each tour, I found the Salkantay trek scenery to be so much prettier and more diverse. Gorgeous mountain lakes, glaciers, jungles, and yes you still get to see off the beaten track ruins – 1 of which gives you direct line of sight to Machu Picchu.
About our tour:
It was as luxurious as a trek can get and more beautiful than I even imagined. It was hard- but not harder than I figured it would be. The company was well organized, the guides, porters, cooks- all amazing human beings that I can’t imagine a tour of this scale being successful without. And it was all wrapped up in a shiny package at only $450 for 5 days. 5 days friends!
This day and day 2 tied for first place on my favorite day in Peru. Even with the early pick up from the Plaza de Armas at 4AM…. We met our guide and hopped in the van for a 3 hour drive to the start of the trek. They passed out blankets on the van so people could continue to sleep (but not me) and our whole group (10 of us) were loaded on. The first part of the drive was quite long- it didn’t start to get light until 5:30 and the road was twisty and bumpy at times.
After around 2 hours we arrived at the town of Mollepata for our breakfast stop. We had 30 minutes and the place was very efficient. For 15 soles, we got espresso (pre made and bottled) teas, juice, fried eggs, and lots of bread which I used to make egg sandwiches. We all ate, used the banjo, and loaded back in for another 40 minutes up the mountain. The views driving up from here were amazing though as we looked out over the clouds we wondered just how much higher our chariot would take us. The road was a dirt road and quite bumpy- not too mention a little scary with drop offs at times, so when we saw the end we were all quite happy about it.
Bathrooms at the trailhead.
At the TH, the group loaded up on sunscreen, once again made use of the facilities, and got our gear all in order. Our guide assured us this day wouldn’t be too bad and he was right. There was about 30 minutes of climbing switchbacks which ordinarily wouldn’t be hard, but at 12,000 feet- were quite challenging. It then leveled off for the remaining 2 hours or so of our hike to camp.
The views looking up at the mountains ahead were incredible, and equally amazing were the views of valley we drove up. Carlos pointed out special plants and began teaching us Inca/ Quechua vocabulary like Pachamama (mother Earth). We followed some irrigation ditches, crossed a couple bridges, passed a few cows, and in general enjoyed the beautiful trek into camp. We stopped about 20 minutes before to have our snacks and rest before arriving at maybe the best camp I’ve ever stayed at. (and could’ve enjoyed for many more nights)
Total miles to camp: ~6 miles
The group leading the way to the base of Humantay Mountain with Salkantay peaking through on the right. Our camp would be in the valley of the two.
Looking back at the mountains we drove up. The trail is the higher road on the right, the driving road is lower on the left.
Walking along the irrigation ditches still used by farmers today
A view into camp- still a ways away.
Beautiful views along the trail in the morning
When we got to camp, we picked the first dome in the row of domes our group was assigned and found it to be the BEST little home away from home. We had 2 single beds with the most comfortable 4-6 inch foam mattresses we had our entire trip, a small light, charging outlets, glass ceiling for star gazing, clean blanket and pillow (to add to our sleeping bag setup) and best of all- an insane view out our door.
We lay in there with the door open for a breeze, gazing out at the horses grazing beneath the most stunning mountain I’ve ever seen- Salkantay. We had an hour to nap so we laid down and I even noticed a few mules wander up to munch on the grass by our front door. Eventually I gave up on the nap and walked out to sit on the porch chairs and enjoy the sun.
Looking into our dome- the tarp was to keep it from getting too warm during the day
The INSANE view from our doorstep
Friendly mule looking for snacks
Looking down the row of our group’s assigned domes. We even had nice park benches to sit and enjoy the view from.
After our hour siesta, we had lunch which was a fabulous 3 course meal – followed by yet another 45 minutes to nap/ relax/ and digest before the 2nd part of our hike for the day. (apparently it takes longer at higher altitudes to digest) Once again napping was fruitless for me but I still really enjoyed relaxing around camp in the sun.
We got the best seat in the house as well. (though disclaimer, it was very hot)
The hike to Humantay lake
You could see our next hike from our camp: a steep (very steep) hike up to Humantay lake which was just out of view. At home, I would look at it and think “sure that won’t be easy but it also won’t be too bad…”
Let me tell ya- after a few hours of sitting around and a big lunch- it was bad. Starting out I was the slowest one, wishing I’d brought my poles and just having the hardest time pushing myself up the hill. Eventually I got back into the grind of everything and since when I hike, I HATE stopping to take breaks, I cruised up and was the 2nd to the top. Carlos gave us some coca tea leaves to chew on (which were gross) and I can’t attest whether they actually helped or not. What DID help, was playing epic soundtrack music on my phone.
The view looking back down at camp in the bottom of the valley- we already had come quite a ways.
The trail got SO steep at times.
When we finally rounded on the lake, all our jaws dropped.
I mean- this was THE MOST beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. Crystal clear lake that reflected the most beautiful turquoise when the sun hit it, sitting under massive glaciers on a jagged mountain peak. My favorite part? The 2 dueling crater like ridge lines that framed the lake perfectly. We took some group photos on the shore before heading our separate ways to get a view from higher up on the ridge. We had about an hour to hang out before meeting back with Carlos to learn a few more Inca phrases, and make an offering to the mountain. The offering came from all of us selecting rocks and stacking them into a cairn. We then each got to say something along the lines of “Here is our offering, bless us mountain and mother nature” Then it was back down everyone at their own pace
Insanely beautiful lake
The 2 dueling ridgelines that were so unique compared to other mountain lakes I’ve seen
Rock offerings from the groups that came before us.
Oh ya, the glaciers up there weren’t bad either
I moved pretty quick downhill (since there was no where for privacy to pee up there) but I still enjoyed taking in the view and even raced a couple horses as they ran down to dinner.
Back at camp
Back at camp, we got our first happy hour. We again got the best table with a beautiful view of the mountain while we nibbled on popcorn, cookies, hot chocolate and hot teas.
After that we got another short break to change into warmer clothes and watch the stars come out. Dinner was an amazing affair following the same theme as lunch with a small appetizer, soup, and then 6 platters full of food. We spent more time getting to know our fellow hikers and guide before we then got to meet the rest of our amazing team! We had 2 cooks that were both younger than me and a horseman who would help move all our things from day 1- over the pass- to our 2nd site. They were all so smiley and nice, it was awesome to thank them in person for our incredible meals and experience. Our dinner was then followed up with flaming bananas in rum for desert and then a mint tea to help with digestion.
Racing horses down for our meals.
The happiest valley I’ve ever seen
Bundling up before dinner
Enjoying the views without our tarp on the dome.
Our dome was right next to the mess house.
As we headed to our domes, the milky way was out and visible, Shaenah and I both started looking for the darkest spot we could find around camp. I grabbed my little tripod I brought hoping just for this and managed to find a spot 3 tries in. It was COLD once it got dark so I didn’t try for long but was happy I got to take a few shots of the stars and our domes all lit up in the night. We then snuggled into our sleeping bags under our additional blanket for the night.
Awesome conclusion to an awesome first day on the trail.
The Qorikancha The Inka Musum The Plaza De Armas cathedrals The Saqsaywaman ruins
Cusco is a very walk-able city making the museums and nearby ruins easy to see on your own without a tour.
The Inka Museum
We hit the Inka Museum on an easy afternoon. I’d read it was a little let downish but if you appreciate history and pottery, I think you will enjoy it. We breezed through most of it- reading what captions they did have in English. I loved learning about the different regions the Inkas lived in, the types of food they ate in each location, and the interesting pottery they made.
The best part however was definitely the mummies. After visiting the Sacred Valley the day before and seeing some of the alcoves mummies were worshiped in, and learning about how cared for the mummies were, it was fascinating to actually see some!
*Like the cathedrals, the museum was a no photo zone so all I got was the one photo at the entrance! At only $3 it’s a quick (at your pace) interesting stop.
The museum is an easy walk from the Plaza de Armas. (no taxi needed)
Inca Museum General Information:
Cost: 10s ($3)
The Koricancha as seen from the solar garden (by the street)
After the Inka Museum, we headed to the Temple of the Sun- the Koricancha – which was my favorite building in Cusco. It’s a nice walk from the Plaza de Armas or Inca Museum so again no taxi needed. The cathedral next to it is free to visit, but as the Koricancha is a museum, it cost $3 to visit. Luckily most of this building was photographable because it was SO cool.
About the Qorikancha
Originally, this building was dedicated to the highest of Inca dieties: the Inti or Sun and was built with the highest level of stone masonry the Incas used- interlocking boulders free of any imperfections and fitted together with no mortar. They also built the layout in a way to resemble what they were worshiping- with the temple having sunrays that moved out from a central point. The temple housed mummies and so much gold that the name of the building still reflects it, Qori = worked gold and kancha = enclosed or building. While none of the gold remains and barely any of the walls, the foundations still stand the test of time.
The Spanish built the Convent of Santo Domingo directly on top of it encompassing the walls of the temple and building a cathedral adjacent to it. It was pretty insane to walk into what looks like a convent on the outside and see the inner courtyard to match, then look to the side and see Inca walls and ceremonial rooms. You can walk around the rooms and go out on the stone balconies to look down at the Solar garden. Some of the convent rooms house more artifacts and pottery, and some of the stone walls still show the etched designs from the Inca times.
An example of the “lego” stone pieces that were used for building the Temple of the Sun.
Another view of all inner courtyard for this massive convent
The Temple of the sun on the inside of the convent
Looking out one of the balconies at the solar garden
The inner courtyard from the 2nd floor
Continuing upstairs is really cool as this is one of the few cathedrals from where you can gain access to the choir balcony (though again no photos are allowed as it is part of the cathedral) Once I explored the convent and ruins, I visited the cathedral and then met up with my friends outside so we could walk back.
Awesome views of the Cusco hillside from the 2nd floor of the Convent
Qorikancha General Information:
Monday-Saturday 8:30AM – 5:30 PM
Sunday: 12:00 PM-5:00 PM
Adult Price: 15s ($4.5)
Child Price: 5s ($1.50)
Church of Santo Domingo Hours
Monday- Saturday: 7AM-7:30 PM
Sunday: 7AM-11AM and 6PM to 8:30PM
Mass: 7AM, 6:30PM, 7:30PM (Sunday only) no tourists allowed at these times
A little bit of a walk back to the Plaza but a cool one nonetheless.
More beautiful lighting on the plaza at sunset from our terrace in the airbnb.
Plaza De Armas
Like most cities constructed by the Spanish conquistadors, Cusco has a plaza de armas. The design is in military style where there is a square often surrounded by important buildings like churches or governmental works. The name is derived from the fact that this square would be a refuge where arms would be supplied to defenders in case of an attack.
In Cusco, the Plaza de Armas has 2 massive cathedrals adjacent to it- both are very cool to check it. The cathedral pictured above- Iglesia De La Compañia De Jesús is free and easy to visit. Just be sure not to take photos inside or interrupt during a mass.
The second church is the Cathedral of Cusco. It costs 10s/$3 to enter but has really stunning architecture and artwork within. (Specifically a painting of the last supper in which Cuy is the main event) The history of this cathedral is what really sets it apart. It shows a prime example of the Spanish dominating the Inkan culture by being built on the spot of the old ruler’s palace and being constructed of stones stolen from the Sascayhuaman temple.
Sacsayhuamán is a massive Incan complex high above Cusco. It’s main plaza was capable of holding 1000s of people and was the length of at least 3 football fields. While the structure was not intentially built as a fortress- it’s elevated ground, immense walls, and overall size made it essential to the defense and control of Cusco. Once the Spaniards had gained control of the temple, they began tearing it down to use the stones for their buildings in the city. While we unfortunately didn’t get to explore it due to time- we drove by it on various tours and I was definitely impressed with its size.
Sacsayhuamán Practical Information:
How to get there: You can follow a walking trail from the Plaza de Armas uphill for 45 minutes. This will take you through the beautiful San Blas neighborhood and is not a bad option. You could arrange a city tour where they provide the transportation. Or you can hire a taxi for the 10 minute drive there (this would cost ~$10)
Hours: Open 6AM-7PM
Cost: Included in the Tourist ticket 70-130 soles.
* Sacsayhuamán does not have its own private ticket. You must purchase a Cusco Tourist ticket which ranges from 70-130s ($21-$40) and includes entrance to multiple other archaeological sites and museums.
There you have it. The best sites to see within walking distance of Cusco city center without a tour. See also my post for my complete guide to Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Pin me:
While our first 2 days in Cusco were enjoyable, this day really BROUGHT it. It was one of the first tours I landed upon when searching things to do in Cusco for a half day and for only $65 riding, it really intrigued me. So far the only other country I’ve ridden in was Iceland, so I was definitely interested to see what tours were like in other countries. Luckily my friends were also game for a little riding adventure so we booked it, made sure to wear pants, loaded up on sunscreen, and got ready for out tour.
We did NOT know what we were getting into, in the best way possible. This was hands down the BEST riding tour I could imagine, and possibly one of the best tours I’ve ever taken.
About our tour
We were picked up at a hotel near our Airbnb (easier to coordinate) by a private taxi driver at 9AM who drove us 15 minutes up past the San Blas neighborhood and Sacsayhuaman ruins to a small farm where the horses were already tacked and ready to go.
There we met another couple slated for our time slot making our group once again- 6. (the magic number of Peru groups apparently)
The ONLY con of this tour was there were not bathrooms at the ranch. Meaning those who had too much coffee to drink had to head for the bushes before we started. (for once I wasn’t among that group) We fitted our riding helmets which the guides were very explicit that we had to use, and then met the horses.
Out of our group, I was the 2nd most experienced rider, though there were 3 of us that had decent experience. Then there were 3 total beginners. Our guide, Holgar matched us to our horses. I was matched with a horse named Seos (who wouldn’t spook at my camera being slung around my side). We got a very brief safety/ riding demonstration before we were all helped to mount our horses.
Holgar getting ready to mount his horse for the “riding demonstration”
The ride started off following the road past the ranch just a little ways before skirting off up a decently steep hill through beautiful woodlands. We spent the next hour or so going up and down hills, passing lush farming fields, and with incredible views of Cusco city below. We mostly rode in order of the horse’s preference so I got lucky to go in 3rd and could hear the guide the whole time.
The entirety of Cusco laid out beyond the hill
Holgar pointed out a field that was growing the grain they use for their local beer, and also spotted 2 big Condors just getting ready to take flight! Half way to our first destination he started introducing a little bit of trotting in short bursts and would check how everyone was doing. I found it a blast to trot and even canter at times through the trees and hillside. (My horse really wanted to MOVE, every time a spot opened up where he could go faster to catch up, he broke right into a nice canter) So beyond the scenery, the riding experience in and of itself was the BEST.
The Devil’s Balcony/Temple of the Rainbow
We eventually got to our first stop where we dismounted and had a short walk along an “original Inca trail” (you’ll hear that a LOT from guides around Cusco) and this trail had one of their irrigation trenches as well. When we got to a hill overlooking a lush valley with a river flowing through we split up into 2 groups to visit the Devil’s Balcony.
We kept our helmets on to protect our noggins from bumps when climbing down the rocks and came to a small natural little cave with a balcony overlooking the river. It was so tucked away and hidden, you’d never know it was there unless a guide or local showed you!
We then returned to the overlook while the other 3 people checked it out before heading down to the river to peer into the lower cave/ tunnel where the water flowed through. I would’ve loved to trek back into the cave but I have a feeling it would’ve gotten our feet wet and Holgar wasn’t keen on guiding us down there. We did however learn a bit more about how this site was a “Temple to the rainbow” either from the culture pre-Inca or the Incans themselves. You could see some hints at foundations around and it would make sense they would make use of the cave and natural balcony.
Climbing down through the rocks to visit the balcony
The balcony overlooking the river as it flowed out of the center of the rock
Temple of the Rainbow
The big cave is in the lower left and the balcony the upper right- almost around where the bushes are.
Once we walked back to the horses, we were given our bagged snacks and water bottles which was perfectly timed after the walk. The snacks included some cookies, an orange, crackers, and a few hard candies. We had about 15 minutes to eat/drink and enjoy the view from our sitting spot where they even laid out the saddle cushions in a row for us to sit on. SUCH SERVICE.
The view in the other direction from our snack break. The devils balcony is over (out of frame) to the right.
Remounting our horses
We remounted our horses and headed back the way we came
Eventually we came to our 2nd/ last stop: the Temple of the Moon (another spot above Cusco) where we dismounted and walked around learning about it’s initial discovery and the different purposes of the rooms. Holgar pointed to one cave opening where they just recently discovered a mummy !
Visiting the Temple of the Moon
I will note here that while the devil’s balcony is quite out of the way and more difficult to get directions to, the Temple of the Moon is an “easy” hike from Cusco. The path actually follows the Inca highway to Antisuyo leaving from the Plaza de Armas and rising up through San Blas, passing Sacsayhuaman, crossing the Avenida Circunvalación and eventually flattening out. The site is free to visit and is frequented by locals who visit for exercise and spirituality. So if you aren’t a horse back rider, don’t care to find another sort of tour to visit, and would like to make the trek yourself- it IS an option. (Pair it with a visit to Sacsayhuaman which is a must see in Cusco)
After walking around and learning a bit more about the Temple of the Moon, we remounted and had a short but FAST ride back to the ranch. (lots more cantering)
Back at the ranch we were reunited with jackets and backpacks and said goodbye to our sweet horses. The same taxi driver as before drove us back into town and dropped us off in the main square so we could find lunch and continue our city exploring right around 1.
AMAZING tour and even better value. If you’ve ever wanted to do a riding tour and find yourself in Cusco- even if only for a day- I recommend this. It was quite literally- my favorite thing we did and saw in our first 3 days.
What is a trip to Peru without a visit to the famous Sacred Valley?
About as important a visit as seeing the top wonder of the World, Machu Picchu, the many sites and towns along the Urubamba (sacred) river are a must see. Preferrably over a few days with time to spend in each place. But if you are on a time crunch like we were, 1 day on a tour is what you get.
About our tour
On our 2nd day in Peru we opted to do a Sacred Valley Tour through Salkantay Trekking (the same company we were using for the trek) The plan was an early morning – start in Pisac and finish with Ollantaytambo – Chincerro district, effectively circling through the Sacred Valley and finishing on different sides of Cusco. The tour included our transportation, lunch, and guide but did not cover our entrance into the sites. There are 2 ticket combinations you can purchase- 1 which is comprehensive and covers the sacred valley AND the localized ruins around Cusco such as Sacsayhuaman and costs 130 soles. The other which just covers the 3 we were seeing plus Moray. As we didn’t think we’d have time to visit the many other sites, we opted for the cheaper ticket at 70 soles.
We bought yogurts and bars from the store the previous night so we gobbled those up at 6:30 before the guide picked us up just before 7. Our group only had 1 other couple in it making us a 6 person group which was nice for a more personalized trip.
We headed up the road learning about how Eucalyptus was planted around Cusco as it grows fast and provids fast wood for building- then stopped at our first stop just past the Sacsayhuaman ruins at an alpaca/ llama farm.
While the layout of this stop was largely commercial (also voluntary, they did give us the option of skipping the stop)- learn about how alpaca wool is harvested/ dyed/ and woven- then try to get us to buy some, I still appreciated the stop. We got to feed the alpacas and llamas which was fun and pet the ones who’d let us. The farm also had a couple Vicunya which are the smallest of the camelid family and by far the softest. It was great interacting with so many of the animals and I did find the types of materials they used for dye interesting. That being said… I also got guilted into buying a very expensive pair of socks – $30 (cheapest thing I could find) woven from baby alpaca wool that I figured would make a decent gift for Braden. (Hope you love them babe! )
My favorite guy: This is a great time to point out that Alpaca don’t have top front teeth… only bottom giant ones!
A cute little Vicuña, the smallest of the camelid family!
And a llama
Looking down the center of the farm. Llamas on the left, alpacas on the right.
Then onto our next stop!
A viewpoint of the Sacred Valley we stopped at on our way to Pisac.
After the farm, it was another hour or so onto the archeological site of Pisac. We didn’t have nearly as much time at the site as I would’ve liked, but we walked around learning from the guide and grabbing a few photos of the view down the valley.
The temple sitting at the top of all of the site.
The coolest part about Pisac is the astounding view and many terraces that laid out beneath the ruins. The view down the Sacred Valley is incredible and the terraces make awesome photo additions. This was our first taste of the ingenuity of the Incas as we learned not only were the terraces built for farming but also to prevent land slides and erosion beneath their temples. The site itself is divided into groups – the Temple of the Sun (where we walked around and at the very top), altars, baths, and water fountains. There were multiple rooms that the priests would live in (many people to a room) that had “built-ins” for holding golden idols. All pretty mind blowing to think about when standing in a stone room without a roof. The site was estimated to be built around 1440 and occupied until the Spanish destroyed it in the early 1530s. The town below wasn’t started until 1570. We learned a bit about the daily life at the site ending our tour with the “guinea pig” house room. A room with a smaller stone base built in with tiny little doors that the guide said the guinea pigs were kept and cared for in.
A small room that was used as a lodging for the priests in the temple
Views of the lower site
Next up we visited the town Pisac (below the ruins) where we had an hour to shop, visit the market, etc. Again there was a “demonstration” on how they make silver jewelry at a shop but the shop had fancy/ nice bathrooms so for the 3 minute demonstration, I found that a decent trade off. (Also didn’t get guilted into purchasing anything this time lol)
We wandered down the street to the colorful Pisac market which was really nice and apparently only runs on Sundays/Tues/Thurs so we got lucky there. While I’d already bought a few things at shops in Cusco, I enjoyed bartering a bit more with the street sellers in the market and winded up buying way more than I should’ve considering I had to haul it all home in a little carry-on! We met back up with our group and guide at the silver shop before travelling another hour or so to the town/ archaeological site of Ollantaytambo.
Views in the market
Again I would’ve loved to have more time to explore the site (without the guide) and take more photos particularly as this site itself was probably my favorite of the day. While the view isn’t as spectacular, the site is huge with multiple running fountains still, and had the most interesting history to its name. Tambo- which means resting place and “Olly” comes from a famous general named Ollantay who fortified himself in that temple while leading a rebellion to win the love of an Incan Princess. The site also has awesome history as it became the main fortified retreat for the Inca Manco who lead the rebellion against the Spanish in Cusco. It’s defensive position was one of the more successful against the Spanish as the Incas were able to flood the valley and defend the high walls above the terraces. That being said- it like many other ruins were abandoned for stronger jungle foot holds and was eventually… ruined by the Spanish.
It’s also shaped like a llama which we’ve determined, I’m quite obsessed with.
The town at the base of the ruins (Would definitely stay here to explore the Sacred Valley more if we’d had more time)
Across from the temple/ fort were more ruins used as granaries and food storage
The balcony path we took to head down a different way
This site also had the best example of the incredible masonry of the Incas (that we visited). In the distance it was possible to see their main quarry (higher up on a mountain) from where they moved boulders weighing more than 50 tons about 20 km, sanded down and chiseled away, and created “lego” like locking pieces so that no mortar was needed. The stones fit together exactly creating an incredible strong and beautiful wall. There were a couple places where you could see the face of a jaguar caved into the rock or Chanakas (the Incan cross) which were incredibly neat with how they have withstood erosion. We learned more of how the Incans moved the boulders with wood and smaller rocks to roll them on before we took the balcony path down to the baths/ fountains. Again there was amazing masonry work as you could see the ornamental carving around the still flowing ceremonial fountains.
By the time we walked through the fountains we were pushing 2:30 and everyone was getting a little hungry, so another 20 minutes down the road we arrived at our lunch spot.
Lunch was glorious- honestly one of the best parts of the day tour. The restaurant was cleverly open air- with live musicians playing very mountainous Andes music, and buffet style options for every taste. We left feeling very full after sampling a little bit of everything.
Another view point we stopped at on our way back toward Cusco
After lunch we headed to our last stop and point of interest: Chinchero. Specifically the colonial church there “Iglesia Colonial de Chinchero” This town was at the summit of our adventures that day, sitting at 12,350 feet above sea level, (the highest altitude we visited in Peru thus far) and was once again built on Incan ruins. The large terraces are largely still used today for agriculture as the soil in Chinchero is the most fertile in all of the Sacred Valley. At the colonial church you can see the original Incan foundation from the temple that once stood there. The inside of the church is perhaps even more beautiful than some of the big cathedrals- every wall and ceiling space decorated/ painted with floral and religious symbols. Since we got there later in the day we missed most of the crowds but if you are looking for a more local themed market- their Sunday market is said to be much more “local” than the larger market at Pisac. The town is very quaint so I enjoyed the little “uphill “ walk we had between the parking lot/ government checkpoint for tickets and the church.
We also got to see some dancers/ festival going on by the church which was also awesome to see! (considering we missed the parade in Cusco again this day)
The church courtyard with Incan foundations
Walking around town
The town has QUITE the steep streets
After Chincero, we had a shorter 45 minute drive back into Cusco. We were dropped off back by our apartment where we changed into warmer clothes for the evening and set out to explore a bit more. For dinner this round we chose a place previously recommended from friends that was good, though maybe not as spectacular as other meals we had. It was amazing how cold it got in the evenings but luckily this round I prepared with my puffy before heading out. Since most things were closing up, we just walked around more parts of the city near the apartment enjoying the lights and evening vibes. Then it was back to our home away from home.
Sacred Valley Day Costs
Breakfast- groceries from previous day
Tour – $50 *Included lunch but not drinks Drink at lunch $5
I literally can’t read Cusco without singing it in my head exactly as it is sung in the Emperor’s New Groove. ( In fact I quoted/ sung a lot of parts from that movie throughout this trip) Cusco is hands down and incredibly beautiful, historic city. This city has ANGLES. Everywhere you turn there are either idyllic cobblestone alleyways, ancient palace ruins, cathedrals, and rolling hills that in the words of Pacha, “the hills just sing.”
Top things to do around Cusco
1. Check out my city guide here for all the walk-able, no tour needed sites.
2. Take a horseback riding tour. I’ve done several riding tours in 4 different countries now and nothing holds a candle to this tour.
3. Branch out to see the Sacred Valley of the Incas. There are so many archeological sites around, if you’re on a time crunch, best book a tour to see them all.
4. Visit the salt mines.
5. Hike to the Rainbow Mountain
Where to stay in Cusco
My top pick: Airbnb apartment $33/night
This is where I stayed with 3 friends for 3 nights in Cusco. It had a kitchen, living room/dining area, 2 bedrooms, private bathroom, washing machine and drying area, and best of all- views of the Plaza de Armas from the covered terrace. It’s also a super easy walk to all the historical sites in the city, great restaurants, and perfect for walking around at night in a safe area.
Rooftop view from our airbnb
Other great options include:
*Keep in mind that while some of these places have incredible views- it also means you’ll have to hike up them hills at the end of the day sight seeing.
Another rooftop view from our airbnb terrace
Plaza de Armas- a 5 minute walk from our airbnb
Where to eat in Cusco
Ceviche- located right on the Plaza de Armas. Excellent seafood, excellent pasta (if you aren’t into seafood), best dining service we had, and a really clean restaurant with reasonable prices.
Pachapapa- located a 5-10 min walk from the Plaza de Armas, this restaurant was recommended to us by our trekking guide. It had very good food and a very romantic atmosphere. You might want to make a reservation here if you want to sit out under the heaters and twinkle lights on the patio. Otherwise inside is very nice too.
Kusikuy Resaurante- Another easy 5 minute walk (and 1 minute walk from that airbnb) this restaurant had amazing fruit juices and the cheapest price for Cuy that we saw and was fairly good. So if you are wanting to try Cuy on your trip- this would be the recommended place.
A Note on Cuy
After learning about the traditions of eating guinea pigs, something they have done in the Andes for over 5,000 years, I wasn’t as shocked as I thought I would be. I was glad I didn’t order it- I just sampled some, but understanding that it is something they have eaten for so long, eat at celebrations like Christmas and the like, made it easier for me to compartmentalize and not condone a culture that is not my own. Yes I’ve had guinea pigs as pets, and NO if I’d held one earlier in the day, I’d likely not have been able to eat one. BUT that being said- if you can try it, I recommend you do. It was quite the cultural experience.
** Also it’s so ingrained in the culture, the cathedrals in Peru literally placed Cuy as the main dish in the Last Supper paintings. Not kidding –
Other popular foods at restaurants- grilled alpaca and creamed quinoa
You’ll have no trouble working off those meals in hilly Cusco and at least in the historical center- it was very safe to walk around in the evening.
A Note on Altitude Sickness
Everyone reacts to high altitude differently- you can be in seriously amazing shape and suffer from it- or (such as myself) in decent hiking shape and still experience it. From experience I know that I can breathe fine at 11,000+ feet and don’t really feel nausea, but can experience headaches…
and headaches it was. Cusco sits right around 11,000 feet and can be challenging to fly into because of the extreme change from lower altitude to high. I did try to drink water (which I’m normally terrible at when travelling) and also tried the tea but neither of those things really helped with my headaches. Sadly advil/ ibuprofen only dulled the ache without ever really getting rid of it.
With all that being said- unless you are taking Diamox (high altitude sickness medicine) you really SHOULD plan a few days to chill/ explore Cusco BEFORE your treks – JUST IN CASE to acclimate. It definitely would’ve sucked having to hike with my head feeling ready to explode- especially considering our first camp on our trek was around 12000 feet. The other unexpected part of altitude sickness was inability to sleep. So moral of the story: plan a couple days pre-trek or take Diamox if you don’t have enough a long enough trip to acclimate.
3 days in Cusco costs
Taxi from Airport to Airbnb $22 split 4 ways- $5.50 pp