In April of 2016, I hopped on a plane to Peru and I was determined to see the epic world wonder itself. But I was in the midst of multiple commitments in New York, and I had barely one week. Here’s how I scheduled it to have a busy and adventurous yet surprisingly comfortable trip:
Strategy: I scheduled my trip to happen from Wednesday to Wednesday. Not only does that mid-week departure tend to make for cheaper airfares, but it also allows you to be settled for a weekend around MP and other key historic sites.
Pre-Trip: You need to buy your flights (I used a combination of Skyscanner and Momondo to find the best fares) book some of your hostels (at least the first night or two), buy your rail ticket (via Inca Rail or Peru Rail) from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu pueblo), and purchase your entrance ticket to Machu Picchu.
Make sure to confirm the last step, and handle payment online. I brought my “Formato de Reserva,” or my reservation form with me to the monument, but the payment wasn’t complete. So I ended up back in line at the office for the Ministerio de Cultura, handling the payment. Handle all your steps including payment, and make sure the form you are printing and bringing with you is your actual entrance ticket. I recommend printing all the documents associated with these bookings and bringing one or two hardcopies of each with you. I also recommend keeping them folded with your passport in some sort of organized passport holder or sleeve.
Wednesday Night: Arrive in Lima, Peru. From there I rested in a hostel near the airport. I made sure they had wifi and breakfast. I stayed at Posada del Rey hostel, and other than super slow and sporadic wifi, I was quite comfortable there. I found my hostels with the necessary amenities via HostelWorld.com, and booked the one-night stay via the app. I organized a taxi by contacting the hostel owners by email.
Thursday Afternoon: Leave Lima, Arrive by Plane in Cuzco, Peru. I hopped in a taxi back to the airport and got a brief view of the city of Lima. The weather was perfect and I had scheduled an early afternoon flight. There are flights to Cuzco all day long from Lima airport, and I flew LC Perú airlines. You could choose just about any time of day, but since I’m not a morning person and I knew I might want to sleep in after the flight from NY – Florida – Lima, early afternoon was the most comfortable. There was no mad dash in the morning, and I even had a little time to explore airport shops.
Cuzco is a surprisingly small town from the sky – it’s nestled in the mountains. It’s the town that Machu Picchu built. The historic cathedrals stand out at you right away – as a historic site, there are restrictions on the heights of buildings, so except for those gigantic churches, everything looks quite small. Once you’re on the ground, you can always see a clear view of the mountains and sky around you. It’s simply beautiful.
I took a taxi from the airport to my next hostel, Dragonfly Hostels. The cool part is the location is super close to nearby markets, restaurants, and the main square. The overall vibe of the place is nice – except for the fact that people would smoke in the common area. Even though it was only partially indoors, this was still pretty unpleasant. The other downside is that since Cuzco basically goes from summer to winter every day, and the ceiling of the hostel was wide open, at nighttime it was pretty cold.
Everyone SAYS you’ll experience altitude sickness – I felt nothing. Maybe it was because I spent the night in Lima, maybe it’s because I’m healthy – everyone is different. But I felt nothing. Maybe a tad bit short of breath at moments? Even that would be reaching. I was so excited – and I had the energy to explore.
So after receiving a generous share of a healthy meal made by the first friend I met in the kitchen – I spent the rest of my evening walking around markets and trying alpaca steak and coca leaf tea for the first time. I walked out in leggings, espadrille flats, some layers on top and a light jacket. It soon became super cold and it was really evident that I had to have a sweater – so I cheaply found a sweater, hat, and gloves in the nearby market.
I went back to my hostel, and made another friend who decided to go clubbing with me. After a conversation that blended Spanish, English, Arabic and French – we left. As a solo female, I didn’t want to walk around alone at night, but with another adventurer, it was all good. We checked out a club called Chango, known as the hotspot for young Israeli tourists. More cigarette smoke, and very little real dancing – not my thing. Then we went to Templo, which became my favorite spot. Even though there was some smoking inside, they played a dope mix of hip hop and popular American music. So I danced and partied for a while before walking the 10 minutes back to the hostel. I probably went to sleep between 3am and 4am.
Friday Afternoon: Walk Through Cuzco, Transport to Ollantaytambo and then Aguas Calientes. I strapped on my backpack the next day and walked all the way through Cuzco, hitting markets and taking selfies all the way. I finally arrived at the area where you take collectivos, group taxis, from Cuzco through Chinchero, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo. “Ollan” is the last town before you can hike or train to Aguas Calientes, the town that sits at the base of Machu Picchu.
As I arrived, I realized I was running really late. I needed to leave, NOW… if I was going to make my 4:36pm train (the last train of the day as well). My train ticket was for that route, it was non-refundable on the Inca Rail line, and my ticket to enter Machu Picchu was also purchased in advance for Saturday. My trip’s success actually hinged on making that train.
It was close to 3:00pm, and it was going to take an hour and a half to get to Ollantaytambo. But the collectivo was not full yet. In the space of 10 minutes, I needed to get a fork so I could comfortably eat the food I was taking with me (a combo of rice and ostrich eggs that I had purchased on my walk), and somehow find a way to get the taxi moving. I ran across the street to the nearest restaurant and completed errand number one.
Then, thanks to my decent Spanish, I was able to ask some Asian tourists to leave their van – a 10 person taxi, which was a bit cheaper (10 soles, or about $3 USD) – and join me in a smaller collectivo with one other person ($15 soles, or about $5 USD). Once the car was full, we were off. We pulled up the train station with 7 to 10 minutes to spare. I had all my documents printed and organized, I went to the ticket counter and confirmed everything, and then hopped on the train. I was elated that I had made it!
The train ride was, in short, the most beautiful train ride I have ever taken in my life. Just knowing that they built these miles of railroad track in the middle of the mountains boggles the mind. And then when I was on that train, seeing nothing but rivers and mountains (including some snow-capped peaks)… I almost wanted to cry, I was so amazed that I had gotten there by myself (only a year or so prior to this, taking on solo, international travel seemed impossible), and I was so overjoyed to be witnessing this place. It is awe-inspiring.
Another bonus: Inca Rail gave us coffee, chocolate, and snacks. They even had stevia, my favorite sweetener. Winning!
I arrived in Aguas Calientes at about 7pm that night. I visited markets and ate cuy (fried guinea pig – don’t judge me, it was yummy) at a local restaurant where I also tried Pisco Sour – Peru’s signature drink. I met a shaman and a made a new friend – we bonded over the magical serendipity that she lived maybe 100 blocks from me in NYC. It was her birthday, and she had just come from Machu Picchu – so she told me all about it, and inspired me to make sure I had sunscreen the next day. I bought some snacks and went to bed.
I was on the edge of my seat – tomorrow was the day.
Saturday: Visit Machu Picchu, Train back to Ollantaytambo.
FINALLY! It was time! I took the bus up the mountain. Buses from Aguas Calientes take about 20 minutes, and cost about 39 soles, or $13 USD round trip. You can hike up the mountain for a great leg workout – but if you only have 6 days, it’s not worth it, because it just takes too long. I love nature and I love hiking, but I didn’t have time for that, so I hopped on the bus.
As soon as I arrived, just knowing I was in the area, I could feel the energy of the place. I sat there for a half hour or more, waiting for a guide group to form itself. The guide didn’t turn out to be worth it – I love history and learning, but I wish I had gone with my original strategy, which was to walk through the site by myself, and periodically listen in on other guides whenever they were nearby. A guide will cost you 20 soles, or $6 – $7 USD.
My guide didn’t share any profound information with us – I could have purchased an informative map or book at the shops just outside the site, or done a google search to learn what he shared with the group. Anywho, once the guided walk around the main site was complete, I left to get a snack and water, and then re-entered for my hike up the top of the Sun Gate / Puerta del Sol.
It was magnificent, and I moved at a great pace because I wanted to get back in time to enjoy the hot springs (literally, Aguas Calientes) before my 7pm train back to Ollan. My legs loved it, my spirit was cleansed by the mountain air, I took the most amazing photos.
Machu Picchu is a spiritual place. It is like the vista of the mountains around you opens up new places in your brain. I was absolutely in awe, looking at every. single. stone… And knowing it had been placed there by hand many hundreds of years ago.
A bus back down the mountain, a quick stop at the hostel to charge my phone and post photos on Facebook, and I was ready to rent a towel and hit the hot springs. You check your things in at the lockers (a towel rental might cost you $2 or $3, the locker might cost you $1), and you can bring some belongings in if you’d like, at your own risk. The hot springs don’t smell great – some combo of sulfur and other minerals might be great for the skin and bones, but they do smell funny, so be ready for that. But it is soothing and relaxing. Different pools have different temperatures, and I went for the warmest one, which was still quite comfortable.
I dried off, went to grab my backpack, and after a distracted stop looking at super cool Peruvian shoes that I wish I had purchased, I made my train just in time.
I befriended a Brazilian tourist on the train. (You’ve probably noticed – I make friends easily when I travel, and I love that.) He told me about his work and his life – and how he had just come from an enormous route called the Salcantay trail, hiking in the wilderness near MP for 5 or 6 days. I was amazed – and I made a mental note: that kind of hiking trip to Machu Picchu is possible when you have more time.
Saturday night – Sunday: Sleep in Ollantaytambo, look at local ruins, leave for Chinchero, then dance in Cuzco.
I ate pizza in Ollantaytambo, made another friend and stayed at a super cheap hostel. I woke up to an electricity outage – I could not visit an ATM, get any of my #digitalnomad work done, or access the internet, and I was running out of cash. I negotiated a rate for a taxi driver to get from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba, where I visited an ATM and got a snack. We talked on the ride and he told me about his life and I shared about mine. Then I was dropped off in Chinchero, where there is Un Mercado de Los Artesanos every Sunday! It was gorgeous, and I spent hours there, carrying a super heavy backpack but exploring all the blankets, textiles, jewelry, pottery, and more. I ate food made by a local woman, and interviewed the artisans about how they made their jewelry and what Incan symbols were seen on their products.
I was moved to tears talking to a woman who sold me a blanket. I told her “People in the US don’t know where their things come from. We do not have a connection to the earth or the people who make our things. We purchase things that are produced en masse, it is wasteful. This is such a different experience.” It was beautiful.
I left with my items and gifts, and joined a crowded collectivo back to Cuzco (which cost maybe $3 to $5 USD).
I walked through the city in no particular path, and then I met some dancers who were performing on the street. So this happened. The language of dance is universal.
I changed hostels and decided to try Inka Club, which was 20 feet from Dragonfly. It was nicer, and I ended up having a room almost all to myself. I befriended the owner, who had owned a recording studio and fell in love with my music. Then I befriended a friend from Costa Rica – I love Costa Rica! We instantly bonded.
The next day, I enjoyed the breakfast and prepared myself for one more day in Cuzco.
Monday: Walking Tour of Cuzco. I visited a coffeeshop called Café Cappucino, where I made friends and ate an alfajor with a yummy coffee.
Then I went on a walking tour called “Free Tours by Foot Cusco,” and I learned amazing things about the history of Cuzco. For example:
It’s built in the shape of a Puma, and the heart of the Puma is the town square.
War and invasion from Spain tore the Incan people apart, and part of what makes Cuzco magical is how the people there cling to their history and take pride in it.
I learned the difference between real and fake alpaca goods.
I made friends with llamas and alpacas, and I saw Qurikancha, the famous temple of the sun.
I even ran into one of the artisans from Chinchero that I had purchased a scarf from, walking with her baby in the street – Linda was her name. We were delighted to see one another and shook hands.
I continued walking around by myself afterward, and I explored the neighborhood of San Blas. I even saw La Piedra de Doce Angulos – the famous 12-sided stone. A young tourist nearby didn’t get how amazing it is at first, and then at one point she went “Oh I get it. It’s not like modern people made it.” I laughed.
There are more shops in San Blas, and some of the vendors are a bit aggressive, so that’s something to be mindful of. I discovered a health food store and made a new friend, a graphic designer named Paola, and we laughed a ton and talked about guys, traveling, health, language, life and more for over an hour. I met a wood worker who showed me her amazing, handcrafted boxes and picture frames. I met a leather worker who was clearly brilliant at his craft.
And then I went for a heavenly $7, HOUR-LONG massage. Ah the joys of the exchange rate – the Peruvian economy suits me.
Tuesday: Lingering, then leaving. I paid a fee to the airline responsible for my flights within the country, LC Perú, just to move my flight maybe 4 hours. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted more time to walk around Cuzco and feel the air, the energy, the history, buy more earrings (of course, and see and make friends.
I packed my stuff into the lockers at Inka Club hostel, and went walking around. I comforted one of the workers at the hostel during breakfast – she been sitting in the kitchen crying about her relationship. Later, I stood on the street suddenly realizing I had to leave this magical place, and I lamented that I didn’t know where my friend from the previous hostel was so I could say goodbye. I looked at her and started crying, and we laughed at the irony.
Finally, I hopped in a taxi. The Cusco airport is small and easy. Getting through security for a domestic flight to Lima took me maybe 10 minutes.
I flew to Lima. I hung out at the airport there for my connection (I created a “connection” for myself, by tying the domestic flights to my Jetblue itinerary to and from Lima), and socialized. I flew to Fort Lauderdale, I went through customs, and then flew to NYC. It basically took me over 12 hours (the flights just fit that way), so that part was less-than-ideal. Either way, I arrived that Wednesday in the early afternoon, back in the big city. I was home, but a piece of my heart was still in Peru.
That’s how you do it in 6 days.
Have you been to Peru? Did you like this story? Let me know with a comment! Thank you!
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