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The view of the volcanoes behind the Plaza de Armas in Areuipa

Peru

November 2018

Peru is a place of extremes. Extreme altitudes, hikes, and variation amongst communities and regions.

Quick Bites

Currency: PEN (Peruvian Sol) literally called sun!
To do: Incredible hikes, charming cities, and Machu Picchu
To stay: Hostels or booking.com
How long to stay: Two weeks to see three cities
Food: Pollerías and Arroz Chaufa
Why to go: Machu Picchu – no photo does justice to being there
Transport: Overnight buses, taxis, tours, and trams in Lima
Go with: Small group of friends
Driving: Don’t do it, some of the roads will give you ridiculous vertigo!

Why go to Peru

Peru is a place of extremes. Extreme altitudes, hikes, and variation amongst communities and regions. No two cities I visited were like each other which made for such a rich and diverse trip. I went to the beach, I roamed around cities, I soaked in thermal baths, and went on hikes with stunning views. There was just so much variety to this country which is the reason I highly rate it as a travel destination.

Peru was my first taste of South America and boy am I glad. It just so happened that I had a cousin who had been volunteering at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin in Arequipa for six months. Before heading home she was going to do some travelling around and she told me to come. Naturally, I said yes, no thoughts or hesitations. When someone invites you to go to Peru with people who have actually been living the Peruvian life, you say yes.

Where to go in Peru

Peru is big (we are talking about five times larger than the UK here), so unless you have the privilege of spending a solid month plus here on your first visit, you will have to be selective about where you go. On my trip I went to Cusco, Arequipa, and Lima. Luckily my trip was planned for me. My cousin and her housemate had done some travelling of their own travelling during their stay but had graciously left some of the best bits to see with me.

Cusco

The view overlooking Cusco
The view overlooking Cusco

Cusco is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The city is the old capital of the Inca empire as well as its ideal location for popular day trips like Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and the Rainbow Mountain. There is a reason this city is one of the most popular and I absolutely loved it for it’s own merits too, not just as a base to see other things. Whatever time you have to play with in this beautiful country, put Cusco at the top of your list. It can be a bit touristy in the centre, but wander around and you find charming markets and hideaway haunts.

Arequipa

The Colca canyon near Arequipa
The Colca canyon near Arequipa which is close enough for a day trip

We went to Arequipa following our first stop in Cusco. My travel companions had to pack up their flat before we headed to Lima and of course they wanted to show me their home of the past three months. Once again though, I fell in love with the place! Arequipa was less touristy than Cusco and being in the desert, much more sunny! I had the privilege of staying in my cousin’s flat so had the chance to feel like I actually lived there, and it really was the kind of place where I could see myself living. The city is surrounded my three volcanoes and there are some cool day trips you can do from there. This may not be the highlight destination in terms of things to do and see but it’s a great location if you actually want to spend some time living in Peru.

Lima

My last stop was Lima, the capital of Peru. I spent around two days here and saw the beach, the Magic Water Circuit, had some awesome chicken, roamed around, and did a walking tour. It’s cheapest to fly in and out of Lima so it’s likely you will spend a day or two here. I did like the city but it was probably my least favourite destination. It was great to walk around the capital to get a sense of what life is like here but I preferred the other cities I visited as they had a more laidback vibe.

What to see and do in Peru

There are so many things to do in Peru and what I did does not even come close to an exhaustive list but here are a selection of three of my favourite things you absolutely must do. Give yourself time to see the place if you have the luxury! If you are tight on time like we were, don’t focus on fitting as much as you can in, but rather appreciate and spend time at the places you can see. Also, try visiting sites later in the day when there are less tourists as it is always more magical.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is what most people think of first when they think of Peru and it is at the top of my top my list of things to see and do here. It is what you see plastered all over Instagram, but in all honesty it’s for a reason. This is the kind of site where no photo, no matter how rad, does it justice. We hiked up at 5am to be one of the first groups to enter the site. Hint: You find a guide outside the entrance. We entered the site to find near zero visibility due to fog and cloud cover. Walking around with our guide and group, slowly but surely, the sun started to break through and the clouds dispersed. Suddenly you find yourself are face to face with the regal impossibility of the place. You are in a citadel in the clouds. You are surrounded by breathtaking mountain ranges. Good luck getting that experience on an insta photo.

Cusco

The Pisac site in the Sacred Valley which you can visit on a day trip from Cusco
The Pisac site in the Sacred Valley which you can visit on a day trip from Cusco

There is not one single thing about Cusco that warrants its place in my top three, it is the culmination of everything it offers. Our days here were filled with visits to the local food market for the best smoothie and sandwiches I think I’ve ever had, haggling at the markets for llama keychains with crazy eyes as souvenirs for everyone back home, and walking to viewpoints which offer an epic view of the city. There was no sense of urgency in this city and I think the fact that we could just be still here and enjoy and discover what Cusco had to offer was what I loved.

Rainbow Mountain

The group on top of the Rainbow Mountain
The gang on top of the Rainbow Mountain, exhausted but smiling

Once again there are plenty of awesome photos of the Rainbow Mountain and they are very warranted. The reason this hike features in my top three is purely due to the physical challenge and surrounding beauty of it. The peak of the mountain was the highest we’d been in Peru, standing at over 5,000m. Until this hike I had been lucky to have no altitude sickness, not even during our Machu Picchu hiking but the Rainbow Mountain defeated me.

I was actually the first of my group to make it up the mountain and I had felt fine, out of breath but not unwell in any way. The walk brought with it stunning surrounding mountain ranges, plenty of donkeys ferrying people up and down, and of course, llamas and alpacas. When we got to the top we took a break and tried some alpaca meat prior to taking our photos and checking out the impressive views. The way down is what ended me funnily enough. I think it was the speed of the descent at the urgency of the tour guide. During the walk down I started to feel dizzy. By the time we’d made it back to the restaurant I felt like puking and could not get one spoonful down me (trust me this is not like me) so my cousin ate for both of us (very like her). I drank loads of coca tea which the locals swear helps with altitude sickness, slept on the drive back to Cusco, and was fine when I woke up.

How long to spend in Peru

The monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa
The monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa

Peru is huge so at some point I would love to spend a solid two months travelling here, however, I work full time and the most I could get off was just over two weeks, but boy did I make it worth it. It isn’t a destination I would go to for less than that as you will be left wanting more and without a proper sense of the place and how it varies city by city and region by region. I managed to see three cities in this time and didn’t have a single boring day. If you have more time to play with, look to explore the north and all of Peru’s incredible terrains including the coastal, jungle, and mountainous areas. If you are looking at saving time, use overnight buses to travel between locations. They are more comfortable than planes and saves you a night’s accommodation!

Transport in Peru

The train tracks on the walk to Aguas Calientes
The train tracks on the walk to Aguas Calientes

Some of the roads I went on in Peru were the scariest of my life, so unsurprisingly I wouldn’t recommend driving there. The roads you wouldn’t want to drive are predominantly the mountainous roads, especially when it’s cloudy or foggy and you are super high up! Most of our tour transportation didn’t have seatbelts, a charming characteristic I quickly found was very common in Peru. Another delightful experience was the overnight bus from Cusco to Arequipa. We were asked to provide our fingerprints on some paperwork before boarding the bus. My travel companions relished my reaction when they told me this was so they could identify our bodies if we happened to have an accident on one of the perilous roads we were likely to be travelling along in the dead of night. Ah the joys! In all seriousness though, the buses are super comfortable. You get meals onboard, have a toilet accessible, movies throughout the ride, and it is more comfortable and spacious than a plane seat.

Where to stay in Peru

The surroundings on the hike up to the Rainbow Mountain
The surroundings on the hike up to the Rainbow Mountain

I mostly stayed in hostels or rooms found through booking.com during my stay in Peru. The quality of the rooms varied based on the location and the price of course but the hosts were always super friendly and helpful. Cusco had some awesome looking hostels so I’d look to stay at one next time I’m in the area. Either way you won’t go wrong with whatever you choose. I’d just advise you to keep it central in the cities to make getting around and back easy and if your accommodation has a kettle, boil some water to refill your bottles.

What to eat in Peru

The question should be what not to eat in Peru. I didn’t even have the chance to taste all the local delicacies here but most of what I ate I loved, save one bad experience at a mosquito ridden cafe in Aguas Calientes with chewy meat and lacklustre food. Peru has street stands which offer sandwiches with Peru’s unique salty cheese, egg, palta (avocado), or a mixture of these, if you are looking for something on the go for you tours. The avocado in Peru is a thing of true beauty and so cheap compared to Europe!

You will also find street stands offering various breakfast drinks, including my favourite made of kiwicha. The drinks come in plastic bags with straws (the locals bring their own containers) and the best way to describe them are warm, sweet, quinoa-y, liquidy porridge type concoctions. They are great sources of energy and super desirable on a cold morning.

Other things to mention are the smoothies and killer sandwiches you can get at any food market, churros, coca tea, and pollerías which offer insane portions of super tasty chicken. You will find most plates come with potatoes and rice so get used to carbs. If you want to try all the best local dishes, go to a picanteria for lunch like the locals in Cusco or Arequipa and try all the famous dishes with a jug of chicha morada (made form purple corn).

Make the trip moments

A llama in Arequipa
One of the resident llamas at the university in Arequipa
  • Me arriving in Cusco at the dead of night to find my cousin and our friend were late, typical Spaniards
  • Getting to Cusco only to find out I’d have to wake up at 5:30am the following morning to make our bus towards Hidroelectrica, and that these early mornings are how most of my days would continue…
  • My first day and the first drive way up in the mountains. Think windy roads, with near zero visibility, no seatbelts (not really a thing in Peru), and the driver crossing himself three times to pray for us to make it to our destination. The roads are petrifying, but you just have to accept there isn’t much you can do about it, or the screechy Peruvian music on the radio
  • Watching the mountains around Machu Picchu slowly appear from the clouds
  • The llamas at the university in Arequipa, they weren’t huge fans of me…
  • Taquitos, salsa aji, buñuelos, the Tres Leches cake from the lady outside the university in Arequipa, who am I kidding so much of the food
  • When you go to Peru everyone tags you in every llama video out there. I got tagged in one where a lady was getting in a taxi with a llama. And then, I kid you not, I witnessed such things in Cusco. We were too gobsmacked to capture the moment on video, but twas epic
  • Missing my flight back, because I had printed off the wrong email following a flight time change only to get the original (now incorrect) flight back at no extra cost (phew)
  • All the hiking/walking, such a refreshing break from corporate life
  • Ordering food from the polleria only to ram it into takeaway boxes 30 seconds after it made it to our table and run like mad women so we wouldn’t miss the tour bus
  • The company and all the damn laughs, thanks Peru, thanks you two

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