Cusco or Cuszo, an Andean city in South America, was the seat of the Inca empire and is home to world-famous Machu Picchu. I would recommend staying near the city center of Plaza De Armas (“Parade Square”). Most tourist activities are in and around the area.
Start your journey with a walking tour. I did it with Inkan Milky way. It would give you a good idea of the UNESCO heritage site around the central square (Plaza de Armas). If you are coming from the lower altitudes, then acclimatize yourself by taking rest, drinking a lot of water, and chewing coca leaves.
Check out the San Pedro market. Gustave Eiffel designed this market. Try fresh juices and Maiz choclo (“boiled corn”) here.
Day 2 – Road to Macchu Picchu
During the busy season, the ticket to Macchu Picchu archeological site sells months in advance, so buy them well in time. That’s what I did. There are a few different ways to go to Macchu Picchu, which is in the sacred valley of the Incas.
- The easiest and somewhat expensive way is to take the train, Peru Rail & Inca Rail, are your options for that. Both the trains go to Augas Calientes (“Hot water”), a small town a few miles from Macchu Picchu. You can either do a 2-hour hike to Macchu Picchu from here or take a 12$ bus from here. I would highly recommend taking the bus to Macchu Picchu. Downwards Hike back is much easier. Costs ~300-400$.
- The more exotic, most expensive, and the time-consuming way is to hike the world-famous 4-day Inca trail. The permit was this is even harder to come by. You must have a guide for the Inca trail. I would recommend buying the permits well in advance for this as well. Cost 500-600$.
- The exotic and cheap way. You can hike the Salkantay Trek. While most people take guided tours, I met someone who did a self-guided tour here. It is perfectly legal, and no permits are required. Cost ~ depends on whether you take a guide or not.
- The fast, fun, and cheap way is to take the 6-hours collectivo “van” from Cusco to Hydroelectric; it costs ~30 soles one-way (~10$). And then do a 12-km ~2.5 hours almost flat trek along the rail tracks to Aguas Calientes. Even during the low season, I saw ~100+ people doing this trek. There are local restaurants, selling hot food & drinks every few kilometers. The views are gorgeous. I would highly recommend this route.
I stayed at Aguas Calientes. The town is small but has probably 100+ restaurants and hotels, so you won’t have a tough time finding food or accommodation on the spot.
Day 3 – Macchu Picchu
I would recommend going early. People queued for the bus at 4:30 AM. I reached at 5:55 AM, 5 minutes before the site opens. The guide is required but not enforced. The route is one-way, so you can’t come back after moving forward. I would highly recommend spending as much time at the top for the views as possible. The ruins, like most Inca ruins, from a close distance, are not that interesting.
I returned via the same 21-km hydroelectric route and took a 30-soles collectivo back to Hydroelectric. No booking required since locals use the same route every day. Some people booked a tour for this pickup and dropoff and paid upwards of 100$ for a 20$ journey. You can get down at Ollyntatambo, but I was too tired too and wanted to do a guided tour for that instead.
Day 4 – Sacred Valley
I took a 70 soles tour for the Sacred Valley the next day. Some websites list the same activity for 50$ or more. Cusco is not expensive; a day-long guided tour should not cost more than 100 soles. The tour does stop at tourist traps, so be careful about buying stuff. You will either have to buy a 70-soles ticket or 140-soles Tourist ticket “boleto touristico” to visit the sites. I would recommend purchasing the tourist ticket.
In the evening, I took an overnight bus from Cusco to Puno. Puno is the closest bus terminal to Lake Titicaca. The overnight buses are comfortable (reclining seats), inexpensive (~30-50 soles and yes, you can negotiate the price), have USB charging for the phone, and have urinals. Alternatively, you can take a day-bus like PeruHop, which stops at interesting touristic stops. Based on my experience, I would highly recommend Turismo Mer bus.
Day 5 & 6 – Lake Titicaca tour
The most popular tour on Lake Titicaca is a 2-day 1-night tour of the floating island of Uros, with a night-stay at Amantani, and a stopover at the island of Taquile. I did a 37$ tour. The tour is relaxed. If you are of the adventurous type, there isn’t that much to do on tour. I would recommend the tour given that you get to experience Lake Titicaca and eat local food (which included a lot of vegetarian items).
The tour started with a trip to a floating island where the local guides explained how they build and maintain it.
Then we headed to Amantani island.
In the evening, we did a hike to the sun temple there.
And at night, there was a local musical celebration.
On the second day afternoon, we were on the island of Taquile; there isn’t anything special to do on Taquile, though. So, if you are short on time, skip Taquile and make a single-day trip to Uros + Amantani. In the evening, I checked the central square area of Puno. Compared to Cusco, it is pretty dead. I took an overnight bus back to Cusco.
Day 7 – Cusco
I started the day by taking a 15-soles taxi to Tambomachay, an archeological site near Cusco. This site was used for baths, probably ceremonial. There isn’t much going on here. So, don’t spend time hiking at the site beyond the baths.
From there, I walked back to the second side, Puka Pukara.
I took a 1-sol bus to Quenco.
From here, I walked to Sacsayhuaman, the most elaborate archeological site of all. There is a Jesus statue nearby and you can do walk down the staircases from here to the Cusco downtown.
Later in the day, I checked out the four museums which are part of the tourist ticket. Compared to many museums in the US and Europe, they are unassuming. If you are short on time, skip them.
Day 8 – Moray and Maras tour
I was planning to Maras ruins and Moray salt mines on my own. After seeing a 25-soles guided tour, I decided to do that instead. The tour was similar to this. I would recommend booking it locally to avoid being dollar-priced.
Moray ruins consist of circular depressions. The temperature difference between the top and the bottom circle is about 15 ºC. Archeologists believe that this was an agricultural laboratory.
Maras Salt flats are actively used to harvest rock salt.
In the evening, I attended a show at the native art center “Centro Qosqo de arte nativo”, it is an excellent way to kill some time.
- The local currency is soles. 1 US$ ~ 3.5 Peruvian Soles. Anytime someone is listing prices in US$; they are overcharging you. Credit card acceptance is low.
- Coca leaves, used for making cocaine, are perfectly safe and legal to consume in Peru. Don’t take them to the airport, though.
- Recommended sites for booking: Apart from generic viator.com, I would recommend checking findlocaltrips.com and getyourguide.com for high-quality, inexpensive tours.
- Public transport is great in and around Cusco.