This is the first time we had ever ventured to South America. Our 15 day-trip exceeded expectations for a kaleidoscope of reasons. Not least the sense of achievement I felt after hiking the Inca Trail and watching the sunrise of Machu Picchu.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so many varying degrees of physical, and emotional, up-and-downs in any other country – Peru definitely packed a punch. For one thing, this was a time where I was hugely unfit before I had discovered the joys of running and the gym. And, I do believe, that my blasé attitude towards this whole adventure was nearly the undoing of me!
We decided to meet my brother-in-law – who was travelling around the whole continent – in Lima, before taking an internal flight out to Cusco. We wanted several days here to acclimatise to the altitude, before setting off on a four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. Finally, and perhaps I did have an inkling of foresight into my physical state post-trek, I was determined to get some rest and relaxation. So we hopped on to another internal flight and stayed in the Peruvian resort of Máncora Beach.
We stayed in the Miraflores district of Lima, which is considered the more upmarket part of town. It’s has everything, from green parks, shopping centres, beaches and a pleasant promenade. It’s also where you will be able to find a wide selection of restaurants, bars and pubs.
We only spent a couple of days here. Like other foreign travellers, we were using it as more of a stop-gap, before heading East. But we only skimmed the surface of this sprawling capital, known as the City of Kings.
Things to do
Because we didn’t have a lot of time, we opted for a sight-seeing tour. Organised by Viator, it was actually a really interesting and worthwhile four hours. We got to cram in a lot of history and culture in a very short space of time; including Lima Cathedral and Historical centre. Prices are from £20 and you get picked up from your hotel.
Where we stayed
Casa San Martin is a Spanish-style hotel with 20 rooms. Imagine terracotta tiles and colours and high ceilings. With all the usual amenities you would come to expect, we found our room comfortable and clean. We particularly enjoyed catching some rays while having the buffet breakfast out on the terrace.
It’s right in the heart of Miraflores, and we found it easy to go out and explore on foot from the hotel.
Double rooms from $84 per night including breakfast. Book well in advance, as the Casa can get full very quickly.
As soon as you arrive in Cusco, everything looks and feels different. This ancient capital of the Incas, lies over 11, 150ft above sea level, high in the Andes.
It’s a strange feeling – at first, it is labour intensive just to breathe, especially when you have to climb ‘the’ steps – and these steps and steps and steps, are everywhere! But I promise this compression on your chest and windpipe does begin to subside. We enjoyed our time in Cusco immensely. We meandered through the cobbled streets, stopping at different squares, lapping up the surroundings. It amazed me how many different turns and side roads would lead us to new, wonderful nooks and crannies, colonial architecture and churches.
We spent many hours, relaxing in the sunshine in the Plaza de Armas – a colonial square buzzing with activity, and restaurants and cafes, which sit on the first floors of the Plaza buildings – so you can enjoy your breakfast/lunch/dinner observing the Square below.
If you get a chance, go to Jack’s Cafe. We had a couple of meals here and really enjoyed the breakfasts and toasties.
Where we stayed
We were on a tight budget, but I wanted us to stay somewhere quaint and comfortable.
I stumbled across the Piccola Locanda. This family-run hotel and hostel are warm, bright and friendly. And don’t let the word ‘hostel’ put you off. Piccola has several private rooms with ensuite bathrooms – and not a whiff of dormitory bunk beds anywhere.
We had a lovely, bright room, which had wooden shutters that opened to give us the most glorious view of Cusco and the Plaza de Armas. And it was super clean. There is free wi-fi, a TV room and a DVD library. The staff are only too happy to help you plan your trips, sightseeing and give recommendations.
The hotel is also ethical and uses the money it makes to go towards projects for local children. Standard double ensuites begin from £40 per night. Yes, you did read that right… £40!!
The Inca Trail
So now we come to the heart of it. The main reason why we came to Peru in the first place. I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of the whole trek because we would be here forever, plus you’ll get the gist in a second.
I’m not a great camper. Don’t misunderstand me, I can cope with the outdoors, different terrains and singing around a campfire. What I can’t abide is no
clean washing facilities and a hard floor to sleep on when, you’ve spent the best part of nine hours on your feet, using muscles that haven’t twitched in years.
This trek (along with the Langtang trek in Nepal and the London marathon) is possibly one of the hardest most, physical things I have ever done. (And I want to trek Mount Kilimanjaro!?). As I mentioned earlier, I was terribly unfit, lulled into a false sense of security on the first day as it was fairly easy. The “Oooohs, and Ahhhhs” of the group when setting eyes on the majestic views of mountains, kept everyone’s spirits high.
But as we began to climb higher and higher, the altitude really began to affect me. On the second day of the trek, there was an ascent of
2 3 hours to nearly 14,000ft above sea level, to the highest point of the trail, aptly called ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’.
And no word of a lie, I thought I was going to die… The altitude sickness was making me dizzy, physically sick, and I struggled to catch my breath. Bless the guides, who were trying to ply me with coca leaves; “These will make you feel better!” they insisted. They also suggested I turn around, go back down and get the train up to Machu Picchu in a few days time.
You can imagine my response to that… I’m a stubborn wench, who hates to be defeated. So, with steely determination, I went slowly, ever so slowly, but I finally made it to the summit, with the rest of the group cheering me on. It was a proud moment I can tell you.
But of course, the aches, pains, dirty fingernails/hair/skin and tiredness all fell by the wayside when we got to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu. It was an awesome sight, coupled with the fact that hardly anyone else was there – I felt like this magical, lost city was our little secret.
Who did we Tour Machu Picchu with?
There are hundreds of Inca Trail trek companies you can choose from. We opted for Peru Treks and Adventures. Included in the price is your guides, porters, meals, camping equipment, permits, entrance fee to Macchu Picchu and the return train journey from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco. If you want a porter to carry your backpack, there is an extra charge.
Price for the four-day Inca Trail Trek is $580 per person
If the physical exertion of the trek doesn’t appeal, or you have very young children with you – a lot of companies, don’t allow children younger than 7 years old to go on a trek – then it’s easy to get the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes which is located down in a valley by the Vilcanota River – that way you can visit Machu Picchu without any effort.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels in Aguas Calientes – but there isn’t really much there. It isn’t very pretty, and the prices of accommodation are over-priced. In my humble opinion, you’d be better off going back to Cusco…
If you want to splurge and stay in the confines of the heritage site then the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is your hotel. It is the only hotel in Machu Picchu itself. Imagine waking up to spectacular views across this ancient wonder? Run by the Orient-Express chain, you can expect top-quality service and rooms. Prices start from £586 per night.
Playa Máncora Peru
Playa Mancora is the sunniest region in Peru and has the country’s best sandy beaches. Which is why we headed here after the trek (we got a domestic flight, stopping back off through Lima and then to Tumbes).
It was the perfect place for us to while away sunny days with a cold beer (well-deserved) and lots of naps. The seafood we had was so fresh and sumptuous, and we happily and slowly strolled along Las Pocitas beach everyday.
Mancora Peru Hotels
You will be spoilt for choice in the area for hotels along the coast. The younger crowd tend to stay nearer Máncora town itself, but head out to Las Pocitas if you want a more relaxed, holiday vibe.
We decided on staying at the Hotel Grand Mare and Bungalows. We had a great beach villa and spent many hours swinging on the hammocks watching the waves lap the shoreline.
The bungalow had everything we needed, and there were two swimming pools. Overall a great place to recharge our batteries.
I would also say that the bungalows would be perfect for families with young children. There is plenty of space and plenty for kids to do.
Prices from $125 for a double room with sea view and $280 per night for a bungalow.
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