Five highlights of Peru: Trekking the Inca Trail and more

Five highlights of Peru: Trekking the Inca Trail and more

The Inca Trail had always been top of my bucket list – a physical challenge with a culturally significant destination, through stunning scenery. I had researched charity challenges and group tours to try and find a way for me to realise this ambition, but never quite found the right fit. Then a couple of years ago, friends of ours shared that they were planning the trip as a 40th birthday treat, and invited us to join them.

South America generally has always fascinated me, I would have loved to have travelled around the continent when I was a backpacker, but I didn’t quite have the guts to do it alone. When we decided to join the Inca Trail trek, we started researching where else we should visit, and it was a tough call! There are so many amazing places that we wanted to go to, but with limited time, and such huge distances between places, thankfully it made the decisions easier. 

We wanted to do justice to Peru, and see as much as we could before and after the trip, and then decided to take a few days at the end to fly to Ecuador and do a trip around the Galapagos Islands. I think it’s probably the biggest trip I have ever done – flying the furthest and covering two huge bucket list items for me in one trip – I was beyond excited! 

In celebration of Peru National Day next week, I’ll focus on my highlights of Peru for this post (Galapagos Islands to come!) So for now, what were our highlights of Peru?

1. Lake Tititaca 

We made the unusual choice of starting our trip on top of the world in Puno. The recommendation is generally to spend time in Lima or Cusco first to acclimatise to the altitude before ascending to Puno, but the way that our dates fell, we weren’t able to find a way to do that first. Although we did have one night in an airport hotel in Lima as a result of the international and domestic flight timings. On arriving in Puno, we took it easy, spending the day wandering around the town, and staying at the Libertador Lago Titicaca, where our rooms had fantastic views over the lake, particularly at sunrise. There isn’t a huge amount to do in the city and an afternoon was more than enough, with a cultural show over a dinner of roasted guinea pig (just mind the teeth!!) 

We were really only there to explore Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world – and had booked a day trip with Edgar Adventures to explore Uros and Taquile Islands, which was fantastic. We chose the company because of its focus on sustainability, culture and ecotourism. Its high ratings were completely justified. They took us off the beaten track, which meant we didn’t come across any other tourists that day, and had a chance to interact with the local indigenous people that live on the islands. The first stop was Taquile Island, which was stunning – reminding me of a beautiful Mediterranean island, only a little cooler and harder to hike around due to the altitude. Here we trekked a pre-Inca trail with stunning views, and were treated to a demonstration of their weaving and textile art, before heading to Santa Maria island for a lovely Pachamanca lunch, where fish, meat and potatoes were cooked traditionally underground by the local people. Our final stop of the day were the famed floating Uros Islands, which are home to some of the oldest cultures in South America. Whilst they have become somewhat commercialised (they were all selling their handicrafts), the island that our guides took us too was less commercial than a lot of the images we had seen. After a presentation from the local people, we were taken out on their canoes to explore their watery world, before returning back to Puno.

2. The Andean Explorer: Puno to Cusco by train

Credit goes to my partner and our friends for convincing me to do the Peru Rail Andean Explorer, as I had been planning to do the trip by bus. I cannot stress enough how much of a mistake that would have been! The train ride by was absolutely incredible and I’m so glad we did it. The four of us had a table in the dining carriage together, where, during the ten hour journey we enjoyed a delicious gourmet lunch and drinks (alcohol is chargeable), and later in the trip, a cheeky afternoon tea.

We spent most of our journey at the back of the train however. Here there was a bar/observation carriage, with an open air standing area at the back, where you could lean on the railings and watch the fantastic scenery roll by. Firstly the Andean Plains, scattered with herd of wild llama and alpaca. The train had a short maintenance stop at La Raya Pass – one of the highest train stops in the world at 4,319m – where we had time for photos and to explore the few market stalls. From here the scenery becomes more mountainous, following the river, and slowly descending into Cusco. During the journey there was also a Pisco Sour making demonstration in the bar carriage, as well as a show from a live band and dancers. The time flew by, and I have to say that the day was one of my favourites in Peru!

3. Cusco

This city is the base for trekking the Inca Trail, so it was full of tourists, many of whom, like us, were meeting with their tour groups for pre-departure briefings and buying supplies. We stayed in the stunning Marriott El Convento Cusco, which is a restored 16th Century convent in the centre of the city. 

We had a full day to explore the city, checking out Cusco Cathedral (chaos around morning mass!), San Pedro Market, and enjoying lunch on one of the many terraces overlooking Plaza de Armas. The afternoon was spent wandering around the narrow, cobbled streets of the artisanal San Blas area, checking out galleries and workshops, before heading back down the ancient Incan road, bordered by old Inca Walls. It was a traditional dinner at the hotel’s fantastic restaurant and an early night for us, in preparation for the early start for our five days of Inca Trail trekking the next day!

4. The Inca Trail

We jumped on the trip our friends had already booked with SAS Tours, which was four days and five nights. We booked our porters (who each day would run ahead carrying our big backpacks along the trail to the next camp) so that we only had to worry about a day pack each day. We also bought hiking poles from them (something else I have to thank my travelling companions for, as I was prepared to go without them, and looking back, I never would have made it!!)

The trek started at Ollantaytambo, rather monumentally, with a beautiful bridge crossing and a gradual ascent through villages and wide valleys, at which point we started to see some of the terraces and Inca ruins, which were to become more common as we continued the trek. We had a lovely campsite that night on our own, and a good night’s sleep, which we needed for Day 2!

Every day had a similar routine, we were woken at 4.30am with a cup of herbal tea, and given half an hour to put our clothes on, and pack our bags for the day, we’d brush our teeth outside the tent and leave our big backpacks, sleeping bags and rolled up tents for the porters. They would have prepared a full hearty breakfast for us to power us through the day. Once we had finished, we would start the trek, while they washed the pots, packed up the cookers and grabbed all the bags. We would have them run past us not long after, in their sandals and with heavy bags on their heads, while we struggled to climb the steep passes with our trekking poles! They would go ahead and prepare lunch for us, and afterwards would follow the same routine in cleaning and packing up, whilst we commenced the afternoon’s hike. After running ahead of us again, they would set up camp for the night and prepare bowls of water so that when we arrived we could wash our hands and faces and sit down to dinner. Once this was finished, we would go to our tents and sleep ready for the next morning’s early start.

Day 2 was one of the toughest of the entire trip, although it started deceptively with the path winding through beautiful forests and alongside a river, but the steps continued as the day wore on leading us up the highest peak of the trek, culminating in Dead Women’s Pass, with our second’s night’s camp back down over the peak on the other side, where we shared the camp site with a few other tour groups. Day three had probably the best scenery, with little lakes on mountain tops, spectacular views from the exposed paths, and the beautiful ruins of ancient Inca settlements. The path wound down again through more forested areas and through caves and cliffs, which we tried to cover as fast as we could, in an attempt to make the final ruins of the day near our camp before they closed to visitors for the day. We literally just made it into the ruins as they were closing, and I’m so glad we did. The terraces and crumbling walls, perched dramatically on the valley sides were almost as impressive as Machupicchu but without the hordes of tourists. The final night’s campsite was not the most pleasant, as there were so many tour groups sharing the same space – and toilet facilities – but it was only one night, and a short one at that!

We were up at 3am the following morning to make our final trek into Machupicchu for the sunrise. We had to queue for our tickets and wanted to be the first allowed through the gates so we sat in line in the dark waiting, but one we were through, we started the trek with the sun rising through the mist, stripping off layers as it rose higher – and as we exerted ourselves more! There was one last hurdle at the Gringo Killer steps which were the final climb up to the Sun Gate, before the view of MachuPicchu was opened up to us at the top. Once the sun had risen and we had made the final walk down into the ancient site, we spent a couple of hours being shown around the huge complex and its temples, and getting pictures with the llamas. Once we had finally seen as much as our legs would allow us, we gratefully jumped on the bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes, where we were booked into a cheap hotel with the rest of the group. We were just so grateful for a proper toilet, a shower – and above all – a bed!! We wandered out for a quick walk to the centre of the town to grab dinner and were back in bed ridiculously early to recover!

The last day we were due to climb Huaynappichu, however when we finally reached the town of Aguas Calientes, we were exhausted. We hadn’t realised the final day was not a guided hike, we had the tickets and were advised to get the earliest bus back up the mountain for the final climb, which had similar scenery and would give us great views of the sunrise over MachuPicchu. Once we had laid down and felt the comfort of a proper bed, we made the decision that we didn’t want to have another early start and day of trekking for very similar rewards. Maybe it was lazy, but it wasn’t a decision we regretted!

5. The Sacred Valley

Our last stop in Peru was the Sacred Valley. The train from Aguas Calientes took us back to where the hike had begun, in Ollantaytambo. From here, our hotel, Tambo del Inka, picked us up and took us to their luxurious property in Urubamba – which was a fantastic much needed treat for us! We arranged a tour of the Sacred Valley by private car, which was a much welcomed by our sore legs! The tour took us to the beautiful circular terraces of Maras, the salt pans of Salinas, and finally to the hippy, fun town of Pisac, with its huge market, local stores, friendly people and delicious hot chocolate. 

Our final morning before heading to the airport for our flight to Ecuador, I had arranged a surprise birthday present of a morning paragliding over the Sacred Valley. We took our bags with us and after some fun flying with the eagles above the canyon, the company dropped us at the airport in Cusco.

If we’d had more time, we would have liked to have made it to Arequipa to see the condors flying over Colca Canyon, and the Nazca Lines, and also possibly have spent a couple of days in Lima, the capital, before leaving. In the eleven days that we had however, this was the perfect itinerary. I would recommend to anyone to do the Inca Trail trek, not just take the train for a day trip to Machupicchu, as there is so much more to the Inca Trail than this one site alone.

Happy Fiestas Patrias Peru, and thank you for welcoming us so warmly and giving us the trip of a lifetime!