I spent a month in Chile & Peru in November. USA citizens receive a free tourist visa upon arrival into both countries. The entire trip had minimal complications. I speak Spanish, and the non-Spanish speaking tourists also seemed perfectly happy. Here’s what I learned trekking and photographing for 2 weeks in Peru on my DIY National Geographic-wannabe trip.
What I Did in Perú – Summary
- Lake Titicaca – 1 night on a floating island and another night in Puno.
- Cusco – visited Incan ruins on day tours and stayed 3 nights in a quiet hostel.
- Machu Picchu – 5-day Salkantay Trek with the final day at Machu Picchu.
- Pisac – 2 nights enjoying this quiet place and visiting the ruins set high above town.
- Arequipa – 1 night here to break up a long bus journey from Cusco, Perú to Iquique, Chile
My 2-Week Route in Chile & Peru
I began my trip in Santiago, Chile and flew to Iquique for a week of paragliding. I then rode buses throughout the entirety of my trip, until returning to fly from Iquique to Santiago at the end. The bus routes are long, but flights are surprisingly expensive in Peru.
I departed Iquique, Chile by bus for Arica at 2pm. Crossing the Arica, Chile / Tacna, Perú border is easy, but it takes a bit of time to pass through the two security points, one for each country. I then took a 7-hour overnight bus from Tacna to Puno, a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Arriving just after dawn, I watched the small city awaken.
I stayed at the lake for 3 days / 2 night, even spending one night on a traditional floating island made of reeds! It was a great experience.
From Puno, I paid $50 to take a full-day tourist bus to Cusco. The local bus is only 5 to 6 hours, and cheaper. However, the tourist bus includes 6 stops at Incan ruins, with a short tour included at each and a hot buffet lunch. I loved the cool suspension bridges! Entrance fees to the various ruins cost an additional $15.
Finally, from Cusco to Arequipa I took an overnight bus taking about 10 hours. Read more about that below.
Arequipa to Tacna takes 6 hours by bus, and then another hour on a different vehicle for the Chile-Peru border crossing.
What to Know About Peru + Chile
Chile + Peru are in different time zones. Additionally, Chile does not have daylight savings time, so its clock does not change in spring and autumn.
I had some cultural misunderstandings, generally around what time it means to ‘wake up early’. I have conversational fluency in Spanish, so communicated easily, including in rural areas + with people who spoke no English. People are very friendly, and my fellow travelers told me that even with their poor Spanish, they were generally able to communicate with gestures, etc.
Perú uses the sol, and the exchange rate was about 3.3 soles to USD $1 during my trip.
I spent my first night on Uros Island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. The island, made of reeds bundled together, floats. I spent another night in Puno. Buy a bag of coca leaves and get instructions for chewing them to assist with any altitude sickness you may experience (approx. 3 soles or USD $1). I highly recommend this natural altitude sickness medicine.
The Lake Titicaca Tour is Great!
I joined a tour motorized boat tour along with other foreigners (25 soles, approx. USD $8). We had a fun cultural experience on an island we visited. It was a small island made of floating reeds and some of the inhabitants make a living hosting tour groups like ours. They describe their culture and living circumstances. The entertainment is getting the tourists dressed up in traditional clothing. It’s a bit gimmicky, but I found it really great. You can feel the weight of the clothing and understand what each article of clothing means. This is the easiest way to dig into a culture for a few minutes, when the opportunity might not otherwise arise.
Additional costs during the tour include a ride on a catamaran boat made of reeds. Everyone in the group embarks the traditional boat, and then the guide announces that a ride costs 10 soles (approx. USD $3). Souvenirs of cloth, model reed boats, and more are available from the community. I felt this was great for the island community.
Earning money from both Peruvian and foreign tourists by educating us of their culture, so it is not lost, is very smart. Considering the islands do not yet have electricity, I appreciated that they were using the tourism to their advantage. However, it seems sneaky of the tour guide to not announce all extra costs at the start of the tour (apart from souvenirs, of course, which are never included in a tour price). If you’re on a tight budget, be willing to get off the catamaran in front of others, or ask the cost before boarding.
Luckily, my budget was fine, and I was overjoyed to ride the catamaran. It was a dream come true from all my years of seeing these reed boats in school social studies books. Especially when they let me try rowing it! The 2 men rowing it over to us made it look so easy. I though it would be more like paddling a kayak or canoe. It was really hard, though!
Stay Overnight on Uros Island, Made of Reeds
Spending the night on Uros Floating Island: Traditional cultural experience is minimal, but I certainly learned about the culture of tourism. This is not a homestay, and folks are working all day selling their wares to the tourists who come to the small island (which is actually the largest of all the islands).
In the evening, people have their chores to take care of. Lunch and breakfast was in the on-island restaurant environment. I believe dinner is the same, but I missed it due to altitude sickness. There is also a regular (non-floating) island where you can do a homestay with a family. I heard from another tourist that they really enjoyed this experience.
Uros Island: Costs & Details
3 meals and hotel for 1 night is approx. USD $25. This is about the same as I spent for my night in Puno. Pay the man on the island at check-out (cash only). It feels as though you’re sleeping on a pier, since the island moves ever so slightly with the waves. It stormed the night I was there.
There are 3 cabins available. Mine had 2 large typical beds made of reeds and covered with sheets and wool blankets, and I did not look inside the other 2 cabins. Light was provided by a single hanging electric lightbulb, as there were no windows. Inside it is cool in the day and cozy at night. The bathroom, located a 1 minute walk down a boardwalk, requires a headlamp for nighttime visits.
Although I’m sure that there are bathing facilities, I did not shower, since it was cold out. I assume bathing is bucket-bath style. The hotel room door does not lock from the inside. However, with only about 5 families living on the island, I assumed danger was minimal, since their livelihood depends on tourism. It does have a padlock on the outside, which I always locked due to the number of tourists.
When I was inside, a tourist must have noticed the door was unlocked, and decided to have a peek inside. Fortunately, I was dressed, and we just looked at each other before he shut the door.
Uros Island, Perú: Getting There
No advance reservation was made. From Puno I went on a boating day tour of the lake, and I let my guide know at pick-up (and reminded him during the tour) that I wanted to stay overnight on an island. My tour boat dropped me off on the island with the hotel. For departure, I should have returned with the same company that dropped me off, and avoided paying an additional boat fare to another company. My hotel man forgot to let my boat company know I needed a pick-up. Luckily, my schedule was flexible and they arranged for me to return with another boat company .
Machu Picchu Trip – 5-day Salkantay Trek + Tour
The Salkantay Trek is 4 days of hiking with the 5th day hiking from the town of Aguas Calientes up the steep hill to Machu Picchu. Take hiking boots, since it’s a big deal if you twist an ankle.
I did not hike the 2 mountains within Machu Picchu, which was fine with me since my feet were tired. And, the people in my group who did hike one of those mountains were not able to stay and enjoy M.P. as long as I did.
The cost also included a return train ticket at a good time (6pm). Alternatively, a ‘bad’ time is 9pm, because after the train ride to Ollantaytambo and then the connecting van ride back to Cusco the trip is close to 4 hours.
Cost: just under $300 for 5-day Salkantay trek and tour, all-inclusive, except tips, water, ice cream, and a horse ride up the steepest mountain. Included is tent, sleeping bag, hot tea brought to your tent each morning at the wake-up call, all meals.
I paid slightly more than others, but my tour agent included: walking poles, a review of my clothing, and small snacks. She was helpful and attentive, whereas other people simply got put on the tour with no other assistance. I felt well-prepared, whereas 3 in my group became very ill one day, probably from the altitude.
You might not be willing to pay for this extra service, but even with the walking poles and painkiller, my knees wanted to explode after all the down-hills. Also, the review of my clothing was helpful, because she knew the weather for each day of the trek, which varies throughout the year, and week-by-week during the shoulder season. She told me that taking the correct number of socks is essential to one’s enjoyment of the trip. Putting on cold, wet socks in the morning is not fun, and can cause blisters along with other problems.
I had not planned on visiting the Cusco area, since it is very touristy. Luckily someone told me that I should just go anyway. Once in the ruins, the area is so large and the number of tickets sold per day is limited, so I found quiet spaces where I could be alone, or at least quiet with llamas eating the grass near me. The place is very well looked after, and if you mess around, one of the many guards will blow their whistle until you stop. Tickets should be bought in advance, either on your own or as part of a tour.
Aguas Calientes (A.C.) to Machu Picchu
2 options for arriving at the Machu Picchu entrance gate
(1) Bus for $12 each way per person from A.C. to entrance gate, and tickets can be bought the day before, which is suggested if you want to take an early morning bus;
(2) Hike 1+ hour. From A.C.to the bridge it is 20 minutes walking, and the bridge gate opens at 5am. From the bridge to the entrance gate it is very steep uphill walking for 40+ minutes. Passport and ticket must be shown at both the bridge gate and the entrance gate, and your name should match your ticket. For either option, plan on waking up at about 4am, if you want to arrive at the entrance when the gates first open.
Mountains within Machu Picchu
These entrances must be reserved in advance: Huayna (Wayna) Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. Both are difficult climbs in some places, requiring you use your hands. Verify the time restrictions, as these are not widely advertised, and some people were not able to use their tickets, since they arrived late.
Take everything you need for the day to the Machu Picchu ruins. Food and water is double the price as in A.C. Toilets and a restaurant are available just outside the entrance gates. You can leave and re-enter the ruins 3 times in a day. Items I took and used were: lunch, water, hat, sunglasses, and mosquito repellant (the mosquitoes are really bad in A.C. and at the ruins!) even if you are covered with clothing.
Based on my experience, which includes photographing at various times of day and locations, I have written a Machu Picchu Photography Itinerary. If I visit Machu Picchu again, this is how I would do it.
. I highly suggest having a look for pre-planning purposes. Additionally, here’s my Machu Picchu Photography Packing List. Have a look and ensure you don’t forget anything.
Machu Picchu: What I Would Do Next Time
I was with a tour, so some items were fixed. Looking back, here is what I would do next time:
Trek in on the Salkantay Trail (tours available with no notice) or Inca Trail (advanced reservation suggested due to limited access), provided you are physically able, as it is not easy. The trek is at high elevation, portions of trail are steep uphill, while others are steep downhill or flat. Treks are 3, 4, or 5 days depending on starting point and shortcuts used. The 5-day tour is a great, but an exhausting, experience. Take into account that the trek reaches 13,000 feet so altitude sickness, even if only slight symptoms, is not unlikely.
Stay 2 nights in Aguas Calientes
Many tours only provide one night, but staying two nights would be better. This allows for a full day of sightseeing at Machu Picchu for which you pay USD $60 entrance. You can rest during the day on grass lawn areas within the MP ruins. In my case most tourists left by 3pm, so I had the whole place mostly to myself starting at 4pm.
Also, the Machu Picchu Museum is highly regarded.
Take your time on Machu Picchu and visit these places.
Stay 1 or 2+ nights in Ollantaytambo before returning to Cusco.
You pass through Ollantaytambo, since it lies between Aguas Calientes and Cusco. There are ruins here (entrance included on your $40 tourist ticket) along with other activities.
Cusco, Perú Area
Visiting most of the ruins in the Cusco area requires the purchase of a Tourist Ticket for about USD $40. Do NOT lose or throw the ticket away, as it provides entrance to many locations over a period of days. This ticket does NOT include Machu Picchu, which costs an additional USD $60 for non-Peruvians.
I stayed at El Solar, a small hotel recommended to me by my tour agent, Luisa Maria. The clean rooms are at budget prices and have private bathrooms. A central garden is peaceful after a long day out and about. Although it is quiet and calm, walls are thin, so you will hear other guests if they are noisy. The hotel is in a great location, 2 blocks from the Plaza de Armas, and directly in front of Plaza de San Francisco, which is where tour vans pick up passengers. This is very convenient for early morning pick-up times! Best of all, this is the plaza where all tours drop you off at the end of the day!
Day Tours from Cusco
Visiting other ruins on the ‘tourist ticket’, including the Salteras near Maras is highly recommended.
A tourist entry ticket costs about $40 USD, and allows entry into approximately 10 locations, including museums and ruins. Do NOT throw it away, or you will have to pay the $40 again! (I met a man who did throw his away, and told me “it did seem expensive, but I didn’t realize it was for all the sights.”) Machu Picchu is not included in this ticket.
Each day tour place is unique and worth photographing. Closer sites have a 1/2 day tour returning to Cusco around 2pm for approximately USD $10 per person. Meanwhile, a full day tour lasts until 7pm. Each tour includes
- Two to four different sights.
- A 20-30 minute English or Spanish tour by a guide at each location
- 20-40 minutes for exploring on your own at each location
Peru Guidebooks – Rough Guide, Lonely Planet
Guidebooks include the history of each place, as well as hotels + restaurants in all price ranges, public transportation information (where and when to catch a bus), and maps. I feel like many people think they are old-school now, but I still love them in hardcopy!
Pisac, Perú – Ruins Near Cusco
I did not take a tourist day tour to Pisac, which is possible. Instead, I went on my own and spent 2 nights in this new-age-y/hippie town filled with expats. The ruins are spectacular, set atop a steep hill. The hike up to the ruins from town is 1 hour, if you’re acclimated to the elevation. I spent a total of 7 hours at the ruins over 2 mornings. The ruins are very spread out, and the paths are windy and steep in some sections. Also, there’s a path you can climb up at the very top to get an amazing panoramic view.
It is impossible to see the entire area in the 40 minutes allowed by a tour.
I arrived at 7am by overnight bus from Cusco, and spent 1 night in this city as a stopover between Cusco, Perú and Santiago, Chile. My total time on a bus, taxi, and plane was over 24 hours. Visit the Santa Catalina Monastery, built in 1579, for its beautiful colors and peaceful patios.
Visit the main market building for licuados (shakes), stuffed potatoes, and so much more. Be sure to browse the stands that have the herbal medicines, including dried baby vicuñas. It’s quite a sight!
What’s your favorite Peru memory? Or, which places are on your wishlist? Comment below!
Arequipa, Peru Travel Photography – Santa Catalina Monastery – Coming Soon!
This entire trip was paid for out of my own pocket. No discounts or free items were provided or requested in relationship to this writing on Chile & Peru. I negotiated prices, depending on cultural expectations, as should anyone.
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