Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Two

For day one of our trek, see here:  Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One. Day two of our Lares Trek to Machu Picchu began with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up and steaming cups of coca tea (it’s supposed to help with the high altitude). After getting dressed and packing up our things, we had breakfast consisting of a hot chocolate porridge, bread, pancakes, fruit salad, tea, and coffee, then we headed out for the most difficult part of the trek. We hiked up to just over 14,000 ft and went through Condor Pass. Along the way we saw llamas, alpacas, and lakes that were a gorgeous shade of blue-green. The trail was full of loose rocks and we were once again grateful to have our walking poles.

After reaching the highest point of the trek, we hiked down the mountain, stopping briefly for a snack and only taking short breaks the rest of the time. We finally reached our campsite where we had yet another hearty and delicious lunch:  soup, bread, mixed fruit, mixed vegetables, cauliflower pizza, corn tortillas with broccoli, and a maize drink.

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A group shot doing the llama sign (as instructed to do so by our guide)

After lunch we walked to a one room school and talked with the teacher and children. The teacher, a male, spoke the local Quechuan (a language that goes back to the Inca Empire), and was teaching the children in that language. Our guide, who spoke Quechuan, Spanish, and English, translated for us all and explained where we were from. We gave the children the bread we had bought at the market the previous morning and gave them some things brought from the US like stickers, pens, and pencils. The children were happy to see us and were all adorable. Even though none of us spoke the same language, it was clearly communicated that we were happy to be there and they were happy to see us.

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Inside a Quechuan school in the Highlands of Peru. Their smiles were priceless!

We all took a well-deserved siesta in our tents then walked to meet a local family who lived nearby our campsite. Their house was one room built of stone with a thatched roof. There was a pot simmering over a fire in one corner and one woman was peeling potatoes. The man of the house did most of the talking for the family (in Quechuan, which was translated to English by our guide) and he told us there were 6 people who lived in the main house as well as in the other small house just across the main house where we heard several chickens inside.

There were 2 beds in the main house along with the kitchen, dining area, living area, and a loft storage area on one side. The man and his family, along with the rest of the people in the town were farmers. Some people from our group asked some questions and the man asked us where we were from and what kinds of jobs we had. He said he was very happy to have us in his home because so many people went through the area on treks but hardly anyone stopped by his house. He was hospitable and seemed genuinely happy to talk with us. His wife sang us a song before we left.

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One of the most beautiful views we saw on our second day of the trek

I’ll be perfectly honest here. I wasn’t sure how it would go with meeting the Quechuan family and I didn’t want it to feel like we were just there to stare at them and have everyone be uncomfortable. After talking with them (through the help of our guide), however, it became apparent that they really were happy to share a glimpse of their lives with us, and they were glad to have us as visitors. It seemed they were perhaps as curious about us as we were about them. Meeting with this family and the school children was definitely a highlight of the trek.

We had yet another tasty and filling dinner before bed and once again grabbed a hot water bottle from the cook to sleep with. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of our fellow trekkers (there was my family of 3 and a family of 4) had to be transported by horse after dinner to a town 2 hours away at a lower elevation because his oxygen levels had become dangerously low. He had been struggling from the beginning with altitude-related problems but other problems as well (truth be told, even before the trek began) and he had been riding the horse almost the entire time but he had gotten steadily worse. One of the horsemen, our guide, and a porter took him to the town then the horseman rode the horse another 2 hours back to our campsite, only to have to get up about 2 hours later for an early morning wake-up.

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Our horseman from the trek with his family’s alpacas (and coca leaves stuffed in his cheek). He was a kind and hard-working man.

Having finished the hardest part of the trek, I was feeling really good about the rest of the trek. I knew the final day of hiking would be a piece of cake compared to the second day. I slept the best on the second night of all of the nights of the trek and was looking forward to our third and final day of hiking and ultimately to seeing Machu Picchu.

Total miles for day 2- 8 miles hiked; highest point reached 14,250 feet.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

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Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One

If you want to go to Machu Picchu in Peru you have many options. You can stay in Aguas Calientes and take the bus to Machu Picchu and tour the ruins with a guide, you can stay in Cusco and take the train to Ollantaytambo then the bus to Aguas Calientes then the bus to Machu Picchu, or you can take a guided hike and camp along the way finishing at Machu Picchu. The latter is what my family and I chose to do.

There are seemingly hundreds of companies that offer treks to Machu Picchu. As far as options for hiking routes, there is the more popular Classic Inca Trek, the more difficult Salkantay Trek, or the Lares Trek in addition to alternative treks. I decided to take the Lares Trek for several reasons:  it isn’t considered as popular as the Classic Inca Trail so it’s not as crowded, it has stops along the way at salt pans (which I find beautiful), thermal baths (which I find incredibly soothing and relaxing), at a local market where we would buy foods for local families along the trek, at a local school where we would talk with the children and give them some supplies and bread, and at a local family’s house. We chose the 4 day/3 night trek, which meant we would be camping in tents for 2 nights and at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the third night then take the short bus ride to Machu Picchu the next morning.

I chose Alpaca Expeditions because it came recommended. I later found out Alpaca Expeditions is the most popular trekking company to Machu Picchu for Americans. They promise an English-speaking guide, delicious food prepared by an on-site chef, a horse if you need assistance along the hike, a satellite phone for emergencies, small groups, and much more. There are options to upgrade some things for your hike, which I recommend. Let me just say every single one of us said many times on the trek how glad we were to have the walking poles.

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Day one of the Lares Trek- just the beginning!

The evening before our trek began, we met at Alpaca Expeditions headquarters in Cusco. We paid the balance that we owed and met with the rest of our group, a family of four from Connecticut, which meant there would only be seven of us not including those working for Alpaca Expeditions. We also met with our guide, Abelito, who explained briefly what we would be doing each day of the trek. He told us that the porters and horsemen would be in charge of carrying the tents, sleeping bags and pads, all food, water, cooking supplies, and basically everything we would need on the trek except for  personal items in a small backpack. Each of us was given a duffle bag to put our clothes and personal items in, which we would get each evening. We only had to carry a small day pack with any items we would want along the trek during the day, like sunscreen, bug spray, camera, and things like that.

Day one of our hike began with a 5 a.m. pickup in a large van at our hotel in Cusco. We drove 3 hours on curvy, winding roads, where we had to pull over after maybe an hour so I could throw up on the side of the road (and yes, I had taken an anti-nausea pill before I got sick). After I no longer had anything in my stomach, I was fine for the rest of the drive. We stopped at a market in a small town and bought sugar, flour, rice, pasta, bread, and coca leaves that we would later give to a family and school children. We took a guided tour of the market and were told all about the vegetables and other things sold there. 

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Waterfalls!

After driving for a while longer, we stopped for breakfast at a spot along the roadside overlooking a mountain. This was our first taste of food prepared by the chef and it was a great start with fruit salad, bread with jam, freshly squeezed mango juice, hot tea, coffee, and more. After a short drive to the Lares Hot Springs, we put on our swim suits in the changing area and had 45 minutes to relax in the pools. There were multiple pools with varying degrees of temperature. I’m a huge fan of hot springs so I thought it was a great way to start the hike!

We drove the short drive from the hot springs to the trailhead for the Lares Trek, got a quick lesson on how to adjust our hiking poles and we were off! After hiking for 2 hours we had a huge lunch at a beautiful spot along the trail then hiked for 1 and ½ hours more when we stopped at our first campsite that was near a lake, aptly named the Blue Lagoon. We had hiked 7.8 miles for the first day past waterfalls, sheep, and mountains, and re-fueled that evening with a hearty dinner of pasta, soup, roasted chicken, vegetables, bread, tea, and hot cocoa. Before dinner was served, we had some light snacks like popcorn, which we all devoured.

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This was a short walk from our campsite. Listening to the water flow at night was soothing.

We all happily took our hot water bottles from the cook to sleep with and collapsed into our warm sleeping bags for the night. It was cold that night, as is usual in the Highlands of Peru, but the sleeping bag was the kind that goes around your head to keep you warmer and we also had insulated mats to keep us off the ground and a super-warm blanket (not sure if it was alpaca or wool but I got so warm in the middle of the night I took mine off and put it on my daughter). I should also note that there were two people max in each tent (my husband had his tent to himself), which was fantastic.

The first day was pretty easy because the hiking we did was moderate and not for terribly long stretches. It was a good start for our trek and I was feeling really good about our decision to choose the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions. We hadn’t yet reached the highest point in our trek, and I knew day two was set to be our most difficult segment of the trek. I was anxiously looking forward to what we would see and do the next day.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Cusco, Peru- Things to Do and Places to Eat Plus a Day-Trip to Famous Rainbow Mountain

Many people go through Cusco on their way to Machu Picchu. My family and I were in Cusco for 3 days/3 nights before our trek to Machu Picchu (which deserves separate entries that I’ll post later) to help acclimatize to the high elevation and for another 2 days/2 nights after Machu Picchu before we flew to Arequipa. My immediate reaction when we were flying into Cusco was surprise at how much bigger it was than I thought it would be. There are just over 400,000 people in this city that sits at 11,152 feet above sea level.

On our first day in Cusco, my husband wasn’t adjusting well to the elevation, but he also had stopped drinking coffee cold-turkey so who knows how much of his reaction was to caffeine withdrawals. We just walked around the city and took in the sights before he asked to go back to our room to rest, where he did so for several hours then woke up feeling much better. My daughter and I both had headaches that first day but they were manageable and we adjusted pretty quickly to the elevation.

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Plaza de Armas in Cusco

We ventured out on our second day in Cusco and saw a parade going on at Plaza de Armas so we watched some of that (we had also seen a parade the evening before while we were at dinner). We did some shopping at the many markets and took a ton of photos. I found Cusco to be a beautiful city full of friendly people and on more than one occasion the locals started conversations with us (completely in Spanish). They weren’t trying to sell us things either, but they were being genuinely friendly.

On our third day in Cusco we were feeling pretty adventurous and decided to walk to Sacsayhuaman and the nearby Statue of Christ. The Statue of Christ is large but don’t expect it to be on par with Christ the Redeemer in Rio. However, the views of Cusco are amazing from here and worth going just for that. It’s about a 10-minute walk to Sacsayhuaman from the Statue of Christ, which is the real reason to come to this part of Cusco. These ruins are impressive and you can spend hours walking around and exploring. We walked here from the main section of Cusco, up what felt like a million stairs straight up through various neighborhoods. On the way back we smartly took a taxi which was worth every Sol.

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Sacsayhuaman ruins in Cusco

The evening of our third night in Cusco, we met with Alpaca Expeditions where we paid the remainder due for our trek to Machu Picchu, met with the family of four that would be joining us, met our guide, received instructions for the next day, and received the duffel bag that would remain with us for the trek although carried by porters during the day. We were all looking forward to the trek and ultimately to seeing Machu Picchu.

After we returned to Cusco from our Lares Trek to Machu Picchu, we went to hike the famous Rainbow Mountain, or locally known as Montaña de Siete Colores (aka Vinicunca). This was the one specific thing my daughter requested (insisted) we do in Cusco, although I was a bit skeptical after reading some of the reviews and blog posts about it. We booked our tour locally rather than online from the US and saved a ton of money by doing that; however, we didn’t do much research and just randomly chose a tour company, which maybe wasn’t the best idea (our so-called English-speaking guide barely spoke English but luckily we spoke enough Spanish to be fine).

Rainbow Mountain, while definitely worth doing, wasn’t even the best part of the day, in my opinion, but I’ll back up before I go there. We had yet another early morning wake-up (a consistent theme for us in Peru) in order to be picked up by the driver at 4:30 am and after driving around for another hour to pick up the other people (so much for a “guaranteed” small group) we finally began the drive to Rainbow Mountain.

After an hour and a half we stopped for “breakfast” at a roadside restaurant that didn’t have heat where they sat us (and was freezing at the early morning hour) and we had what amounted to about a half an egg, some bread with jam, and tea. Good thing our hotel packed a breakfast for us to take with us when we left that morning! We drove another hour and a half and reached Rainbow Mountain. We were given a wooden pole (better than nothing but by no means a walking pole) by our guide and were told to be sure to be back at the van in four hours at 1 pm. There was no commentary about the area, no information given, nothing other than I’ll see you later!

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Rainbow Mountain

I’ll tell you something about Rainbow Mountain you may already suspect- it’s extremely crowded. The majority of the walk there was pretty easy although it was at 17,060 feet at the peak (starting altitude is 14,189 feet), that is, until the final 400 meters, where it went straight up and I was huffing and puffing to get my breath. One of the women from our group wasn’t acclimated to the elevation and was having a really difficult time before she even reached the climax of the climb. There are horses there you can pay to take you up the mountain to the base of the final steep point, however, and many people were taking part in that.

We chose to pay the extra admission fee to Red Valley, which is adjacent to Rainbow Mountain, and I liked that even more than Rainbow Mountain. When you’re walking through Red Valley, you can see all of the colors of the earth one at a time as you walk along, including black, white, red, brown, green, white, and purple. It may sound easy to hike back down the mountain, but I actually found that part even more difficult than going up. You pretty much slide down the mountainside, trying not to fall (although many people around me fell multiple times) while you “walk” down loose rocks and/or sand. On the way back to Cusco, we stopped at the same place where we stopped for breakfast for lunch that consisted of mediocre soup, baked chicken on skewers, salad, bread, red jello (really?), and some vegetables. Our guide also gave us a very brief talk about Rainbow Mountain that didn’t contain any information I didn’t already know.

On our final day in Cusco we discovered what I wish we had known about for the first part of our time in Cusco:  Avenida el Sol. This part of Cusco had a very different feel from the rest of the city to me. It felt more modern, cleaner, with more locals and less tourists. In addition to the shops, restaurants, cafes, and hotels, there is a nice mural and a large market where you can buy local items (sweaters and other clothing, jewelry, artwork, etc.). Maybe the best part is there were no baby alpacas on leashes held captive all day by women sitting around who want you to take their picture for a fee (absolutely horrible and illegal although it still happens).

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Some cool artwork on Avenida el Sol in Cusco

A note about the temperature in Cusco in relation to hotels and hostels. Cusco is quite chilly at night and in the mornings so if you go be sure to dress in layers. I wore a light down jacket and gloves at night and early mornings when we were out and was comfortable but would have been cold in anything less. The hotels and hostels also often don’t have heating on par with what you’d find in the United States. I found our hotel room, which was the basement of the building to be downright freezing and the space heater they gave us was useless. Although our accommodation had two-bedrooms, two bathrooms with kitchen and sitting area for only $60/night, I “down-graded” us to a one-room, one-bathroom accommodation for $55/night that was higher up in the building in hopes that it would be warmer for our return stay after our trek to Machu Picchu. It was warmer but still not what I would consider warm, just tolerable. It’s not just me, either, I read review after review of multiple hotels where people said their room was too cold.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Cusco include La Bodega 138 (get the wood-fired pizza), Cafe Balkon Azul (phenomenal service and food), El Paisa (great seafood, huge portions, and good drinks), and Deli Monasterio. Nuna Raymi was good but the server was too pushy with the drinks, appetizers, and desserts and it was very loud when we were there (I realize this isn’t always going to be the case). View House Restobar has amazing views of the city but the service is notoriously horrible if you’re going for food (I heard nearby Limbus Restobar is great but they were closed when we went there).

If you want to book a trek from Cusco to Machu Picchu, I highly recommend going with Alpaca Expeditions. There are literally hundreds of options but I found Alpaca to far exceed my expectations, which were set pretty high.

Have you been to Cusco, Peru? If so, what did you think of the city and its people? Were you as surprised as I was to see how big of a city it is?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Lima, Peru- The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

If you fly to Peru from the United States, you pretty much have to go through Lima, although I know you can sometimes fly directly into Cusco (perhaps other cities as well, but I’m not sure). On a recent visit to Peru, we flew into and out of Lima. On the first day we arrived in the evening, took a cab to our hotel, walked around the area surrounding our hotel for a few hours, took a cab back to the airport and flew to Cusco. All was good so I’ll start there.

Our hotel was in the Miraflores section of Lima. From everything I had read before going to Peru, Miraflores is the place to be in Lima. I found a pretty nice small property in Miraflores that offered free breakfast. It was clean and the breakfast was good. We enjoyed our time walking around Miraflores, with the ocean views, stopped for lunch at a cute little restaurant that was tasty, walked around a little more, then asked our hotel to call a cab for us to the airport.

We spent almost two weeks exploring the Highlands area of Peru, including Cusco, Machu Picchu, Aquas Calientes, and Ollantaytambo, then we flew to Arequipa and explored that area before we flew back to Lima. We had an afternoon flight from Arequipa, landing in Lima around 4:30. Since our flight back home wasn’t until 1 am, we thought we could explore Lima that evening instead of staying in the airport for several hours.

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Miraflores region in Lima, Peru

I found an airport storage facility where we could store our luggage. After a few wrong turns in the airport, and being told by airport workers they had no idea what we were talking about when we asked for directions, we finally found the place. We gave them our bags, saw them whisk them away into lockers, got a receipt, and went back outside to hail a cab.

Now for the bad part of the story. We had learned from earlier experiences you must ask before you even get into the cab how much the fare would be and how long the ride would be from taxi drivers in Peru, since none of them have meters. After settling on a reasonable price with a driver who was wearing taxi credentials and being told it would take about 40-50 minutes, we were off to Miraflores. Then things started going downhill.

At first the cab ride to Miraflores was uneventful, if you consider traffic in Lima to be uneventful that is. On the best day, traffic is insane in Lima. It’s more the norm than the exception to have several near-misses with other cars and buses, and the drivers usually will speed up all of a sudden, only to slam on the brakes two minutes later, and/or jerk the car suddenly.

After maybe 10 or 15 minutes in the cab, we could see things were not going well. The driver told us the ride would take more like 2 hours to get to Miraflores (we knew that was a lie). He also told us it would take longer to go by the beach than through the city (also a lie) and he would have to pay a toll if he went by the beach (also a lie), which would cost us more money. He kept insisting that all of this was true and we would have to pay 10 soles more than we agreed to at the beginning, which we of course disputed with him.

After about a 45-50 minute ride (which we noticed he took some crazy turns simply to add on time, and even questioned him about but he blew it off like it was nothing), we could see on Google maps that we were close to where we wanted to go. I should add that he pretended to only know how to speak Spanish, but by now it was apparent he knew more English than he put on, because he laughed when my daughter made a sarcastic remark about him in English.

When we were close to getting out of the cab, he informed my husband that he didn’t have any change and required exact change only. He went so far as to pull out his wallet (a fake one, I’m sure) to show my husband that his wallet was empty. Luckily my husband had a bill small enough that the difference was only $1.50, so he threw the bill at the cab driver, saying “Take your blood money!” and we all got out, glad to be out of that car.

By this time, we were all pretty worked up and didn’t even feel like doing the shopping and walking around that we had planned. We just found a restaurant, had dinner (it was fine but nothing special and certainly not worth the cab ride), found another cab for the ride back to the airport (this guy was honest and fair and did everything he was supposed to do), picked up and paid for our luggage from the storage place, went through security, and waited for our plane.

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Surfers in Lima

And now for the ugly part of the story. Since we had a 1 am flight out of Lima, it wasn’t until we reached Atlanta several hours later that I went to pull out my cell phone from my backpack. It was missing. I thought maybe I had inadvertently stuck it in my other bag and told myself I would empty out everything at home and surely it would be there. It wasn’t. My cell phone was obviously stolen by someone at the luggage storage company at the airport. I’m positive it was in my backpack when we stored our things there and since we never check our luggage, other than storing my two bags at the Lima airport, they were with me the entire time.

I tried to find contact information for the storage company but only found an email that I’m not even sure is the same place, but I sent an email anyway, telling them my phone was missing from my backpack that was stored there. Of course I didn’t get a reply back and I don’t expect to. I called my cell phone company, explained what happened and got a new phone. As far as I can tell now, everything is OK. My phone didn’t have a locator on it, but you can be assured my next one will. It was at least password-protected and it was a piece of crap that I hated, so there is that as well.

So yes, I think Lima is a pretty awful city and would not spend any time there ever again. I loved Peru and would definitely go back again. Unfortunately you have to go through Lima airport to fly to the places I want to go back to so I’ll just plan on spending however long the layover is in the airport and not leaving. Also, I wouldn’t judge a city just by a couple of bad people, but we talked to someone in Arequipa that was from Lima. He told us Lima is a very dangerous place, filled with theft, corruption, and people are even sometimes kidnapped. No, thank you.

Have you been to Lima, Peru? What was your experience if so? Have you been to a city while you were traveling and you had a bad experience?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru

I’m planning a vacation for myself and my family to go to Machu Picchu next year. If you’ve never been, I can tell you it’s almost overwhelming (well, it really is overwhelming, not almost) how many choices and options there are. I’ve planned vacations for the last couple of decades and haven’t been phased at all by places like Chile (even the middle of nowhere Chile), New Zealand with all of its options, or Malta (a place most Americans have never even heard of). Peru, however, is proving to be a bit more difficult, shall we say, simply because of all of the options.

Just about the only place I know for sure we will be going to is Machu Picchu. From there, the choices are who to go with for our group tour, and from there, how do we want to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu. There are options to camp in tents for anywhere from a few nights to 10 days, hiking along the way. There are options to just take the train in and take a guided tour for a few hours. Then there are options for which trek to do, if you want to camp and hike with a guided tour. I can see why many people just take the train in and do the guided tour of Machu Picchu for the day; that would be the easiest way.

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Beautiful Machu Picchu in Peru

However, if you know me at all, you know I don’t take the easiest way, nor do I take the route most traveled (most of the time, although I have been to more popular places as well). I often go to places where people will ask me beforehand, “Why are you going there?” or “Where is that?” Although I’ve been to popular places like Rome and Miami (and of course no one ever asked why I was going there), I like to venture off the beaten path a bit. Hence, I’ve chosen to take the Lares Route instead of the most popular classic Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. As far as I can tell, the three most popular choices if you want to do some hiking are the Lares Route, the classic Inca Trail, and Salcantay Route. There is also a one-day Inca Trail, the strenuous Vilcabamba Traverse Route, the Lodge Trek, and the Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail.

What I like about the Lares Route is it’s not quite as crowded as the classic Inca Trail and the trek passes through small villages so you get to see some of the artisans and farmers in person. There are also hot springs (what’s not to like about that after a long day of hiking). There are a couple of options for the Lares route: 2 nights of camping in tents and two nights in hotels along the way to Machu Picchu or 2 nights in tents and 1 night in a hotel before reaching Machu Picchu. I didn’t want to get to Machu Picchu, only to be so tired from not sleeping well in a tent for the past 6 nights and not be able to fully enjoy the star of the show!

So now the major remaining question is what do we do with the rest of our time in Peru? We have a couple of weeks, plus or minus a few days to spend in Peru. I know we’ll fly into Lima and probably just spend a night there before flying to Cusco. I also know we should acclimatize to the elevation in Cusco for a few (I’m thinking three) days before beginning the Lares Route to Machu Picchu. Then what to do after that? Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, looks pretty awesome, and by then we should be used to the elevation. That would add one day. I thought about going to Huacachina from Lima and spending a night there, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it. We’ve been to the amazing sand dunes in the Canary Islands, so it’s not like we’ve never seen a place like this before.

I’ve heard of other people tacking on the Galapagos Islands to Machu Picchu because of the somewhat near proximity (all things relative), but that’s not something I want to do. I’d rather focus on Peru on this trip and go to the Galapagos Islands at another time. My family and I love hiking, beaches, mountains, and historical sites. If you have any ideas for some things to do around Lima or Cusco, I’d love to hear them! Also, two of the three of us suffer from pretty bad motion sickness so while airplanes are usually fine (with medicine), boats aren’t a great idea for us.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like? Have you been to Peru but not Machu Picchu? Where did you go and what did you see? Please help me plan my vacation to Peru! All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Happy travels!

Donna