The following blog was written by daughter; it is a reflection of her journeys through Peru on a budget. I hope you enjoy this wonderful piece of travel writing!
The Perfect Week in Peru- Done on a Budget!
Being recently graduated and adventure seeking nurses, we knew we wanted to travel to Peru and hit all the essentials but we didn’t want to break the bank. After reading about the country, choosing what we wanted to do, and simply ‘winging it;’ we have come up with what we believe is the perfect week in Peru!
Traveling to Machu Picchu is not the easiest destination. For most visitors traveling to Machu Picchu means traveling to Aguas Calientes – the nearest village at the base of the mountain. You can get there a few ways:
• By train from Cusco
• Walk the highly regulated Inca Trail
(Both of these options are seriously overpriced. The train is even assumed to be the most expensive train per kilometer in the world costing hundreds of dollars.)
• Book a multi-day adventure trek, worth around $200-250.
• There is however another option that most people do not even know of, and that is to go independently for less than $85
In this blog, we explain step by step how to find your way to the Machu Picchu, see rainbow mountain, raft, zip line, and hit the essentials of Cusco! We will not only show you how to do it by yourself, but most importantly how to do it for CHEAP! Overall for the entire trip, we spent about $250 American dollars (Not including the flight). But, this price includes all travel in Peru: food, water, housing, souvenirs, tours, etc.
Quick Peru Tips and Tricks! Traveling for Cheap!
1. Bring a mix of American dollars and if possible bring the most crisp and new bills you have. The exchange stations are VERY picky. They do not take $1 bills and they prefer higher value bills ($20’s and $50’s) if your money is too worn or ripped in anyway, they will not take it.
2. Wait to buy tour group tickets (rafting, rainbow mountain, Cusco tour, etc.) until you arrive. Prepaying from the US means you’ll pay 10x more. We ended up paying $15 American dollars to raft and zip line for the day and it was $65 if we prepaid. We spent part of our first day asking prices at various places….there are TONS of tour groups around Cusco so don’t worry about finding one.
3. When budgeting don’t forget to budget water… We spent about 10 soles a day on water.
4. If you don’t know Spanish, know your numbers well. Many locals tried up charging us until they realized we knew some Spanish.
5. Spend at least one Sunday in Cusco- During most months they have a weekly festival celebrating the town itself and it is amazing to see
6. Pack Towels- The hostel likely will not provide you one
7. When first trying a Cusco hostel, only purchase one night. We prepaid to make it cheaper but later found out it was located directly next to a club so we had a hard time falling asleep with the noise
8. Bring toilet paper…there is no such things a public bathrooms and if you do find a bathroom there is NEVER toilet paper
9. Pack layers!! The weather in Cusco changes quickly and the temperature greatly drops at night
Day by Day Trip Details:
Arrive in Cusco
Get to Plaza de Armas
Find a hostel
Get bus tickets
Get MP tickets
Tour tickets- Rainbow Mountain and rafting
How we did it:
Get yourself a flight to Cusco! We ended up flying into El Salvador and getting a connecting flight to Cusco. When you walk out of the airport in Cusco, prepare to be bombarded with locals offering you over priced rides to the town. We paid 22 soles but we honestly could have gotten it cheaper! The way back to the airport we only paid 6 soles
We took the taxi to Plaza de Armas and it was DEAD….just a tip, if you arrive before 10am there will be nobody around. Peruvians are late sleepers.
You can get MP tickets online ahead of time or you can wait until you are in the city. We got them once we arrived! The office is located inside the Cultural Centre off Pachacutec, just off the main square on Calle Garcilaso! This was a little challenging to find but if you go to the main square with the water fountain (not far from plaza de armas) you are close! The street it is located on looks like a small alley. The office is open from 5:15am to 8:45pm daily. Be sure to have your passport and student ID (they do student discounts) with you and know if you plan to do additional hiking. We purchased tickets to MP and Montana, which is the mountain over looking MP. This sells out fast since they only allow 200 people a day. NOTE: you can purchase tickets through travel agencies, but they upcharge on everything. You will save a lot of money waiting until Cusco.
Next you need to get a bus ticket for the day you plan to travel to MP. We took a taxi to the Santiago bus terminal, which should only cost you 5 soles. When you walk in be prepared for the locals to be yelling in attempts to get your business. We talked to a few companies but they all have similar prices. You need to get a ticket toward Quillabamba (but you will get out at Santa Maria- more on this later). You should only have to pay 15 soles per person for this ticket. Try to take the earliest bus possible because this is a long day of travel (5-6 hours on the bus).
We walked back from the bus station so that we could see the local markets. Take the rest of your day to enjoy the city! There is a lot near the San Pedro market as far as food and souvenirs go.
To find a hostel we just walked up and down the streets and asked prices at each one we saw. The farther you are from the main square the cheaper it will be. Don’t settle on the first one you see because there are a lot of hidden gems. Also don’t be afraid to bargain! We stayed at one not far from Plaza de Armas across from a hotel for 25 soles a night called hostel caceres. It was a tiny open courtyard style hostel with private rooms and shared bathrooms but the rooms locked! Be sure you ask about locked storage when you are picking a hostel, many say they offer it but don’t truly have it. This place had rooms that locked and a locked storage room to use if you ask. Also don’t be afraid to ask to see the rooms! NOTE: Bring towels if you have room while packing! Most hostels do not have towels to use.
Take bus to Santa Maria
Hike to Aguas Calientes along tracks
How we did it:
Be sure to arrive to your bus early! Peruvians don’t necessarily follow the times on the tickets. When we got there we found out our bus was cancelled so we had to quickly buy tickets through another group. Just be warned that the bus could leave early, late, or not at all. Leave yourself some extra time! The taxi from the plaza to Santiago is about 15 minutes with traffic. Once on the bus, the ride is about 5-6 hours. We did stop in Quillabamba for the bathroom and snacks about 2 hours in. NOTE: You can get off here and start the hike on the tracks. If you do this it will be about 19 miles of hiking before you reach MP. We stayed on the bus which travels over the mountains. This can be a little terrifying with the way the drivers hug the edges and travel at quick speeds but you’ll survive, its part of the journey.
Occasionally along the way locals would hop on and sell full cakes, popcorn, and banana chips for cheap! You get to see the true Peruvian locals on this travel journey so enjoy the culture.
The bus will stop in a small town called Santa Maria. The driver calls out at arrival so once you get close to the 5 hour mark be prepared to get off. The bus does continue on so this stop is easy to miss. When you get off locals will again bombard you asking you if you need a ride. You need a ride to hydroelectric. There are collectivos (vans) and some locals drive their own cars. We paid 15 soles a person for a car. The car stopped temporarily in Santa Teresa and then continued on. This ride is easy, when the road ends, its time to get out. It takes about 1 hour to get there. This journey is on a small gravel road and the drivers yet again go too fast and get too close to the edge for comfort so be prepared! For our journey, the driver had people sitting in the trunk…there is nothing formal about this drive.
About 5 minutes before you get to the end, you’ll have to get out of the car and sign in at a check point. Be sure to have your passport ready. After a few more minutes you will be at the end. Now the real trek begins. Head toward the trains and you’ll see the tracks to follow. There will be other backpackers at this point so the direction to go should be obvious. There will be locals selling more food on your left and the train on your right. This goes for about a ½ mile before it seems like it ends….at this point you will see a dirt trail going up a hill. Follow the trail up. You will only be on this for a few minutes and you will come up to the main train tracks. TURN LEFT. When we were here there was much debate on which direction to go! You will be on these tracks for 6 miles. These tracks have trains that come every couple of hours so be cautious when walking!
Some of the tour groups do cut off the tracks early Keep going….you will go through 2 (long and dark) tunnels before you reach the town of Aguas Calientes. (We later found out the tour groups are not allowed to go through the tunnels for liability.)
We found a hostel down an alley not far from the main road (on the map it was just passed the bus stop) called angel. Again don’t settle for the first one you see. Ours was awesome, it was more like a low end hotel than a hostel….private bathroom and bedrooms with locking doors for 25 soles a night!
There is plenty of places to choose for food! They do 3 course meals for 15 soles and if you are cheap like us you can bargain for no drink and get it for 12 soles!
What we did:
Get an early start. We started at 5:30am! NOTE: Pack head lamps! The majority of the town will be up since almost everyone there is a tourist! There will be a line at the bus stop (4 on the map). Follow the bus route down the main hill along the river, be sure not to follow the train tracks, you will just cross them. Just before the bridge there will be a MP sign and a guard to check your passport. Once you cross the bridge you’ll see a trail sign pointing toward the right. This started the hike up the stairs to MP.
This is a hard hike and it will take about 2 hours to get to the top.
At the top you’ll see all the lazy tourists in their jackets, hats and gloves. If you are like us you’ll be drenched in sweat wearing shorts and a tank top. NOTE: Trust us when we say to wear layers. The weather in Peru changes quick and having options is a must. You can tell the people who hiked and the people who decided to take the bus. After asking one of the guards we found out that over 5,000 people visit MP and day and only about 200 actually hike it!
We also hiked Montana which I highly recommend. This did cost more but it was well worth it (These tickets are purchased with your MP tickets as noted before!). This hike is a lot longer and harder than we thought but the view was insane. We hiked through the clouds and overlooked MP. Be sure you bring snacks if you add this hike; we were starving once we got to the top. This hike took us about 2 hours!
We spent the rest of the day enjoying the ruins and exploring the grassy llama covered grounds! We ended up hiking down at about 2pm because we were so hungry. If you plan to spend all day at MP bring extra food and water.
There are also hot springs in the town of Aguas Calientes but we spent most of our night searching for ice cream and dinner options ☺ While AC has less options for street food, there were tons of cheap restaurants with burgers, pizza, pasta, and llama!
Journey back to Cusco
What we did:
We again started early because of the long trip back. We headed out of our hostel at about 6am and reversed our steps from a few days before. We hiked along the tracks (be sure to stock on water before leaving- we found that the hotels sell water cheaper than the markets in AC). Enjoy the walk back, there is nothing quiet like it. The hike is filled with fun adventures, scary bridges, and lots of wildlife. The trickiest part of the trip back is remembering where to turn off the tracks to get to hidroelectirca. For us we remembered a short open tunnel and not long after was the dirt trail heading down toward the river (I vaguely remember a chain link fence not far from the trail too).
At the same spot where you originally got out of the car there will be locals waiting to provide a ride. You will likely have a wait a while to get a ride back because they do not leave until the car is full. We paid 40 soles a person which covered the ride to Santa Maria as well as a collectivo ride back to Cusco so that we didn’t have to deal with the bus. I personally would recommend just getting a ride to Santa Maria and then asking around at the collectivos for prices back to Cusco. They up charged us for combining the rides and we easily could have gotten it cheaper. From talking with other tourists on the bus, they paid 5 soles to get to Santa Maria and then 20 soles back to Cusco.
Our collectivo dropped us off in Santiago and to save time we paid 5 soles for a taxi to the main square. Keep in mind that Peruvians do their own thing. The collectivo dropped us off in the middle of a busy road and not actually in Cusco which is why we took the taxi to make getting back easier, but we easily could have taken the 30 minutes to walk and saved some soles.
Rafting + Zip line tour
What we did:
This was a tour we booked through one of the MANY companies in Cusco. This one was located inside the courtyard portion of our hostel. Don’t be afraid to bargain for these trips, we ended up only paying about $15 American dollars. A collectivo picked us up from the hostel and we drove about 2 hours to begin the rafting. The rafting was Class III and IV and lasted for about 1.5 hours. While it may seem short, the water was brutally cold so we didn’t mind! This company provided everything from the ride, raft, wet suits, food, etc. After the rafting we were fed lunch (which was delicious) and then we suited up for the zip line portion. Again, all of this equipment was provided. They give you a brief lesson and then we went on two zip line courses across the river! I definitely recommend this tour, you get to raft through the mountains and experience a different side of Peru! We were back to Cusco by dinner time which gave us plenty of time to finish out the night in the city!
San Pedro Market
Streets of Cusco
What we did:
We left this day open so that we had time to see and enjoy the city without being on a schedule! We walked up and down the streets of Cusco exploring the more local areas while also stopping in the numerous tourist shops. If you can make your free day be a Sunday you will be able to see the weekly festival that the city puts on. They do this for no apparent reason besides to celebrate the city.
Since this was toward the end of our trip, we had found our favorite food shops so we of course stopped by the café to stock up on chocolate Danishes and caramel cones, both highly recommend and delish! Don’t even get us started on the street churros and the fresh smoothies! You will even see some of the locals walking around with baby llamas for tourists to hold and pet!
What we did:
We did an all day excursion to rainbow mountain through one of the companies located inside our hostel. We were picked up at 4am and took a 3 hour bus ride where we stopped for breakfast cooked by locals. Rainbow mountain is comprised of numerous colors, the stratigraphic layers of the Ausangate mountain is largely due to weathering and mineralogy. This is a very difficult stop to get to without using a tour group. While you can hike it from Cusco, it can take up to 6 days.
The day hike brings you to the colorful peak at over 14,000 feet. The terrain greatly changes from the start point as you climb up dirt trails through grassy and red rock mountains. NOTE: They do offer horses that can bring you up a portion of the mountain for about 100 soles. The temperature quickly plummets as you make your way up. Within the last 100 yards of the climb, the temperatures dropped to below freezing (which we were not prepared for). We defiantly recommend layers, hats, and gloves. They do have a few locals at the top offering coca tea for altitude sickness and other snacks. The weather changes so drastically in this portion of Peru that they recommend being off the mountain by 12pm. As we were making our decent, it started hailing on us. The tour also offered a supply of oxygen for those who felt light headed at the top of the mountain.
We highly recommend this trip, but it is a very long day. Again, we recommend buying this trip once in Cusco to save money!
½ day in Cusco
What we did:
Our last day we spent in Cusco fitting in a few stops we didn’t have a chance to make it too and hitting our favorites again. We walked outside the main square to get a taxi and only paid 6 soles to get to the airport.
– The Travel Pact –