The 20-Something Commitment-Phobe’s Guide to Backpacking Southern Peru
(spur-of-the-moment horseback ride in Cusco)
Don’t Plan Ahead
When I backpacked through Europe, arriving in a city sans hostel was often very stressful. It left me willing to settle on the first hostel I came across no matter the price or condition. Since I’d never visited Peru, and since we had a stricter schedule, we booked almost every single thing in advance — hostels/planes/buses/activities/tours. As it turns out, we didn’t need to do any of that, and luckily we were able to drop a lot of our plans and work through Peru much more freely.
Everyone wants to feed/house/help you somehow. In Arequipa, we arrived and just went searching for a hostel. There are an abundance of policewomen and we found them extremely helpful and generous. This is how we found our cheapest and favorite places…places that don’t have an online presence.
Now I know searching for a hostel upon arrival isn’t everyone’s cup of coca tea (and I would never suggest doing that in Lima)…but there are many other ways to take advantage of this “travel freedom” in Peru. Local buses are an adventure. They seem to always be running to all cities and they are very reasonably priced (I took a 7 hour bus for $5 that I booked that very morning). Take buses, mottos, combis, and even taxis. Just be open minded, and know that, on a bus, you may not get a seat.
As for tours, you can typically set up any tour a day or two before it happens…even to Machu Picchu. Tour groups can be very hit or miss though, so ask fellow travelers or your hostel if they have any recommendations.
(the Colca Canyon)
Know what you want to do and when you’ll be in which cities, but besides that, travel and plan freely. ■
Okay, easier said than done I know. But seriously, this is a big one. If you can, take someone with you who speaks Spanish, or at the very least spend several weeks before you go brushing up on conversational Spanish. I’m talking simple things like “how old are you,” ”what do you do,” ”is it near or far,” ”what do you enjoy doing around here?” If you’re familiar with any romance language, you’ll be able to catch on easily.
I traveled with my cousin, Austin, who is fluent in Spanish. It made a huge difference in our experience. (Almost) everyone we met was extremely nice and more than willing to help or just share their lives. As soon as someone opened up to us, it felt like a huge gap was bridged and it was easy to see that our lives aren’t so completely different. ■
(our sweet friend Mirabel who we befriended outside a restaurant thanks to a little Spanish)
Go Big at Machu Picchu
Since it was sort of obvious we would see Machu Picchu, I didn’t spend much time researching it. We bought our tickets from this website (after a lot of hassle), and only managed thanks to this wonderful step-by-step guide. We also purchased Huayna Picchu tickets just for the hell of it even though neither of us really knew what it was all about.
Two things to note here…1. Go big or go home. If you are seeing Machu Picchu, plan to either do the Inca Trail, climb Huayna Picchu (the big mountain in the picture above), or climb Machu Picchu (the mountain on the other side of the ruins). Don’t get me wrong, the actual ruins were amazing and we took a fascinating tour where we learned a lot of their history. But if we hadn’t randomly decided to hike Huayna Picchu, I think I would have been a little underwhelmed by Machu Picchu.
It takes a lot of effort to get there, including taking expensive (albeit lovely) trains, staying in the all but shitty town of Agues Calientes, and jumping through a few other various hoops. All I’m saying is it’s a trial in itself just to get to Machu Picchu so you want to get the best bang for your buck. Take a tour, climb the mountains, and sneak snacks in so you can spend all day there. Once you’re done and can barely move (like us), you can take a nap in a field with some llamas (while eating dried coca leafs from a nice German man and getting a knee-high sunburn on your legs).
Wow what a ramble…I forgot what my #2 was…no seriously… oh yeah, doing Machu Picchu without a guided tour. There are many tour agencies that will book everything for you so you can go enjoy Machu Picchu with much less thought. We decided to do it by ourselves so we could go at our own pace/choose our own hostels/be without a large group/etc. And though it was a bit of a hassle, I think it was the right choice. But if you are going it alone just to save money forget it. We probably only saved $100 in the long run. There is really too much to say on this subject so If you have more questions about doing Machu Picchu alone, please email me. ■
(just hanging at the crest of Huayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”); this really is a once-in-a-lifetime view)
Don’t Feel Bad if you Don’t Love the Food
Clearly I love food…more than half this blog is about eating. So I was extremely excited about trying Peruvian food. I went really hard the first 3 days and even took an awesome cooking class. I was popping alpaca and alfajores and potatoes like there was no tomorrow. And then tomorrow came…and I was gonna beat some ass if I found one more fry in my rice.
(1/5000 types of potatoes in Peru)
Peruvian food is very heavy and often very fatty. A very common meal is alpaca saltada (or a version of that) which is white rice with french fries mixed in, plus alpaca and vegetables. After my three days of binging I couldn’t even look at the stuff, and I spent many subsequent meals eating some delicious pasta and some mediocre pizza.
(el mercado - Cusco)
If you get a little burnt out, don’t worry, there are many delicious options. Do take advantage of all the fresh food Peru has to offer. Exotic fruits and vegetables abound. Might I suggest the lucuma (tastes like cookie dough), maracuyà, grenadilla, and the chirimoya, to name a few. Almost everything in Peru is organic. Take a stop at the juice stands in the markets; they’ll mix anything together for you.
There are also some delicious sandwich places that will make you feel like you are dining at a trendy spot in NY, but for Chick-fil-a prices. Jack’s in Cusco and especially La Lucha in Lima (I seriously can’t recommend this last one enough) are some great options. I could go on and on about food though so feel free to email me if you have specific question.
And eat the picante Inka Chips…and then send me some because I’m having painful withdrawals ■
This sounds harsh. And if you have time and money, yes, you should see the floating islands. All I’m saying is if you are sitting down right now, thoughtfully planning out your trip to Peru and find yourself needing to scratch something off the itinerary…make it Puno. To be brief, the town is ugly and seemingly seedy. There’s nothing to look at besides the lake which didn’t even blow my mind. And the floating islands leave a BIG something to be desired. They come off as very fake…especially when, during my 2 hour tour, approximately 4 minutes were devoted to history/explanation, and the rest of the time was spent shuffling us around to the “president’s” shop, and the cafés, and the markets.
(freezing on the floating islands)
Anyways, everyone says you should go to the Bolivian side of the lake instead. ■
Beware of Lima
Yes, safety in Lima is an issue and we did find ourselves in a less than satisfactory situation our first night there…but this isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m saying beware of what the guidebooks say about Lima. This is when I wish Rick Steves did a series on South America…he’s always honest. If a place is worth skipping, he’ll tell you. Sure that place probably has some great things, but if you have a limited amount of time, it’s good to have an honest opinion. Guide books have to write something nice…and yes Lima can be nice. We stayed in Lima proper 1 night (do NOT bother unless you’re going to stay directly in the center) and in Miraflores for 2 nights.
I was excited to see Miraflores but when we got there I felt less like we were in Peru, and more like we were in NYC. It wasn’t the Peru I’d grown to love for the previous 3 weeks. We saw the beach, and watched some paragliders, and ate at the best restaurant ever…but in terms of time spent enjoying and experiencing the Peru I love, it was a waste. If you can skip it, I say do it. All flights from America will take you through Lima, but in my humble opinion, you should just book a flight right back out of there. ■
Try to Stay Healthy
We had a very hard time staying 100% healthy during our stay. Most of the time we had sinus issues and coughs, and one day I was sick in bed. But here are a few words of advice. 1 – Be easy on yourself. You’ll want to push yourself to do and see as much as possible while in Peru. But listen to your body and try to avoid staying in places for only 1 day. Traveling too much really takes it out of you. 2 – Be careful with the alcohol drinking in high altitude places like Cusco. Seriously, two drinks will put you out of commission the next day. Now is not the time to test your boundaries here. 3 – Drink lots and lots and lots of water, and then some. ■
(Colca Canyon - make sure you are healthy and well rested before attempting this guy)
Soak It In
It’s going to be a truly unbelievable experience! ■
(on the ruins in Ollantaytambo)