You can do this trek independently or join a tour. Prices vary from USD $150 to $600 and more. I of course went with the lower end of the spectrum but was not disappointed. 17 people from different countries hiked, slept, partied and cheered together, making it one of the most fun moments of my trip. Read more about my Salkantay experience here.
The 4D/3N Lares trek is a less popular alternative – but that doesn’t make it any worse. It is a totally different trek that brings you to indigenous communities to meet and interact with the local people, and later to Machu Picchu. It is ideal for those who want to immerse themselves in the local culture.
The Choquequirao trek is a 4D/3N that brings you to the archaeological ruins of Choquequirao – the Lost City of the Incas.
Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao was never discovered by the conquistadors and remains relatively untouched. Unlike Machu Picchu, Choquequirao receives around 30 visitors per day (compared to 3000).
That’s because the only way to Choquequirao is to trek 2 days down and across a canyon and up the other side, and another 2 to return. There is no direct road access.
It is also one of the toughest treks in the Cusco region. There are plans to build a cable-car system that would bring the masses to the ruins. Get there before others do.
It can also be combined with Machu Picchu for the ultimate 9-day trekking experience.
Even more isolated than the Choquequirao trek is the 5D/4N trek to Vilcabamba, commonly referred to as the ‘Last Refuge of the Incas’. It is believed that it was here the Incas were able to elude the Spaniards for more than 30 years.
The trek to the Espíritu Pampa ruins (‘the plain of ghosts’) is said to be extremely challenging, going from the high Andean mountain ranges to the dense Amazon jungle, passing by many ruins along the way. It is by far the most remote trail.
This 5D/4N trek is not to Machu Picchu, but around the beautiful Andean mountain range of the Cusco region. The trek brings you to the feet of the mountain Apu Ausangate, which is the highest in the Cusco region at 6372m.
Be awed by the beauty of nature as you walk along snow-capped peaks, llama herds, indigenous villages and glacier lakes.
You'll also get to see Vinicunca - the Rainbow Mountain. This is the 'authentic way' of visiting the 7 coloured mountain, say the hardcore trekkers.
Not technically at or around Cusco, you still see lots of tour agencies offering trips to the Amazon via Puerto Maldonado.
The city of Puerto Maldonado is a 10-hours bus drive from Cusco (or 1 hour by plane) and the base for exploring the Manu National Park, the ‘southern part’ of the Amazon rainforest.
While Iquitos is the undisputable place to absorb the culture of the people of the Amazon, Puerto Maldonado is known for its wildlife spotting and jungle lodges.
It is a good alternative to Iquitos for those that want to avoid the heat, chaos and touristic trap of Iquitos.
The grand-daddy of them all.
The reason everyone comes to Cusco.
The icon of Peru and the icon of South America.
The New Wonder of the World.
Nothing much has to be said about these ruins. However touristy they might be, they are still worth a visit.
Things to Note in Cusco
If you're staying in Cusco for more than a couple of days and intend to visit many of the attractions, consider getting the Cusco Tourist Ticket (Boleto Turistico del Cusco).
This is an integral ticket that allows you to visit 14 major sites in Cusco and comprises of a few circuits.
The Full Circuit pass is a 10-day pass (PEN $130, Nov, 2017) that allows access to the following sites:
A student price for the Full Pass is PEN $70 and you have to be under 25 years old. They take the age limit seriously: the lady took a calculator and counted my age.
If you do not intend to stay for 10 days or not visit all the attractions, you can buy partial tickets for each of the three circuits above for PEN $70.
Even though Cusco's airport is called an international airport, the only international flight it receives is from La Paz, Bolivia. If you're coming internationally, you're most likely to fly into Lima, the capital of Peru.
From Lima, you can take a domestic flight (1h 20min) or a bus (22 h) to Cusco.
It sounds crazy to be taking such a long bus ride but there are many attractions between Lima and Cusco like the desert oasis in Huacachina, the Nazca Lines and the Colca Canyon in Arequipa.
The bus terminals in Lima are far from everywhere and the transport system is confusing. A good option is to take the PeruHop bus, which lets you hop-on and hop-off along these cities, complete with English-speaking guides and movies, and ultra-tight safety precautions. If you're crossing the border from Bolivia, PeruHop helps with the border-crossing process, taking off all the hassle in the notoriously difficult border crossing. I took PeruHop when I crossed the border and it was a smooth process.
The altitude of Cusco is 3399m, something not to be taken lightly.
When I did the Rainbow Mountain hike, an oxygen tank was brought along as an emergency precaution.
Physical fitness, gender and age do not determine if you will get altitude sickness (except for heart or lung problems).
My advice is to spend a few days acclimatising in the city (perhaps doing a walking tour or checking out the museums) or even at lower elevations. Take it easy, take big breaths, drink lots of water, take Diamox etc.
Try to avoid alcohol the day before doing any strenuous activities like hiking.
If all else fails, you can always rely on the secret weapon of the natives coca tea.
As one of the most touristy cities in the world, there are an endless options of hostels and hotels to stay that accommodates all budget options. A quick search on booking.com showed me over 1000 hotels. There are party hostels, quiet apartments and luxurious 5-star hotels.
Personally I think a party hostel is not too ideal if you plan to do many treks as you have to wake up early for most treks and you wouldn't want to do them hungover (especially at high altitude). Even in a normal hostel, you could hardly get a good night's rest with other people waking up at 3am for tours.
I stayed in a private apartment along Av. Tullumayo, less than 10min walk from the main square but far away from all the noise and incessant massage offers. That street is full of extremely cheap local restaurants (PEN $3.50 to $5 for a lunch set!), laundry services and grocery shops. It is also just one street away from the Salsa school!
There's a well-equipped kitchen, three bedrooms, private bathrooms and a TV. Best of all, it is only USD $10/night and the owner, Orlando, doesn't care if you invite friends over. Better than a hostel! So, if you plan to stay longer, consider this apartment.
That was a long list of things to do in Cusco. I got reminded of why I fell in love with this city and spent so much time there, just by writing this.
I hope it helped you. Please share it if you think it’d be useful for at least one person.
And now, it’s your turn.