Click the dots on the map above to view pictures I have taken in these locations.
The land of the Incas and their hidden city of Machu Picchu. Although many people who visit Peru will only spend time in Cusco and the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, the country has so much more to offer.
I had the opportunity to spend three months living in Ollantaytambo, a small town about 30km from Machu Picchu. Living with a host family, I was able to experience first-hand the culture of the Andes. One can never tire of the views from the Sacred Valley, where the towering mountains rise up on all sides of you. There are very few times when walking around Ollantaytambo that you don’t have mountains in sight, whether you’re looking directly at them or with your peripheral vision. They’re that close.
When in the mountains, make sure to try chicha, a traditional corn fermented beer. In the Cusco region, you’ll know they are serving it by the red flag hanging outside their door. Doing this will provide one of the best experiences you can have as a traveler. Most likely, you’ll be sitting in someone’s dark, concrete floor kitchen with a wood-fire burning. You’ll sit down on an old, beaten up picnic table. “Una chicha, por favor” is all you’ll need to say. Out of the witches bowl and into your glass and onto the table. Afterward you’re done drinking, they’ll ask for you to pay. I typically paid about 1 sol ($0.35 USD) per glass. Just make sure you watch your feet as you walk out; you wouldn’t want to step on one of the guinea pigs!
Guinea pigs (“cuy” in spanish) are a delicacy in the Andes mountains. A normal family may keep anywhere from 5 to 15 guinea pigs to run around. But once a birthday comes around, they’ll probably only have 4 to 14 guinea pigs left. Yes, it’s typically served for birthdays, and sometimes for other special events. My host mother was kind enough to cook one up the day I left Ollantaytambo. To be honest, it tastes a bit like chicken but with much less meat. if you’re traveling through and want to try guinea pig, you can also buy them at some restaurants. They are relatively expensive, though, and will cost somewhere between $10-$20 USD. It’s worth a try.
Arequipa is a great place to go for the city and also the Colca Canyon (Cañón del Colca). Arequipa is called the White City for its stunning white-washed buildings in the city center. Like all major cities in Peru, it boasts a huge market where you can try all sorts of cooked food you’ve never seen before. Let’s be honest. It looks good, you’re tempted, but everyone has said that you’ll get sick if you eat the food. A simple rule of thumb, if there are a lot of other people eating it and seemingly enjoying the food, it’s going to be good. You’ll be surprised at how nice of a meal you’ll can have for $2.
Another thing I have to mention about the markets is to find the fresh juices! In every market in Peru (and many other countries in South America), there is a fresh juice section. Many times, there is a row of ten different vendors all selling the same thing, fresh fruit and vegetable juices made on the spot. Don’t be intimidated when they’re all yelling trying to get your business; they’re generally very sweet people. It’s just a general rule of a competitive market. There are ten sellers with the same product and the same prices, and there is you, the buyer. Don’t let their yelling intimidate you from getting one of the best juices you’ll ever taste. Don’t let the size of the glass fool you; if you stick around, they’ll usually fill up your glass again!
Other interesting activities in Arequipa are visiting the old Spanish monastery, visiting the beautiful central plaza, and trying some of the best chocolate in South America made by La Iberica. I’m not even a chocolate fanatic like many people, but I was hooked. They have a shop right by the central plaza.
One of the main reasons to visit Arequipa is to explore the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s largest canyons with a depth of 13,640 ft (4,160m), which is double that of the Grand Canyon. Several small towns are perched on the top part of the canyon, and a few towns are actually down in the canyon which is accessible by foot or mule. There are many places where you can hire a guide, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary. The trail is clear to follow, the path is traveled frequently, and it’s very easy to make your way towards the small towns below. A few key spots include the Cruz del Condor (watch condors with 10-foot wingspans glide above the canyon), spend time at riverside oasis of San Galle, and the after-hike relaxing in hot baths in Cabanaconde.
While in this area of Peru, I strongly recommending jumping on a bus over to Puno, the main Peruvian city with access to Lake Titicaca. There honestly isn’t much to do in Puno, but Lake Titicaca is an experience in itself. Sitting at an elevation of 12,500 ft (3,810m), it’s the highest navigable lake in the world. Many people take a one-day boat tour to the Uros Island, but don’t do that. Although cool to see, the real beauty of the lake is on Amantaní Island and Taquile Island. To visit these, you need to take an overnight trip which consists of a 3 hour boat ride (not including an hour stop at Uros) and a stay at Amantani with a host family. The host family provides 3 meals and a bed. I liked my host family, so I stayed a second night. I loved it. We had to use candles at night, the family made fresh baked bread in the mornings, and when they’d ask you what type of tea you wanted, they would then go pick it from outside and put it in hot water. And the sunsets. The island is shaped like an upside-down bowl, so you just walk up to the top to watch the sunset. I’ll never forget the way the yellow rays of sun reflected off the blue water and the surrounding mountains of Lake Titicaca, some were the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia.
Like I said, many people just do a day-tour of the Uros Islands. These man-made islands where the Uro people have lived for many years is fascinating, but they are extremely touristy, so much so that it gets to be awkward and even kind of funny. Don’t let that be your view of Lake Titicaca, and explore other islands!
The coastal region is worthwhile visiting if only for the ceviche! From what I saw, the beaches are nothing to brag about. But the delicious raw seafood marinated in lemon juice topped with onions and served with a sweet potato and corn…that is to die for. And on the coast, it’s cheap. It’s possible to get fresh ceviche for 10-15 soles, or $4-5 USD. Just don’t order it after lunch. That’s when it can mess with your stomach!
Going up the coast, there is a city called Ica, and just outside of Ica is a small oasis called Huacachina. Huacachina is located in the center of huge sand dunes, which are used for sand boarding and dune buggy tours. When out in the sand dunes, you’d think you were in the Sahara Desert. Hills of sand peek up from every direction. I was not necessarily excited for to the dune buggy tour, but that proved to be one of the most exhilarating experiences. In a 12-person vehicle, the driver slowly maneuvers up to the top of a sand dune, and, as if it were a roller coaster, you peak down over and see the steepness of the other side. At that point, one realizes that gravity is going to help bring the buggy down faster than it went up. The buggy also drops passengers off at the top of a big drop-off for sand boarding. Using the sand board, you shoot down the sand dune as if it were the slide at the state fair. The whole experience is exciting and gets the adrenaline pumping.
Lima is said to be a dirty, dangerous city with not much to do. After spending several days there, I definitely disagree. Although it does not have Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca, it does have a beautiful city plaza, interesting museums, beaches (although rocky), great food, and a diverse community of locals as well as foreigners. Lima is absolutely worthy of exploration when you’re in Peru. It’s more expensive than other parts of Peru, but it’s worth checking out.
Obviously, I have a great admiration for the country of Peru. Overall, I spent about three and a half months there. Just by reading about my experiences, it’s easy to see the diversity of the country culturally, naturally, and gastronomically. But don’t just go for Cusco and Machu Picchu. Find out what else the country has to offer!
Peru Frugal Travel Tips
- Stay at local hospedajes. Not only are they very cheap (usually between $4-$10 USD per night), but your money is going straight to the local community.
- Eat at local restaurants, called “menus”. They are typically served with a soup and the main dish. Usually they have only an option or two, but they are cheap ($2 or so), filling, and very good. I ate at many menus, and 95% of the time the food was delicious.
- Feeling even more adventurous? There are many great places to eat on the street. It’s the cheapest food you’ll find and oftentimes fried foods consisting of a strange mix. Fried chicken topped with french fries, rice, and a small salad…would you like it all topped with ketchup, mayonnaise mustard, or all three? There is some good food in the street. Just be a bit more careful.
- Always ask for a price up front. It’s not rude.
- If possible, ask a local how much something should cost. That’ll give you a better idea if you’re getting ripped off.
- Use local transportation. Local buses and combis (van taxis) are very cheap and will give you great stories to tell. I once found an escaped baby chick at my feet as the owner was scrambling around the bus trying to find it.
- Walk around and try new foods and drinks. See a churro that looks awesome in that bakery? See how it tastes. Curious about what that purple drink is? Give it a try. I’ve had many meals that consisted of walking around and eating whatever looks good.
- As for safety, be aware of when you might seem like a target or be vulnerable. If your DSLR camera is hanging out, you’re going to become more of a target. Keep a close eye on your bag, especially in close spaces like cramped buses. Being aware is important.
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