This past August, Thomas and I decided to take a trip to Peru. Inspired by my sister Lauren’s adventures living in South America since last February, and my mom’s bucket list wish to see Machu Picchu, we resolved to embark on a journey to a place none of us had ever been. Our amazing adventures in Peru were filled with cultural delights that we want to share with you, including key highlights and details from our itinerary, and essential tips for anyone planning a trip to Peru.
- Shopping in Lima – As soon as we “snapped” that we had arrived in Lima, we received an abundance of fantastic recommendations from Gal Meets Glam readers, including one who invited us to visit her wholesale Alpaca textile shop. The showroom was filled with a colorful array of Alpaca throws, scarves and pillows, which we quickly purchased as gifts for family and friends. The showroom was, by far, the best shopping experience of the whole trip!
- Lake Titicaca Sunrises – Our hotel in Puno (Lake Titicaca) sat on the edge, high above Lake Titicaca, overlooking the lake. Every morning, around 5:30 a.m., the most amazing beams of yellow and orange appeared through our bedroom window, gently waking us up. We couldn’t help but just sit in bed, watching the sky appear on fire until the sun peaked over the mountains in the distance, reminding us that it was time to start our day.
- San Pedro Market in Cusco – San Pedro Market is a must-see tourist stop for anyone visiting Cusco. It’s just a short walk from the main square, and offers a never ending stream of gifts, clothing, fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, and more.
- Hiram Bingham Train – When we made the decision to take the Hiram Bingham train, we already knew it was going to be a luxurious experience that would take us through the breathtaking Sacred Valley of Peru. What we didn’t expect was the party and the incredible music! We sang, laughed, and danced with people from all over the world, sharing in the most amazingly fun experience that we would all do again in a heartbeat! There is definitely no better way to travel to Machu Picchu!
- Machu Picchu – Though it’s no secret that Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the world, we want to be sure to emphasize that it is everything everyone says it is and more, and so worth the effort to see. If you can, move it up (or add it if you haven’t) on your bucket list as a must-do. You will not be disappointed!
- It is very important that all Machu Picchu tickets are purchased in advance because they are not available for purchase at the gate. We were very lucky to learn about this important rule about a week before leaving for our trip! There is a website to purchase Machu Picchu tickets, but it’s in Spanish, so we recommend that you work with your hotel concierge or travel agent to purchase tickets. The Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu Mountain Hikes also require advanced ticket purchases. The Huayna Picchu Hike sells out fast so plan accordingly. Also, remember to carry a valid passport with your ticket every time you enter the park, as you will be asked for both items each time.
- Bug Spray is mandatory when visiting Machu Picchu! Unfortunately, we had to learn this the hard way. When we first arrived, we anxiously dropped off our bags at the hotel and grabbed our tickets to enter Machu Picchu. Within minutes we noticed small bites on our hands, arms and ankles. The culprits were so tiny, you could hardly see them or feel them biting you. But by the end of the day we all had dozens of bites on our exposed skin, which swelled pretty badly. If you do happen to suffer bites that become extremely swollen, or if you have any other type of ailment or injury, Machu Picchu has an on-site medical office that can help for a small fee (that I unfortunately had to visit because my hand swelled up like a balloon).
- Clothing – a light jacket, long pants, sturdy shoes (we all brought hiking shoes), backpack, tee shirt and sweater for layering, hat, sunglasses, sunblock, and chapstick should all be on your packing list.
- Rise and shine early to enter Machu Picchu as soon as it opens at 6am. If you are able to power hike or jog to the best vantage point right away, you may be able to get some amazing scenic shots with no one else in them. It helps to scout-out sites in advance, if possible.
- Prepare for High Altitude – We had been forewarned about the impact that the high elevations of Lake Titicaca, Cusco and Machu Picchu could have on us. Though Thomas rarely gets sick, from the time we arrived at Lake Titicaca, where the elevation was as high as 13,000 feet, to when we arrived in Cusco, Thomas suffered from severe headaches that no amount of Coco tea, water or migraine medicine could cure. My mom wore pressure point wristbands and had no problem with the altitude. Everything we read after the fact says you can’t predict who will be susceptible to altitude sickness, so it is smart to have a doctor prescribe altitude sickness medicine just in case you are one of the unlucky ones!
Lima was our first stop in Peru and, although we didn’t schedule any special activities in advance because we knew we would only have one day of free time, we did enjoy our visit, including the accommodations at the Belmond Miraflores, which were beyond beautiful! We received so many great recommendations of where to eat in Lima, but with limited time, we had to forgo them all. All, except lunch at El Mercado in Miraflores. This restaurant exudes boho chic, with a modern indoor/outdoor vibe, lots of plants, and amazing food and drinks. Our stay at El Mercado lasted three hours because we were having such a fun time! If you decide to go (and we recommend you do), don’t pass-up the desserts, in particular, the churros.
One of our biggest regrets while visiting Lima was not having time to visit the Barranco neighborhood. We actually hoped to go there to visit the Mario Testino Museum and see the neighborhood, but our extended lunch trumped those plans. We did stroll through the center of Lima, including the historic center, where there are plenty of photo opps and beautiful colonial buildings, originally designed and laid-out to model the cities of Spain. There are also plenty of open markets offering touristy goods, as well as traditional Peruvian items.
Where we stayed:
Belmond Miraflores Park
As I mentioned earlier, the Belmond Miraflores Park is simply breathtaking. The hotel sits high on a hill above the coastline and offers views of both the ocean and city of Lima. Our room was very open and spacious, with a comfortable seating area where we spent time working, and floor to ceiling windows with 180 degree views of the city, ocean, and parks below. The view at night, with the twinkling lights of the city and parks below, was fantastic. The Belmond Miraflores Park staff was extremely attentive and always available to answer any questions or arrange transportation for us. We enjoyed breakfast each morning at the hotel’s expansive buffet, located at the top of the hotel in a beautiful glass atrium.
Outfit #2: Black Cardigan
When we were putting together our Peru itinerary, we knew we wanted to add another destination. After considering The Sacred Valley, we opted instead for Lake Titicaca. Located an hour from the closest airport in Juliaca, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at 13,000 feet above sea level. We stayed at the Libertador Puno, situated on the edge of the lake, for two nights. If you’re pressed for time, one night will suffice, since the main attraction in Puno is visiting the islands, which is a one day excursion. Thomas booked a private boat to take us on our journey through the channels of Lake Titicaca to visit Uros Islands and to the open waters to Taquile Island. Taquile Island is quite a long boat ride (about two hours there and two hours back), so if you are short on time, you may want to only visit Uros Island. Remember to wear layers, as it can be 30 degrees in the early morning in August, and reach up to 65 in the afternoon. Sunblock and sunglasses are a must as well. A hat to block the bright sun is optional.
The history of the Uros Floating Islands dates back to the pre-Incan times. The Uros people were pushed out of their home along Lake Titicaca by the arrival of the Inca Empire. The Uros people found a way to hide from their invadors by living in tutora reeds that covered the wetlands of Lake Titicaca. The Uros tribe eventually grew tired of living on their boats and discovered a way to take the green tutora reeds and build islands to live on. Today, many Uros people continue to live in their traditional ways. In order to maintain this way of life, they welcome tourists to visit their floating islands, and tell stories about their amazing culture, which is quite extraordinary. Because we had our own boat, we had our own family to visit with, which was so nice and intimate! The people are beautiful, and their clothing is as bright and cheerful as their personalities. They let us dress-up in their traditional clothes, and took us for a boat ride in one of their large reed “pontoons” that they lovingly called the Titanic! The Uros people have their own language called Chipaya, but speak and understand some Spanish and English as well. Be sure to bring extra Sol (Peruvian money) so you can enjoy a traditional boat ride and other extras not included in the excursion packages.
Taquile Island was included in our full day tour of Lake Titicaca., and is situated smack dab in the middle of Lake Titicaca, with views of Bolivia across the water. It is a long boat ride, but the island is uniquely special. The Taquilians have different customs, clothing and language than the Uros people, and still practice many of their old traditions. When we stepped off our boat and began the climb up the cobblestone paths, we realized that life on Taquile Island had probably not changed much in the past few decades. The main reason is that only people born on Taquile Island are allowed to stay and live. If a Taquilian marries someone that was not born on the island, they are not allowed to live there. One of our favorite traditions of the Taquilian people is the importance of their hat making. The men wear hats (similar to beanies), which they knit themselves. You can actually tell whether a Taquilian man is married, dating someone, or single by their hat and how they wear it. Boys knit their own hats and the rule that the father bestows is that if the son can knit a hat that can hold water, then the son has become a man and is ready to look for a wife. The tour of the island requires a lot of walking on uneven cobblestone up some pretty steep paths. The altitude is very high, so be careful to plan accordingly. All tourists are treated to a lunch at one of the many “restaurant” establishments on the island. The food, especially the Quinoa and potatoes, which are both grown on the island, and the trout from Lake Titicaca are delicious!
Where we stayed:
Though the rooms are very small, there may not be a better place to experience a sunrise. You even have a view of the Uros Islands.The hotel restaurant has wonderful food, both traditional Peruvian choices, including Quinoa coated trout, a variety of potatoes, Alpaca, and Guinea Pig (all native to the area). We enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of our stay, except when we had lunch on Taquile Island. We had considered staying at Titilaka but it was fully booked during our dates.
Outfit #2: Buttondown Dress
Cusco was once the capital of the Incan Empire. If you plan on visiting Machu Picchu, this is the city where your journey begins, whether hiking the Inca Trail, or taking a train. The city is rich with history and the architecture is beautiful, with cobblestone roads and walkways, and parks at every turn. If you are looking for alpaca textiles, this is a good place to find them. We made two separate stops in Cusco, before and after our journey to Machu Picchu. Both times we stayed at Belmond properties: Hotel Monasterio and Palacio Nazarenas, which are actually right next to each other, but each uniquely different. You simply can’t fail with either one, but we all fell in love with the charm and décor of the exquisite Palacio Nazarenas.
San Pedro Market
One of our favorite activities in Cusco was visiting San Pedro Market. We explored the whole market, which was filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, more quinoa than you’ve ever seen in your life, and a large variety of souvenir shops. We were solicited by the shop owners to try the fresh smoothies at the juice bar, which were actually delicious! We also visited the neighborhood of San Blas, where we found some cute small shops, and where we discovered this beautiful white, fluffy baby alpaca, ripe for hugging! There are many women with baby “alpacas” (some were actually goats) wandering the streets of Cusco, offering to let you hold the baby animals for pictures. Don’t accept the offer unless you are willing to pay, as they will definitely expect it. We actually had one women chase us down because we didn’t give her enough money (we were running low, but didn’t actually hold a baby – just snapped a picture). She was quite persistent!
Where we stayed:
Belmond Hotel Monasterio
We stayed at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio on our first arrival to Cusco, before visiting Machu Picchu. The hotel, once a monastery, is made of stone and stucco, with beautiful architecture, and medieval décor. Upon our arrival, we were served a delicious lunch in the courtyard that connects to the hotel’s restaurant. Everything at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio exudes sophistication, beauty and old-world charm. We recommend that you visit the hotel’s bar area and sit by the massive stone fireplace to enjoy drinks and tapas.
Belmond Palacio Nazarenas
We stayed at the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas during our return visit to Cusco, after visiting Machu Picchu. Though the hotel sits right next door to the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, it offers a very different feel. Our rooms (make that three rooms each), were expansive and included elegant antique décor combined with modern amenities, such as heated bathroom floors and iPads for use during our stay. We spent most of our time in our rooms, or in the hotel’s bar area, which is set-up so you can relax and work while enjoying tea, and assortment of treats, or a cocktail, if you prefer. The bar is situated in it’s own building, lined by glass windows that overlook the beautiful deep blue pool. The hotel restaurant was by far one of the best we experienced while in Peru, and the staff was willing to accommodate any menu changes we requested. We were delightfully serenaded by a harp player during breakfast as well!
Cusco to Machu Picchu
Belmond Hiram Bingham Train
Who knew one could have so much fun on a train! This luxury train that runs daily between Cusco and Machu Picchu, has to have been one of the most unique experiences we’ve ever had while traveling. The train leaves the station first thing in the morning. We were greeted by Mimosas laced with Pisco, and entertained by Peruvian musicians and dancers wearing colorful traditional costumes. There was enough time to enjoy the entertainment and explore the train before departing the station. Once onboard and seated in our dining car, we made our way back to the observation car where we enjoyed more live music from the most amazing quartet, and sipped champagne as we snapped these great pictures. We were later served a delicious brunch and then proceeded back to the observation car to sing, dance, and mingle with the other passengers. The Belmond Hiram Bingham Train is a must-do experience, and really is the best way to travel to Machu Picchu!
You hear it often about some of the most beautiful places in the world, “Pictures Do Not Do It Justice” and this holds true for Machu Picchu. On our first day in the park (we entered a total of four times on three separate days), we hired a private guide from our hotel who taught us a great deal about the history of the Inca ruins. One enlightening fact was that when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Peru, the citizens of Machu Picchu heard the horrible stories of what was happening across the Incan empire, so those that could, fled into the mountains and jungles. With no one to maintain the city, the jungles reclaimed the ruins until they were discovered by an American explorer named Hiram Bingham in 1911. What Machu Picchu looks like today is close to what the civilization looked like in its prime. But in reality, the jungle hid these ruins for hundreds of years. It is so amazing to think about what other remains and artifacts might be hidden in the jungles in this part of the world, left to be discovered.
Machu Picchu Mountain Hike
One of the reasons we decided to stay two nights in Machu Picchu was to dedicate a day to hiking. We settled on the Machu Picchu Mountain Hike, after inquiring about Machu Picchu hikes with our hotel’s concierge prior to our trip. We discovered that we were too late to purchase tickets for the Huayna Picchu Mountain Hike because it requires reservations months in advance, since only two groups of two-hundred people are allowed to hike the mountain each day. Instead, we decided to hike Machu Picchu Mountain, which is a much longer hike that yields some incredible views of the ancient ruins and surrounding mountain ranges. The hike follows the winding Inca Trail, and is covered in stones of different sizes, once believed to be used as steps. There are some steep and narrow sections of the trail, as well as some “don’t look over the edge” moments, but even my mom made it to the top! The hike takes approximately two hours to reach the top, and two hours to hike back down. Make sure to begin the hike when it first opens, when it is cool. Wear sturdy shoes and layers so you can strip-down as you get warm during the climb.
Where we stayed:
Belmond Sanctuary Lodge
Imagine waking up at sunrise and practically rolling out of bed into line to enter the gates of Machu Picchu. This is what staying at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge offers. In fact, it’s the only lodging available at the top of the mountain, within walking distance to the entrance. All other visitors either have to hike up to the main entrance from the valley below, or take a twenty minute bus ride. Each morning during our stay, Thomas made sure he was one of the first fifty people to enter the park so he could capture pictures of the ruins. The Belmond Sanctuary Lodge had modest accommodations, but beautiful, tropical grounds, including a secluded outdoor jacuzzi, and a hidden oasis for couples massage. My mom and sister took advantage of this feature after finishing the Machu Picchu Mountain Hike. The outdoor massage area is hidden down a pathway in a secluded garden area with a small waterfall and view of the Peruvian mountain peaks. The restaurant serves afternoon tea, which includes all kinds of interesting and delicious tidbits. They also offer Pisco tasting in the evening, which includes a lesson on mixing the famous alcoholic beverage to make different cocktails, such as the well-know Pisco Sour. The sheer convenience of staying at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge made it well worthwhile!
Obviously, there is so much more we could share with you about our trip to Peru, but our hope is to have inspired you to create your own special journey to this amazing, must-see part of the world! For more details on the outfits I wore, make sure to read this post.
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