My husband and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Peru for our anniversary.
I spent many hours researching for the trip, but there are some things you can’t prepare for without experiencing it. For non-Spanish speakers traveling to South America for the first time, our eyes were opened in a few ways. Here are a few ways you can be more prepared than we were.
- Spanish speaking. Most everyone said that it would be fine to not speak Spanish and all the people working in the tourist town would be able to help us in English… not so! Both of our hostel workers spoke NO English. Even the word ‘map’ was unrecognizable to him (its ‘map-a’ in Spanish). We had a difficult time finding maps or guidebooks in English at the Cuzco ruins, or even menus in English at the Lima Airport. We just had to point to something and hope it was good. Bring a dictionary or a translator. Luckily, my husband remembered just enough from his college course to get us through.
- Keep your immigration form handy: When you go through immigration they stamp a form and then hand it back. Whether they told us in Spanish and we didn’t understand or not, we didn’t keep the forms and upon going back through immigrations you have to show these forms or pay $10 per person to get new ones
- Lima airport doesn’t have free wifi, you can pay $10 for 24 hr access.
- The train to Aguas Caliente.For tourists to go to Machu Picchu, the trains are VERY expensive. We paid around $300 for both us round trip (1 ½ hour ride each way). You can save some money by buying a round trip upfront, but we weren’t sure when we would be ready to go home, so we paid a little more for 2 one-way trips. This gave us more flexibility, but you run the risk of it being sold out. There were only a few seats left when we bought our return trip so we weren’t able to sit together (Until someone traded seats with us.) The Vistadome on Peru rail is more expensive than the Expedition. Vistadome serves a snack and drink and the windows wrap around the top of the train to give a fantastic view. However, the Expedition also serves a (smaller) snack and drink and has windows on the top. I didn’t notice a huge difference and as a money saving tourist, would not have paid more $ for the Vistadome, except that it was the only option we had in the afternoon. Inca rail was smaller and more affordable when I looked online, but in person was $75 each way, with fewer time options. It did look like there was another train option that all the Peruvians were taking. I’m assuming a smaller train, cheaper and more stops, but I didn’t look into it since we couldn’t speak much.
- Expenses. After you’ve already bought your flight to Lima and then to Cuzco, the cost of transportation to Machu Picchu is still very high. Most people book a tour which means the tour company takes care of all the details of getting you around, you just have to meet with them. After pricing everything out, I found it is still much cheaper to travel on our own. I like this option better as well, because I have tons of flexibility, I can go or leave when I want and don’t have to wait for others or hurry up for others. However, this means I have to make plans and hope they work and it can be a bit stressful. It obviously up to you and what is most important. But we chose the option of flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants and traveling on our own.
Cost breakdown for 2 people
- Taxi to Ollaytantambo $55
- Train to MP $120
- Bus up the mountain $24
- Macchu picchu tickets with mountain hike $87
- Tour guide $60
- Bus down $24
- Train back to ollaytantambo $150
- Minibus back to Cusco $30
- Taxi to airport $10
- Total: $530 (not including airfare)
At Machu Picchu
- Make sure you have a PRINTED ticket to Machu Picchu. They require the printed tickets at the top of the mountain (and they do not sell tickets there) and your passport. I bought tickets at home right before we left for the airport. I don’t know how accessible printers are in Peru and didn’t want to wait and find out. There are several places to buy tickets to Machu Picchu in Cuzco, but I didn’t want to pay a taxi driver to take us there so I bought at home. I did read that they sell out in high season, but there were plenty of tickets available for us on the day we went in late November.
- Inside the gates at Machu Picchu there are no toilets, water or food. The hotel right outside the park sells some snacks, water, ice cream and food (buffet for $40/person and outrageous prices for everything else, too) but once inside the park there is no option for food or water. The booth to check in for our hike did sell small water bottles for 5 soles. The bathrooms outside the park cost 1 sole to go in.
- Mountain Macchu Picchu is a 4 hour round trip hike. (Wayna Picchu is 2 hours round trip). We pride ourselves on being fast and fluid hikers, so we did it in 3 and 1/2 hour, but it was really, really hard. Over 3000 steps and a huge elevation climb. We were huffing and puffing and taking frequent breaks. Only a few steps after our breaks and we would be right back to breathing hard. We were so sore at the top and then hiked all the way down (including down the part where you can take a bus if you opt to). The sore muscles lasted for several days. I am not in the best shape of my life, but I am also working out several times a week. The lack of oxygen and the many steps made this hike very difficult. All that being said, the view from the top is fantastic and indescribable. Photos never do it justice. The reward of our hard labors was worth it. I just wish I would’ve done the stair master at the gym a few times to prep for this.
- Do Not go into Macchu Picchu without a guide! We first entered without a guide, looked around and then went back out to get a guide to tell us what we were seeing and answer all our questions. There are plenty of English speaking guides at the gate hoping to get a tourist for the day. The tour is about 2 hours and you will not regret knowing more about the ruins and getting to ask all the questions you want. As cool as the site was, I didn’t really know WHAT it was, so having a tour was critical making our trip worth it. Patrick (our tour guide) told us he would wait at the ruins FOREVER, so you could always ask for him. (We paid $60 for a 2 hours tour including a small tip).
- When a hotel advertises wifi and breakfast, it may not be what we expect in the states. Both our ‘hostels’ served a roll with butter and Tampico orange juice for breakfast. With the price we paid ($36 1st night, $24 second night), we weren’t going to complain, but I was glad that I packed oatmeal packets to add to hot water to make a more complete meal. The wifi was only in the lobby at one hotel and was very spotty in another hotel. I had to ask 3 times for it to be restarted. They were friendly and kind about it, but it was annoying to have to go ask them.
- Bring your own toiletries. Maybe you will stay in a nice hotel that provide these amenities, but we choose to stay in cheap places so we can afford to travel more frequently. Both our hostels had no shampoo, conditioner, or lotions, or hair dryers, etc. Our hotels did have toilet paper, but many of the public bathrooms did not, so pack your own! None of the public bathrooms had soap so if you want to stay germ free, bring hand soap and/or hand sanitizer. Bug spray was pretty costly ($7 for a small bottle) so if you can bring your own this would save money. Sunscreen was also costly and since I thought it would be raining we didn’t bring any or buy any. Our skin peeled for 3 weeks after our hike up Macchu Picchu mountain!
- Toilet paper: You cannot throw the toilet paper in the toilet which is pretty gross. Any bathroom outside of the airport didn’t have any toilet paper in the vicinity (so bring your own) and the toilet didn’t have a seat on it (just the bowl part). so practice your squat holds!
- Soles. When we traveled, Soles were about 3 times dollars (so 1 dollar=3 soles) this math wasn’t easy to do in my head when they would say “40 soles” and I was trying to figure out if I was willing to spend that much money on an item. In some cases, we spent more that we wanted and in others it was much cheaper. Our first meal in the country we paid about $8 per meal which we thought was reasonable, until we walked down the street of Ollaytantambo and found hamburgers for 10 soles (or $3.50). I thought Machu Picchu tickets for 2 were $300. AFTER I purchased them and it appeared on my credit card bill as $87 (300 soles) I was so happy!
- Don’t believe the weather report. We had 90% chance of rain all day, everyday and it only rained from 3 am to 5 am. The misty mountain cleared of completely by 10 am. Wear sunscreen! Bring sunglasses! We burned so quickly and deeply. Our skin peeled for 3 weeks after our trip. Our ponchos were a waste of money, but we were worried about rain breaking out, so we bought them before we headed up the mountain, we should’ve bought sun screen.
Other things to see in the area
- Auguas Caliente is the town at the base of the mountain up to Macchu picchu. It has no cars in it, just a walking town. It is quaint and cute and quiet. I loved that we spent our first night there and were ready to go up the mountain first thing in the morning. I would definitely recommend this travel itinerary (taking the afternoon train into Auguas Caliente and spending the night), but it is a tourist trap. Souvenirs here are nearly double what you will pay elsewhere. There is more selection there than in Cuzco or in Ollaytantambo, but it is costly. The food was reasonably priced.
- The ruins in Cusco are amazing too, but the price is high as well. We paid $40 to see Sacqueshuaman. The hand carved giant boulders made into a perfectly smooth wall were spectacular! We paid a taxi driver $30 to drive us around to the other 3 smaller sites (on the same ticket) as well as take us to the airport.
- If you are traveling on your own, they you may not be able to take advantage of seeing the ruins in Ollaytantambo without paying a high price. You can only get tickets to see the ruins there by buying a combo packet that include 3 or 4 other places. It was $40 for the combo pass and we knew were weren’t going to make it to any of the other sites, so we didn’t do it. If you had the time and taxi, these places may have been interesting, but paled in comparison to Machu Picchu, so you may want to do them first.
I know I don’t travel like many who save up, book nice hotels and a tour to make it all easy, relaxing and enjoyable. We choose the budget- friendly route so I can continue to be a stay-at-home mom to our kids and we can keep going on more and more trips. Our philosophy is, “The less we pay on this trip, the sooner we can go on another one!” Also, we like exploring on our own terms and conditions coming and going when we feel ready and not when our itinerary tells us to.
If you want to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ it is definitely doable. Hopefully these tips help!
I’m so glad I got to see this amazing wonder of the world! I sat in the grass here and soaked in the view (and rested my aching hiking legs) for over an hour!
For details and pictures of our trip and itinerary you can read it on my blog