Planning a trip to Cusco is not all that difficult but there are some things that can make your itinerary flow better and will help to eliminate, or at least reduce the amount of backtracking that you might end up doing. So in this blog I will go over some of the more important items of note as well as offer my recommendations for site paring and Itinerary order.
When reading this information please keep in mind that due to the possible number of variables involved in any one person’s interests and available time, it would be difficult for me to provide an all-encompassing outline, so my focus here will be to provide some general information as well as some specific recommendations so that you might be able to easily assemble your own Itinerary that makes sense and will not only have good flow, but work with your interests as well.
Peru in General:
It is not that hard to pick out some locations, look at a map and decide on a route, but the one thing that most maps don’t include are the altitudes at each location, and as several of the more popular sites to visit in Peru are high altitude locations, altitude should be considered when planning a route.
With many of the locations in Peru there are not many issues to be concerned with other than simple geographic location, for example Lima, Ica, Nazca, and Trujillo to name a few. The locations that seem to have given some past guests a bit of difficulty are Cusco, Arequipa, Puno and the Jungle.
With the Jungle many people don’t realize just how much of Peru is actually jungle, almost everything to the West of the Andes is some degree of jungle and as the Andes almost cut Peru in half, a good 50% of Peru is jungle, so if a visit to the jungle is high on your list you have several options. First there is the northern jungle with Iquitos being the normal destination for people heading in this direction. This area is the beginning of the Amazon River system and there are many tours of varying lengths that you could take. The down side however is that this is far north and you will need a flight which may consume precious time and increase the overall cost of your trip.
Next is the Central Jungle, this area does not see near as many foreign tourists as it is far less known, but is a common place for Peruvians to vacation. In this area you will find the Chanchamayo district which is known for its coffee and cacao production. I enjoy this region as it is not too touristy and does not get as hot or humid as the northern jungle regions, the down side is you will almost have to speak Spanish if planning to visit this area on your own as you will not find many people that will speak any other language.
The last area is the Southern Jungle; this is an area that has the advantage of being close to Cusco making it perfect for those that might be working with a limited number of days. The two most common places to visit are Manu and Tambopata (Puerto Maldonado), Manu has the advantage of being easily accessible by bus during most of the year and 4 day tours are readily available from Cusco. In 1977 they designated Manu as a World Biosphere Reserve and this is an area that we recently visited, you can read my blog here. The Tambopata or Puerto Maldonado area is a little farther from Cusco than Manu and normally people will fly in or out of Puerto Maldonado, although buses are available. During the rainy season it is better to visit Tambopata as you can fly in and out thus reducing the risk of becoming stranded due to a road getting washed out.
That covers the basics of the jungle so let’s move on to Cusco, Arequipa and Puno. The main thing to consider with these locations is their altitude; we have had a few guests that have gone to Puno first, which is the highest of these cities, only to get sick and lose a day or two recovering. So you are probably wondering “what are the altitudes of each of these locations”, while there are going to be some variations depending on the source, and none of these cities are completely flat, take for example Arequipa which is 2,041m at its lower point and 2,810m at its higher end. For the purpose of this blog I will use the following elevations, Arequipa 2,335m, Cusco 3,400 and Puno 3,830.
So as you can see by the above altitudes the best order to organize the three cities above would be Arequipa, Cusco then Puno, but there is though one other thing to be aware of. As the recommended increase in altitude is no more than 500m a day, you may still be susceptible to altitude sickness; the good news though is that we have never had a guest suffer severe AMS even when coming directly from Lima, so odds are that traveling directly from Arequipa to Cusco would not prove to be a problem either. I think the important thing is to not start in Puno, and to work up in altitude where possible.
This is going to be the real meet of this blog as there is not much information available on site grouping, aside from what the tour agencies promote, and they tend to group sites more by popularity, and not necessarily in the most logical order. For reference I can guarantee that the following groupings work well because these are the same groupings that we regularly use in our packages and when taking our guests on tours of the region. The only real catch is that you will have to hire a car and driver for each day as it would be difficult, if not impossible to cover all of the sites with public transportation.
Cusco City: As everybody’s tastes vary and there are a lot of possible things to see in and around Cusco this is the one location where I am not going to be too specific. Generally our guests find that one day is sufficient, but if you want to see everything you might want to consider two days, but for a one day visit start in the Morning with Saqsaywaman and then Q’enqo, after Q’enqo you could either go to Pucapucara and Tambomachay, or like we often do, skip these two and head into Cusco with a possible stop at the White Christ on the way. The reason that we usually do this is that in my opinion Pucapucara and Tambomachay are not that interesting, they are both very small and neither of them offers anything unique.
After visiting the sites on the hill you can spend the remainder of the day in Cusco seeing the sites that interest you, the sites we usually visit are the Qorikancha Complex, Qorikancha Museum, Cusco Cathedral, 12 Angle Stone, San Pedro Market, Central Artisanal Market and the Chocolate Museum.
Sacred Valley: Due likely to the way that the tour agencies arrange their tours, people tend to think that Chinchero is in the Sacred Valley, it is actually on the top of the hill overlooking the Sacred Valley, and as such we don’t include in in the Sacred Valley. For better flow we start with the Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, here you can see a variety of rescued animals from all 4 of the camelids to pumas and condors. Next you can visit the Pisac Ruins and then we like to stop at the Museo Inkariy, this is a fairly new museum and is well worth a stop, and the last stop of the day is Ollantaytambo. One option when doing this route is to then take an evening train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes in preparation for visiting Machu Picchu on the following day. If not taking a train at the end of this day then another option is to reverse the whole thing, this will result in you going in the opposite direction as the tours which will result in the sites being far less crowded.
Hill Top: As I mentioned above, Chinchero is on the hill top overlooking the Sacred Valley, as such I like to call this grouping the Hill top. With this grouping you can Visit Chinchero in the morning, after Chinchero we like to visit the Salt Mines of Maras as there are some restaurants where you can have lunch if you are getting hungry. After the Salt Mines the next stop is Moray where you will enjoy the unique circular Incan terraces. As with the Sacred Valley group you could end this day by traveling to Ollantaytambo and then taking a train to Aguas Calientes.
Southern Valley: This is one of our favorites as this route does not get many tourists. For this route we usually start with Pikillacta, a very different site from the rest you may see as it is actually a pre-Incan site originally built by the Wari civilization. After Pikillacta you can continue on to Andahuaylillas where you will find the Church of San Pedro, this church is often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas due to the intricate ceiling paintings. Next to the church is a small private museum where the famous alien baby skeleton is kept, and after visiting these two sites you can enjoy a local menu for lunch. The last stop for this day is Tipon, this site is suspected to have been an Incan water worship site and the town is also known for its Cuy (Guinea pig), which if you are interested in trying can make an interesting evening meal.
Western Valley: This group is going to be the least traveled, and odds are very good that if you have the time to head to the West and see these sites, you will be seeing them by yourself as we have never run into any tourists when visiting them. The First place to visit is Tarawasi; here you will find a large platform with an interesting set of walls with alcoves built into them and an old colonial home that was built on top of the site, Tarawasi is the farthest point so your path now leads back towards Cusco. Along the way to the next site you will see many road-side stands selling fresh fruits, and you may even spot a sign on the left for some thermal baths, these can be a nice side trip, and are located down along the river, this can be a nice place to enjoy a drink before continuing on. The next stop is Killarumiyoq, this is a small site but here is where you will find the interesting Moon stone as well as a small cave with a few petroglyphs. Killarumiyoq is also the site of the Killarumiyoq Raymi which is festival similar to the Inti Raymi, bet much less touristy. Finally if there is time remaining in the day you can stop by the Andenes Zurite, possibly some of the largest continuous Incan terraces in the region, and then finish up the day with a stop here in Huarocondo for a plate of the towns famous lechon.
Machu Picchu: Of course no list of sites in the Cusco region would be complete without Machu Picchu, but it is a group unto itself, and while there are multiple places in Machu Picchu that you can visit, it is a full day experience. Now there are several ways to visit Machu Picchu from treks to visiting on your own, and when visiting on your own you can do a one day visit or a multi-day visit. We usually recommend a 2 day, either traveling to Aguas Calientes the day before so that you can visit Machu Picchu first thing in the morning, or you can take an early train and then stay one night in Aguas Calientes taking a train back in the morning.
Well that should about do it, and while not a complete list of locations, this will certainly provide enough to keep most people busy for a while. The individual groupings above can be arranged in almost any order but the way that we usually recommend doing things is Cusco City first as this is the least strenuous. Then fill in any of the other groups that you might be interested in with either the Sacred Valley or Hill Top on the day prior to visiting Machu Picchu, allowing you to spend the night in Aguas Calientes before visiting Machu Picchu on the following day. In the event you are wondering why we recommend Machu Picchu at the end, it is because it is the best of the sites, honestly would you want to go see a fireworks show where they started the show with the grand finally, I think not.
As mentioned above these routes are intended to be done with a car and driver, as well as using a home base of Cusco, or here at GringoWasi if you would prefer a quiet location. Currently a driver for any one of these routes should cost right around $100.00 for the day and then site admissions, guides and meals would be extra. So if you have questions regarding any of this information, or on planning your trip to Peru in general, feel free to contact me directly or post your questions below.