Cusco

We only had about 24 hours in Cusco, but even just our short time there was enough to convince us that Cusco is one of the fascinating cities we’ve ever been to. It was the capital of the Inca Empire until the Spaniards moved the capital down to coastal Lima because they couldn’t handle the altitude. When the Spanish invaded, they plundered the city and constructed their own Catholic buildings, meanwhile killing many Incas with smallpox. Fortunately, a big earthquake in 1950 toppled the poorly-constructed Spanish buildings, while the Inca architecture underneath was left standing.

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We stayed at Hostal Corihuasi, a restored colonial guest house, just a brisk uphill walk from the main plaza. Our rustic room had parquet floors, hand-woven rugs, alpaca wool blankets, and wraparound windows that offered a panoramic view of the entire city. Cusco felt huge, especially after staying in little towns like Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the past week. From our windows, Cusco was a sea of red roofs and cathedrals, surrounded by mountains — much like Florence. Another thing we noticed in the lobby of our hotel was a huge oxygen tank, reminding us that we were 11,152 feet above sea level. We had saved Cusco for the end of our trip for that very reason, and thanks to that, we felt fine our entire time there.

Unlike Aguas Calientes, which is pretty much mocked by everyone we meet, Cusco seems to be universally loved. Remnants of both the Inca Empire and the invasion of Spanish conquistadors share Cusco’s narrow cobblestoned streets, creating a unique mashup of Andean and Spanish styles that makes Cusco like no other place on earth.

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Roaming around San Blas
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Steep staircases running through town
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Plaza de Armas

We joined a free historical walking tour, wandered around Mercado San Pedro, bought chocolate at the ChocoMuseo, got kissed by an alpaca, and then later ate alpaca burgers. If I could spend a month in only one place in Peru, Cusco would be my first choice because it felt incredibly livable.

By the time our cab arrived to take us to the airport, I wasn’t ready to leave Peru yet. This country didn’t hit me immediately the way my other favorite countries (Italy, Turkey, and South Africa) did. In fact, I didn’t start crying until our plane took off and I started going through my photos from Ollantaytambo. Peru was magical, but in a quiet way. This trip was my first venture into Latin America, opening a new world (pun intended) to me, and I can’t wait to return.

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Peru grows over 4,000 varieties of potatoes
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This alpaca is trained to kiss when you say “beso”

Tips for future travelers

We hired Taxi Datum for all our cab rides throughout Peru. It cost 127 soles from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, and 20 soles from Cusco to the airport. It’s easy to book online, and they’re always prompt.

If you stay in Hostal Corihuasi, request Room 1 for the best view.

The two alpaca burgers we tried were phenomenal. Chakruna Native Burgers is a fun burger shop in San Blas. Make sure to order a side of fries (even though each burger already comes with fries) because they are wonderful and are accompanied by five different sauces. Meanwhile, Hanz Homemade Craft Beer & Food had an even better alpaca burger and is entirely run by one man who took everyone’s orders, walked them to the outdoor restroom so they wouldn’t get lost, and kept us entertained throughout dinner. I’d probably be a regular at Hanz if I had my dream month in Cusco.

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A perfect alpaca burger, Peruvian beer, and a variety of Peruvian potato chips from Hanz
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Machu Picchu

We visited Machu Picchu on Christmas Day. It was such an easy, straightforward experience that I almost wish we had struggled a little more — if only to make the buildup to Machu Picchu a little more epic.

Our journey began with a comfortable hour and a half train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The ride through the Sacred Valley up into the Andes was like something out of an romanticized nature documentary. There are two train companies to choose from (PeruRail and Inca Rail), and we went with PeruRail, the older and more established company. Our ride on the Vistadome included a sandwich wrap and a beverage. We tried our first chicha morada, a fermented, slightly alcoholic drink made from purple maize.

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PeruRail Vistadome
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Huge windows!
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Spinach wrap and a glass of chicha
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Riding through the Andes

I was glad our hotel sent someone to meet us at the chaotic station as soon as our train arrived. Our hotel opened up just last year and is rated “#1 Hotel in Aguas Calientes”. It’s easy to see why (e.g., the facilities are brand new, our luxurious room had a jacuzzi tub and a panoramic view of town, and the breakfast buffet was satisfying and served on the top floor with an even better view than our room), but it’s also easy to see why Aguas Calientes gets its unfavorable reputation — the hotel has three different names online, and most of the staff didn’t seem to know what they were doing.

Anyone who visits Machu Picchu must at least pass through Aguas Calientes. We had heard only horror stories of this odd town prior to our trip, so we were expecting the worst but found ourselves surprisingly delighted by it. Sure, some streets are obscenely touristy, but the town itself is tucked into such a naturally stunning setting that we found it easy to overlook all the English menus being thrust into our faces. Aguas Calientes lies deep in a gorge, just a few miles below Machu Picchu. It’s enclosed by lush forests, rushing rivers, and stone cliffs. All over town are large granite rocks that have gorgeous sculptures carved into them. Since we arrived the day before Christmas, children were popping fireworks on the street, making the place feel lively, if not also a bit dangerous.

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The touristy street
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Stone carving
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The setting of Aguas Calientes

We had surprisingly good food in Aguas Calientes. In fact, we went to one restaurant twice in our two days there because we couldn’t imagine having a better meal anywhere else. We tried alpaca (tastes like beef!) and Peruvian craft beer for our first meal at Mapacho, and then we returned to Mapacho the next day for a trio of appetizers (trout ceviche, yuca ball, and causa limena) and roasted guinea pig. Guinea pigs are our new favorite meat — fatty with a crispy skin! We had the same sweet waitress as the night before, and she gave me a hug on our way out.

When we woke up the next morning, it was the big day, the whole reason we were in Peru. I had read the same piece of advice over and over: Wake up at 3 am and stand in a long line for the morning buses to Machu Picchu. Regardless, we decided to wake up at a leisurely 5:30 am and enjoy the complimentary breakfast at our hotel before heading out to the bus station. Much to our relief, there was a line of buses waiting to take people up, and almost no people waiting. In fact, we had to sit on our bus for a few minutes so it could fill up. At last, our bus began winding its way up the mountain for 25 minutes, entering another world. The massive lush mountains partially obscured by the morning fog was straight out of Jurassic Park. We expected dinosaurs to pop out at any moment.

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View at the entrance

We spent the first hour milling around the watchkeeper’s hut, waiting for the fog to dissipate so we could anxiously take perfect photos. Once we felt that we had taken enough, we finally explored the site, climbing through ruins and hiking up terraces. We had no idea how vast Machu Picchu was. It includes more than 150 buildings, 600 terraces, and over 100 flights of stairs, most of which were carved from a single slab of stone. Many of the stones weigh more than 50 pounds, but no wheels were used to transport them up the mountain. Instead, it is believed that men either pushed the heavy rocks or chiseled the rocks from the side of the mountain itself. Its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes; twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone, creating no shadow.

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Finding that perfect shot
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Christmas card from Machu Picchu!

The Incas built Machu Picchu in the 15th century but abandoned it only eighty years later when the Spanish started colonizing other parts of their empire. It was never discovered by the Spanish and was thus saved from plunder and destruction. It remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls without the use of mortar, and still stands strong despite sitting on two fault lines. In Quechua, the name means “old mountain”.

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Terraces

A few hours later, we were satisfied enough to leave. One could spend an entire day at Machu Picchu, but it was starting to sprinkle and we were getting pretty hungry, so we decided to return to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch. A bus was waiting for us outside, and we rode it back, surrounded by other awestruck, exhausted tourists.

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Glad we brought our ponchos!

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re short on time like we were, take the train to Aguas Calientes. However, if you have more time, you might as well brave the five-day Inca Trail hike. We’re still young, and I expect we’ll be back in Peru at some point, so we’ll definitely hike it next time.

Most people have awful experiences in Aguas Calientes, and I think part of that has to do with their hotel. While our hotel had a couple of flaws, we thought it was an incredibly relaxing place that matched the dramatic setting of Aguas Calientes. At $140/night, it was the most expensive place we stayed during our time in Peru, but it was worth it.

Make sure you book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu months in advance. You’ll need to decide what hikes you want to do before you book. I’d recommend just doing the Inca Trail hike, but then forgoing all the hikes at the actual site. You’re there to enjoy!

Take the bus up to Machu Picchu. The 90-minute hike up the mountain follows the same road that the bus takes, and I pitied any hiker we passed on our way up. It’s no fun to walk alongside vehicles! Purchase your bus tickets in Aguas Calientes the night before, just in case there are long lines the day of. The bus ticket office is open until 9 pm every day.

Aim for a family-centric holiday. I think the main reason we dealt with no lines is that we decided to go on Christmas Day, when most people (Peruvians and tourists alike) would rather stay home with their families.

Eat at Mapacho and Full House. At Mapacho, walk up to the second floor for an even better view of the rapids.


It’s called Aguas Calientes for a reason. Bathe in the hot springs, or at least get a massage like we did. I recommend Nature Spa Healing Hands for a no-frills massage.

If you are prone to carsickness, don’t sit in the back of the bus on your way to or from Machu Picchu. It’s a winding, bumpy ride.

What to bring to Machu Picchu? Passports (yes, they check!), snacks, water, and a poncho.

We went in the early morning, and it was kind of romantic with the morning fog. However, for a better view, stay until the afternoon. It will get more crowded but the fog will clear up.

On our train ride to Aguas Calientes, we rode the Vistadome (the 2nd cheapest train), but on our way home, we rode the Expedition (the cheapest train) because I figured going home would be less exciting; plus, it was night time so there’s not much of a view anyway. The Expedition is a slightly older train and does not include a meal, but it still had huge windows and great service.

Ollantaytambo (+ Sacred Valley)

I could immediately tell that Peru was going to pull my heartstrings because even our flight into Cusco was breathtaking. The pilot made an announcement that we were about to land, but instead of descending, our plane kept getting higher and higher, past snowy mountain peaks and through the clouds. That’s how high Cusco is. At 11,154 feet above sea level, this was the highest at which I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time.

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Flying through clouds

As soon as we found our guide Willian, who was eagerly waiting for us at the airport, we started our half-day tour through the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Chinchero, where we drank our first of many coca teas, watched traditional weaving demonstrations, and learned the difference between llamas and alpacas. Llamas are generally larger, have longer ears, and are more independent. Meanwhile, alpacas are smaller, have more smooshed faces, and produce a softer fiber (thus, more expensive sweaters). Anthony ended up buying a llama sweater. All of the garments made here are dyed using pigments found only in nature, then tightly spun.

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Dying wool
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Weaving demonstrations
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Llamas and alpacas

Our next stop was the main plaza of Chinchero, encompassing a charming adobe church and Inca stone walls, surrounded by hillsides of fertile terraces that grow potatoes and quinoa. Chinchero is located even higher than Cusco, which is why we were huffing and puffing just climbing the few steps leading through town.

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Church overlooking the plaza
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Terraces of Chinchero

Inca masonry is legendary. Their structures feature precisely cut stones tightly fitted without mortar. The Inca split the stones along their natural fracture lines using stone, bronze, and copper tools. Walls are usually slightly inclined inside, while corners are rounded. This means that Inca buildings can withstand earthquakes.

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Inca masonry

After leaving Chinchero, we drove half an hour to Maras to view the salineras. Salt ponds were dug into this canyon thousands of years ago. Salty water from a local subterranean stream is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto these terraced ponds. The ponds are shaped into polygons and carefully monitored by workers. As the water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated. The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days, the keeper harvests the salt by scraping the dry salt from the sides and bottom.

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Salineras built into a canyon
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Love the different shades of brown

Our fourth stop, Moray, is famous for its grass-covered, terraced circular depressions. The temperature differences between each terrace creates a series of micro-climates that matches the varied climates of the Inca Empire, leading many to believe that Moray was a test bed to see what crops could grow where. Even the soils come from different regions. These ruins never flood despite Peru’s infamous rainy season, so there must also be an underground irrigation system.

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Moray

Finally, Willian ended our tour in Ollantaytambo, where we were staying at an adorable hotel called Kamma Guest House. After touring four incredible Inca sites, I felt almost humbled to be staying in the same village as descendants of the Incas.

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Arrived in Ollantaytambo!

Like most tourists, we had come to Peru for Machu Picchu, but I actually preferred the couple of days we spent in Ollantaytambo, a small town of cobblestone streets and ancient Inca buildings. This town is where the Incas retreated when the Spanish started colonizing. Ollantaytambo is surrounded by spectacular green mountains dotted with old ruins. A few small canals run through the town, and a vibrant community still lives in pre-Columbian dwellings. Many of the women still wear traditional attire, and people speak the indigenous language of Quechua.

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Ollantaytambo
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Typical streets in Ollantaytambo
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Little streams bisecting the streets
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Tiger trash cans!

On our first night there, it seemed like the whole town was in the central square for a Christmas children’s performance. Peruvian children are adorable! Due to the high altitude, they were born with bigger lungs and highly oxygenated blood that causes a red flush in their cheeks.

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Children wearing traditional attire
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Christmas festival in the plaza

While roaming around Ollantaytambo, I noticed trapezoids everywhere, especially in the doors and windows. The trapezoid is an extremely stable shape — structurally much more stable than rectangles. Given that the Inca Empire ran through the Andes in a seismic zone, Inca architects learned over time that trapezoids provided extreme stability in times of earthquake.

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Trapezoidal door

One morning, we hiked to an archeological site called Pinkuylluna, which consists of grain storehouses built on the side of a mountain. The entrance was right across from our hotel, and though the hike wasn’t exceedingly high, we were still acclimating to the altitude and needed to take multiple breaks on our way up. Along the way are stunning views of Ollantaytambo. The storehouses were built up there to keep grain dryer and cooler than down in the valley below. They’re now empty, providing an interesting setting for photo shoots. 

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Our goal
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First of many rest breaks
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Stumbling upon ruins
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We’re getting closer!
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We made it!
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Beautiful view of Ollantaytambo below

Ollantaytambo was breathtaking not only because of the high altitude, but because of the remnants of the Inca Empire, as well as the seemingly untouched villages scattered across this region. I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the people we met; they come from such a rich, brilliant civilization. I fell in love with everything we met here — alpacas, Peruvian children, stonework, high-quality salt… you name it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me that Ollantaytambo was the one town in Peru that brought me to tears when it was time for us to leave.

Tips for future travelers:

The best way to acclimate to the high altitude is by starting in the lowest area, then ending your trip in the highest. We stayed in Ollantaytambo first, moved up to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, and saved Cusco for last. Our first couple of days in Ollantaytambo were still a little rough, but by the time we got to our most important hike in Machu Picchu, we were fine. I took some acetazolamide pills before and during the trip, and we drank coca tea whenever we had a chance. Coca tea is available everywhere for free.

Hike Pinkuylluna in the morning to avoid the intense sun and larger crowds. It takes about an hour and a half.

Our six-hour Sacred Valley tour with Taxi Datum cost $65, which included an airport pickup and a hotel drop-off. Just be aware, our guide was more of a driver than a comprehensive tour guide.

Things to eat: potatoes (Peru has over 4,000 varieties!), alpaca (tastes like beef), cuy (guinea pig), corn, pisco sour, Cusqueña negra, chocolate, grains

All the meals we had in Ollantaytambo were good, but the most unique one was at Chuncho. “Chuncho” comes from the Quechua word meaning native. Everything on the menu is local and organic — even the cocktails (yes, all their alcohol is distilled on site!). We grated our own salt onto some toasted corn and tried cuy for the first time. I also found my favorite potato (the one with a purple skin and white flesh that makes perfect chips).

Other places to eat: Inti Killa (try the quinoa pizza) and El Cafe del Abuelo for coffee

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Better than 80% of the pizza we’ve had in Italy

A big reason that I fell in love with Ollantaytambo was our hotel, which has only five guest rooms, a view of the entire town from the rooftop, and the sweetest host who gave us restaurant recommendations and made us feel at home. Our room overlooked a small water channel, so I was able to fall asleep to the calming sound of moving water. Breakfast was served on the roof, and our host remembered my random food preferences. Our room cost $65/night.

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Pointing to our balcony at Kamma Guest House