I was fortunate to travel to beautiful Cusco in October 2017. There was so much to do, I wish I had more time but I did the best while kind of winging it. I was told by friends that the best deals are the ones you find at Plaza de Armas in Cusco and they were right. All I booked before going to Peru were my plane tickets to Lima and my round trip tickets from Lima to Cusco. My family lives in Lima, so I decided to spend the first three nights there. Check out my post about Lima here.
Flying to Cusco:
I bought plane tickets with Viva Air Peru for the cheap deals. Viva Air is equivalent to Frontier or Spirit, here in the USA. There are additional charges for bags and they only allow you one carry-on bag (small purse or bookbag), so keep that in mind. Make sure to have your boarding pass printed or they will charge you about 45 soles ($15) for each check-in. Their prices are the same for Peruvians and foreigners, which is why I chose them since I traveled with my American novio (boyfriend).
The flight is about one hour from Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport to Cusco’s Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport.
- We caught a taxi from Cusco’s airport to Plaza de Armas for about 7 soles ($2.50). Always ask for the taxi prices before getting in and, at times, you are able to negotiate if you think it’s too high. The fair price from these two points is between 5 to 10 soles. Remember I went in October 2017 so prices are subject to increase.
- We went with the first tour agency offer we encountered because we were tired but there are a lot of people offering tours to Machu Picchu and other locations in the main Plaza. It is up to you if you want to check a few and make a decision. We booked our tour with Qori Inka Travel after one of their guides approached us and I am very glad we did, they delivered everything they promised.
- My brother and I had Peruvian IDs since we were born in Peru but because we were traveling with my boyfriend, we wanted to do everything together and skipped on some Peruvian-only discounts. Keep in mind that everything we selected, such as hotels and method of transportation, were really budget driven and we told the travel agency representative that we were not picky at all. They told us they are able to accommodate other needs as well.
- We chose to stay our first night in Cusco to acclimate ourselves with the altitude since it is higher than Machu Picchu. Cusco is at 11,152 feet and Machu Picchu at 7,972 feet. We chewed on coca leaves and drank mate de coca, a tea made of coca leaves. We all experienced minor altitude sickness like headaches and faster than usual heartbeats but nothing serious.
From Cusco to Aguas Calientes:
At 7am, the following morning, a guide met us at our lobby, which was about three blocks from Plaza de Armas (can’t recall the hotel name). We walked three blocks to a white 15 passenger private minibus that took us around to three different towns. We chose this option because it was cheaper than taking the train.
- It took us to Ollantaytambo, where we had a quick bathroom and snack break.
- We then stopped at Santa Maria, Santa Teresa and finally Hidroelectrica Town, where we had lunch. The bus ride from Cusco to Hidroelectrica was about 6.5 hours. Tip: If you are like me, motion sickness pills and coca leaves will be your friend if you choose this route.
- Hidroelectrica was our final destination before our 3 hour walk to Aguas Calientes aka Machu Picchu Town. We were told this was a simple and flat “2-hour” walk but it was much longer and if I would have known what I know now, I would have just taken the train and paid extra lol. Don’t get me wrong, it was an adventure, I got amazing views but I got bitten by mosquitos, I was sweating profusely and I was carrying a bookbag with two nights worth of clothes and my camera. Everything was hurting after that 11 mile walk but I’m also not in the best shape of my life, so that is a big factor to take into account.
- We walked from around 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm and finally arrived at Aguas Calientes. Our travel agency already had booked us the hotel. We showered, ate and met with our new tour guide in the lobby to receive instructions for our Machu Picchu trip the following morning.
- The following day, we started forming a line at 4:20 am by their bus station and people were already there. I believe the first bus started boarding at 5:30 am or 6:00 am and it comes every 5 or 10 minutes. Some people walk up to “the” Machu Picchu Mountain but I was not going to do a two hour hike and pass out somewhere. It was an easy 20 minute bus ride up the mountain.
- We already had our bus boarding tickets and Machu Picchu entrance tickets so we met with our guide there and began our two hour guided tour. You get to enter Machu Picchu twice with your ticket, they stamp it for you. First with a guide and the second time alone if you want to go in again.
- After my two hour guided tour, we had to exit but we went back for two more hours to explore more at our pace.
- After you exit, there’s a station where you can stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp for free.
- We did not get bus tickets through the tour agency to go back down to Aguas Calientes because we were told it’s only a one hour walk down. After our walk the day prior, we just chose not to. We easily bought bus tickets when we exited. Remember, October is the beginning of their low season.
- We chose to stay in Aguas Calientes one more night because we thought we were going to be tired from waking up so early. But looking back, I would have gone back to Cusco after Machu Picchu because there’s more to do in Cusco.
- Back in Aguas Calientes, we had a full body massage for 45 soles per person (they are 20 to 30 soles in Cusco) and went to the hot springs for a bit and ate some more local food like alpaca anticuchos.
From Aguas Calientes to Cusco:
- Our package included riding back, via train, in the Inca Rail to Ollantaytambo and then a private bus to Cusco from there. The train ride was approximately two hours and it was scenic and smooth. The private bus ride was about 2.5 hours. A guide waited for us at the train station and looked for us. We waited for other passengers and got going.
- Once we got back to Cusco, we stayed at the same hotel for one more night before heading back to Lima.
Our Cost: about $200 dollars per person included:
- Four hotel nights; two in Cusco and two in Aguas Calientes (at very budget friendly hotels).
- Private bus ride with 15 total passengers to Hidroelectrica where we walked to Aguas Calientes. Lunch was included.
- Bus ticket up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. It DID NOT include tickets for the bus to come down because we originally were going to walk down. My brother and I paid local prices at $8 per ticket but my boyfriend had to pay about $24. Check this site out for more current prices.
- Machu Picchu entrance and guided tour.
- One way Inka Trail tickets to Ollantaytambo.
- Private bus ride to Cusco from Ollantaytambo.
Tips and Suggestions:
- Take the train both ways. The tour guy told us if we had bought tickets in advance for Peru Rail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, it could been way cheaper than Inca Rail. For this, we needed four to eight days in advance to buy these tickets but we did not have the time nor did we know. Inca Rail was really nice and I would take it again even if I had to pay more.
- I think one night in Aguas Calientes is enough so you can spend more time exploring Cusco.
- If you need to change dollars to soles, do it in Lima or Cusco. The exchange rate when I was there was: 3.25 in Lima, 3:22 in Cusco and 3.10 in Aguas Calientes.
- Take mosquito repellent, toilet paper, chapstick, sunblock even if the sun is not out, and have plenty of coins.
- San Pedro Market, in Cusco, has a large selection of souvenirs for a fraction of the cost compared to Aguas Calientes’ market.
- Museo Inka, in Cusco, is worth visiting. Pay the extra for a guided tour of the museum (they only had Spanish speaking guides).
Eat like the locals:
- Cusqueñita Restaurant was a nice local spot with live entertainment on Sundays. My aunt and a local recommended it to us. The portions are huge. We could not finish half of our dishes. We took a taxi from Plaza de Armas for 5 soles there.
- In Cusco, I would recommend to try the Lomo Saltado (beef stir fry with onions, french fries and rice), pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), anticucho (beef heart kabobs) and picarones.
- I think the food is better in Lima but that can be my Limeña biased opinion. If you find yourself in Lima, make sure to try their ceviche, papa a la huancaina, arroz con pollo and escabeche.