What you need to know before traveling to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and around in Peru

¡Hola!

I just got back from a trip that could be perfectly summarized as the most amazing and surreal week I’ve had this year. Undoubtedly. Imagine a 23-year-old girl from Indonesia who does not even speak Spanish traveling solo to South America for the first time.. Yup, that’s me!

Recollecting memories from the journey still got me as pumped as I was when I was just about to depart from Calgary Airport in Alberta, Canada to that other continent in the other side of the world. Hence while the memories are still vividly preserved, I have decided to write down the details about my trip to the beautiful country of Peru which could be the case of many of you: a non-Spanish speaker wishing to travel solo to witness the grandeur of Machu Picchu–on a budget. If that sounds familiar to yourself, keep going! I might just have the perfect story to share with you.

Tipon, South Valley.

I would divide the post into several essential points about all traveling to Peru-related FAQs, from the basic ones to all things you need to know and/or book in advance. And just in case you haven’t been familiar with all the city names I’d mention quite many times below, just remember that Cusco (whose airport is CUZ) is the town that is basically the main hub for foreigners wishing to visit Machu Picchu. There’s no way you could avoid coming to this city, as this connects Lima with all the other beautiful, historical towns that eventually leads to Machu Picchu in the small town of Aguas Calientes.

So, let’s begin!

Language

One of the things that might concern you the most about traveling solo to Peru–or any South American country–might be the language barrier. Well, I wouldn’t recommend coming all the way south without having at least very few Spanish skills, hence I would advise practicing some basic levels of Spanish on Duolingo app or watch some video tutorials of basic Spanish essentials for travelers. I myself have never learned Spanish before I decided to travel to Peru, but I guess I’ve learned more than sufficient to survive ever since. This is especially important when you try to bargain for things or ask where a certain place is, or to order your food at a restaurant. You do not need to be any more fluent than simply counting the numbers and say basic sentences such as ¿cómo está? ¡muy bien, gracias! yo soy de Indonesia (I am from Indonesia), vivo en Canada (I live in Canada), yo no hablo español, hablo usted ingles?, just to be polite to the strangers. These key sentences will keep you survive!

The touristy cities in Peru are completely overrun by tourists from all over the world, hence you’ll always find a bunch of folks who speak English to help you out. Many of the locals also actually speak pretty good English, though not the majority of them. But even when they don’t, they’re usually still able to count in English at the very least, so there’s not much to worry about buying merchandise or order food.

Pro tip: use Google Translate live camera translation app to translate Spanish signs/menu at the restaurants, and also the Google Translate instant recorder to instantly translate what you want to say! Siri works well too for these jobs.

Maras area.

Flight Tickets

I got very lucky because I discovered a really awesome deal that brought me to lock down a round-trip ticket from Calgary International Airport in Canada (YYC) to Lima International Airport in Peru (LIM) for only 480CAD (less than 5 million IDR!). Saved me more than a thousand bucks. For those of you who happen to live in Canada, if you haven’t figured out these awesome websites such as yycdeals.com, yegdeals.com, or any other xxxdeals.com (simply try to insert your Canadian city’s code!) then head there quickly and get yourself subscribed before you’re missing out too many awesome flight deals behind. These websites are my number one source for finding out the true deals of cheap flights from (and sometimes, to) Canada and they even have their own Facebook Group community for travel-related discussion.

Unfortunately for you who are living outside the country, especially those living in my home country Indonesia, I am no flight ticket expert hence I can’t really share many bits of advice on how to get cheap tickets to South America. And I know the round trip ticket from Indonesia to Peru is normally crazy expensive so you might need to dig more lifehack slash tips or tricks about this from other sources.

One thing that I understand for sure though, if you’re trying to find the ticket price from any website such as Skyscanner or anything similar, they basically track down your location and depending on where you’re browsing from, the price will be different for the exact same departure and arrival airports. For instance, the flight ticket from Jakarta to Lima might be a lot more expensive if you’re browsing in Jakarta compared if you browse from… let’s say Moscow. Luckily, there’s an app for finding flight ticket that basically “neglects” your location, hence you could use it to try finding the cheapest deal of your preferred departure and arrival location, even though, for example, you’ll end up buying the tickets from a Russian website just because they offer the cheapest deal for the destinations that you’re researching.

Pro tip: don’t reserve a round-trip ticket just yet, but instead, buy your ticket to home from a local agency in Cusco. I’m not sure if this is applicable to all countries, but for visitors from North or Central America, this advice is legitimately valid. The local agencies–which are extremely abundant in the main avenue–will most likely be able to find you a seriously cheap ticket home from CUZ to LIM and then LIM to your local airport back home. This is also something I wish I had known before I booked by round-trip tickets from LIM to CUZ for 220CAD. A lady whom I talk to on the plane said she got a ticket from CUZ to LIM for only about 50CAD. And other visitors that I talked to also reported the same thing. This is particularly very useful for those of you who plan to stay in Peru for an unplanned duration.

South Valley.

Accommodations

I stayed in a shared 4-bed female dorm at Hostal Mallqui in Cusco (9.5 out of 10, would be 10 if only the hot water from the shower is more controllable), private bedroom at Casa Quechua in Ollantaytambo (7 out of 10 just because the room is kind of scary at night), and a shared 4-bed female dorm at Casa Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes (8 out of 10 because each floor has only one female washroom). Each of them costs me no more than 13CAD per night including the proper American breakfast.

I’ve never had bad experiences staying in a shared dorm, and especially not in Peru. Keep in mind that Cusco and the surrounding area is basically overrun by tourists, and most of the travelers are fortunately intelligent and responsible human beings who would not even bother touching your stuff. I kept my Macbook, camera, iPhone, and cash inside my suitcase and they’ve always been safe. However, do remember to bring an extra lock and also probably a bike lock to secure your suitcases either in the safety boxes or onto your bed’s legs, and you should be fine. But just in case you’re a security freak or feeling somewhat unsafe about your fellow guests, the front desk usually would be happy to keep your belongings with them on a daily basis while you’re out enjoying the city.

Pro tip #1: keep browsing around even though it’s only a few days away from your trip, as many hostels would still have available rooms even in the last minute.

Pro tip #2: some hostels or hotels do offer taxi pickup from CUZ Airport to the accommodation, and this is the safest way to avoid you from paying surging prices from local taxis especially if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker. The cab that I booked via my hostel costs me S/20 or about 7.6CAD which totally made sense and wasn’t overpriced. Hence the advice.

Moray.

Transportation in Cusco

Cusco is a very small city and everything that is interesting for us tourists to visit is always reasonably within the walking distance. Locals use local buses too to get around, but I wouldn’t recommend using one as it’s not comfortable, super-crowded, is probably not too safe for tourists, and… Well, walking is just healthier!

But how do we navigate to the historical sites and scenic spots outside the city, then? One option is to take a taxi, in which advantage is that you could travel at your own pace. You could also take colectivos, for example, to go to Urubamba, Pisac, and Ollantaytambo which are the other smaller beautiful town full of Inca ruins. Or better yet, just take the guided tours which I will elaborate just in the next point below!

With taxis, it’s comfortable, private, and you can ask the driver to wait for you, but it’s the most expensive. With colectivos, which are basically shared minivans, it’s really cheap but you’re going to need to walk around from the colectivo depot to your actual destination. You need to share the van with other passengers as well which means you need to wait for extra 15 minutes (approximately) to wait for the van to be full. To me personally, guided tours are just the best way because you get to actually learn as well and not only enjoy the scenery.

Pro tip: if you do decide to hire a taxi, get help from your hotel/hostel’s front desk to make sure you get the licensed taxi with a licensed driver. The licensed driver will have official name tags and there’s special number on their taxis (other than the license ID) to identify the unit number of the taxi. The taxis you find on the street aren’t always safe for tourists, so be careful before trying to stop one!

Ollantaytambo Ruins.

Guided Tours

If you come this far to plan to learn more about the Inca culture and yes you definitely should, look no further than booking guided tours. Opposite from the common thoughts that guided tours normally cost you so much more than you should, every guided tour in Cusco will make you feel like you almost rob them for their awesome service. And I don’t find any reason why you shouldn’t join one because otherwise there might not be more comfortable ways to learn about every spectacular site that you go to.

The Hostal Mallqui where I stayed in organized trips of City Tour, Moras and Maray, and South Valley which costs me no more than S/50 or 19CAD for each tour. And it was so worth it because the guides were clear even though their English wasn’t without flaws, the buses were comfortable, and I managed to get rid of the hassles of checking out each and every tour agency in the city of Cusco by simply booking those offered by my hostel. I believe many tours could go as low as 10USD, but I decided to not bother saving couple bucks for the sake of comfort by letting my hostel organize the trips for me.

But if saving to the every penny is really your thing, simply head to Plaza Des Armas where hundreds of locals will try to offer you guided tours to wherever place that might pop into your mind. The most common destinations include the City Tour, Sacred Valley/Urubamba, Moras, Maray, South Valley, Rainbow Mountain, Chinchero, Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, and surely Machu Picchu. Some also offer horse-riding our, motorbike tour, bungee jumping, bicycle tour, and many other adventurous options.

The Sun Gate, Machu Picchu.

Currently, Rainbow Mountain is one of the most “happening” destinations as they’re pretty new and tourists have just begun to be curious about it. I didn’t go because it required a full-day hike and I basically just didn’t have enough time to go, but if you do, remember that the price could go as low as S/70 for a full-day trip according to a Brazilian girl whom I met in Aguas Calientes. Also, make sure that your agency provides the oxygen tubes because the altitude of the mountain is up to 5,200 masl and you have to do the whole hike in one day.

Pro tip #1: buy the Boleto Turístico (tourist ticket) and also other tickets required for your city tour in advance if you could, even when your tour agency says you could buy the ticket directly on the site once you get there with them. This is basically the ticket that includes access to many museums in Cusco as well as all the most important ruins in the city, Sacred Valley, and South Valley. I lost the first 30 minutes of the explanation in the cathedral of Cusco because I had to line up to buy my ticket while other guests somehow already got theirs. Also, consider getting an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) card! This card gets you a 50% discount for the tourist ticket, from S/130 to S/70, and also on almost all tourist destinations in Cusco and around.

Pro tip #2: join the Free Walking Tour. I didn’t manage to join them because of the time conflict with my guided tours, but if you have couple hours of free time starting from 10:30 AM, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t join their group. Other than having the opportunity to explore the important parts of the city for free and with legitimate guides, you’ll also get the chance to meet fellow travelers from all around the world and might hear their interesting experiences as well!

Pikillacta.

Entrance to Machu Picchu

Particularly when you travel during the high season (May to September), it’s very important that you book your Machu Picchu ticket in advance as there is a limited number of visitors allowed each day. I found a very neat tutorial on how to buy your ticket online from here, but just don’t forget that by the end of the steps you still need to get the actual ticket which I got by the help of my front desk office in Cusco. What the staff did was she went through the Ministry of the Culture’s website and then she managed to pull out my actual ticket–which I stupidly didn’t print out back in Canada. Other than online, you could also get your ticket from a particular office in Cusco and Aguas Calientes, but NOT on the site of Machu Picchu itself. The ticket price was 63.63CAD when I bought it.

Pro tip #1: if you plan to hike to either Waynapicchu Mountain or Machu Picchu Mountain, you’ll need to reserve the tickets a few months in advance. I myself wasn’t really in the mood for a serious hike and didn’t regret because the whole site of Machu Picchu outside these two mountains is already super wonderful to explore as well. But if you do look for greater experience, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t opt for hiking any of these two mountains.

Pro tip #2: however, if you somehow see that the tickets to these mountains are sold out on the website or in the official ticket booths in Cusco and Lima, don’t get disappointed just yet! There are a bunch of tour agencies in Cusco which would be able to get you the tickets if you buy directly to them. And not even necessarily in a more expensive price! We’ll get to this detail more in the next topic below. But the point is, just stroll around the city and ask around on where you could possibly find a travel agency that could get you tickets to the mountains, and you will most likely find (at the very least) one.

Moray.

Transportation to and from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu)

If you’re not thinking to join a Machu Picchu tour offered by many agencies nor hike the world-famous Inca Trail or any other trails, then you need to book the train tickets in advance. There are only two train companies offering this service, which are Peru Rail and Inca Rail. Each of my ticket using both from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) costs me about 84CAD and those were the cheapest options I saw on their websites after observing their prices for about a month. To me, both are just as clean, comfortable, and safe even though somehow the former is slightly more popular. Both give complimentary snacks and beverage as well so, it’s a tie!

However, trains weren’t the only options that could get you from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, as buses and even cars would work as well. I chose trains just because this is particularly the most common option and I’m just such a huge fan of trains–I even took couple trips to go across the continent by trains this year. It was worth it because the scenery along the way was brilliant and surprisingly, both of the train companies even have much better trains compared to USA’s Amtrak and Canada’s VIA Rail for the same class!

Pro tip #1: one thing I wish I had known before I flew to Peru is that in Cusco, there are basically hundreds or even thousands of legitimate local tour agencies that offer the tour package to Machu Picchu and you would only know their existence once you arrive in Cusco. Some use buses, some other uses trains. The price varies, but I believe if you really look into them carefully, you’ll find some day tour by bus that is just as low as less than S/300 or less than 115CAD. You won’t likely find them online because many of them are local businesses who have gained profits by advertising locally hence won’t bother setting up some website or online ads, but once you get to Cusco and go to Plaza De Armas, hundreds of the locals will try to offer you the package. Or when you walk around and spot any place with signs that say Machu Picchu tour.

Salineras de Maras.

But if you do choose to hike as people often describe the hiking experience to Machu Picchu to be such an unbeatable wonderful experience, then make sure you book with the local agencies and not foreign agencies! The locals are just known for doing their guiding jobs so much better when it comes to hiking, and the fees make more sense as well. Many of them have their own websites so just type the right keywords and Google will do the rest for you, but even if you have some extra luck, you can simply come to Cusco without no plans in your mind, head to any travel agency and they would still be able to set the whole things up for you. (I’ve actually met couple people who did this!)

Pro tip #2: if you somehow don’t spot a good deal online beforehand for the hiking options, do not be disappointed just yet. Just stroll around the city, ask around, and I could guarantee that you would find travel agencies who would be able to help you out with your inquiries even in the last minute. A girl from UK whom I met in Cusco said she just booked her 5-day hike (but not the Inca Trail) two days in advance and it was only for 200USD including meals and transportation services. Two girls from France whom I met in Aguas Calientes said they booked the Inca Trail hike in Cusco just three weeks in advance (as opposed to the common thoughts that you need to book the hike at least six months in advance). But be advised that these might not always be necessarily the case as people’s luck isn’t always the same; hence while these are totally possible, everything boils down to your best luck as well. So, fingers crossed! And be prepared just in case you need to take the conventional trains or buses mode instead of doing the hikes.

Machu Picchu.

Budgets and Buying the Currency

Peru uses Peruvian Soles (PEN), which was about 0.38 USD when I went. I personally didn’t bother buying soles from Canada, even though the reason was simply that I did not have enough time to look for the money exchanger. But it was apparently the very right choice because using the local ATM machine, I got so much better exchange rate from CAD to PEN even after considering the 2.5% additional charge, 5 CAD network fee, and S/18 ATM machine fee. I myself cashed about 900 PEN and those are more than sufficient because in many restaurants you could still use the teller machine as well.

I will write another post on which I will elaborate how I manage to enjoy the best out of Peruvian most famous destinations within 7 days with less than USD 700 (excluding the flight tickets from YYC to LIM). But, you could definitely still spend less if you follow some tips that I will include in that post as well. Until then, keep in mind that budgeting really comes to every individual’s most suited vacation style, but for me, USD 700 has definitely been more than just enough to support all the basic need I required during the trip.

Pro tip: not sure if my readers here also use CIBC Card, but I do, and it came to surprise that apparently, only the ATM machine in Caja Municipal Cusco works for my CIBC debit card. The GlobalNet, Scotiabank, and a few others didn’t work for my card which got me panicking for the first day because I could not use my card at the airport’s ATM and I had no single PEN cash with me. The actual tip is that: check with your bank if you only require ATM’s with VISA/Mastercard/American Express logo or if there are other requirements as well. The CIBC staff who spoke to me before I flew to Peru said as long as the ATM has Visa logo it’ll work, but apparently, the ATM also has to have either Interac or Plus logo as well.

Machu Picchu.

Concerns about Safety

Finally, this might be one of the major questions that prevent you from deciding whether or not to travel to Peru by yourself. Before I went, I was super concerned as well especially as a young female Muslim wearing headscarf which not everyone might understand about–especially Peruvians in Cusco where 91% of them are Catholics mixed with Inca beliefs. But once I reached Cusco and traveled around by myself, even with my camera visibly hanging around my neck and my backpack full of cash and gadgets, I figured that this city is very tourist-friendly! And the same applies to other towns as well, for instance, Ollantaytambo, Urubamba, and especially Aguas Calientes where Machu Picchu is located.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t be careful traveling around. I guess what’s most important is to not wear anything that attracts too much attention (well, seems like I just totally broke this rule by wearing a headscarf, lol.. But I mean things like pieces of jewelry!) and also try to avoid eye contact with strangers. But if you’re somehow trapped within awkward eye contacts, just smile or even say “hola.” I learned that locals are very welcoming towards foreigner, because we’re the sources of their primary income anyway! And if someone tries to offer you something that you’re not interested about, just say “No, gracias,” or “Perdon, gracias,” and it’ll all be fine.

So again, avoid looking “expensive”, always be aware of your surroundings, and also do not walk alone in quiet areas. I myself have always tried to always come back home by 7 PM, as the streets get really dark by evening and sometimes you might not realize when there are buses coming from the other way since the street systems are sometimes confusing. These are the only tips that I follow through, but it got me safe and sound during the whole journey, thankfully.

Pikillacta.

And that’s it! I would still be writing other posts regarding my budget-friendly complete itineraries and a full elaboration on Machu Picchu in details soon, but I hope this post answers most general questions you folks have in mind about traveling to Peru.

Until next time!

Written by

A geologist, self-taught photographer, hobbyist writer, and wanderer who loves subtle colours, sunrays, mother nature, wilderness, adventures, flowers in the afternoon, quiet corners of a city, being literally - yet not figuratively - on top of the world, solo travels, trips by train, fascinating rocks, vintage postcards, and aesthetically pleasing urban landscapes.

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