Pockets of Peru: Cusco, The Amazon & Machu Picchu
My travels to Peru, and my only foray into South America left me wanting to explore more, and my visit showcased what makes the best Peru tour. I discovered amazing micro cultures and climates visiting Cusco, The Amazon and Machu Picchu and it’s why they should all be on your Peru tour itinerary.
Being a big country to cover, my trip was broken into a few group tours; the Amazon Jungle, Cusco and surrounds, and hiking the Inca Trail to arrive to Machu Picchu, along the way meeting solo travellers making the most of the benefits of small group touring.
My big takeaway from my visit was that joining a small group guided tour in Peru is the better way to see it. Not only does it make sense when you travel solo to Peru for the camaraderie of your group but also for some other reasons.
- They get you off the beaten path in record time
Let's say you have limited days in Cusco, but want to make the most of the stupendous surrounding countryside in the Sacred Valley, dotted with hundreds of Inca ruins and laced with hiking trails. Finding your own way may be possible, but it will take you longer on public transport and you’re not likely to be nearly as comfortable as travelling with an organised group.
- Peru has some of the best-protected reserves and national parks in South America
Part of their national park protection has meant limiting access and irresponsible tourism: in many cases, you can see a destination with a guide, or not see it at all. This is certainly the case for the Inca Trail where you need to buy a permit months in advance, and join a tour to hike the route.
- The immense history and culture
Without a guide you miss too much; Peru is rich in ancient history and culture and the guides have incredible knowledge and hearing first hand rather than reading snippets from a guide book truly impart the depth of the country’s history and uniqueness.
I took advantage of a three-week trip organised by Encounter Travel. Justine, Encounter’s Founder has travelled extensively in South America so she had all the knowledge needed to put together a great itinerary.
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The Amazon; tropics and jungle
The trip began with a visit to the Amazon Jungle, and staying in simple but comfortable lodge. Part of the authenticity of the experience was that there was limited electricity, and no Internet except for patchy wi-fi in the common areas which made it ideal for a real getaway.
Day two of the visit was a real highlight for me. After a two-hour cruise up the river, we walked through the jungle for about two kilometres and along the way stopped to hear about the local fauna and flora of the Amazon Jungle. My favourite was the monkeys. I’d never seen monkeys in the wild and we were able to get quite close. We also saw a black Caiman (a relative of the crocodile), heaps of moths and butterflies, and some amazing old trees.
After returning to the lodge for lunch we headed off again to a local farm that supplies the lodge with much of its fresh produce. Most of it was tropical fruit like pineapples, star fruit, grenadine, pawpaw, and bananas, plus root veggies like cassava. They also keep pigs and chooks on the farm. It was such an eye opening insight to see how others live.
On my visit I even saw a huge tarantula which surprisingly was not as scary as I expected. Quite a beautiful creature. Although if it hadn't retreated down its hole, I certainly would have high-tailed it out of there.
Three days and a few nights (or a bit longer) is a the best way to visit the jungle and get the most out of your stay.
Cusco. Oozing Charm in Every Way.
Cusco is a charming small town, and the arrival point for visitors making their way to Machu Picchu. With a series of very narrow cobblestone streets apparently built by the Incas, and of course in a time when they didn't have cars, luckily they are just wide enough for cars to fit through. That's fine when the cars are small which most of them are, but not so great when a Toyota Prada passed me today. A bit squeezy. Definitely no parking available. It kind of reminded me of the narrow streets of Florence which you can barely fit a car down but the Italians somehow manage it.
Cusco is a great spot to plant yourself and make some visits to surrounding areas. From Cusco I visited a number of Inca ruins. Our guide Tina (short for Ernestina) gave us a fabulous insight into the Tambomachay, Q'enko, and Saksaywaman ruins. She spoke with great passion about the Inca people and their ingenuity in building these amazing structures.
A couple of highlights included walking through a pitch-dark tunnel at Saksaywaman where you had to feel the walls to find your way – quite intriguing.
Another place that was different was the town of Ollantaytambo, to me, a funny little town. Our tour guide Tina described it as a 'living museum' because most of it is based on the original Inka foundations and buildings.
Following the Footsteps of the Incas
The highlight of my trip was hiking the Inca Trail. In hiking terms it’s fairly moderate but it has the added experience of being at altitude. At its highest point, it reached 4200 metres which is certainly the highest altitude I’d ever reached without being in an aeroplane.
There’s no option to just rock up and hike the rail; no tourists are permitted to complete the hike without purchasing a permit and joining an organised tour. I was impressed to see on our first day that we had to go through a checkpoint with our guide. They even weigh all the packs carried by the porters to ensure that the trail isn’t being worn down too fast.
The trail itself varies from dirt undulating paths to steep stone steps, and even quite a lot of forest. Our group took three and a half days to complete the hike which is about the average time that most groups take, and camping out along the way. And, if you book a good tour, you’re well taken care of, with tents erected for you, meals cooked and served up for you and waking to a warm drink ready for you just as you rise.
For me the harder part of the walk was the breathlessness caused by the altitude, but the spectacular views made up for the discomforts, but there’s no rush, nor any sense of being rushed.
And, what all the hikers are building up to as the finale is the stone gateway called the Sun Gate . It’s from the Sun Gate you get the magical and first look across Machu Picchu. It is ‘the prize’ after three and a half-days of hiking.
The government of Peru has obviously spent a lot of time and money developing a great tourism industry. The big stand out was the passion that all our guides oozed for their country and particularly their Inka roots.
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