Peru was the first country I ever visited in South America. This is a lesson of the dos and don’ts when traveling through Peru. I always wanted to see Machu Pichu, and I had a buddy who just happened to be going to Lima for a wedding, so we decided to plan an excursion after the wedding.
The first thing we looked at was the distance from Lima to Cusco (main city located nearest to Machu Pichu). The three main options you have are bus, car, or plane. On the map, the distance between Lima and Cusco looked about the same as Tampa to Miami (about a four-hour drive), so my buddy and I high fived, and we booked a rental car. This would later turn out to be one of the worst mistakes of our lives.
When we arrived in Lima, we promptly retrieved our rental car only to find out the GPS was not working properly because this model had not had a software update. This was the first sign of bad things to come. After we exchanged our GPS for one that we thought was better, we headed to our hostel. In Lima’s defense, the traffic in the city is not bad at all. But, the further you get away from the city center (the areas that have been modernized), the streets start to look like Fallujah. The GPS took us down one street that had a 12-foot crater in the middle of the road.
The first night we were in Lima, we wanted to see some sights before the wedding the next day. We looked on the internet for local nightlife, and we found directions to Plaza Agustin Gutierrez, which was only about a 10–15 minute walk from our hostel. Along the way, we stopped at a cool English pub and a couple of cantinas before arriving the Parque.
Located adjacent to the Plaza is hands down the best cheeseburger joint on Earth, and its name is La Lucha Sangucheria Criolla. You can’t miss it; every employee has checkered paper hats on. After gorging on more pisco sours (Peru’s national drink) and cheeseburgers we retired for the night to be up and ready for the wedding.
The next day was the wedding, and I can honestly say that outside of the Vatican, the Monasterio de San Francisco is the most opulent cathedral I have ever been in. The wood carvings with accents of gold that seemed to go on forever is truly something to see when visiting Lima.
The following day after the wedding, we woke up to set out on our journey. When we turned on the GPS to map out the route from Lima to Cusco, we were greeted with an estimated driving time of 22 hours straight behind the wheel—each way! What looked like a simple 5–6 hour drive at face value on the map, just turned into the drive from hell. We looked at each other and said, “Whatever, let’s go! This will just make for a better story later on.” WRONG!!!
So we start driving, and no more than half an hour into our journey had passed before we got pulled over by the Policia. Our rental-car agency failed to mention that you have to drive with your running lights or fog lights on at all times because of the thick fog that settles on Lima. Our ticket was $200 until I bribed the cop with $80 in cash right there. In Peru, whenever you get a ticket you have to go to one of the many state owned banks and pay your fine there.
OK, now we are back on the road, but only going at a speed limit of 35 KMH (18 MPH), which is why the road trip turned from 5 hours to 22 hours. This is why I strongly recommend taking a bus—because the bus drivers know where all the speed traps are, and they don’t look gringo. If moving at a snail’s pace wasn’t bad enough, we had to methodically plan every ounce of fuel to make it from one gas station to the next gas station (they don’t take debit or credit either).
Make sure that you have all your rabies shots before you go. The dogs in the local villages aren’t vaccinated, and most carry rabies. The dogs don’t mess with the locals because they’re used to them, but they dogs don’t like the smell of outsiders. So each time we needed a Fanta, I would have to get out and fend off rabid dogs with a flashlight because my buddy forgot to get his rabies shots. Just when we thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, my friend and I came to a city (i forget the name) about halfway into our journey that has drainage ditches on the side of the road so big and steep that if we tried to drive the car into the intersection, it would have gotten stuck and straddled between the streets. After driving around this labyrinth of a city for an 2 hours in the middle of the night (and refused to be defeated and go back to Lima), we finally found a road that our little Fiat Panda could make it across. You can’t miss this city if you take the south route to Cusco. There are only two routes to Cusco—the north route and the south route. A lot of people take the southern route so they can see Nazca lines.
After another 10 hours of driving, we finally arrived at Cusco. Cusco is pretty, historic city and very tourist accommodating. My friend and I had booked our tickets for the Hiram Bingham train prior to flying to Peru. You want to check to see the ticket prices and availability before just going to Cusco. The Hiram Bingham is the only train that goes to the bottom of Machu Picchu. When we booked our tickets, the research that we read said that you could only take a train in the morning and then have to book a return train to Cusco that same night, but when we got to the bottom of Machu Picchu, that was not the case. They have hotels and restaurants located there now so a person doesn’t have to rush through their exploration of the many Inca sights to be seen. After arriving by train you can either walk up to the base of Machu Picchu or you can pay $5 and take a bus. Take the bus!
It’s amazing how short of breath you’ll get when you get to 13,000 ft. That is why every hotel or hostel offers, coffee, tea, or coca. The morning before I ascended Machu Picchu, I grab a zip lock bag and brought coca leaves with me. Whenever I would get short of breath, I would take some coca leaves and pack them into my cheek. Sure that side of my face would go numb, but It gave me the little extra pick me up to continue my hike. Coca is EVERYWHERE in Peru. If chewing on leaves is not your thing, there are plenty of children in Cusco who will try to sell you coca candy.
After the complete hell of driving through the Andes for 22 hours, once we got to the city of Machu Picchu, the view made the entire trip worthwhile. It is absolutely amazing and mysterious at the same time. My buddy and I hiked around until sundown and caught the train back to Cusco and then left to return to Lima the next morning. The walkaway message here is to enjoy the food, surf, and cathedrals in Lima, fly to Cusco, spend a couple of days at the bottom of Machu Picchu at one of the new hotels, and then fly back to Lima for one last cheeseburger and pisco sour.