If you are blessed to have vacation days, you know how precious they are! We work like dogs, when all we secretly want is to hop on a plane and jet out into the world (I just assume that’s everyone’s wish, really…). While the long-listed bucket holds many destinations, I too, know how hard it is to find the perfect spot on which to spend the hard-earned free time.
That’s why I chose to spend my week in Peru, leading up to my 30th birthday. I wanted to ring in the big 3-0 doing something I’ve always wanted to do – climb, hike, and sleep under the stars. Literally. It was time to manifest some of the ideas I’d only ever jotted down on scraps of paper, and what better time than when I’m getting ready to turn over a new decade! If you’re looking for an itinerary or travel inspiration, consider this South American gem.
Cusco, the doorway to the Incas
Cusco is a couple hours from Lima by plane. It is already at an elevation, so don’t freak out when you land and suddenly can’t remember how to breathe. It’s normal. Situated at over 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco is warmly inviting – even when it rains (and it rains often!). Its cobble-stoned streets that are insanely narrow give rise to its many arched doorways, hostels, and cafes. The city is known for being the doorway to the Incas for its hub of tourists and backpackers, all with their sights set on Machu Picchu and beyond; not to mention the rich epicenter of Incan and Catholic architecture and influence, living side by side. Even if you’re not a history or museum nut, you would be remiss not to walk around Plaza de Armas and take in the beauty of the city center. I spent a full day walking around Cusco, which gave me enough time to sight-see, take a million pictures, and eat! Ceviche (fresh seafood platter) is amazing in Cusco, but their specialty is Guinea Pig (tip – it tastes like Guinea Pig – if you had/have one as a pet, maybe skip this). And if you’re in the mood for something sweet, there is a lovely little pasty bar in the city center called La Valeriana. Order the Rainbow Cake and Lemongrass Tea. You will thank me.
Travel Tip: you will undoubtedly see many ladies wearing traditional, super colorful Peruvian dress. You’ll also notice that they carry baby goats with them, who are also clad in their own colorful garb. Baby freakin’ goats. There’s nothing on God’s green Earth that will stop you from running over there and smothering the animals and maybe even the ladies, but travel tip – they expect compensation for this adorable gesture. Be prepared to pay each of them, as they travel in packs. Not doing so will result in absolutely no baby goat play time. You’ve been warned.
Rainbow Mountain, the big ol’ climb up
Immediately the next day, I chose to book a tour to hike up to Rainbow Mountain. I’ve read many reviews where trekkers have suggested booking in advance; some have recommended that you wait until you arrive in Cusco, as there are many travel agencies in the city. It’s really up to you. I always feel more comfortable booking early, so that’s what I did for this trip. Rainbow Mountain, also called Montana de Colores or Vinicunca, is a beast of a mountain, but luckily – you don’t need actual climbing equipment. Just really strong legs. It sits at over 5,000 meters, which roughly translates to 16,000 feet. I know because I asked a fellow trekker how much longer we had to go before my brain exploded.
In reality, Rainbow Mountain is incredibly gorgeous. It gets its name from the six major colors it shows on a good, clear, sunny day. The colors show because of the different type of soil that can be found in the earth. The sights are stunning, and it’s often very crowded at the top as everyone and their mom tries to squeeze in a selfie (yours dearly did not hold back!). The climb up is no joke, however. The average hike time is roughly two hours if you’re Iron Man. It took me three, because I forgot in how bad of physical shape I was at the time, and not to mention that my lungs gave up somewhere on mile 1. The entire trek is very long, as you’re picked up from your hotel/hostel at 4am and driven three hours to the mountain. I would highly suggest bringing snacks and a plethora of water. Many tours do provide breakfast, but in my humble opinion, it’s light. If I’m going to hike up into the clouds, baby, I need more than eggs.
Depending on what tour you choose, you have the option of hiking up to the summit and walking back down the same way, OR taking the alternate route – Red Valley. Unbeknownst to me, my tour group decided they weren’t tired enough, so we took the Red Valley way down. This was another two-hour hike vertically down, but by this point, I was so exhausted that I momentarily entertained the thought of just throwing myself down the ravine. I should note that the weather in the Andes changes moods quicker than I do when I PMS, so expect every season within a three-hour period.
Travel Tip: If you are tired and absolutely deadbeat, the locals do provide horses as a way of hiking up to the summit. I would encourage you to, however, challenge yourself and try to walk as much as you can. It is imperative and good for you if you take your time, even if your tour group is on hiking steroids and have lightly jogged ahead of you. Additionally, altitude sickness is real. Very, very real. I know because I got sick myself, and ended up puking my very light breakfast in front of my tour group. If I didn’t think they liked me walking slow, I know they loved me hurling my guts out as they snacked on their peanut butter and bananas. Walk slow. Walk mindfully. Drink more water than you’ve ever wanted to in your life. And enjoy the scenery! Apart from your muscles falling apart, the views are seriously unreal.
Sky Lodge, literally under the stars
One of the main reasons why I went back to Peru was because of Sky Lodge. I saw it on Facebook one day and swore up and down that I would be back to try this adventure. Sky Lodge is a set of three sleeping pods that are anchored into the side of a mountain in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Chilling at roughly 3,000 feet up, the pods look like alien art-deco that fell out of the Enterprise; but they’re so much more…
Similarly to the Rainbow Mountain tour, you get picked up butt early from your hotel/hostel and transported to Sacred Valley where the climb begins. In the van on the way over, you’ll make friends with your roomies! Each pod can sleep up to four people, but you’re welcome to book the whole thing for yourself (which is what I did!). Your roomies are the other people occupying the other pods, and since you’ll be hanging off of a side of a cliff with them, it’s nice to get to know them. Before you begin the climb, the guides will go over safety equipment and all that fun stuff that keeps you from dying. The actual climb up looks and feels more like climbing a really tall ladder. There are metal rods drilled into the rock that you step on to make your way up; you’re also secured by a bungee cord and carabiners. I did ask the guide if the bungee cord would hold you if you accidentally slipped. He never did answer my question, so I’m assuming no. Don’t fall.
The climb up takes roughly two hours (it’s always two…), and personally, I excelled on this adventure. As someone who absolutely loves heights, it was spectacularly freeing for me to hang off of these rods and enjoy the breeze on my face. Sometimes I would look down to see how far we’ve come, and nothing made me more proud. By the time we ascended to the top, it was already getting dark. In addition to the sleeping pods, there is one big pod that serves as the living room. This is where we all meet once we climb, and the guides proceed to cook us dinner. And I’m not even talking a light snack from a lunch box. They went all out – chicken, salad, dessert, and a few bottles of wine. Nothing spells climbing adventure like alcohol to make you forget you are not on the ground. Or remotely close to it.
Once dinner is done, you strap back in and climb a few more minutes to your sleeping pod. By this time, it is pitch black. Thankfully, the guides have headlamps prepared, like that won’t negate the fact that I am still 3,000 feet up and climbing in the dark – with a bungee cord that may or may not support me. But seeing as how I’m writing this, I did make it. The pods have everything you would need – toilet, water, tea, a bed better than I’ve ever had back home, and more importantly, a million and one stars. I counted. That night, for the first time since arriving to Peru, we had a clear night with every star known to man and NASA, on display. It was breathtaking. Finally, sleeping under the stars. Literally. A birthday dream come true.
The next morning, I climbed back into our cozy living room, slipped a little on one of the rods and almost peed myself, had breakfast, and prepared to zip-line down. There is a set of six zip-lines – one of them a mother of a line – that you must do in order to descend. As you fly, you must – at some point close to the end – brake in order to stop. In some cases, it so happens that there is a lack of momentum and you end up getting slightly stuck in the middle of the line, just hanging. My advice is just to smile and laugh along. Crying won’t help, nor will screaming. Eventually it all works out…
Travel Tip: This is, hands down, the most amazing accommodation I’ve done yet on any trip. My sincerest recommendation is that you do this. Immediately. You will never regret anything the way you would regret missing this. It is spectacular in every way.
Peru Rail to Puno, fancy style
Once I arrived back to my hotel in Cusco and explained to the hostess that I was not kidnapped and was in fact sleeping in a hanging pod, I prepared to check out and board my first ever Peru Rail train. Now, I will note that this train is not cheap. I splurged on this and made it my birthday present to myself (people do that still, right?). You can take the bus to Puno, which is cheaper, and you still get the beautiful views along the way. Cusco is approximately 10 hours from Puno, so the entire trip is an adventure in and of itself. I just love trains, and I wanted to treat myself to this Peruvian luxury. Being able to provide it for myself is a blessing I do not take for granted.
Peru Rail is fancy. I’m talking white tablecloths and upright study chairs, with a full bar, on-train entertainment, and food to die for! I boarded, late (not unusual), with disheveled hair, a bracelet stuck in my hair because I didn’t have time to pull it out while I was running from the taxi, dirty boots that survived Rainbow Mountain and a rabid dog in Cusco, and my yoga mat dangling and hanging from my back – which I’m sure hit every person in the head as I made my way down the train aisle. I was a sight.
I must pause and give my absolute heartfelt gratitude to the train attendants who serve you for 10 hours. Not only were they smiling ear to ear at all times, even when the group of photography aficionados sprawled their equipment everywhere like they were shooting a full-on movie set, but they brought the most compassion you could hope for. My phone completely died in Cusco the night before, and I simply had to make peace with the fact that I was not going to be able to take any pictures on the train. To my rescue came one of the attendants who let me use his phone charger, and amigo – should you ever read this, I owe you a piece of my heart. Muchisimas gracias.
Travel Tip: if you’re in opportunity to travel with Peru Rail, spend as much time in their last, uncovered wagon. The sights as you travel through the countryside are so humbling. You’ll feel like Scarlett O’Hara waving goodbye at the train rail.
Puno and Lake Titicaca for the Win
The train makes its final stop in Puno. Again, you’re arriving at an elevation slightly higher than Cusco, standing at over 12,000 feet above sea level. Puno is busy, but not in the same manner as Cusco. It’s a bit more quiet and less touristic, but a gem in and of itself. Like Cusco, it has its own Plaza de Armas. Why spend time on unique names when you can just name everything the same, right? It’s a beautiful little city square to get lost in. And if you’re like me and need to find a phone charger with less than ideal Spanish speaking ability, go to the square, turn right, turn left, take another left, and walk back and forth until you stumble onto anything resembling an electronics store. I went to college and have a Master’s degree, and my proudest moment is still being able to successfully purchase a charging cord in South America.
Most tourists in Puno are there for Lake Titicaca, world’s highest navigable lake. At elevation, this lake is massive. If you opt to go out on tours, which I suggest, seeing the lake from a boat will give you a new perspective. Puno people live off of it. It is their bread and butter, and it is gorgeous. I’m a bit introverted, but I pushed myself to do a homestay with a local Puno family. I booked my time in Puno for two days and if you’re not doing something lake-related, it can get a bit boring in the city itself. Most tours who offer homestays will pick you up and take you over to the docks to board a ferry. This way, you’re transported via the Lake to the many small islands that surround Puno. The first one we visited was Amantani, which is where we were going to spend the night with our new mama y papa. Don’t get it twisted if you thought the boat ride was going to be a doozy. That lake water was seriously pissed off the day I boarded the ferry, and it was tossing us like sea biscuits. No one threw up on the actual boat, but there were plenty of green faces. I, myself, thoroughly enjoyed the violent swaying. It’s oddly the one thing that puts me right to sleep.
Amantani island is small, yet big. I say that because it’s an island where a plethora of families live, but once you’ve circled the circumference of what’s there, you realize this is it. If I don’t like my neighbors, it’s not like I can go anywhere else. We had a large tour group, so we were each divided up into three and sent off with our new families. Thankfully, my roomies knew Spanish and could help me piece my verbs and nouns correctly so that I could somewhat communicate with my new parents. They were an older couple, cute as can be, who welcomed us into their home and cooked us wonderful food – probably more than they could share. Their small yet beautiful home had two guest rooms for us, separated by a beautiful courtyard. Mine was simple and humble, but when I realized that the comforter was actually made of llama hair, I couldn’t wait to go to sleep. Note – Puno and the islands are super cold at night, so if you have to snuggle up to llama hair or an actual llama, I suggest you do it.
We were booked to stay on the island for one night, at which point that evening, we would be invited to a local celebration put on by the families. Little did I know that we also needed to wear their traditional dresses. I was put off by it at first, but looking at my packed attire that had started to seriously mold from all of the rain, wind, and climbing, I jumped at the chance to put on clothes that weren’t…well, mine. That night, we all reunited in the local hall, where we were taught the traditional island dance, which is pretty much coming together in a circle and then running in said circle. I think the locals meant to teach us to gently dance in a circle, but we mistook that for running, and probably ended up taking their sweet tradition and turning it into a grizzly-clad replica of tourist primitives losing their minds at elevation. We were a sight. That night, beneath the stars again, I cocooned underneath my llama-hair blanket. It doesn’t help to mention that I came into my humble abode with a giant spider by the door; as my fellow roomie killed it (because I was frozen), I was sure that would signal a restful night ahead. I was wrong. Three more spiders came and went through the night, and I ended up sleeping like a mummy, with my blanket hugged tight and my arms over my chest. I don’t remember when I allowed myself to close my eyes, but I sent out a quick prayer to keep any bugs from infesting my ear canals.
As we parted ways the next morning, saying adios to our adorable parents, we boarded the ferry one more time to visit a neighboring island, Taquile; not to be mistaken for tequila, which I’m sure most of us wouldn’t have declined if offered. Last on the list was seeing the floating Uros islands. By this time, the rain and clouds had passed, and the scorching sun beamed down on our group of fairly pasty-skinned people. The Uros islands are real floating islands, supported on thick bushes of reed that sustain them. In order to not float away from each other, the locals tie each little island to another. It always makes me think of otters who hold each other’s hand to stay together. The Uros people are simple, kind, and creative. They live off of the Lake and tourism as much as they can, and it is culturally and environmentally educational to visit with them.
Travel Tip: Supporting the local Uros people by purchasing some of their man-made art is an easy way of ensuring that they sustain their life on the Lake. They are incredibly proud of their homes, and will go out of their way to show you around. I recommend taking them up on it. Also, while you’re there, enjoy a reed boat ride. It’ll make you feel like a Viking. A Peruvian Viking.
Peru, in and of itself, is a treasure. From its beaches and sea-life in Lima to its mountains and ancient cultures in Cusco and beyond, there is no end to adventure here. For any traveler, whether backpacker or luxury seeker, there is something to fall in love with and idolize. And while there are many destinations that will undoubtedly take your breath away, there is one Peru. And I hope you find the kind of spirit there that I had the honor of experiencing.