Spotlight: Peru from Sea to Sky

[trip style = active & adventure + budget conscious + sightseeing]

Vancouver -> LA -> Lima. Thanks to my LAN airlines personal entertainment console, flying from LA to Lima I re-discovered a cherished and addictive pastime: tetris. The flight was 8 hours. I.played.tetris.for.8.hours. Peru was the kind of trip my husband and I didn't plan, but embraced. It came about in response to our desire to adopt a village abroad with international relief organization FH Canada. We spent the first week in Lima and surrounding areas with FH looking at field operations and visiting our sponsor kids. Our second week was spent trekking to Machu Picchu. Our sejour in Peru took us from sea to sky, or 0 to 3,400 meters.

Lima Lima's cool coastal vibe was not what I expected: it was 20 degrees Celsius yet freezing; the city centre was raw yet chic; local night owls ate and drank into the wee hours yet jogged at 6am; and the swarms of birds that happily chirped overhead discarded their waste on unsuspecting walkers. Wear a hat in Lima. The culinary scene was haute-cuisine and mix of modern and colonial-style architecture dazzled the eyes. I didn't expect something so cosmopolitan. Even the accessory dogs wore sweaters!

door in limaapproach to plaza de mayoror

There was another side of Lima though. Real estate 'seemed' contra. While the congested city center is a place where mid-to-upper class people congregate and live, the hills---or view properties---are home to closet-like shacks inhabited by the city's poorest, hardworking and enterprising families. Although many travelers wouldn't want to experience both sides of the city, seeing Peru's true colors paints a more realistic picture---much more compelling than "seaside metropolis."

Cusco Three thousand, three hundred meters from sea level, we landed in Cusco: unofficially called the gateway to Machu Picchu. Most people fly into this historic town to acclimatize to the elevation before making their way by train or trek to the famous Incan mountaintop ruins. All the guidebooks tell you to lay low the day you arrive to combat the potential effects of altitude sickness (tiredness, dizziness, upset stomach, headache, etc...), and this could not be more true. My travel medical clinic gave me just-in-case altitude sickness pills, but I didn't use them. Instead, I opted for a more natural remedy: coca tea (yes, the same plant used to make cocaine) poured for me when I got to the nicest hostel I've ever stayed at: Hospedaje Familiar LLipimpac. See my trip advisor review here.

Cusco is more than just a stop-over. It's a historic, vibrant destination with Peruvian culture bursting out of every wooden door frame. I'm glad our travel schedule allowed for four nights to appreciate the ancient capital of the Inca Empire---a the UNESCO heritage site, Sacsayhuaman (pronounced sort of like 'sexy woman') fortress built around 1,100 AD, the hustle and bustle of the Plaza des Armas central square, and our prime restaurant balcony seating overlooking one of the most colourful festivals all year: Corpus Christi.

corpus christi cuzcocuzco corpus

Machu Picchu When you travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu, the mountaintop ruins' height seems like a breeze---it's actually about 1000 meters lower than Cusco. No coca tea required, but plenty of water is recommended given the expansive terrain. Thanks to Encyclopedia Britannica proudly sitting on the shelves of my elementary school library, I remember being mesmerized by the pictures and history of the Inca's lost city. Seeing it in person is another story.

Inca Jungle Trek
  • Booked the 4-day Inca Jungle Trek based on small write-up in Lonely Planet Peru and a hotmail address. We wondered if we were crazy. Turns out, a dentist, geologist, architect, biologist and engineer also booked the trek via this same hotmail address. Apparently we were not that crazy.
  • Thankfully, our 16-year old guide was more than capable due to the training from his father, the company's owner, whose gold teeth glistened in the sun.
  • On the trek, we biked down gravel highways tightly clenching our bikes' shoddy breaks with large trucks passing us at 70km/h, slept in 'rooms' that hadn't been cleaned in what seemed like decades, ate carbs at every meal (we were all looking forward to vegetables after 4 days), walked along one of many original Inca trails carved into a rock face 800m high (with less than 30cm of walking space), pulled ourselves across the Urubamba river while sitting in a little box attached to a metal cable 200m high, and finally, climbed a 61m ladder with no fall-protection.
  • As challenging as it was, I LOVED every minute of it and had one of the best travel experiences of my life!

inka trailladder

The aforementioned Inca Jungle Trek started in Cusco and ended at Machu Picchu. After four days of harrowing experiences, we arrived in Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of the most familiar icon of the Inca world. We got up the next morning at 4am to do an hour hike (most sane people take the 20-min bus ride) to Machu's gate. Even though we arrived sweaty and tired, watching the sun beam over the dark and glistening mountainside made the early wake-up seem worth it.

Machu Picchu's scale, location and history are mind-boggling. The trees and grass were greener than green, the llamas whiter than white and orchids pinker than pink. Everything seemed extraordinary. And it was. It's not everyday you have the opportunity to explore a Wonder of the World and savour a country from its depths to heights.

  • Lima: Peru Star Apartments Hotel (from $76 ), Casa Andina Private Collection - Miraflores (from $227), El Ducado Hotel - Miraflores (from $60) - See my trip advisor review here. Ask about free airport transfer.
  • Cusco: Hospedaje Familiar LLipimpac, beds from $15. Ask for a room with a bathroom. Breakfast + wifi included.

Getting There Plane: LAN has direct flights from LA to Lima, as well as from Lima to Cusco. Alternatively, find a cheap flight with an online travel discounter like or Train: Peru Rail goes to and from Cusco to Aguas Caliente Other: Bus or Hike from Aguas Caliente to Machu Picchu

Drink Pisco Sour Inca Cola (tastes like cream soda, looks like Mountain Dew)

Eat One of the 3000 national varieties of potatoes Ceviche [citrus-marinated seafood]

[photos by @tripstyler]