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Originally published December 7th, 2021

One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, Awe-Inspiring Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu means ‘old or ancient mountain’. The dwellings of this architectural feat are thought to have been built mid- 14th or 15th century. Sitting 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu is the most visited tourist destination in Perú. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, this beautiful symbol of the Incan Empire is absolutely worth the visit and we would return again. So, what are the best tips for traveling to Peru?

A beautiful cobblestone street outside of our Hotel El Balcon in Cusco, Peru
Walking down the Beautiful Cobblestone Street outside our Hotel in Cusco

Traveling to Cusco

When we ventured to Cusco, we were already in Perú. We flew from Iquitos to Cusco which was roughly a 3 hour flight, give or take. Cusco at one time was the Capitol City for the Incas and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. First impression? An incredibly charming place with cobblestone roads, where you can seem to buy almost anything you want made out of Alpaca fiber.

Altitude Sickness

The #1 tip for anyone traveling to Peru is:


Be mindful of altitude sickness


Let’s just say, that after this trip my hopes and dreams of being a would-be mountaineer were more than slightly deflated. Although I had read and heard about how some were significantly affected by the altitude, I thought, ‘I’m sure it won’t affect me as badly, right?’


Wrong.

I get it. I thought people were exaggerating in their youtube videos too. This is pure stagecraft, I thought! When we were at the airport to return home at the conclusion of our trip, I gazed longingly at other passengers oxygen tanks and vowed to bring one when and if, I were to return.

Everything was fine when we arrived. Got in a taxi to our hotel without incident. Great! We check into our lodging and walk through the beautiful property to our room. Dreamy!


But as I’m walking up the stairway, I start to feel a weird feeling in my stomach. My head starts feeling very light.
I’m dizzy! My vision starts to blur.


Don’t panic… don’t panic.

Brady is already at the door of our room unlocking the door, I stop and tell him, “I think I’m going to faint.” He walks me over to a bench right outside our room and hurriedly opens the door. I literally felt myself losing consciousness! I rushed to lie down on the bed and I wish I could say that helped.

But it did not.

“How am I still passing out?!” I’m LYING DOWN, for goodness sake!” So, Brady then goes to the lobby and gets me what would become my holy grail beverage during my time in Cusco.

Say Hello to Your Little Friend – Coca Leaf Tea

Tips for Traveling to Peru: Drink lots of Coca Tea! This can aid altitude sickness and help lessen the symptoms that go along with it.
Best Tips for Traveling to Peru: Drink lots of this Coca Tea

Yes, that is correct. Take a good look at it, because you’ll be swigging this stuff like it’s going out of style. Regarded as helping with altitude sickness, you can either chew them or soak them in water and drink it as tea. Did it help? I mean, it helped. But in all honesty we still felt low energy most of the time in Cusco, which we were bummed about. I was more affected than my husband, but everyone will be affected differently.

Tips for Traveling to Peru: Select a Hotel or Accommodation that provides complimentary Coca Tea like our Hotel El Balcon.
All the complimentary Teas offered at Hotel El Balcón, including Coca Leaf Tea

So Where Did We Stay?

We stayed at El Balcón which is located in the heart of Cusco. In addition to being an absolutely beautiful property, its centrality is a huge draw. The center of town, shopping, an abundance of places to eat, drink and other attractions are all walkable. Not only was it economical, but also convenient to be able to walk out of our hotel and simply walk to the center of town where all the action was.

A photo of the courtyard in El Balcon Hotel in Cusco, Peru. Walking distance from the center of town, many attractions and places to eat!
The stairs I started feeling lightheaded on at our Hotel. We were on the top floor.

“A prophet once said ‘Don’t tell me what a man says, don’t tell me what a man knows. Tell me where he’s traveled?’ I wonder about that, do we get smarter, more enlightenment as we travel? Does travel bring wisdom? I think there is probably no better place to find out than Peru.”

Anthony Bourdain

El Balcón Hotel

I cannot recommend El Balcón highly enough. It is a clean and beautifully kept property. The service was gracious and attentive. The rooms are comfy and very quiet at night. There is a complimentary hot breakfast every morning included, along with various teas and Coca Leaf Tea available anytime. An onsite restaurant boasts two intimate dining areas and the food is delicious! The on-site restaurant was incredibly convenient both for breakfast and dinner.

Tips for Traveling to Peru: Stay at a Hotel that offers complimentary Coca Tea. It needs to be available 24/7 in case you start feeling light headed.
Entrance to the adorable onsite Restaurant at Hotel El Balcón.

What’s the Food like in Cusco?

Since Cusco is a tourist hub, you will find a melange of different international cuisines. So fret not, if you are the sort of traveler that seeks pizza and burgers whether you are in Paris, Perú or Shanghai. But food in Cusco is pretty tasty, so I encourage you to try some Peruvian dishes while in town.

Peru’s national dish is Ceviche.

Tips for Traveling to Peru: Try the Ceviche! It's delicious and very different than Ceviche from other parts of the world.
Ceviche in Cusco, Peru

… and it is quite delicious. We ordered it a few times while in town. It differs considerably from other ceviches I have tried around the world. The national cocktail of Peru is a Pisco Sour. Both of these are wins, in my opinion.

Two local delicacies that you will find in Cusco, (and that I saw being passed around many a restaurant) is Cuy (COOee).

Cuy is guinea pig.

You can get this baked or fried. The other, is Alpaca meat, although, some locals shared with us that they themselves do not eat Alpaca meat. While we passed on both of these during our visit, they were explored by other travelers whom were on a daring food adventure. Many who want to try the best Cuy the area has to offer, venture outside Plaza de Armas to do so. For some, these dishes may be a bit jolting to your sensibilities, but those whom indulged in the true Andean experience did not regret it.

If you are staying in Cusco and you are near Plaza de Armas, there are countless food options, all walking distance from one another. Some are of the opinion that eating in Plaza de Armas (the main center of town) is touristy, and, well, it can be. But the important part is that the food is good and it’s convenient, in this case.

“In the variety of charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. “

Hiram bingham, American archaeologist who discovered the ancient incan site

On to Machu Picchu

View from Machu Picchu - at almost 8000 feet elevation above sea level
View from the top of Machu Picchu – Elevation almost 8000 feet

First let’s clarify that one of the cool things about visiting Machu Picchu, as opposed to let’s say, the Eiffel Tower or The Great Barrier Reef or going on a Camel Caravan in Morocco, is that it really is a pick-your-own-adventure sort of experience.

What do I mean?


There are a few ways you can go about exploring Machu Picchu: Doors #1, #2 and #3 (in no particular order).

#1 Stay in Aguas Caliente

Aguas Caliente, also known as Machupicchu Pueblo, is a great place to stay a couple nights. This is the closest town to the historical site of Machu Picchu. There is a plethora of lodging, places to eat, drink and snack in Aguas Calientes. I personally found this town to be incredibly charming.

To do over again, I would choose to spend a couple nights here. Why? Because Machu Picchu (pre- Covid) was incredibly, outrageously crowded. Staying in Aguas Calientes will place you at the gateway of this natural wonder and therefore you can get a very early start and experience your surroundings sans the masses (at least for a short while). Also, it is important to note that this town, and also the Machu Picchu site itself are at a lower elevation than Cusco too, which will help provide some relief from altitude sickness.

Update: Machu Picchu must now be visited at a scheduled appointment time with a mandatory guide.

Stunning photo of Machu Picchu and the ancient Incan dwellings, almost 8000 feet above sea level
Ancient Incan Dwelling of Machu Picchu

#2 Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Is a spiritual pilgrimage on the agenda for you? Are you looking to challenge yourself mentally and physically and make imperishable memories? Well. That may not be enough to make this the right choice for you, but that’s only for you and you alone to decide.


Doing this is actually on my personal bucket list. Many a traveler have gushed about what an incredible experience this was. But let’s make no bones about it, you will be contending with altitude, potential heat (depending on the time of year) and rough terrain.

It’s a 4 day and 3 night hiking journey. From what I’ve been informed, the hike is incredibly difficult. We’re talking stairs up to the knee on very steep inclines for hours on end. Then we mix this up with weather and propensity for altitude sickness; give it a shake and you have the recipe for the hike of your nightmares, cocktail.


I can’t wait to do it. Because, everyone who has managed to complete it says its not only breathtakingly beautiful, but makes seeing Machu Picchu so much more infinitely meaningful. Would you do this trek? Let me know in the comments.

Important tip for traveling to Peru if you want to visit Machu Picchu this way: the Inca Trail is closed the month of February.

#3 Stay in Cusco and Take the Train to Aguas Caliente for the Day

The Breakfast served to us on the Train Ride to Machu Picchu from Cusco

This is what we did. And I think for Perú and Machu Picchu amateurs, this is an excellent option all around. We acclimated in Cusco for several days before heading to Aguas Calientes. Albeit, after the fact, we learned that many Travelers start off in Aguas Calientes to acclimate, since it’s a lower elevation than Cusco. You travel and you learn!

Our tour group picked us up in a nice spacious van at 5:00am and then ushered us to the train station. We enjoyed an air conditioned train ride for roughly three hours through the scenic Sacred Valley. Since it was early, they also offered us coffee, tea, orange juice and a breakfast cake. There was also a very engaging show aboard the train on the trip back.

The performance on the Train ride back to Cusco from Aguas Calientes


This was certainly a far cry from the authentic experience and outdoor adventure of hiking the Inca Trail, albeit a lot more relaxing and considerably less expensive.

General Tips for Traveling to Peru & Visiting Machu Picchu

View from the Train of the ‘Sacred Valley’ on our way to Aguas Clients from Cusco
  • Look into portable Oxygen Options

Consult your doctor, obviously, before heading to any high altitude destination if you have concerns about altitude sickness. I saw many travelers with their own portable oxygen. Many 4 and 5 Star Hotels provide oxygen supplementation to Guests as needed. Other Travelers have shared that they were able to buy portable oxygen in Cusco.

  • Be Prepared for a LONG Line to enter Machu Picchu

Pre-Covid, at any given moment there were masses and masses of tourists swarming the mountain top of Machu Picchu. The line at the entrance was lengthy. But we’ve waited in a much longer line to see Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. We actually started chatting up a storm with other members of our tour group during this time, as one recounted their recent experience with a shaman at an Ayahuasca ceremony (but that’s a story for another time). The insanely long line situation might be alleviated by the fact that now you are issued tickets with a specific time of entry on them.

Beautiful view while touring Machu Picchu with our Tour Group

  • There are no roads in Aguas Calientes, so you cannot rent a car and drive to Machu Picchu yourself

  • If for any reason you are buying your own train tickets, versus your tour group buying them, buy both your departure and return train tickets at the same time. Return tickets sell out. And if they do, you will be enjoying a nice impromptu stay in Aguas Calientes!

The social, fluffy, friendly and adorable Llamas and Alpacas that inhabit the green hills aren’t camera shy!
  • Temperatures tend to not be extreme on Machu Picchu, but depending on the time of year you visit, you could encounter some rain. It can also be pretty chilly earlier in the day, so wear layers!

The “wet” season is from late November to April. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, the weather, understandably, is unpredictable. We visited in the month of October and encountered “perfect” temperatures, no rain, clear skies, cool with a bit of sunshine. It does get a little chilly up there, so best to dress in layers. If you arrive first thing in the morning, there will likely be quite a bit of fog until it burns off in the late morning. Hey, that could make for some very cool photos?

  • Budget permitting, consider a private tour of Machu Picchu

The tour we joined was roughly $384 a person. This included hotel pickup, round trip train tickets (light refreshments and snacks are provided on the train rides), a guided tour at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, entrance fees to Machu Picchu and them handling all the necessary logistics involved. We got to choose from three different train options, and ended up selecting the Vistadome train, due to its many glass windows for viewing the terrain. We were part of a group tour, which I personally found to be a bit cumbersome. To do over again, I’d likely look into private tour options.

Don’t forget to bring your passport with you to Machu Picchu!

  • Passports are required to enter Machu Picchu! If you do not have your passport, you will not be let in

And while we’re on the subject of passports, don’t forget to get your Machu Picchu stamp. At the time of visiting, this was available on a self- service table (as in, you walk up to it and use the stamp), in front of the entrance.

  • Keep up with current protocols and hours of operation

Things are rapidly changing, and it’s best to double check all operating hours, rules and protocols before going anywhere these days. At the time of writing, Machu Picchu is open, but operating at a limited capacity. A tour guide is now required for entry, limited to 16 Guests per tour. You have four hours to spend at the Incan City, and you must arrive at your designated reservation time slot. They are strictly adhering to the time permitted for entry, printed on your ticket.

View from the patio of a cute cafe where we stopped for Icecream in Aguas Calientes

After our Machu Picchu adventure, we meandered around Aguas Calientes for some time. We enjoyed cold drinks and ice cream at a cute cafe overlooking the stream. There was a slight wait for a seat.

Of course everything was a little marked up, but it’s par for the course, as I always say. You can also relax at the Hot Springs in Aguas Calientes. While we did not do that on this visit, it does seem like the perfect grand finale to your day of exploration.

When you go to Aguas Calientes, save me a seat at the Hot Springs!

Pin this for your Peru planning!

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El Balcón Cusco – a refuge in the Peruvian Andes

Travel Tips & Resources to Help You Plan an Epic Trip!

Going – I’ve subscribed to Going (formerly, beloved, Scott’s Cheap Flights) for awhile now and it’s an amazing resource for finding… did you guess cheap flights? Yes, you can set your preferences from airports to flight class and get destination deals right to your inbox. It’s fab! I use the Premium paid version, but they have a FREE version too. So what are you waiting for?! Let’s get Going!

Booking.com – the majority, if not almost all of my stays are booked on Booking.com. It’s a reliable site to book and manage your reservations. It’s a great way to find boutique stays and unique accommodations at the best rates! You can also easily communicate with your accommodation through the app.

Expedia – If I am looking for a flight to a specific destination for specific dates, I find myself booking many flights on Expedia. It’s user friendly and straight forward. I often find the most cost effective rates, while earning points for every flight I book (in tandem with the points I receive from the credit cards I pay with).

Viator – most of the activities, tours and excursions I book for my trips are booked through Viator. Whether you’re seeking a guide for the day, a group tour, a cooking class, Viator has you covered!

Get Your Guide – this is another great marketplace to find tours, excursions and activities to book for your upcoming trip.

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