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I am the type of person who loves to just let things happen when I’m traveling, so I booked a $239 roundtrip Newsflash to Lima and planned to make up my own adventure. Peru is an extremely popular tourist destination in South America, because of its history as the center of the Inca Empire, so there are many ways to explore: You can take an organized tour, opt for an escorted vacation, go budget with hostels and even spend time camping and trekking in the Andes. As such, Peru is an inspiring place for any traveler to visit … whether you prefer leisure, adventure or a little of both (like me!).
Me and my best pal from college (the girl I shared a room with -- our beds end to end -- for six months in Italy) had five days to explore. Here’s our highlights, tips and discoveries:
There are only a few things you really need to plan: Make sure to figure out transport from Lima to Cusco (one of Peru’s most visited cities, and the launch pad for getting to Machu Picchu) -- we took the one-hour flight, but you can also brave a 21-hour bus ride. If you plan to hike Huyana Picchu, you can reserve one of the 200 permits online ahead of time -- the site is confusing, but the views from the top are totally worth some trial and error securing a ticket.
Getting to Machu Picchu -- to trek or to train? I was a little heartbroken that we did not have time to do the 26-mile Inca trail trek to Machu Picchu -- I love to camp and be outside. But I actually found the train ride (the only other way to get to the storied ruins) one of the most breathtaking, memorable parts of our experience. The VistoDome trains run by Perurail feature large windows and skylights, affording truly magnificent views as you wind your way from Cusco deep into the Andes. So trekking or training, you really can’t go wrong.
Linger: With such a short itinerary, every day was packed to the minute, but we made a conscious decision to stay as long as possible at Machu Picchu, to soak everything up. After an awesome climb up Huayana Picchu and exploring the main ruins, we found a shady spot (to escape the ultra-strong sun … be careful, we still got burned) with a view to post up. Taking in the landscape and breathing the fresh mountain air made for one of the most peaceful afternoons I’ve ever had in my life.
Activities abound: River rafting, four-wheeling, bungee jumping. We even met a woman from Portland who found a local rock climbing guide to take her bouldering. With limited time, we decided to take a four-hour trail ride through the mountainous country just outside Cusco. It was both an exhilarating and eye-opening experience getting out of the city and seeing the rugged and beautiful Peruvian terrain on horseback!
Barranco was our favorite neighborhood in Lima: Many of the guidebooks and people we met recommended staying in Miraflores, but we opted to check out the “bohemian” district, Barranco, adjacent to the beach and filled with charming colonial-style architecture, artisan shops and museums. At the end of our whirlwind trip, we welcomed the area's laid-back vibes. If you go, be sure to have a leisurely lunch at El Muelle -- the ceviche is incredibly fresh (and pairs perfectly with a pisco sour).
Go for longer than five days (if you can!): We met travelers who were spending anywhere from two weeks to a year in Peru. We had a blast and certainly fit the highlights into five days, but if you can, stay for longer. We left a lot on the table for our next trip.