Traveling extensively throughout Peru can consume a lifetime. This itinerary covers the key sights and exposes the foreign traveler to different cultures in southern Peru in 9 days. The pace of this itinerary is quicker than most tours that can be booked, but should be manageable for backpackers on a budget. The description of this itinerary does not focus on the particular sights or attractions as much information can already be found on these topics; rather it focuses on the transportation logistics of the trip.
Lima sightseeing and preparing for early flight to Cuzco
Arrive to Lima Airport, check large bags at the airport storage and head out for half a day of exploring the beautiful capital city. The objective is to return to the airport at night and wait/rest there for the early morning flight to Cuzco the next day. It is recommended that the traveler visit the Plaza de Armas in Lima and visit the sights around during the day and night as it is nicely lighted. Be aware of the areas in downtown Lima that are dangerous to tourists (and locals) that should be avoided. Taking a cab from the Airport to the Plaza de Armas from the airport can either expensive or risky. Secure/professional taxi companies like Taxi Seguro will charge $50 or more for this trip. Riskier unofficial taxis could charge $10-20 dollars, but can be dangerous for non Spanish speakers unfamiliar with the city.
Return from the downtown to the Airport, and rest before taking the 6am flight to Cusco. The airport is very modern inside and offers free internet (at starbucks) with comfortable areas to stay overnight. Some flights into Lima arrive early at like 12am-3am. Booking one of these flights and then a 6am flight to Cuzco works perfectly as the sightseeing in Lima can be postponed to the end of the trip.
The drug store in the second floor of the airport sells the Diamox altitude-sickness medicine for very cheap and with no prescription.
Arrive at Cuzco and travel to Aguas Calientes, stopping at key sights.
Star Peru flies Lima-Cuzco at 6am for about $120 USD (08/2010). The flight is quite scenic as it provides a panoramic view of the Andes as the sun rises in the horizon.
Arrive in Cuzco Airport and walk outside to get a taxi cab, cabs inside are expensive and many would consider them riskier. Do not get into a taxi waiting for tourists, rather walk a couple of streets and pick up a taxi driving through the main roads, these are generally very safe. Cuzco is a very safe city in comparison to other Peruvian cities. In the cab, negotiate with the driver about taking you to Pisac. Bus shuttles can be taken readily going from Cuzco to pisac, but the taxi will do this journey quicker and safer, and even cheaper if you have a group of 4. With a Cab, you can ask the driver to stop briefly at the Sacsayhuamán ruins which are on the way just exiting the city. Before, leaving Cuzco, it is recommended that you drop off your large luggage at the hostel you will be staying at in Cuzco as it will be very difficult to carry them (Peru rail has luggage restrictions) to Machu Picchu.
In Pisac, visit the famous outdoor market. It is best on Sundays, and is a great place to buy souvenirs.
Walk along the main highway and find a combi (small bus taken by locals) heading to Urabamba. These are very cheap (2-3 soles) and will let you experience how locals travel. People in this part of Peru are very nice and accommodating.
At Urabamba, transfer over to another combi going to Ollanta. This should be very easy as there will likely be many tourists trying this same connection.
At Ollanta, reserve (needed in peak season) Peru rail tickets on the late train to Aguas Calientes, this is a very scenic train ride, but it is best enjoyed in the return trip.
Arriving at Aguas Calientes is hectic so it is important to have hostel reservations beforehand. A good place to stay is at the Chaska Hostel. It will be around 10pm, and you will likely be very tired from the 2 days of travel so sleep early to have an early start on Machu Picchu the next day.
Several Chifa (chinses-peruvian food) restaurants are open late that offer good meals.
It is important to get to Machu Picchu early (5-6am) for the best views of the ruins as the sun rays filter through the mountains and morning fog, great for photography.
Should be done touring Machu Picchu at around 1-2pm where you can then head back to Aguas Calientes. If you have enough time before your booked return train ride to Ollanta then head over to the hot springs in Aguas Calientes to relax. They are not the best in Peru.
Once in Ollanta, head quickly to the parking lot where bus shuttles await for trips to Cuzco. These are generally pretty safe, though the price will depend on your negotiation abilities. Depending on how full the bus is, a price of 8-10 soles per person for a van of 8-10 people is reasonable. Stick to the larger more modern vans. The van will drop you off at your hostel in Cuzco.
Go out at night in Cuzco to see the city during the night, its well lit. Inka grill is an expensive ($10-$15 USD/person) restaurant that has good food.
Arrive at Arequipa and get on a 2 day Colca canyon tour.
Arrive at 6am in Arequipa and take a taxi (those inside the terminal parking lot only! this is a more dangerous city, especially at that time in the morning) and head over to your hostel. Drop off large luggage and find a 2-day Colca canyon tour. Most hostels have contacts that will arrange a package for you. These usually leave at around 7-8am in the morning so it is important to make calls early in the morning to avoid them filling up. It is difficult to reserve these tours in advance without large cost increases. Look for tours with comfortable vans (many use Mercedes Benz) as you will likely be tired from not sleeping well in your overnight bus ride. Tours cost from 40-50 USD offering different hotel accommodations.
The drive to Chivay (point of entry to Colca Canyon) passes through 4500 m high mountains and is quite spectacular. Most tours stay overnight in Chivay and head out early in the morning to the Colca canyon. Tours will also stop at ‘touristy’ buffet style restaurants, this food is pretty good, though better price alternatives can be found inside the towns
Arequipa is a very historical and cultural city that deserves one whole day. Locals generally prefer the atmosphere in Arequipa over Cuzco and many foreigners agree. While Cuzco might have more sights to see, it is overly touristy. One can spend a whole day sightseeing in Arequipa while not coming across hordes of tourists.
An excellent restaurant in Arequipa (one of my favorite in Peru) is Tradicion Ariquipena. The food was excellent and well prices, and it is common to find tons of locals dancing to Peruvian rhythms in this very authentic place. A 15 minute cab ride from the city center is needed.