Just Back From

72 Hours in Peru? Sí, It Can Be Done

by Anna Cappelli
Machu Machu Picchu. All photos by Anna Cappelli.

How much can you see and do and eat in a mere three days in Peru, including a visit to Machu Picchu? A lot, it turns out.

So what brought you to Peru?

I’ve always wanted to see Machu Picchu — I mean, who doesn’t? But the thing that finally made me put my credit card down on the trip was all the comments I was hearing about Peruvian food. I travel with my stomach, thinking and talking about where to go for dinner while I’m eating lunch. I had had it with all the “Peruvian food is the best” comments and wanted to experience it for myself. It turns out the people were right: Peruvian food is hard to beat.

Whether I'm flying confirmed or standby, I've always had this affinity (and knack) for packing in as much as possible into 24-, 48-, and 72-hour trips. And that's exactly what I tried to do in Peru: Pack Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lima into 72 hours.

The trip started off with a late-night Friday flight on JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale to Lima — a longer flight than you’d think. By the time my boyfriend and I had landed and gotten through customs, it was 12:30 a.m. when we checked into Holiday Inn Lima Airport. Normally, a late check-in wouldn’t bother me, but our flight to Cusco was at at 5 a.m., and in true South American fashion, it was recommended that we arrive two hours early, making our start time 3 a.m. There wouldn’t be much sleep tonight. (In full disclosure, I work for JetBlue, and I booked the hotel on our booking platform, Paisly. Just because I work there doesn’t mean I don’t want to bank the points.)

Upon arriving in Cusco, we embarked on Machu Picchu by Train Independent Adventure, a three-day trip organized by G Adventures. The first day took us through the Sacred Valley with stops at the G Adventures-supported women’s weaving co-op, pottery co-op, and Parwa Community Restaurant in Huchuy Qosco for lunch. Then we made our way to Ollantaytambo, the traditional departure point for Machu Picchu, where we had enough time to grab a quick espresso and watch the dancers in the Señor de Choquekillk Festival before catching the train to Aguas Calientes, the town along the Urubamba River that’s home base (with hotels, markets, and restaurants) for many Machu Picchu visitors. We had dinner and stayed the night at Andino Hotel MachuPicchu before our early morning bus ride to the ruins.

We spent the majority of our day at Machu Picchu (more on that below) before getting on the train back to Ollantaytambo and driving back to Cusco, where we had dinner and stayed another night at El Puma Hotel. Mind you, this was all included in the tour: airport transfers, private drivers, train and bus tickets, Machu Picchu tickets and guided tour, and hotels.

The next day we made our way back to Cusco airport for an early flight to Lima, where we spent Monday and Tuesday before taking the midnight flight back to Fort Lauderdale. We had two full days and one night at Country Club Lima Hotel in the San Isidro neighborhood, an excellent stay and a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

An artisan from the Ccaccaccollo Community.

So. Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Tell us everything.

Few places in the world have the energy that Machu Picchu has, but that’s not the only place you can find good vibes in Peru. The journey to Machu Picchu does start in the Sacred Valley.

I can’t recommend booking a tour through G Adventures enough. If I hadn’t booked through them, I would not have met the incredible women who run the Ccaccaccollo Community and preserve ancient weaving techniques. I would not have seen traditional pottery methods, nor how another co-op has come together to use it to build houses. I would not have eaten the delicious farm-to-table meal at the Parwa Community Restaurant. From the light purple alpaca fur beanie I bought at the Ccaccaccollo Community to the rainforest tomatoes turned into dessert at the Parwa Community Restaurant, my journey through the Sacred Valley was one I won’t forget.

But on to Machu Picchu. In an attempt to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage site, all visitors must to be escorted by a guide. Because only 4,500 visitors are allowed in daily, this is not a trip you want to wait until the last minute to plan. Early planning is even more vital if you want to hike the Incan trail (only 500 people allowed daily) or hike Huayna Picchu Mountain (only 200). I visited Machu Picchu on a Saturday in late May, and maybe I was lucky, but the weather was gorgeous, and I kept hearing from locals that it was not busy for Saturday. Many guides said this was a result of recent protests and political unrest that resulted in Machu Picchu closing for some time. This scared off many tourists, and they haven’t fully returned. Again, maybe I was lucky, but I experienced no political unrest or safety concerns throughout my trip.

The author didn't see many tourists, but she did see lots of llamas.

What was the mix of tourists vs. locals?

Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are full of every culture imaginable, but the number of visitors wasn’t as great as usual. As if to prove my point, I met a group of Italian girls on a separate G Adventures tour at one of the women’s co-ops and ran into them again in Aguas Calientes.

In Lima, except for the other guests at the hotel, I didn’t see or meet a single tourist. Here too, I suspect the lack of tourists was due to a lingering fear of political unrest, but, again, I experienced no issues and was happy to be one of the few tourists around.

This was especially great:

The G Adventures-arranged lunch on our way to Machu Picchu at the Parwa Community Restaurant was a delightful surprise. Any meal that begins with a bread trio and homemade butter is probably going to be a great one. Everything we ate was farm-to-table, from trout ceviche to stuffed chile pepper.

But this wasn’t:

I didn’t do the one thing everyone told me to do: give myself an extra day in Cusco to adjust to the altitude. Despite enjoying every moment in the Sacred Valley, I quietly suffered in my altitude-sickness-prone body with a high fever, terrible sense of faint, a horrible headache, and what felt like a severe lack of oxygen. I’m here to tell you: The extra day of PTO is worth it.

What’s the local specialty?

Some common, and very delicious, menu items in Peru are lomo saltado (a beef tenderloin stir-fry-like dish), anticucho (cow’s heart, usually barbequed), and alpaca (served every way you can imagine). I talk a lot about food, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention pisco sours. I took a pisco sour-making class at Country Club Lima Hotel — and the bartender let me make the drink behind his bar at Bar Inglés, home to what’s allegedly the best pisco sour in Lima. Insider knowledge coming at you live here: The secret ingredient in their pisco sours is an extra ounce of pisco.

Traditional Peruvian cuisine.
Contemporary Peruvian cuisine at Mayta.

Speed round of favorites.

1. Meal

The Yachay Experience at Mayta in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood can’t not be written about. This 11-step menu at one of the World’s Top 50 restaurants took me on a culinary journey from every altitude Peru has to offer. I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out the honorable mention that was the lomo saltado at Tunupa in Cusco.

2. Neighborhood:

Miraflores in Lima. I have a trio of paintings, a bag of espresso, and a few yards of fabric to commemorate my time in the neighborhood.

3. Thing you did:

Aside from the obvious — Machu Picchu — I have two other favorites: feeding alpacas at the women’s weaving co-op and riding PeruRail’s Vistadome from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.

4. Cafe:

Terrua Cafe in Lima, where I did a two-hour coffee tasting. My only regret was doing it in the afternoon instead of the morning because, as you can imagine, there was a lot of caffeine involved.

A grand entrance. Photo courtesy of Country Club Lima Hotel.
A grand lobby. Photo courtesy of Country Club Lima Hotel.
Bar Inglés. Photo courtesy of Country Club Lima Hotel.
Country Club Lima Hotel.
A room at Country Club Lima Hotel. Photo courtesy of Country Club Lima Hotel.
An in-room snack at Country Club Lima Hotel.

Tell us about the Lima hotel.

Nestled under the gloomy Peruvian sky, the pale yellow beauty has been a Lima staple since 1927. And don’t let the name fool you: Country Club Lima Hotel is more about history and art than it is about golf, its great course and club notwithstanding.

Perhaps part of its charm comes the extra ounce of pisco they pour in their pisco sours — the best (yes, the best) in Lima.

Perhaps it’s from the hallways brimming with mirrors, statues, and furniture — all so ornate and beautifully curated that you feel like you’re walking through a museum and not a hotel. Or the corridors lined with intricate tiles imported from Spain. Perhaps it’s the people behind the desks, who so vividly care about this hotel and the Peruvian culture it embraces so much. Whatever it is, this hotel is one that should not be missed.

From the minute we arrived, we were greeted with not only the most genuine smiles but also a beautiful (and large!) room with a fabulous patio, raspberry macaroons, and fragrant toiletries (that I shoved into my suitcase to take home). A total added bonus was the pisco sour-making class we took that allowed me to live out my bartender dreams for a minute. After a demonstration and explanation about different piscos, our fabulous bartender handed me the shaker and let me take over. He was such a good teacher, I even perfected the art of the Angostura Bitters orange dot on top of the foam.

The author and her artful pisco sour.

One place you didn't get to visit, but wanted to?

I desperately wanted to visit Huacachina, the desert oasis of Peru. I think I could have made the time to do it, but, alas, I was traveling with my boyfriend who works in healthcare. And since the main reason I wanted to go was to go sandboarding, I got a lot of “but you’re very accident-prone.”

What did you know by the last day that you wish you had known on the first?

I wish I would have started drinking the coca leaf tea the minute they handed it to me. It was one of the only things that helped me out of my altitude sickness funk.

You can’t stop thinking about:

This is a predictable answer, but I simply can’t get over Machu ­Picchu. The way each temple was intentionally crafted to mimic the shape of another natural landmark. The way each window was strategically placed for rays of sunlight. The way the mountaintops in the east became a calendar. The way the fog dances through each structure. I’m still not over it.

Let’s talk about stuff: What did you forget to pack? What didn’t you need?

I forgot bug spray, and while it’s not needed in Lima or Cusco, the same can’t be said for the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Luckily, the many drugstores in Aguas Calientes are stocked with mini bug sprays. I did not need to bring shorts. Though the climate is very different in the various cities in Peru, Lima proved to be in a constant state of overcast, and Machu Picchu has mosquitoes that would have had a grand feast had I worn shorts instead of leggings.

Making the most of the journey.

How did you get there?

Machu Picchu is not an easy place to get to. I know I already said this, but the tour we bought made navigating ten times easier. I would not have wanted to plan this route

Fly to Lima → Fly to Cuzco → Drive to Ollantaytambo → Train to Aguas Calientes → Bus to Machu Picchu Entrance → Hike Machu Picchu

How did you get around?

We took Ubers in Cusco and Lima and had a private driver in the Sacred Valley. You have to take a train to get to Aguas Calientates, but once you’re there, the whole town is walkable.

Any money tips?

You need Peruvian sol in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley because most places won’t take cards, and you can tell that the few places that do really prefer cash. In Lima I didn’t visit a single place that didn’t take credit cards.

Would you go back?

Absolutely. It’s often debated which is better: Peruvian or Mexican cuisine. After visiting both Mexico City and Lima within a year, I feel qualified to enter the debate. And while I can’t proclaim a winner, I think that is a testament to just how amazing both cuisines are. I have already made a list of the many restaurants I need to try and places I want to see in Peru. I really do travel with my stomach.

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