Peru Side trips

This month I took two side trips: Huacachina and Machu Picchu/Cusco.


Each month, included as part of the program fees I pay to Remote Year, they plan what they call a Track Event. These are typically day trips near the city we’re staying in. For Lima, our Track Event was sandboarding in Huacachina. Huacachina is a desert oasis located about five hours South of Lima.  It’s a lagoon surrounded by palm trees and giant sand dunes, and it’s a popular tourist destination for both locals and foreigners. The biggest activity here is dune bugging / sand boarding in the surrounding sand dunes, though nearby you can also find the famous Nazca lines.

We met at the workspace at 6am and piled into busses for the 5 hour drive. Our first stop was an Airbnb just outside of Huacachina for some pool time and a home-cooked meal.

Around 3pm, we made our way to Huacachina for the sandboarding. We climbed to the top of a sand dune and loaded ourselves into dune buggies.

We were driven through the dunes for a bit before reaching the first of three hills we’d sandboard down.

After trying our hand at boarding down three different dunes, we were driven across the dunes to a location to watch the sunset. We met the busses around 7:30 pm back in Huacachina for the long trip back to Lima.

The dunes were quite impressive, and the wind really made it challenging to see / breathe (especially before you reached the peak of the dune). Most of us purchased sunglasses and handkerchiefs before leaving the lagoon area, and this was definitely a necessity. This was a fun day trip and definitely worth seeing if you’re in the area.

Cusco / Machu Picchu

My second side trip this month was to Cusco to go to Machu Picchu. We were repeatedly warned about the altitude in Cusco – Cusco sits at over 11,000 feet and we were warned that altitude sickness is no joke. Growing up in Denver (5,280 feet), I thought I’d be more acclimated to Cusco. This proved to be false (perhaps because I have lived in Phoenix for the last 10 years!). Within 10 minutes of landing in Cusco, my fingers started tingling, as if they were falling asleep. This is a common symptom of altitude sickness and nothing to be concerned about, but between that and the general inability to breathe, I quickly realized that I’d be taking it easier than I expected.

One tip for dealing with altitude sickness is to drink coca tea. Coca tea is an herbal tea made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. This comes from the same plant that is used to produce cocaine, though you will not get high from coca tea. To put it into perspective, it takes about 300 pounds of coca leaves to produce one pound of cocaine.  Coca tea is a mild stimulant, however, similar to drinking a cup of coffee. I expected coca tea to be nearly undrinkable, but I found it not bad at all.

Cusco has a population around a 500,000 and definitely feels like a smaller city. The streets are often cobblestone, and the whole city just felt a bit more old-world. The best view of the city is from Limbus RestoBar, which is accessed via what seems like an endless sit of stairs and alleyways in the San Blas part of town. Limbus has a long outdoor patio overlooking the city, and is a popular spot for watching the sunset.

For our Machu Picchu adventure, we did a tour through Southern Peru Explorers. We were picked up in a bus at 6am and stopped at a couple of Alpaca farms where we were able to feed the llamas and alpacas, and buy some authentic alpaca fur items.

Next, we stopped by the side of the road to try a local delicacy, guinea pig (“cuy” as it is known to the locals). I thought it was better than I had expected it to be – if you avoid the tough skin, the meat inside is a lot like duck. It has an almost oily texture to it.

The next stop was Restaurante Tunupa for lunch. The restaurant was in an old hacienda and the ground were gorgeous. The food left a lot to be desired, however.

The next stop of the day was Ollantaytambo, where we saw the ruins and the Temple of the Sun.

From there, we took a train ride on The Voyager train, run by Inca Rail (we took Peru Rail on the way back). The ride to Aguas Calientes is about an hour and a half, and the train offers plush seats and panoramic views. This train is the only way to get to Machu Picchu if you do not hike.

Arriving in Aguas Calientes, we walked to our hotel (Gringo Bill’s). The hotel was included in my tour cost, and it was actually much nicer than I expected it to be. I shared a room with one of my fellow remotes, and our room was on the top floor of the hotel. The beds were super comfortable, and the shower was the best shower I had the entire month in Peru.

From Aguas Calientes, you can either hike up to the entrance of Machu Picchu or take a 25 minute bus ride up the mountain. We had a 6am meeting time the next morning, in order to catch one of the early buses up to Machu Picchu. The trip up the mountain can be a bit harrowing, as it’s a one lane dirt road with fairly steep cliffs, and your bus will meet several busses coming down the mountain as you ascend. The busses themselves are fairly comfortable and modern, and leave regularly from near the train station in Aguas Calientes. 

Bus station in Aguas Calientes

Arriving at the entrance to Machu Picchu, we made one final stop at the bathrooms outside the gates (this is your last opportunity to use a restroom until you exit Machu Picchu). Upon entrance, there is one path, walking in one direction, that you must follow through the ruins. This made it difficult if you wanted a shorter tour to do so, as there is no backtracking and no real “short tour.” It felt a bit like Ikea and the long winding path they try to get you to follow through their store. The day we were there it was quite rainy, and the stairs can be rather steep and uneven, without handrails. I was not expecting any sort of strenuous activity on this tour, so I was woefully ill-dressed for this activity and the weather that accompanied it.

There are mountains behind that fog!

After a long day of hiking the ruins, we all boarded the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we were met by a bus that drove us back to Lima.

Some tips/facts for visiting Machu Picchu:

  • High tourism season is May through October. As I was there in March, it was less busy, but we also had a rainy, foggy experience at Machu Picchu
  • You a required to hire a guide. You are not allowed into the park without a guide, and they can either be purchased ahead of time through an arranged tour, or you can find guides offering their services at the entrance.
  • Inside the park there are no restrooms and no food allowed. Be sure to use the restrooms (cost: 2 soles) at the entrance, and eat a hearty meal before you arrive.
  • Bring your passport – this is required for entry, and they require the actual passport (not a photocopy). Near the restrooms, they have a stand where you can stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp if you so desire.

Machu Picchu is heard to describe in a way that adequately portrays just how awe-inspiring it is. They say that we’ve discovered only 40% of Machu Picchu, and the rest of the site is still buried under vegetation. There are mysteries we still do not understand – how did they cut those stones so precisely without any modern machinery (most of these are cut so precisely that not even a piece of paper will fit between them)? How do they stay together with no mortar (and on an earthquake fault!)? No one is really even sure about who lived at Machu Picchu and why – was it a retreat for the noble class? Was it built for religious ceremonies? Did it have a more industrial purpose – testing crops or even perhaps acting as a prison? Most importantly, why did the people disappear? We don’t know.