Peru was the Incas; it has 3,000 to 4,000 years of history. - Nobu Matsuhisa
Lima - Ica - Huacachina
If you are short on time I recommend that you skip spending a day in Lima and heading straight out to Huacachina, the dessert city of Ica. Don’t forget to take cash out after you leave the airport because there are very few ATMs in Ica and most vendors don't accept debit/credit cards. If you're like me and need to stay connected everywhere you go, get the 4G portable wifi, you can order it on Viator and I pick it up from the airport.
After you check into your hotel or airbnb head to the bus depot and take the bus to Ica, it’s a 5 hour bus ride and you get to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the way. Our bus even gave us complimentary snacks and food. The tickets should cost you 40soles which is $15 each way. I definitely recommend taking the Cruz del sol or Peru hop but there are so many different bus companies and they all provide the same service.
Once you arrive in Ica get a taxi to take you to Haucachina, the taxi ride is $5-$8 depending on how generous your driver is feeling, Haucachina is a 10 minute drive from the bus station.
Things to do in Haucachina
Explore the dreamy dessert oasis town
Go row boating
Enjoy some authentic Peruvian food at one of the many restaurants in the village square
Take a sand dunes tour at sunset for incredible views. There are many tour companies that offer sand boarding and dune buggy rides, I recommend booking when you get there rather than online you will find it is much cheaper purchasing a tour locally.
If you have extra days to spare in Peru consider spending the night in Haucachina or in the city of Ica, but if you are on a time crunch then take the night bus back to Lima and prepare for day 2.
Tip : If you are in Peru for more than 5 days with some leeway in your budget, visit the Nazca Lines. You can catch a Nazca lines flight 10minutes away from Huacachina to view the historic momuments.
Catch a flight to the enchanting and historical city of Cusco - this day was all about exploring the city and adjusting to the high altitude (8000ft) which I must say I underestimated and I was grossly unprepared . I definitely recommend drinking the coca tea they give you in the airport, I skipped out on it at first but soon realized it certainly helps.
In the afternoon we went on an ATV tour which took us to the stunning archaeological site of Moray which is said to have been the agricultural base for the Incans in the Andes. We also visited the famous Maras salt mines which left me absolutely speechless and is definitely a must see when you visit Peru.
Cusco to Ollantaytambo, Ollantaytambo to Aguas calientes , Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
First things first! - Book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu as soon as you decide you will be visiting Peru and book your roundtrip train tickets from Cusco to Machu Picchu ahead of time as well.
It is a journey getting to Machu Picchu but the feeling once you take in the view from the top of the mountain is indescribable. Most train tickets come with a bus ticket from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, once you reach Ollantaytambo you will board the train to the small town of Aguas Calinetes which serves as the gateway to Machu Picchu. The train ride should cost you anywhere form $95 to $145, be sure to book that ahead of time as well as Machu Picchu gets very busy during the year.
I recommend hiring a private guide before you board the bus to the top of the mountain, the bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu will cost you about $14 while the private guides go for $30 and it is well worth it. Our guide went at our own pace and took our pictures for us, it felt great to not have to walk around with a large group of people so we could explore the parts of the ancient city which interested us the most.
Learning about the history of Machu Picchu and the ancient Icans really got me thinking about the lack of education on ancient civilizations other than the traditional European narrative. We tend to not recognize other cultures enough when we think about innovation, architecture and just the sheer intellect that existed in these communities which were indeed very organized. We have been conditioned to liken innovation and "civilization" to western societies. Machu Picchu is a symbol of the capabilities of non-western ancient societies and represents the prosperous life that existed before western conquest.
In the days leading to the tour I dreaded the hike to rainbow mountain, there were many points in time that I almost cancelled but eventually I decided to challenge myself and commit to the 4 hour hike.
Hiking up the mountain is definitely not for the faint hearted so I recommend paying for the horse for the first part of the journey at the very least. Not only are you battling the high altitude (17,060ft at its peak), you are also climbing up very steep hills while doing so, it felt like breathing through a straw while doing sprints on a treadmill.
The horse most certainly helps but be prepared to still have to walk on your own for at least 40% of the journey, the toughness of the terrain makes it difficult for the horses to bear your weight the entire way.
There are plenty of tour companies in Cusco that offer rainbow mountain experiences, the tour should cost you anywhere from $30-$40 and I definitely recommend bringing cash to buy snacks at the start of the trail to keep you energized and to pay for a horse rental.
The hike is a mental and physical battle but the views from the top of the mountain are unlike anything you will ever experience elsewhere. The whole journey was filled with scenery that a camera couldn't do justice. As you make your way up the mountain you are greeted by fields of alpacas and locals, this was my favorite travel experience to date.