DNA's guide to Peru
Surprisingly, we don't get asked to organise trips to South America all that often but when we do, we know that our customers are in for one of the best holidays of their lifetime. Recently, friend of DNA, Jess Sims, Founder of marketing consultancy The Doers, ventured to Peru for seven days of exploring following a four day wedding she attended in the country's capital, Lima. She asked us to help plan her trip with equal measures of luxury and adventure and we asked her to share her experience.
To organise a 7-day trip to include Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley, Lima and Cusco. Mid-range to luxury hotels that offer an authentic Peruvian experience. All transfers to be included.
Having spent four days in Lima celebrating a friend's wedding, I really needed the second half of my trip to include a mix of exploring - after all, why travel that far and not take the time to see as much as possible - whilst also layering in some time to chill out and enjoy the surroundings. I hadn't ever been to South America so I wanted to try and have as much of an authentic experience as possible.
With no sleep whatsoever from the wedding the day before, my private transfer collected me from my hotel to take me to Lima airport. The transfer and tour group was run by Condor Travel, who are truly the South American experts. The car was super comfortable and thankfully equipped with several bottles of water and fully functioning air conditioning - both of which I was very thankful for. The guide helped us with luggage, made sure we were checked in properly and showed us the right way for a flight to Cusco. For someone who was extremely tired, this level of service was much appreciated!
First stop: Cusco to Chinchero
When we arrived in Cusco, the altitude hit us immediately and we were grateful to be greeted with a bowl of Coca leaves at the airport, something that soon became our best friend! Our tour guide was awaiting our arrival with another super comfortable car and we began our journey to our first stop.
Chinchero is a small rustic Inca town, famous for being the home to traditional Peruvian weaving, with collectives of weaving families throughout the town selling their wares and showing tourists their traditional techniques. Some believe Chinchero to be the birth place of the rainbow and with the unbelievable views over the mountains and down to the Sacred Valley, it's something that isn't hard to imagine as being true!
As well as several shops within the buildings of Chinchero, there are two markets: an outdoor one in front of the white church and a larger outdoor market further through the village. If this is your first stop in Cusco or the Sacred Valley, don't rush into big purchases as you'll be seeing plenty of other markets along the way that will tempt you! That being said, each textile is unique and if you see one with the colours and the patterns you like, it's wise to get it when you see it. If you're seeing repeats anywhere, they're likely to have been manufactured elsewhere!
Take some time to explore here - it's breathtaking and the views are something else, but be aware that it's a little higher than Cusco and if you're suffering with altitude, you'll need to take it slow!
Following our half day in Chinchero, we headed down to our hotel in the Sacred Valley via a couple of view points and photo opportunities along the way.
Sol Y Luna Hotel
From the moment you arrive at Sol Y Luna, you're very aware just how special this hotel is. The grounds are akin to what I'd imagine heaven to look like with the most impeccably cared for plant beds and tree displays. It's a perfectly sized hotel with the rooms housed in little casitas throughout the grounds. The room was spacious enough for two people, the bathroom spacious and the beds were super comfortable. The hotel has a fantastic outdoor pool with sun loungers around it, a beautiful heated outdoor lounge, a spa and a choice of two restaurants. It's the perfect hotel for some R&R in between exploring and DNA couldn't have picked a better spot for us and the requirements of the trip.
One of the best activities we did at the hotel was to use their ranch facilities and go horse riding around the mountains nearby. Neither of us were experienced riders but this was a highlight of the entire holiday. The guide was phenomenal and super patient with us and the horses were impeccably trained. The trip is tailored entirely around what you want and can either be a full or half day. We opted for the half day, which included a brief overview around the ranch as to how to ride!
This hotel is very much one that gives back to the local community and money made from guests, actually pay for the Sol y Luna school, just across the street from the hotel. Whilst we didn't get time to visit, guests are encouraged to go and visit the hotel and see how their stay has benefited the area.
Salinas de Maras (salt mines), Moray + Ollantaytambo
The following day we were up early to explore the salt mines of Moray. This is something both of us really wanted to do, predominantly as we had seen so many incredible pictures of it on Instagram. It didn't disappoint, despite the weather being a little drizzly. Our guide talked us through the process of the salt mining and told us that the mines are only allowed to be owned by residents of Moray - what an incredibly local initiative! There are a few market stalls before the car park selling various types of salt and salted goods - a great one for gifts and souvenirs!
Next, it was on to the terraces of Moray, which on the surface look like they were an Incan amphitheatre but in reality, were thought to be agricultural laboratories. They were able to test how the crops grew at each level, with varying conditions, to learn how best to grow them elsewhere.
We then headed to Ollantaytamba, the town which houses the train station to and from Machu Picchu and Cusco. Though touristy, I enjoyed this town and the market was filled to the brim with incredibly textiles that I wanted to buy.
We couldn't have come to Peru without visiting Machu Picchu. We would've loved to have walked the Inca Trail up to the Machu Picchu but unfortunately we didn't have enough time. The train from Ollantaytamba takes no more than a couple of hours and there are three choices of trains: the Belmond (super luxe), Vistadome (mid-range) and the PeruRail (standard). We opted for the Vistadome, which allows almost 360 views the whole way. No suitcases are allowed on these trains (though many people do flout the rules) so we packed an overnight bag whilst Condor Travel took our bags to our upcoming hotel in Cusco. Aguas Calientes is, as you'd imagine, packed with tourists but there's a buzz about it that we both really loved. The hotels here are all fairly similar, unless you opt to stay at the Belmond, which is at the gate of Machu Picchu (and allows you to avoid having to get the early bus up)!
The bus to Machu Picchu, although only a 15 minute journey, is not for the faint hearted. If you're fit and able enough, we'd recommend you walk up. The queue for the bus is also extremely long so patience is very much needed!
I don't really have words for Machu Picchu. It was as breathtaking as you would imagine and the mind boggles as to how the Inca population managed to build it in such a remote and high up location. Be warned though - there are huge crowds here and lots of queuing spots for that perfect selfie. Thankfully, our guide knew the paths to take to avoid the bulk of the crowds and this made it much more enjoyable.
We had planned to return the following morning to climb Montaña, one of the mountains next to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately it was heavily raining and our hotel and guide both warned us against it as the trail is steep and slippery and treacherous at times.
Cusco was one of my favourite places on the trip. We stayed at Casa Andina Premium, which was extremely comfortable and situated only a few blocks from the main square, which made exploring very easy. It's an extremely vibrant and colourful city and packed full of great restaurants, markets and cafes. San Blas was a great area to visit - a little more artsy and creative with some incredible small shops. The highlight was San Pedro market. This is very much a local market and be warned, the locals don't like the tourists being there! It's predominantly a food market and the meat section, not for the faint hearted, is something I've never seen before. It's a great place to pick up weird and wonderful souvenirs to take home.
Villa Barranco, Lima
As I had already had time in Lima for the wedding, I opted to only spend one night here and have a morning of exploring before catching my flight home. The final hotel was outstanding. Villa Barranco, in the Barranco district of Lima, known for its arts and crafts and incredible restaurants, stole my heart. With only a handful of bedrooms, this boutique hotel is beautifully styled, feels incredibly homely and the staff were super friendly. It also housed one of the most amazing bathrooms I've ever had the pleasure of using! My flight wasn't until later in the evening and the hotel staff allowed for a late check out and served me a final pisco sour on the rooftop before I had to head off. It made for the perfect end to an incredible trip.
There are oodles of great shops around Barranco, though I sadly didn't get enough time there to explore them all. Just around the corner from Villa Barranco is Dedalo - a lifestyle concept store with beautiful homewares, gifts and artisanal goods as well as a charming courtyard cafe. Well worth a visit! Mario Testino's MATE museum is also in Barranco - this was a great way to spend an hour or two before my flight and was filled with some of Mario's finest work.
Jess' Top Tips for Peru
In Lima especially, be careful of walking around with jewellery on or exposed bags. Whilst I never felt unsafe in Barranco (or Miraflores where I stayed at the start of my trip), I had been warned by many locals to be mindful!
Take 2 pairs of really comfortable shoes - a pair of trainers and some proper hiking shoes. The Inca ruins were not made for shoes of today and having a sturdy pair of shoes, particularly for Machu Picchu, is imperative for you to feel comfortable.
Bug spray. In both Lima and Machu Picchu, I was eaten alive by bugs. Be sure to cover yourself head to toe before leaving the house. The Machu Picchu bugs were particularly hungry!
Watch what you eat. Although the food in the markets looks incredible, just be mindful that food isn't cleaned in the same way we're used to and for those with a sensitive belly, it's probably best to avoid street food!
Book restaurants ahead of time. Peru is home to some of the most incredible restaurants in the world (anyone who's a fan of the late Anthony Bourdain will be familiar with some of these). Be aware that they get booked up ahead of time so as soon as your trip is booked, be sure to reserve tables.
Pay for photos. Many of the locals will expert some sort of cash injection if you take photos of them, particularly if you pose (as we did) with the baby alpacas or decorated llamas. Just a few pesos or dollars will suffice.
Do Machu Picchu in a day and don't bother staying in Aguas Calientes unless it's at the Belmond. Whilst you'll be exhausted, there really isn't much to do here unless you're planning on hiking more the next day. If that's the case, splurging for the Belmond is highly recommended as you're at the gate of Machu Picchu ahead of the crowds.
Do it in three weeks. In hindsight, I'd have liked an extra week in Peru. I would've loved to have done the Inca Trail but also wanted to visit Lake Titicaca and the jungle. An extra 5-7 days would've given me the perfect amount of time.
Go on a private tour. This gave us flexibility in terms of what we did but also meant our guide was always happy to stop to take photos. Big groups wouldn't have had this opportunity. The private transfers everywhere were also fantastic.
Plan for a couple of relaxing days at the start of the Cusco leg of your trip to acclimatise to altitude. Whilst many people are fine with it, I experienced heart palpitations and breathing difficulty and needed 24-48 hours to really get used to it. Drink Coca tea where you can - some say this doesn't do much but I found it helped me to adjust.
Pack for all weather. The climate in Peru is extremely erratic. In one day it went from being quite cool and rainy to extremely warm (early to mid thirties) and I was sunburnt in seconds. Layer up everywhere you go as it can change quickly. Lightweight waterproofs are essential.
If you pay in dollars, you'll get Pesos as change. Whilst both currencies are accepted, it will often work out cheaper to pay in Pesos.
Lastly, bring an emptyish suitcase. My biggest regret is not buying more in the markets. The fabrics are outstanding and I wish I had brought more back!
*all photos taken by Jess
BA flies direct to Lima twice a week. Flights start at around £500 return.
Want to book a trip to Peru? Get in touch with Katie and Dan to find out more!