Things to do around Cusco, Peru

Best things to do around Cusco, Peru beyond Machu Picchu

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Over the next few travel posts on the blog, I’m going to do a series of my trip to Peru. It was only a week-long trip but there was SO much jammed packed into those days. This trip was different than most trips I’ve taken since I decided to go with Under 30 Experiences, which is a travel group for young adults. This post will be focused on a general overview of the tour group I was a part of, general impressions of Peru, a day on the farm with the locals and Cusco. 

It will be a three-part series, part two will be Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain and the last part will be our time in Lima, Peru. For Lima, Peru, my friends and I planned this without the tour group and I’ll mention some of the differences of being in a developing country on our own versus with a group.

You can check out the other two posts below

Most of my posts so far have been shorter trips since I like to see as many places as possible. The amount of days I get off from work is just not enough! Once the series is complete, please let me know if you like this series format or you would rather I post one long post. I’m always up for suggestions since this blog is for you

Anyways, this was a girls’ trip to Peru and it was such an amazing experience.

My sister brought up the idea of going to Peru because it was one of the safer countries in South America. Before this, we have really only planned trips to Europe. She wanted to get out of the European comfort zone and South America seemed like a good place to accomplish this. 

Peru caught our attention because of Machu Picchu, which is one of the new seven wonders of the world. Although the more we looked into it, we knew this was going to be our next travel adventure. There is so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. We could have easily spent weeks there exploring different areas.

Unlike Europe with its great public transportation system (and most people can speak English), we didn’t feel quite comfortable going to Peru and planning the trip completely on our own. After all, we were going outside our comfort zone and to a country that isn’t developed. I’ve been to all-inclusive resorts in the islands before but never exploring a developing country.  

After some research, we found Under 30 Experiences. 

We chose Under 30 Experiences (U30X) because we thought it fit what we wanted to get out of our trip to Peru better than any other tour group. Here are a few reasons why:

  • The tour group is for individuals ages 25-31
  • We felt like we got the most bang for our buck
  • We liked that we were more immersed in the culture (travelers vs. tourist)
  • The groups were small. There were only 12 of us on our trip.

This was the best decision we made for this trip. Everything was planned for us and I would never have been able to do it on my own. We were able to interact with locals and even spent some time on a local farm where they hand-weave alpaca wool for various goods such as gloves, hats, and scarves. 

Each destination was a long ride on a bus so I honestly am not sure how we would have been able to do it without a tour.

We probably would have paid for day tours and we wouldn’t have been able to make the same connections with the group that way. It also would have probably ended up being more expensive. 

They provided some meals but sometimes we were on our own for food. During these times, we typically went to restaurants as a group or they had suggestions for places to go so we were never unsure about where to eat. This is especially important in a developing country since our tour guide knew which restaurants to avoid.  

The only big thing U30x didn’t handle was the flight to and from Cusco, Peru.

They do provide airport transportation in Cusco. The way the flights worked from the States for us (and it seems like for everyone else as well) was that you got to Lima, Peru rather late. Instead of jumping on another flight to Cusco, we chose to stay at the hotel at the Lima airport. It was a Wyndham. 

Many of our travel mates just went straight to Cusco but then it seemed like they were stuck in the airport until the morning so that personally wasn’t my cup of tea. I was fortunate enough to be traveling with other people though so it was easy for us to get a hotel room and it was fairly cheap. 

It looks like they did change up the itinerary a little since I went in September 2018 but just by switching the days of particular activities around. We did Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain back to back which was rough because both days were long and physically demanding. Since then, they moved the day in Cusco between Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain which I think is better.

Here is the full itinerary if you want to check it out.

First Impressions of Peru

My first impression of Peru when I got off the plane was that it is CROWDED. There was soo many people at the Lima airport and everyone was shoving me. Personal space seemed to go out the window. I truly felt like I was in a foreign country since most people, even the workers did not speak English. Finding the hotel was kind of a challenge since we couldn’t ask anyone where it was. This is where all my years of Spanish in school should have come in handy but it didn’t. 

Also, you can’t throw toilet paper in the toilets and you can’t drink the water from the tap. 

Finding the Wyndham at the Lima Airport

The hotel was located at the airport but we did have to go outside of the main airport area and walk over to the hotel. They didn’t have an internet connection at the airport so we just walked around until we figured it out. We tried to ask airport workers for directions but they didn’t speak English and my Spanish is not great so it wasn’t much help. The room was nice though. They had outlets that we could plug into directly and it had all the typical hotel items.

We had a flight to Cusco at 2:30 so we took advantage of catching up on some sleep before our flight. The plan was to give ourselves ample time to get through airport security and to our gate.

I did get a Pisco Sour before our flight.

This is Peru’s national drink. It was interesting…. It has egg white, lime juice, pisco, and bitters in it. I don’t think I liked it too much but I usually like sweeter drinks. I definitely recommend trying it since you’re in Peru but I’m not sure how I feel about it. 

The flight to Cusco was short but the views were amazing. The mountains in Peru are beautiful. The weather was pretty mild even though we were high in the mountains. Down in Lima, it was super humid so it was nice to get away from that humidity.

When we got to Cusco, we found the representative from U30X fairly easily.

They had a sign with ‘Under 30 Experiences’ on it. We had a much easier time than in Lima. They had a bus waiting for us to go to the hotel and we met up with the rest of our tour group there. 

There were 12 of us and everyone was really friendly and welcoming from the beginning! We were one of the later ones to get to the hotel since we stayed in Lima the night before. We all got along really well and hung out the entire time even when we had our own free time. The group consisted of people from Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas, Vegas, and NY so we are from all over the US! 

Our tour guide from U30X named Roland was with us the entire time. It was nice to have someone local to ask questions and just feel more comfortable. Being a part of the tour group takes away the stress of worrying about where to go and how we’re going to get there. 

Our first dinner as a group was at this place called the Peruvian Encounter.

The Peruvian encounter restaurant located in Cusco. Some of the food and drinks we had there.
Some of the food and drinks at the Peruvian Encounter. They gave us aprons and chef hats to wear as well.

The food was really good and we got to try some local dishes which was a pretty awesome way to start off our trip. This dinner was included in the tour price. This place was definitely a tourist place but it was nice to be at a restaurant where everyone spoke English and they could explain what the food was for future reference. Ease our way into the Peruvian culture. Here are reviews from trip advisor if you don’t want to take my word for it.

The first dish was called causa and it consisted of yellow potato, avocado, chicken, a hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, and wonton chips. They had us create an animal out of these ingredients. In the picture above, it’s the monkey next to the picture of me with a drink.

The food here has influences from all over the world, even Asian which I found interesting. 

The main dish was chicken, potatoes, a hard-boiled egg slice, and rice with this yellow chili sauce. It was really good. They also gave us ice cream and these pastries. One of the drinks was made of purple corn. I really enjoyed the food and the whole experience! 

They also let us in on some Cusco slang: 

  • Papaya – easy 
  • pineapple – you have back luck
  • avocado – fight with someone
  • causa – pal/buddy. 

Everything in Peru revolves around food, even the slang if you didn’t notice. Anyways, after dinner, Roland took us to a local bar to grab a drink and get to know each other some more, and then we went back to the hotel. 

Every day is an early start on the U30x tour so that is something to consider when thinking of joining this group.   

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was that the altitude in the Peruvian mountains is no joke. 

Cusco is at 11,152 feet elevation so you could definitely feel the effects like tiredness, headache, nausea, and loss of appetite.  You can start getting altitude sickness at around 8,000 feet above sea level to give you some perspective. 

Basically at higher elevations, the air pressure drops which causes there to be less oxygen available. This is why in super high elevations like Mount Everest, you see hikers wearing oxygen masks near the top. The ‘Death Zone’ is at 26,000 feet elevation so you don’t have to worry about that but it is intense especially hiking Rainbow Mountain. But more on Rainbow Mountain later (dun dun dun).

With that all said, it’s a good idea to get acclimated to the higher altitude so the first day should definitely be a day to relax and take it easy. Luckily U30X knows this and planned accordingly for all the different elevation levels throughout the trip. 

Now onto our first full day in Cusco.

The breakfast area at this hotel was very homey. They had locals cook everything and it almost felt like we were in someone’s home. The ladies that cooked everything were super friendly and helpful. They had made to order eggs, different loaves of bread, avocado, cereal, coffee, and coca tea. Coca tea helps with altitude sickness according to the locals. It kind of tastes and looks like green tea.

coca tea. In Peru, this tea is very popular and can even help with altitude sickness.
Coca Tea

After breakfast, we met Roland at 9 am for a hike.

This was a hard hike. I definitely felt out of shape. We walked up a crap ton of stairs and steep hills but we got to the top and it had a nice view of Cusco below. Roland warned us that this was nothing compared to Rainbow Mountain later in the week and he wasn’t kidding. 

You could definitely tell we are at a high altitude because it got tiring fast. Roland said you should walk in a zig-zag motion up the stairs to conserve your legs and it did surprisingly make it easier. We walked up steps but as we got farther up the mountain it just became a dirt path.

At the top of the mountain, there is this huge statue of Jesus overlooking the city. Then we walked down the mountain back into town. There we walked through the market that was selling souvenirs and food (both to cook and to eat). 

You can tell you’re in a developing country but the city is overall nice. Cusco brings a lot of tourists because it is the starting point for most itineraries for anyone looking to check out Machu Picchu. It definitely has nice views being nestled into the mountains. There are also alpacas there, which are very cute. One woman had a baby alpaca in a cute little hat for tourists to take pictures with. 

hiking around Cusco. The views on the top overlooking Cusco were incredible.
Halfway to the top

A weird thing is that there are a ton of dogs running around and they aren’t strays! The people treat their dogs like cats around Cusco. They just roam the city without their owners and no one seems to mind. 

We also went to a chocolate museum.

It was cool, they claimed South America makes the best ‘choco’. That is what they call chocolate. We got to learn about their chocolate-making industry.

They had choco tea which just tasted like watered-down hot chocolate and they had different flavors mixed with pisco (Peruvians love their pisco). Some of the piscos had chocolate, some did not. Not really sure why it was relevant without the chocolate but it was still fun.

They gave us cacao beans to try too and they were nasty. They definitely do not taste anything like chocolate.

We also got to try some chocolate which was awesome. Coming from a chocolate lover over here. I’m never going to turn down a chocolate tasting.

Then Roland took us to another Peruvian restaurant for lunch in the center of Cusco called the Peruvian Picanteria. Peruvians like their potatoes and avocados — they seem to be in everything! They also seem to really care about food presentation. Everything comes out looking fancy but maybe it’s more so because we aren’t getting American portions. 

We ended the evening salsa dancing, which was a lot of fun. Luckily, the people at the place were helping us out since we had no idea what we were doing. This seemed to be a spot for tourists to experience salsa dancing from what I could tell. 

A day with the Locals

Now, this was an experience we could really only get from traveling with the Under 30 Experiences group. We spent a day with Locals that are tucked away in the Peruvian Mountains. It was on the way to Machu Picchu and it was quite the experience. 

Now unlike the first two days on the tour, the next three were jammed packed. We left Cusco around 7 am to head towards Machu Picchu. Total travel time to Machu Picchu from Cusco is about two and half hours on a bus and a little under 2 hours on the train. 

Our first stop was to this local village in the middle of the mountains of Peru. This community has very little modern-day technology. They do all their farmwork by hand. When we got there, they welcomed us off the bus and led us into their farm dancing the whole way. It was a local dance which was a lot of fun. We held hands and danced in a circle. It really got you into the spirit. 

After that, we fed some llamas and alpacas then we learned about their way of life. Then they dressed us up in their traditional clothing and we went out to the farm to work. The girls wore long skirts and these long sleeves sweater-like tops and a really large hat that was really hard to walk around in. This wasn’t helpful when walking out to the farm to do some work. I’m not sure if it didn’t fit my head right since others didn’t seem to have as much trouble. 

The guys got these hats that almost looked like a scarf was connected to it and hung down their backs and a vest. 

pictures of us on the local farm in Peru. You can see the traditional clothing we wore and the canal we dug.

But yeah, we had to do farm work.

Depending on how you look at it, this could be another con but it was a really interesting experience if you ask me. I would do it again. 

They played this drum while we were walking to the field like we were going into battle or something. We did this ritual to thank the earth for letting us farm on it. Coca leaves are sacred here. More so, back in the day but the spiritual significance is still there. More on that here if you’re interested. We put some cocoa leaves in a hole in the potato field and all made a wish then thanked the mountains. After that, we worked. 

We’re high up in the mountains but it is HOT in the sun. We were shoveling dirt out to create a canal for water to drain from the potato fields. It took forever, like a full hour… that sounded dramatic but it felt long. I’m too used to my desk job. 

This sounds pathetic since there were 12 of us but after we built one canal, it was lunch time. It was a long canal, okay? 

Lunch on the Farm

Potatoes are huge here. We’ve eaten potatoes every day, for lunch and dinner. Lunch here was no different. At least I really like potatoes. For lunch, we had potato soup, chicken, fried quinoa (it was kind of like pork fried rice without the pork), and tea. 

Tea is really big here in Peru too. They have a bunch of different kinds but coca tea is the most popular. Fun fact, you can make cocaine out of coca leaves so the tea isn’t legal in the USA. 

After lunch, we learned how they make clothes out of alpaca fur. They use natural resources to make the colors and they are really vibrant. To put into perspective how remote this village is after they showed us how they make all these goods, we had the option to buy some and they couldn’t get a signal for the credit card machine. We went into their small town and it worked but that’s so bizarre. 

weaving alpaca wool to make goods.

After that, we went to catch the train to Ollantaytambo

This is the town with the train station for Machu Picchu to take you to the base town of Aguas Calientes.

The train rode along the river so we had amazing views. It was definitely relaxing after our one hour of manual work on the farm. The strange thing about this train is that it didn’t go fast (sometimes it had to stop for animals or people in the way) and it was only one rail so we had to stop to let trains pass by. 

on the train to Machu Picchu. The views were incredible
The sun setting on the train to Machu Picchu. Nice views of the mountains.

Once we got to the town, it was PACKED. So many people and our tour guide was running to the hotel. It was all uphill too so it was challenging especially after such a long day. After we checked into the hotel, we went and got dinner in the town. We got pizza and it was alright. They don’t put a ton of sauce on pizza at this place. Then we went back to the hotel and to bed since we had to get up at 5 to get to Machu Picchu nice and early.

Is it cruel to end Part One here?

I’m not sure if you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to read about Machu Picchu but you’ll have to wait until Part 2. 

Even though we haven’t gotten to the super tourist spots in Peru, these first few days were so fulfilling and fun. I truly felt like I got a semi-local experience in these three days. The time at the farm is what makes U30X unique from other tour groups. I liked that we had that experience. It’s definitely unique. 

To cap part one off, I loved traveling with under 30 experiences to Peru. The people on the tour were great and I feel like I met friends from all over the US that I’m still connected to on Facebook. I would highly recommend taking a trip with U30X especially if you’re a solo traveler. 

If you’re a solo traveler, they room you with someone else in the tour group and I know two girls, for example, became good friends and were planning on going on another trip together after this one. 

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below. Has anyone else traveled with U30x before?

Until Next Time,

Best things to do around Cusco, Peru beyond Machu Picchu

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