Exploring Lima and Cusco
Itinerary: self-guided tour of Lima Centro > strolling along the coast in Miraflores > Spanish lessons and cafe day in Cusco > Rainbow Mountain > Cusco shopping and city tour > Salinas de Maras, Moray and Chinchero > nearby Cusco ruins
From sea level to 5,000 meters above and various things in between.
An obvious starting point from Colombia, Lima served as my gateway to Peru. My first day in the city, I took the Metropolitano bus from my hostel in the coastal Miraflores neighborhood to Lima Centro for a stroll around the city’s colonial heart, with the Plaza de Armas at its core. Walking the pedestrian street of Jiron de la Union was interesting for people watching, with fashionable businessmen and women out for lunch passing by sinister-looking street performers painted entirely black.
The Plaza de Armas has a charm and calm to it that the rest of the modern, bustling metropolis does not. Watching the changing of the guards at the Palacio de Gobierno (presidential palace) at noon is a treat, as the nicely uniformed band plays a mix of songs, varying from traditional to a rousing rendition of Dean Martin’s ‘Sway.’ I dropped into the Catedral de Lima to visit the remains of conquistador and the city’s colonial founder Francisco Pizarro as well as the many chapels and beautiful wood carvings that fill the cathedral. Right off the plaza are the chocolate and Pisco sour museums, both of which use ‘museum’ liberally — more like store and bar, respectively.
I wandered a little further for a drive-by tour of the Monasterio de San Francisco (which apparently has impressive catacombs that I forwent) and Parque de la Muralla (where it’s helpful to know that muralla means city wall because you won’t find many murals). Then a brief loop through Chinatown before heading back to Miraflores.
My second day, the mist tumbled into Miraflores from the ocean, permeating the maze of buildings and devouring any view of the ocean. As I walked the beautiful path that hugs the cliffs, the water below was hidden behind a curtain of cloud. Although I couldn’t see much, it made for a cool eery day! Splurged big on sustainable sushi at Maido for dinner to check ‘Lima cuisine’ off my to-dos. (The ceviche with yellow chili was heavenly — as the chili hit the chilled plate, a cloud of smoke spilled over my food, cascading to the counter before fading away. No picture would do it justice.)
Then off to Cusco! Immediately, this city felt more quaint, colonial and relaxed, even in spite of the many people offering deals on massages and nearby excursions. My first full day in the city, I decided to take a few hours of a private Spanish lesson with Proyecto Peru, where I was also able to book my Rainbow Mountain tour the following day. They offer longer courses and volunteer opportunities, but with an Amazon trek and Inca Trail on my itinerary, I went for the quick and easy. Having never taken Spanish in a formal setting, the lesson was very helpful, and my teacher was lovely. With my brain hurting from trying to absorb as much as possible in a few hours, I spent the rest of the day at La Valeriana, a cafe I became instantly obsessed with and returned multiple times.
I can’t say enough about my day-trip to Rainbow Mountain the following day; it was definitely a highlight of my time in Cusco. You drive through a peaceful river valley, creeping up in altitude to arrive at just under 5,000 meters above sea level for the hike. Weather in the mountains is as-ever unpredictable, and I’d heard others at my hostel talk of getting snowed on. My group lucked out with sun all the way up, intermittent clouds at the top, and a violent hail storm only as we were descending back to the bus. Everyone takes the classic photo where the rainbow of minerals bends over the crest of one mountain, but I was most impressed and pleasantly surprised by how stunning the whole valley is and the 360 views at the top. A must see.
The next three days in Cusco I was joined by a beloved friend from university, who came into town early to acclimate for our Inca Trail trek. We spent a day wandering the city; shopping for souvenirs and last-minute camping necessities; and visiting some of the city’s museums. (Like Lima, the chocolate and Pisco sour museums are more-so a store and bar, but the Museo Inka was full of interesting artifacts.) We bought the (near-obligatory) boleto turistico pass for entrance to sites the following days.
Our day trip to Salinas de Maras, Moray and Chinchero was, like Rainbow Mountain, among my favorites. We split a cab for the day to take us to the three sites, and I’ve never been happier to explore independent of a tour group — the drive was unbelievably beautiful, and it was wonderful to be able to pull over whenever we wanted pictures. The first stop, the Pre-Inca salt pans of Maras, is about an hour’s drive from Cusco. While we were there, we watched community members collect the salt while the tourists mingled on the upper level.
After wandering an hour or so, it was back to the taxi for a short drive to Moray, a circular terraced ruin. At first glance, Moray looks like an amphitheater, but it may have actually been an greenhouse laboratory, with the different levels serving as distinct microclimates. A storm rolled in from the mountains as we circled the circles, making for a cool gloomy ride back to Chinchero. A colonial church built on top of ruins, Chinchero is a quick stop along the route to Cusco. From the parking lot, you climb steep, tight, cobbled alleys lined with shops to get to the church and vast courtyard; if you take the walking path behind the church, you’ll find more terraces and ancient walls.
On our last day exploring Cusco, we checked out the four nearby ruins, all within 8km of the city: Sacsaywaman, Q’enqo, Pukapukara, Tambomachay. We took a taxi to Tambomachay, the highest and furthest from Cusco, and then walked back town the hill to the city, visiting the other three sites along the way. Tambomachay consists of baths, with water still running to this day; Pukapukara is just across the street from Tambomachay, and is a circular outpost made of red rock.
From Pukapukara, it’s about an hour’s walk downhill to Q’enqo where the only drawback is breathing car exhaust along the road. Q’enqo is quite small and has interesting passageways carved out of solid rock wall. Across the street is another ruin Qochapata, which you can see from the road, but we didn’t seek out (not on the tourist pass).
Finally, we arrived at Sacsaywaman, by far the grandest of the four. And a popular place for locals to spend a Sunday afternoon, unsurprising with the soft green grass and bright flowers all around. According to Lonely Planet, only 20% or so of the original construction remains, due to Spaniards tearing down the site. But the ruin is still so large that it’s fairly difficult to imagine what the fort looked like fully intact.
The zigzag fortified walls were built to look like the teeth of a puma, one of the Inca’s three main spiritual figures (the others being the snake and the condor). On the grounds, you can find tight tunnels carved out of rock where you have to duck to get through, some of which are pitch black even in the bright of day. Locals and tourists alike enjoy makeshift slides down the smooth rock foundations of enormous towers that once stood. And then there’s also the sweeping views of Cusco below.
When we finished roaming, we took the stairs down to the city, swinging through the trendy San Blas neighborhood for scrumptious crepes at Creperia La Boheme — highly recommend!
While a few days was plenty for Lima, I was happy to have extra in Cusco for all the awesome day trips nearby. It’s also the perfect launchpad for longer tours into the Amazon and treks to Machu Picchu — stay tuned!
Next Stop: Amazon
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
- Agora Cafe y Arte (formerly Dedalo) — located right off Kennedy park (named for JFK), this coffee shop is delicious and has a great Wi-Fi connection if you want to hang out a bit!
- Maido — by far my most expensive meal on the trip, but well worth it. The seafood is melt-in-your-mouth fresh, and the service is superb. I’d recommend letting your server pick for you; they really do know best. Also, I lucked out with a seat at the bar (got to watch them preparing the food!), but generally speaking, you should make a reservation.
- La Valeriana — without a doubt my favorite Cusco spot, but I have a coffee shop problem. Great prices for fantastic food and amazing atmosphere. They have a gorgeous display of desserts as well as a hearty menu for other meals. Located right near the Plaza de Armas and Plaza Regocijo (where many tours pick-up/drop-off). Great Wi-Fi and comfy seats for hanging out!
- Creperia La Boheme — serves crepes that I dream about to this day. In addition to the yummy food (both savory and sweet), this nook in San Blas is a cool, quirky oasis with bright colors and friendly servers. Leaves you feeling satiated and soothed.
Lima & Cusco Airports
The Lima airport is decently far, especially if you’re staying in Miraflores, which makes taxis expensive. I asked around about public transit and combis, but everyone recommended taking the Airport Express Lima bus service, which runs every hour or so, and is the cheaper, safer option ($8 US one-way). It’s a big blue bus and takes about an hour from the airport to Miraflores — plus it has charging capabilities and free Wi-Fi!
By contrast, the Cusco airport is tiny and very close to the city. Taxis right outside baggage claim will ask you for 50 soles, but you can negotiate or cross to the parking lot where you can more easily get one for 25 or 30 soles — and even cheaper if you buddy up with another traveler.
Metropolitano in Lima
Great for getting between downtown Lima and Miraflores. Each fare costs 2.50 soles, but you’ll need the 5 soles card to board. You may have to wait for a few packed buses to pass before you get on one with room — make sure to allot plenty of time to get anywhere. Check that you’re heading in the right direction when you get to the bus platforms. Not as crisp as the trains in Medellín, but fairly straightforward and easy to use.
Boleto Turistico Cusco
This tourist ticket is necessary for entrance to the four ruins nearby Cusco, as well as Chinchero and Moray. (Salinas de Maras you pay 10 soles at the entrance.) For 130 soles (roughly $40 US), you get access to 16 sites, including 4 museums in town. If you just want to do either Maras/Moray or the four nearby ruins, you can get cheaper partial passes for just those sites, but if you want to do both, you might as well get the full ticket. It makes entrance seamless, and is a pretty good value, even if you don’t make it to all 16.
- Che Lagarto — last-minute, cheap booking, which is located in a nice spot of Miraflores, but otherwise unremarkable and wouldn’t recommend. Breakfast was meager; bathrooms were not particularly well attended; beds were firm. Security was good with lockers and 24-hour reception to buzz you in, but finding the place is a challenge as it’s not quite where the map apps suggest and on the third floor of a nondescript building with no clear sign.
- Ukukus Hostel — Okay for a few nights stay, but wouldn’t recommend with better options nearby. Not many bathrooms and not very clean. Pretty chilly at night and somewhat cramped communal areas.
- Atawkama Hostel — Nice restored colonial building with a quaint courtyard. Hearty breakfast and hot showers! Rooms are drafty, but the comforters are warm. Clean bathrooms, but no storage lockers. Small kitchen for cooking, but quickly gets crowded.
- Intro Hostels — my favorite! And possibly one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. Cool colonial building, cozy comforters, beds with nightlights and outlets, dorms with lockers, clean bathrooms with hot showers, and a free breakfast — everything you could ask for! The rooms stay relatively warm in the Cusco cold, and the staff is personable. Bonus: you can store your bags while you’re trekking. Only setback is no kitchen if you’re hoping to cook.