Peru – a country famous for it’s awe-inspiring Inca ruins and world famous attractions, the most well known being Machu Picchu. And don’t get us wrong – Peru is full of breathtaking sites, ancient ruins, endless mountain ranges and a unique local culture. However, throughout our time in Puno and the Sacred Valley, we kept wishing we had been here five to 10 years ago.
We started our Peru trip in Puno. Having loved our time in Copacabana, we were looking forward to Puno (the Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca). Our first night there we lucked out and had our best meal yet in South America. This restaurant (Mosja) was in the top three on TripAdvisor and recommended in every guide book – it was very westernized in it’s service (they brought drinks right away and they served complimentary bread and olives to start) and the food was delicious. However, we didn’t go to Puno for the food, we went for the famous floating islands – man-made islands constructed purely from reeds. We did our research and knew that most tours were rip offs and to just take the local ferry to the islands and explore. Problem being, we never found the local ferry.
At the docks we bought tickets to what appeared to be a local shuttle boat, yet unfortunately it wasn’t. We were dropped off on a small portion of the island with a few locals selling things and then were asked to get on a reed boat. Once on, we were asked to pay another S/. 7. We refused and after others paid we were given the discounted price of S/. 5. Again, we refused and waited on the island until, it turns out, our original boat went the same route to meet up with the reed boat. On the next stop we were encouraged to buy local food at the one restaurant before returning to Puno. We got out of there as soon as possible and were thoroughly disappointed.
Wanting to get away from the tourist traps, we booked an AirBnB private room with an American expat living with his Peruvian wife in Calca, a town in the Sacred Valley. The preoperty was stunning. Set amid the Andes mountain range with a great view from the garden in the courtyard this place was truly one to relax. Unfortunately, you can no longer enjoy the main attractions in Peru in a leisurely time. The Sacred Valley (Cusco and surrounding area) has become an area designed to be visited by the one to two week tourists with everything booked and planned in advance and there is little room for the average backpacker.
Our first day in the Valley, our host, David, took us to some local ruins and filled us with knowledge. It was a great day. For our second day, we opted to travel to some more well known and renowned ruins – Moray. Moray is speculated to be an agricultural laboratory for the Incas – pre-modern genetic modification of crops. We were under the impression that we could enter on a one-time fee; however, when we arrived we were informed that Moray was now only accessible with a “Tourist Ticket”. Option one: S/. 70 pp to visit four specific ruins in two days – almost impossible without an organized van taking you quickly from one to another. Option two: S/. 130 pp to visit 10+ ruins and museums in 10 days – again very rushed given the amount to see. This was a huge disappointment as it was a mission in itself just to get there independently.
How to get from Calca to Moray and the Saltinas:
- Combi from Calca to Urumba (S/. 1.50 pp)
- Bus Urumba to Maras intersection (S/. 2.00 pp)
- Taxi to Moray (S/. 5.00 pp)
At Moray we had some time to kill while the others in our taxi explored. Kyra opted to walk down an open road with a sign that pointed to a restaurant. Part way down she started getting yelled at, at first not realizing the yelling was directed at her. After realizing she could see part of the ruins of Moray and the guards were coming after her she turned around. A lady who spoke English at the front desk screamed at her; however, Kyra calmly explained there were zero signs, markers or fences posting this was a private area. To avoid more arguments and see the area, we headed back along the road to town exploring and the driver picked us up when he passed.
After Moray, we headed to the Saltinas – which you can still enter on a S/. 10 ticket pp. Much more interesting than we expected, these Salt Farms are incredibly ingenuousness. The locals diverted the salty river water and captured it in drying beds where the sun evaporates the water and leaves behind salt. Not currently in operation (it’s wet season) the place was mostly deserted.
Our third day in the beautiful Sacred Valley we hiked up one of the local mountains following animal trails up the slopes. We passed locals going about their day in traditional ways, plenty of animals and not another tourist on our walk. It was a fantastic day – we weren’t haggled, bothered or cheated.
We skipped the famous ruins of Pisaq (it’s also on the tourist ticket) and headed for Ollantaytambo en route to Machu Picchu. The famous ruins of Ollantaytambo are, yes, you guessed it – only accessible with a tourist ticket. We discovered that the mountain across from them is free to climb and has some excellent ruins of it own – Pinkuylluna. Clinging to the mountain side these fantastic ruins also provide great views of the Ollantaytambo ruins. The hike was much easier than it looked although quite steep and narrow.
The only way – for tourists – other than hiking the Inca Trail (at an average of 100$ pp per day for 4 days) to get to Machu Picchu is by train. The train either leaves from Cusco or Ollantaytambo and is significantly cheaper from the latter. We wanted to avoid staying in the over-priced tourist trap town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu PIcchu where the train drops you off and instead stayed in Ollantaytambo. We took an early morning train and returned on one of the last trains back. We chose the cheapest train tickets available to us at 58 USD one-way per person.
Once we had purchased our train tickets, we went to purchase our entrance tickets online. This must not be that common. Our first couple tries we were stopped at Step 2 of 5. After a bit of research through others blogs we learned that the English version of the site wouldn’t let you get past step two of purchasing and we switched to the Spanish site. This time we got to step four. Excited, we attempted to purchase our tickets (multiple times) to no avail. Finally, after more blog reading we learned that for foreign credit cards you needed to email a random guy with your login info and only then would you be able to proceed to Step 5. Oh, and if you had already tried more than five times, no luck. Magically, after we sent this guy an email, it worked and we purchased our tickets.
With well over one million tourists per year (and an entrance fee of 52 USD per person) you think they might have a website that works – but no, Peru is for the short-term agency-organized tourists and it looks to be heading more and more in that direction.
To make matters even more frustrating:
- Once on the train, we learned there were train carriages only for Peruvians with plastic benches instead of individual leather seats and they paid less than the equivalent of 3 USD return!
- Tourists aren’t supposed to be charged Peru’s 18% tax – our hostels have requested our passports and immigration cards as prove and proceeded to waive the tax.
- The website to buy the train tickets automatically charged the 18% tax…when only selling to non-Peruvians.
*A separate post on the wonders and beauty of Maccu Picchu following this*
In Cusco, we enjoyed the architecture and beauty of the city but all of the ruins in the city as well as the museums are covered by the Tourist Ticket which we never bought. Pictured above is the famous 12-sided stone. This rock wall is original Inca work and fascinating given the size of the rock and tightness of the joints. The only other free attraction we found in Cusco was the Chocolate Museum where we had a great tour, were given countless samples and purchases a delicious bottle of Cacao Liquor – Passion Fruit flavored.