I did this trip in September, mainly because flights were cheaper than in the high season. I mention this because it’s important to know that September is considered winter in Peru, AKA the dry season. I already travelled my fair share before that, but this was my first «solo» trip, and it was a revelation! Since then, I decided to stop waiting for the right moment or for other people to be ready to go explore the world.
I divided the itinerary between Cusco, Lima, and Chachapoyas to get a taste of different regions of the country. To get it out of the way now, I had absolutely no problem being a woman alone in Peru. With that said, I’m not saying nothing will ever happen to you if you go there by yourself. You need to be aware of your surroundings and be careful, like in any country.
Cusco: Inca empire & Jungle treks
It’s pretty hard to go off the beaten tracks in Cusco, but because the city attracts tons of tourists, it’s probably the best place to start if you want to meet fellow travellers. This is one of the reasons why I decided to include it in the itinerary, the other being that it is the departure point of many treks and tours in the surrounding areas, especially the Sacred Valley. I didn’t have any expectations about the city, but it turns out that, despite the large proportion of tourists, touristic shops and restaurants, the architecture is still authentic and creates a charming atmosphere. Be prepared for the steps!
There are many interesting landscape photography opportunities in the sacred valley, but my favourite thing to do around Cusco was Hiking the Inca Trail. Yes, I know this a very famous trek and not exactly of the beaten tracks. Although, because you need to get a permit to do it, there aren’t actually that many people on the trail. You do need a guide, and it’s a little bit pricy, but totally worth it if you’re into hiking. Except for Machu Picchu, which is the ultimate goal of the trek, there are many other impressive sites along the way. This is not an « easy peasy walk » like our guide told me at the beginning! Also, fair warning before you jump right into it: if you have vertigo, this might not be for you. With that said, it is definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Walking through the Amazon jungle with a view of the lush mountains at 3000-meters elevation is an unforgettable Indiana Jones/Jurassic parc (pick the one you prefer) moment!
It is recommended to book the trek in advance because of the permits and you are usually paired with a few other hikers (6-10) depending on the travel agency you chose. I went with Alpaca Expedition and was very happy with my choice. Our Guide Javier was fun and experimented. Side note, the surprising cooks in the expedition team will prepare the best Peruvian food you’ve ever tasted!
I found that the best moment to capture the ruins and the mountains is very early in the morning right when the fog is lifting. If you want to take your time and take pictures without a thousand tourists in it, you might want to wait at the end of the afternoon just before the site close and you’ll get golden hour light in bonus.
Lima: Food & Street art
Lima certainly is the furthest thing from the jungle! It’s very chaotic, full of traffic jams and honking cars. The reason why I went is very simple: I had no other choices to get to Chachapoyas (there are buses, but if I remember correctly, it takes around 40hours). The choice was easy. I booked a flight to Lima and decided to stop in the city a few days before heading North to Chachapoyas.
The first thing I did right after arriving was a ceviche class, which happened to be a free activity proposed by Hostel 1900. I suppose you can easily find another place to assist a cooking class since the city is renowned for its food scene. We were only 5 « students », plus the chef. If like me, you’re a bit shy, I found that small group activities makes it easier to get to know other people. So, our group went to the market, and we chose our ingredients while the chef though us how to select the right fish. Back in the hostel kitchen, we took part in every step to prepare the perfect classic Peruvian ceviche, and we ate together.
At night, if you’re staying around the historical neighbourhood, I suggest going to the Magical water circuit. There are projections and interactive fountains that you can actually walk through and be a participant in the installation.
I also went to see what all the fuss is about in the Barranco neighbourhood. It’s very touristic, but a good place to wander and get lost in the colourful streets, or to chase graffitis. It is a good place to go if you’re into street photography. It has a low key vibe, but at the same time, there are many bars and restaurants to chose from. From there, I killed two birds with one stone and decided to go to the Indian market of Miraflores (it’s a very big market where you can find local souvenirs like rugs, handwoven items, etc.). I cycled on the boardwalk along Costa Verde to get there. It’s a footpath following the coastline and linking Miraflores and Barranco districts, featuring ocean and city views from the cliffs. It would have been better with a sunny day, but apparently those a rare in Lima !
Go to Costa Verde for the sunset and hope for a not too foggy day! Bring a telephoto lens to capture the surfers in the big waves or the hang-gliders. For the street art in Barranco, I preferred the mornings because it was less busy and the neighbourhood was still sleepy. Also, I didn’t bring a tripod on this trip, but it would have been very useful for the water fountain circuit!
Chachapoyas : Culture & responsible tourism
After a sketchy flight in a very small airplane, I finally arrived in the Chachapoyas area, in the Amazonas region in the Northern Peruvian Andes. It was like stepping into another era. Because of the remoteness and high elevation of the city, the wifi and networks don’t work half the time, and almost everything is produced locally. Truth is, the Andes mountains make it hard to get there by car in a direct and safe itinerary.
The population, know as the « Cloud People » (because they literally live in the clouds !), still practice ancient crafts like pottery or hand weaving, and use traditional agriculture methods. Unlike in Cusco, you can really exchange with the artisans and get to know their day to day life away from the main civilizations.
During my trip, I also went to Cocachimba, a small village near the Gocta waterfall. I stayed at Albergue Sachapuyo, a small homestay with a peaceful view of the Waterfall. Rafael, the host, explained how the village was very careful about recycling (he had a very specific sorting technic and wanted us to follow it). I was also happy to learn that the fees to enter the Gocta fall trail were not only to maintain the path. There is apparently a project to help the community with the school system development, using the contribution from the visitors. This remote spot was one of the highlights of my trip. I appreciated how nature seemed so untouched. Speaking of untouched nature, if you happen to go to Chachapoyas, I highly suggest hiking around the Sonche Canyon. The majestic canyon is worth the detour, especially for all landscape photography lovers.
If you are into bird photography, go early on the trail with a telephoto lens to see the colourful specimens of Gocta falls, or the impressive condors of Sonche. I didn’t go that early, but still had the chance to encounter beautiful savage horses.
In the end, Peru is a place where culture is very diversified and is completely different depending on which region you’re in. To get the complete portrait of this beautiful country, you would need more than a two weeks itinerary!