Peru to Chile by bus

With a blink of an eye our time in Arequipa is done, and we’re on a bus bound for our next destination, Chile. We would have loved to stay longer, but we’re in such a rush because we’ve booked a flight from Santiago to New Zealand that happens in two weeks. For today’s leg, we’re heading from here to the Peruvian border town of Tacna, then across the border to Arica in Chile. A few days from now, we may head down to Calama and make our way to San Pedro de Atacama. But we’re not sure yet.

So first up is our ride from Arequipa to Tacna, a six-hour journey. We’ve planned it so that we’re not waking up absurdly early, and we’ve got two front-row seats on the second story of the bus so we can watch the scenery in full splendor. We think we’ve finally got this bus thing figured out.


The bus terminal at Arequipa


En route update: So we may have worked out the perfect time and seats, but sometimes you can’t account for other people. The seats across from us are occupied by a woman with two toddlers run amok. It hasn’t helped that she has smacked one across the face twice. We’ve also listened to her call a cable company and claim she’s not responsible for bills on her account and then call a friend and complain about her problems. One of the kids reaches out a sticky hand and brushes it across my arm. He’s cute and all, but eeeughhhh.

En route update 2: The air conditioning is broken, so an attendant has come up and opened the emergency exit in the ceiling of the bus. It’s getting hot in here.


The view from our seats. If you can’t tell, it’s a desert.

En route update 3: The toddlers have stripped down to their diapers and we’re all struggling in the sweltering heat. It doesn’t help that our bus is black and this region of Peru is all desert. Ten minutes ago the bus stopped and we all piled out into the desert for a customs checkpoint. They looked at all of our luggage while we stood in the unrelenting desert sun and asked if anyone had fruit or vegetables. It’s apparently to stop the spread of some kind of fly pest. I don’t know if anyone has these things, but I’m pretty sure any flies on our bus have been cooked alive.


En route update 4: The woman with toddlers needed to go to the bathroom. She stood up and asked me something in Spanish, and was gone before I could process that she had asked me to “watch her kids.” The children immediately attempt to go after their parent, and I find myself trying to stop them with my hands or legs. One of them begins wailing and I start making funny faces at him to get him to stop. Half of my brain is thinking “this isn’t my responsibility, I didn’t agree to this, just let them go.” The other half is rebutting with “They shouldn’t get hurt because of the carelessness of their mother.” Thankfully I’m not alone for long. Some older folks behind me notice what’s going on and distract the toddlers by asking them questions in a cutesy way. Still, it’s an agonizing few minutes before the mother comes back.

We’ve ARRIVED IN TACNA! We practically sprint off the bus to escape woman and her toddlers and enter the station. We’ve got our next bus in an hour and we’re not venturing beyond this station, but from what we can gather Tacna is Costco, just in city form. Everything is the station is sold in absurd bulk amounts, from 50-count rolls of toilet paper to 8 loaves of fruitcake. We manage to buy the smallest amount possible for bread rolls (that’s 16 of them) and tissues (that’s 18 of them) for our trip onward.

Everywhere around us there are people packing up their bulk goods, preparing to take buses across the border, lending the whole station a post-apocalyptic preparation camp feel. But this is a daily occurrence, and all of these people carrying hundreds of chip packets and bread rolls have simply done some economic math. Goods are cheaper in Peru than in Chile, and you can save or make a pretty penny carrying goods across the border.

It’s already dark when the time comes to board our second bus of the day. This bus is a standard, single floor bus with no seat assignments. We climb on board and pick seats together, and the bus roars to life.


The bus terminal at Tacna doubles as a Costco. Families buy goods in bulk and then carry them across the border to Chile, where the same goods are more expensive.


En route update: We encountered another checkpoint, where all of us piled off the bus and had to take our stuff. The guards walked us into a small building to have our papers checked. Meanwhile, they put all of the bus baggage through an X-ray. A guard holds up one of our bags and asks whose it is. There’s some suspicion in his voice, but when Stoytcho and I come over he looks us up and down and waves us off with the bag. Being foreigners means it’s pretty unlikely we’re smuggling drugs or weapons.

En route update 2: We’ve reached the border, but traffic has trapped us on the Peruvian side for the last hour. We’re stalled within view of the border, but we’re not going anywhere so the bus driver kills the engine and opens the door. It doesn’t help us much with airflow though, and for a second time today we’re uncomfortably hot and sweaty. Everyone takes turns dashing off the bus temporarily to get some fresh air until the driver yells at us to come back on. Traffic is moving.


So close, yet so far: we wait in traffic at the border crossing into Chile.

En route update 3: The border is uneventful. We got our Chilean passport stamps!


Our bus finally putters in to Arica’s bus terminal around 11 pm. It took us four hours to make what is normally an hour-long trip between the two cities, but that’s how borders work. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing where you hardly slow down, and sometimes it’s vehicular molasses. We grab our stuff and tackle our two problems: finding a place to stay and getting Chilean pesos to pay for that place. Stoytcho asks around for the nearest accommodations and someone points us down one of the streets. No one seems to know about an ATM though, so we’re stuck until I notice a gas station. ATM? Yes.

With money in pocket, we hunt around for a hotel with an available room. The first two we try are full, but the third one is empty and we manage to negotiate a room down to around $30 USD. It’s way more than we’re used to paying, but at least it’s better for our budget than the $40 the owner wanted originally.

We schlep our stuff upstairs to a clean but shabby room covered in tile, and we’re immediately greeted by a bizarre artifact of globalization. The beds here are equipped with pillowcases from China. How do I know? Well, the fabric depicts all of China’s different ethnic minorities joyously waving what appears to be Mao’s Little Red Book. There are a lot of questions here, from why someone would make these pillowcases in the first place to how they managed to wind up in Arica, Chile. But I can’t answer any of them. All I know is that we’re sleeping face-first in Maoist Communism tonight.

There’s a party in my bed: the People’s Party. Globalization can have some very strange side effects, like this very Chinese Communism-themed pillowcases showing up in Arica, Chile.


Travel in the time of Trump: Peru Security Lady

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

Sculptures at Arequipa’s city hall

It’s been a while since we’ve had any lengthy talks with local people on politics. There have been occasional inquiries from fellow travellers, including jokes with some British friends that the Trump election was to help them cover for Brexit. And talk with the locals has mostly been business or answering questions about our travels. But the Arequipeños are fervent believers and actors in politics, and we weren’t able to escape the city without having one conversation about Trump.

It didn’t come from an expected place, either. We had gone to city hall to find some information on tourism, and then discovered that the city hall was home to a small museum on the city. When we went in, it was a bit dim, but we started looking through the glass displays that the ancient maps and traditional costumes of the region. In a few minutes, we heard a nice “Ah, perdon!” a security lady cried out, “I didn’t know you were here. Let me turn on the lights for you.” There was a click and several lights in the room flickered on, illuminating the exhibits. We thanked her and looked through the exhibits and sculptures to our heart’s content.

Just before we were about to leave, the security lady asked if we could sign a recordbook with our name and country of origin. I bent down to write my and Stoytcho’s name, and next to each wrote “Estados Unidos”. The security lady looked at it and smiled. “You’re from the United States? How lovely.” Then a worried look crossed her face. She pulled up chairs for us and sat down herself. And like a neighborhood mother that’s heard of some kind of bad news about your family, she asks “How is the U.S.? The election? Is it alright?”

We were a bit surprised, since you don’t really ever hear the words “Is the U.S. alright” together in a sentence all that often, as if it’s some kind of sick patient in the hospital. We told her that as far as I knew, there were protests and many angry people, but things were fine. But we have also been away from the U.S. for more than two months. All of our information was coming from news outlets online and Facebook.

“And you voted for…?” she trails off. “Oh, Hillary. Definitely Hillary Clinton,” we respond. The security lady nods and says, “Yes. She seemed very good. Very capable and smart. I thought she would do a good job.” I sigh and try not to think about how much calmer things would be for my friends back home if Hillary had won the election. How there might not be people at my school at risk of deportation, or people who were worried for their rights or safety because they have brown skin or are queer or are women. “Yeah, I thought so too.”

There’s a brief silence, and then the security lady asks, genuinely mystified, “Why did people vote for him?” That’s a hard question, made even harder by the barrier of language. Our Spanish is conversational, but not politically savvy. Do we have the words to explain? And even more, what do we say? Do we say it was the poor, rural people that truly are disadvantaged and desperate who carried Trump on their backs? Do we say it was the disenfranchised who saw themselves in neither party? Do we say it was racist, middle class whites who voted for him because they didn’t like Barack Obama and thought Trump would maintain their power? Do we try to explain that there was a massive war of propaganda that coursed through this election on both sides, using lies to drag the lines of allegiance in strange ways? Like everyone who didn’t expect the election outcome, we’ve read the thinkpieces on how it happened, what we missed, on why.

We end up stumbling through an explanation with some help of Google Translate, explaining that there are some people who are racist and voted for him because they agreed with some of the terrible things he said. That there were some people who were poor and ignored by the party and wanted something different. And that our election system is also wacky, so you can lose the election by number of votes but win anyway because of the Electoral College. Security lady listens sympathetically and nods, or squints when she doesn’t understand. We clarify and do the best we can. In the end, she sighs. “He just seems so dangerous. Take care, alright?”

A security guard at a small museum in Peru has warned just us, two U.S. citizens, to take care against a U.S. President-elect might do us harm. These are strange days indeed.

Interactive Salkantay Trek Map

One laaaast post about our Salkantay Trek. I had the idea of building map of our trek using the GPS data on Stoytcho’s phone photos, and Stoytcho used his know-how to make it happen.

So here you go, an interactive map of our trek, including photos and a few notes on the trail. You can use this to live vicariously through us, or use it to plan your own trek! If you’re doing the latter, we usually dropped pins at forks and indicated which direction we went.

Want to know our experience along the Salkantay? Here are the posts detailing our experience on the hike as two folks who are in decently good shape but have never done a multi-day through hike ever tackling the Salkantay in the January rainy season:

Day 0, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, hiking Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, and Machu Picchu (words vs pictures).

Want to know what kinds of life you’ll see? Here are some of the prettiest plants, fungi, and salticids along the trail.

Or for the clean pictures-only version of the hike, here’s our post on the Salkantay on 20 photos.

Arequipa: a photoessay

Sculptures at the city hall museum

After Cusco, Arequipa is an entirely different world. Situated in a vast, dusty plain, the city is warm and dry. So are the people: friendly, but infinitely practical in their interactions with us. There are no tourists, and the only assumption that comes with our foreign-ness is that we have no idea how to do anything around here. It starts as soon as we leave the bus terminal and board a city bus, a tiny van re-outfitted to seat twenty on slowly degrading sofas. We ask for the Plaza del Armas, and they nod. When our stop comes, they simply smile and motion at us to get off.

A slow morning: people wander and wait for buses at the stop where disembarked

The same thing happens when we get off and look for a hostel, for a restaurant, for anything. The people we ask either apologize that they don’t know, or smile and point us in the right direction. No bubbling excitement, no sleight of hand, no staring at us. The Arequipeno personality is almost like an infinitely cool, seen-it-all attitude. And yet, they pull that coolness off without coming across as unfriendly.

Everything is calm, even in the emergency store. Buy your fire extinguishers today in all sizes.
Even this stray dog that approached us is cool. She waited patiently for us to offer her food, then ate it slowly.

The city itself alternates between intensely polished and raw. The Plaza de Armas is a wide, open square with places to sit and rest. Pedestrian-only walkways lead off of it to gleaming coffee shops, stores, and shopping malls. But travel over the bridge to the neighborhoods in the west and things get rougher. The smaller streets are unpaved dirt and the fine dust covers everything. Every tenth building appears under construction or renovation.

Infinitely practical: old newspapers protect bars from damage at a construction site.

Though there are many stores, there are more restaurants and bakeries than anything else. In many places, we can’t walk more than a block without encountering one of each. They’re a tribute to the Ariquipeno love of food and cuisine.

One of a dozen bakeries that we visited. If pastry is your thing, then Arequipa is your place.

In this world of food, adored above all is the picantería. A distinctly local phenomenon, they evolved from little grandma-run stands selling a local fermented corn drink, chicha. The story runs that to sell more chicha, grandma started selling spicy food as well, and the picantería was born.

Inside La Capitania, one of the city’s most popular picanterías.

These restaurants are practical and unpretentious. We walk into one and we’re offered a seat at long, low picnic benches beside several other lunching families. We scan the menu and find nothing familiar. We ask for some dishes, and the waitress tells us “no, you probably want these,” in a matter-of-fact voice. “Okay, we agree.” She disappears and returns ten minutes later with four delicious-looking, heavily-laden plates. There’s rich meat stew, a cheesy squash casserole, a sweet baked cheese and pasta, and a cold cheese and vegetable salad. We wash it down with a glass of chicha.

Our meal at La Capitania

Arequipa also loves sculpture, and the city hall serves not only as a place of business but also as an art gallery. The open square inside the building exhibits sculptures of cherubic children slaying different dangerous animals, from wolves to snakes. Then there’s a room dedicated to the history and culture of Arequipa on the second floor of the building, where we find dozens of sculptures in metal, wood, and sillar, a chalky-white volcanic rock found in abundance here. The city hosts a competition every year where artists compete to carve the most ornate sculptures.

A sillar sculpture at the city hall museum

As dusk falls, the city comes alive with people rushing to get home. There’s the usual vehicle traffic jams and people spilling onto the sidewalks, waving down buses, rushing for the crosswalk. But there’s surprisingly little honking or shouting.

A family flags down a bus during rush hour

With nowhere to be in particular, we take our time walking along the street and encounter a mouse. It’s seemingly unafraid of us, and makes attempts to climb Stoytcho’s shoe and pant leg before we break off a piece of our bread for it.

A mouse on the street, seemingly unafraid of us, eats a piece of bread.

After an ill-fated visit to a park (many are closed on weekdays because people don’t use them), we wander back to the Plaza de Armas. In the darkness of night, the bright-white sillar spires of Arequipa’s cathedral glow against the sky. The Plaza hums softly with couples talking, friends laughing, and families out for an evening stroll. “Come, stay a while.” says the humming noise, “Enjoy life.”

The cathedral at Plaza de Armas at night

Arequipa Food Tour


After the long Salkantay Trek and a few days of recuperation in Cusco, we bussed on to Arequipa in the south of Peru.

Since we were in town for only about 48 hours, we opted not to spend tons of time travelling to Arequpia’s most famous destinations, like Toro Muerto’s petroglyphs (2 hours away by car) or the splendor of Colca Canyon (5 hours away by car). Instead, we walked around the tour and ate ourselves silly. Arequipa, after all, is also famous for food. So here’s a meal-by-meal narrative for you to enjoy:

Arrival – 6:30 am – the avocado-egg ciabatta sandwich

Augh, it’s so late. Or is it early? It’s early. We’ve arrived. 10 hours in a Cruz del Sur bus from Cusco to Arequipa is unkind, at least to short folk. Stoytcho reports sleeping some, but Natalie slept not an hour, as she couldn’t reach the floor and kept sliding out of her seat. We collect our baggage and grab a collectivo to Arequipa’s Plaza del Armas where we snag a hostel for only 50 soles—and we can check in immediately. After dropping off our stuff, we head out and encounter our first gem: fried egg sandwiches sold from small tables. There’s avocado underneath, and combined they make a killer combo for only 2.50 soles (USD $0.75) a sandwich.


Breakfast, Part II – 8:00 am – fresh steamed tamales with ???? ceviche

Sleep-deprived, we stagger around the Plaza del Armas and then wander down Mercaderes, not looking for anything in particular. The delicious smell of steamed masa draws us to small restaurant, and for 4 soles we get two fresh tamale. “Salada?” the shopkeeper asks politely. “Uh…sure?” we reply. She heaps on what looks like a salad of sliced red onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and what look like bits of meat. Some kind of ceviche? Away from the shop, we sample cautiously:


Natalie: What is this?

Stoytcho: It’s really chewy.

Natalie: It’s not bad. But there’s a lot of sinew and ligaments. I think that’s part of a bone. I… don’t think this is fish ceviche.

Stoytcho: Yeah, I think I’m done with it. I’ll eat the onions.

Natalie: …wait, is this chicken?

We ate what we could and then stumbled back to the hostel for sleep.

Lunch at a picanteria – 2:00 pm – La Capitana’s Double Menu

A few hours of sleep does wonders, and we wake up much more aware of the city. Given that Arequipa is famous for its picanterias, Stoytcho uses the internet to track one down: La Capitana. It’s located on Los Arces street in Cayma, several minutes’ walk from the Plaza area. We get lost along the way, overshooting it by several streets, and have to backtrack. Finally, on our second sweep of the street we find the sign “La Capitana” hanging over an arch and an old man acting as attendant waves us in. The interior is casual, with strangers sitting together on long picnic tables to enjoy lunch.


We sit down at a table and stare blankly at the menu. Yep, we don’t recognize anything except the word “gaseosa” (soda). Oh, also there’s a dish called “Americano”, and Natalie remembers reading somewhere that this is a mixed plate that lets you sample a variety of dishes. We try to order it when the waitress comes by. “No”, she insists, “you want the Double. I’ll bring it to you.” Stoytcho asks the difference and finds out that it’s the same type of sampler, but with enough food for two. “Sure, okay,” we agree.


The food arrives on four plates, accompanied by a glass of chicha—a local specialty made from fermented corn juice. Some folks online claimed it tasted like bitter beer, so Natalie is wary. We sample some:

Stoytcho: This doesn’t taste like bitter beer. It tastes like a fermented cranberry juice.

Natalie: Yeah, this isn’t bitter at all. This tastes almost like raspberries, like a Lambic.


The rest of the food is equally amazing. Pastel de tallarin al horno, the casserole of noodles and cheese covered with eggs that apparently tastes just like Stoytcho’s favorite breakfast food in Bulgaria (yufka). Ají de Calabaza, the yellow stew that’s tastes of vaguely cheesy squash. Saltero de queso, which acts almost as a delicious vegetarian ceviche. And estofado de res, an amazingly savory chunk of stewed meat served over rice. We of course didn’t know any of this until we politely asked the person eating next to us what we were eating.

The Food Never Stops – 3:00 pm – Bakery Tour

Although we waddled out of La Capitana totally full, half an hour’s rest in the nearby Parque Senor de la Cana solved that. We watched young lovers relax and pigeons be dicks and eat flowers. Then we decided the next logical step after all that good food was to keep eating good food. So we used Google Maps to locate all the nearest panaderias and plotted a course up Trinidad Moran and then east on Avenido Ejercito, taking us back to the Plaza Del Armas area while hitting a couple of different bakeries. 14-IMG_6462

We visited four different bakeries and sampled dessert or bread at each. La Miel had an amazing variant on chicha made from fermented maracuya (passionfruit juice), while Astoria Bakery had a lovely variant on crème brulee with the lightness of a flan. And Croissant had croissants and mini French loafs that smelled divine.


Maté man – 5:45 pm – We get fresh-mixed maté in the street

Sweet tooth sated, we found ourselves back in the Plaza area and head toward Parque Selva Alegre, mostly because of the name. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to go to Park Happy Jungle? We get there only to find it’s only open on the weekends! This is apparently a thing in Arequipe, as the general public (obviously) doesn’t go to parks during the week due to work. We are a bit saddened, but on our way back we run into a man selling mate tea from a cart:


He makes us a glass of the hot herbal concoction mixed with lemon juice and linseed jelly for 1 sol. In the chilling early evening it is lovely, and we stand there sharing the glass for a few minutes.


Then Natalie gets out the empty water 1 liter bottle. “How much to fill this?” Turns out it’s 3 soles (less than $1 USD). We leave with a liter of the godly stuff, and head back to the hostel for a rest.

Potato Party – 8:00 pm – We sample 7 different kinds of potatoes

After all the amazing food, we are a bit at a loss of what to do for dinner. We look up popular restaurants in Arequipa and after weeding out the overly-fancy expensive ones, we settle on Hatunpa. Hatunpa is a themed restaurant, but instead of being themed around a cuisine it’s themed around Peru’s gift to the world: potatoes. All the different kinds of potatoes you can imagine. When we arrive, our host asks us our nationalities and gets us little flags for our table—he even has one for Bulgaria (Stoytcho is overjoyed). 09-IMG_6423

We order the seco de pollo and ají de gallina, each with seven different kinds of potatoes. Camote, a sweet potato with a bright yellow-orange flesh, is Natalie’s favorite. Then there are the waxier white potatoes, the buttery gold potatoes, and the purple potatoes that have an earthier flavor. We round the whole meal out with another glass of chicha and a glass of something new, Ponche de Guindas. It’s a rich cherry-flavored beverage made with little native Peruvian cherries, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves, and it tastes like paradise—the perfect way to round out a meal.


After dinner, it’s back to the hostel for a night of full sleep. Equally precious, sweet sleep.

Dreaming of dining like us? Here are some links to recipes so you can fabricate your own feast:

Pastel de Tallarin

Estofado de Res

Aji de Gallina


Ponche de Guindas

I’ll be back for this cake, one day…

On the way to Arequipa!


Hey all, we’re taking a bus to Arequipa! We’re using Cruz del Sur and sprung for the fancy ‘ejecutivo’ class, so we’re got these plush seats and are sitting next to the manager of a copper mine whose flight got cancelled.

It’s an overnight drive and we’re arriving at stuipd o’clock in the morning, so wish us luck!

Cusco and the dangers of tourism

A local girl fights to bring a lamb over for a tourist photo. The streets of Cusco are lined with women and girls who pose for photos in traditional costume with their animals for money.

During our first taxi ride in Cusco, we asked the driver what drove the city’s economy. “Tourism,” was his first and definite answer. “Are there any other things?” we asked out of curiosity. “Mmm…” There was a long pause before he answered, “Culture. We have culture.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that culture probably also fell under the category of tourism.

A guide explains the construction of the Saqsaywaman ruins to his tour group. The primary source of income for most people in Cusco seems to be tourism.

One of the dangers of tourism is that when it’s the main economic driver bringing money into your city*, it needs to somehow employ everyone. Yes, there are the people who keep the city running in the day to day, but all of the best-paying jobs are tourism related: hotel staff, tour agents, travel guides, shopkeepers selling souvenirs. And when those jobs are saturated, people find other ways to take part in the tourism economy. There are the llama ladies on the streets of Cusco, dressed in traditional attire and toting their pet llamas. They’ll invite you to take a picture and then demand payment. There are the wandering art sellers, toting their portfolios and approaching tourists, asking them to buy a piece and support their attendance at an art school. And there are the folks dressed as Incan warriors hanging out along Calle Hatumrumiyoc, “guarding” the stone wall here that was once part of an Incan palace and insisting on payment for photos.

The logic is simple. Tourists have money, and they’ll pay me. And doing this pays better than another job I can get.

A vendor poses with his wares at one of the archaeological sites near Cuscuo. I paid him $1.25 USD for this photo. He will likely make more money selling souvenirs to tourists than as a farmer or local market vendor.

In the high season, there are plenty of tourists around and things are probably pretty good. But in the low season, the people here get more desperate. Sweet invitations turned into shouts and frowns when we declined to take photos of some of the llama ladies. We were offered tours and massages from about twenty different people a day. Art vendors practically begged us to buy something. Again, the logic was simple: times are hard. You have money. You can (and should) give some to me.

Slow day: in the low season, fewer people come to Cusco and there’s less tourism money to go around. The vendors, tour sellers, and costumed women get more desperate.

And while that logic might be simple, it can make visiting Cusco as a traveller, especially one with little money, feel pretty bad. It’s the constant being sold to, the commercialization of every aspect of the place, the insistence that you must spend, spend, spend to experience and enjoy.

But what the people of Cusco are doing isn’t wrong, either. They’re simply trying to make money to survive, to save, and to take care of their families. To exclude them from the tourism economy is to deny them a better life.

A woman walks by signs taped up by protesters.

But that exclusion soon might be coming to all of Cusco. The second major danger of tourism as your only economy is that the flow of tourists might stop entirely. This could happen because the global economy dips and fewer people have money to travel. It might also happen if the reason tourists visit disappears or gets destroyed (though this one is less likely). And it can also happen when tourists find a more convenient route to get to what they want to see that doesn’t involve you.

Signs protesting the construction of the new international airport in Chinchero. Once completed, tourists will no longer need to fly to Lima or Cusco to reach Machu Picchu, the country’s most popular tourist destination.

When we went out earlier, we saw signs plastered around Plaza de Armas in protest and several people scrawling more with black pens on white poster paper. They were protesting the construction of an international airport in the nearby town of Chinchero. Approved in 2012, the plan would create a travel hub closer to Machu Picchu with more capacity to receive tourists. It would also enable tourists to see the ruins without having to visit Cusco at all, and the people here know that’s bad news for the biggest employer in town.

A man stands at the edge of an Andean vista outside of Cusco. How the city would change from a sudden drop in tourism remains unknown.


*Frustratingly, I couldn’t find much hard data on the size of Cusco’s tourism industry (in dollars or empoyment).

According to Wikipedia, Cusco’s tourism industry was worth $2.47 billion USD in 2009. Considering that the Cusco region (not just the city) accounted for 4.4% of Peru’s GDP, we can use Peru’s GDP of around $190 billion to figure out that Cusco’s region accounted for $8.4 billion. After this we get kind of stuck, since we’re not sure how much Cusco the city accounts for GDP in the region, but let’s say 50% because it has about 1/3 of the region’s population and as a city it’s going to have a pretty big economic footprint. So that means Cusco the city has a GDP of $4.2 billion.

Assuming tourism hasn’t drastically fallen since 2009 (according to various sources, it’s only increasing), then tourism accounts for at least $2.47 billion of Cusco’s $4.2 billion GDP, meaning it makes up 59% of the city’s GDP. While that doesn’t equate to employment, that does suggest there are a lot of incomes in Cusco that are dependent on tourism.

Regular people of Cusco

After our adventures in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, we’re back in Cusco! We’ll be moving on to Arequipa soon, but here’s a tribute to the wonderful regular folks of Cusco. While we travellers pass through the city to see the sights, these people work here every day as vendors, cleaners, and builders. So if you visit and see these folks, give them your thanks.

A worker maintaining the ruins of Tambomachay outside of the city
Poeple chat in the Plaza de Armas between selling tour packages to visitors


A fruit market in the southwest part of the city
Fruit vendors at a market in the southwest part of the city
Two women collect and empty garbage bins near Mercado San Pedro
A worker carries supplies and children play in Mercado San Pedro
Construction workers demonstrate on the street near Plaza de Armas

The full cost of visiting Machu Picchu

The ruins of Machu Picchu, the dream destination of many

Machu Picchu is a dream destination, once-in-a-lifetime visit for many people. The reconstructed remains of this Incan Citadel see over one million visitors each year, and it’s a place of amazing beauty. But when we visited as two backpackers, we were shocked at how much the trip cost. So we’ve put together a breakdown of the cost per person below as an estimate for future travelers. There are two categories: cheap (you’ll be staying in hostels, dining at cheap local eateries, and all around paying time/comfort instead of money) and comfortable (you’ll be staying at 3-star hotels, dining at trendier restaurants, and paying to walk/hike less whenever possible). Note that we use US dollars and assume you’re visiting directly from the U.S., but you can easily put your own numbers here to get a final tally from your country of origin and then convert to your local currency.


The flight to Cusco

$580 (cheap) and $655 (comfortable). While $500 was the cheapest rate I found for the next month, it was only available flying through DFW. The mean price for flying out of Dallas, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco was around $580. It will also be more expensive if you’re not flying from one of the major airport hubs.

Flights to Cusco depart only in the mornings (the region’s weather makes it hard for flights to land in the afternoon), so you’re probably going to spend the night sleeping in Lima’s international airport. If you want to be comfortable, you’ll have to spring for a room and some food, which I’ve estimated at $75 over the ‘cheap’ price for a total of $655.

The stay in Cusco

$30 (cheap) and $250 (comfortable). Unless you’ve booked a tour to Machu Picchu or are really packing your schedule, you’re probably going to stay a night in Cusco after landing and a second night after returning from Machu Picchu. On the cheap side, you can get a cheap hostel bed for as low as $5 and eat $3-$4 meals with the locals at Mercado San Pedro. For those who want comfort, expect to pay around $75 for a hotel room and $50 for three meals at nicer restaurants. Double each of those for your two nights in Cusco.

A view of Cusco’s tourist area, Plaza de Armas

Getting to/from Aguas Calientes

$30 (cheap) and $150+ (comfortable). You’re either paying a lot of time or money here. For the cheap option, you take a $20 collectivo from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, a 5+ hour ride through the winding Andes. Then you hike ~3 hours (13 km) to Aguas Calientes; on the way back you do the same hike, but we found the collectivo was only $10 back to Cusco. The total time paid for this trip is around 30 hours.

On the other hand, taking the comfortable option with the whopping $150 price tag cuts travel time to a total of 5-6 hours. The cheapest round-trip train tickets run for around $136 (in low season) round-trip. In the low season, the train doesn’t reach Cusco (only Ollantaytambo), so you’ll also shell out ~$14 for a bus or shared car from and to Cusco. You could also take the train only one way, but be warned that you’ll be paying $75 for that one-way train ticket*.

A night in Aguas Calientes

$50 (cheap) and $200+ (comfortable). To get those much-coveted views of Machu Picchu in the morning, you’ll have to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, where prices are 1.5-3x those in Cusco. $30 will get you a cheap place to stay and $20 should get you three meals. If you insist on the comforts of having working hot water, clean accommodations, and soundproof rooms so you can fall asleep and get up early, plan to spend $150 for your room, and $50 for three meals at the more upscale restaurants.

Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu, is more expensive than Cusco

Machu Picchu entrance fee

$47 (minimal) and $62 (with Huayna Picchu or Machu Mountain). The base price of an adult foreigner ticket directly from the offices in Cusco or Aguas Calientes is $47 a person. If you want to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Mountain, expect to pay $15 more for that privilege and plan to buy your tickets far in advance—these extras sell out much sooner than standard tickets, even in the low season.

Getting to/from Machu Picchu

Free (cheap) or $40 (comfortable). The question here is whether you want to do a 1+ hour, 1 km near-vertical ascent/descent on the stairs to Machu Picchu. This is after the 2 km walk from Aguas Calientes in the morning. If you don’t, your best option is to book the $40 ticket for the bus up and down, which should be done at least a day in advance (the bus kiosk in Cusco isn’t open early in the mornings). Be warned that people line up early (earlier than 5:00 am) for the first buses up, so be prepared to wait in a long line in town. I believe there’s also an option to buy a one-way ticket down from Machu Picchu, which costs only $15; inquire at the bus kiosk in Aguas Calientes or in Cusco.

Stairs on the hike up to Machu Picchu should you not opt for the bus ride.


Free (cheap) or $25 (comfortable). There are no informational signs around Machu Picchu’s ruins, so expect to come armed with your own knowledge in the form of downloaded website pages or a book, or you’ll have to pay for a guide. You can get a guide for cheaper than $25, but you’ll be in a larger group and the tour may only last an hour.

The total cost to visit Machu Picchu:

$737 (cheap) and $1,382 (comfortable). Is it worth it? That’s up for you to decide. This article isn’t meant to discourage you from going, but to give you a clear idea of how much the whole to Machu Picchu trip costs. I think I would pay to see it again, but I’m still surprised at how much I paid for what I got.

The ever-popular selfie at Machu Picchu. How much is it worth to you?

*Note: There is a cheap train (~$2-3) that goes between Cusco Machu Picchu, but it’s locals only. Foreigners are barred from using it as of 10+ years ago to ‘improve the quality of their experience’. The current astronomical prices are charged by the two private companies that run rail services to Machu Picchu. From conversations with locals, there’s disagreement over whether the government sees any of that money, and if so what they use it for.

Afterward: Why’s it so expensive, you might ask? The going hypothesis is that Peru sees tourism as a form of wealth redistribution from richer countries to their (relatively) poorer country, so they charge foreigners (especially from non-Andean countries) far more for this visit to Machu Picchu. That’s totally within their right to do, but for those of us who don’t have the money to pay these prices, it feels a lot like a “Not rich? Then you’re not welcome here” message.

Machu Picchu in Pictures

Morning mist at the ruins of Machu Picchu

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a photoessay on our visit to Machu Picchu. For those of you who want a wordier post (and some critical commentary on visiting), here’s the essay.

Mountains obscured by mist and clouds, as viewed from the trail to the Sun Gate
A worker removes dirt from between the stones on the trail to the Sun Gate
Passing clouds obscure the ruins as seen from the terraces to the northwest of the main gate (former cemetary and guard quarters)
Machu Picchu as seen from the terraces to the northwest of the main gate
Terraces and buildings that have been reconstructed and given new thatched roofs
A worker poses beside a wall where he has removed dirt from between the stones. If you encounter the workers, I would treat them with respect and thank them. They work hard to maintain Machu Picchu.
A man poses for a selfie on the terraces of Machu Picchu
A full view of the ruins from near the main entrance.Huayna Picchu (upper right) is obscured by clouds.
Tourists pose questionably while an employee works on a nearby wall
A woman is excited after getting her picture at the Sacred Plaza in the ruins
Nature’s lawnmowers: llamas and alpacas are used to keep grass in check on the ruin’s terraces. They also serve as an informal petting zoo for the curious.
A tour group waits at one of the many “bottlenecks” along the Machu Picchu ruins path. The whole path is arranged to be unidirectional and marked with signs to prevent total chaos. At some extremely narrow or famous points, tour groups get bunched up and chaos ensues anyway.
Workers measure the impact of thousands of human feet on the ruins by measuring the height of the dirt path. This is in the Eastern Urban Sector of the ruins.
A path leading off a cliff in the northern part of the ruins.
A view of the Urubamba River from the terraces in the north of Machu Picchu. The thin line above the split in the river is the rail track we crossed on the hike here.
The archetypal view of Machu Picchu.
Narrow corridors between the buildings is a characteristic hallmark of the Eastern Urban Sector at the ruins. This area could have housed hundreds or even a thousand people during the height of the Incan Empire.