Before you head to Cusco and Machu Picchu, make sure you’re in on the travel hacks that will make your Peruvian vacation the best it can possibly be. After our recent trip, we decided to lay it out for other travelers and save a few headaches. Here are some of the things that we were either very thankful people had told us before we went to Machu Picchu, as well as all the things that nobody told us and we really wished they had. Spending your trip wondering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” is no way to live. But don’t worry, we’re here to help.
Trekking (to Machu Picchu or anywhere around Cusco):
1. Altitude Sickness:
If you suffer from altitude sickness, or everything happens to you like it does to me and you want to be prepared just in case, you can buy over-the-counter altitude sickness pills in Lima and Cusco and bring them with you. Sorochi Pills are most popular. If you prefer a natural approach, you can swap taking pills for chewing on coca leaves like the locals do. You can find bags of coca leaves for sale in markets all over Cusco (one bag will be more than enough for you and all your friends for the duration of the trip). Or, as reader Lisa mentioned below, many hotels will have a supply available for you. You can also place the washed leaves in a cup of hot water to make coca leaf tea, a great way to start your day once you’re high in the Andes.
Because of the high altitude, it is also recommended to arrive in Cusco at least a day or two before heading to Machu Picchu so you can acclimate to the elevation. During these first couple of days, don’t do anything too strenuous and make sure to rest as needed. Avoid alcohol.
2. Bug Spray (Shampoo):
I don’t want to say all bug spray is a scam, but don’t expect anything from your DEET spray or family-friendly alternatives here… I learned the hard way (if you read about Day 3 of our trek to Machu Picchu, you know all about it). We’ve found a couple brands of bug spray that we have relied on during other trips, but nothing would do the trick around Cusco (mainly in the areas you pass through during the Jungle Trek). While I was sitting outside a pharmacy icing my swollen legs covered in bites, a local took Henry into the store and pointed out the best secret of our trip. Rub shampoo on your skin like a lotion and do not wash it off. It creates a “second skin” and was the most effective form of bug protection we’ve ever encountered. Our shampoo had a scent, our local friend told us it would work the same, and guess what? I survived the rest of the trip without a new bite.
As great as the shampoo trick is, you should also cover up in long pants and long sleeves while trekking. The mosquitos around Cusco were a million times worse than even the Amazon, and loose, long clothing is the first line of defense.
Read more: The Amazonian City of Iquitos, Peru
3. Bug Bite Anti-Itch Cream (Vick’s):
If you forget to bring shampoo on, or if it’s already too late, Vick’s is more effective than most anti-itch creams we found, and actually stops the itching quickly rather than just soothing the feeling. It’s also smart to bring a few antihistamines with you, so if you do get attacked by mosquitos you can reduce your body’s reaction from the inside and out (Benadryl gel tablets saved me).
If you’re camera-happy, bring extra batteries for trekking to Machu Picchu. Those camping won’t have a way to charge their cameras, and even those staying in small hotels and hostels might have challenges. Bring plenty of memory cards as well so that you can snap and film away without having to go through and delete during the trip.
If you have an iPhone, those staying in hotels should connect to Wifi and backup through iCloud in the evenings.
Even in the fog and overcast skies, you’re going to get surprisingly burnt even if you’re on it with the sunscreen, so reapply constantly and make sure to bring enough. You can buy plenty here, but it’s usually a bit more expensive and hard to find one you love. Go for a good SPF and reapply often!
6. Waterproof Protection:
Weird but popular local advice: use condoms to waterproof-protect your phones during the rainy season. It’s weird, maybe gross and we’re not sure where that falls on the social-acceptability level but trekking guides in the area swore by it to protect your (smaller) precious electronics when the flash downpours occur. We gave it a shot and found that it works more effectively than plastic bags, but again, there’s a level of commitment you need on this one.
Read more: A Beginner’s Guide to Machu Picchu
What to Bring
Refer to the Bug Spray section above. That being said, shampoo and sunscreen are a must here. Bring a small day backpack for visiting the ruins so you don’t have to bring everything up. (Also, large backpacks are not allowed to enter Machu Picchu). Don’t forget a hat or sunglasses, and additional layers if you’ll need them.
6. Food and Water:
Food and water are only sold outside the ruins, so if you’re staying all day then definitely bring a lot of water and something to eat for lunch/snacks. Many tours provide a sack lunch for the day, but make sure to find out in advance. Those trekking should buy food and snacks in the last town before Aguas Calientes (options are limited and much more expensive).
Plastic water bottles are not allowed at Machu Picchu, but reusable bottles are encouraged and can be refilled for cheap.
Restrooms at Machu Picchu are only outside the ruins, and you will have to wait in the entrance line again to re-enter. Plan accordingly, go before, and try to avoid going again until afternoon when the morning crowds have died down.
Just before the exit you’ll see a window where you can have your passport stamped by Machu Picchu, so don’t forget to bring it!
9. Treks on Machu Picchu:
Some of the treks need to be reserved in advance (more details on the different treks here). If you are interested in doing the famous Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountain, plan ahead.
One of our friends lost his ticket on the way to the entrance early in the morning. Everyone thought he is going to buy a new one but a nice surprise happened. His name was on their database and the only thing they need to do was reprinting the ticket and go back to join the group again.
10. Trains Back to Cusco:
Many trains are late at night, and the Peru Rail does not take you all the way back to Cusco. Little vans wait at the train station to drive you the rest of the way. When you book your trek, make sure to confirm that your return transportation includes a train ticket AND a seat in one of the vans to get you all the way back. You’ll see quite a few travelers realizing that none of the driver’s signs have their name on them, and at midnight in the tiny Sacred Valley town, that’s not a great sign. Make sure you’re not one of them!
11. Hotel/Hostels in Cusco:
If you’re coming back to Cusco the same day as you’re visiting Machu Picchu, make sure to book your accommodations for that night before you leave to Machu Picchu. You will be returning to Cusco at 1 or 2 am and if you don’t have a hostel booked, you’re going to be dead tired and wandering the streets with your luggage looking for somewhere to stay.
*12. Showers and luggage storage:
If you’re not staying in Aguas Calientes after visiting Machu Picchu and have to wait for your train back to Cusco, many of the tiny hotels will let you pay to shower or leave luggage in the meantime. After a long day at the ruins, most people are desperate for these showers. Just ask around the first hotels you see, usually it costs 10 soles (only a few dollars).
For more information on How to Get to Machu Picchu, click here.
Planning your trip just got way easier. Have any other hacks or tips for travelers headed to Machu Picchu or Cusco? We know there are plenty more, and would love to hear them from you! Please feel free to share your best traveler-to-traveler advice for Cusco in the comments below, and any that we can personally vouch for will be added to this guide.
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