Peru - it's INCA-credible

From jungle to coastal desert via the breath-taking peaks of the Andes, Peru’s variety of places to visit means the potential for adventure is neverending.

Whether you want to trek the hallowed Inca trail, head to the cocaine museum, hang out in Cisco and party with locals or take the alternative Quarry trail - Peru is perfect for exploring.

Strap your hiking boots on and channel your inner India Jones as you join Carly O’Donnell and explore a country that’s so much more than Machu Picchu…

After departing London, I arrived 14 hours later in the capital of Peru: Lima. Whilst the city has a quiet Spanish charm and some cool places for a Pisco sour and a ceviche - it’s nothing to rave about when I recall tales of Peru. I spent two days in the city avoiding spontaneous protests and the popular dish of guinea pig before moving on.

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The real adventure started with the one-hour flight (or eight-hour bus ride) down to Cusco – the ancient Inca capital. When I caught my breath from the 3,339m altitude I managed to lose myself in the postcard picture of Peru. A maze of narrow walkways, Spanish plazas and peddlers desperate to take my picture with a baby llama – Cusco is a great place to spend a few days. Purchase a boleto turístico card which provides access to 16 local sites including the impressive fortress of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced sexy woman) and Qenko where the Incas carried out ritual sacrifice.

For a less cultural experience head to the cocaine museum – where you can learn about how to transform the indigenous leaf before being turned off it for life with a gruesome hall of fame depicting celebrity drug overdoses. You’ll need a drink afterwards, and I recommend the Museo del Pisco which is dedicated to the local tipple. You can even try making your own (I’m referring to the drink, not cocaine). 

From Cusco I headed to the tiny ancient town of Ollanytaytambo. Nestled within the formidable Andes and overlooked by Inca forts and temples, it’s a place to slow down and admire the view. The boleto turístico card provides access to the impressive archaeological sites and other ruins on the hillside are free and fun to hike. If you fancy more adventure and are not afraid of heights, why not spend the night suspended 200m in the air in a unique glass hotel pod? The views are unbelievable and unforgettable. 

After a day and night in Ollanytatmabo most people set off to the main event. You can reach Machu Picchu the easy way with a frequent, air conditioned train, or the hard way with a backpack.

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Like hundreds of others each day, I joined my group and spent four days following in the footsteps of the Incas along the secluded Quarry trail – a quieter version of the famous Inca trail. During that time, we scaled 4,400m peaks, channelled our inner India Jones as we explored abandoned Inca sites, and saw virtually no one. An added bonus was the amazing array of traditional Peruvian dishes served up en-route by the porters including Llomo saltado and quinoa porridge. Trust me you need carbs and protein to get to the destination. 

The hike took me to the last major stop before Machu Picchu– the bizarre experience of Aguas Calientes. Imagine Cancun set within dramatic stone cliffs and filled with pre and post hike people all with a tale to tell. Enjoy a couple of 3-for-1 happy hour drinks and get a good night’s sleep - there’s not much else to do here. Buses start leaving for Machu Picchu at 5am so get in the queue early to secure access before the train loads of tourists arrive at 9am. After all you’ve seen and experienced in Peru you might worry that Machu Picchu will be a let-down – don’t be. Those precious few uncrowded hours are the best time to explore this incredible site – which will blow your mind regardless of how many selfies you’ve seen.

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To help you decide whether the alternative Quarry trail is right for you, here are some of the main things to consider: 

Crowds: Everyone is looking for an ‘authentic’ experience, and an alternative trek is one of your best chances of experiencing Inca life. The only other people we met on our three-day hike were farmers with no electricity, no plumbing, and no idea what we were doing there. In contrast, the Inca trail might be capped at 200 hikers but that doesn’t include the 300 guides and porters – so it’s still really busy. 

Site spotting: Hands down you’ll see a greater variety of Inca ruins on the Inca trail where ruins generally crop up every few miles. Having said that you are en-route to Machu Picchu and will inevitably explore Inca ruins in Cusco – so don’t dismiss the alternative routes so easily. On the Quarry trail, we passed one or two sites per day ranging from a lesser-known sun gate to burial chambers. Being part of a much smaller group meant we could channel our inner India Jones and get exploring without the crowds!

Sanitation: The Quarry trail is a loop which starts and finishes at Ollantaytambo. You arrive back into town early afternoon, catch the train up to Aguas Calientes and take a much-needed wash before departing for Machu Picchu at 5am the next day. In comparison hikers on THE Inca trail arrive slightly worse for wear and rather fragrant! 

Fitness levels: I’m reasonably fit (workout 2-3 times per week) and I found the Quarry trail tough. It goes higher than the Inca trail and involves a ten-hour walk on the second day, so altitude sickness is a problem. In contrast, The Inca trail is slightly lower, and generally, people from that group seemed less affected by altitude. Support horses are allowed on the alternative trek if its gets too much. 

Sun Gate: This is a big one. The Inca trail takes you directly to Machu Picchu, and you’ll arrive on the last day through the famous sun gate before descending into the ancient town. No other route can offer this, and the sense of achievement amongst hikers is pretty irreplaceable. 

Verdict: I have no regrets about doing the Quarry trail and would certainly recommend it to others – particularly if you are craving a break from the modern world. It offers up a more serene experience with a small group, breath-taking scenery and lesser-known ruins. Admittedly, I did feel a pang of jealousy when the other hikers arrived at Machu Picchu through the sun gate - but as we swapped stories, it was clear all routes offered an unforgettable experience. If you want to know more about Machu Picchu then you really should go.

I booked my hike with Intrepid who offer a wide range of trek and tour options across Peru: www.intrepidtravel.com/peru