When my friend Pat raised the idea of traveling to Peru and Machu Picchu, it wasn’t necessarily on my top 5 list. However, something about the history, the fact that I have never been south of the equator, and the idea to drive through the Andes Mountain Range was too much to resist. Yes, we decided driving to Machu Picchu from Lima was the most adventurous and genuine way to truly experience what these former Incan lands had to offer. Peru is a prime choice if you are seeking adventure, history, hospitality, and other pleasant surprises.
As we stitched our itinerary together, it began in Lima where we would pick up our rental car and start our drive south along the Pacific coast past Pisco (yes, the town the ‘Pisco Sour’ adult beverage is named after). Fast forward. There we are, on our way to the oasis town of Huacachina. If you haven’t heard of Huacachina by now, you need to read on. Huacachina is a tiny desert oasis surrounded by awe inspiring sand dunes, it’s an adventure traveler’s paradise. The first thing you’ll notice is the sand dunes are larger than skyscrapers. Not only are the dunes pleasant to gaze upon, they also provide one of the world’s best places for sand boarding, dune buggy-ing, and sunsets straight from Tatooine. This gem of an oasis town is also ripe with traveler friendly bars to share your best sand boarding, buggy-ing, and Peruvian adventures stories over.
2. The Nazca Lines
From Huacachina, we set our sights on Nazca, famed for the Nazca lines. The Nazca lines are a geological phenomenon etched out by the ancient Nazca civilization that flourished around 300 AD. No one truly knows the original purpose of the lines but many historians argue they were etched as a medium to speak to the gods. Seeing the lines by plane is not an overly expensive experience and is well worth it. If motion sickness is not your best friend, I would ensure to take precautions (i.e. anti-nausea medicine) as the planes will do many sharp turns that aren’t for the faint of heart. To that point, a young Japanese gentleman was in our plane and we’ll just say he had to use his sick bag. Additionally, the best time to see the lines due to shadowing is from 8:00 to 10:30 am.
Before you set for on planning a drive from Nazca to Machu Picchu, be sure you are truly ready to experience endless hairpin turns, lawless roads, and traversing up and down series upon series of ranges as the ridges run north to south and you will be driving west to east. The first thing to note as we departed Nazca was Cerro Blanco, it’s the largest sand dune in the world standing at nearly 7,000 feet tall (2,070 meters). Be sure to snap a few photos of this behemoth as you depart Nazca.
3. Ollantaytambo outside of Machu Picchu
If you search the route from Nazca to Ollantaytambo, Googlemaps states a non-stop drive will take approximately 12.5 hours however, you will stop many times for exploring towns, taking beautiful pictures, and purely enjoying the trip. For us, it was half of the adventure of seeing Peru. I would allot 15-18 hours more realistically. This goes for driving from Huacachina to Ollantaytambo as well.
4. Machu Picchu
Ollantaytambo is dotted with many ancient Incan ruins. It will be your jumping point if you plan to take the train to get to Aguas Calientes, which is essentially your base camp prior to taking the short bus trip up to Machu Picchu. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calienties takes approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. Alternatively, many people come to Peru to hike the traditional 4-day Inca trail which is also littered with gorgeous mountain panoramas however, our itinerary didn’t have time to experience the trail. From what I hear, if you can allot time, it’s well worth it if you are the hiking type.
As we finished the day of New Year’s Eve in Machu Picchu, we rushed to get to Cusco for the celebrations. However, we failed to buy our rail ticket in advance. One word of advice prior to taking the train to Aguas Calientes, ensure to purchase your rail ticket to return as crowds ebb and flow and demand is generally high. So, we were at a decision point, to spend our New Year’s Eve in the small town of Aguas Calientes, or to find a way to get back to Ollantaytambo to retrieve our car and drive on to Cusco. After a heated debate, we decide on the latter option and the the only viable route to Ollantaytambo was by foot.
After examining maps and speaking to locals, we determined we could walk along the railroad tracks as this is how the local farmers and some workers bring produce and goods into town (Aguas Calientes is quite secluded and tucked away in a deep valley). So we stocked up on supplies and began the journey. It took us approximately 12 hours to hike over 18 kilometers (we’ll never forget marker 82). Needless to say, we made it to Cusco for the New Year celebration which kicked off at our hostel, Loki Hostel. If you are looking for the best party hostel in Cusco, come here.
6. New Year’s in Cusco
Ultimately, we made it to Cusco that New Year’s Eve. Cusco provided, hands down, the best New Year’s celebrations I have ever experienced (topping experiences in New York City and Las Vegas). Therefore, if you are in Cusco for this amazing event, spend your time at Plaza de Armas for what has been called the best New Year’s celebration in all of South America. It felt as the entire city’s population was in the square with their own high powered fireworks. For approximately 1 hour from 11-12 pm, the locals blasted their fireworks in the sky and across the square. At one point, it truly felt like a war zone but full of joy and laughter. Do proceed with caution if you join this celebration as fireworks are detonating in the air and a few among the crowds.
With its high mountains (some standing at over 16,000 feet), amazing cuisine (including llama / “Alpaca” and guinea pig), sand dunes, Incan history, and gorgeous Pacific cliff side views such as those in Miraflores, Lima, you won’t have any regrets with putting this destination at the top of your travel wish list.
For more on road tripping the Peruvian coast, check out this article here.
To read more on my travels in South America, see my article about paragliding in Colombia!
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