Cuenca to Cusco and Back Again: the Pitfalls of Planning a Trip to Peru

I stood in the small office, studiously trying to avoid the unflinching gaze of a prostrate Jesus. Under his crucified frame, a nun was peering at a computer screen, clicking idly through her Facebook page.

“So…is it ok if I go to Peru next week?”

I shifted uncomfortably as the nun looked me up and down, an unsatisfied expression on her face. For a woman with supposedly unlimited compassion for all creatures, she wasn’t exactly willing to show me any.

“Which room do you work in?”

A few minutes later, I walked out of the nun’s office and into the playground of my afternoon placement, feeling like a load had been lifted from my shoulders.

“Yep, all sorted, they were fine with it,” I said to my friend happily, as she absent-mindedly swung a three year old around in circles.

“Peru, here we come!”

An impromptu visit to Machu Picchu

Trying to plan bouts of travelling with a group of thirteen people has its difficulties – mainly because so many different ideas get thrown around that no decision is ever actually made. The one concept that we could all agree on as a definite travel plan was trekking to Machu Picchu – yet after many conversations about making the journey in July, when all our placements were finished, we suddenly thought to research the prospect and discovered that July is officially the busiest month of the year for the infamous tourist hotspot.

So we decided it might be sensible to head off for a few weeks in May instead, giving us a chance to see the site with slightly fewer crowds and slightly cooler weather – plus after living in Ecuador for almost three months, it feels like an appropriate time to discover a bit more of the continent.

But obviously we still have an obligation to our volunteer placements until the end of June, which means we’re attempting to get from Cuenca all the way down to Cusco and back again in approximately three weeks. Which translates as approximately 19,000 km, or one day and nine hours of travelling.

And we’re doing the whole journey on buses.

(Image courtesy of Helena Fawdry)

My host mum has been finding the concept pretty difficult to understand.

“So you’re flying to Cusco, yes?” She asked me as we munched on toast at breakfast. I shook my head.

“You’re flying from Cuenca to Lima?”

I shook my head again. My poor host mum looked confused.

“But it’s only $300 to fly! And so much safer!”

It’s hard to explain to an Ecuadorian that, although the buses in South America are synonymous with danger, there’s an extremely tempting element of adventure involved with travelling the length of a country solely via winding roads, putting all our faith in strangers tasked with driving a busload of passengers through the night. And I’m obviously planning to stay awake all night so I don’t get relieved of all my valuables.

Travelling on the cheap

Plus let’s not forget that the price difference is pretty huge if you choose to go overland rather than flying. And because there’s nine of us it should (fingers crossed) be averagely plain sailing.

Just to make things easier (and because we’re sticking to a pretty tight time frame) we’ve booked everything ahead of time. That means buses, hostels and trek are already sorted out – and it also gives us a pretty good breakdown of what three weeks of Peruvian travel is going to cost.

For example, six bus journeys totalling around a hundred hours comes to a grand total of $200 – not too shabby! And twelve nights in five different hostels only amounts to $90 – with quite a few free breakfasts and comfy beds involved.

Every budget traveller’s dream: a breakfast you can turn into lunch!

But the main joy has been sorting out a five day trek for $200, complete with porters, tents, meals and guides. I was initially quite disappointed that we wouldn’t be walking the famed Inca Trail, but after discovering how far in advance the permits sell out, I realised there was no point in lamenting the normal route. Plus it turns out that the other routes are just as interesting to walk along – and we’ll get to see a part of the country that not as many people see on the Salcantay trail.

There’s a slight problem though, which has nothing to do with what route we trek, and more about my distinct of concern for sorting myself out pre-Peru.

The joys of being woefully underprepared

When I packed my backpack for Ecuador, I momentarily considered bringing walking boots. But for some reason they didn’t seem that important back in London, so they never made it out here. And of course, when I realised I was going trekking (not walking, mind – trekking!!) I knew what a mistake I’d made.

Luckily enough, after a slightly panicked time spent searching for averagely cheap yet suitable boots, I happened upon a lovely pair in a Cuencan outdoors shop for only $59.

This is probably the most preparation I’m going to end up doing for Machu Picchu, though. While the general consensus is equipping yourself with zip off trousers and moisture wicking tshirts, I simply can’t be bothered to source this stuff. Similarly, I’m being wonderfully casual about the physical preparations. I walk to and from my placements each day – and have been duly wearing the walking boots to do so since I bought them – but there’s been no intensive hill climbing, no jogging along the river and definitely no specific exercise regime!

But I walked up Mount Sinai on my second day in Egypt with no preparation beforehand, and though I was significantly out of breath for large portions of the day, I never gave in or climbed, wheezing, onto a donkey – so I chalk that up as a win.

Fingers crossed I get the same energy levels in Peru.

Maybe I should start practicing on these bad boys…

I also have another wonderfully inappropriate issue to face when trekking along in my new boots. Any squeamish male readers, do look away now – but ladies, my favourite monthly moment is due the exact day we start our trek. The only positive thought I can salvage from this situation is that it’s going to be a wonderful testimony for the Mooncup! And, much as I hate thinking like this, I figure going through that experience could well be blogging gold. Comedy gold too, to be completely honest…

In fact, our impending trip to Peru is alerting me to an obsession I didn’t quite realised I had. Simply put, the idea of spending three weeks on the road, being separated from my iPad and thus my work, is really quite distressing!

But it’s making me realise that there’s a lot more I could – and probably should – be doing. I spent basically all of my free time in Ecuador writing and blogging, and while I love it, there’s a strong likelihood that it’s becoming somewhat detrimental.

Time for a detox

Three weeks without the ability to check up on social media and type frenziedly into the night can only be a good thing. I can still write as much as I want, but it has to be on paper, meaning I’ll probably take more time over my work, and won’t get as distracted by the joys of the internet. Not to mention this lack of technology gives me a chance to finally read some books – which I haven’t done since arriving in Ecuador.

Ultimately, though, I’m most excited about the chance to practice my Spanish. In the last three months, I feel like my language skills have been improving – steadily, albeit slowly. The time I feel the most confident is at school, when I spend hours with Maria Luisa, my fellow teacher in crime, and we write down various English-Spanish translations in our respective notebooks. We’re a bit geeky, and I absolutely love it.

So, although I won’t have the ability to spend hours writing notes on my iPad while in Peru, I do have the opportunity to absorb as much Spanish as I possibly can. With grammar books on my Kindle, Spanish podcasts on my iPod, and an array of phrasebooks and old class notes, I’m praying that there’ll be a significant improvement in my Spanish abilities.

I also figure that, if all else fails, I can spend five days wearing the trek porters down with my incessant Spanish questioning.

Excitement is approaching!

All in all, I think it’s safe to say that this trip is not one of the most prepared I’ve ever taken. But after so long spent in the same place, I’m itching to go exploring – and what better place to do it! And the eventual reward that’s inching ever closer? Finally standing atop the summit of Wayna Picchu and looking down on an Inca site over 500 years old; something I’ve dreamed about doing ever since I first decided to travel through South America.

Unfortunately, the blogger in me won’t be able to rest without chasing multiple llamas in an attempt to recreate Erica and Shaun’s incredible Machu Picchu photobomb – otherwise known as the best picture anyone will ever see of the site.

You can take away my iPad, Peru, but you will never take away my ability to behave ridiculously in the name of blogging. Be prepared, llamas of Machu Picchu. You have been warned.


Image courtesy of Erica Kuschel | Over Yonderlust

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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16 Responses to Cuenca to Cusco and Back Again: the Pitfalls of Planning a Trip to Peru

  1. michael April 28, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    I like it. Thanks

  2. Ellen Keith April 29, 2013 at 6:40 pm #


    It looks like you’ve got a great trip ahead of you. Be prepared for loooooong lines (even at 2AM) at the Peru/Ecuador border though! They are really, really unorganized on the Ecuador side. Which company are you trekking with? Are you doing the classic Inca Trail? 🙂 You’ll love it, and don’t worry too much about preparing — I didn’t and was just fine!

    • Flora May 22, 2013 at 2:43 am #

      Thanks for the warning of long lines Ellen – although it wasn’t the border itself we had issues with, just the copious amounts of barricades built by striking Peruvian fishermen once we crossed over! Ah the joys of Peru…!

  3. Patty May 2, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Very informative blog post. This is incredibly helpful and knowledgeable on planning a trip. Absolutely laughed at the Llama photo! Keep up the good work.

    • Flora May 22, 2013 at 2:48 am #

      Thanks Patty, glad you found it useful! Alas I cannot take credit for the llama photo but it’s one of my absolute favourites 🙂

  4. Thomas Dembie May 7, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Have a great trip. Sometimes if you plan too much you miss the best parts! I agree with you about bus travel. If you have the time, it’s a great way to see the country.

    • Flora May 22, 2013 at 2:49 am #

      Definitely agreed Thomas – but with a group of nine it definitely made more sense to have some things booked in advance! The bus journeys were a great way to see a vast amount of the Peruvian landscapes though, so I’m really glad we did it 🙂

  5. Oliva May 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    So jealous!! Peru looks amazing. I love your nun story, too. 😀

    • Flora May 22, 2013 at 2:50 am #

      Thanks Oliva! Thankfully the nuns let me run away to Peru – I don’t actually know what I’d have done if they said no!

  6. Ceri June 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    I know I’m way late to this but I’m so excited for you. I’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu though I’m a little afraid because my asthma isn’t great and while I do enjoy hiking, I’m slower than a lot of people.

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:49 am #

      Slowness shouldn’t stop you from doing it though! Apart from anything you could always do the easier option and train/bus it the whole way there 🙂 Then there’s the Inka Jungle trek which is only one day of hiking, a day of zip lining and a day of biking. So many options :p

  7. Erica August 29, 2014 at 3:50 am #

    Hi! I am extremely amazed that you were able to go to Machu Picchu for such a price. I’m currently in Cuenca and will be here until mid October. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to go on a budget within one month exactly (trying to go for my 25th birthday). I would appreciate it if you could provide me with the tour or bus/car company, basically all the info you had and used to go.


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