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Dear Trip Coach...
My fiancé, Erik, and I are getting married right after his regatta team competes at the national championship and before I start my medical residency. There's no time for a honeymoon afterward, so we're doing a pre-wedding trip to Peru. We love adventure and being active. Katie Hammes, Madison, Wis.
"First things first: What's the easiest way to get money in Peru?"
ATMs, no question. El Banco de Crédito has them in most cities and accepts ATM cards affiliated with U.S. credit card companies. Avoid Global Net ATMs: They're installed everywhere tourists go, but they charge an extra fee.
"We definitely want to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Should we work with a tour company?"
You're wise to take the Inca Trail: No other route offers as majestic a view or the option to explore during the quiet morning hours. Peruvian law requires that Inca Trail hikers be accompanied by a licensed tour operator--which isn't such a bad thing, since the operators take care of the red tape, arrange for porters, and often supply the camping gear. Only 500 people, including guides and porters, are allowed to embark on the trail each day; reserve your spots at least three months out, especially if you're going between May and October. Canadian-owned Andean Treks has well-trained guides and porters (800/683-8148, andeantreks.com, five days from $595, trail fee $85).
"We plan to arrive in Lima and then fly to Cuzco to start the hike, but we've heard that flights between the two cities are unreliable."
No need to worry. LAN, Peru's most dependable airline, has new, well-maintained airplanes, and its flights are generally on time. It runs 10 flights a day from Lima to Cuzco (866/435-9526, lan.com).
"Can you recommend any restaurants or hotels in Cuzco?"
The majority of Peru's foreign travelers pass through Cuzco, so there's a lot of tourism infrastructure. A few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, in the historic San Blas quarter, the seven-bedroom Casona les Pleiades offers friendly hospitality (Tandapata 116, 011-51/84-50-6430, casona-pleiades.com, $45 with breakfast). For classic Peruvian food, dine at Pachapapa (Plazoleta San Blas 120, 011-51/84-24-1318, dinner from $8). Even restaurant owners go there to eat the lomo saltado, a dish of stir-fried beef tenderloin, tomatoes, onions, French fries, and soy sauce. (Peru's Chinese population is the largest in Latin America--a fact that's reflected in many of the local dishes.)
"We'd like to look around Cuzco before we start our hike. How much time should we allow in the city?"
Remember, you'll be coming from sea level, and Cuzco lies at about 11,000 feet. The Inca Trail trek will drop you to elevations of about 9,000 feet in the beginning, but the trail rises and falls between 1,000 and 1,500 feet daily--and on one day, there's a 3,934-foot ascent. Devote at least a day in Cuzco to getting acclimated to the altitude. One good way to do so is to climb up to the Incan ruin Sacsayhuamán. You can also travel down to the Sacred Valley, which is at about 9,000 feet. Once the agricultural land of the Inca, the valley is now home to small towns, markets, and ruins.
Leave some time to walk around Cuzco proper. Start in the Plaza de Armas. Cuzco Cathedral, on the north end of the square ($9), is home to several classic paintings by Cuzco school artists--indigenous Peruvians who merged the techniques they were taught by Spanish masters with their own style. Afterward, head to Qoricancha to check out the Incan sun temple that fell to the Spanish in 1533 (Plazoleta Santo Domingo, $3). For another art fix, visit the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Plazoleta de las Nazarenas 231, 011-51/84-23-3210, $7).
"We're also interested in going to other areas--maybe Lake Titicaca to go mountain biking and kayaking."
Lots of people who visit Titicaca ride a motorboat to one of its islands and spend the night with a family, but you can skip the motorboat and do the trip by kayak instead. Book with Titikayak (011-51/51-36-7747, titikayak.com, two days from $145) or All Ways Travel (011-51/51-35-3979, titicacaperu.com, two days from $210). Most of the residents live in mud or concrete houses, some without electricity. Your dinner--which is often cooked on a wood-burning stove--might include a quinoa soup, a vegetable omelet with rice, and a local type of crepe for dessert. The younger members of the families are the most likely to speak at least a little English.
A great option for mountain biking is Colca Canyon, in southern Peru. It's twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and has narrow roads that take you past soaring condors, hot springs, and villages. The closest airport is in Arequipa, about four hours' drive from the canyon. Colca Trek leads three-day bike trips and provides transportation from the airport (011-51/54-20-6217, colcatrek.com.pe, three days from $195). If you decide to hike the canyon on your own, catch a ride on a public bus (Turismo Milagros, 011-51/54-29-8090) or rent a car from Hertz (011-51/54-28-2519, hertz.com).
"What's the best way to get from Cuzco to Puno?"
Besides Titicaca, the southern city of Puno doesn't have many tourist attractions. If you fly to Juliaca, the closest airport, you'll be stuck figuring out how to fill the whole day. Instead, take the train or a bus so you can spend the time admiring Peru's dramatic mountain scenery. PeruRail's luxury train, the Andean Explorer, is designed like a 1920s Pullman coach and serves complimentary lunch and tea (011-51/84-23-8722, perurail.com, Andean Explorer from $148). Inka Express runs buses that stop at major historic sites between the two cities (011-51/84-24-7887, inkaexpress.com, from $45). The trip takes nine hours, whether you go by bus or by train.
"We've heard a little about Islas Ballestas, off the southern coast. Are they worth a trip?"
The islands' famed sea-lion and bird populations are most active around 9 a.m., but to see them you have to join the crowds on an early-morning motorboat ride. You may be better off exploring the Ica desert, on the mainland, where you can see fossils of birds, like a five-foot-tall penguin, or of prehistoric marine life, like sea sloths and whales. Or head to Nazca to climb Cerro Blanco, one of the world's tallest sand dunes. To visit the desert, book a tour with mining prospector turned guide Roberto Penny Cabrera (011-51/56-23-7373, icadeserttrip.com, two- to three-day tours from $100 for groups of three or four). In Nazca, guide Edmundo Watkin leads dune treks (011-51/56-52-3212, eight-hour group tours from $22).
"Anything else we should know?"
When you leave, you'll need $30.25 in U.S. currency to pay the airport's international exit tax. Lima has ATMs where you can get U.S. dollars, but you're on your own for the quarter!
Peru has no shortage of creative cocktails, many made with fresh fruit and pisco, Peru's white brandy. The pisco sour is the old-time favorite, but keep an eye out for sours made with passion fruit, coca leaf, and goldenberry.