My New “Favorite” Country

One question that I tend to cringe at is “what’s your favorite country” because each place offers different experiences that really can’t be compared. Sure, there are there are places that stand out, but I believe each of my travels is precious. That said, Peru was something special for sure. I expected to love it, but it surpassed any sort of expectations I had. In each place I could have spent the full two weeks. More on that later.

Logistically speaking, this trip was quite different than my typical one because I planned the heck out of it. My preference is to book the tickets as late as I can at the cheapest price, prepare a rough itinerary of possible routes and things to see, and then abandon all that for serendipity once I touch down. This time, we had to organize our entire trip around visiting Machu Picchu. I’d put off planning this trip for at least two years as a result, knowing that we would be going there during high tourist season and needed to book the train tickets ahead of time. With only two weeks at our disposal and way too many things to see, I was determined to minimize all possible delays so that we could make the best of it. And by the grace of the travel planning gods, it was damn near perfect!

Here was our itinerary:

  • Day 1: DC to Panama (see my previous post about the glorious layover)
  • Day 2: Panama to Lima; overnight at a B&B near the airport
  • Day 3: Late morning flight to Cusco; meet our travel guide for a ride to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, with a stop overlooking the Urubamba Valley
  • Day 4: Ollantaytambo – temple tour with local guide, walk around town; visit Sacred Valley Brewery outside of town
  • Day 5: Morning train to Aguas Calientes; afternoon Machu Picchu tour; hot springs in evening; nice alpaca steak dinner at Tree House
  • Day 6: Mid-morning train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo; hike up Pinkuylluna (granaries) for amazing views & sunset; dinner at Apu Veronica again
  • Day 7: Hired taxi from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, stopping at Maras salt pans, Moray terraces and Chinchero; dinner at Fuego downtown
  • Day 8: Cusco: Qorikancha, wander around old town streets, visit churches, buy stuff; late lunch at Cicciolina and dinner at Hanz craft beer
  • Day 9: Private tour with Andean Trail Adventure – Sacsaywaman, Q’enko, Pukapukara, Tambomachay and Pisac [bonus stop: ritual Pachamama blessing of Mark’s Andean cross amulet!]; light dinner near where we stayed
  • Day 10: Inka Express tourist bus from Cusco to Puno, stopping at Andahuaylillas, Raqchi, Marangani, La Raya and Pucará; walk around Puno; dinner at Casa de Corregidor
  • Day 11: Group tour with Andean Trail from Puno to Amantaní island in Lake Titicaca; stopping at Uros islands and hiking to the Pachapapa mountain on Amantaní; stay with local host family overnight & have delicious food
  • Day 12: Continuation of tour from Amantaní to Taquile and back to Puno; dinner at Moqso with new friends
  • Day 13: Early morning flight from Juliaca to Lima; explore Miraflores area; lots of eating and drinking (El Señorío del Sulco; Lucio Caffè; La Cervecería; Popular)
  • Day 14: Explore Old Town Lima and the Magic Fountain Park and music show; lots of walking; late dinner at Matilde
  • Day 15: Visit Museum of Archeology, Architecture and History and Barranco neighborhood (food/drink: Hops; Wicks; Javier; Ayahuasca)
  • Day 16: Flight at 2:30AM from Lima via Panama back to Washington

Some of our trips were with Andean Trail Adventure, a small tour operator based in Peru that is owned by a friend of a friend. They don’t have a huge online presence, but we really enjoyed the flexibility they provided. We were able to custom-design all of our tours and it felt like we were traveling with friends. We used their guide services at Machu Picchu, although I arranged everything else myself, and they were fine with that. The taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo turned out to be more like a tour, because we stopped along the way and our guide German told us several things about the history as we were driving. It was definitely a bonus and we felt like we were being taken care of. As I said, I am not used to traveling like that, but we wanted to “splurge” this time, and it was well worth it.

Overall, Peru is not too expensive. You can certainly spend money there, though, as was evidenced by our alpaca sweater collection and the guided tours. Aside from those things, the train and Machu Picchu itself were the highest ticket items. Peru is a popular destination, so there are all kinds of resources online. I thought it would be harder to plan than it was, though there were some maddening moments with the Peruvian ticket websites.

Here are some tips that helped make our trip mostly hassle free:

  • Getting there. Lima flights tend to be at odd hours. There’s a hotel at the airport that is expensive and tends to be booked up, so we looked for a place within 30 minutes of the airport that was in a relatively quiet neighborhood like San Miguel or Bellavista. We found the Royal Sweet Dreams B&B on Hotels.com, and it was perfect. They sent a taxi to pick us up for an small extra fee, and we had a nice sleep and a great breakfast before the same taxi took us back to the airport for our flight to Cusco. There was also a bottle of water in the room. Total cost = S/.155, or about $47 US (hotel + taxi + tip).
  • Cusco flights. I did a lot of research about getting to Cusco, and while local airlines may be perfectly fine, I didn’t want to take a chance. Since landing in Cusco can be difficult, I wanted to go with an airline that had the best track record. According to my internet research, LATAM was the best option with the best time. Avianca would have been fine too, but their flight schedules didn’t work out as well. We had to circle around a bit, but landed safely.
  • Altitude. Even though we’d been in high elevation before without issues, this time I felt like we needed to take precautions. We chose to go to the Sacred Valley instead of staying in Cusco because the elevation there was not as high. It is worth noting that while Machu Picchu is even lower in elevation, there is significant climbing, so we were still a little winded. Drinking coca tea or chewing the leaves, or both, really did help. Some of those hills, though, were strenuous no matter what.
  • Temperature. It’s cold! We went in July, so it was winter there. It can get quite nice during the day, depending on where you are, but the higher elevation locations can still be chilly and at night it’s downright cold. We did not have heating anywhere we traveled. Many of the budget accommodations were fine, as they were insulated or got enough daytime sunlight to keep warm enough overnight. The key is layers…lots of layers.
  • Buying sweaters. There are plenty of things to buy in Peru, but if you want 100% true alpaca, be sure you know what to look for. First of all, “baby alpaca” means that it is wool from the younger alpaca and has less lanolin, not from a newborn. The key determinant that the fabric is authentic is that it should feel cool to the touch. It’s also a little heavier than acrylic or synthetic blends. Lastly, super bright colors are likely not made with authentic dyes. The bottom line is that if you found a cheap deal, it’s probably not the real thing. Still, many of the sweaters are still made locally and obviously sold by locals trying to make a living. Since we were going to actually use the sweater while traveling, I was fine with buying a nice-looking “fake” to wear and possibly get dirty, stain, etc., and got an expensive one to take home. Of course, I’m probably more likely to spill sriracha on the authentic one when I wear it in the States, but at least it is washable. Another thing, true alpaca should not pill; acrylic does.
  • Passports. We had to use our passports in several places and it was not consistent. For example, a few hotels asked to see it, and one of the tourist sites. It’s best to carry it with you, not only for safety but for those occasions when you have to show it.
  • Boleto turistico. If you want to visit several sites, it’s best to spend the money to buy the “tourist ticket,” known as boleto turistico. You can visit 16 sites in 10 days for a cost of S./130, or about $40 US. Totally worth it! They also have one that has fewer sites in less time. Some of the entrance fees are almost $10 to begin with, so it was a solid investment. Note that it does not cover Machu Picchu.
  • Food. So delicious! From basic quinoa soup on the Titicaca islands to a decadent ceviche meal in Lima, everything we had was really good. OK, we didn’t much care for cuy (guinea pig). We tried to eat as much as I could, but there’s only so much time. It’s a lot cheaper in Peru than in Peruvian restaurants in the US.
  • Alcohol. Pisco sours! I would have been happy to stick with that with each drink, but I did try some of the other pisco drinks, like a maracuya sour and chilcano. Also, if you are brave, try chicha. You can find it especially in the rural areas by looking for a red bag tied on a pole outside of someone’s house. Go on in and you’ll probably find locals drinking a big frothy mug of the stuff. It’s not very strong, but there are reports of travelers getting sick from it, so be forewarned.

Trip Highlights:

  • Machu Picchu (duh!)
  • Hiking up the mountain to see Pinkuylluna in Ollantaytambo
  • Lunch on Isla Taquile looking out over Lake Titicaca on a beautiful blue day
  • Sunset through the clouds on Pachapapa hill, Isla Amantaní
  • The Magic Fountain Park in Lima
  • Views from Pukapukara
  • Strolling through Barranco on our last day in Lima
  • Sacsaywaman and the views of Cusco
  • The salt ponds of Maras
  • Dinner at Casa de Corregidor in Puno
  • Q’enko

 

 

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