Category Archives: Peru

Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy

Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever

Part 3: When in Urubamba…

Part 4: A Town Called Olly

Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?

Getting to Machu Picchu is not that hard. But it sometimes seems like the Peruvian government goes out of its way to make it difficult.

The first thing you need to do is decide whether you are taking a guided Inca trail hike to Machu Picchu or the train with the rest of humanity. Either way, make this decision in advance especially if you decide to hike because there are a limited number of passes and I’m told they sell out quickly. You also need to decide if you want to purchase entrance to the Wayna Picchu (also called Huayna Picchu) hike. Wayna Picchu is the famous mountain in the backdrop of all the Machu Picchu pictures. They only allow 400 people up a day, 200 at 7 a.m. and 200 at 10 a.m. Entrance costs an additional $10.00.

We chose the coward’s route for a number of reasons: 1) We didn’t want to spend $600+ on a guided hike. 2) We didn’t want to sleep in tents. 3) We were nervous about climbing 4,000+ feet  at an altitude of 12,000 feet. 4) We didn’t want to spend half our vacation on the Inca trail. There were a number of other sites we wanted to see in Peru and hiking the Inca trail is a sizable time commitment.

The government limits the number of Machu Picchu entrance tickets to 2,500 a day, so buy your tickets as soon as you know your schedule. Buying the entrance tickets is probably the hardest part of getting to Machu Picchu. The site is in Spanish, and it frequently refuses to accept credit cards. Note: You can set the site to English, but it will only proceed to payment in Spanish. Yes, the appropriate reaction is this:

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We used this very helpful site to navigate the language barrier and other quirks. The site refused my credit card twice, but Lisa managed to get approval after she called her credit card company. It is important to note that the site will issue you a reservation slip before it issues tickets. The reservation slip is not the same as tickets, and will not gain you entrance to Machu Picchu. Make sure you receive and print out tickets, which will look like this:

Machu Pichu Reservation - redacted

Note: Our tickets say Machupicchu + Huaynapicchu 2G 10:00 which means we purchased tickets for the Huayna Picchu hike at 10:00 a.m.

If all else fails, you can use a travel agency to book your tickets.

Next up, we booked our train tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. In the olden days, there was only one train company. Today, there are two (PeruRail and IncaRail) leaving from Cusco, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. And among these companies, the trains vary from basic to nicer, to downright luxurious (and expensive). We ended up choosing our train based on our schedule which is how we ended up in the slightly more expensive Vista Dome train through Peru Rail. The Vista Dome features ceiling windows with slightly better views and a hysterical fashion show on the way home.

A very important note that we did not see mentioned on the many blogs we poured over: Officially, the trains to Machu Picchu limit the amount of luggage you can take to 10 kilos (22 lbs or so). You can pay to store your luggage at the train station (which works if you are leaving and returning to the same station) or you can fork over a hefty sum to have your luggage transferred to your next hotel. That is what we did. As we boarded the train, however, we saw plenty of people with real luggage, so it is not at all clear how much they enforce this rule. Carry at your own risk.

The train is comfortable and the view is pretty. Almost all the seats feature two rows facing each other with a table in the middle so make friends. We met a lovely couple from Canada and ended up hiking with them the next day.

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Enjoying the train ride to Aguas Calientes.

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Lisa and I with our Canadian friends!

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The fashion show on the return train trip.

When you get to Aguas Calientes, you will have two options for actually getting up to the famous Machu Picchu. You can walk up – have fun with that – it takes about an hour and a half. Or you can pay $19 ($38 round trip) to take a bus up the windy road. We bought our bus tickets as soon as we arrived on our way to our hotel.

Aguas map

The buses start as early as 5:30 a.m. and go continuously throughout the day. There are also all sorts of rules about what you can bring into Machu Picchu – no food, no disposable water bottles, no walking sticks — but we saw people violating these rules left and right. My advice: Put any contraband in your backpack as you go through the entrance and you should be fine.

 

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Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly

The salt pans in Maras was one of my favorite trips in Peru. There’s not much to do but to walk along the salt pans and admire the unusual beauty of the sun shining on the salty water. But I had never seen anything quite like it, and that is part of the reason I love traveling: I love being continuously surprised by the world.

Practicalities: We needed to be at the train station in Ollantaytambo (Olly) by 3:00 p.m. to catch our train to Machu Picchu. That gave us about half a day to tour the salt pans in Maras and the ruins in nearby Moray. While it is possible to see these sights using a mixture of public transportation, random taxis and the legs God gave us, I balked at the idea of taking random taxis in my valiant effort to avoid getting kidnapped. Plus, we had our luggage with us. Instead, our hotel called a driver for us who picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 a.m., drove us to the salt pans and to Moray, and then dropped us off at the train station in Olly, while we left our luggage in the trunk. This cost us 120 soles ($43.00) which isn’t dirt cheap, but split between two people, isn’t terrible either. Note: You will also have to pay for admission to the salt pans and the Moray ruins.

Sacred Valley Map2

The salt pans is truly a sight to see. Based on my limited research (AKA Wikipedia), this is how it works: Salty water from a natural stream flows through a series of channels into terraced polygon-shaped puddles of water. The intense sun dries up the water, and the salt crystalizes on the surface, allowing locals to mine the deposits. While that may sound rather technical and uninteresting, the view is stunning. See for yourself.

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The taxi pulled over so we could take a picture of the salt pans from above.

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Mmmmm. Tasty.

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After the salt pans, our driver took us to Moray, home to Incan ruins consisting of impressive terraced circles that look like modern day crop circles. It’s not clear what the circles were used for, but you can hike down and speculate for yourself.

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My friend, Lisa, sitting at the bottom of one of the circles, enjoying the morning sun.

The views of the surrounding area were equally, if not, more beautiful.

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Part 4: A Town Called Olly

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…

Olly map2

The first thing you need to know about Ollantaytambo is that we could not pronounce it. At all. I am certain every time we tried we screwed it up. It shall henceforth be known as Olly.

The second thing you need to know is that Olly is famous today for being the starting point for the intrepid souls hiking the Inca Trail and the less intrepid souls taking the train to Aguas Calientes. But it is also a perfect example of an Inca city, having been inhabited continuously since the 13th century.

Today, the small Sacred Valley town revolves mostly around its tourists trappings. The main plaza is surrounded by restaurants, inns, and stalls filled with Peruvian crafts.

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We came to Olly not to hike the Inca Trail (sleeping in a tent for four nights? No thank you.), but to visit the ancient ruins that served both as a fortress and a temple to the Incas.

When we arrived in Olly, we noticed a couple of things. First, it is even smaller than Urubamba. Second, the city felt older, perhaps because it is. Instead of partially paved roads, we found narrow cobblestone pathways, a reminder of the ancient city that once was.

Olly - side by side

We spent the majority of the afternoon climbing the steps to the mountainous ruins and looking down on the city. The scenery was beautiful, and since our thighs were screaming out in pain, we took many breaks to simply sit and enjoy the view. What can I say? I’m a sucker for mountains and ruins.

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Practicalities: We took a taxi from our hotel in Urubamba for 40 soles since we had slept late and wanted to get started on our day. The taxi is comfortable and will stop along the way so you can take pictures. The total drive time is about half an hour. On the way back, I convinced Lisa to travel like the locals. After asking three people if they spoke English I found the bus stop in Ollantaytambo. Bus is a generous term. In the Sacred Valley, buses are actually collectivos – vans that only leave when they are stuffed to the gills with passengers and drop people off along its designated route, all for the super cheap price of a sole and a half (or 53 cents).

I’m not entirely sure why but I found the experience incredibly entertaining. In some collectivos, the seats fill up and passengers are left standing as the van hugs the curves of Peru’s winding roads. Personally, I thought the collectivos were a bargain, and completely worth feeling like a sardine in a can for a short ride.

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Part 3: When in Urubamba…

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever

Urubamba map

The town of Urubamba with my commentary

The town of Urubamba is small, but filled with quirky surprises. The hotel concierge provided us with a map and kindly pointed out the one place we could buy bottled water with a credit card. We became frequent visitors of said gas station (see above map).

Most of the roads are narrow and questionably paved. There does not appear to be any perceptible rules of traffic. Cars drive and people walk, hopefully not at the same time and not in the same place. There also doesn’t appear appear to be a concept of one-way versus two-way traffic. Basically, if a driver wants to go down a particular road, he just goes. We found this terribly confusing, but when in Urubamba…

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The houses are tiny, and many are falling apart. The citizens look overwhelmingly tired, but persistent. We were amazed by their ability to carry everything on their backs, from their children, to packages, to grass.

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Even in its smallest and poorest towns, Peru remains a country of color. Whether it’s the bright textiles they sell, or the bright blue and red doorways, or the random murals on street walls, they embrace color as a way of life. And so did we.

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After a short stroll, we made our way to the market, where you can purchase all sorts of fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and grains — some you didn’t even know existed. The children run around while the parents (usually the mothers) hawk their products.

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Someone is not happy…

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My friend Lisa buying some delicious mangos at the local market

Urubamba pics side by side


 

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PART 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy

About two years ago I read a review of SPG’s Tambo del Inka in Peru’s Sacred Valley, and I decided that one day I’d go to Peru and stay in that hotel. Oh sure, there are other reasons to go to Peru. Machu Picchu comes to mind. But I’d like to add this hotel to the list.

As a category five, the hotel cost us 12,000 points a night for two nights – instead of paying $300 per night. When we walked in, it was too early to go to our room, so we enjoyed the free wifi in the enormous lobby and lounged outdoors on some very comfortable couches overlooking the river.

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Tambo del Inka is designed as a natural oasis – high ceilings with big glass windows, lots of natural wood and light, and bright Peruvian colors. When you walk outside the hotel, you are greeted by a beautiful fountain and the mountains overlooking the Sacred Valley.

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Our room was similarly pleasant. It was fairly large considering I do not have status and we did not get upgraded. By European standards, you might say our room was positively huge. The hotel also supplied our room daily with fresh bottle of water, which goes a long way in my book.

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Everything about the hotel enhanced our sense of relaxation. We almost didn’t want to leave and had to force ourselves to go outside and explore the surrounding towns. Sometimes, a hotel is just a place to sleep as you explore a new city or country. Tambo del Inka was much, much more.

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Part 1: Getting To The Sacred Valley is Not Easy

[Note: We are still in Peru and we are having an amazing time. Although few people speak English, we are getting by and it is beautiful. But more about all that later.]

Getting to Lima, Peru is not a big deal. If you live in any major city you can probably find a non-stop flight to Lima, or a flight with a short stopover (as was the case for me).

Getting to the Sacred Valley requires a lot more effort.

First, the flight to Panama City was pleasant and comfortable. I flew Copa Airlines which uses the Lufthansa lounge in Dulles Airport – the same Lufthansa lounge I used on my trip to Paris in 2012. The seats were comfortable, the food and drinks were plentiful, and the wifi worked. No complaints here.

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The business class seats were more like domestic business class seats – wider seats, deeper recline – but no lie-flat seats. My flight took off at 4:30 p.m. so going to sleep wasn’t much of an option anyways. I downloaded a couple of books on my iPad and enjoyed the luxury of being able to sit comfortably and actually move my feet.

Flight to Panama - seat

Apologies for the crappy iPhone picture.

I was a little nervous about my 47 minute connection in Panama, but the flight landed on time, and as I disembarked, the gate for my connecting flight to Lima was literally next door. My entire visit to the Panama airport consisted of me getting off one plane, walking a couple of feet to buy an obscenely expensive bottle of water, and then getting on another.

When we landed in Lima at one in the morning, that’s when the real fun started. I went through immigration and got my luggage easy enough, but I had a 7:30 a.m. flight to Cusco, and all I wanted to do was recheck my luggage, find the lounge, and go to sleep.

The check-in area was a mess. I speak exactly four Spanish words/phrases (hello, thank you, what’s your name, and bathroom). I finally found someone who spoke enough English for me to understand that Avianca check-in was closed and would open in half-an-hour. So I got on line. As I waited, I noticed weary travelers sleeping pretty much everywhere and in every contorted position possible. I prayed the lounge would be more comfortable.

As soon as the line started moving I made a beeline for an Avianca employee and said “business class.” She took me to the front of the line, and I silently thanked my miles for allowing me this luxury.

Finally, after checking in and going through security, I found the domestic lounge. I did my research in advance and discovered that the Lima airport has a Priority Pass lounge in the domestic area, so I called up Chase and asked for my free Priority Pass card – just one of the perks of having the Chase Ink Bold credit card. I’m allowed two free Priority Pass visits (all subsequent visits are $29), so I planned to use one on the way to Cusco, and one on the way home from Lima.

But when I get to the domestic lounge, my heart sunk. It was tiny – the size of a crappy New York City studio, or maybe even smaller. To make matters worse, there were three televisions and they were all playing Spanish soap operas – at two in the morning!

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Spanish soaps!

I did the only thing I could. I moved two chairs together, set my alarm, plugged in my earphones and nodded off to sleep. Lo and behold, when I woke up at 6 a.m., the Spanish soaps were still on!

The Avianca flight to Cusco was similarly pleasant. Business class looked very much the same, and I had the row to myself. The short one-hour flight is filled with stunning mountainous views, and I managed to take a few pictures despite my sleep-deprived state.

View from plane1

View from Plane2

The Cusco airport is pretty much a big room with conveyer belts for baggage and a bunch of tourists companies, taxis, and hotels hawking their services in Spanish. [Not to Peruvians: I am pasty white. There is an excellent chance that you can tell I don’t speak Spanish just by looking at me. If you want to increase your chances of me listening to your pitches, make them in English.]

When my friend arrived an hour later, we went through our usual routine of complaining about how exhausted we were and then went outside to find our driver. I had arranged for a driver and made a $20 deposit via pay pal with KB Tours, a very respectable tour company according to trip advisor.

He wasn’t there, so we waited. And waited. And waited. We tried to call, but the phone number listed in our Lonely Planet book didn’t work, and there is no phone number on the website. Half-nervous and half-pissed, we went back inside and asked the representative for our Urubamba hotel for some advice choosing a taxi. We had read enough accounts of people getting kidnapped by rogue taxi drivers – which is why we had arranged for a driver in the first place. [Note: KB Tours refunded our deposited very quickly after we emailed them.]

He was incredibly helpful and informed us that the woman in the yellow vest will put us in an official taxi. She pointed out to us the taxi’s official ID number and I took pictures of his ID number and license plate just to be safe (paranoid much?).  The one-hour drive was pleasant and the views were beautiful.

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Not a bad photo for shooting out the window of a taxi as it winds its way down a mountain.

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Ditto.

Needless to say, we were not kidnapped, and one hour later, we arrived at our amazing hotel exhausted, but otherwise in one piece. Our adventure had begun.

 

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Deep Thoughts on Yoga and Peru

I was lying on my back in the relaxation stage of a yoga class on Friday and the instructor was blabbering on about energy and other yoga lingo I rarely understand. I am usually too busy trying to figure out how the hell my butt is supposed to balance in the air to worry about “finding my heart.” But then he said something that struck me: “The life you’re given is a gift.”

Sure, it’s a cliche, but in that moment, it felt like an epiphany. We only get one life, and it is a gift. Bad shit happens to people everyday. Just open up the newspaper or turn on the TV – or even go on Facebook. That morning, I heard about a man I knew tangentially through work who committed suicide. And so my life is a gift, even if it is not exactly the version I would like.

In a few hours, I board a flight for Peru via Panama. I am excited and apprehensive — excited for the obvious reasons. I am going to Peru! I am going to see Machu Picchu! Apprehensive because after five years of traveling with The Boyfriend, he is not exactly in the picture right now, and he has left a gnawing hole inside my heart that cannot be filled by exciting vacations.

But the life I was given is a gift, and I might as well make the most of it. So here is to traveling to a brand new continent with one of my best friends (I can’t believe we have been friends for 16 years). Here’s to seeing the wonders of the world in style (I am sitting in the business class lounger as I write these words). Here’s to enjoying the small things in life like summer days on my porch and friends that put up with my emotional swings. Here’s to family and a niece who thinks I am the best thing in the world after the iPad (also known as “tap tap!”).

Here is to living life with no regrets.

 

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When Life Hands You Lemons… Go To Peru

That’s not actually a saying. But it should be.

It’s been a crappy couple of weeks. I’m one of those annoying Type-A problem solving types. When something isn’t right, I’ll figure out how to fix it and then I’ll just fix it. But some things can’t be fixed. And those things are usually my undoing. I hate sitting on my hands; I hate waiting; I hate not being in control. So in those unfixable situations, there is only one thing to do. As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

So I’m going. All the way to Peru. My first trip to South America. And I’m doing it all for the price of $229.

Here is the breakdown:

Flight #1: Washington DC – Panama City – Lima – Cusco (business): 35,000 United miles and $28.00

We will spend a couple days seeing the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cusco. We will not be hiking the Inca Trail due to a combination of reasons that include lack of time, lack of stamina, lack of money, and lack of a desire to sleep in a tent for four nights. No thank you.

Flight #2: Cusco – Juliaca: 4,500 British Airways miles and $4.00. From Juliaca we will take a cab to Puno where we will see Lake Titiaca.

Flight #3: Juliaca – Lima: $147. I could not find this flight with points so I paid out of pocket. I should have put it on my Barclay Arrival card so I could pay with Barclay points, but it was two in the morning and my brain wasn’t working properly. Alas.

We have a long layover in Lima before our flight home, so we may do a quick walking tour of Lima. Or we may collapse in the airport.

Flight #4: Lima – Miami – Washington DC (economy): 35,000 miles and $50.00.

I’ll be traveling with my longtime friend Lisa (you may remember her from the Croatia trip), who I met my first year of college in an English Lit class back in 1997. We became fast friends when we both enrolled in art class and realized we were a couple of novices in a room full of people who knew what they were doing. If you had told me way back then that we’d travel to Peru together, I never would have believed you.

Life sure is weird.

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