Monday — April 20
Our luggage, which was delayed because we hopped on an earlier flight from Atlanta to DC yesterday morning, was delivered last night around 11:00p. The bags are now unpacked and stored, the laundry is done, and everything is put away. So, the time has come to wrap up — in no particular order — what turned out to be a fantastic trip.
BOOKING THE TRIP: Having determined in late 2007 that I wanted to celebrate a milestone birthday at Machu Picchu, I set about planning this trip in earnest in March 2008. That was when Mui and I went to the Adventures in Travel Expo where we made contact with two companies that specialize in Perú. One was a big company with offices in the US and the UK. The other was a small, Cusco-based company whose owner immediately charmed us with his enthusiasm for his country and his people.
Not one to jump into things, I spent the next couple of months researching itineraries, reading guidebooks, narrowing down our interests, and determining a cost for the trip if I were to book everything on my own.
Next, I sent out a flurry of requests for itineraries/quotes for a customized, private trip. I kept the number of requests small enough so as not to overwhelm myself with comparisons, but large enough to get a sense of where things really stood. I contacted large companies; I contacted small companies; I contacted one-man operations. Some of the companies responded promptly; others did not. Some were willing to work on customizing an itinerary to fit our travel style; others wanted to promote their own interests or put us into their pre-established itineraries.
In the end, we chose to work with Vidal Jaquehua of Adventure Holidays Perú, the Cusco-based company we’d had contact with at the expo. I will admit that having planned all of our previous trips on my own, handing over control to someone else was tough for me. However, it turned out to be the absolutely right decision for us. Vidal was very flexible and worked with us through many changes to the itinerary during the planning stages. He booked our hotels, domestic air tickets, and train tickets, and ensured that all of the details were on track. When I came across conflicting information about the date of the procession of the Señor de Los Temblores, he even went to the church offices to confirm the date at the source.
Our satisfaction with the level of service he provided is 100%. I’ve already sung his praises in earlier posts, so I’m just going to say that we would heartily recommend him to any friends or family who might wish to go to Perú; and would certainly use his services again should we find ourselves back in the region someday.
ITINERARY: Whether you go with a tour group or on your own, I have one thing to say: “Take your time and don’t try to squeeze in too much.” Group tours are not our thing — at least not yet. They are much too fast paced and that does not work for us for two reasons: (1) we’re a couple with an avid interest in photography and videography — that’s not to say we’re professionals; we just like to document what we experience when traveling, and (2) we like to take our time exploring places, visiting both on-the- and off-the-beaten track locations.
We took 15 days (excluding travel to/from the US) to cover what most people do in 7-10 days. We kept our focus on the Cusco-Sacred Valley-Machu Picchu area with a short foray to Lake Titicaca. As I noted in an earlier post, we could have easily used another 7 days without adding any new places to our itinerary, but as a still-working couple, we were unable to squeeze in any more days. We’ll just have to return to Perú again to visit some of the other places that are on our “must see” list.
WHEN TO GO: When possible, we prefer to travel during the shoulder or off-peak season. Talking to a representative of a travel organization, I was convinced that April would be a good time — the wet season would be “officially” over (although you can never tell with Mother Nature), the landscape would be beautifully lush with foliage, and the crowds would be smaller in comparison to the high season.
We did have a bit more rain than expected. Speaking to the locals, they seemed surprised by the amount of rainfall. “The wet season wasn’t as wet this year; now we’re getting it in April,” seemed to be a recurring theme. I suppose if I had to do it again, I might choose the latter part of April or the first part of May, but in this instance, the trip revolved around being at Machu Picchu for my birthday, so our dates were pretty much set in concrete. In the end, any downpours we had were late in the day or at night, and were mostly short in duration. What drizzles we had during the day were very light; more like a misting. There wasn't a huge impact on our trip.
As for the crowds; they weren’t bad overall, although I did find Machu Picchu a bit more crowded than I would have expected for the time of year we went. That said, once away from the main body of ruins, there were plenty of quiet spots to be found. Except for a few unavoidable instances, we managed to get in and out of places before tour groups arrived or after they departed. Having many of the places virtually to ourselves added tremendously to our enjoyment of them.
TRANSPORTATION: If you’ve read the early posts, you’ll know that we used frequent flyer miles to get tickets for the US-Perú portion of our trip. Delta took good care of us and we can’t complain about the minor delay on the Atlanta-Lima flight or the delayed luggage at the end of the trip. The latter we fully expected would be the case when we accepted a flight leaving three hours before our scheduled flight to DC.
All of our flights within Perú were on LAN Perú. We asked Vidal to purchase the tickets for us, saving a bundle on the fare. With his insight into weather-related delays into Cusco, he recommended paying a bit more for tickets that could be easily changed should that happen; we happily agreed. All of our LAN Perú flights were on time. The planes were all well maintained. Seat assignments became available 24-48 hours prior to departure and were easily obtainable online along with boarding passes — at least that was our experience.
Vidal also booked our Perú Rail tickets to/from Aguas Calientes. After doing some research, I opted for the shorter train trip from Ollantaytambo instead of leaving from Cusco (the Cusco departures now leave from Poroy to avoid the switchbacks). This meant that we would be starting our trip at a higher elevation than recommended, but it worked out with no adverse health impact. Of the three classes of service available to tourists, we chose the Vistadome for the more comfortable seats (backpacker trains have a seat configuration that requires sitting knee-to-knee with whoever is across from you). As luck would have it, the return trip to Ollantaytambo was on a backpacker train (not much choice when you have to make alternate arrangements because of a strike). It was fine for the 1½-hour trip to Ollantaytambo.
Locally, we traveled from one site to another in private, 8-passenger vans. A sedan car would have been fine, but the extra space came in handy for our photo/video equipment. None of our drivers spoke English (seems to be the norm rather than the exception), but this did not present a problem since we had Vidal to translate for us when our basic Spanish proved insufficient. In every instance, the vans were clean and well-maintained.
HOTELS: There are hotels and hostals (not to be confused with “hostels”) to fit every budget. We chose all of our own accommodations and Vidal booked them for us. Our one requirement — in addition to having a clean room with en suite facilities — was central heating. Each property, with the exception of El Sauce in Ollantaytambo and Inkaterra in Aguas Calientes, met that requirement. El Sauce provided an electric heater when we requested one. Our suite at the Inkaterrra had a fireplace and an electric heater. Were we to return to the region, we’d probably choose to stay at the same hotels.
The Ramada Costa del Sol at the airport in Lima was worth its weight in gold — I can appreciate that even more now that I have experienced the traffic to/from Miraflores. If we find ourselves staying overnight just to change planes in Lima in the future, we’d happily pay the higher room rate to stay at the Ramada again.
The only property that disappointed us was Hotel San Antonio Abad in Miraflores at the end of our trip. I can’t say that there was anything really wrong with the hotel. But after the other properties we stayed at throughout the trip, it simply fell short. Still, it was OK for one night.
The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was the splurge of our trip. Getting upgraded to a junior suite was a great surprise. The tropical setting of the property was wonderful and made us feel like we were in a different world. From the reaction of the staff, it was obvious that they don’t get many people who stay more than a night or two. We stayed three nights — would have stayed four but for the strike that cut short the Machu Picchu portion of our itinerary. The activities included in the price of the room rate were interesting and well worth doing; as was the $10/person donation requested to visit the Spectacled Bear Project. The food and service were "A+". I’m glad we decided to stay at the Inkaterra rather than the Sanctuary Lodge at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Sure, the latter has a convenience factor not available at any of the other hotels in Aguas Calientes, but the ambiance of the Inkaterra would have been missing.
STRIKES: Disruptions from strikes seem to be a fact of life in Perú. In our case, the strike was organized by farmers protesting a tax being levied on water rights. The result was debris and boulders strewn on roads (both highways and side roads) and rail tracks. These strikes are pretty benign, but they can and do impact land and rail transportation.
We found out about the strike that shortened the Machu Picchu portion of our trip when we went to the Perú Rail Station in Aguas Calientes on another matter. (When we returned to the Inkaterra, the hotel staff was already standing by to help us re-arrange our travel plans.) We managed to get seats on a backpacker train that was put into service on the 12th to try and get as many people out of Aguas Calientes before the strike. As I noted in a previous post, under different circumstances, it would have been nice to be stuck in town and visit Machu Picchu without the hoards coming in on the trains, but we had a flight to catch on the 14th and couldn’t afford to miss it. As it turns out, the one-day strike lasted two days, so we were especially happy that we got out in time.
HIGH ALTITUDE & ACCLIMATING: AMS (acute mountain sickness) is a very real possibility and needs to be taken seriously by anyone venturing into Andean Perú. It is very important to take time to acclimate to high altitude if you’re coming from sea level. Discuss your plans for high-altitude travel with your doctor and take the appropriate precautions.
The most common recommendation is for visitors to start their trip in the Sacred Valley, which is lower than Cusco, but higher than Machu Picchu. Taking it easy the first few days, eating light, and abstaining from alcohol seem to help. Acetazolomide (Diamox) is commonly prescribed by doctors to help with acclimating to altitude (it’s important to note that this medication does not prevent altitude sickness; it simply speeds up the process of acclimating). Drinking coca tea or chewing coca leaves is said to help with the acclimating process as well.
Except for a slight breathlessness when exerting ourselves (which went away when we slowed our pace), we had no adverse impact from being at altitude. Maybe this was just luck and we’re naturally immune to altitude issues, or maybe it was because we followed most of the recommendations listed above (one exception: we spent the first four days of our trip in Cusco).
We met with our doctor a few days prior to our Perú departure and started our prescription of Acetazolomide the day before we left for Lima to see what, if any, side effects we might experience. Except for a tingling sensation in the extremities (common reaction), we had no side effects. We continued the prescription for two days after we arrived at altitude and noting that we had no symptoms of altitude sickness, we then stopped taking the pills. During the first few days, we also drank coca tea, but later discontinued that as well.
By the way, most hotels have oxygen available should you have a particularly difficult time acclimating to the altitude.
You can find a “non-physician altitude tutorial” here. This does not take the place of consulting a doctor, but I found it helpful in understanding what altitude sickness is all about.
HEALTH (OTHER): Make sure you take any prescription medication you normally use with you. Ask your doctor for a prescription of Cipro or other appropriate antibiotic to use in the event you have a serious GI problem to contend with. Be careful what you eat and drink — don’t eat raw fruits/vegetables that you can’t peel and only eat food that is piping hot. Drink bottled water; and use the same for brushing your teeth. Avoid asking for ice cubes in your drinks.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, take the appropriate precautions — there are quite a few winding roads in the mountains. As well, Lake Titicaca can be quite rough outside Puno Bay.
PACKING: Make sure you line the inside of your luggage with plastic. This is a precaution we usually take, but neglected to do so this time. We paid the price ... much of our clothing was soaked when our bags were left in the rain during our layover in Atlanta.
Pack light; you’ll be glad you did — especially if you have to pull your luggage over the cobblestone streets. Layers, layers, layers — the weather was comfortably warm during the day and cool to downright cold at night. When you read the next bit of information, remember that it is from the point of view of someone who is easily chilled. (Mui did not always need the same layers.) Also, keep in mind that we were in the highlands in April (fall in the southern hemisphere).
I wore a long-sleeved trekking shirt with a silk mock under it most of the time. I had a lightweight primaloft jacket with removable sleeves that I mostly wore as a vest … often removing the jacket/vest during the middle part of the day. I had a goretex rain jacket that I topped everything off with as a last resort and when it was raining. I did not feel the need for an under layer with my trekking pants. I used my silk long johns as pj’s; and only used my smartwool long johns at night at Lake Titicaca.
I had a fleece zip-up that came in very handy at night when the temperature dropped. If you’re planning to buy an alpaca sweater or two (very inexpensive in the markets), you can leave the fleece at home. The nighttime chill was such that I wore a wool cap and gloves when we were out and about after dark. (Again, alpaca chullos and gloves can be purchased inexpensively at the markets.)
A rain jacket provides great protection unless you're toting a backpack. We bought inexpensive plastic rain ponchos in Aguas Calientes where we had more consistent rain (on and off) and they worked out very nicely. We did have rain pants with us, but never used them.
Comfortable, light hiking shoes with good treads are probably sufficient unless doing heavy trekking (which we did not). Well-padded socks will make all the difference in the world. A day-pack is great to carry around cameras and other essentials. Even better, consider a camel-bak with a water bladder (which you can fill with bottled water) and a storage compartment.
Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat (the sun is brutal), sunscreen, sunglasses (wrap-arounds ideal), and insect repellent (in our case, only used at Machu Picchu).
GUIDE BOOKS: There are lots of regular guidebooks for Perú; won’t go into those. Two books that I’m really glad I ordered in advance of the trip were: Exploring Cusco by Peter Frost and The Machu Picchu Guidebook by Ruth M. Wright and Dr. Alfredo Valencia Zegarra.
The Peter Frost guidebook is a bit dated (1999 is the last edition). Regardless, I think it is a must. The focus is more on the places to visit/explore than on where to eat and stay, although that information is also touched upon. This book is hard to come by in the US. I ordered it through the South American Explorers website.
The Wright/Zegarra guidebook is an excellent resource, especially if you want to do a self-guided tour of Machu Picchu. In addition to descriptions of the ruins, it has good information about hikes within the sanctuary, including the hike up Huayna Picchu. This book is more easily available online (both new and used). If you're interested in Inca Trail information, however, you'll need to look for another source.
I imagine that this post will be read mostly by those who are planning a trip to Perú, so I'll end by saying that we had a terrific time; hope you do too.
Next Up: Virtual Perú Trip