This is a trip that has been on my list as long as I can remember for one reason: Machu Picchu. I knew I needed to get myself to that amazing spot, pictured in just about every travel magazine (spoiler alert: the shot below is one of mine!)
However, after getting the Lonely Planet “Peru” book, we quickly realized that Peru had so much more to offer than just Machu Picchu. We knew with work and time off we only had about 7 days total to spend, so we booked our flight to Lima and figured we would make the tough decisions later on.
We knew that we wanted to spend time in Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu. We quickly found Starwood hotels in Lima, Cuzco and a hotel in the Sacred Valley with a private train station that went from the hotel straight to Machu Picchu (Harry Potter style). We had about 2 days left to plan and were debating between extending our time in the cities we already had, or making the long trip over to Lake Titicaca to see the magnificent lake, 15K feet in elevation, with floating islands where villagers live. As we were doing research, the time just didn’t seem to justify the excursion so we sadly gave up on that plan. Though if you’re planning to be in Peru longer than 7 days, definitely plan it into the agenda.
However, while browsing Starwood’s hotel list (clearly a pastime of mine), I came across another destination – Paracas. This city is a gateway to the Pacific coastal towns of Peru and gateway into the desert, vineyards and even a “poor man’s Galapagos” island chain. Only a 4-hour ride from Lima, we knew this would be the perfect destination offering a variety of beautiful scenery and activities to round out our trip.
The only thing to note with such a varied itinerary is that the weather in all of the places is unpredictable (which we certainly found to be true while on the trip), so it is critical to pack for Peru in layers, with plenty of rain gear (even in the dry season).
With everything finally decided and booked 2 weeks before our trip, we were itching to start our Peruvian adventure! Here’s our agenda:
Day 1 – Flights to Miami, Lima and Cuzco
The trip started off after a full day of work with a late night flight to Miami. The good news is that we were upgraded to Business Class on both segments, so after our quick layover in Miami, we were on a red eye flight to Lima. After movies, sleeping and ice cream sundaes, we landed in Lima – at 4am. Here are some highlights:
We decided to immediately catch a flight to Cuzco so we could make the most of our day. We booked a very, very tight layover, but breezed through immigration, customs and security and were on our way.
Once we landed in Cuzco we were a combination of tired, jetlagged and sick from the altitude, despite having taken Diamox (altitude sickness medicine). Thankfully it was a quick ride and I even got to try out my rusty Spanish with our driver (which wouldn’t be the first time – thank goodness for high school Español!).
Our hotel, Palacio del Inka certainly lived up to it’s name (Incan Palace) and even had old artifacts in it, as it used to be a museum.
We were greeted with te de coca (coca tea) which is widely drank by the locals to help with altitude sickness. Much to my surprise, it actually is made from the same plant that cocaine is extracted from so I am not sure if the tea just got me high, but I was feeling moderately better.
Altitude sickness basically feels like a massive hangover – you are exhausted, have a pounding headache and feel like vomiting. The perfect cure? A massage and a nap in the hotel’s relaxation room, complete with heated chairs and a starry ceiling.
After that, we were ready to take on Cuzco, though we didn’t want to leave our beautiful room.
We finally did and went out to the Plaza de Arms (main Plaza) with the Catedral del Cusco.
From there, we went to the Museo de Pisco (Pisco Museum), which was actually a bar, which served over 20 different kinds of Pisco Sours.
We had all the intentions of trying out a local favorite seafood restaurant, but after stepping out into a downpour, we decided to head back to the hotel and order room service.
Day 2 – Cuzco, Maras, Farm and Ollantaytambo
We started the morning off with a beautiful breakfast (including sweet potato pancakes!) at our hotel.
Since it went so well in Bali, we decided to hire a driver (who was also our Guide) to take us around to the local sights and scenery – and then drop us off at our next hotel in the Sacred Valley. We first saw more of Cuzco, before visiting a beautiful overlook of the whole city. This is also where the Cristo Blanco (Jesus statue) stands, similar to the one in Rio.
From there, we went to a local animal sanctuary that rescues wild animals that have been illegally trafficked or are injured and nurses them back to health. We got to see condors, birds, alpacas, and even Gringo the llama!
We made a quick pit stop at the colorful market in Pisac and some empanadas.
We then headed to Maras, home of a very unique salt quarry. Apparently the mountain water is has high mineral concentration so they can funnel it into these shallow pools and the dry air evaporates the water, leaving just the salt for them to collect, dry and sell.
The drive from Maras to Ollantaytambo was absolutely stunning, with long plains, tall mountains (even the snow-capped Andes) and just about every shade of green.
The actual town of Ollantaytambo (Ollanta for short) was a very old, historic city center with the original Incan buildings still standing.
After a long day, our driver dropped us off at our next hotel, Tambo del Inka (Incan Resting Place in English). It couldn’t be more of a contrast to its surroundings, as this hotel was swanky as can be, while still incorporating the Incan design.
We decided to keep it low key and have dinner at the Peruvian restaurant at the hotel. The food was amazing and we got to try a lot of local favorite dishes, including crab and avocado stuffed potatoes aka causitas. Everything we had in Peru was so fresh and made excellent use of all of the local ingredients – with an emphasis on seafood, vegetables and whole grains.
Day 3 – Machu Picchu
Ok, so because this was the reason we came to Peru, you would think we would have booked our train tickets in advance. But, we couldn’t decide when/where and by the time we decided, the trains were sold out. Yep, sold out. So, our only option was to take the hella-expensive luxury train, called the Hiram Bingham, to Machu Picchu. What is hella-expensive you ask? I am not even going to tell you.
The good news is that it came with brunch, bus tickets to MP, tickets to MP, a Guide, afternoon tea at the Machu Picchu hotel, dinner and drinks/entertainment on the train back. It turned out to be an amazing experience and despite the cost, a very happy accident. Here are some train highlights:
I won’t even bother to tell you about Machu Picchu, I will just let the photos do the talking.
All I will say is wear comfortable shoes, as there will be a lot of hiking, and bring rain gear as the weather is completely unpredictable up at altitude.
Day 4 – Flight to Lima, Car to Paracas
We said goodbye to the Sacred Valley and Cuzco and made our way to Paracas via Lima.
Let me just take this opportunity to mention how much of a cluster the Cusco airport is. We did not have a gate until 5 minutes before our departure time and were delayed. Luckily, we hopped on standby for a 12:45pm plane and made it to Lima.
From there, we had a 3.5 hour car ride to Paracas, which is basically South of Lima, straight down the coast, through Lima and straight into the desert. The topography changes wildly fast and goes from a bustling city to sand dunes for days. Here are some highlights from the night drive:
Our resort, Hotel Paracas was a beautiful vacation destination with beautiful facilities, rooms, food and views of the ocean, mountains and desert. Paracas is really a difficult place to describe and feels very surreal to be in. We knew there were a ton of different things we wanted to see and do during our short time in Paracas so we hit the ground running after breakfast and did as much as we could.
First up, going in a dune buggy and sand boarding in the California Desert. We pulled up to what appeared to be a house in the middle of nowhere, were greeted by 2 Spanish-speaking (only) young men and strapped into our dune buggy. The adventure began and we were quickly weaving through the dunes at top speeds.
I have never been in sand dunes like that and it was a really unbelievable sight. We got to a spot that was even more in the middle of nowhere and stopped. Our guides pulled out the sand boards, motioned for us to follow and got us ready to go. I somehow figured out how to sign that they needed to show us what the heck to do first before we got anywhere near those things so they did. And we then tried. We were both terrified (or “tengo miedo” as I kept saying) but conquered our fears and hit the sand slopes.
It was a blast and gorgeous out in the desert, but incredibly exhausting to have to walk up the sand dunes to go again. We got back into our buggy and headed back to civilization.
Once we got back and did a quick shower/change, we left on our excursion to fly over the Nazca lines. Apparently there is little truly known about how and why these lines formed, but they are in familiar shapes and interesting to fly over.
Or so we thought. The flight was long – about 40 minutes from Pisco to even get to the lines and once we did, they were incredibly difficult to spot in the terrain. Here is one of them that I was able to spot and capture (Condor in above map)
I consider this a feat considering the pilot was spinning the plane in circles to give everyone a view, which made for a very nauseous flight. All in all, it was interesting to see, but the best part were the views of Peru from above:
We headed back to the hotel for massages and dinner. We had ceviche and lomo saltado, a very popular Peruvian dish, which is basically beef stir fry over rice and French fries.
Amazingly delicious. And if you want to try making it, here’s a great recipe that I just tried.
Day 6 – Ballestas Islands, Car to Lima and Lima
One of the things we were most excited for was our excursion to the Ballestas Islands, right off the coast of Paracas. These are known as the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, but without actually having been to the Galapagos, I for one was incredibly impressed. We headed out early by boat from our hotel’s pier and the Islands were full of seals, penguins and more birds than I have ever seen before. Here are some of the highlights:
After our boat ride, we grabbed our luggage and made the 3.5 hour trip back to Lima. When we arrived, we were exhausted but knowing this was our only opportunity to see some of Lima we rallied and made the most of it. It also helped that first up was a chocolate making class at the Choco Museo.
There we learned about how to make chocolate, then made chocolate (including mashing the cacao beans), hot chocolate and our own candies. It was a delicious and informative way to spend the afternoon!
Much to my surprise before arriving, Lima is known for amazing restaurants – some of the top in the world. So, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner on our last night. We arrived at Fiesta and had fun ordering in Spanish. Even with the language barrier, our waiter did make sure to continue to bring us Pisco sours so that was a win. We started with smoked ceviche, and then had an onion soup in the largest bread bowl I have ever seen and finished with a salad.
After being wined and dined, we headed back to the hotel and passed out since we had an early morning flight back home the next day. And just like that, our Peruvian adventure came to an end.
I knew that Machu Picchu would be stellar since it’s a “bucket list” item for most, but I was beyond surprised with how fantastic, fresh and natural the food was and the amazing beauty in all the other destinations we visited in Peru. I think I was most surprised by Paracas as it is not on the radar of many international visitors and we frankly only ended up there because there was a Starwood hotel there. However, we learned while we were there that it is where many Peruvians actually come to vacation. It makes perfect sense with the combination of the ocean, desert, mountains, fresh air and nature surrounding it. Even writing this entry 4 months later, I still can vividly picture the amazing sights, sounds, smells and flavors of the vibrant country of Peru. We were able to just hit a few highlights, but I can’t wait for the day that I can go back and explore the rest of the country.