South America- so close yet so far. I feel like ever since 2014 when I got a taste of Brazil, I've been wanting to go back. I was close with Costa Rica, but I finally made it legit this year with a trip to Peru to kick off 2018. Was it the easiest trip? Was it relaxing? No and No. Was it totally worth braving the extreme altitudes? Dealing with crazy amounts of transportation at great lengths? Pushing myself completely out of my comfort zone? HELL to the YES. So worth it. And the best part was, it was a work trip with an amazing group, so not only was it free, but the people with me were amazing and we had a blast. We saw SO MUCH. It really struck me the difference between traveling in South America vs the US or Europe. In Europe, you hop on a plane with usually no issues, and you are in another country in less than an hour. Not the case in Peru. Just the flight from Cusco to Lima was an hour- and it definitely had it's issues. Lima to the Ica Valley- 4+ hours by car. Nothing is a hop, skip or jump away. But before I go off on the travel times, let me give you the play by play day to day of my epic week in Peru.
Day 0- arrive at midnight into Lima. Checked into the Wyndham at the Lima airport and crashed after a long day of flying (the best place to stay if you need a place to literally just sleep, which we did. It had a pedestrian walkway connected to the airport- so you don't even need to step foot outside- which is great because you really don't want to go outside. The area around the airport is apparently not the best.)
Day 1 - EXTREME TRAVEL DAY ALERT. We woke up at 5am, and walked back over the pedestrian walkway to check into our flight to Cusco. This is basically the closest airport to Machu Picchu, and Cusco itself is totally worth spending a day or two in. We checked into our flight, and around boarding time saw we were in for some flight delays due to the weather in Cusco. February is the rainy season there, and they actually close the Inca trail hike for the entire month because of this. However, Machu Picchu itself is still open for tours. Anyways, about an hour and a half later, the airline decided to attempt our flight to Cusco. An hour of uneventful flying time went by, and as we started to make our descent into Cusco, we would be going down, and then go back up again. This happened for about 15minutes, circling and trying to descend, when the pilot came on and announced we couldn't land in Cusco and we were turning around and heading back to Lima. So an hour back, we land, and as everyone starts to deplane they announce, the weather is clearing up, we are heading back to Cusco. But we wait for over an hour to refuel. An hour flight back, and we finally land in Cusco. It's around 3pm! Craziness. Our hotel shuttle picks us up and takes us to the hotel Jose Antonio. It's on the main drag in Cusco and across the street was restaurant Valentino- which we had an early dinner at since we were completely starving. Very traditional Peruvian food, very very good and needed after the travel day from hell. After dinner we walked up about 8 blocks to the town square which was beautiful, filled with a few cathedrals, American shopping, restaurants and bars. I wish we had more time in Cusco I could have easily done another day there. We had drinks at a tapas bar La Cicholina- such a cute spot with very good cocktails and apps. The elevation in Cusco is no joke, over 12000, so we were all a little loopy and made it an early night. The weather in Cusco was 70s during the day, 60s at night, so very pleasant and not rainy in the actual town.
Day 2: Back up at 8am, we headed on a van through the Sacred Valley- it was Machu Picchu Day! Our tour guide Edgar (Edgar was the bomb) started out the day with us on the van. The van ride took us about 2.5 hours- we made a couple stops to check out a corn beer tavern, and also a small town where the Inca Rail train departed from. The scenery this entire day was gorgeous- huge mountains, quaint towns, just breathtaking. Once at the Inca Rail (pro-tip, purchase tickets ahead of time, these trains are not big) we took a 1.5 hour ride to the town of Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town). The train was bumpy but nice, you got a complimentary tea/coffee/mocktail, as well as a treat (breadsticks, trail mix). Finally we reached Aguas Calientes, checked into our hotel Inti Punku (very basic hotel but this town is not fancy), and got on the bus up to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The bus ride itself is very windy and went very high up, took about 30 mins. Once at the entrance, Edgar took us on a 3 hour tour through the park. The max time you can spend in the park is 4 hours, and they divide the day into 2 time sections, so plan to be on time to take full advantage of your admission ticket. About halfway through the tour, it started raining which was a bummer, however the rain did clear most people out of the park so by the end of the day we really had the place to ourselves which was incredible. Dress appropriately for this experience: rain gear, hiking boots, layers, umbrella. It was about 55 degrees and humid/damp, so very easy to get cold and uncomfortable. Also the elevation here is less than Cusco, at only about 7500, but it was still a little hard to catch your breath on some parts of the hike. There are really no words to describe the experience and the history that Machu Picchu provides- just go and do it and you'll know what I mean. Around 5:30/6 we headed back on the bus, back to the hotel, changed and went to dinner. Our dinner spot was not so good- a few people ate Alpaca (not good)- but again Aguas Calientes in not a luxury spot- literally just a home base for people who are doing Machu Picchu. So a few basic restaurants but mostly tourist/souvenir shops. After dinner, we found a bar on the 3rd floor of a restaurant complex which was Guns and Roses themed. Hilarious- great way to end an amazing day.
Day 3: Back up at 8am. Inca rail train (which is in the middle of Aguas Calientes) back (1.5 hours), Van ride back through Sacred Valley and onto Cusco (2.5 hours), we stopped at a local spot and tried Guinea Pig. It looks like cooked rat but tastes like turkey. Not bad but nothing I would go out of my way to order. We said goodbye to our travel companion and amazing tour guide Edgar, flight from Cusco back to Lima (no surprises this time). Checked into our hotel in Lima- La Hacienda. There was a casino connected to it which was great. First really nice hotel, back to civilization. 6 blocks from the Promenade above the beach. Lima is a huge city- we stayed in Miraflores which has a ton of high end bars, restaurants, nice hotels, nightlife, and are now building up their beach (literally before, the ocean came to the bottom of a cliff, and high rises were built from the edge of the cliff back. Now they are building a beach in-between the bottom of the cliff and ocean, with walkways, parking, etc). Weather was sunny and high 70s, low 80s. Still humid. This was our restaurant/bar hopping night. We started at Amaz with apps and cocktails- really cool Peruvian/Hawaiian flair. Get the gigantic snails. Next onto Bonbonniere- located in the mall on beach promenade, along with lots of other American shops/bars/restaurants. More of a dessert and cocktail spot. Then we checked out Rafael- really nice tapas restaurant with amazing drinks and food. These were all walking distance and I felt totally safe in this area of the city.
Day 4: Back at it- 9am start time. 4.5 hour van ride out of Lima and into the Ica Valley. This ride was surreal, we literally went from a huge metropolitan city, along their version of the PCH, into the complete desert with nothing but sand dunes which boardered the ocean in the distance on one side, to a small town in the Ica region. What is the draw for Ica? Pisco distilleries. Pisco is the national spirit of Peru, and it is made with grapes grown in vineyards, then distilled. Here over the next couple days we toured several Pisco distilleries and sampled many piscos. This day we toured Pisco Porton (very expensive distillery), El Catador (very old school, poor distillery) and had lunch at La Tacama which produced mostly wines. This lunch was incredible, and the grounds are beautiful- if you ever go to this region you must go here for a meal. After our tours/late lunch, we checked into our cute boutique hotel La Angnostura. First hotel with a pool! Which makes sense, this area is HOT- 80s and 90s. We had dinner at a fancy resort down the road Las Dunas. Also would recommend this place as a hotel option if you are visiting- more of a resort with lots of pools, restaurants, etc. Fabulous food and drinks too.
Day 5: We don't stop! We woke up and did one of the most fun things I've ever done. Sandboarding and dunebuggying. The area was called Huacachina- we rented a big 9 person dunebuggy (with driver) and just had a blast driving all over the desert, catching air off sanddunes. We then headed to the top of some of the highest dunes, and were given snowboards to basically sled down. It was so scary but so much fun! Besides Machu Picchu, definitely my favorite activity of the trip. We then headed to Vista Alegre- a property which made piscos as well as wine. The rest of the day we toured Casa San Isidro, where Barsol Pisco is made. Absolutely beautiful distillery, tons of piscos to try, and we were also treated to a catered lunch. This was a long day, we spend a good 4-5 hours at Barsol alone, and from there we left the Ica Valley and headed to the Ocean- La Hacienda Paracas by the Bay of Pisco, about 1.5 hours by van. This was our last night, and they saved the best hotel for last. Our rooms were awesome, the restaurant where we had dinner was great, we had a beautiful view of the bay and the resort had plenty of pools.
Day 6: EXTREME TRAVEL DAY ALERT. We got a late checkout out of La Hacienda Paracas, and took advantage by spending the day with finally a little relaxation. Amazing breakfast buffet, followed by a workout at the gym (I really needed that), laying out by the pools, had a poolside lunch, and started getting ready/packing up around 3pm,. I got a ridiculous sunburn- the sun is strong this time of year since it's their summer, so be careful! I also took a quick walk on the beach- but it was not that nice. The bay water and sand were not the best, so it didn't last long. However if we had more time their were water sport options, and boat trips to check out nearby wildlife. We did not have time for all that unfortunately. We got back on the bus, and it took us 6 hours from Paracas to the Lima airport. Friday night rush hour traffic was intense- if you are in Lima give yourself time- besides buses the city has not public transportation- so everyone is on the road. From there, I was on a red eye home.
What an amazing experience!!! Some thoughts for future travelers:
Be prepared about transportation and how much time it will eat out of your trip
Fight elevation sickness with tons of water
The water issues were only really in Lima, everywhere else was fine
Buy tickets in advance for Inca rail, Machu Picchu
Spend time in Lima, Cusco, one night in Aguas Calientes after Machu Picchu. If you are interested in the desert- check out Huacachina and do the sandbugging for sure, but unless you are a pisco fan you could skip the Ica Valley
Coca tea was a lifesaver- big in Cusco-made from Coca leaves. You will test positive on a drug test though if you drink it, but the coffee at every hotel was awful so this was a lifesaver.
Lima traffic is no joke- get a hotel in Miraflores where you can spend time walking to restaurants and the beach
If you do the 4 day Inca trail to Machu Picchu- it is closed in February. You also need to apply for permits and a guide way in advance (like a year).