Written by Jennifer Martin
People who love travel enjoy discussing their destination bucket list, continually adding new places they hope to see. Given the fact that avid travelers don’t want to miss out on anything the world has to offer, they frequently ask travel consultants, “What should be on my bucket list?” My answer is: Positively Peru.
I have dreamt of visiting Peru and Machu Picchu since I was a college student, but have rarely met anyone else who envisioned Machu Picchu in their near future. Then, several years ago, I was having the bucket list conversation with one of my best friends. It turns out she had fallen for Machu Picchu during the “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” series. The conversation resurfaced last year at a dinner party and we talked another family into joining us for a spring break trip to Machu Picchu in 2015. Our Machu Picchu bound group consisted of three women with expectations higher than the altitude in Cusco, three husbands with moderate expectations, and four teenagers, who even while packing their suitcases, asked “Why aren’t we going back to the Caribbean this year?”
Peru turned out to exceed all our expectations and positively merits a spot on your travel bucket list. I am going to share some of the highlights of our trip, but I can tell you there are not enough adjectives or photographs to do this place justice. You have to see it in person!
We flew first class to Lima from Miami. It is a long flight so first class was nice. However, there was no time change, unlike traveling to Europe.
We flew to Cusco and met the best driver in all of Peru, Cristiano, who picked us up in a Mercedes 12 passenger mini-bus and our awesome guide, Carlos, from Lima Tours. As the altitude is extremely high (11,000 ft.) in Cusco, we headed straight from the Cusco Airport to the Sacred Valley to adjust to the extreme altitude. We stopped for a really delicious buffet lunch where we tasted many typical Peruvian dishes.
We knew we were visiting during the last part of the rainy season, and honestly, I was a little worried. I was hoping that it would not be constant rain that it would impede our touring. All of my worries of the rain drifted away when we pulled over for our first view of the Sacred Valley. There must have been 10 shades of brilliant green mixed in with gorgeous Andes mountains. Having been there, I believe the green landscape which was a result of the rainy season absolutely outweighed the few showers we experienced, none of which lasted more than an hour. (In Peru, they have two seasons, wet and dry. November-April is considered the wet season and May-October is considered the dry season. I would highly recommend travel to Peru in the shoulder season, during March and April. The landscape is still lush and green, but the showers are few and brief.)
A definite highlight of today was our visit to Ollantaytambo and should not be missed if traveling to the Sacred Valley. This is the site of a massive citadel that served as a temple and fortress and can claim to be the only place that ever successfully resisted an attack by the conquistadores of Spain. They used their high vantage point to make it rain with arrows, spears and rocks. The Incas were masters of irrigation and they cleverly flooded the plains below, taking the horse out of the battle.
The town at the base of the ruins is also well worth a visit, as it is considered the best surviving example of Inca engineering. Walking through the narrow byways of cobblestone streets, listening to the gurgling water from the irrigation channels transports you back in time. The town is divided into canchas (blocks) that have one doorway that leads to a central courtyard and the houses surround the courtyard. Our tour guide took us in one of the houses to show us what life is like for people that live in Ollantaytambo. We were intrigued by the guinea pigs running freely around the one room traditional house (guinea pigs are a Peruvian food staple, often sold on the side of the road roasted on sticks), as well as the skulls of the ancestors of the homes’ occupants on the mantle, and the lama fetuses proudly displayed on walls for good luck.
What a fabulous day! After touring the ruins and town, we ended our day at the fabulous Belmond Rio Sagrado hotel, with its beautiful grounds nestled on the banks of the Urumbamba River (which ultimately becomes the Amazon).
We woke up to a beautiful day and had a yummy breakfast. The Belmond Rio Sagrado always has baby alpacas roaming its grounds and guests get to play with them and feed them. After breakfast our kids had a ball feeding the baby alpacas, one of the highlights of their trip.
Next, we traveled with our guide to the Chincherro Market, which is at its most lively on Sunday. The town of Chincherro is famous for the quality of their textiles, so prior to arriving at the market we stopped by the co-op where they make the cloth. It was a fun and informative presentation that turned us into well-informed shoppers! After the market, we had a lovely, open air lunch arranged by Lima Tours with a Peruvian Paso horse demonstration, then returned to our hotel in the Sacred Valley for swimming, massages, and the afternoon feeding of the alpacas. It was a simply spectacular hotel experience and one of the highlights of our trip.
The next morning, we boarded the famous Hiram Bingham Train (the station of which is conveniently located directly inside the gates of the Belmond Rio Sagrado Hotel, another perk of staying at that hotel). The train is named after the American Yale professor who discovered and led the excavation and restoration of Machu Picchu. This luxury train ride was three hours of nonstop fun, champagne, delicious food, fabulous scenery and a three man band on the back of the train, that could play any tune you could think of. Just the other day, the Rolling Stones, “I Can't Get No Satisfaction” came on in the car and my 14 year old said, "I won't ever hear this song again without thinking of our day on the train." I don't think any of us will, and we all agree that the Hiram Bingham train merits a drop in the bucket list.
After de-boarding the Hiram Bingham, we hopped on the bus from Aguascalientes for a harrowing ride up a steep mountain full of switchbacks to the base of Machu Picchu. We checked into the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (the only hotel at the base of Machu Picchu) and, with the personal guide provided to us by the Hiram Bingham train, were able to get our first glimpse of the awe-inspiring citadel of Machu Picchu.
This is a place where all expectations were met and exceeded. Words can't describe it and pictures only give a glimpse of the rugged beauty, the mysticism, and the sheer wonder that such a place ever existed. You simply have to see it to believe it. No one was disappointed, no matter how high their expectations. The kids all agreed it was the most magnificent thing they had ever seen, making the entire vacation worthwhile.
After our tour of the ruins at Machu Picchu, we ended our day at the bar of the Sanctuary Lodge learning about pisco sours, Peru’s national drink.
We headed out at 6:00 AM to watch the sunrise. If planning on being inside Machu Picchu for sunrise, the Belmond Rio Sanctuary Lodge is definitely the place to stay, as it is just a short walk up the hill to the viewing site. After breakfast, our group split up. Though one day is sufficient to see the actual ruins, I highly recommend doing one of the three hikes in Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu is the most steep and not for the feint of heart, or anyone with any remote fear of heights. We decided not to do this and I would not recommend this if you have children with you. Machu Picchu Mountain is the longest and most strenuous, and also not for anyone with a fear of heights. Half of our group did this and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the ruins from the very top of Machu Picchu Mountain. However, this was a very strenuous hike that took us 3 hours round trip. The third hike to the Sun Gate is the least challenging, and lets you see the ruins of Machu Picchu from the spot Hiram Bingham first viewed them as he approached from the famous Incan Trail. Half of group did this and highly recommended it.
After we reconvened at the Sanctuary Lodge, we traveled back down by bus to Aguascalientes, where all trains to Machu Picchu arrive and depart. This was a cute town with several hotel options, should you decide not to stay at the pricey Sanctuary Lodge. From there, we took the Vistadome train, a much cheaper alternative to the Hiram Bingham. We were happy to have splurged for the Hiram Bingham at least one way, and were very happy we had done it going rather than leaving, since our return journey was mostly at night. From the train, we were transported by Lima Tours from the Sacred Valley back to Cusco, arriving at around 9:00 p.m.
Day 6: Cusco
We woke up in the very beautiful Belmond Monasterio Hotel. Once of the first things we all noticed was the altitude of Cusco, the highest of our trip (around 11,000 feet). We were very happy we had followed prior travelers’ advice and left Cusco for last, so that we were at least partially acclimated to the altitude. Even so, some had difficulty and had to take advantage of the oxygen the hotel offers in your room.
After a complimentary breakfast in the peaceful hotel that was once a monastery, Lima Tours provided us an interesting city tour of Cusco. We visited the famous market (interesting mainly for the wide variety of Peruvian food stuffs on display rather than its shopping), Qoricancha (an Incan temple in the middle of the city), Sacsayhuaman (the ruins of the Incan capital with a spectacular view of Cusco). We had several very good meals in Cusco and I would highly recommend taking the time to enjoy the traditional Peruvian dishes, which were a surprise to most of our group.
We spent the morning exploring and shopping in the San Blas area of Cusco, which was a charming walking neighborhood with much art, jewelry and tapestries. We also saw the Incan Museum, the highlight of which was its mummy collection. The Incan Museum also had the best selection of handmade Peruvian tapestries we saw on the trip. Though we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cusco, we all agreed that 1 ½ days would have been the perfect length of time for our particular group to have in that city.
We departed Cusco for Lima, where we were stuck in some of the worst traffic I have ever seen. DO NOT travel during rush hour on a Friday in Lima! We finally arrived at our hotel in the Miraflores District of Lima, which was right on the coast and a little reminiscent of California, with its palm tress, rocky cliffs and beach swarming with surfers. Our hotel, the Belmond Miraflores, was nice and had a lovely rooftop pool from which we were able to see a spectacular sunset.
We had been told that there was not a lot to see, tour-wise, in Lima and I would have to agree with that (though the area around our hotel was pretty). It was very hot and humid, making walking around somewhat unpleasant. Luckily, we had the good fortune to have been invited to have a traditional Peruvian meal with a local family, which was one of the most enjoyable and interesting parts of our trip. Our host, a professor at the University of Lima, was charming and our food was spectacular (especially the ceviche, which was indescribably good), and his Pisco Sours put all others we had sampled to shame. Peruvians eat their largest meal at lunch, so the whole process took at least three hours, after which we could barely roll ourselves into our cab. The children were especially intrigued by the rabbits which were in a pen at the side of the house, until they realized these were not pets, but future meals for our hosts!
After a wait at our hotel, we braved the Lima traffic and made it to the airport for our overnight flight back to Miami. Though we had a long layover in Miami and everyone was as tired as we could possibly be, we still marveled to each other what we had just seen and accomplished. Even looking at the photos of Machu Picchu while we waiting in the airport, we almost couldn’t believe we had actually been there. I am not sure there is a more bucket-list worthy destination than Machu Picchu and Peru.
CLICK HERE to view all the pictures from our trip!