Sunday, June 21, 2015

Touring Arequipa, Peru: Gateway to the Colca Canyon

If you have the time, after your tour of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, head to Arequipa, Peru's southern-most town and second largest city after Lima. This is the gateway to the Colca Canyon, one of the most beautiful natural areas in Peru.

Arequipa itself is a fascinating snapshot of life in Peru: a mix of Spanish colonial architecture, modern high-tech startups (several Silicon Valley expatriates have set up shop), fashionable restaurants and shops in the center city, and extended mining operations and influx of impoverished campesinos who have moved to the outskits of town.

Its climate is that of Southern California, and so I felt immediately at home. As you fly over the mountains you will see tremendous canyons and ice-covered mountain tops: these eventually give way to dirt flats and a dusty wide plain. The city is built in this vast, desert plain, surrounded by active volcanoes. The city center was built by the Spanish out of the white mountain ash, or sillar, mined from the surrounding hills, giving the city center a ghostly, Catholic hue, while the more recent suburbs are corrugated metal and improvised brick. This situation gives Arequipa a kind of
desert-jazz feel, a fashionable heart surrounded by vast stretches of improvised dirt-and-cinder city blocks, and then surrounded once again by snow-capped mountains threatening to belch steam and ash every now and again.

Casa Andina Private Collection Suite is Worth the Upgrade
Once you get into the city center from the airport, there is only one hotel to stay at: Casa Andina Private Collection. Again, the hotel can arrange a car to pick you up at the airport (however, have the concierge at your Cusco hotel arrange this for you right before you leave, since the arrangements come out better if done in Spanish). Be sure to book the full suite, which gets you into a traditional Spanish sillar alcove that you will not soon forget. (Otherwise you will end up in the very plain and ordinary main campus). This room alone -- off the center courtyard -- is fabulous enough to hang out in all evening with a bottle of wine from the hotel. The hotel is a short walk to the center of town, where you will find the town square, main church, many antique and alpaca stores, and top notch restaurants galore.

For a top place to dine, check out Chicha, right near the hotel, which will require reservations. There are several other good places recommended in the guide books as well.

While you are in Arequipa, the place to visit is Monestario de
Inside the walls of the Monestario
Santa Catalina, a converted nunnery that takes up an entire city block one street away from Casa Andina. It seems uninteresting from the outside, but this was an active monastery until the '50's and is a fascinating, baroque collection of streets, alcoves, churches, and gardens all contained within the unassuming walls of a city block. It's worth the price of admission to see the painted frescoes, walk the steps of the church for a 360 degree city view, and interesting photos of nun's lives preserved from another era.

The other attraction is the main square, where you will interact with pushy tour guides (ignore them) and perhaps chance to see some of Peru's interesting politics, including the occasional strike or two. Those of you who want the background on such things: its agriculture versus mining, the two industries at war for the resources around Arequipa.

While this isn't nearly the jam-packed tourist attraction magnate that you will find in the Sacred Valley, Arequipa gives you a chance to relax and feel like you are in a genuine foreign city. Spending time simply wandering the streets or sipping cocktails in one of the rooftop bars will make you feel like you've gotten to see the real life of Peru. But don't forget the real reason you are here: to book one of the many tours to see the wonders of the Colca Valley.

If you want to do this in advance, I recommend an outfit like Giardino Tours. They will be happy to arrange a two or three day excursion if you like. It will cost about $300, without hotel, if you want a private tour (which I recommend, as you can set your own itinerary). Bring your Spanish phrase book - the drivers don't speak English, and you will want to coordinate times and stops in advance if your Spanish is non-existent. Also bring crisp and clean US dollars (not old or bent) to pay the driver, since they don't take money if it's worn, along with plenty of Soles (which you will need for the restaurants and vendors along the journey).

The driver will pick you up at Casa Andina at the appointed time - then return you to the hotel two or three days later, if you like (unless you prefer to go on to some place like Puno). The excursion is the real reason you came to Arequipa, but don't overlook the charms of this fascinating city itself.

Touring Cusco: A Great Way to Finish the Inca Valley Tour of Peru

If you are following my advice on itinerary, Cusco is your last stop in the Sacred Valley after touring Machu Picchu. Book tickets for the four-hour train ride from Machu Picchu pueblo to Cusco in advance, then arrange for your hotel in Cusco to meet you with a driver at Poroy Station on the outskirts of the town (typically the driver will cost about $24, the price of a New York City cab ride); it takes a good twenty minutes more for the drive into Cusco proper.

The four-hour journey from Machu Picchu to Poroy takes you from afternoon into night time as the
train chugs its way uphill to the elevations of Cusco. Be prepared for some local entertainment or what they call a "floor show," where the train attendants dress in local traditional garb, then try on  Alpaca clothing with the intention of getting you to buy. If you ignore the tackiness of the high-pressure sales tactics it's an entertaining ride.

Palacio del Inka
There are numerous five-star hotels in Cusco to chose from, all situated near down-town attractions. We stayed at Palacio del Inka, a Starwood hotel built in Pissaro's old mansion, across from the not-to-be-missed attraction of Koricancha, a Spanish church built atop the original Incan temple that formed the center of worship in this capital of the Incas. Another popular hotel choice is the JW Marriott, a bit closer to the main square downtown. Belmond Palacio Nazarenes is the place to go if you want to splurge.

Last chance to try Cuy (Guinea Pig)

Cusco is a fully stocked, cosmopolitan town where you will be able to sample cuisine from some of the top restaurants in the world, shop for Alpaca knits from both high-end boutique designers (who don't bargain) and tucked-away malls featuring locals hawking wares for negotiated deals (walk away at least twice before settling on a price, and start at less than half the ask). There are also great attractions and museums.

In addition to touring the town square at the center of town, Koricancha is the attraction to see. Here, an earthquake in 1950 revealed the grand Inca temple hidden under the church. The Inca's had gilded the walls of the
temple with gold, which was all spirited away by Pissaro's men. Now, it's a museum, and you'll find exhibits from famous Peruvian artists in addition to stone temple walls and Spanish religious paintings.

Precolumbian Pottery
The other museum that is not to be missed is Museo de Arte Precolombino (also known as MAP). The small museum contains artifacts
from all eras of Peruvian civilization. It contains pottery, metal, glass, and other arts from prehistory to Inca times, and gives you a strong sense of how warring tribes subdued the more refined sensibilities of the Nazca and South American art evolved. The museum itself is an enchanting piece of Spanish architecture in one of the prettier squares hidden away in Cusco.
Desert at MAP Cafe - not to be missed

As long as you are touring MAP, make a dinner reservation at MAP Cafe for one of the top dining experiences in Peru. This may well be the best, most unique and romantic meal you have the entire trip.

All the tour books tell you that Saqsaywaman (often jokingly pronounced "Sexy Woman" by the locals, and the source of all those Sexy Woman cocktails in the hotels), on the north side of Cusco overlooking the town, with its monumental stone structures, is the Inca ruin second only to Machu Picchu. We didn't make it - after five days of Inca ruin touring, you may rather sample the more cosmopolitan charms of a full-fledged city like Cusco. Don't feel you have to haul yourself over just because it's there; there's plenty enough good restaurants and shopping in Cusco to keep you busy for a day and a half, until you're ready for the next leg of your trip. And after five-days of sweaty hiking, the same-day laundry service, cool museums, hip art galleries, and numerous world-class restaurants available in Cusco proper may be just the thing you crave.

Next - if you planned your itinerary as we did - it's off to someplace new, like Arequipa and the natural wonders of the Colca Canyon.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

How to Plan an Awesome Tour of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley: Part 2 - Machu Picchu

Once you arrive by train in Machu Picchu Pueblo (or Aguas Calientes - both names are applicable to the little tourist town at the base of the mountain attraction), you've entered a transitional landscape. This is the lush forest in between the desert Andes of the Sacred Valley and the humid tropics of the Amazon. You will noticed the increased humidity (similar to the American northeast) and pregnant green vegetation, orchids and mossy trees not present in the higher, drier altitudes around Ollantaytambo. This is the leg of the trip you've been waiting for.

Plan to spend two days touring Machu Picchu - there is plenty to see, and if you like to hike, devote one of these days to a good strenuous hiking session, and the other to a more contemplative, photographic wondering of the ruins. You could do this in either order. We hiked first and then came back the second day to sit and watch the magical sunrise, and just soak in the scenery. We lucked out as the first morning was cloudy, the ruins shrouded in mysterious fog, while the second was sunny and spectacular. The weather at the top of the mountain changes constantly and two days of touring will give you plenty of opportunity to see everything you came for. I recommend you arrive in the evening before your first day, then leave on the first train to Cusco on the second (you will be rather beat after two
days walking the steep hills at Machu Picchu and happy to get to your Cusco hotel as early as possible so you can settle in and crash).

The first thing we were asked by our concierge, who met us at the train station when we arrived (most hotels provide this service), was "do you have your Machu Picchu entry tickets and your bus tickets." You certainly don't want to wake up the next morning without either of these. Bus tickets for the bus ride up the mountain are easy enough to get at the blue painted facade beside bus station in the heart of town the night you arrive in Aguas Calientes. But you need to buy entry tickets to Machu Picchu more in advance.

You can get them in the Cusco airport when you land, but I recommend you buy well before you leave home. Rather than using the official website, which can be glitchy even for Spanish speakers, I recommend you purchase through an agent such as Ticket Machu Picchu. You pay a little more but they use PayPal and process your tickets within 24 hours. There is a limit of 2500 tourists a day at the site. They don't usually sell out until perhaps the day before, but better safe than sorry. And if you

want to do one of the hikes at Machu Picchu - which I recommend - you need to buy these tickets at least three months early. The best hike is Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain overlooking the ruins often seen in the photos taken from the Machu Picchu gate. This hike takes you to the top of an ancient citadel (traveling stairs built by the Incas) overlooking the city, which shimmers like a lego toy in the distance. Only 400 people are allowed on the Huayna Picchu hike each day, 200 at 7am and another 200 at 11am. I took the 7am hike and what was magical about this was seeing the early fog burn off from way above. Couldn't have asked for a more spectacular way to first encounter the ruins.

View from Huaynu Picchu Hike
One note about this hike. There is a cave, near the very end of the hike, which you must crawl through and then emerge before you can get to the very top and end of the journey. If you suffer claustrophobia you may want to turn around before this (the views are nearly the same).

Also, be careful if you are susceptible to vertigo - you will definitely be subject to it on this hike, and might want to bring some pills if this is a problem for you.

Sacred Rock Hut
The path to Huayna Picchu hike isn't well marked and is actually labeled something else like "Mountain Hike." The entry to this hike is a hut at the far end of the complex (farthest from the park entry), past the main square and just beyond the Sacred Rock. Line up by 7am so you can get an early start.

Looking toward Machu Picchu Mountain
The other hike you can take is "Machu Picchu plus Mountain" which allows you to visit the mountain giving Machu Picchu its name, which hikers arriving on the Inca Trail will encounter on their way in to the site. This is on the other side of the complex, near the entry gate. We planned to do this hike on the second day, but we were plum tuckered out, as hiking up and down the ruins were enough. So we bought these tickets but didn't use them. I suggest that if you plan to do the Huayna Picchu hike, that is probably going to be enough, and all you need for the other day is an ordinary entrance ticket. Do the "plus Mountain" tickets if Huayna Picchu is sold out.

The third hiking option is to skip the bus ride and hike your way up the side of the mountain from the town below. This hike isn't as scenic as the other two but certainly a good workout, and you don't need to worry about special hiking tickets (you still need to buy the Machu Picchu entrance ticket).

So where should you stay for your two days?

Machu Picchu Pueblo (also Aguas Calientes)
First, be aware that prices in Machu Picchu are going to be well over twice what you pay anyplace else. They can get it. So this will be the most expensive part of your journey. If you are willing to pay over $1000 a night and to book over a year in advance, you might find rooms at either Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, at the top of the mountain itself, or InkaTerra Machu Picchu Pueblo, in the town below, which have individual casitas and is reputed to be a fantastic experience.

From our Window at Casa del Sol
For those who are mere mortals, I recommend Sumaq Machu Picchu - which is a modern concrete hotel at the farthest part of Aguas Calientes, but has a very comfortable (and stylish) front lounge, one of the best restaurants in the town, and air conditioning. This place will run about $500 a night but seemed worth it. If you want a better deal - and perhaps a stay closer to the main action of Aguas Calientes - then for $250 a night El Mapi, also by InkaTerra chain, is a nice European-style hotel with a hip bar and modern, if somewhat ordinary, rooms. We stayed at the Casa del Sol, a boutique hotel without air conditioning but with pleasant rooms overlooking the river (you must ask in advance for one of these), also around $250 a night. It's definitely a smaller, older place, and a quieter hang out. The river view was nice and the service exceptional, but the shower was strangely small and elevated on a platform so you had to duck your head under the faucet, and the rooms a bit cramped. El Mapi seemed more our speed. However, I will say that it hardly mattered since everything about the experience is trivial next to the time you spend touring the park itself.

Some notes about getting prepared for your Machu Picchu park experience:

Go early morning. This is why you came to Aguas Calientes. The hordes of organized tourists start descending en mass around 10:00am, when busses begin arriving from Ollantaytambo. You want to be at the park gates by 6:30am, when they open, so you can enjoy some relative freedom from crowds, or the spectacular mountain sunrise. This means you should set your alarm for 4:00am and plan to line up for busses by around 4:45. Getting in line by 5:15am, as we did, still gets you to the park in plenty of time as well. Much later, however, and you'll be missing the first rays of sunrise.

The park will confiscate any food they see in open bags - but for some reason you can bring in anything you like in a backpack. One of the mysteries of Peru. If someone in your party carries water, munchies, and suncreen in a light weight back pack you will all be much happier. Don't forget your camera, bug spray, and a hat. As long as you keep your entrance ticket with you, you can also pick up a sandwich lunch, ice cream, and coke at a little cafe stand just outside the Belmond Lodge any time after mid-morning for a quick refreshment, then re-enter the park and continue sightseeing. There is also a restaurant in the Lodge, but it doesn't open until noon. There are stalls selling hats, t-shirts, staffs, wrapped sandwiches, cola, and water-bottle-holders in every
crany of Aguas Calientes. Buy a hat with a flap that covers your neck before you leave on the bus.

Finally, where to eat? The best restaurant in town is El Indio Feliz, a Peruvian place with some French items on the menu like onion soup. By "best" I mean the food is okay compared to the tourist standards everyplace else. This is not the place in Peru for culinary discovery (save that for Cusco). You will need reservations for dinner at El Indio Feliz. Reserve for your second night, since the first you are likely going to want to eat at your hotel and hit the sack early for the early morning rise.

Aguas Calientes at Night - Children's Parade
Don't overlook the subtle charms of Aguas Calientes itself. Spend some time wondering the streets, picking up tacky souvenirs, admiring the flowers, and stopping for a Pisco Sour at a streetside bar as you people watch. This is a tourist town, through and through, but an essential part of the Machu Picchu experience. Hiking the trails of Huayna Picchu or sitting at a bar off the main drag at Aguas Calientes, you can talk to executives from Silicon Valley, retirees from Australia, college grads from France, and newlyweds from Argentina. Enjoy the opportunity to meet others, like you, who have come to experience one of the top items on their bucket list.

After Machu Picchu, you'll be heading back to Cusco - finally adjusted to the altitude. Now you're ready to enjoy the cosmopolitan attractions of this tourist capital.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How to Plan an Awesome Tour of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley: Part 1 - Getting to Peru and Touring the Sacred Valley

Assuming you are now planning your own leg through the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, as explained in my earlier post, here's where you start.

View from the Lima Airport Wyndham: Not that Glamorous
In 2020, Cusco is going to open its first international airport, outside of the town of Chinchero. Locals are already investing in property around the town, when getting to Machu Picchu from New York will take only an eight hour flight and then a three hour train ride. Until then, the only way to get to Cusco and the Sacred Valley is through Lima.

Expedia lets you book flights from the U.S. through Lima into Cusco and then return from any other destination in Peru (such as Arequipa or Trujillo) back through Lima into the U.S. This saves you about $100 on each leg versus booking as four separate flights. If you want to stay overnight in Lima, however, you'll need to book your return from Lima and a separate leg from Arequipa, Cusco, or wherever you've ended up at the end of your Peru journey: return flights from other towns such as Arequipa all come in to Lima in the morning and for a single-booking return you'll need to take a late-night red-eye home on the same day. Plan the return carefully. If you are flying on a non-LAN-code-share airline such as United you can't check luggage through (no matter what the United agents may tell you in Newark). We missed seeing Lima as there was no place to store our luggage and the gate doesn't open for check-in until two hours before the flight. The only option is to plan an extra day in Lima at the end of your trip (which I'd recommend if we were doing it over again) or hire a tour guide in Lima that will take your luggage with you.

Cusco Airport
Speaking of checking luggage. When you arrive in Lima on United you must pick up your bags at the baggage claim and then recheck on to Cusco. Unsure if this is true on a code-share such as American, but best to wait at baggage claim and see - returning to baggage claim after you leave is a hassle that requires some elementary Spanish, Peruvian security, and an extra hour and a half. Best to stay with baggage claim in Lima to make sure your bags get safely checked on your morning flight.

Also - you will need to check in to each leg of the flight separately, but you need to be checked in and ready to fly on the first leg first. If you have a laptop with wi-fi that's easy enough to check in to the second leg on LAN (or United on the return) from the airport in the U.S. (or Arequipa, if flying back on a joined leg). This bit of double-check-in is a worrisome hassle but we had no problem checking in online once we flew the first leg of each portion. Peru has two major airlines - LAN and Peruvian. The LAN website has an English version that's as easy to use as any major U.S. airline.

Most flights from the U.S. arrive in Lima between 8 and 10pm, with onward flights to Cusco starting at 5:30am the next morning. You could hang out at the airport all night but I recommend booking a room at the Wyndham Costa del Sol Lima Airport - it's across the street from check-in and the Ikea-like rooms are serviceable enough to get a good nights sleep before a day of intense touring in high altitude. Don't be fooled by fashionable pictures on the hotel website: there's nothing memorable about this European, serviceable hotel, but you get two free tickets for Pisco Sours with your room and you'll be happy you got a bit of sleep. Or you can hang in the lobby and befriend other English speaking tourists headed off to or returning from deep jungle hikes. If you're like us you'll be excited to start your Peruvian adventure and so the Pisco Sours will be a necessary nightcap as a few hours of sound sleep is essential.

Leaving Lima
Flying Over the Andes
Start your day the next morning boarding a LAN flight to Cusco, along with a hundred other excited Peruvian families. Flying out of the coastal airport and up thirteen thousand feet into the Andes (the longest mountain range in the world) will be a great way to start to witness the beauty of the continent. Exiting the airplane in Cusco, you may, like me, feel dizzy, or slightly nauseated. Feet touching ground, you're at 11,150 feet above sea level. If it's June you'll feel a wintery nip in the air and want to zip up your jacket. If you heeded my first post, you've booked Tambo del Inka in the valley and are headed out of town. But how to get there?

Many who come to the Sacred Valley never leave
The best way is to hire a local guide who will drive you to your destination and spend the next three days showing you the sights and flavors of the Sacred Valley. The weather, countryside, and steep mountainous terrain of this valley is simply gorgeous. It's not for nothing that many Americans who pass through here go native: it's reminiscent of the high mountains around San Francisco in the Sixties, an enchanting destination all its own, with its own simple lifestyle, friendly people, and amazing fresh food and fresh air. We researched a few online recommendations and arranged an independent local guide, Oscar Zuniga, by emailing him at Oscar doesn't have a web page as it's something of a bother to get one up in Peru. But he speaks good English, has studied tourism, and was a friendly, informative, and entertaining guide who made our first few days in Peru truly memorable. He comes highly recommended (if you contact him, mention you saw his name on my blog). Tambo del Inka and other major hotels will also book tour guides for you - though you will pay twice the price and they simply arrange someone like Oscar. But if having an official invoice is what you need that's what you may need to do. Take my word, however, Oscar was great, and needed no hotel middlemen (he used to work at Tambo and knows everyone there anyway).
Pisac Market

Oscar suggested our itinerary - visit Pisac and the Sunday market on our way to our hotel in Urubamba (a great start to our stay, the first day felt like an entire vacation all on its own). It was a great kick-off to the experience, though you may huff and puff your way up the hillsides at Pisac on your first day in the high altitude. Remember to take it easy and drink plenty of water, the Sacred Valley being a desert.
Alpaca Weavers of Chinchero

The second day he toured us around Chinchero, where we saw native weavings and the local

Agricultural Terraces of Moray

Salinas de Maras
church, along with stops at the amazing agricultural terraces at Moray and the salt farms at Salinas de Maras (both of which are must-sees, and start to give you real appreciation for the scientific achievements of the Inca civilization). Meanwhile, enjoy the hospitality at Tambo del Inka - they greet you with a cup of Coca tea (for altitude sickness) and check you in with hushed attention. Then off to spa, pool, or massage in between touring ancient wonders.
Tambo del Inka

The food at Tambo is okay (the outdoor bar is outstanding), but to really start to enjoy Peruvian cuisine, walk the short distance from the hotel to one of two most excellent restaurants. Tres Keros, which is a romantic second story family affair with simple but delicious grilled meats, or El Huacatay, which is recommended in the tour books. Getting off the hotel grounds also gives you a flavor for the local culture. (Hint: if you haven't noticed the Peruvian dogs running free by now, you will surely be commenting on their uncanny ability to avoid the cars. American dogs would be in mortal danger, here. Yet perhaps happier....)

The third day, check out of Tambo (say goodbye to paradise) and head for a day of touring at Ollantaytambo, the hiker's jumping-off point to Machu Picchu.

The ruins at Ollantay are second only to Machu Picchu itself, and worth a good half day. Here you will see an Incan village still inhabited - tour the homes and bars, and sample the chicha corn beer. Learning about the Incas in Ollantay will provide all the background you need to start to appreciate the next leg: Machu Picchu itself. Be sure to slather on plenty of sun screen at Ollantay - there's no protection here, the coolish weather is deceptive, and I got a nasty burn on the back of my neck despite hats and SPF 90 on my face.

You will need to purchase your train tickets from Ollantay to Machu Picchu in advance. Do this on the PeruRail website a couple of weeks before you leave (in high season they will sell out the day of the trip). Despite what the website says, you can bring your luggage on board, but if you want to be super safe like me, you can email the PeruRail customer support office and ask for a pass for your luggage. They will send you a confirmation email specifying your luggage size, which you can show to the train conductors. This won't be needed but can be a comfort.

The hour and a half ride from Ollantay to Machu Picchu is an adventure in and of itself. You are headed lower in altitude and towards the Amazon, so the vegetation slowly changes from high desert to jungle. Watching the terrain change before your eyes, you realize you're headed to the higlight of your trip: the bucket-list item of Machu Picchu, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

(Continue reading here....)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Plan Your Own Tour of Peru and Machu Picchu

It's on most people's bucket list - a visit to the Inka wonder of Machu Picchu, an abandoned stone ruin high in the Peruvian Andes.

If you're eighteen you're going to set off with backpacks and hire a guide to take you along the four-day Inka trail, a hiking extravaganza with pitched tents and a couple of hostel stays (which you can only do accompanied by an official Peru outback guide company).

If you're a retiree, you're likely to connect with one of many Peru tour organizers. For five thousand a person they will book everything for you: buses, hotels, transfer points, and tickets. Just go where they say to and everything is arranged for you, with pre-set times and groups wondering the ruins together in the dozens.

However, if you're like us - middle-age adventurers who love to get away from the beaten trail, forge our own private path, and discover places and hikes all to ourselves - then you may opt to plan your own trip. If this were Italy or even China, that might not be too hard. But in a place like Peru it might be a challenge. We did it - and it was fantastic. However there are things you should know to make sure your Peruvian adventure goes as seamlessly as a five-star tour, without the crowds and pre-arranged cattle calls. Here are the pointers from our experience if you'd like to try this yourselves.


Most working people going to Peru will have one to two weeks to tour the country before e-mail and cell phone messages back up to overflowing. First step is to decide how much time you'll have to reasonably escape. You'll be able to check email at major hotels and get cell reception in the towns of the Inca Valley, but internet in Peru is slower than American high-speed, so forget connecting to work on that fifty-tab Excel spreadsheet while you're gone (besides, you'll not want to sacrifice an evening or afternoon when you'll want to be recouperating from your hiking adventure with a Pisco Sour). Decide if one week, 10 days, or a full two weeks is how much you can reasonably escape. That will determining
the sights you choose.


If you've got a week, then you have no choice - you're going to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, then heading back to Lima and home. These are the main attractions you are coming to see. And in fact, this first leg is the basic first leg on the 10-day and 14-day tours as well. The difference is that the longer two trips allow you to add one one or two side-trips additionally. But no one goes to Peru without the intention of visiting Machu Picchu - which will be the highlight of your trip, wherever you go. So plan this as the first leg of your visit, since you'll want to check off the bucket list item before anything else.
Our First View Into the Sacred Valley

For the first leg, all the tour books recommend the same thing - go straight through Lima on the way in country to Cusco (you can often book a flight straight through on Expedia and save about $100 a ticket), capital of the Sacred Valley, then immediately get out of Cusco for the lower altitudes down in the Sacred Valley, in order to ameliorate the altitude sickness (which is real, don't think just because you've been to the top of San Jaucinto in Palm Springs that it's anything similar). We stayed at Tambo del Inka in Urubamba, and believe me, you want to get to this hotel right away. It's the only 5-star LEED certified hotel in Peru, and as a destinatation it was a real highlight. If you leave on a Saturday, plan on one overnight through Lima to arrive Cusco early Sunday morning, then head out on your Sacred Valley tour (more on that in later posts) with Tambo del Inka as your destination. Two days to tour the valley, then up to Aguas Calientes and Machu Piccu for two more, then back to tour Cusco on Friday, Lima on Saturday, and home overnight Saturday for a Sunday morning arrival.
Tambo del Inka, Poolside


So, if you're staying longer, instead of heading to Lima on Saturday, this is where you can tack on one (or two, for two weeks) additional side-trips. Popular choices include Arequipa / Colca Canyon (which is what we did) for nature lovers, and Puno / Lake Titicaca to see some aquatic wonders. Other good options are Nazca (for the famous Nazca Lines), Trujillo for some northern flavor, and Iquitos for Amazon lovers. Here's a good overview of the highlights. For the ten-day itinerary, pick one of these. For a two-week itinerary, pick two.

We did a ten-day excursion and for us - with a doggie at home in Camp Bow Wow - it was long enough. We were ready to return to our own bed, have clean laundry (finding clean socks in the duffle bag becomes a challenge by Day 10), and see our doggie. Our choice of add-on was Arequipa / Colca Canyon, which did not disappoint - describing Colca Canyon as "twice as deep as the Grand Canyon," which it is - does not quite capture the wonderful terraces and beautiful light of the valley. It was much less traveled than the Inca Valley so offers great off-the-beaten-track adventures as well.

Colca Canyon
If we'd had longer we would have definitely added on Puno / Lake Titicaca, which is easy to get to from Arequipa / Colca Canyon (half a day's drive) and offers many wonders of its own...and the access from Arequipa means one less flight and a little less expense in transportation. But others may prefer a few days in the Amazon or a beach adventure. Up to you.

Once you've planned your itinerary, your next step is going to be to select hotels, book tickets, and arrange transportation and tour guides. More advice on how to get this started with Leg 1 in the next post: "How to Plan an Awesome Tour of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley"

Continue reading here....

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Complete Product Manager - My Latest Blog

Working on a new blog - The Complete Product Manager - my blog on being a product management executive.

Hope my friends will take a look at let me know what they think. It's just a start and would like to add more content and resources over time.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rutgers Executive MBA - Two Years Later

I've written a post about why I chose Rutgers and another during the program. It's time a write my reflections two years later. What did it mean to me to get my EMBA at Rutgers and was it worth it?

Well, I must confess - now I'm teaching a course in the program (on digital marketing), so I can no longer write from an unbiased standpoint. I'm not only an alumni, I'm part of the program and an advocate, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

But perhaps this is the first point. That the experience was enriching and developed opportunities that I would have never expected - like the opportunity to teach. In pulling together the curriculum on digital marketing I learned as well to continue my own business learning journey and continued to find new sources to build upon my knowledge and capabilities. 

To the basic question: was it worth it. The answer is yes. In terms of career, I was promoted to Vice President soon after graduation. My income has risen accordingly. Many of my classmates have gone on to new jobs, promotions, and raises. One of my study partners was promoted to CEO of the U.S. office of his shipping firm. All of us had the potential but the MBA was a clear differentiator for each of us on our career track.

The real transformation, however, has been in my thinking. I hold conversations with our CEO, SVP of Corporate, and Board members of our public company and not only hold my own, but have insights to add. I see how investments and margins tie to EPS, can tackle a balance sheet or income statement with ease, have techniques to lead a room of executives on a new strategy, and routinely build risk assessment models for our business transformation. I had none of the tools or training to do these things before, and being able to think formally about finance, statistics, and corporate strategy has opened up new rewarding opportunities.

I have to confess, the biggest adjustment has been leaving the intense period of schooling behind. Getting back to having a life, having weekends, was at first a struggle, as I didn't know what to do with all that free time. I also had to learn how to not drop MBA terms at cocktail parties or work meetings. Eventually, however, I feel like the MBA has faded into the quilt of who I am and what I know - the same way I know how to develop and deploy software or write a short story. But it's a great thing to know and the Rutgers EMBA experience is one I'll always cherish. And work and life, somehow, always manages to rush in to consume the free time we thought we had.

Before I went to Rutgers, I wrote that "I'm doing it mainly because the material is relevant to my current job, it will give me the business background to make more strategic decisions, and it should, in some way, enhance my earning capabilities." Yes, it did do all that, and more. It exposed me to amazing professors and cutting edge business thinking. The quality of thinking and instruction in strategy, finance, and economics was as good as Ivy League, at half the price. It changed who I am and my confidence about my abilities. It gave me a new network of close friends. It developed my ability to relate to people, share life, and experience business in different cultures. It also gave me a community that I am still a part of and amazing experiences that will be remembered for a lifetime. But perhaps, most importantly, it made me rediscover my love of learning, and push myself to continually keep up with intellectual pace of change. It taught me how to be both a more insightful business thinker and a well-rounded leader. It was by no means an easy thing to do. But in accepting and meeting the challenge, it changed my life, in more ways than I had hoped or expected.