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....)

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