One of my favorite places, Peru is simple and rustic yet mysterious and profound.
For U.S. visitors, it is an easy destination to reach. A direct flight from the Northeast will put one in Lima under 8 hours. From Miami or Houston it would take 5.5 and 6.5 hours respectively and oddly enough, Los Angeles to Lima takes the longest at 8.5 hours. Can you guess which route is the cheapest?
NY/NJ gateways. The cost for an advance non-stop ticket between NYC and Lima is $615 in economy class on a major airline.
What also makes Peru and other countries in South America travel-friendly is that there is 2 hours or less time difference between the U.S. time zones and Peru’s. Currently, Lima is an hour behind Eastern Standard Time. No fear of jetlag.
Lima’s Jorge Chavez Airport is named the “Best Airport in South America” for 2009 and 2010 by Skytrax. I am not surprised. I have passed through it a few times (as a final destination and a lay-over stop) and liked it better each time. It is also easy to transfer between international and domestic flights at Jorge Chavez Airport. There is a nominal airport tax to be paid prior to checking into your outbound flight. Everything is well signed and staff are very helpful. There are lots of good shopping to be done as well and I found the prices to be very good, especially on Peruvian handicrafts and knitted items. My first introduction to H Sterns Jewelry was at Lima’s airport and I quickly became a fan and a proud owner.
Lan Peru is the major airline in Peru and also South America. From USA, they offer direct flights to Central and South America out of Los Angeles, Miami and New York. We have used them on several occasions and found the fleet to be new and the service better than most of U.S. carriers. In fact they won 2010 Skytrax the “Best Airline” and “Staff Service Excellence” awards in South America. Another noteworthy carrier is TACA Airlines, winner of 2010 Skytrax World Airline Awards in the same categories for Central America/Caribbean market. Among U.S. carriers, American Airlines and Continental offer non-stop services from the East and West Coasts -as well as Miami and Houston- to Lima.
Before You Go
Currently, Visas are not required for U.S. citizens for stays up to 90 days. Tourists must also provide evidence of return or onward travel. As always, register with your nearest U.S. Embassy/Consulate before departure. Visit U.S. Dept of State/Travel for specific travel information and advisory. As you might know, there has been a few plane crashes involving small planes carrying tourists over Nazca Lines and an advisory notice has been posted for all U.S. citizens planning to hire such planes.
Book your train tickets from Cusco to Machu Picchu and Puno in advance as they sell out. Especially, last winter’s flood has washed away some roads and train tracks between Cusco and Machu Picchu; so plan ahead.
If you are planning to visit some of most popular destinations in Peru, including Machu Picchu and Cusco, you would be at high altitudes, in excess of 11,000 feet above sea level. So, you need to give yourself a couple of days to acclimatize before doing strenuous physical activities. The local remedy to deal with thin air is mate de coca, a tea made of coca leaf which is a mild sedative and perfectly legal to consume in Peru, just don’t bring it back with you. I had it and found it to be helpful, but it is an acquired taste. We also met many tourists on pills- I mean the altitude sickness kind. Drinking lots of water and lowering alcohol intake help as well. Many hotels in Cusco offer oxygenated rooms. I know…when I first heard about this, I laughed too. Do the wise thing: book an oxygenated room and you shall pat yourself on the back once there. We only took along Tylenol and Advil; but if I had to do it again, I would take along some altitude sickness pills. Having said all this, do not fear. I did not take any precaution and did OK. I experienced mild headaches on our first day in Cusco (11,000 ft), but the real ones started as soon as we got to Lake Titicaca ( about 13,000 ft).
High altitude and thin air will also make your skin very vulnerable to sun burn. Always apply (an re-apply) SPF 30 or higher while out during day. I got sunburn on top of my head (the only non-SPFd exposed part on my body)for sitting under the sun for 30 minutes while having a sandwich (and I carry a nice mane). It’s Ok…laugh! 😆
You must pack mosquito repellent. We took a bottle and it sure came handy in Machu Picchu. We did share it with those less fortunate, already bearing the marks of mosquitoes.
As far as safety is concerned, we did not feel threatened at any point during our trip. I would suggest not carrying a lot of cash and jewelry with you especially in larger towns and definitely in Lima. Personally, I never take any expensive or flashy jewelry on any trip. Who needs the headache? Use common sense as you always should while traveling. Take cash from ATMs as needed. Credit cards are widely accepted.
About the climate- Being in the Southern Hemisphere, Peru’s seasons are reverse of those in the North America. That means our June would be Peru’s December. The dry season, our May-October, is generally the best time to visit Peru. The busiest travel months are July and August. We traveled to Peru during first half of September and loved the weather. Clear, sunny and mild days followed by cooler nights. Of course, at the high altitude, the nights are always colder than the coast. The rainy season would be November to April and the wettest months are January-April, during which roads and trek paths can become impassable in mountain areas.
It all depends on how long a time you have to spend as with anywhere else. The best and fastest mode of transportation between major destinations in Peru is by air. The distances are great but most importantly the mountains and lack of major highways slow down traveling by road considerably.
We had a about 10 days and our itinerary worked out very well. We had enough time at each destination and did not feel rushed or bored. I wish we had 3 more days to include Colca Valley, but hey, there is always the next time.
Here is what we did:
- Day 1: Cusco- Arrived in Lima early a.m., transferred to our flight to Cusco (1 hr.) and arrived there around noon. If you can, splurge and stay at Hotel Monasterio. We spent the first night at a budget hotel (<3 stars). On our first day in Cusco, as we were walking about the town, we stumbled upon Hotel Monasterio and one look got us hooked. We checked out the rates and found out for about $140 more/night we could stay at this beautiful and historic place (an old Monastery turned into a luxury hotel)- dinner, breakfast and OXYGEN included. Made a reservation on the spot, went back to our modest hotel, packed and settled the bill and sprinted back to Monasterio. The architecture, grounds, service, food- everything about this property is fantastic.
- Day 2-3: Lake Titicaca, Puno- Packed an overnight bag (leaving the larger luggages at the hotel) for our short flight to Juliaca, the nearest airport to Puno at the shores of Lake Titicaca. This was one of the most memorable flights ever. We flew over never ending Andean Peaks. Once in Juliaca, we hired a taxi to take us to our hotel Sonesta Posadas del Incas. The 45km drive is scenic and takes around 45 minutes. Lake Titicaca is world’s highest navigable lake and only about 120 km from Bolivian border. The color of the lake is totally different than any other blue I had ever seen. The native Uros people still live on their little floating islands built of reeds that grow in shallow waters of Lake Titicaca. We took a boat tour of the lake and Uros. Here is where you will experience some headache and shortness of breath for sure. I was more miserable than my husband. Don’t be intimidated to ask for oxygen…seriously. I had major headaches here and sniffing pure oxygen for 10 minutes would make it all go away. The oxygen tank itself was s historic encounter. At 5 feet high, it looked more like a missile and something you would see in World War movies. The mask was not the sanitary one-time-use one. Rather, it was shared by whoever was in need of an oxygen fix. I had to wash it vigorously each time but finally convinced the bell boy to leave it overnight at our room.
- Day 4-5: Cusco- Took the scenic way back to Cusco, by train. Railperu’s Andean Explorer passes through towering mountains, villages and fields. There is a short stop at the highest point (a mere 4335 meters or 14,222 feet above sea level), La Raya, for some photo opportunity and buying local crafts. In spite of the higher altitude, breathing was easier here than in Puno and no headaches. This train journey is a must and takes most of the day. But each bend is a kodak moment. We were served lunch and snacks throughout the trip and in the afternoon were pleasantly entertained by folk singers and dancers. We spent the next couple of days walking the beautiful Colonial Cusco and touring the gorgeous and fertile Sacred Valley, visiting Sacsayhuaman, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero (town of rainbow) and Pisaq Market. Short of hiring your own car and/or driver, the only way to visit Sacred Vally is via an organized day tours.
- Day 6: Machu Picchu- Packed a small bag and took the famous Hiram Bingham train operated by Perurail from Cusco to Machu Picchu when roosters started crowing. Train takes you on a scenic journey and drops you at Aguas Caliente. From there, a half hour bus ride will take visitors up. The road snakes upward and at the very top, Machu Picchu in all its majesty suddenly appears. It is a sight to be held. We chose to stay a night at the only accommodation up there, the Machu Picchu Sancturary Lodge. The high price of $600/night for a standard room was well worth seeing the sunset and sunrise at this magnificent place. You need to book months, even a year, in advance to secure a reservation. We did not but I had to get creative and beg for a room. Stay a night if you can afford it or alternatively stay down at the valley and take the bus up and down. Alternatively, you can take the evening train back to Cusco. Make sure all your reservations are done in advance to ensure availability. If you are a hiker, you could reach Machu Picchu on foot in 3-5 days by joining a hiking group. This is a challenging way to reach Machu Picchu and only recommended for those fit to undertake such climb.The “Lost City of Incas” will charm and fascinate you. Machu Picchu (Old Peak) is truly a unique and an inspirational place. The so called “easiest climb” around Machu Picchu is the one to the Gate of the Sun on Inca Trail. It looks fairly easy at the beginning, but about half way into it, the slope becomes steeper as the pathway gets narrower. Also, there are no guards or hand rails. At places, the path was so narrow that I could only place one foot in front the other. All I did was to tell myself “I can do it” all the way up there. It got a little worst on the way back down as I was actually looking at the steep cliff heading down to meet the valley below- way, way, way down below. The views from the Sun Temple over Machu Picchu and the valley is truly amazing, though. Don’t do this hike if you are afraid of heights and do take a walking stick with you (I did not know better).
- Day 7: Cusco- Took the afternoon train back down, arriving at Cusco late afternoon. Had a fabulous dinner at Monasterio in its rustic yet elegant dining room where your eyes are as satisfied as your belly.
- Day 8-10: Lima- Reluctantly, we said good bye to Cusco and took an afternoon flight to Lima. We were staying at Miraflores Park Hotel located in a residential area and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We had just about 2 full days in Lima and in my opinion, enough to see the town. The capital of Peru can be pretty here and there, but after experiencing the charm and peace of Machu Pichu and Cusco Lima just did not hold much interest.
Now, there are lots more places to see in Peru. Adventure seekers can go North to Amazon River. South of the country holds mystical Nazca Lines, Arequipa and Colca Valley (the best spot to see the magnificent Andean Condors). I will not go into details about these destinations as myself have not made it there. I had done some research though and here is what I know: For Amazon River, I would dedicate a separate trip to it and make sure you give yourself plenty of time (a couple of months) to get your vaccinations completed. Nazca Lines can be done on an expensive day trip from Lima via small planes. Ask for references or get recommendation for a reputable flight company before booking one. Arequipa can be reached via a short flight from Lima, Juliaca or Cusco (with a stop in Juliaca). You would need the pills as Colca Valley or “Valley of Wonders” (as Vargas Lloso’s described it) is at 12,000 feet above sea level. It is one of the most scenic areas in Peru but our time did not allow it. If you have the luxury of time, do include this destination in your itinerary.
At the end, I would like to summarize a few points:
- Go to Peru
- Make sure your vaccinations are in order well in advance of your travels, especially for trips in Amazon River Basin.
- Get advise from your doctor about traveling to high altitude and give yourself time to acclimatize.
- Do not forget sunburn protection (SPF 30+) and a good mosquito repellent.
- Reserve an oxygenated room, if available.
- Do not miss out on Cusco and Machu Picchu…Leave enough time to experience them- at least 5 full days.
- If your time is short, leave out Lima.
- If you can splurge, do so at Hotel Monasterio and Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.
- Ask permission before taking pictures unless you are at a distance. Some people don’t like it, some do and yet others would be happy to let you do it for a small tip or a purchase.
- Take along pens, pencils and small school supplies to give to many, many children you would see in and around Cusco. They would appreciate this and is better than giving out money. This will buy you a nice photo opportunity as well.
- Take lots of memory cards…You will be clicking away 90% of the time.
- Remember to mingle with Peruvians. The majestic sceneries are great enough reasons to go; but they do not replace the human touch.
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