Flight to Lima, Peru
This time we were a large group of 14, including kids, so there was a lot of coordination needed; we ended up traveling in big vans throughout. To get to our destination, we flew out of Texas into Lima, Peru (same time zone), but 8-9 hours out after a brief stop in Mexico City.
Peru is a beautiful country in western South America. Bordered in the north by Ecuador/Columbia in the east by Brazil, in the southeast by Bolivia, in the south by Chile, and in the west by the Pacific Ocean. It is a megadiverse country with habitats ranging from the arid plains of the Pacific coastal region in the west to the peaks of the Andes mountains vertically extending from the north to the southeast of the country to the tropical Amazon Basin rainforest in the east with the Amazon river, it boasts of 90 micro-climates. The capita Lima is nestled comfortably on the Pacific Ocean side of South America, and offers numerous sights and surprises in this burgeoning city of 8 million inhabitants. We didn’t get a chance to experience it as we reached late at night, stayed at the adjoining airport hotel and had to take the morning flight out to Cusco.
Flight to Cusco, then Sacred Valley
Day 2 is when the real adventure began. We had hired the services of Rainforest Cruises (www.rainforestcruises.com) with their local partner in South America “Encounter Latin America (www.Encounterlatinamerica.com)” – both of whom provided exemplary service to us through and through! With all transportation/drivers arriving on time all the time, polite professional guides – everything went like clockwork. Highly recommended! The only mistake we made was booking our Lima –> Cusco flight through Viva Air – they charged us for every piece of baggage because we had the ‘basic’ ticket. Something to be cognizant of!
After a short flight of 1 hour, we reached the pretty town of Cusco. Set near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range, its elevation is around 3,400 m (11,200 ft). Most of us had taken Diamox as a preventative altitude-sickness medication so we were fine. We did not stay there for much and immediately took the private van down to Sacred Valley.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is the ancient name of the Vilcanota/Urubamba River valley. Located about 60 kilometers north of Cusco, the valley extends to the northwest through Pisac and Ollantaytambo. On the way we got a chance to stop at a Llama petting spot with tons of local artisans at work – it was fascinating to experience the culture and get to ‘hang out’ with the llamas/alpacas. Kids had a blast!!
The best for the evening was stored for later. The Pakaritampu hotel that we stayed in was absolutely gorgeous and relaxing after a long 2 days of travel. The name “Parakitampu” derived from the Quechua words “pakari” meaning “dawn” and “tampu” meaning “home”, was located in the heart of the Sacred Valley, in Ollantaytambo. It is 2 minutes walk from the train station with direct connection to Machu Picchu, and one hour and a half drive from the city of Cuzco. The town of Ollantaytambo is the starting point of the Inca Trail, a beautiful place that offers various tourist attractions. We relaxed, hung out in the town square, enjoyed some good Peruvian food and drinks and called it a night for the early morning journey the next day.
Sacred Valley & then train to Machu Picchu
We started off at about 09:30 in the morning after a good breakfast at the hotel. Our baggage had to be sent via different vehicle to the next night’s hotel, since we could only take 5kg backpack on the train to Machu Picchu. Most of the morning and afternoon was spent touring the Sacred Valley. Pisaq is a picturesque town found at the entrance to the Valley and is home to several interesting destinations. A remarkable sight in Ollantaytambo that we visited is the 17 massive terraces that stretch high up the vast hillside and once provided defense against foreign invaders. This citadel also contains what is known as the Sun Temple. The city’s arts and crafts market offered textiles and ceramic goods, plates, jewelry and replicas of pre-Hispanic pottery for sale. The Lunch Buffet at Tunupa restaurant was the highlight! Set in the beautiful Sacred Valley, by the gurgling stream of the Urubamba river, it provides a great spot for scenic pictures and also to hang out with a few pet llamas. The Urubamba river changes its names several times, it becomes Paucartambo, Ucayali and then the Amazon.
In the afternoon we visited the Inca town of Ollantaytambo, which has original Inca houses, streets and the fortress towering above the village. Quite a sight! We set off to Maras from there, where we saw the fascinating Salineras (Salt Flats), a wonder of hydraulic engineering and a must for photographers. The saltpans are set on overhanging cliffs and command spectacular views of the Andean mountains and the Urubamba River below. Hidden behind several layers of lush green mountains, these snow-white salt pans stunned us with their beauty, as they reflected the sun like white gold. We were pretty short on time but we quickly squeezed in the Moray where we just had enough time to grab pictures next to the wonderfully terraced gardens that so define the Sacred Valley!
At the end of the tour we were dropped off at Ollantaytambo Train Station from where we took the train to Aguas Calientes, a small town at the base of Machu Picchu, 1.5 hours from Ollantaytambo. Since we visited in the rainy season and trains don’t run from Cusco directly, we had the sense to use that time wisely to tour the Sacred Valley in our private van all through the day. We took the Expedition train (as opposed to the scenic Vistadome) since it was dark and we would not have been able to see outside anyway. Luckily dinner was served at the hotel so we did not have to go out searching for food as we had an early morning hike to get ready for.
Machu Pichhu & around, back to Cusco
The day started fairly early … after a super-early breakfast at 5:30 AM, in Aguas Calientes, we boarded a bus (tickets were given to us in advance by our guide) for a 20-minute ride to the sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is an architectural wonder. Sitting nearly 2,400 meters above sea level and on top of ridge between two peaks, the site is divided into two areas. The smaller peak, called the “Huayna Picchu”, is the one most often seen in photographs of the ruins. The name “Machu Picchu” comes simply from its geography. It literally means “old peak”, just as “Huayna Picchu” is “young peak”. Our first stop was the hike on the famous mountain of Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain that appears in almost every picture of Machu Picchu. It was a steep and demanding hike (1408 steps and an elevation gain of a 1000 ft in 1 hour), but worth every bit the effort… at the top we had the best view of the surroundings. We had to buy the hike ticket in advance and there are only 400 people allowed to enter per day… and remember, passports are checked at the entrance several times.
3 hours later after the up & down trip, we joined our guide for the Machu Pichhu trip but it was quite an ordeal to walk around even the smaller hills of Machu Pichhu after the earlier intense hike. Machu Picchu is split into two major areas: the agricultural zone, made up of terracing and food storehouses; and the urban zone, featuring the sacred sector, with temples, squares and royal tombs which have been carved to an extraordinary degree of perfection. Very fascinating but didn’t quite do it for us, as we were exhausted form the Huayna Pichhu climb. Lunch was at a riverside restaurant in Aguas Calientes… it is funny how the weather suddenly felt so hot and humid after the hikes at MP & HP, where it was relatively much cooler!! After lunch, we took the train (Vistadome this time) to Ollantaytambo from Aguas Calientes, and really enjoyed the scenery on the way, the snacks they offered and even a fashion show on the train! The driver was right on time to transfer us from Ollantaytambo to Cusco (Approximately 2 hours) via Private service. Reached Cusco, checked into the hotel and passed out.
Flight to the Amazon Rainforest & Puerto Maldonado
The morning was relatively free so we did some walking around in Cusco ‘downtown’ – good vibe, interesting Spanish architecture, but nothing spectacular. The much-talked-about 12-sided stone in the wall was just that, a stone with 12 sides, no big deal! Now we were all set to venture into the Amazon Rainforest.
To begin our much-awaited jungle tour, we took a quick plane trip from Cuzco to the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado, in Southeastern Peru. Peruvian Amazonia is the area of the Amazon rainforest included within the country of Peru, from east of the Andes to the borders with Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. Peru has the second-largest portion of the Amazon rainforest after the Brazilian Amazon Peru has the largest number of bird species in the world (44%) and the third-largest number of mammals (63%). After we were picked up at the airport, we took a 30-minute road trip to the boat docks, followed by a tranquil 3.5 hours boating upstream on the Tambopata River, to arrive at our secluded rainforest lodge – Refugio Amazonas. On the way to the lodge we were lucky enough to catch the Black Caiman basking in the sun, as well as plenty of Capybaras, besides several colorful birds and eye-pleasing scenery!
Our lodge “Refugio Amazonas”, a 10-minute short walk from the boat docks was truly spectacular – despite the heat and humidity of the Amazonian Rainforest! After settling down with the welcome drink and relaxing a bit, we were served an awesome dinner buffet! Very thoughtful of the resort to take special care of the vegetarians in the group and set aside food for them separately … exemplary service by Refugio Amazonas.
The um…. interesting part was that our rooms were open to the jungle from one side and we could hear wildlife all night, mosquitoes and several creep-crawlies had free entry into the room, so we had to be careful and dust our beds/sheets/towels as we used them!! A unique experience nevertheless!!!
We even had the time to venture out for a night walk with the guide. Just using our Phone lights as flashlights, creeping stealthily through the jungle in the dead of night, looking for any eyes shining in the dark, ensuring not to step on any creepy-crawlies, swatting the mosquitoes away, and praying we don’t encounter any anacondas and jaguars up-close, it was quite an experience!! – very rewarding, especially for the little ones.
In the Amazon Rainforest
This was our only FULL day in the rainforest so we wanted to make the best use of it. We left the resort early morning at 4:30 AM on a 2-hour boat ride upstream to the ‘Tambopata National Reserve’, headed to the Chuncho Clay Lick. These Clay licks are steep walls of red clay caused by erosion along riverbanks. Colorful macaws and parrots flock there by the hundreds to eat the clay every morning likely it has to do with mineral deficiencies. The birds’ strange habit provided us a rare chance to see this many exotic parrots up close and personal. We docked on the river banks. Once again lovely and thoughtful breakfast was served by the resort, and we all had our binoculars and cameras to experience this natural phenomenon. We even had to change spots once to move to a better docking point, where they were more active. The key was to be quiet and patient as these cautious birds flitted from tree to tree and kept coming closer to the Clay Lick once they felt comfortable with the surroundings. This was truly a vision – the highlight of the trip!!! The bright reds and blues of the parrots’ feathers stand out against the muddy wall. The birds are mostly macaws, though smaller parrots and mealies of all sorts group at the clay lick as well. The sound of flapping wings and screeching birds could be deafening at times, which only added to the view. Icing on the cake was when all the birds suddenly flew off all together as a group! Truly spectacular!!! A morning/afternoon well spent.
Miraculously, we even got to come back to our hotel and catch a few hours of rest before the next stop – since we decided to forego the Mammal Clay Lick. Our late afternoon agenda item was the “Canopy Tower” – after a 30-minute walk through the jungle, learning about various plants/critters/insects – we reached the tower in the middle of the jungle – climbed 120 steps above the tree canopy line and connected with the true awesomeness of the Amazon jungles. Did you know that the canopy is so widespread that a squirrel can jump from tree to tree and cover Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil without having to touch the ground!!! Lovely picture spot and then off to dinner and drinking at the lodge.
PS – All these activities were offered A la carte by the lodge and you could pick and choose any of them depending on your interest and schedule.
Flight to Lima
This day was mostly spent in travel. .. first a 3.5 hour downstream river ride back to the town of Puerto Maldonado with some more wildlife viewing, including the elusive jaguar, then a 20-minute bus ride to the airport. Very surprisingly, the airport had a lounge that we all availed! After our short 2 hour flight via Cuzco, we were dropped off at our boutique hotel in the heart of Lima, pretty close to the beach and boardwalk. The Hotel Antigua in Miraflores district of Lima had the warmth and charm of a colonial B&B. The time-trapped colonial charm makes the Hotel Antigua Miraflores a living historic art piece. As it was located in the heart of cultural Lima, after settling in, we were able to set off to the ocean board walk, visit the light house, enjoy the awesome sunset while watching the para-sailors trying to take off and relax overall. We all wanted some Indian food and found the best Indian restaurant in town for dinner, which was a few minutes walking distance from the restaurant. A well-spent day with good food as a bonus!
Busy Day – Ballestas Islands, Nazca Lines, Huacachina
The day began at 4 AM as we had planned to cover a lot. This trip was arranged by www.nazcaflights.com- Manager – Jonathan Green) – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!! We checked out of the Antigua Miraflores hotel early in the morning with packed breakfast on our four-hour long car ride to the seaside village of Paracas. Some of us slept through the drive along the coast on the Panamerican highway, until we reached Paracas around 8:00am. From here, we boarded a speed boat and enjoyed a two-hour guided tour of the Ballestas Islands. The Ballestas are found just outside the perimeter of the Paracas National Reserve, a resplendent salt desert which dramatically plunges right into the South Pacific Ocean. Among the hundreds of bird species, we spotted Peruvian Pelicans, Red-legged Cormorants, Inca Terns, Peruvian boobies (of the aviary kind, naturally) and plenty of penguins too. Over 200 species make yearly migrations, with more than 60 flying north to the Unites States. As it was a nice sunny day we caught glimpses of lazy sea lions and their pups making siesta on the ‘Maternity Beach’, Peruvian Pelicans diving for lunch and countless birds stretching to dry their wings. It was an unforgettable treasure cove of birds.
After a quick breakfast by seaside, we all took our motion sickness medicine and then we drove about 45 minutes to the Las Dunas Airport in Ica. To prepare for the flight to Nazca, we had to show our passports, and pay airport tax of $10 USD per person. During this 70 minutes long flight, we saw 12 of the world-famous Nazca Lines. The Nazca Lines are a collection of giant geoglyphs—designs or motifs etched into the ground—located in the Peruvian coastal, created by the ancient Nazca culture in South America, and depicting various plants, animals, and shapes. Despite being studied for over 80 years, the geoglyphs—which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994—are still a mystery to researchers. More recent research in 2017 suggested that the Nazca Lines’ purpose was related to water, as part of a ritual to the gods—an effort to bring much-needed rain.
The flight drained us and the extreme heat in the area just made us want to pass out. We drove to Huacachina and were provided really exquisite lunch in the village. Some of us got ready to do the private one-hour dune buggy and sandboarding tour, while others rested in the van. The tour started at the lobby of La Casa de Bamboo hotel. We were recommended to bring sunglasses to avoid sand getting in our eyes, tennis shoes and sunscreen and had to pay 3.80 soles per person at the start of the tour. This tour was both thrilling and beautiful, transporting us at high speeds deep into the desert to see the huge sand dunes on the coast. These mountains of sand were beautiful and surreal. The 4-wheel-drive dune buggy made us “fly” up and down dunes the size of mountains while we yelled with delight. This is a world-famous tour that really made Huacachina a popular tourist destination, and is a must-do activity in Peru for fans of adventure tourism and people who love exotic and memorable scenery.
With a heavy heart we bid adieu to Peru around midnight and boarded our flight to Texas, via Mexico City. Definitely a trip to cherish!
- In the Rainforest, we had a chance to see the ‘Mammal Clay Lick’ but since we had seen the Birds Clay Lick, and also some mammals on the way, we decided to forego this and just relax instead.
- Sandboarding was another option in Huacachina, but it being a desert, it was so hot there that we skipped it altogether, did a quick Sand Buggy tour and set off for home.
- At a point in time, we even had Lake Titicaca (southern Peru) and Bolivian Salt Flats on our agenda. That would have added another 3-4 days to the trip so we decided to forego it for this time, but who knows when we will get a chance to come to this part of the country and try it?
Do’s and Don’ts:
- You will go through several climates if you follow our itinerary, pack clothing accordingly. We went from hiking to snow covered peaks to greenery filled hikes to amazon rainforest to city heat to deserts…
- Most places accept USD but it is wise to keep some Peruvian Soles for your local shopping and souvenir buying if needed.
- Passports are pretty much needed everywhere, besides every hotel check-in, even for hikes at Machu Pichhu, and flying over Nazca lines too so ensure that you have them with you at all times.
- Tips are very appreciated by all local guides. We paid roughly $20-40/family depending on the time they spent with us per day.
- Vegetarian options are usually available all over Peru – just be sure to let your hotel and resorts know of your preferences accordingly.
- Bottled water is best or soda (their local Inca Cola) … we were asked not to brush our teeth with tap water etc.
- Trains to/from Machu Picchu allow only a 5kg backpack but they are not supremely strict about it – don’t lose sleep over it, no one checked our bags while boarding – I guess the idea is to not carry heavy suitcases.
- Be very aware of mosquitoes in the Amazon. Though not malaria carrying, they are just a nuisance and come in droves from 6 PM to 6 AM. Take lots of mosquito spray with you.
- At the Ballestas Islands, try to grab the left side seats on the boat. The way the tour is structured, you see the maximum birds and animals from that side.
- If you decide to travel Viva Air internally, they will charge you for every piece of carry-on and checked-in baggage. Either buy the upgraded ticket or pay for your bags in advance.
- Amazon Rainforest: Macaw Clay Lick
- Encounter with the Llamas/Alpacas at the petting place and learning about the local culture
- Huayna Pichhu Hike
- Salt Flats at Maras in the Sacred Valley
- Ballestas Islands