The Peruvian Odyssey

IMG_4175

Having already covered 5 continents, we really wanted to push ourselves and visit a South American country while we still could. The sheer distance of the continent from India tends to deter a lot of people and planning a holiday from India can become very expensive. Between the popular choices of Brazil, Argentina and Peru, we chose Peru since Machu Picchu was one of the top ones on our bucket list.

Most travelers to Peru stay for a week or 10 days, focusing on Machu Picchu and the famous Inca trail. But there is much more to Peru than just the Inca trail. The country offers diversity in terms of beautiful beaches, magnificent lakes, Andean mountain ranges, valleys, heritage cities, world-famous Peruvian cuisine and the Amazon rain forest to name a few.

Peru has only 2 seasons – Winter (May – Sept) and Summer (Dec – March). Winter is the driest season and hence the best time to visit Peru, especially if you are undertaking the Inca trail. Though we traveled in the winter, in the month of June, the weather was uncharacteristically cold with temperatures dropping to single digits (Celsius). We were told it was an aberration and June-Sept is usually the best period to travel.

Itinerary

This is the high level itinerary we followed:
Day 1: Reach Lima early morning. Spend the day in Lima. Stay in Lima.
Day 2: Fly from Lima to Arequipa. Arequipa city tour. Stay in Arequipa.
Day 3: Arequipa to Colca canyon. Stay in Chivay.
Day 4: Colca Canyon tour in the morning. Chivay to Puno by tourist bus. Stay in Puno.
Day 5: Full day tour of Lake Titicaca. Stay in Puno.
Day 6: Puno to Cusco by tourist bus. Stay in Cusco.
Day 7: Sacred Valley tour. Stay in Ollantayambo.
Day 8: Train to Machu Picchu. Visit Machu Picchu in the afternoon. Stay in Agues Caliantes.
Day 9: Machu Picchu mountain trek in the morning. Train back to Cusco in the afternoon. Stay in Cusco.
Day 10: Cusco city tour. Stay in Cusco.
Day 11: Fly from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado . Stay in the Amazon.
Day 12: Full day in Amazon.
Day 13: Take the evening flight to Lima. Fly back to Bangalore.

Flights

We booked on the American Airlines since it seemed to be the only airline offering somewhat reasonably priced tickets to Peru from India (from/to Bangalore at Rs. 84k return per person). The layovers were also pretty acceptable. The only drawback with AA was we had to do an immigration in US (even though we were not entering the US!). Luckily we both had a 10 year multiple entry US visa. Something to be mindful of before booking on this flight, especially if you don’t have a US visa already. This also means you have to re-check in your bags at the US airport and not a fly through for the checked in bags.

Visa

Indians with a valid US visa can enter Peru for free. That’s one less thing we had to worry about. If you are visiting the Amazon rain forest, yellow fever vaccination is recommended (not a strict requirement I think). We had one from our Masai Mara trip last year so we were covered, but they didn’t check this at the immigration. So if you already have one, do bring it along, else, it should be OK.

Accommodation

Cost of living in Peru isn’t too high so we were able to get well rated hotels for an average price of about Rs. 4,000 per night. More information below. We didn’t search for any of the Airbnb accommodations, but if you are staying in a single place for long duration, it might not be a bad idea to explore.

The hotels we booked as as below:
Lima – Bayview Hotel
Arequipa – Posada Nueva Espana (Recommended)
Chivay – Pozo del Ceilo (through Colca canyon package)(Recommended)
Puno – Hacienda Plaza De Armas (Recommended)
Cusco – Wifala Thematic hotel
Ollantaytambo – Hotel Tierra Inka Sacred Valley (Recommended)
Machu Picchu (Aguas Caliantes) – Andino hotel (Recommended)
Puerto Maldonado – Monte Amazonico (through package) (Recommended)

Currency, Forex and Credit card acceptance

Peruvian currency is called Sol (1 Sol == 20 INR). We took the USD and exchanged it for Peruvian Sols as and when needed. Most of the big cities do accept credit cards (Surprisingly, Diners Club also has a very good acceptance across Peru). Many places also accept USD directly if the amount is substantial (eg: Taxi pickup/drop, local city tours, Machu Picchu bus tickets, Entry tickets to sites etc.). If you are shopping at local market, you better bargain in Sols for best rates.

Sim card

Purchasing International roaming packs on your existing number from India can be very expensive for Peru. It is advisable to buy a local sim upon landing in Peru. You can choose between Claro, Movistar and Entel. We bought from Claro with 2 GB data pack and some free calls for 35 Sols. These companies are closed on Sundays so if you are landing on Sunday, you might have to rely on certain local stores or super markets for your purchase. The network coverage among the top operators I am told are fairly comparable with Movistar and Claro having slight edge over others.

Internal bookings

Internal flights

Internal flights in Peru is considerably expensive compared to India. Some operators like Avianca and LATAM have variable pricing for Peruvians and foreigners pushing the prices up for visitors. If you book on the lower priced ticket on these airlines by mistake, you could be flagged at the airport and fined for it (upto 250 USD I think). Travel companies like Expedia etc., always show the foreigner prices so it should be safe to book there. If you are trying to book directly on the LATAM or Avianca website, be sure to double check before going ahead.

LATAM is a one world partner and so, we were able to save a lot of money through our Avios (BA miles). A one way flight ticket which typically costs around 8 to 10k Rs per person costed us 4.5k avios and nominal surcharge (around 400 per person), which was a steal! Do make sure to explore this option while thinking about your internal travel.

Packaged Tours

The Andean mountain ranges and valleys are best covered by bus. There are tourist and non tourist buses available while commuting between 2 places. Tourist buses make stops at all important view points, include lunch, offer an English-speaking guide and sometimes entrance tickets to certain places. They also are slightly expensive.

We booked our Colca Canyon tour with SAS Travels and would recommend them for others as well: https://www.sastravelperu.com/english/program/1573/colca-canyon-2-day1-night-tour-from-arequipa-to-puno

We also had good experience with Tourismo Mer on their tourist bus service from Puno to Cusco: https://www.turismomer.com/the-suns-route

We booked our full day Lake Titicaca tour here (speed boat): http://www.tourslaketiticaca.com/tour-uros-and-taquile-islands/

We booked the 3 day/2 night package at Monte Amazonico lodge in Amazon here: http://monteamazonico.com/package/sandoval-lake-3/

Trains

The only trains we took were the ones to and from Machu Picchu. We booked directly on the Peru rail website (Expedition class) here: https://www.perurail.com/
The best views are on the left side while going to Machu Picchu and on the right while coming back. Peru Rail does not allow large suitcases on these trains. It is advisable to pack light while coming from Cusco and leave the rest of the luggage with your hotel in Cusco. In a rare case where you need to take the luggage with you to Machu Picchu for some reason, make sure to get prior approval from them by sending an email to them before boarding the journey.

Shopping

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Street markets in Peru are full of assorted items rich with colors that pop out, begging you to take them home with you. Best place to shop, purely based on choice and bargaining power, would be in the town of Aguas Calientes. Pisac came a close second. Cusco turned out to be expensive and lacking choice. We didn’t spend much time in Lima to check out the markets there, but I have heard few parts of the city are also equally good. Make sure to bargain hard to get a good deal and always make sure to transact in local currency and not dollars.

Food

Peruvian cuisine usually gets rave reviews and we could see why. The choices they had on the menu and the freshness of the dishes were real. Unfortunately, almost all of them were meat based and we found it hard going as Vegetarians. Buffet lunches during the packaged tours were a savior and usually where we had the most vegetarian options. On other days when things went bad, we could always rely on their excellent cream based soups. Overall, food is something to be prepared about if you are a vegetarian visiting Peru.

I am listing some of the best restaurants where we found good food:
Cafe Carvalho in Cusco
La Semilla in Puerto Maldanado
Incontri del Pueblo Viejo in Aguas Calientes

Language

Spanish is the national language of Peru. People in many parts of the country also speak Inca languages of Quechua, Aymara and other languages. The lack of English really hurt at times due to people not even understanding basic numbers and words such as water, cold, hot etc.  This is true even in main cities such as Lima. Google translate was a savior. Also be sure to learn basic Spanish words to make your life easier while in Peru.

Experiences

Lima

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lima is the capital and the largest city of Peru. It is well developed and home to one third of the country’s population. We didn’t plan to do much in Lima as we were short on time and lots of places to cover. We used the full day we had to recover from our long journey and spent the evening at the beautiful broadwalk at Miraflores overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I have heard great reviews of the city from people who have travelled to Peru. If one has more time to spent at Lima, one could explore other parts such as Huaca Pucilana, Cathedral of Lima, Museo Larco, Magic water circuit.

Arequipa

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Arequipa is the second most populous city of Peru, situated at an altitude of around 7,600 ft above sea level. It is part of the so called “Southern Peru Tourist Corridor” along with Nazca, Puno and Cusco. In contrast to many other parts of Peru, Arequipa has no traces of Inca artifacts and celebrates the rich Spanish history since their entry to the country around 500 years ago. It is also declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. For someone wanting to cover the southern parts of Peru, Arequipa forms a entry point with its “not too high” altitude and an accessible airport to fly in from Lima. We spent the day in Arequipa at leisure exploring some of the city’s architecture.

Colca Canyon & Chivay

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, deeper than the more popular Grand Canyon. The beauty of the canyon is best seen from Cruz Del Condor, a viewpoint where Andean condors are seen flying on most days.

Chivay is the closest town to Colca canyon and forms a good base for people visiting the canyon. It is also home to many hot springs. The journey from Arequipa to Chivay takes you through a very scenic route where one can see wild llamas and alpacas, reaching a high point of 16,000 ft where it offers multiple viewpoints of several volcanoes, before descending to 12,000 ft at Chivay. The fast ascent and descent can cause altitude sickness so one needs to take precautions such as drinking coca tea, consuming coca leaves, or even Diamox tablets if needed.

Puno & Lake Titicaca

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Puno is a hillside town overlooking the Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Our day tour at Lake Titicaca covered visits to Uros and Taquile islands. Uros people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Andes. The floating island tour gave us a glimpse of how they live their lives and build their island from reeds. Their bright and colorful clothing, floating island and their carriages were fascinating to see. You can also buy some of their handmade crafts, to support their living.

Taquile is another interesting island in Lake Titicaca. It is non-floating with its highest point at 13,200 ft above sea level. Taquileños are known for their fine handwoven textiles and clothing, which are regarded as among the highest-quality handicrafts in Peru. Knitting is exclusively performed by males while women spin wool and do other chores. The islands tour gave us glimpse into some of the true Andean culture that existed before the Spanish expansion.

Cusco

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The route from Puno to Cusco is another beautiful journey with multiple stops of historical importance and viewpoints in between such as at Pukara, La Raya, Raqchi.
Cusco, the most popular Peruvian city for tourists, is another UNESCO World Heritage site and once, a capital of Inca empire. It is from here that most tourists start their journey to Machu Picchu, Sacred valley of Incas and other Inca ruins. The city itself is surrounded by a number of ruins and hosts multiple architectural marvels. At 11,000 ft, it is situated at a high altitude and so, tourists flying in directly from Lima to Cusco to visit Machu Picchu often run into issues with altitude sickness.

Sacred Valley of Incas

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The sacred valley tour is one of the most popular tours from Cusco. It covers 2 main sites at Pisac and Ollantaytambo. We opted for a tour which covered these 2 places during the course of the day and dropped us off at Ollantaytambo for the stay at night. One can enjoy fine craftsmanship of the Incas and some beautiful scenery through the journey.

Machu Picchu

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca city and the most popular attraction in Peru. it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and once figured among the 7 wonders of the world. The constructions date back to 15th century and was lost for hundreds of years before it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in late 20th century. Unlike other Inca ruins, most of Machu Picchu is still intact and further restoration work is ongoing.

We didn’t hike the Inca trail since it was going to consume a lot of time. Instead, we took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The Peru rail journey with panoramic windows offers scenic views of the valley and lasts for about 90 minutes. Machu Picchu sits on a mountain above Aguas Calientes. The site can be reached by mini bus from Aguas Calientes which runs frequently, costing $35 for round trip and with journey lasting for 20 mins one way. One can also attempt to climb the hill to reach the site from Aguas Calientes for free, but it is too steep to be considered a meaningful option for most people.

The entrance tickets to Machu Picchu cost $48 per person and are NOT sold at the entrance. There is a daily limit of 2500 persons per day and one has to book tickets online in advance. There are multiple websites offering tickets to Machu Picchu at higher prices, but this is the official one. There are 2 slots for entry – one at 6 am and the other at 12 pm. The tickets tend to get sold out quickly during peak seasons. If one wants to climb the adjacent mountains of Huayna Picchu and Montana Machu Picchu, they need to buy a special ticket which are further limited to 400 per day. Tickets to the mountain climbs also include entrance to Machu Picchu (as you need to pass through them to get to the climbs). We chose to purchase the tickets to Machu Picchu for the 12 pm slot on the first day where we explored the site with a guide (lasts for around 3 hours and guide costs $60 per group). We bought a ticket to climb the Montana Machu Picchu for the second morning. Taking the guide is not mandatory anymore now but you will surely miss out on a wealth of information and knowledge without one.

Machu Picchu is truly an engineering marvel. You will be mesmerized by its majesty, its architecture (most of it still intact) and the magnitude of the effort/sacrifice that must have been undertaken centuries ago to build such a beautiful city on top of a mountain. Across our two visits to the Machu Picchu site and the mountain, we got some amazing shots of the site under various weather conditions. Choosing to visit the site for more than once can be smart move since you can never be sure of the weather. Machu Picchu tends to be the most important reason for most people to visit the country and you don’t want to be stuck visiting the site on a bad weather day!

Amazon forest

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Amazon rain forest covers large parts of South America, most of it contained in Brazil. Peru has roughly 13% of it in the form of Tambopata National reserve and visitors usually access it through the city of Puerto Maldanado. Rich in wildlife, it is home to colorful macaus and parrots. One of the most famous activity is the Lake Sandoval tour where one can experience diverse wildlife, see colorful birds, river otters, caimans and more.

Our 2 night, 3 day Lake Sandoval package with Monte Amazonico lodge started with a 30 mins speed boat transfer from Puerto Maldanado to the jungle lodge. On the first day at the lodge after sunset, we went on a night river cruise looking at the beautiful stars in the clear sky and also scouting for caimans in the water. We managed to spot multiple dwarf caimans.  On the second day, we started early to visit Lake Sandoval. After an hour or so of walk, we finally reached the lake from where we went on a beautiful boat ride around the lake spotting macaus, monkeys, river otters, black caimans and multiple other species at the rich fauna surrounding the lake. On the same night, we explored the forest surrounding the lodge by foot, looking for nocturnal creatures and managed to spot few tarantulas, bullet ants and so on. The 2 nights we spent at the forest, away from civilization, with no access to mobile network gave us plenty of time to look back and contemplate on what we experienced over the past 2 weeks we spent in Peru.

Cost

Lima airport transfer – 20$ taxi
Arequipa airport transfer – 10$ (Uber)
Colca Canyon package – 150$ pp
Lake Titicaca tour – $30 pp
Puno to Cusco bus – $45 pp
Sacred Valley tour – $25 pp
Ollantaytambo to Aguas Callienties train- $70 pp
Machu Picchu bus – $35 round trip pp
Machu Picchu entrance – $45 pp
Machu Picchu Tour Guide – $60 per group
Montana Machu Picchu  – $62 pp
Aguas Calientes to Cusco train – $110 pp
Cusco tourist ticket – $47 pp
Amazon 3D/2N package – $180 pp

Parting Thoughts

Undertaking a Peruvian adventure offers a lot of challenges for Indians. The flights are costly, you have to fight the tiredness from the long journey, jet lag, lack of spoken English, lack of vegetarian options on the menu, cold and altitude sickness to name a few. No wonder you don’t see many Indians visiting the country. If you can dare to take the less traveled path, you will come back with a world of memories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s