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Trip Report First Time South America Trip Report - Peru, Argentina and Brazil

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South America wasn’t my first choice, I wanted to go to South Africa, but last year we decided on a big family trip, in part to celebrate a special birthday, and the majority choice was South America. After producing a long list and juggling diaries we narrowed it down and down and eventually decided on the Inca trail and Machu Picchu, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

For background we are two British couples in our 40s travelling with our 18 and 19yo children. Big trips are a mix of cheap and expensive stuff and don’t usually involve long periods on beaches or anything too strenuous.

Arrangements:

I usually try to book all flights and accommodation myself and so the first thing sorted was the flight from Europe. We’d decided to do the Inca trail at the start of the trip so Iberia worked out cheapest flying Manchester, London, Madrid, Lima - they are far from the best but the price made it easy to choose them.

For the Inca trail we decided, after much deliberation, to use Pachamama Explorers www.pmexplorers.com They seemed to have the right combination of professionalism, experience, care for porters, cost and not too large groups. They turned out to be excellent and Deborah was a fantastic help with booking internal flights after I found it difficult to do myself.

For Buenos Aires we decided to get an apartment as we were staying 6 nights and there were 5 of us (19yo having to fly back as she had got a proper job). One couple stayed at Home Hotel to celebrate a special birthday and the house we rented was chosen as it was just a few blocks away in Palermo - this turned out to be another great choice. We booked through www.apartmentsba.com and there were no problems at all and staff were very professional and helpful.

For Rio we chose the chalet/bungalow in the grounds of Casa Mango Mango in Santa Teresa www.casa-mangomango.com This was very different from the fantastic accommodation in BA but it was lovely and a great choice given we were on a tighter budget than usual.

Our itinery looked liked this:

Ollantaytambo - 1 night
Cusco - 2 nights
Inca trail - 3 nights
Cusco - 1 night
Buenos Aires - 6 nights
Rio - 7 nights

Things we’d do differently second time round:
Not have alcohol on our first day in Sacred Valley
One more night in Cusco to relax after the Inca trail
Moray wasn’t worth the drive
Get a guide for Sacred Valley
Go to Bistrot 370 in Cusco for dinner, not just lunch
One more night in Buenos Aires, one less in Rio
Use buses more in Rio

Things we loved:
Hiking to Machu Picchu and not getting the train there
Ollantaytambo
Cusco Cathedral
Bistrot 370 in Cusco
Buenos Aires (18yo and I fell in love with it)
Everywhere we ate in Buenos Aires
The beauty of Rio
Sunday night in Santa Teresa, Rio

First part in Peru coming soon.

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    Peru - Ollantaytambo

    Firstly, we had no regrets at all about not spending any time in Lima. As with most working people our vacation time is limited and we found that the distribution of our 8 nights in Peru worked perfectly.

    Although we’d booked Iberia we were lucky enough to get LAN between Madrid and Lima and it was excellent having your own screen and being able to choose what you watched and the ear plugs and eye masks were appreciated (we got none of this on the return flight with Iberia).

    There were absolutely no problems with any of our first four flights (Deborah at Pachamama had booked our LAN Peru flights between Lima and Cusco for us for US$176 return). Try and get a window seat on the left hand side going to Cusco as the view over the Andes and then coming into Cusco airport was excellent. The first small challenge was getting a taxi from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. There were lots of taxi’s at Cusco airport and it wasn’t that difficult to find one big enough to take the 6 of us plus our luggage, to reject the first asking price of US$80 and finally agree on $50 - the whole process was quick and easy and no one should be put off from doing this. The journey was excellent and it was great to be able to see some country.

    We chose Ollantaytambo as my Eyewitness guidebook described it as ‘spectacular’ and ‘ a living Inca town’ and as having the most significant Inca ruins. It lived up to all the hype. Also I’d definitely recommend getting out of Cusco for a night as it broadened our experiences and helped enormously with adjusting to the altitude and Ollantaytambo was a perfect little town and it was so lovely to be able to explore the old streets without there being any other tourists there.

    Just on the altitude thing - of the 6 of us only one was very ill. None of the rest of us took any medicines and no one else had too many problems. Unlike everyone else I avoided beer on our first day and none of us had much to drink. We all tried to drink coca tea at every opportunity and plenty of water.

    We chose KB Tambo as it fitted our need for cheap but good accommodation and it was perfect - it’s located right in the heart of the town and although it was fairly basic there were fresh flowers in the rooms and the showers worked and were hot. Also it was fairly quiet and although we heard a couple of dogs barking it didn’t disturb anyone’s sleep.

    We had lunch across the street from KB Tambo at a place called El Chasqui, the food was fine and the bill, US$10 each, was excellent. Everyone except me had beer, and a couple of people regretted it later. I think it's far easier just to avoid alcohol for a few days til you adjust to the altitude.

    The Inca ruins in the town are well worth exploring and some of the decorative carving on one of the baths in the royal quarters was amazing.

    The restaurant at KB Tambo was excellent and being able to sit on the small veranda in the morning with a mug of hot coca tea and watch the world go by was priceless and probably not something that you could easily experience at other places, particularly those down by the train station which was a short walk out of the town. It was so good to be able to explore the town and walk the same streets that people have been walking since the 13th century - it was incredible to think that in the old part of the town things have been much the same for so long - a magical experience.

    On the way back to Cusco we wanted to see the Salinas de Maras (salt mines) and Moray. Unfortunately I hadn’t organised a guide and it wasn’t possible for the hotel to find one so we had to make do with 2 taxis and drivers who spoke no English. The salt mines were amazing, such an unusual thing to find - hardly any tourists there and excellent to be able to walk amongst the salt pans and see how it all worked, sadly no one was working but it was a great stop nevertheless. Then on to Moray - an awesome spectacle but once you have seen it that’s it really. The next hour though was worth the $50 price as the drivers took us on a dirt track shortcut to the Cusco road. It was such an excellent drive across the open countryside with the beautiful backdrop of snow-capped mountains passing by small communities and children as young as 5 or 6 tending small herds of animals. It was a fantastic experience even without a guide.

    Cusco next.

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    Thanks for the report.

    Was Ollyantaytambo crowded? Do you think I'd have trouble finding a place to stay if I just show up? I'm not looking for anything fancy like Hotel Sauce, etc.

    How hard was it to find a taxi to Salinas or was this arranged through your hotel? I'd like to hire a taxi to go there also.

    Thanks.

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    Axel - Olly does tend to get busy with but in my experience, apart from the upmarket hotels it is usually possible to find somewhere to stay without too much trouble.

    Taxis are plentiful around the main plaza and the station (when trains are due) but bargain hard or you will get ripped off. Do not let the driver stop to pick anyone else up along the way.

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    Axel - We were there mid August and it wasn't busy at all but I think our hotel was 3/4 full - the hotel organised the taxis at a fair price and we sorted it first thing in the morning for a 2pm pick up. Remember to take small change to get in - I think the entry was 5 soles each and 1 sol to use the bathroom (which both teenagers did)
    Tim

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    Cusco

    We finally made it to our hotel late afternoon, the Rumi Punku, www.rumipunku.com wasn’t my first choice but turned out to be perfect and I think we ended up with the right choice. I had wanted to stay at Ninos Hotel but we passed by it one day and it didn’t look to be in a great part of town. The location of Rumi Punku couldn’t have been better, just far enough from the main Plaza de Armas, on a quiet street, but close enough so that everything we wanted to see was just a short walk away. On top of this it is a lovely old building and it was so cool having one of the few original intact Inca doorways as the main entrance into the hotel. The open courtyard is also very beautiful. An added bonus was that it was close to the lovely square that the Hotel Monasterio is on and where you will also find the Fallen Angel bar and the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art (MAP) and its excellent restaurant.

    The rooms were perfectly fine, not luxurious but more than good enough and a great price. Again we had no complaints at all. There was a good buffet breakfast, with eggs cooked to order, that started up at 5am and free coca tea and internet access.

    You really should have at least one drink at the Fallen Angel on Plaza Nazarenas if you are in Cusco. Its more like a bar you would find in a European capital but obviously unique to Cusco, the décor is worth the trip alone - huge paintings and murals, sofas shaped like big red lips, a bathtub fish tank table, it goes on and on. You can eat there but there are much better places and it looked like it got louder later in the evening. As we were still getting used to the altitude we did just have one drink and then went to Inka Grill for dinner. This place is on the main square and looks great as you walk in. The food was good but not great and the service was quick in a bad way not a good way - you definitely got the impression they like to turn tables over quick. Best thing on the menu was the beef heart that you got with the Inka Grill creole sampler from the starter menu, unfortunately either the stuffed potato or the stuffed cassava that came with it was stuffed with either mashed potato or mashed cassava - I forget which, but it wasn‘t good. As with almost everywhere we ate we learned that sharing starters and sometimes main courses was the right way to go - the amount of food you get is generous compared to home.

    On our first full day half the group went off shopping! and the rest went exploring. Our very favourate thing was the Cathedral. Cusco is a big religious centre - it used to be the centre of the largest Catholic diocese in the world and the Cathedral reflects this immense history and is fascinating. You get a free English audio guide inside the building after you have paid - make sure you do this as it was excellent and the music that accompanied the commentary really brought the place alive. A section of the Cathedral was closed off for a private event but opened up just as we were finishing our audio guide so we hung around and eventually a big group of people hoisted one of the big wooden Madonna’s on their shoulders and processed out of the Cathedral with it. We followed and found that there was a huge procession/carnival taking places with bands and different troupes of dancers and a variety of costumes. We watched this spectacle for quite a while as they marched and danced there way round the square. It was great that people here were so obviously proud of their culture and felt able to celebrate it in such an exuberant way and seemed entirely for their own enjoyment and not put on as a tourist spectacle at all. We were told later that as there is a saint for every day there is usually a similar thing going on in the Plaza de Armas most weekends. Having seen all the groups we went off to our next stop, the Santa Catalina convent. Somehow I’d got this down as a top sight in Cusco and while it was all quite interesting I think it’s a second division stop rather than a ‘must do’.

    After that we went to the Museum of Pre Colombian Art. This is an excellent little place that shows a specially selected and small sample of the artefacts from the main museum in Lima. There were English translations on most of the exhibits and while the language used was a bit over the top it was a fascinating place. Unfortunately the restaurant there was not open at lunch and so we booked it for our last night in Cusco. As we were all hungry by then we wandered off in search of somewhere to have some lunch and after rejecting a couple of places we stumbled into Bistrot 370. What a marvellous find!! - it turned out to be one of the best meals we had all trip and just perfectly lovely. As it was lunch and we had a place booked for dinner we just had fish with everyone choosing something different, only the 18yo carnivore insisted on his regular intake of meat. We did have the place to ourselves which made it better but the service was excellent, the seats were so comfortable, there was white linen everywhere, very tasteful décor, good music - the whole thing was wonderful as everyone really enjoyed the food they had ordered. As it had been so good we couldn’t resist finishing off with a warm chocolate tart and a banana tarte tatin, both of which were gorgeous. It did cost a little more than Inka Grill and is probably more expensive than most places but the cooking was so good that we all felt it was great value for money.

    We then had our briefing at the Pachamama offices. There were only two other people on the trek with us. Miguel our guide emphasised the need for a waterproof coat, which I didn’t have. I’d also forgotten to pack my trekking pants so we then hit the first stores we could find and purchased the required items, most of which we were lucky enough not to need as we saw no rain at all.

    Went to Ciciolina’s for dinner - it was nice, better than Inka Grill, but no where near as good as our lunch.

    Another early night as we had a 5.30 pick up the next day.

    Inca trail coming next…

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    Inca trail

    The 5.30am pick up time allowed us to grab an early breakfast. We then drove to Ollantaytambo where we had a 30 minute stop. I guess that this limited time is standard as the 82km start to the trek was a few miles from the town. Miguel, our guide, told us to get water and snacks, which we did, in abundance. In reality there is no need, the hassle of carrying said items is far greater than the increased cost of exactly the same water and snacks in the villages and stopping points along the first day and a half of the trail. The one thing that I was so glad I did buy was a water carrier sling for the one big bottle of water we carried. On the trail we saw one woman who hadn’t bought one and was carrying a big 2 litre bottle of water in her hands - definitely not what you want to be doing.

    There are many eloquent descriptions of how breathtakingly beautiful the trail is on this and other forums and I wont attempt to compete with them (much) other that to confirm that it is indeed breathtakingly and stunningly beautiful. The most lovely point of the walk came for me at the second highest point of the trail that is reached before lunch on the second day where you see for the first time the long descent below you, with snow-capped mountains beyond, and looking behind you, the long climb that you can’t believe you have managed, again with snow-capped mountains behind, and so we get there and my best friend passed me an earpiece from his i-pod on which was playing Leona Lewis’ Run, a song that had been played at a good friends funeral and memorial service a few months before. It won’t surprise that the combination of the amazing setting, the song, hearing music after a day of comparative silence was just all too much and I just cried and cried. The thing that was so magical about it though, and the reason that the visual image of the moment is etched indelibly in my mind, is that for someone like me, for whom long walks in the country are great but enjoyed maybe just a few times a year, to be in such a jaw droppingly beautiful place so high up - in my imagination so close to heaven - it had been achieved so comparatively easily - with effort yes but not with pain or struggle.

    In my research for the trip I found huge amounts of useful information from this site and a few others but I thought it would be useful to set out some of the facts that had eluded me:
    1. Within reason, anyone could do this trip. Often during the 4 days we found ourselves behind an old lady from New Zealand who must have been in her 60s - she was an inspiration each day and I was one behind her up to the sun gate as she crawled on her hands and knees up the final steep climb
    2. The toilets are truly grim but not so grim that it should put anyone off
    3. Do, do, even if it is the last US$100 you have in your holiday budget, pay for a porter to carry your tent and sleeping bags etc. We just had our day packs to worry about and the 3 guys in our group decided to share just one pack - we packed light - and so for a third of each day I was carrying just a camera and a bottle of water - this was bliss and one of the wisest things we did all holiday. The couple we did the trail with carried all their own stuff and toiled and toiled each day.
    4. There are places to buy water and snacks along the first day and a half of the trail
    5. Do take a good torch - we took torches we got our of crackers at Christmas and had to borrow or use the light of the moon alone to make it to the toilet blocks.
    6. Do find our from your tour operator what you are expected to tip the porters and take enough money to tip them extra, and always in soles.
    7. The food will be excellent.
    8. There is a bar and hot showers at the big campsite on the third day that I think almost all tours use.
    9. As people walk at different paces you will often find that for chunks of the day you may be walking on your own - this is good and should be savoured - you cannot get lost on the trail.
    10. There is no right or wrong set of clothing or footwear - wear what you want but be mindful of advice. We saw people so many people with such a range of equipment. One friend wore standard trainers and didn’t use a stick - he fared just as well as the people that took goretex walking boots and 2 poles.
    11. If you do the trail then you will not get to hike Huayna Picchu the same day and if you really want to do it (none of us felt we’d missed out by not doing it) stay a night in Aguas Calientes.
    12. You will in all probability not see the sun rise from the sun gate.
    13. It will not matter at all
    14. The iconic photos of Machu Picchu are taken from the sun gate and the walk down to Machu Picchu, not from Huayna Picchu.
    15. The sense of achievement of having walked the trail instead of just getting in on the train is priceless and beyond compare and will stay with you forever.

    Part 2 of the Inca trail coming next

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    I look forward to the finish of your trip report, shortly we'll be planning our own Cusco/Sacred Valley vacation for May. What we're struggling with is deciding the "classic" vs. one of the alternative treks to MP. After reading your account, I'm leaning toward the former.

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    sorry for the delay...should be back on track with this now.

    Inca Trail part 2

    On the last day of the trail everyone gets up insanely early and then stands in line waiting for a gate to open and the start of the final part of the trail up to the sun gate. The wait is a testing time for the English as they worry that the path is wide enough for later risers to sneak past and get closer to the front of the queue.

    After a short while though you reach the final very steep 50 steps up to the sun gate. It is light by now and as is often the case Machu Picchu is shrouded in mist and cloud. Every now and again though it clears for a moment and you get a glimpse of the destination you have expended such effort to get to. It is another very magical moment that will live in the memory for ever.

    There is then the walk down to Machu Picchu and you start seeing the immaculately dressed tourists who have got their even earlier than you have been able to. Miguel, our guide, gives us an explanation of the important points as we pass but annoyingly we have to exit Machu Picchu and deposit large bags and then re-enter. The opportunity though is taken to have some breakfast and use the excellent toilets, both of which are comparatively expensive but absolutely worth it.

    The walking stick I’d bought in Ollantaytambo is left with a few others propped against a wall and we all go back in to Machu Picchu for a more detailed guide round with Miguel. This lasts about 2 hours and the rest of the morning is ours to explore. We chose to go to the Inca Bridge which turned out to be better than I thought it might as the path is so narrow that there are ropes attached to the cliff face so that you can hang on. You can’t get to the bridge itself but you do get pretty close and you have a great view. It’s hard to imagine the enormous feat of ingenuity and engineering involved in the construction of this bridge.

    The place is huge with much to explore and it is well worth considering staying a night in Aguas Calientes or even the Sanctuary Lodge which is right by the gates into Machu Picchu if you can afford it. We felt fine though with just having several hours there and we didn’t feel as though we missed out on anything.

    The tour company had booked us on a backpacker train at 2.00pm so Miguel advised us to leave by 12.40 so we would have time for some lunch in Aguas Calientes where we also had to pick up our bags. When we got there Miguel was there and we asked him to have something to eat with us and it was great to relax and chat to him about politics and his travels. I forget the place we ate in but after tent food for 3 nights it all tasted wonderful, especially so washed down with a coke and some beer.

    Next, the strangest train ride ever

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    Thank you for the interesting trip report.

    How much were you charged for the airline ticket from Lima to Buenos Aires? I have been looking around for discount fares, but have not been able to find any. Did you use any of the Pass programs (One World, TAM,etc.) or buy the tickets through an agency?

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    Great report, tjhome1!

    Waiting anxiously for your "strangest train ride ever" report and your Buenos Aires chapter, particularly considering your "18yo and I fell in love with it".

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    I am planning my first trip to Peru in May 2010. I am not a hiker so the Inca trail is not for me. I was thinking of 2nights in Lima 3 nights in Cusco (1 day travel to Pisca to see the market on Sunday and to go to Mass there. Afterwards a visit to Ollantaytambo. Next day train ride to Machu Picchu and overnight there. Next day train ride back to Cusco overnight there and then back to Lima to return home (chicago, Il) Can anyone give me advise? Will I see what I should or is my trip to short. Also I have had trouble locating a travel agent or???? that can give me good advice about this trip. I did look into tour companies in Lima and did get some info but since I never booked a trip on my own I would appreciate some advice.

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