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Trip Report Just Back from Peru and Bolivia!

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My sister and I just returned from a fabulous trip to Peru and Bolivia. We are in our mid-30's and have dreamed about visiting Peru since we started Spanish class over twenty years ago. I booked everything myself, but did work with guides in Peru (the amazing Percy Salas) and Bolivia (Crillon Tours). Because we were gone two weeks, I will refrain from the minutiae and try to be as concise as possible giving my impressions and tips. When I started planning the trip in 2008/2009, I was on the fence about Bolivia because there was significant political unrest and tensions between the US and Bolivian governments. After contacting a Bolivian tour agency last summer, I felt better about my decision and my sister and I decided to pay the extra expenses associated with Bolivia because we figured we would never be so close to the country again. While traveling, we stayed at many of the same hotels that attract Americans and score high on travel websites. I looked at many hotels with many different prices and tried to evenly distribute the higher and lower priced places. Usually, I am a hotel snob and have never stayed in a hostal, but as a child, experienced my share of American budget hotels so I am flexible with my expectations. For this trip, I wanted to use local hotels and decided not to use Peruvian chain hotels. Although I have used Fodors Forums many times to plan trips to Europe and Central America, this is my first official post. I would like to thank everyone who has posted Peru trip reports in the last three years and I hope my information will also be helpful for future trip planning.

April 22 - I confirmed all hotel reservations two weeks prior to departure and printed my confirmations. We flew to Lima from Miami on American Airlines because they are the only game in town to get from La Paz back to the US. I hadn't flied AA since 1994 and was a little disturbed that every plane looked the same. Perhaps all airlines are flying old planes, but AA could make a few cosmetic changes. I took four AA planes and they all looked the same (circa 1994 or ealier). The flights were fine and the crew was nice. We arrived in Lima at 8:30 pm and stayed at the Ramada at the airport. The hotel was almost $200 but the convenience was worth everything when arriving in a foreign country in the dark. We crossed the sky bridge and settled in. There were no issues with Immigration or Customs at the airport.

April 23 - Flight to Cusco on LAN. Our flight was at 9:20 am and we arrived at the airport two hours early. We paid our domestic departure tax ($6.82 USD) and LAN took our bags and checked them. Although we had legal sized rolling bags, they would not fit wheels first on LAN's Airbus so they were checked. Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima is a beautiful facility and put Miami's international terminal to shame.
The flight to Cusco was fine except for some turbulance over the Andes. We arrived at the small Cusco Airport and were eager to find our guide, Percy. I booked Percy based on Fodor's trip reports (including Karen and Julie). Although I had also contacted another guide, I decided to use Percy. Of course many people (including my parents) were skeptical about this guy. Percy and I had e-mailed but never spoke on the phone. I had a good feeling about him and hoped he was at the airport to meet us.
After leaving the baggage claim, we found Percy outside the airport holding a sign with my name on it. He was everything I thought he would be and more! At the risk of sounding cliche, Percy is a Peruvian national treasure. Since he's not as old as my father, he was like an uncle who took us around and kept us safe. He is kind, soft spoken and very smart about all aspects of Incan and Peruvian history. He loaded us into his Toyota Yaris and took us to the INC in Cusco to purchase our Machu Picchu tickets.
After that expedition, he transferred us to the Sacred Valley where we spent two nights before going to MP. I booked the Hotel Pakaritampu and it was nice, but a bit overpriced compared to the other hotels in Peru. At my request, Percy left us for the day so we could relax and acclimate. After lunch, we took it easy for the afternoon and drank copius amounts of water.

Note about altitude - we suffered minor issues but not until reaching Cusco and Puno. We drank tons of water, rested, avoided alcohol but refused to give up caffeine (we drank Coke daily). I had a minor headache a few times but it was nothing some Tylenol couldn't cure. I'm not a tea drinker, so did not drink the coca tea or chew coca leaves. For my sister and I, water was the wonder drug.

April 24 - Percy arrived at 9 am to take us to the Maras salt pans, Moray experimental terraces, and Chinchero. We ate lunch at a local restaurant in Urubamba and returned to the hotel. The landscape is breathtaking. I knew the Scared Valley was beautiful, but was not prepared for the reality. I thought Switzerland had amazing mountains but after seeing the SV, there is no comparison. My photos cannot express the scale or the grandeur of the area.

Note about food and water - we did not get sick during our trip but were super cautious. We drank bottled water and brushed our teeth with it. We've had all applicable shots including Hep A and Typhoid, but still avoided raw vegetables washed in water as well as fruit that could not be peeled. We ate two nights at the hotel restaurant because it was convenient. In fact, it was probably the worst restaurant of the trip (and the food wasn't that bad).

April 25 - We were at Perurail for 6:00 am to board the van to Piscacucho. The MP closing and train situation was the most stressful aspect of the trip. I purchased our tickets before the floods in January so that allowed us transportation to the temporary train station. Perurail was not good at communication during the floods and I did get Percy involved since he was in the area and could get answers. Overall, the train situation was fine and we arrived at MP just after 9 am. After buying our bus tickets, we were on our way to MP. Words cannot describe the place...it is amazing. Even when we were there, it didn't seem real. We spent the first day wandering around and we were still overwhelmed. In the afternoon, we checked into our hotel (Sumaq) and enjoyed the evening. The Sumaq was worth every penny and was the best hotel of the trip. I wish I could have stayed there longer, but was grateful for one night.

Note about MP - the sun is strong everywhere in Peru. Bring sunscreen and don't take any chances. I burned my arm while it rested on the window of Percy's car for an hour one day. Also, get ready to walk and climb at MP. I saw many older folks struggling to climb stairs with inappropriate footwear, etc. We saw many cruise ship passengers who visit MP on an excusion from Lima. These groups come daily for a few hours. I'm torn about this development because I guess a quick visit presents an opportunity to expose MP to a large group of people, but I also think MP deserves more than a "drive by" visit.

April 26 - We returned to MP for a second day. We completed the hike to the Sun Gate and it was amazing. We did not go for the sunrise because the fog did not lift from the citadel until almost 9:00 am. After our hike, we decided to reward ourselves with the $33.00 buffet at the Sanctuary Lodge. Yes, it's $33.00 and that bothers some people, but the food was delicious! We spent some time in Aguas Calientes before boarding the train and transferring to Olla for another night at the Hotel Pakaritampu.

April 27 - Percy arrived at 9:00 am to show us the Ollataytambo ruins and Pisac. We had lunch at a delicious local restaurant. The food in Peru is good, but simple. We ate chicken, fish, beef and vegetables. Percy knows where to eat and we never went wrong with any of his recommendations. We skipped the Pisac market (just did a drive through) since we were running late and wanted to reach Cusco in the late afternoon. The majority of markets sold crap and unless you enjoy being harassed by vendors, it is difficult to have a good experience wandering around them. We stopped at Awanacancha and learned about the llamas and alpacas and purchased some items.

We arrived in Cusco and checked into the Rumi Punku for three nights. This hotel was a great value with many nice touches like fresh flowers in the bathrooms, art on the walls, good breakfast, etc. It was a convenient walk to the main plaza, but Percy did instruct us to stay on the main streets once it got dark and avoid any alley shortcuts.

Note about hotel breakfasts - We had the best breakfast buffets in Peru and Bolivia. Included with our room rate, there were fresh juices, breads, cereal, eggs made to order, etc. American hotels could learn something from South America when they consider throwing donut holes on the table and calling it good.

April 28 - Percy arrived at 9 am for a half day tour. I asked to see "Christo Blanco", a gift to Cusco from Rio for its anniversary in the 1940s. The statue is near other ruins we are visiting for the day including Sacsayhuaman, Quenko, Pucapucara, Tambomachay, and Qoricancha (temple of the Sun). The ruins are fascinating and we also stopped at an Alpaca factory to make some purchases. Percy dropped us at the main square and we did the evil American thing...we had lunch at McDonalds! We had to do it because we've found that McD's are better outside the US. We had a nice lunch and spent the afternoon shopping. The dollar does well in Peru, but even better in Bolivia, and there are many nice items to buy. Our purchases eventually led to a suitcase expansion and we had to check them on the way home.

April 29 - Percy arrived at 9 am to take us south of Cusco to visit Tipon, Pikillacta and Andahuaylillas chapel. Arriving to Tipon was quite a challenge and we were the only tourists there. Too bad for them because this was one of our favorite places where we viewed the Incan hydraulic water system. We drove through the bread town (Oropesa) and stopped for a snack. We saw more devastation caused by the floods earlier this year (Pisac area was also hit hard). In the area south of Cusco, entire villages were washed away and people are living in tent cities. There is a lot of poverty in Peru. While driving through the countryside, you will see garbage and polluted rivers. We were stopped at a police roadblock where Percy had to show his paperwork. He was waved through, but many people have to pay. In fact, we spoke with a UK couple who was stopped with a guide and the guide had to pay. Yes, this corruption does occur in Peru and that is the reason my sister and I did not rent a car and drive by ourselves. The Peruvian drivers are crazy and often unsafe, and it is smart to leave the driving to someone who knows the roads and won't take chances with your safety. After our tour, Percy dropped us in the San Blas area of Cusco for shopping and lunch.

April 30 - Percy took us to the train station for the trip to Puno. I asked him to confirm my train station pick-up by the hotel in Puno and everything was set. We hated to leave Percy after such a terrific experience but the adventure had to continue. After much debate during trip planning, we decided to pay the $220.00 each and ride the Andean Explorer to Puno. It was a fun experience, but we wouldn't do it again. We were on the train with an Austrian tour group twice our age. When I booked the tickets, Perurail assigned the seats. Upon boarding the train, we found ourselves seated in a group of four (with a table) with the Austrians. Although this was a big group, Perurail split them up and gave some tables for two. The older couple with us asked one group of two if they would switch and they said no. So, we ate our meals with the Austrians who spoke no English and spent the rest of our time in the Cocktail and Observation cars. The train staff were very nice, but the food was not great. I think the train is too much for Perurail to handle because they're pushing a multiple course lunch, etc., as well as afternoon tea. We didn't roll into Puno until after 6:00 pm and that makes a long day when the train left at 8:00 am. Our ride was at the station and took us to the Mosoq Inn, our least expensive lodging of the trip.

April 31 - The Mosoq Inn is only one-year-old but looks a little worn in the public spaces. The staff was great and the place was clean (all hotels we used were very clean). Breakfast was excellent and we couldn't complain for $50.00 per night. Our Uros Island Tour picked us up at 9:00 am. I booked through Allways Travel and they were very good (they subcontract out to someone else). They were very organized and I received a phone call the night before to confirm all details. There were only 7 on our tour and we had an excellent guide. The floating reed islands were fascinating and we enjoyed meeting the residents. The residents give a hard sell to buy items and they can be annoying. Also, every island looks the same and there are about ten islands. It's strange to look from place to place where the tourist boats look different, but everyone is getting the same experience with infrastructure, etc. I'd read some negative things in guidebooks about Uro being Disney-fied and I could understand after visiting but I still thought it was worth the half day trip. We spent the afternoon in Puno having lunch and seeing the town. Puno was our least favorite place on the trip. The only reason to visit Puno is to use it as a gateway to the lake. In fact, we felt the least safe in Puno and were happy to leave the next day.

May 1 - Our guide arrived at the hotel for our 8:00 am departure to Bolivia. When I arrived in Puno, I was visited by another guide who explained the transfer process from Peru to Bolivia and brought Visa applications. The Mercedes van arrived and we joined a Russian tour group (with their guide) with us in the front of the van (with our private guide). I booked this portion with Crillon Tours and they use Arcobaleno Viajes and Turismo for the Peru portion. I used Crillon because they've been in business for over 50 years and that is quite impressive in Bolivia. The transfer to the border was easy...we chatted with our guide, stopped in Juli to visit a church and after 2 1/2 hours, we were ready to leave Peru. Our Peruvian guide walked us to Customs, Immigration and helped us change our money. Our Crillon Tours guide crossed the border and met us in Peru for the hand off. She took us to Bolivian immigration where we got the Visas.

We were escorted to a desk for processing and watched while the European/Australian backpacking crew breezed through the passport line. Americans might not visit Bolivia, but everyone else does! We each provided the Visa application, two passport photos, Yellow Fever Card, and $135.00 for the five-year visa. Our guide had to make photocopies and we had to visit the Head of Immigration for the offcial stamp. I walked toward this guy who looked like the "Godfather" and placed my passport on the desk. He looked at it and started smiling while proclaiming, "Americanos, Americanos, Welcome." He shook our hands, stamped the passports and shook our hands again. By this time, I was feeling good that no one took me into a back room to get more money out of me. Bolivia was okay!

We visited the town of Copacabana and watched a wild parade associated with a festival. Cerveza was flowing and everyone was dancing in costume and playing music. We boarded a hydrofoil for Moon Island, before reaching our destination of Sun Island. With our guide, we trekked 30 minutes to our eco lodge, the Posada del Inca. Sun Island was amazing without cars and other modern conveniences. Bolivia is also a beautiful country but Sun Island was unique with a Mediterranean feel. The trek to the lodge was tough. A llama carried our backpacks while our rolling suitcases were stored at the harbor until the following day. A lodge employee carried an oxygen tank and first aid kit and a donkey arrived in case we could not walk. The altitude was killing us (12,500 ft) and I really wanted to ride the donkey for fun, but I was not going to wuss out in front of my sister who is younger than me. We survived and arrived at the lodge.

The lodge is a former hacienda and has cozy rooms with hot showers, etc. All meals are served in the dining room and the food was delicious. After lunch, we toured the village and relaxed bfore dinner.

May 2 - We had a free morning before meeting another small group for lunch on the island before the transfer to La Paz. The hydrofoil across the lake was almost 1 1/2 hours and the ride to La Paz was 2 hours. Our driver was excellent and had to detour us through an El Alto neighborhood after some locals closed the main road to protest water. I asked our guide why the police didn't open the road and she explained that the police stay away from these protests because of violence. It seems the Bolivians do not have guns, but they do throw rocks at the police. The city of La Paz looks huge because it sits inside a valley. Driving from El Alto to La Paz, the drop is 1500 feet +. By 6:00 pm, we were at the Hotel Rosario, our home for two nights. The hotel was charming with a superb restaurant.

May 3 - Our guide arrived at 9:00 am for our private city tour. Our driver took us to the market and we wandered around and viewed the offerings. I was impressed with the selection and quality of the produce and it was much cheaper than my local Whole Foods! During 3 1/2 hours, we visited many areas of the city including the Moon Valley. We had lunch and hung out at the hotel for the afternoon so we could shop at the Fair Trade store in the lobby. Another reason for the low key afternoon was protests by government workers. For the two days we were in La Paz, government workers were protesting because they wanted a 15% raise. We decided to stay away from the protests for safety but also get ready for our super early departure the next day. Our gourmet farewell dinner at the Hotel Rosario restaurant was amazing and cost $25.00. We had elaborate desserts that cost under $4.00 while the same desserts in the US on the East Coast would be between $10.00-$12.00.

May 4 - Wake-up at 3:30 am for a 4:00 am airport pick-up. We booked a transfer with Crillon even though it cost more money than a cab. In La Paz, you must be very careful with cabs because there have been problems with express kidnappings, etc. Our guide (the same one from day one) and driver whisked us the airport and we arrived before the AA counter opened. We checked in online the day before and printed our boarding passes. This procedure caused some confusion with the gate agents asking to see our boarding passes when we loaded the plane. After checking in with AA, we joined the line to pay our departure fee of $25.00. The office didn't open for about 25 minutes. After that, we had to wait for Immigration to open and then join the security line where they only had one scanner. AA kept announcing that they wanted us in the gate area at 5:15 am but we couldn't pay the depature fee by that time because the office wasn't open. Chaos in La Paz!! Our guide stayed with us until we went to Immigration and that was convenient if there were any problems.

The flight took off and after one hour, we landed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to drop people who had come from Miami the previous night (via La Paz). Everyone had to leave the plane for almost two hours and reboard. Santa Cruz is a way station to nowhere. There was one small coffeeshop/restaurant that could not handle the food demand. Reboarding the plane was chaos and the seating was crazy when people started swtiching with the permission of the Lima and Santiago based flight crews. I think their locations are relevant because I've never seen such mayhem with US (or European) based flight crews. It might be customary to switch a seat after everyone has boarded but these crews were allowing people to bump others out of seats, etc. At least we made it to Miami after 6 1/2 hours!

I guess that concludes my trip report. I am happy to answer any questions. I hope the information provided was helpful. I cannot say enough nice things about the people of Peru and Bolivia. They were kind and welcoming, and our trip was amazing. When I was researching my trip, I had trouble finding information about Bolivia so I thought it would be nice to share my experiences with Crillon Tours, etc. Also, you can never have enough good testimonials about guides and Percy Salas deserves every good accolade. Please let me know if you would like more detail/background about any areas of my trip report.

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