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Peru / Boliva long trip report

Recently returned from 10 days in both Peru and Bolivia. In planning I didn‘t find as much information for these countries as I have for other trips in the past, so this will probably be a bit lengthy.

Arrived in Lima later than expected (midnight) and due to some major renovations at the airport for international arrivals, we finally arrived at our hotel around 1:30 AM. We stayed at Hostal Roma which was an okay place. Clean, hot water, comfortable beds. Branca Tours who owns Hostal Roma arranged one of our domestic flights as well and had the tickets waiting for us. But they accept cash only which put a dent into our budget right off the bat.

Taxi picked us up at 7 the next morning for the flight to Puerto Maldonado - sadly that was as much time as we spent outside of the Lima airport. At the airport we were able to use the ATM for soles - the first one we tried didn’t accept our bank card but the second one did - there are three different bank ATMs at the airport so it’s worth making a few attempts. Oh, and the two hour rule prior to flights is necessary.

We spent 3 nights at Heath River Lodge (as mentioned before this is actually located in Bolivia, though literally on the border). The travel time was about five hours from the port to the lodge. We were told the ride is a bit longer in the dry season when the water level is down. The lodges themselves are basically screened porches on stilts with no electricity but with private baths, mosquito netting and candles. There was supposed to be hot water however there wasn‘t any in our room. We didn‘t mention it however, as the cold water felt awfully nice with the heat and humidity of the jungle. Electricity for the record is available in the main lodge a few times per day for recharging camera batteries and the like. Be sure to use an adaptor however - I didn’t (the converter wasn’t necessary and I assumed the currency would be the same) and as a result shorted out my recharger by the end of the week.

There were only four guests staying at Heath. The staff was amazing (fantastic food and juices), our guide was excellent, and the birds were incredible. Plus with its small size (30 people maximum) there‘s much more personal treatment compared to other lodges. The other couple staying there were fortunately interested in birds. We weren’t at the time but have an appreciation for birdwatching. By the end of the trip we counted approx. 125 different birds spotted including many variety of macaw. Plus plenty of caiman (three varieties), frogs, loads of insects and butterfly, and three variety of monkey. Day 1 was arrival, day 2 was spent at the macaw clay lick in the morning, hiking before lunch, hiking after lunch and a boat ride after dark to hunt for caiman. Day 3 was spent at the clay lick in the morning (fortunate we’d had Day 1 already, as something spooked the birds and we only saw them for a brief period at the lick) followed by a boat ride upriver to spot capybara and loads of other animals. We skipped a hike before lunch and instead headed to the pampas after lunch (a 5 mile round trip hike) to watch the sunset and headed back through the jungle after dark. After dinner we spent an hour or so at the mammal clay lick and were fortunate to see two tapir (likely mating) very briefly. Day 4 we headed to Sandoval Lake early in the morning. Sandoval was very crowded and instead of individual huts/lodges, the lodge is in a flattened “V” shape with the dining and common area in the middle and wings of rooms off to the sides like a motel. The rooms are open above to the roof, so it’s possible to hear every word your neighbor is saying (and hear them snoring and showering). As for wildlife on the lake, we spotted plenty of water fowl of course, and tarantula, and were fortunate to see the otters and sloth on our way back to Puerto Maldonado.

I asked some of the staff about other lodges in the area. They spoke highly of Manu (though secondary rainforest limits some of the animals - Heath is a primary forest), Tambopata Research Center, and Posada Amazonas. EcoAmazonia however from the description sounds like it’s very crowded and limited on wildlife. Manu is set up similarly to Heath with individual screened rooms, but it sounds like it’s closed from January to March.

InkaNatura arranged the portion of our trip to Heath/Sandoval and Cusco/MaccuPicchu. In Cusco we stayed at Emperador Plaza a very short walk from the Plaza des Armas. Excellent hotel. Clean, neat, very soundproof, hot water. We enjoyed a meal at Café Baghdad (great soup, lousy pizza, reasonable prices) overlooking the Plaza. We took the Vistadome train to MP which provided a sandwich, fruit and cake for breakfast (fortunately I saved the sandwich for post-MP when I was famished). Important to note that when you reach Agua Calientes to catch the bus, just follow the crowds to the bus line. And you MUST purchase your bus tickets from a small booth along that same path before getting on the bus despite the fact that the seller may not be in the booth. Just wait a few minutes and he’ll eventually show up. It’s $9 one way pp for the bus ride. To get into MP it’s $20 pp (much higher than I’d expected - we almost didn’t have enough money!) and it’s ridiculously touristy at the base. Just follow the crowds or tour groups if you’re not sure where to go. I’d recommend using the restroom before heading inside (restroom is S/.5) and be prepared to leave your backpack. You can leave it by the gate for free, though would strongly recommended bringing water and a holder for a water bottle. We used the Machu Picchu Guidebook that’s been recommended here a lot and it took us about 2 ½ hours - both of us read through it a few times before heading up though which helped immensely. The book is a bit confusing in a few spots, but the area is small enough you can‘t get too lost. We would have had time to climb half way up Huyana Picchu and get some great photos from a different perspective but instead were hungry, tired and needed a restroom. So much for planning ahead.

On the return trip, we got off the Vistadome at Poroy and took the 15 minute shuttle ride back to Cusco as recommended. Great idea! And only S/5 pp. The bus drops off at Plaza des Armas. We had dinner at a great place that night - Pachacutec - right on the Plaza and had a wonderful “typical“ meal. Despite our server’s limited English and our limited Spanish, he was excellent at ensuring we didn’t order too much food and that we would enjoy our meals. I appreciated his speaking slowly and being kind enough to repeat some phrases in Spanish, rather than mumbling and just walking away (we experienced that sort of lovely service in Puno). What we didn’t like about Cusco is the constant begging and selling. We got very weary of “no gracias”. Wish I’d had a few other phrases at the ready for the more aggressive types. Some folks refused to take no for an answer. But overall it’s a lovely town and I wish we’d had more than just two short nights there.

Next stop - train through the Andes to Puno. This portion and the remainder were planned by South American Vacations (SAVacations) which did a great job working with small local tour operators. Fantastic journey. Just amazing landscape, and the train is wonderfully luxurious. The first class train serves a full lunch and a full bar is available for additional charge. The last car on the train includes a bar and lounge area, with an observatory car that has tall glass windows and an open backend that’s very Eva Peron-ish. I’d recommended staying inside the car while passing through towns. There was an occasional clod of dirt or rock thrown at the train. But it was much more comfortable than a bus and we had a great Pisco Sour lesson.

The train ride makes one stop at the highest point on the trip, around 14,000 feet. At this point the train stops for 10 minutes to disembark, take photos and purchase a few things from locals. The quality was excellent. We arrived after 10 hours - right on time - and went straight to the hotel. We stepped out briefly for dinner at La Hosteria. Our reservations were supposed to be for a bus trip to Bolivia the next day but the reservations were mistakenly made for the wrong date - everyone was kind enough to make adjustments though and we were able to visit Uros the next morning (worth the trip) and Sillustani in the afternoon. Lunch was at Don Piero - just soup but pretty good and low priced. On the way to Sillustani we stopped at a local home as our guide had set up. We had a chance to try a local dish of potatoes, see the inside of their home and purchase a rug that had recently been hand loomed. We had a nice educational visit to Sillustani, and stopped at the large Puma on the way back. A gigantic puma, snake and condor have been erected as lookout points in Puno overlooking the lake. We had dinner that night at Pizzeria Giorgio which was terrible - bad food, bad service, overpriced. The garlic bread was their only redemption, but that’s certainly not traditional Peruvian which is what we’d ordered.

Bright and early the next morning, our shuttle arrived to take us on the 2-hour drive to Bolivia. It was us and another couple from Mexico City. We stopped in Juli and Puma Uta (Pomata) to view their churches before walking across the border. Another shuttle picked us up on the Bolivian side and we continued on to Copacabana 10 minutes further. We visited their main church and then headed to the hydrofoil. Wasn’t too fond of the Island of the Moon - the native women were much too aggressive (they continued to interrupt our guide and speak over him asking us to buy things despite many “no gracias” - I still don’t know the purpose of the ruins on that island because I couldn’t hear anything). But the Island of the Sun was quite nice. We had lunch overlooking Lake T. before reversing our steps back to Puno. Did a lot of shopping the next morning before our guide took us to the Juliaca airport.

A few other notes - Around Cusco taxis should cost around S/2 - especially to the train stations. Highly recommended versus walking. It's very easy to get a decent meal for S/5 pp and an excellent meal for S/15 pp.

We flew Tans Peru the first flight and it was decent. But Lan Peru was fantastic - they served food (even small meals and snacks were appreciated), when the flight was delayed a bit they passed around snacks and drinks at the Puerto Maldonado airport, and their planes have a good deal of legroom.

We experienced very little altitude sickness aside from shortness of breath and forgetfulness (definitely helpful to have another person along with you - we found our two brains almost added up to one!). We took water pills (diamox) and drank a lot of coca tea to help. One side effect from the diamox I didn't realize though is tingling of fingers and toes. I've had allergic reactions to sulfa in the past but wasn't affected by the few days on the medication. Pharmacies around town also sell plenty of remedies for altitude sickness (advertised on posters in every shop) but no idea if these are beneficial or tourist traps. As mentioned hundreds of times here, it's very important to take things slowly though - don't push yourself.

As for shopping, the best quality knit / alpaca items are found in the altiplano (Lake Titicaca area). But I'd encourage checking out shops and stalls in each city to compare. After a few days of looking, we were able to easily tell the difference between handmade and machine (which the seller will usually honestly tell you, but not always). Extremely inexpensive items include hats and gloves (usually $2 each), finger puppets and dolls (usually $.30 each) and t-shirts (Inca Cola or cerveza for $4). Bargaining for sweaters, we paid anywhere from $10 for machine to $20 handmade. Ponchos were also plentiful though the styles are a bit more restrictive than western styles. I wish we'd picked up a pair of slippers which were so soft. Bags, tapestries and rugs are also plentiful. Leather items and tools were more difficult to find, as were knick knacks (with the exception of Cuzco area). We'd hoped to find something cheesy with Lake Titicaca imprinted, but everything was too nice - never thought I‘d say that! We also discovered that if you find something you really like, definitely walk away and try to find it someplace else if the price seems to high. It was rare that we only saw items in one location, and you can always come back later. More than once we could hear the seller reducing their price as we walked away - I still regret not buying a poncho for S/18! There was one shop in Puno we visited each evening and bought something each time - she was extremely nice and helpful, and we felt she was treating us reasonably.

In Puno, some great shopping can be found by heading down the pedestrian walkway, then at the auto intersection that bisects the walkway head towards the lake. Walk for about 5-6 blocks down alleyways (a bit dingy, but we never felt unsafe) until you see the blue tarps covering the booths of vendors. They begin setting up around 9:30 AM and I'm unsure how late they are there in the evening. Another option is the artists "loft" so to speak, on the pedestrian walkway right near the Plaza des Armas. It's a bit hard to spot - it's upstairs above a bank and not particularly well marked. They're not open in the morning or afternoon, but someone was there every evening until 9 PM I believe.

For Pisco (the alcohol), I'd suggest buying it at the airport when you leave. Don't bother with the Duty Free Shop - it's less expensive (plus they have better sizes) at the Peru store in the international concourse by the gates (not sure of its official name - but plenty of last minute knick knacks). Although the airport is under construction, the international departure concourse looks to be completed and is in great shape.

People always seemed to be eager to have their photos taken - for a price. I was even asked at one point to pay for the photo of a llama even though the supposed "owner" was nowhere near the picture. I noticed that he didn't ask the tourist from Lima in our group to pay anything for his two photos... And then the photo didn‘t even turn out. Overall though we found most people to be very friendly and welcoming.

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