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June travel in the Galapagos, Andean Ecuador, and Machu Picchu

June travel in the Galapagos, Andean Ecuador, and Machu Picchu

Old Jul 7th, 2015, 09:27 PM
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June travel in the Galapagos, Andean Ecuador, and Machu Picchu

Our first trip to South America, from May 26 to June 24 of this year, encompassed two very different parts: a two-week tour with Odysses Unlimited to Macchu Picchu and the Galapagos, and two weeks on our own exploring the central Andes corridor in Ecuador.

My husband and I have traveled widely across the world, and our preference in traveling is to do our own research (with the help of books and forums like this), make our own arrangements, and follow an independent itinerary, occasionally hiring a guide for the day when that makes sense. Our only other guided, multiday travel experiences have been walking tours in Japan (wonderful!), and a personal three-week tour of Vietnam, arranged with a travel agent there. But a relative had highly recommended Odysses, and its itinerary included two of our primary goals—an overnight stay at the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu and a boat-based visit to the Galapagos—so we decided to give it a whirl.

We had some second thoughts after we sent in our payment—a big chunk of change—but it was done, so that was that. And all in all, we really enjoyed the experience: traveling and socializing with 14 interesting people who joined us on the tour; seamless logistics overseen by personable and very competent tour directors; staying in some high-quality, distinctive hotels we likely would not have stayed in on our own because of the cost; eating many delicious meals; and learning from the local guides hired for our tour.

On the other hand, we stayed in hotels in Quito and Lima that were first-class but had almost no local character; only skimmed the surface of a small part of Peru; ate too much (until we decided that we didn’t have to eat 3 courses every meal even if they were included in the price); and kept wishing for time just to explore on our own. So we were definitely ready for the second half of the trip, when we were able to do just that, to our hearts’ content.

We’re not likely to sign up for another tour soon, but hey, I’m not complaining about being able to visit such awesome destinations as the Galapagos and Machu Picchu at the level we did.
I usually write a day-by-day trip report, but for this report I’ve decided to try something new and group my impressions on various aspects of our experience.

TRANSPORTATION

The trip included planes, boats, trains, buses, taxis, and cars.

FLIGHTS: we flew from SFO to LAX, where we boarded an uneventful LAN flight to Lima. New airplane, good service, nice entertainment system. However, the onboard meal was the worst I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot. (I made the wrong choice of two options—the “cheese ravioli.” Inedible.) On the flight we saw two people a few rows in front of us whom I had a hunch might be part of our group. Sure enough, they were. They looked cranky, but they turned out to be one of the nicest and most interesting couples on the trip. So much for first impressions! Maybe they had tried the cheese ravioli too.

We landed in Lima in the middle of the night, which seems to be a typical arrival time. Others were arriving there on separate flights at about the same time. An Odysses rep met us after we picked up our bags, and a waiting van took us to our hotel (the Lima Westin, located in the San Ysidro neighborhood, about 45 minutes from the airport).

Most of our other flights (Lima-Cuzco, Lima-Quito, Quito-Cuenca, Quito-Miami) were on LAN as well, and they were similarly comfortable. Our flight from Quito to Baltra in the Galapagos was on Avianca, however, requiring a stop in Guayaquil (a LAN flight was direct--wonder why Odysseys didn't book us on that one). Avianca is a Star Alliance member, where we have most of our frequent flyer miles, so we made sure the miles were credited to our account. (We had intended to use our miles to go to and from South America, but the savings on the tour price turned out to be minor so we saved those miles for our next trip farther afield.) All the South American airports we landed in were relatively small, including, surprisingly, Quito, which has just one building that houses both domestic and international flights. The airports in both Lima and Quito are quite far from their respective cities, requiring long taxi rides to and from.

One comment about Miami airport: I try to avoid it. But Odysseys routed us through Miami on our return to the States, so that’s where we went through Customs. The passport check took forever as we watched agent after agent clock out when their scheduled time was up—no matter how long the line they left waiting. We both had to wait in that line because for some reason I got an “X” slip when I used the automated passport-checking machine. When we finally got our chance to go before one of the two remaining agents, we were processed in about 10 seconds. Frustrating. Fortunately, we were staying overnight near the airport before flying on to SFO the next day—it would have been REALLY frustrating if we had had a connecting flight that same day. (Rant over.)

BOAT: Our Galapagos boat was the 20-passenger Coral II, which is owned by KleinTours. It’s a very comfortable vessel with a good crew, and we really liked the size. We had opted for a cabin on the sky deck with a large window, which upped the price, but the only other option was the sea deck (at the bottom of the boat), with a small portal only. We were glad we had decided to spend the extra money because the people whose cabins were on the sea deck found them very stuffy, with inadequate air conditioning and a musty odor.

The boat had a nice lounge area where the naturalist gave us nightly talks and updates on the schedule, and we especially enjoyed the top (moon) deck with its open-air lounging area—spent most of our boat time there and developed a nice camaraderie with others who were like-minded. Meals were well-done buffets with several choices at each, and we especially enjoyed the moon-deck cookout on our last night. Drinks were reasonably priced, and the bartender was helpful. The snorkeling equipment the boat provided was fine, though there weren’t enough women’s small wet suits to go around--two of the other small women decided to do without. But there was no charge for the suits, even though we were initially quoted $35 for use of a wet suit for the trip, and the suits were pretty good quality. The short sleeves and short leggings on the wet suit made getting it on fairly easy, and it provided warmth in the cool seawater. We chose equipment at the start of the cruise and kept it in numbered mesh bags so it remained personal. Equipment wasn’t sterilized or rinsed after each use, which kind of surprised me.

TRAINS: We took three trains during the trip: the Vistadome from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes on our way to Machu Picchu, and the Nariz del Diablo train out of Alausí in Ecuador. Both were good. The roof-top windows in the Vistadome allowed for some great views of the Sacred Valley and the mountains on the way to our destination. The Nariz del Diablo is a famed train in Ecuador that used to be part of the line that went all the way to Guayaquil, but thanks to landslides it’s now confined to part of the valley heading toward the coast from the small town of Alausí. Building the rail line through the mountainous area required some engineering feats, and the Ecuadorean government has put money into restoring the train cars and running the service mainly as a tourist line harking back to the past. Three trains run each day, to the town of Sibambe and back. Riding on top of the train—which would have been exciting—is no longer allowed, so though it’s kind of interesting and worth doing if you are in the area, it’s not the thrilling adventure it once was. Lots of tourists, both foreign and Ecuadorean, gathered for the 11 a.m. departure on the day we were there. Best to get tickets in advance—we did so online, a few days before we got to Alausí (which, by the way, we found to be a very pleasant town). We were able to choose the seats we wanted, paid by credit card, and picked up the tickets at the station an hour before departure. We even got the senior discount!

BUSES: In Peru most of our bus trips were on small buses hired by Odysseys, with excellent drivers and plenty of comfort. The local bus ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu was on a twisting, turning, narrow road but it was over quickly, and the destination made us forget all about the ride.

In Ecuador, when we branched out on our own, we took buses between cities: Cuenca to Alausí, Alausí to Riobamba, Riobamba to Baños, Baños to Quito. Bus travel was very easy, cheap, and super comfortable. In each town we walked or took a taxi to the station, looked around for the bus lines that ran buses to the city we wanted to get to, bought tickets (ranging from $2 for a 2-3-hour trip to a max of $4 for a 4-hour trip), and got on the next bus. We never had to wait more than 20 minutes for the bus to depart. The buses had upholstered seats and windows that opened to allow fresh air in if needed. (Needed that in particular when one woman boarded with what smelled like fried chicken, which wasn’t a bad smell but permeated the bus and lasted until she got off an hour later. Fortunately, she was replaced by a woman carrying what smelled like fresh greens picked from a meadow—a nice change!) Usually we were the only gringos on the bus, and we loved traveling with local Ecuadoreans. Vendors frequently boarded the bus even at brief stops to sell snacks and other items, riding to the next stop before getting off and boarding another bus going back the other direction. All our rides went to and from the town centers, so we didn't have to worry about flagging down the bus on the highway. We were glad we decided not to stop overnight in Latacunga on the way back to Quito after we left Banos, because the passengers who did were dropped on the highway with no apparent means of transportation into the main part of town--or at least it wasn't apparent to us!

TAXIS: We paid $1 a ride in most towns, though we made sure to ask the cost in advance each time we got in a cab. In sprawling Quito the distances are much larger and the costs are higher, but taxis are still a very reasonable way to get around. Every taxi in the city is supposed to have—and use—a meter, but once we became familiar with the prices we should expect, we didn’t insist on the meter. The most we spent on a taxi was $30 from the historical center in Quito to the airport—an hour-long ride. The 45-minute ride from beautiful new Quitumbe terminal in southern Quito to the northern neighborhood of La Concepción cost only $15. Our taxi drivers were generally good, though some drove too aggressively for our comfort.

CARS: We rented a car locally one day in Quito to drive to Cotopaxi National Park for the day. Since there were 6 of us on that occasion (four adults and two small kids), we chose a minivan that cost $75 and turned out to be in lousy condition. The only reason we braved driving for even this trip was that one of the adults--our nephew, who was also visiting Ecuador at the time—had grown up in Quito and was comfortable driving there. We made it to Cotopaxi just fine but got a bit lost on the way home, so for our next trip out of Quito—to Otavalo for the weekend—we hired a driver and his SUV. Good choice! We also hired a driver while we were in Cuenca to take us on two day trips (to Cajas National Park and to the artisan villages outside the city). The going rate for this kind of transportation in both Quito and Cuenca was $65-75. It’s a no-brainer! We did find the roads to be excellent in all the areas we visited, though the Ecuadorean government seems to have gone road-happy and made some pretty ugly choices in their erosion-control efforts along the steep cliffs.

Next: Food and drink and high-end lodging, including some recommendations
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Old Jul 8th, 2015, 11:31 AM
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Hi aprillilacs, looking forward to the rest! Two comments

The chicken was better on LAN's LAX flight, but probably not by much.

I think your tour agent probably left the flights to Baltra in the hand of whoever operates Coral. Maybe they are getting a discount, and making money on the charge back to you.

In my limited research I didn't find any boats who used LAN. There are fewer LAN flights to Baltra, so a cancellation or delay is a bigger issue. But I was able to use my LAN miles by booking directly with a small family-owned boat, instead of using an agency. So I was able to fly directly between Quito and Baltra, in both directions.
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Old Jul 8th, 2015, 01:51 PM
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Was just looking and hoping you did a trip report. Already picked up one useful piece of info re the bus letting you off for Latacunga. Will certainly need to look into that as we plan a stay there. Looking forward to more!
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Old Jul 8th, 2015, 07:05 PM
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Great report aprillilacs. Looking forward to reading more.
Re Latacunga
"the passengers who did were dropped on the highway with no apparent means of transportation into the main part of town--or at least it wasn't apparent to us!

I know what you mean we had the same issue coming in the opposite direction. Many of the buses don't stop in the bus station because of the fees they have to pay and therefore drop off their passenger on the main drag. In reality it is a 10 min walk to the main town.
When we got the bus from Latacunga to Quilatoa and saquasilli each time the buses left the station virtually empty. They then stopped outside 5-6 times to pick up passenger who then didn't have to pay the station tax. Withingb5 mins it went from empty to overflowing!
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Old Jul 8th, 2015, 07:20 PM
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Crellston, this might be a stupid question, but you get off the bus and just walk straight down the road?
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Old Jul 9th, 2015, 01:43 AM
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Not stupid at all yestravel. Coming from Quito we jumped off the bus and crossed the highway over the pedestrian bridge and walked up the hill to the centre of town
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Old Jul 9th, 2015, 06:41 AM
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Thanks, that's helpful We'll be coming from the other direction so we won't need to cross the highway I gather. While we hike alot, I'm not one fond of dragging our luggage (carry on size) any great distances. I'm wondering if we could arrange to have our hotel pick us up?
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Old Jul 9th, 2015, 06:44 AM
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aprillacs, sorry, didn't mean to hijack -- I am looking forward to reading the rest of your TR.
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Old Jul 9th, 2015, 10:33 AM
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No problem! I like to see the conversation continue. We had been hoping to get a taxi from the bus to the town if we did get off in Latacunga, but we didn't see any obvious taxis available from our view on the bus. That's not to say there weren't any passing by, however. It would be nice if you could arrange with your hotel accommodation to pick you up. We didn't have a phone at that point (I drowned my phone in a wet landing gone awry on the Galapagos) but there's always a way.

The only other iffy place we got off was Alausi. We took the Patri bus from Cuenca, which turns out to have its own office (more a storefont) a bit away from the main station, which itself is fairly small. I was paying close attention to where we were at that point because I knew by the map that we were near our destination, so I fortunately heard the bus guy mention "Alausi" when he hopped off to unload/load some boxes. I got up to ask the driver if that was where we should get off and he said yes, so grabbed our bags and hurried off the bus--they don't give you much time to get on and off at most stops. There were no taxis around but we went into the small office and asked the clerk to call us one. A couple minutes and $1 later and we arrived at our inn, about a kilometer outside of town.

I'm going to be traveling for a few days so won't be able to add more to this report, but I'll get back to it next week. Thanks for reading along.
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Old Jul 9th, 2015, 10:52 AM
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We have only had one experience with a bus drop off in the middle of nowhere and that was in Chile going from Valparaiso to the airport outside Santiago. Our BnB owner told us to tell the bus driver and they would let us off and we could save the trip into Santiago and back out to the airport. We dutifully told the bus driver, he stopped at some point and motioned to us. Our luggage was under the bus so that made it a bit easier to hustle off, but the whole thing probably took less than 2 minutes before we were left standing by the road in the pitch dark wondering what we had just done! We had been told that there would be cabs around even at 6 am and there were. We travel light, but I keep mentally thinking even lighter will be good for this trip.
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Old Jul 9th, 2015, 11:45 AM
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I'm looking forward to hearing about that wet landing, aprillilacs!
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Old Jul 15th, 2015, 09:47 AM
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Was hoping for a new chapter...
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Old Jul 15th, 2015, 11:30 PM
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Good! Here's some more.

FOOD AND DRINK

The most important beverage we drank was water, and none of it was out of the tap. Every inn and hotel provided at least two bottles of water a day, which was sufficient to keep us hydrated. I tried not to think about the vast number of plastic bottles that are used and discarded every day, and I came to appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to drink good water straight from the tap.

We had many good meals in both Peru and Ecuador, and really no bad ones. We preferred Peruvian cuisine but only skimmed the surface of its possible tastes. One restaurant we really enjoyed was Maras, attached to the Westin Lima, which served a wonderful dinner--small (perfect) portions, great new Peruvian tastes, and excellent service. When a fellow diner asked the waiter to tell him about Pisco, a Pisco flight was offered up (for free), providing a great introduction to this Peruvian drink. It was my good luck to be seated nearby and to be able to partake in the impromptu tasting. I’d not been enamored of Pisco sours when I tasted them in the United States, but here they were excellent, and we would enjoy them many times on the trip (especially at the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu, where all drinks were included in our stay--nice!).

In the Sacred Valley we stopped by a local chicha bar, identified by the red plastic, balloon-like bag attached to a pole outside the establishment. What an interesting place! The fermented corn-based chicha was brewed daily in a big vat, covered with a cloth to keep out the bugs, and served to workers who stopped by to relax with a drink or two after working all day. In the courtyard a tossing game called sapo, which involved throwing small metal disks into holes, provided entertainment. We also had several opportunities to drink nonfermented, refreshing chicha morada, made from purple corn, at meals during our short time in Peru. Not my favorite, but far better than another nonalcoholic Peruvian drink, the cloyingly sweet Inka Kola. Don’t try it.

Last but not least, in the drinks category, there was coca tea—very soothing, and possibly “medicinal.” I enjoyed drinking the tea, offered everywhere, on several occasions. It’s supposed to soothe one’s stomach, and perhaps it did—I never had any stomach problems, so who knows? In any case, I liked it!

Our meals in both countries were heavily influenced by corn, which seemed to come in all colors and varieties--hominy, popcorn, you name it. Fish dominated the main course—often trout or sea bass (corvino). We had the opportunity to eat lunch at a middle-class family’s home in Cusco, where the highlight was cuy, aka guinea pig. Even though my kids had raised pet guinea pigs, I gave it a try. Verdict: not much meat on the bones, and quite salty in the preparation, but tasty. Like alpaca steaks, which I ate in the Sacred Valley, I likely won’t be having it again, but it was interesting to try.

The best restaurant we ate at in Peru was Cicciolina in Cusco. On the afternoon we arrived in the city we called ahead to reserve a table for six and were happily surprised to get it since the restaurant was packed when we got there. We had a nice meal and enjoyed the lively, social atmosphere in the small space occupied by the restaurant. Extra bonus: it was just around the corner from our hotel, the Monasterio, so an easy walk on our first night at high altitude.

In Ecuador we had several good meals, many based around quinoa, potato soup, and fresh fruit (watermelon, papaya, bananas). Not to mention the excellent seafood ceviche! One nice experience was at El Crater Restaurant, which sits on a crater rim above a caldera lake just outside Quito. Unfortunately the clouds had rolled in and filled the crater; despite constantly shifting around, they never revealed the hoped-for view. Our lunch was a typical Ecuadorean platter—roast pork chunks (chicharrones), hominy, spicey aji salsa, plantain (maduros), and salad. This meal would be repeated in one form or the other many times on our trip, leading us to conclude that Ecuadorian cuisine, while delicious, is not all that varied. We had a lower-end version of this same meal at the market in the small town of Chodoleg (or was it Gualaceo?) outside Cuenca, where we combined a plateful of roast pig (hornado) right off the bones with hominy, plantains, and thick corn tortillas, all for about $4. Greasy but delicious!

We also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the beautiful Theatrum, in El Teatro in the historical center of Quito. Unfortunately one of our fellow travelers, J, had a very bad experience there, which was definitely not the fault of the restaurant. He and a couple other of the 16 people at our table ordered an Amazon fish steamed in a heliconia leaf, which he had also had the previous week while traveling in the Amazon and highly recommended. It was his very poor luck to get what was apparently a bad fish—the other two people who ordered the dish (one of whom was my husband) had no side effects, but J became violently ill with a serious bacterial infection and had to miss his flight home; in fact, he had to stay two extra nights in Quito before he could even attempt the journey. The culprit was determined to be the fish. Luck of the draw, and very bad luck indeed.

One of the nicest eating/drinking experiences in Quito was an evening on La Ronda in the historical center, where we enjoyed the ambience of a dark bar, engaging live music, and tasty empanadas and sweet corn humitas (a version of tamales) to snack on, washed down with a local alcoholic drink whose name I can’t recall (and which I didn’t really like) and Ecuadorean beer. Didn’t want to leave, but we had a couple of very young kids with us so we eventually tore ourselves away.

Outside of Quito, we enjoyed excellent lunches at Tambopaxi hostal on the high plain below Cotopaxi volcano; at Dos Chorreras near El Cajas National Park outside of Cuenca (potato soup, locally raised trout); and at El Maíz in Cuenca. At the latter we had a plate of four tamales unlike any we’ve had in the U.S.—interesting flavors and very good. On our final night in Cuenca we treated ourselves to a fine meal and good wine at Villa Rosa in the historical center, where it turned out we were the only diners except for a gathering of doctors upstairs—surprising because the food was excellent and the price wasn’t unreasonable.

We broke away from Ecuadorean food to have decent pizza in small Alausí at the friendly El Paraiso, and in Baños we enjoyed a very good meal and some variety at Swiss Bistro, where we shared garlic bread, a really good platter of cured meats, sausages, and cheese and we each had a delicious bowl of soup (curried pumpkin for me; onion for my husband). These were a welcome change of pace late in the trip.

Next: some comments on places we visited, with lodging recommendations. In the meantime, here are links to my pictures:

Peru -- https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/7386

Galapagos -- https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/7482

Quito to Cuenca, plus Otavalo -- https://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com/7565
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Old Jul 16th, 2015, 08:37 AM
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Great read and love the photos! In the beginning of the photos ~47 or so, where is the waterfall that you all hiked to? I agree re cuy -- htought it extremely bony, but like you had to try it when we were in Peru.
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Old Jul 16th, 2015, 09:07 AM
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Nice summary and photos. Your weather looks great! Looking forward to more reporting since we had such similar itineraries and I am too lazy to do one. I heard good things about Maiz in Cuenca but didn't make it there. I agree that the soups and various pork dishes are the way to go in Ecuador.

(It was probably Gualaceo for the pig, upstairs was there was a whole floor of them?)
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Old Jul 16th, 2015, 12:31 PM
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yestravel, that waterfall is Peguche, the same name as the village just outside of Otavalo. It's at the end of a short walk through a forested park. Soon after we arrived we were joined by a group of ethnic women who were being filmed dancing to flute music at the base of the falls as part of a music video or documentary--you'll see them wearing blue and white costumes in some of the pictures. That was interesting to watch. A much better waterfall, however, is the Pailon del Diblo on the Banos-Puyo road just out of Banos. What an amazing place! You can walk down to the several sets of stairs to the base of the falls--really impressive!

mlgb, you are right, the pig was indeed at Gualaceo. I loved that market! So many small stalls of hardworking women cooking their delicious, inexpensive fare. Mmmmm.
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Old Jul 16th, 2015, 05:06 PM
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I couldn't bring myself to try cuy, especially after our tour guide at an animal sanctuary outside Cusco pointed to a wounded guinea pig in a cage and said "Lunch" LOL.
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Old Jul 19th, 2015, 03:53 PM
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LIMA

Hotel: Westin Lima in San Isidro, a busy business district.

This hotel is perfect if you want a high-end, modern establishment with no Peruvian character. Our room was huge, and the bathroom was as big as the living room in our San Francisco apartment.
We definitely shortchanged Lima. We spent two nights there but arrived in the middle of the night so actualyt had only one full day. The city is vast and doesn’t have a road infrastructure adequate to handle all the cars clogging the streets. The horrendous traffic served to limit our touring time—we were stuck in traffic for a good hour and a half on our way from Miraflores to the main square in the center. The only good thing about that was that someone else was driving, so we had a good chance to enjoy watching the life on the streets.

First we spent a short time at Parque del Amor in Miraflores, where we looked down over the edge of the cliffs to the beach and the ocean beyond. The weather was the typical garúa, overcast with occasional drizzle, which hangs out over Lima during dry season from May to November. Honestly, I much prefer blue sky to gray.

After spending so much time in traffic on our way to the center from the beach, we finally reached the impressive main square, the Plaza de Armas. The square is surrounded by important historical buildings, including the Government Palace. The elaborate wooden balconies and deep colors of the buildings are beautiful, brightening up the otherwise gray day. I wished we had more time to soak in the atmosphere and hang out in the square. We didn’t even have enough time to enter the Cathedral! Such are the drawbacks of a tour, I guess. We did get to visit nearby Palacio Torre Tagle, a lovely colonial mansion with Moorish-influenced architecture, and the 16th-century Santo Domingo Church.

In the afternoon we paid a visit to the fascinating Rafael Larca Herrera Museum of pre-Columbian ceramics. The founder was a collector and early investigator of artifacts, especially from the northern coast area of Peru. He not only collected but categorized the material, developing a timeline of the many cultures of the area that have existed over recent millennia. Though much of his work has been superseded and challenged by more recent scholars, he laid the groundwork. His prize pieces are beautifully displayed, but equally impressive are the huge storerooms chock-a-block full of thousands of pieces of wonderful ceramics, as well as the large collection of erotic art. Our excellent Odysseys tour director, Oscar Oviedo, has an abiding interest in archaeology and gave us a superb summary of the five major periods of pre-Columbian culture in Peru. We really appreciated his knowledge and enthusiasm about his native country.

Dusk was falling as we made our way back to the hotel, and I enjoyed watching the vendors and customers in small shops along the route. Again, the clogged traffic allowed for plenty of time to view them! Next time we’re in Peru we’ll devote at least a couple more days to this huge and interesting city.

CUZCO

Hotel: Belmond Hotel Monasterio in the heart of the city, http://www.belmond.com/hotel-monasterio-cusco/

Our morning flight from Lima to Cuzco was quick. Upon arrival at the airport we met up with our local guide for this part of the trip and, rather than staying overnight in the city, boarded a private bus that took us directly up to the impressive Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, perched high (12,000 ft) above the city. This was our first real encounter with Inca architecture—and with grazing llamas and alpacas. A couple of our fellow travelers began feeling effects of the altitude, but aside from a little lightheadedness, I felt fine. My husband had started taking Diamox the night before, like he had done on Mt. Kilamanjaro, and that worked for him. A doctor I know had told me about a study that had found that high doses of Ibuprofen can be effective at altitude, so that’s the regimen I followed for the first couple of days. I felt the altitude when climbing up the massive stone steps of the Inca ruins and walking uphill in Cuzco, but otherwise I was fine.

A few days later (after nights in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu), we returned to Cuzco for a couple of nights. We were excited to stay at El Monasterio, which has been beautifully converted into a fine hotel from a 16th-century monastery. It’s more expensive than the lodgings we usually stay at, but since it was part of the tour package we had no choice but to stay there (smile). It combines gorgeous public spaces (including a golden chapel from the 18th century with frescoed ceiling), an excellent restaurant and bar, impeccable service, and comfortable guestrooms. Very highly recommended if it’s in your budget.

Central Cuzco is great. Like Lima, its main square is called the Plaza de Armas, and it’s surrounded by arcades and lovely buildings with ornate wooden balconies and terra cotta roofs. The cathedral is impressive, including the interesting “La Ultima Cena” by Zapata, complete with guinea pig depicted as part of the last meal. We toured the nearby Convento de Santo Domingo, a 16th-century Dominican convent that was build atop the ruins of the destroyed Inca temple of the Sun—Qoricancha. Earthquakes that destroyed the walls of the convent exposed much of the underlying Inca temple and its fine stonework. Later the same day, on a long walk we took on our own, we were able to see the Qoricancha from below, across an open field, in the beautiful late-afternoon light, which only enhanced its grandeur. On the same walk we also visited the shop-filled San Blas neighborhood in the opposite direction. We stopped inside several artisan and textile shops on our walk around the central area and picked up a few small things. Eventually we made our way to a textile shop called La Vicuñita. We were determined not to buy much on this trip and had purposely limited our luggage size to carry-on only, but we couldn’t leave Peru without at least a couple of baby alpaca sweaters and throws, and this shop had good quality and nice designs for a reasonable price.

SACRED VALLEY

Hotel: Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel, http://www.aranwahotels.com/en/sacred-valley/

In the beautiful Sacred Valley we first made a short visit to the market at Pisac. It was a Thursday, however, so the market was quiet—just a shadow of what it must be on Sundays. The goods were colorful but I wasn’t tempted to buy. Instead of stopping at the Pisac Inca ruins (it’s a tour, gotta keep to the schedule), we continued down the valley to Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel, another five-star accommodation, this one a former colonial hacienda set in a complex of gardens with small pools, water features, peacocks, resident alpacas, and a very good restaurant. It was easy to get lost among all the courtyards on our way to our room. Shortly after our arrival we participated in a ceremony led by a local shaman that included an offering of various elements to Mother Earth (Pachamama) in exchange for her life-giving provisions. Could have been hokey but was actually quite moving. Later we switched gears and headed for the bar for delicious Pisco. Hmmm, no complaints here, though the time might have been more productively spent at the Inca ruins earlier in the day!

The next day we traveled in two vans down the valley to the Inca site of Ollantaytambo, where we took a fantastic climb up the steps with our guide to the top of the ruins, marveling at the brilliant stonework. At the top were cut stones that still hadn’t been placed in the structure when the Spaniards arrived, and we could see a ramp on which unfinished stones had been interrupted in the midst of being transported to the site from a quarry a couple of miles away on the other side of the valley. In addition to the temple, there were houses and granaries spread around the surrounding hillsides. The views down the valley were spectacular, and thankfully we had enough time to appreciate the Incas’ accomplishments. After this visit we enjoyed a nice lunch at the quiet restaurant of Sol y Luna Hotel nearby, with a bonus viewing of caballeros showing off their horses in the grassy arena nearby. Everyone who wanted to was able to get on a horse and ride it into the arena—both my husband and I passed since neither of us has had much experience on a horse. Then we headed up into the mountains to visit Chinchero, just outside of which is the future site of the new Cuzco airport. Big buildings are already going up on the grassy hillsides in anticipation of that construction, which is still at least a couple years away. That’s going to change things, and I doubt it will be for the better.

In Chinchero we made the de rigueur visit to a weavers’ co-op for a lengthy and interesting demonstration of alpaca wool preparation, the process of dying the wool using organic materials, and hand weaving, followed by a chance to purchase the woven goods—overpriced, I think, but colorful. One of the most interesting parts of the visit was seeing how one of the women carried a very large, tightly swaddled, sound-asleep child on her back. He must have been at least 2½ years old and seemed way too big to be packed around like that—hard on the mom’s back! We were told that women carry their babies like that for 5 hours a day until they are over 2, and that it makes the children stronger. I didn’t really buy that.

MACHU PICCHU

Hotel: Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, http://www.belmond.com/sanctuary-lod...u/luxury-hotel

The next day we took a bus to Ollantaytambo where we caught a train to Aguas Calientes. From there we transferred to a shuttle bus that took us uphill to the Sanctuary Lodge, where we had lunch waiting for us. Afterward we were shown to our room, which was small but nicely appointed, with a small terrace facing an open lawn and the mountain beyond. You have to know what you are going to get at the Sanctuary Lodge—a very comfortable but very expensive place in a great location. In many ways it’s worth the price, but if you are thinking “luxury” for that price, you will probably be disappointed. We are so glad we were able to stay there since it enabled us to enjoy Machu Picchu with fewer crowds (early morning and late afternoon), take in the atmosphere at night—though not in the sanctuary itself—and experience three different climate conditions. Unforgettable.

We visited about half the ruins with our guide the first afternoon. She filled us in on the detail of their history and construction, all the time telling us how brilliant the Incas were in their choice of sites and their construction methods. (This became somewhat of a broken record over the course of days we spent listening to her, though of course it’s true.) We then had some free time, which allowed us to climb to the terrace where a few houses have been reconstructed, for great views of the site bathed in sunshine, sans crowds. How fortunate we were to see it that way!

We had been told there was a free bar at the hotel, and after the ruins closed it didn’t take long for us to gather at a table on the hotel patio with others in our group. A combination of Pisco sours, Piscopolitans, and a ginger drink whose name I have forgotten, along with lots of laughs, made for wonderful camaraderie. Later we shared a good dinner with the whole group in the very accommodating hotel restaurant.

The next morning we split up for a while, with my husband and three others up early to walk up the to the sun gate where Inca Trail hikers first view Machu Picchu, with hopes of seeing the sunrise. The ruins and their terraced hillsides were mostly closed in with mist, but for a few minutes the mist opened up a little and rays of sunshine shimmered through it. I went out shortly thereafter—about 7:00—and though the buses had already started arriving from Aguas Calientes a little after 6:00, I was able to enjoy a quiet time among the ruins before the masses arrived. For a while the whole site was shrouded in clouds, but then, magically, the clouds would lift and Machu Picchu appeared. I actually liked the in-and-out views even better than the full-on sunny views of the previous afternoon.

Later in the morning we walked with our guide in the rain to the other half of the ruins (temple of the three windows, temple of the condor, and the living areas). The stone steps were slippery and we were glad we had brought our rain jackets; I also appreciated having my collapsible hiking pole along. Still, we were pretty soaked by the time we made it to lunch in the steamy buffet room by the hotel (open to visitors). I wasn’t impressed with the buffet, but it was serviceable. Reluctantly we then took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, where we had some time to visit the lackluster market while waiting for the train back to Ollantaytambo. I wasn't impressed with Aguas Calientes.

From there we journeyed by bus back to Cusco for the two nights described earlier. On the long bus ride Oscar, our tour director, recited the history of Peru from memory. He told a fascinating story that was interrupted by our arrival in Cuzco just as he got to the crazy part about the hostage crisis involving the Japanese embassy in 1996 (read the book “Bel Canto” for a fictional telling based on this event). We had to wait til we were at the airport for our flight to Quito to hear the end of the story.

Our time in Peru way too short and left us wishing for more. But Ecuador was waiting, so onward we went. Next: the Galapagos.
aprillilacs is offline  
Old Jul 19th, 2015, 04:00 PM
  #19  
 
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Such a shame you didnt see the ruins at Pisac. I thought them wonderful. Like you we always plan trips ourselves, but occassionally I think it might be nice and ever so easy to just do a tour. Your TR is proving that wouldn't be a good idea for us!
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Old Jul 19th, 2015, 06:12 PM
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yt, one drawback of a tour, we found, is that having everything planned for us took away much of the anticipation and excitement we feel prior to a trip where we make our own arrangements. Its fun to research in books and on web sites to find great places to stay and worthwhile things to do in a location, and it builds the excitement as we look forward to the trip. We felt oddly disconnected from this trip until we actually landed in Lima on Day 1.
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