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Pisco Dreams; Nine Days in the Sacred Valley, Cusco and Lima

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Jun 14th, 2014, 10:07 AM
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Pisco Dreams; Nine Days in the Sacred Valley, Cusco and Lima

My husband and I spent 9 days/8 nights in Peru in April 2014 during the week before Easter (Semana Santa). We had 4 nights in the Sacred Valley based in Urubamba, 2 nights in Cusco and 2 nights in Lima.

A little background; we are in our mid-forties and try to travel as much as we can, usually one or two international trips a year. This was our first time to Peru and our first time in South America, but we have traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. Our travel style tends to be mid-range with some splurges; we like to eat and sleep well, but always look for value.

I maintain a long running travel blog (www.wired2theworld.com, started in 1998) and will be posting links to the related blog posts here so if you're interested, you can see the photos which accompany the text. Not all of the text from my blog will be re-posted here, so if you're looking for more detail, make sure you click over.

Planning the Trip

We’ve wanted to visit Peru for over a decade but while it’s always been in the top five of places-we-want-to-go, it never made the cut until now. Perhaps we thought we needed to have two full weeks so we could include the Amazon and Lake Titicaca as well as Machu Picchu. In the end, we decided we were willing to go for only nine days and stick to the Sacred Valley, Cusco, and Lima for this trip and we’re certainly happy we did.

Booking the Flights:

One of the things which helped us decide to go on the trip was the availability of a non-stop flight from LAX to Lima on LAN Airlines. This cuts the travel time from a minimum of 12 hours with a layover somewhere like El Salvador to 8.5 hours. The fact that it was a red-eye meant that we could leave after work on a Friday night and be in the Sacred Valley by early Saturday afternoon after a change of planes in Lima to Cusco.
Oh, the best laid plans…

While researching airfare, I learned that LAN usually does a Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving) sale so I waited to buy. Indeed they had a sale and this saved us 10% on our four flights which were LAX to Cusco (connecting in Lima), Cucso back to Lima, and then Lima to LAX all on LAN Peru for about $1100 per person all in. Things were made more expensive because we were traveling during Easter week. Tickets just to Lima can often be found for a few hundred less (outside of holiday periods), but tickets to Cusco rarely seem to go on sale.
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Jun 14th, 2014, 10:11 AM
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Hotels:

With the flights out of the way it was time to plan hotels. We have SPG (Starwood) points and Gold status, so if we can ever take advantage of that, we do. Fortunately, Peru has several SPG hotels. We selected the Tambo del Inka in Urubamba for four nights and the Four Points in Miraflores Lima for two nights, both utilizing SPG cash plus points. In Cusco, we chose the Andenes al Cielo for two nights because the SPG hotel there did not have rooms available for cash plus points. Ultimately, we spent only one night at the Andenes al Cielo in Cusco and then moved to the Palacio del Inka (SPG) for the second night. Reviews of all hotels to come later.

Though many people choose to, we decided we did not need to stay in the town of Aguas Calientes (now renamed to Machu Picchu Pueblo) at the base of Machu Picchu for a night before or after visiting the ruins. One of the reasons we selected the Tambo Del Inka in Urubamba is because it has a train station on the property and one train per day leaves and comes back from Machu Picchu.

Tour guide- we contacted and hired Percy Salas ([email protected]) based on reviews of him I’d read online. We reserved three days of touring plus one airport transfer which turned out to two days with him, one with another guide (his coworker, a lovely woman), and one with just a driver who took us to Urubamba. We did not have a tour guide for the ruins of Machu Picchu. Percy was always on time, pleasant and well informed. We would recommend him.

Machu Picchu- Planning this day deserves its own post complete with tips on how to book it all yourself (we did) and a checklist so you don’t forget anything on the big day. Coming up soon…

Airport Transfers-
We used Percy (above) for the 1.5 hour drive to Urubamba from Cusco ($50) and then for a half day tour which took us and our luggage to Cusco from Urubamaba, stopping to see the sights along the way.
To get to the Cusco Airport from the hotel, we used a standard taxi outside the hotel.
For Lima airport transfers, I booked online with www.taxidatum.com for $20 each way, paid in US dollars. I think this service is similar to Uber in that it uses private cars and different drivers each time. The cost was half of what was quoted by the hotel. Taxis can be booked at the airport for about the same cost but I was concerned about the negative things I’d read about rogue drivers. Also, it’s always nice to have someone waiting for you when you arrive.
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Jun 14th, 2014, 10:15 AM
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Below is the link to my blog post which goes with the text above.
http://www.wired2theworld.com/2014/0...commendations/

It includes a few photos, plus my list of resources (both web based and books) and my review of LAN airlines which I thought too long to post here.
Short version: Our flight to Lima was delayed causing a snowball effect, and always check in as early as possible because reservations codes tend to disappear and change.
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Jun 15th, 2014, 06:17 AM
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Thanks for sharing your trip to Peru with us, Kristina. We're also visiting Peru and South America for the first time in just over a month. Look forward to more from you.
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Jun 15th, 2014, 10:57 AM
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How to Plan a Visit to Machu Picchu Plus Checklist and Tips

Visiting Machu Picchu; this is the whole point of going to Peru for the first time, right? And there are so many decisions to be made before you get there.

You can, of course, have a tour company take care of all the details for you, but if you want to do it yourself, and save some money in the process then there are several steps and decisions to be made.

Do we do a tour? How do we get tickets? How do we get there? Do we spend a night up there?
Let’s tackle the questions one at a time. Also, lets assume we are not arriving to Machu Picchu via four day trek on the Inka Trail (because, um..no way) and these questions would have been taken care of for us.

Do we do a tour?

After looking at the options and considering the costs, our decision was no, we did not need to do a tour. By taking care of everything ourselves, we saved 50% over the cost of going through our hotel and probably 30% over going with an outside tour company.

To give you an example, our hotel wanted $475 per person for a day tour to Machu Picchu which included train, bus, entrance ticket, guided tour, and buffet lunch (plus lots of hand holding, I’m sure). They were also willing to sell us the tickets without the tour, but the markup was still about 40% overall.

We spent a total of $464 for the day for two of us for all the tickets (train, bus, entrance) and lunch. We also did not hire a guide for the visit to Machu Picchu itself and this was fine for us. The biggest part of the expense were the train tickets, about $155 per person R/T in Vistadome class (the only option from Urubamba). Yes, it’s an expensive day.

How do we get tickets?

Entrance tickets to Machu Picchu itself cannot be bought on site and must be purchased in advance. Only 2500 people a day are allowed entry. The government website (http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/) is notoriously difficult to use and many people give up and book tickets through an agent or a tour or their hotel. You can buy the tickets when you arrive in Peru, but do you really want to risk them being sold out for the day you want to go?

The government website for Machu Picchu will show you how many tickets are available on any given day. I went through the purchase process only to have my credit card denied. I called Visa and had the hold lifted and tried again. This time I couldn’t complete the purchase because on an issue on the web site so I emailed them. They replied within a day, saying they had “fixed an error” and that I should try again. The third try is the charm. Don’t forget to bring the print outs of the tickets and your passport with you when you visit.

You also need to decide in advance if you want to climb Huyna Picchu and buy a ticket for one of the timed entrances at 7am or 10am. We did not do this and I have no regrets, but David said he’d like to do it someday. If we’d done it on the day we visited, we would have seen nothing but fog and would have been climbing some very steep paths in the rain. Again, no regrets from me.
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Jun 15th, 2014, 07:14 PM
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I've been looking forward to this!
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Jun 15th, 2014, 07:57 PM
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Thanks Tripplanner001 and Kathie. I'm trying to cover the things I wanted to know when I was doing my research. Of course, I'll also get to where we went and what we ate later, but most of the sightseeing stuff has been covered a million times already.
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Jun 15th, 2014, 07:59 PM
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How do we get there?

Train Tickets to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)- The is the town which sits below the site of Machu Picchu ruins. You must get here in order to get there (unless you are hiking the Inca Trail). It is not possible to drive up to Aguas Calientes, one must take a train to get there. There are two train companies which service this route for tourists; Peru Rail and Inca Rail. Each cost about the same and each have several classes of service.

Again, buying tickets through the rail’s own web site can be challenging, but it can be done. Peru Rail offers packages which include buffet lunch up at MP, and also a special train called the Hiram Bingham which is a luxury train, fitted out with a white tablecloth dining car. Cost of tickets on the HB train (which runs from Cusco to AC and back only) include breakfast on the way up, buffet lunch at the hotel at MP, a guided tour of the ruins, and a dinner on the way back. All this for $800 per person. Regular tickets range from $56 to about $80 each way, depending on route and train you select.

I had issues buying the tickets from the Peru Rail site including difficulties with credit card processing and availability of tickets from Urubamba on the date we selected. I ended up emailing the Peru Rail help desk to ask about availability of tickets and got a prompt reply. I had to buy tickets from the town of Ollantaytambo and a return to Urubamba. But when I checked a month later, and the departure from Urubamba was available, I was able to switch them out via my previous email contact. We had no issues with using the tickets I bought online.

Bus tickets from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins of Macchu Picchu must be purchased there in AC unless you are with a tour. This is very easy and fast. Get off the train, walk though the market into town and follow the signs. Tickets are $18 round trip. The buses are four wheel drive Mercedes which seat about 30 people. The drive up has nineteen switchbacks and is so narrow in some places the driver had to back up to allow a bus coming down to pass. It was also very wet and muddy and we were very glad the bus had four wheel drive.
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Jun 15th, 2014, 08:09 PM
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Do we spend a night up there?

A lot of people will tell you that you need to do this to get the best bang for your buck. I think only you can decide, and for us, this was not necessary. When I looked at hotels in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo) I was shocked at the lack of value there. Room rates are uniformly high for what you get. Because we chose not to climb Huyna Picchu or felt the need to be there for “sunrise” which is often not visible due to fog, we didn’t need to get there super early.

There is one hotel right at the entrance to the ruins which starts around $1000 a night and yes, you still have to take the bus up to get there. Let’s just say this was a bit out of our budget. On top of that, the cost doesn’t even allow you early or late access to to ruins, it just ensures you are there when they open and close, if you so choose.

Instead, we chose to stay at the Tambo Del Inka and use the one train per day which goes up and returns to the station on the hotel’s grounds. This worked out perfectly for us and we didn’t feel short of time there at all. Yes, it’s a long day, but some people visit Machu Picchu from Cusco all in one day. That would be too much for me.
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Jun 16th, 2014, 01:28 PM
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You can also stay in Ollantaytambo, and take one of the early trains which will get you to Aguas Calientes before 8 am.

Of course if I had enough points to stay free at Tambo del Inka I'd do that instead!
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Jun 16th, 2014, 05:13 PM
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mlgb- That's absolutely true! Ollantaytambo looked like a cute town too, though more touristy than Urubamba.
For us, the deciding factor was certainly "bang for the buck" in using our points to stay at the TDI.
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Jun 16th, 2014, 05:15 PM
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Machu Picchu Visit Checklist

When I was doing my research I came across so many recommendations for what to see/do/bring to Machu Picchu that I had to put together a list. Mostly, I was afraid of forgetting something like my passport and the tickets, but also, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten the extra memory card or battery and I didn’t want that on this important day.

Most of the items are common sense and some are weather dependent. For example, we didn’t need sun screen or bug spray, but we did need our umbrellas and hats on the day we were there. And if you are wondering about the ear plugs or head phones, that’s for the train back where the crew puts on a “fashion show” of expensive alpaca clothing, complete with high decibel music and guy dressed in “native” costume.

Passports
Tickets to Machu Picchu
Train Tickets
Guide book
Sun screen
Bug repellant
Hat (warm or sun, depending on weather)
Extra camera battery
Extra memory cards
Water bottle
Snacks and/or packed lunch/money for food
Sunglasses
Kleenex packs and money for restrooms
Umbrella
Ear plugs/headphones for train ride back
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Jun 16th, 2014, 05:54 PM
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Tips for Making the Most of Your Visit:

Food:

There is a buffet restaurant at the hotel next to the ruins but at $40++ per person, not including drinks other than soda, it just didn’t seem worth it. Read the reviews for the buffet on Trip Advisor, they aren’t all that complimentary.

I recommend packing a lunch or eating at the snack bar. I’d planned on bringing a lunch but we didn’t do this and ended up at the snack bar where for about $25 total we had two delicious panini style warm sandwiches, beer and a frozen pisco sour. There was a place selling good looking sandwiches on the road where we waited in line for the bus but we didn’t think we’d have time to get them to go.
You can bring a small bag/backpack in with you and snacks, though I think the discourage people from bringing a full meal inside. We brought water in small bottles from our hotel and snacks like nuts and dried fruit.

Toilets:
There are toilets on the train and decent, clean, free ones at the station in Aguas Calientes. Up at Machu Picchu, the only toilets are outside the entrance to the ruins, below the snack bar. You’ll pay 1 sole to enter and take TP from a roll outside in with you if you don’t carry your own.

Machu Picchu Passport Stamp:
Right inside the entrance where you show your ticket is a small table with an ink pad and Machu Picchu stamp. I have no idea how the US government feels about souvenir stamps in one’s passport and didn’t even think about it before we did it. Too late now…

Where to get the Money Shot:
Go up. Follow the signs to the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock right after entering. It’s a bit of a slog uphill, and it won’t be the last climb of the day, but it should be your first. It’s here that you get that classic view over the ruins. It was super foggy when we arrived, but we just waited and the fog/clouds temporarily cleared, giving us the classic view over the ruins. You’ll see several llamas up here as well, happily chewing on grass and I swear, posing for pictures.
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Jun 16th, 2014, 07:48 PM
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Appreciate your tips on Macau Picchu. I've taken some notes for our trip.
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Jun 17th, 2014, 08:24 PM
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Here's the link to the post with the info on MP Planning above, plus photos.
http://www.wired2theworld.com/2014/0...list-and-tips/
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Jun 18th, 2014, 11:44 AM
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For those of you interested in cocktails, here's a cocktail I created called the "Sacred Valley", inspired by our trip:
http://www.formerchef.com/2014/06/14...isco-cocktail/
(this is my other blog).
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Jun 19th, 2014, 06:40 AM
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This is fantastic! Thanks so much for the detailed report. I'm in the very early stages of planning a trip for May 2015, and your planning tips are helpful.
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Jun 19th, 2014, 06:51 AM
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Thanks Megan!

The Road to Urubamba Peru

Even though we’d been traveling for for what felt like days by the time we arrived at the airport in Cusco, there was no way I was going to sleep in the car on the way to the Tambo Del Inka hotel in Urubamba. I got my camera out, “just in case” as the car wound its way through the outskirts of Cusco and into the mountains.

Our first impressions of Cusco were not those quaint colonial cobbled streets with whitewashed buildings you see in postcards. This was a much grittier side of the city, one which I doubt many tourists see except from the window of a car, as we did.

Soon we were outside the city and up into the high valley....

There's more, but it won't make sense without the photos here:
http://www.wired2theworld.com/2014/0...urubamba-peru/
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Jun 19th, 2014, 08:30 AM
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Enjoying all of this. The photos of the drive are excellent.
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Jun 19th, 2014, 09:40 AM
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I'm enjoying your report and photos. We were there shortly after you. We also made that drive from Cusco to Urubamba (and beyond), but it was at 4 am, which was interesting in its own way.

And if you are wondering about the ear plugs or head phones, that’s for the train back where the crew puts on a “fashion show” ....

We obviously didn't do thorough enough research in advance, and the whole fashion show thing was a surprise.
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