I started planning for this trip about 4-5 months in advance and since we were traveling off-peak, I figured that there were going to be some good deals for the taking. We’d both actually never been to South America but what better way to test the waters, than with a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu – one of the new seven wonders of the world.
The Most Complicated Points Redemption Ever
I was able to find a ton of award availability from LAX to Lima (LIM) on American Airlines and a RT flight was 70,000 points plus about $70 in fees (so 140k points + $140 for the two of us).
AA points are very easy to come by and this redemption would have been a no-brainer but the AA flight made a stop in Dallas and the total travel time was 12 hours. Obviously that’s a best case scenario too and with the possibility of delays, missed connections, etc – that was a flight I wanted to avoid if at all possible.
After some extensive research, I actually discovered that LAN Peru (One World partner with AA) had two flights a day from LAX to Lima. There was a TON of availability for revenue seats but nothing in the way of award travel though.
I called AA a bunch of times and checked availability using the British Airways search tool (LAN availability is searchable using BA.com or by calling in to AA) but still couldn’t find any award availability on the direct route with LAN. I also read on Flyertalk that LAN tends to release availability either super early (6 months+ out) or at the last minute (2 weeks before the flight). So while I wasn’t able to book the direct flight with my AA points, I was able to find a work-around.
Using the Citi Thank You Travel Portal, I saw that the LAN Peru flight we wanted was actually bookable as an American Airlines flight. Normally, I tend to avoid travel portals since you typically only get a 1-1.25 cent per point redemption rate but if you have the Citi Prestige Card, you can actually redeem your points for 1.6 cents per point on revenue flights!
I normally try to use points/miles to book directly with the airlines. But in this instance, I was actually using my Citi TY points to book a normal revenue ticket with AA/LAN Peru (but still has to be booked through Citi’s travel portal).
The direct flight that we wanted from LAX to LIM was $1,065.74 round trip for a total of $2,131.48 for the both of us including all taxes and fees. So that meant that at 1.6 cents per point I would need 133,218 Citi points AND a Citi Prestige card.
The special 1.6 cents per point on AA is only available if you have the Prestige card (you also get 1.3 cents per point on all other airlines with this card). It’s actually a decent option since you do earn miles on these types of redemptions as opposed to award travel where you do not. This flight ended up earning me 4,000 miles with AA each way for a total of over 8,000 AA miles.
At the time, I had only 68,000 Citi TY points but the Prestige card came with a 50k bonus so that got me up to 118,000 points. The Prestige had a spend requirement of $3,000 and the card also came with a hefty annual fee of $400. But, in addition to the 50k points, you also get a $250 travel credit each calendar year (which you can buy airline gc’s with), free global entry application fee ($100) and 3 free rounds of premium golf per calendar year.
Not everyone will be able to use the golf but I was able to find tee times at Monarch Beach in OC at $180/round. And since you get 3 rounds per calendar year, I’ll end up with 6 free rounds at $180/round. Now I just need someone to play with 😉
The travel credits will also work the same way so I’ll get $500 total in airline gift cards which basically negate the annual fee. I already have global entry but I will likely pay for someone else’s fee with the credit they give me.
If you’re real slick, you would apply for the card in early December and since you have 2 months from when the annual fee hits the following year, you’d actually get 3 calendar years out of this card before having to cancel. So 50k points, $750 in travel credits, 9 rounds of golf, all for a $400 annual fee.
(If you’re just getting into this hobby though, I would stay away from the high annual fee cards for now – there are plenty of other good ones to get started with).
I still needed a few more points once I was done with the Prestige so I decided to apply for a Citi Premier card for my wife which came with another 50,000 points. The nice thing about Citi is that you can easily combine points for redemptions – you just need to spend the points within 90 days after combining the points.
So when it was all said and done, I had 168,000 Citi points and I spent 131,250 of those points to buy two non-stop RT flights from LA to Peru. I got a value of 1.6 cents per point and saved over $2,100.
The total cost for these flights ended up being $0 out of pocket – not bad.
Flight to LIMA
There are two daily flights to Lima out of LA and I opted for the afternoon flight on the way out so that we would land at midnight (Lima time) and we’d also get to ride on the new Boeing 787. I haven’t read great things about 787 economy (or some 787 biz seats either for that matter) but since this is a plane I worked on at my last job, I definitely thought it would be cool to fly on it.
We were pretty anxious to get going so we left a bit early for the airport and from our new home in Long Beach, it was a nice 40 min./$31 Uber ride to the airport. (We’re about halfway in-between LAX and SNA so I’ll probably continue to try and fly out of SNA as much as possible since it’s much nicer IMO and way less crowded. I’m also looking to fly out of Long Beach airport a little more too.)
I think the general rule of thumb for international travel is to arrive 2 hours before your flight leaves and we were there 2 hours prior on the dot. There was no line to check-in and we only spent a few minutes going through security. The flight was serviced by LAN so it was in the international terminal which meant no TSA Pre but like I said, there wasn’t a long line.
The Tom Bradley Terminal was recently re-modeled and it looks great. They have all these cool modern art installations and projections on the wall – it’s very hip. I was able to use my Lounge Club membership (courtesy of the Ritz Carlton card) to get us into the KAL International lounge overlooking the terminal and I have to say I was quite impressed.
The lounge didn’t have the best reviews on LoungeBuddy but for a quick one hour pit stop before our flight, it was perfect. They had a nice selection of finger sandwiches, veggies and pretzels/chips. It wasn’t the nicest lounge I’ve ever been in but definitely worth the price of admission 😉
The staff was very attentive and the lounge also had a ton of seating. We ended up grabbing a table outside overlooking the terminal and I quickly made my way to the self-serve bar for a whiskey ginger. They had a nice selection of free alcohol and they even had some Black Label out on the counter.
LAN’s boarding process was pretty smooth and for this trip, I actually tried something new. Since I knew it was off peak and the plane likely wouldn’t be full, I booked two seats in the back (row 32) but on the aisle and the window, leaving an empty seat in-between us.
I’ve seen other couples do this so I decided to give it a try for the 9 hour flight in economy and it worked! There were about 20-30 empty seats scattered throughout the back of the plane and we got the whole row to ourselves. It wasn’t a ton of extra space, but it’s nice to not have someone sitting in the middle. If someone would have sat down, I would have offered the window (and then the aisle) so that my wife and I could sit next together.
It took a while for them to come around with drinks and we actually picked up a bunch of salads, wraps and snacks from TJ’s the day before, but the two meals LAN served were pretty decent.
For lunch, the chicken dish I ordered came in a Peruvian curry sauce and had potatoes and veggies on the side. My wife got the pasta and while it wasn’t as good, it was definitely still edible. They also served Peruvian beer so I was able to have a Cusquena before watching a movie.
The nice thing about the newer planes is that they all come with sophisticated IFE and this 787 was no different. They had a wide selection of movies, TV shows and music and each seat had a USB plug to charge your electronics. The IFE really made the flight go by pretty fast and it’s a lot easier than watching on a laptop.
3 Days In Lima
We arrived to Lima around midnight and I had read online that it’s best to go past the first wave of taxi-hawkers and find the guys who are associated with the airport but not private service. The company I found was called Green Taxi and they charged 40 soles ($12.41) to get from the airport to Miraflores (40 minutes without traffic). You can go a little further to the curb/street and find a cheaper company but they are supposedly less secure.
Considering it was midnight, I didn’t mind paying a few extra dollars for Green Taxi. During my research, it seemed like Miraflores was the best area to stay in Lima so I booked the Radisson for our first night. There was a really nice Category 8 Marriott property down the street but it was 40,000 points a night! I generally only stay at Marriott’s using free night certificates since their points rates are extremely over-priced.
Peru in general is a very cheap place to visit but the big fancy hotel chains are still quite expensive. In these types of cities, it’s best to stay away from the luxury brands (ie JW Marriott) since you can get much better value from paying cash for an Airbnb. We did book nights 2 and 3 at an Airbnb property but since we were going to be arriving so late and there’s always the chance of delays, I didn’t want to have to deal with finding/contacting our Airbnb owner at 1 am on our first night in Lima.
I ended up spending 28,500 Club Carlson points and booked a nice standard room at the Radisson Miraflores. The cash rate would have been $229.12 so we got a solid .8 cents per point (pretty good for Club Carlson) on the room. Club Carlson used to offer the second night free (which we used while in Galway on our last trip) on award stays which would have given us 1.6 cents per point but they recently got rid of that benefit. Still, not a bad use of points though.
The room was huge and had pretty much all we needed: free wi-fi and breakfast was included. The breakfast was pretty good too and you could also order off the menu which we did. Despite only staying there for about 12 hours, it was a great experience
After walking around Miraflores a bit, we took a cab from the hotel to our Airbnb property which was on the oceanfront in Miraflores near the lighthouse (El Farro).
Day 1 in Lima
As we discovered, taxis are pretty abundant in Lima and since there are no meters, it’s up to you to negotiate the price with the driver. Rates will vary depending on the quality of the car and time of day (ie you pay more during rush hour) but we didn’t have any problems hailing taxis. They are literally everywhere.
There are lots of stories of unsafe taxis in Lima but I think as long as you have a general idea of where you’re going, you should be fine. The only times I wanted a more secure taxi was when we were going to/from the airport and we had all of our luggage.
The Airbnb property we stayed at was a nice 1 bedroom apartment located right on the ocean and it only cost $134.50 per night including all taxes and fees. The owner was very easy to reach (via e-mail and/or WhatsApp) and he also made it easy to check in/out since he left the key with the doorman (I noticed that most buildings in Lima had a doorman).
We didn’t use many of the amenities in the apartment but it definitely was in a great location and had a great view. The first two days were kind of foggy but on our last day, the sun was out and the view was pretty killer.
We spent most of the first day walking around Miraflores and checking out the local sites.
Miraflores is somewhat residential so there isn’t a ton of stuff to see/do but the highlight of the day for me was definitely Huaca Pucllana, which is an old Inca site right smack dab in the middle of Lima. It’s no Machu Picchu but it was definitely a nice warm-up.
There’s an accompanying restaurant next door with the same name that we didn’t get to try but looked great. Instead, we ended up grabbing lunch at a place called La Mar which was recommended by our Airbnb owner and it turned out to be excellent.
La Mar is only open for lunch but according to Trip Advisor, it’s ranked #4 in Lima and it definitely lived up to the hype. We warmed up with a couple piscos but we really liked the free chips and dipping salsas! They are most famous for their ceviche though and it did not disappoint.
We ordered a few other things but I definitely recommend this place if you’re in the area. It’s a hip spot so there’s a bit of a wait (20-30 mins) but it was pretty empty by the time we left around 2 or 3 pm.
For dinner, we went to Panchita and it was a nice restaurant with good food but nothing extraordinary. We did get our first taste of Lomo Saltado though 🙂
Day 2 in Lima
For our second day in Lima, we headed downtown to the historic district. We grabbed a cab and got our first taste of real Lima traffic! Traffic in Lima is awful and it often takes 2-4x times as long as it should to get places but there really aren’t any better options if you can’t walk.
I really liked exploring the ‘Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco‘ since there was a cool tour and you got to see the Catacombs under the church.
The Plaza de Armas was a cool spot to hang out for a little bit but all in all, this area was a bit disappointing. There just wasn’t a whole lot of really interesting stuff to see, just your run of the mill average tourist sites.
For lunch, we headed back to Miraflores area and ate at a place called La Picanteria. I read about this place on Trip Advisor and it didn’t have a ton of reviews, nor was it ranked highly, but based off what I read, I just knew it was going to be really good.
It’s more of a locals only type place off the beaten path, but thanks to TA we were able to find it. Upon arriving, it was jam packed and the hostess told me there was a 30 minute wait. We weren’t in a rush, so we got a couple drinks at the bar, which were very good, and were eventually seated. The atmosphere was great though, with casual picnic table style seating and big portions of fish.
There was a bit of a language barrier but I was able to successfully order in Spanish. La Picanteria has an extensive menu but they are known for their fish so we ordered fish! They have fresh whole fish sitting on the counter on ice and there is a big chalkboard that denotes the type of fish, how much they weigh and how many are left.
We ordered a 1.1 kg Cabrillo and asked for half of it to come out as ceviche and the other half cooked in butter. The ceviche was amazing and obviously super fresh since the fish was caught that morning. One thing I liked about Limanian ceviche was that the chunks of fish in the ceviche are huge!
But even better than the ceviche, was the fish cooked in butter. Now I honestly don’t know what they did or how they cooked it but this was probably some of the best fish I’ve ever had. It seemed like they lightly fried it and then put it down on a plate of melted butter 🙂
After a quick siesta at the apartment, we headed over to the Magic Water Circuit around dusk. This turned out to be a really cool place with lots of different fountains of varying sizes and a great place to walk around/relax at night after a day of sight-seeing.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff around the park, and it’s best to see it at night, so afterwards, we headed back to Miraflores for dinner. We tried to eat at a place called Maido (#1 restaurant in Lima) but they only took reservations so we ate at an Italian/Peruvian place down the street called Rigoletto.
Similar to dinner the night before, this place had very good food and a very nice atmosphere but it wasn’t anything to write home about.
Day 3: Lima to Cusco
We had a few hours to kill before leaving for Cusco so we rented bikes at the nearby Larcomar Mall (20 Soles/hr) and rode down to Barranco. Now there really wasn’t a whole lot to see down there, but it was a nice bike ride along the cliffs.
For lunch, we stopped by Sangucheria La Lucha and ordered a couple sandwiches and some papas. Both of the sandwiches we ordered were surprisingly good and if you’re in the mood for a quick/casual meal, this is definitely a good option. It’s also located next to Parque Kennedy so you can hang out with the cats and eat.
After lunch, we needed to head to the airport so we packed up our bags and decided to try Uber in Lima. There weren’t a ton of taxis where we were staying but I’m sure we could have found one just by waiting on the street for a few minutes. But I didn’t mind paying a little more for Uber since it meant I’d also be able to do some business research.
Uber charged a flat-rate of 50 soles from Miraflores to the airport and it worked flawlessly. Even though I couldn’t call the driver, I was still able to order the Uber using wi-fi.
I talked to the driver a little bit on the way to the airport and from what I could understand, he was pretty happy driving for Uber. There is a lot of competition but many people use Uber in Lima because it is much safer than traditional taxis.
We arrived two hours early for our flight to Cusco and there was a bit of a wait, but after clearing security we headed to the Caral VIP Lounge at Lima Airport (domestic terminal). Since the lounge was part of ‘The Lounge Club’, we got free access via my Ritz Carlton card. We could have also gotten in using my Priority Pass card via my Citi Prestige card.
The lounge was pretty shitty though: it was tiny and had no windows. I wasn’t hungry so didn’t eat any of the food and also didn’t drink anything since I wanted to stay away from alcohol before Cusco (due to high elevation). So the first Peruvian lounge of the trip was kind of a bust although the food did look decent.
The actual flight was a pleasant surprise and reminded me of Southwest Airlines but with assigned seating. LAN Peru operates over 20 flights a day from Lima to Cusco and fortunately they all had award availability.
The best option for short-haul LAN Peru award flights is to use British Airways Avios points since they use a distance based award chart (for longer award flights on LAN, AA is the best option). And since Lima to Cusco is only 365 miles, that falls within BA’s Zone 1 award range and it only costs 4,500 miles for a one way ticket which is an absolute steal.
You can see below that two RT tickets from Lima to Cusco would have cost $591.38 but I was able to purchase them with BA Avios points for just 18,000 points and only $29.78 in taxes and fees. After subtracting the taxes/fees, that’s a redemption rate of 3.1 cents per point, which might be one of my best redemption rates ever on coach airfare!
Palacio Del Inka – Cusco
The Palacio Del Inka is a Starwood property and one of the top hotels in Cusco. I was able to snag it for 10,000 points a night for two nights and the room came with free wi-fi but no breakfast. The cash rate for the room was $518 ($259/night) including all taxes and fees but our out of pocket cost for the room was 20,000 points and $0 which meant we got a redemption rate of 2.6 cents per point.
The hotel lobby was pretty stunning and we were greeted with hot cups of coca tea upon arrival and checking in. Our room was in the corner of the hotel on the second floor which would turn out to be a big problem, but for the moment, it was a very nice room.
The location of the hotel was great and just a short 5 minute walk from the center of Cusco. It was also cool that it was literally right next to a tourist site called Qurikancha. I really enjoyed our stay at the hotel until Saturday night when we discovered that our window was right above a huge Cusco club.
We didn’t really notice any noise on Friday night but on Saturday night, you could hear the bass thumping and people screaming in the alley until 4 am when coincidentally enough, we had to get up for the first day of our trek.
There were probably only 2-3 rooms affected by all this noise, we just happened to be one of them and the old fashioned windows didn’t help much either since there was a gap that let in cold air/noise and couldn’t be shut all the way.
I wrote an e-mail to the hotel about what happened but never heard back from them.
On our first night in Cusco, we walked around the Plaza de Armas and got dinner at Sumaqcha. I found the place on TA and I’m glad I did. From the moment we walked in, the owner made us feel like family and was extraordinarily kind to us. His wife was the cook and all his kids were sitting in the front, playing, doing homework and helping out when he asked them.
We sat by the wood-burning fireplace and had a great authentic Peruvian meal. The food was solid and the total bill was pretty cheap for such a good experience. I wouldn’t say the meal was out of this world but I would definitely recommend the entire experience.
The next day, we walked around Cusco and checked out all the top tourist sites:
- Qurikancha – An old convent that has lots of grounds to explore inside and out.
- La Catedral de Cuzco – You actually get to see three churches with one ticket and they are all quite impressive.
- Plaza San Blas – A short 15 min uphill hike from Plaza de Armas but there is a nice fountain at top and a few vendors selling trinkets.
- The Company of Jesus Church – The best part about this church is the staircase that goes to the second floor lookout.
- Mercado Central de San Pedro – A bustling market with everything from street food and juices to Peruvian gifts and clothing.
For lunch, we stopped by the number one restaurant in Cusco called Cafe Morena and it was one of the best meals of the trip. They served an awesome Chica Morada and we ordered a chicken salad and pork sandwich. All of the food was delicious and I wish we could have tried more.
5 Day Salkantay Trek
Prior to the trip, I didn’t know a whole lot about Machu Picchu or the Inca Trail, but I ended up learning that there are a lot of ways that one can get to Machu Picchu. Most people take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then take the bus up to Machu Picchu in the morning, but the more adventurous option is the Inca Trail.
In the olden days, the Incas actually had six trails leading to Machu Picchu and today’s modern day ‘Inca Trail’ is what’s left of one of those original six trails. The Peruvian government only allows a certain number of hikers on the trail each day though. Porters do most of the heavy lifting (food, tents, etc) and you’re responsible for your day pack since there are no cars or horses allowed on the Inca Trail.
From what I read online, you needed to book the Inca Trail anywhere from 3-5 months in advance during September (when we wanted to go). But when I checked about 4-5 months out, almost all of September was already booked. Initially, I was pretty disappointed since I thought this meant we wouldn’t be able to hike to Machu Picchu but it turned out that there are plenty of equally thrilling alternative treks.
I read all about the alternative treks and ended up deciding on the 5 day Salkantay Trek. This seemed to be the most popular one after The Inca Trail and despite being a different trail, the only noticeable difference I could see was that we would have to spend the 4th night in Aguas Calientes at a hotel and take the bus up in the morning instead of ‘being able’ to get up at 3 am and hike into Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate at 5 am when the place opens.
It’s pretty easy to find a reputable company on Trip Advisor and I just e-mailed the top three companies and got a feel for their customer service before deciding on Alpaca Expeditions. Alpaca was very responsive to my e-mails, easy to get a hold of (Skype) and they had great reviews. They’re actually the number one rated trekking company on TA. I think what really stood out to me about their reviews though was that I kept seeing mentions of how good their food was!
The total cost for the trek was $575 and included everything but we also added on sleeping bags ($25), inflatable mats ($20), hotel upgrade ($40), Vistadome train ($65) and Huayna Picchu hike ($25) which brought the total cost to $750 per person.
Each couple also tipped out all the workers but I don’t remember exactly how much – it wasn’t a ton though. Personally, I felt like the trek was a great value. We had 6 people working for us at one point or another and there were only 8 customers on the trek.
Day 1: Salkantay Pass
After a restless night of sleep, we got up around 4:30 am and were picked up by our trekking company in a big 12 passenger van. We drove 3 hours to the trailhead (just past Molleapata) where we got our first taste of Alpaca’s cooking. It was pretty amazing how quickly they could set up, cook breakfast, provide hot water, etc.
I wasn’t too hungry but I did try a little bit of everything and before I knew it, we were off hiking.
I’d read all sorts of varying opinions and stories about how the altitude would affect us and unfortunately there really isn’t a one size fits all answer. What we did was arrive to Cusco two days prior to our hike to acclimate, stayed away from heavy meats/foods/alcohol/etc and basically just tried to ease into things. I was a bit thirsty during our time in Cusco but other than that, we both felt pretty normal, albeit a bit winded at times.
The Peruvians will all tell you that you don’t need to take any drugs, just drink Coca tea. And American doctors will all tell you to take drugs two days prior to arriving. What I do think makes a big difference though (whether you take drugs or not) is getting to Cusco at least two days early to acclimate, especially if you’re going to do a big five day hike.
On the way up to the summit of Salkantay Pass I was pretty fucking winded at times, but I never felt sick. We were hiking with three other couples and one tour guide and we all seemed to be doing pretty well at the start.
Alpaca mentions over and over that weather can change rapidly during this hike and on this first day, they were spot on. The day started off a bit cold and foggy but within an hour, most people were in t-shirts and the sun was out. Just 1-2 hours later, we were nearly at the top of the summit and it was snowing!
My body felt ok as we approached the top but my legs felt like they were in slow motion – I was barely moving! But we made it to the top right around lunch time and the cook (and his two assistants) had a tent set up and lunch was ready.
Fortunately, this was the only real rain/snow we encountered during the hike but I will say that I was somewhat inadequately prepared. My pants were soaking wet and although my gloves were waterproof, they didn’t do much to keep my hands warm. Other than that though, everything was adequately warm and dry.
Our team consisted of 8 hikers (4 couples), 1 guide, 1 cook, 2 assistant cooks and 2 horsemen (with one horse each). The horses did most of the heavy lifting the first 2 days carrying things like propane tanks, tents and duffel bags and the cooks carried the heavy stuff the last two days.
The nice thing about most of these trekking companies is that they take care of all the break-down/setup of camping sites, cooking and they even carry your stuff. The only items you’re responsible for are what you’ll need during the day. So we each hiked with a daypack that contained water (water is heavy!), extra layers, snacks, etc – basically only the stuff we’d need during the day.
We were also given a duffel bag that we would put our sleeping bag into, inflatable mat and whatever else we didn’t need during the day (extra camera batteries, extra clothes, dirty clothes, etc) and then deposit that with our horsemen/porters to be transferred for us.
After lunch, we started heading down to our campsite and this is when I started to feel the altitude a little. I wasn’t severely stricken with altitude sickness but I could definitely tell something was off. I ended up bringing up the rear for most of the afternoon and by the time we got to the campsite, I had a raging headache (and so did my wife). In fact, I think 6 of the 8 people in our group were feeling pretty shitty at this point.
After a short rest, ibuprofen and some coca tea, I started feeling better, but still had a slight headache. What’s strange is that I felt completely fine until we started descending from the summit. Usually you get sick at the top and start feeling better on your way down. Either way, the pain wasn’t unbearable and it had dissipated by morning time and was completely gone by the next afternoon.
Honestly, I think taking drugs may have helped me avoid this 12 hour headache but it really wasn’t much of an issue – just something I dealt with and then moved on from.
After dinner, we went straight to bed and when we woke up, there was a beautiful view now that the fog had dissipated.
Day 2: Long Day of Jungle
After a hot breakfast, we started off on our longest day of trekking (around 10 miles) and the terrain quickly changed from mountainous and cold to jungle and warm. Within a couple hours, we were all in t-shirts and sweating under the morning sun.
My wife was having stomach problems at this point in the trek but she pushed on and did really well despite feeling ill. Our lunch on day two was quite the feast and my favorite item was the Peruvian chicken nuggets 🙂
After lunch, we started off on what turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trek. As we winded through the mountains, the terrain was mainly flat, with a little uphill here and there and a lot of downhill, but the mountains were awe-inspiring. Every time we turned a corner, there were more of the same massive mountains but by the 4th or 5th hour, I was pretty damn tired of seeing eternal mountains.
Along the way, we crossed a ton of rivers, saw waterfalls and the scenery was reminiscent of hikes we’ve done in Hawaii and not really what I expected to see in Peru.
That night we set up a camp in a small village and we were dead tired after our longest day of hiking. The campsite was cool since we were in a very rural Peruvian village but this is when I noticed how many mosquitoes were out and about.
I ended up with a bunch of bites but I never even saw a single mosquito land on my skin. These were some type of ninja mosquitoes and there were two kinds: big fat ones that left what looked like small blood blisters on your skin, and tiny gnat-like ones that would leave little red dots on your skin.
Either way, we used a ton of bug spray but it didn’t seem to help very much. The best way to avoid the bugs was to remain covered as much as possible.
Day 3: Uphill Battle To A Beautiful Campsite With A View of Machu Picchu
I woke up on day three feeling extremely sore. We were going to bed every night around 8 pm so I wasn’t super tired but it was definitely a struggle to get up and walk around on day 3. My left foot was sore from a mysterious arch injury I suffered walking around Lima on day 1, but it wasn’t getting worse.
Once we got going though, I felt much better and one thing I learned over 5 days of hiking was that (for me at least), the less frequent and the shorter the breaks, the better. It seemed like every time we stopped for 5-10 minutes, it took a lot of energy to get me up and going again. I would have much preferred to just take quick 30-60 second standing breaks from time to time but that is one of the downfalls of hiking in a group. Everyone hikes at a different pace and you obviously don’t want to leave anyone behind.
We started the day with a short uphill hike to a local coffee farm where we picked coffee beans, roasted the beans and then crushed them to make fresh cups of coffee. I’m a big coffee drinker so this was definitely a cool experience and I will say the coffee definitely tasted better since it was so fresh.
I never knew that coffee beans grew on trees so it was also cool to see how the farm worked and operated.
From there, it was all uphill but surprisingly my body felt very good. By now, we were both well adjusted to the altitude (although we were at much lower altitude than day one) and we were able to maintain a pretty quick pace up the hill. The reward at the top was a pretty spectacular view where we rested and took some pictures.
Our campsite on day 3 was probably my favorite campsite of the trip and it even included a view of Machu Picchu in the distance. The mosquitoes were out in full force though so you couldn’t exactly lounge around outside and enjoy things.
Day 4: Down to Aguas Calientes
We woke up early on day 4 and started our trek down to Aguas Calientes. This is where my trekking poles really came in handy since it can be tough on your knees going downhill. I ended up using/relying on my trekking poles a lot (in part due to my sore foot) but I think they’re not nearly as useful on the uphill/flat parts.
The hike down was long but relatively easy and there was a lot of beautiful scenery along the way.
We finally arrived to Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon and quickly retreated to our hotel. I paid extra for an upgraded hotel room at La Cabana since the reviews on the hotel they had us at originally were not very favorable.
Overall, the hotel was pretty nice but all we really needed was a hot shower and a bed after not showering for 3 days and sleeping in the snow and jungle.
After we’d relaxed for a few hours, we walked around the town then met up with our group for one final team dinner.
Day 5: Machu Picchu
In order to get to Machu Picchu bright and early, we left our hotel at 5 am to go stand in line for the buses. The nice thing about doing all this with a trekking company is that we never really had to worry about anything. Our guide told us when and where to be places, took care of all the ticket buying and all we had to was wake up. He even came and got us from our hotel 🙂
It was raining pretty hard in the morning but that is quite typical of the weather at Machu Picchu. By 6 am, the rain had subsided and we were on our way up the mountain. It’s about a 25 minute bus ride to Machu Picchu and when we arrived there was a short wait to get inside.
It would have been nice to be able to hike in via the Inca Trail but I’ve heard that it’s often foggy in the mornings and you really can’t see much since the fog is so dense.
Our guide kind of jokingly told us to hang out for a few minutes and the fog would subside and it actually worked! Within 10-15 minutes, we started to see Machu Picchu and it was definitely cool standing there on top, looking down on MP as the fog subsided.
Our guide gave us a tour of Machu Picchu for a couple hours then we had tickets to hike Huayna Picchu. HP is the mountain you see in the back of all the iconic shots of MP and it’s about an hour of straight up hiking – mainly steep stairs.
It’s not for the faint of heights but the views at the top are insanely rewarding. After four days of hiking, we were in great shape and we zoomed to the top, passing people left and right. It felt great!
We actually saw Katy Perry while waiting in line to get into Huayna Picchu so that was kind of funny but overall I definitely recommend adding this hike onto MP. They only let two groups go up each day (800 total) so you have to book in advance but it really is a cool vantage point and it’s not too tough of a hike. Although, if you fear heights, you may not want to go all the way to the top.
After we got done with our hike, we took a few more pics around Machu Picchu and headed back to Aguas Calientes. Our tour company booked us the 3:55 Vistadome train to Tambo Del Inka and the train ride ended up being really entertaining for a few reasons.
- We sat across from two Americans who happened to also be from Los Angeles and they were actually staying at the exact same Airbnb that we had stayed at in Lima starting the next day. It was a pretty crazy coincidence.
- The train tracks winded through the mountains and had huge windows that allowed you to see everything. I don’t remember our ticket numbers but you definitely want to sit on the ‘left’ side of the train since the views are vastly superior.
- Perurail provided a ton of entertainment during the ride, including a weird clown that danced to freaky music and a Peruvian fashion show.
The train was pretty fast but it took almost two hours to get from Ollantaytambo to Tambo del Inka (our hotel). It wasn’t very far either, the train was just going excruciatingly slow, I mean cars were zipping by us and I think I even saw a couple bicyclists pass us. We definitely should have gotten off in Ollantaytambo and gotten a taxi the rest of the way because it probably would have saved us an hour or so. Our friends from the trek took a later train (and got off in Ollantaytambo where a van was waiting for them) and had to stop off at our hotel to drop off our luggage and they arrived just a few minutes after us.
Overall, the 5 day hike was extremely satisfying though. The first day of trekking was by far the toughest but each day had its own challenges. I think at some point or another, nearly everyone was sick, or injured, or not feeling well, but we all pushed through it.
We were lucky to have an awesome guide, amazing food and beautiful scenery. We saw stuff that you would never be able to see by car or even on a day trip. But there are lots of beautiful hikes and treks all over the world. What made this one so special was that the 4 days of hiking all led up to us seeing Machu Picchu.
Tambo Del Inka
Up until this point, our accommodations hadn’t really stood out much, but that all changed with Tambo del Inka. This resort was exactly what we needed after 5 days of hiking.
The room itself was pretty big, about the size of a small suite. It had a nice big king bed, walk-in closet, small table with chairs, large bathroom (with separate shower/tub and toilet) and plenty of space.
We ended up ordering room service that night and the service the entire time was great. The food wasn’t out of this world, but the prices were actually pretty reasonable. Before this stay, I couldn’t even remember the last time I ordered room service since the prices are usually so astronomical. But I was more than happy to have all of our meals here delivered to us.
The hotel itself was beautiful. The lobby had 30 foot ceilings and there was a ton of lounge seating, a separate bar/casual restaurant, a more fancy restaurant plus all of the normal amenities of a nice resort. We ended up just relaxing on that first night, but the next day we walked around the grounds and then hung out at the pool for a couple hours. The pool was awesome: half of it was indoors and the other half was outdoors. My only complaint was that there was no jacuzzi! Although the men’s locker room had a sauna and the women’s locker room did have a small hot tub.
We spent a couple hours at the pool and they were also kind enough to give us a late check out so we ordered a cab through the hotel and left after lunch. At the time of booking, the Superior Room that we wanted would have cost $416/night. That’s pretty damn expensive for a Peruvian hotel but with points, it was well worth it!
The cash rate including all fees and taxes was $416 but we paid 12,000 points and $0 so we ended up getting an awesome value of 3.5 cents per point! I really think the best use of Starwood points is for their luxury properties since these are places that normal people like me would never be able to afford otherwise. It’s always a cool feeling knowing that people around you paid thousands of dollars for their room and you paid nothing.
Cusco Lounge at the Airport
The Cusco airport actually had a pretty nice lounge for us to hang out in and again I was able to get access via my Lounge Club Membership/Ritz Carlton card (this card really came in handy for lounges on this trip!). We ordered a couple drinks but mainly just hung out and relaxed until our flight. The lounge was outside security but the desk agent told me it only takes about 10 minutes to get through. So we hung out for a couple hours and then we were off to Lima.
7 Hour Layover at LIM
Originally, I had planned on a 7 hour layover so that we could go back into Lima, grab dinner, walk around a bit and then head back to the airport. There is a place where you can store your luggage at LIM and it’s only about a 40 min. taxi ride back to the city (without traffic). But after our first few days in Lima and 5 days of trekking, we were more than happy to wait it out at the Lima airport. This is where lounge access really comes in handy since we ended up hanging out in the VIP lounge for almost 5-6 hours!
The lounge itself was pretty big and there was plenty of seating and lots of different ‘rooms’ you could hang out in. We spent most of our time in the main foyer and the ‘LaZBoy room’ but it was a good opportunity for me to catch up on some e-mails, start writing some of the trip report, and finish out the last couple episodes of Narcos.
I was able to get access with my Lounge Club Membership but Priority Pass also would have worked. In fact, I think every lounge we went to during the trip accepted either membership.
LIM -> LAX
The plane was completely full on the way back to LA so we wouldn’t have an empty middle seat this time around but when we checked into our CUS to LIM flight (also with Lan Peru), I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask the agent how much it would cost to upgrade to an exit row.
I guess I’ve gotten so used to American airlines that nickel and dime you for things like exit row upgrades that when she told me she could upgrade us for free, I was pretty shocked. I kept thinking it was some kind of joke but we ended up getting two exit row seats right next to each other which made the 9 hour flight much more enjoyable!
The boarding process in Lima was kind of a mess to say the least, it was almost as if they haven’t been doing that same exact flight at the same exact time every single night for the past two years, but eventually we all got on. We took the red-eye back and since we were in the exit row, it actually wasn’t a bad night of sleep.
Before we knew it, most of the flight time had elapsed and we were almost back in Los Angeles. When we arrived, we were able to bypass the customs line (although it was pretty short) using our Global Entry and then we took a rental car shuttle off airport property and called an Uber. Uber still isn’t allowed to do pick-ups at LAX so it was a bit of a hassle to do this, but still better than taking a taxi.