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Peru: so much to see, so little time
Our recent Peru trip was part of a South America trip that started in Argentina. We had 6 days and 5 nights in Peru, but we definitely made the most of every minute.
Before we get started, I have to admit that Ryan and I are not the type to rest and relax on vacation. The world is a big place, our bucket list is long, and as much as I’d love to travel full time, that’s just not an option for us. Being away from our kids and Ryan’s job is tough, so 10 days at a time is usually our max, and even that is pushing it. We are very thankful that we are still able to travel as much as we do, and we try to maximize our time everywhere we go.
Our Peru itinerary may look exhausting, but it works for us. This is what we’re used to. If you have more than 5 nights, great! There is no shortage of things to see and do in Peru. I’ll point out where you may want to spend some extra time.
Tip: Get your best friend into miles and points. Nothing makes a trip better than traveling with friends. My best friend Lexie got serious about miles and points a couple years ago. Last year, we went to Costa Rica with Lexie and her husband Chris on their inaugural miles and points trip. Because what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t go?! They were certain we couldn’t top that trip, but then along came Peru. Lexie is a great planner, and she definitely deserves credit for some of the Peru planning.
Spend your money on memorable tours and fun activities in Peru, not flights and hotels
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Getting to Cusco and our hotel in the Sacred Valley
Ryan and I flew from Mendoza to Lima. Since we were arriving from Argentina, we had to clear Peru customs and immigration the same way we would have if we were flying from the US. That process did not take long at all. We had a layover before our LIM-CUZ flight, so I opened up my Priority Pass app to see which lounges were available at the Lima airport.
The domestic lounge at Lima, El Salon by Newrest, is a great place to spend a layover. Once in the lounge, you can connect to their wifi, relax, have a drink, and even take a shower. They had a food spread with lots of good options and a full bar. Their Pisco Sours were great. The best part is, it’s all free if you have Priority Pass!
Tip: Get a Priority Pass Membership (for free)
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Priority Pass allows you to access participating lounges worldwide. Rules as far as how many guests you’re allowed to bring vary depending on the credit card from which your membership comes. Guest and time limits may also vary from lounge to lounge.
After Lexie and Chris arrived in Lima, they cleared customs and met us at the lounge. It was close to dinner time so we had some snacks and drinks because we knew we would have a long drive to our hotel after landing in Cusco. Finally, we boarded our flight to Cusco. The flight was only about an hour.
Getting to Tambo del Inka
Since there were 4 of us plus our luggage, we knew we would probably need a van. I was unsure what the taxi situation would be like at Cusco, especially arriving at night, so I asked our hotel, Tambo del Inka, about booking a driver. They offered a van for $90 USD (one way). This seemed reasonable for a 90 minute drive for 4 people, so we agreed to have the hotel arrange transportation. On our final hotel bill it only showed as $76. I’m guessing the discrepancy has to do with conversion rates but I certainly had no reason to argue with a lower rate.
Tambo del Inka has a customer service desk at the Cusco airport. A hotel representative met us at baggage claim and accompanied us to the van where our driver was waiting. About 90 minutes later, we arrived at one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
The receptionist offered us Coca tea as she checked us in. Coca tea is said to help with altitude sickness. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but none of us got sick, so it’s worth a try!
Breakfast is normally $36 per person, but at check in we were offered breakfast a rate of $15 per person per day. I had read that there were not many other breakfast options nearby, so we decided to take it. It was totally worth it.
After checking in, we asked about our options for dinner. The hotel has a restaurant, and there are restaurants near the property. Actually, there is a whole town in walking distance, but more on that in a moment. We were hungry and tired after a long day of travel, so we decided to stay at the hotel. The bar serves food from Hawa (the restaurant), so we headed to the bar. The food and drinks were pricey, so we were definitely thankful our stay was free! We really enjoyed the food, though.
I’m not usually big on hotel reviews, but I think our Peru hotels, especially, Tambo del Inka, deserve a whole dedicated post. I’m working on a separate post with more details about each hotel, and I’ll go into more detail about dining options.
Tambo del Inka
Tambo del Inka is located in the Sacred Valley, which is about 90 minutes from the Cusco airport. The altitude is between that of Cusco and Machu Picchu, so it is often recommended as a good area to acclimate. There is also a train station on the property that goes go Aguas Calientes, the train station for Machu Picchu. This is definitely one of my top 5 hotels.
Tambo del Inka is a Luxury Collection resort, which is a Marriott brand. You can use Marriott Bonvoy points to book free nights at Tambo del Inka. The best part is, the amount of points required is very reasonable. The welcome bonus on the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless credit card from Chase is enough for up to 3 free nights after meeting the minimum spending requirement.
Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® credit card
Current offer: bonus_miles_full discontinued_disclaimer
Annual fee: $95. The bonus and benefits are worth a lot more than that.
Free night benefit: In addition to the nice welcome offer, you will receive a free night at each anniversary. Starting at your first anniversary of card membership, receive a free night certificate redeemable for one night worth up to 35,000 points (This benefit kicks in at your first anniversary of card membership, not when you open the card).
Though the annual fee is $95, the annual free night can be valuable. We used a certificate to book the Tambo del Inka property. This is a great value because the average rate on our dates was over $470 per night. So even if we get no other benefits out of having this card, think of it like this: we booked a $470 room for $95. Unfortunately, Tambo del Inka is now a higher category. The free night still has the potential for great values at other qualifying properties, though.
Silver status: This card also gives the cardholder automatic Marriott silver status, which is… meh. But I thought I would mention it in case anyone cares. If you spend $35,000 per year you’ll receive gold status.
Fast tack to elite status: Receive 15 Elite night credits each calendar year
If we had more time, we probably would have stayed a day or two in Cusco. There are several highly rated tours and attractions that you can visit from Cusco, plus Cusco itself is said to be a great city to experience Peruvian culture.
Day 2 in Peru: Urubamba
We arrived at night so waking up to the views from our room was the best surprise. Lexie and Chris also had a great view from their room that overlooked the Urubamba river.
We went into this trip without having any set plans for this day. We wanted to have a day between arriving in the Sacred Valley and going to Machu Picchu to acclimate and to enjoy the hotel and surrounding area.
After eating breakfast, we headed to the concierge desk to get some suggestions for the day. She mapped out a nice little plan for us.
Lexie and I needed to pick up the train tickets for Machu Picchu at the Urubamba station (which is at the hotel), so we headed to the Peru Rail office first.
Tambo del Inka is right across the street from the town of Urubamba. Tuk Tuks (taxis) are readily available, but we just walked.
There are lots of restaurants and shops, and there was a farmer’s market on the day we visited. Urubamba was a neat place to experience some authentic Peruvian culture. We ate lunch at Cafe Plaza before walking back to the hotel. The food was good and cheap, and the place was really cute.
The concierge suggested that we visit the Yacay museum. Here’s the best part: It’s FREE. The museum even paid for a taxi to and from our hotel. All we had to do was tell the concierge what time we wanted them to pick us up.
The Yacay Museo is a great place to learn about Incan culture and traditions. We were the only group there at the time, so we ended up having a private tour. The people were so nice and informative. Some of the things we learned about, such as how alpaca wool is processed, were interactive activities. We learned how to clean, spin, and dye the wool. We learned about all kinds of things such as agriculture, arts, crafts, and ceremonial traditions.
We learned how Chicha (a corn-based alcoholic beverage) is made. It is often used in pagapus offerings. Pagapus means “payment”. These offerings are a way of thanking the spirits that control nature. In Incan tradition, it is a way of giving back to the earth as a token of gratitude for natural resources.
We got to hang out with and feed the alpacas.
Dinner at Casa Colonial
After returning to the hotel, we changed and headed back to Urubamba for dinner at a restaurant suggested by the concierge, Casa Colonial. Each of the 4 of us ordered different Peruvian dishes and everything was great. Also, out of all Pisco Sours on this trip, Lexie and I liked Casa Colonial’s the best!
If you’re staying at Tambo del Inka, this is definitely a nice alternative to Hawa, the hotel restaurant. The food is great and the prices are much more reasonable. Our dinner and drinks were less than $70 per couple.
We may or may not have tried alpaca. We may or may not have actually liked it. Apparently it’s a delicacy in Peru.
Day 3 in Peru- Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu
We could have booked our Machu Picchu day through the hotel but it was cheaper to book everything ourselves. The hotel wanted $500 per person for entrance tickets, train tickets, bus tickets, a guide, and a transfer from the return train station in Ollantaytambo back to the hotel. We booked everything ourselves and our total came out to around $350 per person.
I’m going to do a detailed separate post on the logistics of visiting Machu Picchu and hiking Huayna Picchu. Rules and policies changed in 2019 and I had trouble finding current information about certain things. I think having everything in one post will be helpful to anyone trying to do Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu in one day. I’ll provide helpful tips and info in that post, including how we booked everything. Here is our Machu Picchu/Huayna Picchu timeline:
- 05:30 Breakfast at the hotel
- 06:20 Boarding begins for Vistadome train from Urubamba
- 06:50 Train departs to Aguas Calientes.
- 09:30 Arrival at Aguas Calientes train station
- 09:45 Bus transfer to Machu Picchu entrance
- 10:30 Enter Machu Picchu, head straight to Huaynapicchu Mountain for hike
- 13:00 Exit Huayna Picchu, meet guide again, grab snacks and drinks
- 13:30 Re-enter Machu Picchu with our guide
- 15:45 Leave Machu Picchu and board bus for Aguas Calientes train station
- 16:20 Board train
- 16:43 Train departs to Ollantaytambo
- 18:10 Arrival at Ollantaytambo train station where we had dinner and then caught a taxi back to Tambo del Inka
Getting to Machu Picchu from Urubamba
Breakfast at Tambo del Inka started at 5:30 which is good, because we had an early train to catch. After eating breakfast, we walked to the train station to catch the 6:50 Vistadome to Aguas Calientes. It was so nice having the train station at our hotel. The problem is, Urubamba does not have as many train options as other stations. 6:50 is the earliest Urubamba train, so if you’re trying to get to Machu Picchu earlier, you can take a 20 minute taxi ride to Ollantaytambo to catch an earlier train. Ollantaytambo has a lot more options.
The Peru Rail Vistadome train ride from Urubamba to Aguas Calientes is almost 3 hours. There was a stop in Ollantaytambo. Until we stopped in Ollantaytambo, there were only a few people in our train car. The views were stunning.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes at 9:30am. We met a representative from our tour guide’s company at the train station and she walked us to the buses. The buses are just across the street from the train station. The bus line was pretty long, but this is where hiring a guide ahead of time (to meet you at the bus station) might help. We didn’t ask questions but she got us to the front of the line. She explained that our English speaking guide would meet us at the entrance of Machu Picchu.
After a 30 minute bus ride, we were finally at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Our guide could not accompany us on the Huayna Picchu hike, but he showed us exactly where to go and where to meet him after for our Machu Picchu tour.
Huayna Picchu Hike
We entered Machu Picchu around 10:30 and headed straight to the entrance for the Huayna Picchu hike.
Note: I’ll go over this in a dedicated Machu Picchu post, but you must have a specific type of ticket for Huayna Picchu. Only 400 people per day are allowed to hike Huayna Picchu, so you will need to buy tickets early.
After signing in, we made our way up the mountain.
It took about an hour to get all the way to the top. It’s not a super long hike, but it’s steep and narrow. It was 100% worth it and we are so glad we did it. Pictures cannot do it justice, but the views were unreal.
We finished Huayna Picchu right at 1pm. We signed out and then headed back to the spot where we were to meet our guide.
We had time to grab drinks and eat a few snacks before re-entering for the Machu Picchu tour.
Getting back to Tambo del Inka from Machu Picchu
We exited Machu Picchu around 3:45pm, boarded a bus, and returned to the Aguas Calientes train station to catch our train to Ollantaytambo. We certainly earned our drinks for the day!
We were treated to a dancing Supay. This was hilarious and terrifying at the same time. In Incan tradition, Supay is the god of death. After the Spanish Conquest, “Supay” became associated with the devil. The way it was explained to us is that Supay is a satirical version of the devil.
There was a restaurant at the Ollantaytambo train station called El Albergue. Instead of returning to Urubamba to eat, we decided try El Albergue. It was just what we needed after our long day. The food and drinks were great and the prices were very reasonable. Ollantaytambo has several other restaurant options near the train station, but we went with this one because it was closest. After dinner, our waitress arranged a taxi to take us back to Tambo del Inka. It was only ~$20.
Once we arrived back at Tambo del Inka, we changed into our swimsuits and headed to the pool and spa area. The pool and spa area stays open until 11pm, which is great for those returning late from Machu Picchu.
Day 4 in Peru- Huacachina and Paracas
Paracas is one place I would recommend spending more time if possible.
Back to Lima, but not for long
We had to be up very early to catch our 8am flight back to Lima since the hotel is 90 minutes away from the Cusco airport. We arrived in Lima around 9am.
Lima to Paracas and/or Huacachina transportation logistics
Paracas is about 3 hours south of Lima. Huacachina is about an hour south of Paracas, so 4 hours from Lima. You can get a taxi, but taxi fares are high for 2 reasons. First, it’s a long drive. Second, drivers have to get back to Lima, so the rate is often charged as roundtrip even if you only need one way.
Renting a car and driving in Peru is not recommended. The most economical way to get to Paracas and/or Huacachina from Lima is by bus. If you have more time and plan to stay in Paracas for 2 or more nights, bus is probably the best way to get there from Lima. Once in Paracas, you can either take a taxi or bus if you plan to visit Huacachina. There are several bus companies, but Cruz del Sur seems to have the best reputation. To give you an idea of pricing, Lima to Paracas is about $17 for regular seating or $21 for VIP seating each way.
Another reputable bus company, PeruHop, even has a pass you can buy to do a Huacachina/Paracas tour from Lima. The pass is $119 and fits in the activities we did in one day. That’s actually where we got the idea for our tour, but we thought it might be better to spread all of the activities over 2 days and stay in Paracas over night.
Huacachina and Paracas 2 day tour from Lima
We figured with 4 of us, why not try to find a private 2 day tour? We did some research and found Jose. Jose does the exact type of tour we were looking to do. If you need a private tour guide for Paracas and Huacachina, contact Jose! You can email him at Joserebaza [at] gmail [dot com]. His contact info is also at the end of the video I’ll post below.
We told him we wanted to visit Huacachina and Paracas and possibly a winery or two. He responded with a plan and said we could customize it to our liking. The total for all 4 of us was just under $1100. Note that there is an option with an SUV instead of a van that is cheaper and may be ideal for couples. The price of the tour included all transportation, the private Huacachina dune buggy and sand boarding tour, the winery tour in Ica, and the boat tour of the Ballestas Islands from Paracas.
Ica winery and Huacachina
Jose met us at the airport and walked us to meet our driver at the van. We had a driver and guide all to ourselves for this tour. Jose gave us lots of information about Peru, their history, and their culture during our drive to Huacachina. He speaks very good English so he was also able to answer any questions we had.
We arrived in Ica where we ate lunch and then had a tour of El Catador winery. Val gave us the most entertaining tour. She was hilarious.
After downing some Pisco and wine, we headed to Huacachina, which was about a 10 minute drive. We got to see the oasis before setting out on our dune buggy and sandboarding adventure.
This was one of the best tours we’ve ever had. I really just have no words, so here is a video:
Jose made this video of our 2 day Huacachina and Paracas tour:
It was like a roller coaster ride, but I never felt unsafe. We also got to sandboard down the dunes. Jose’s dune buggy driver is an amazing photographer.
After the dunes, we headed to Paracas for the night.
Jose and Jorge dropped us off at Hotel Paracas for the evening and said they would be back at 7:30am to pick us up for the Ballestas Islands tour. They stayed at a nearby hotel.
Man, we really wanted more time at this hotel. It was such a beautiful hotel.
After checking in and dropping our luggage in our rooms, we had dinner and drinks at one of the hotel’s restaurants. The ceviche was delicious. Prices were somewhat high, but not as bad as Tambo del Inka. There are also plenty of restaurants nearby.
By the time we finished dinner, we were ready for bed as we needed to be ready to leave at 7:30 the next morning.
Day 5 in Peru- Ballestas Islands and Lima
We had a nice breakfast on the patio of our awesome suite before meeting Jose in the lobby.
Note that Hotel Paracas has a dock from which Ballestas Islands tours leave which is super convenient if you’re booking everything a la carte. The company Jose uses departs from a dock just 5 minutes away from Hotel Paracas, though.
On the way to the Ballestas Islands, we passed the Paracas Candelabra. The origin and purpose of this mysterious geoglyph is unknown.
Often called the “poor man’s Galapagos Islands”, I am surprised the Ballestas Islands do not get more attention. As cheesy as it sounds, it really felt like we were in a National Geographic production with all of the sea lions, penguins, lots of other bird species, and the beautiful scenery and rock formations.
Back to Lima
After the tour, we stopped for lunch (and some Pisco Sours), and then we headed back to Lima. We found some flamingos on the way!
We finally arrived in Lima and said our goodbyes to Jose and Jorge.
The JW Marriott is a great hotel in Lima and again, I just wish we had more time there.
They decorated Ryan and my room for his birthday. They also brought us pretty chocolates and a bottle of Pisco.
We got ready for dinner and then walked around Miraflores before stopping at a bar for some pre-dinner drinks.
Then we walked to TOSHI, which is a Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant. The food was AMAZING.
Back to reality
We were all on the same flight from Lima to Miami, so we had the hotel arrange a van to take us to the airport the next morning. It was about $60 USD.
Our flight was at 6:50am. For good reason, the hotel suggested we arrive at the airport no later than 4:30. I am so glad they warned us about the amount of time we needed to give ourselves. The American Airlines counter at the Lima airport has the most inefficient check-in process I’ve ever seen.
There are self-serve kiosks to check in and get checked luggage tags. This is fairly common, but the problem is what happened next.
Usually when there are self-serve kiosks, there is a dedicated line for those who self-tagged their bags. All you have to do is present your passport to the agent, set your bag on the scale, and that’s it. Then there is another line for full-service check in. Well, the American Airlines counter at Lima had only one line. Everyone was to use the self-service kiosk, then get in line. They would not even let someone in the line until checked bags were tagged.
There were only about 10 groups in front of us, but we quickly realized that each group was taking 5-10 minutes. We noticed that every single person in front of us was having to shift items around in their luggage to keep it under 50 pounds. This obviously is not AA’s fault, but as the line grew longer and longer, AA should have had an agent directing people to weigh their luggage before getting in line. It was extremely frustrating.
After waiting in line for over an hour, It took the 4 of us less than 1 minute to drop our bags. Soooo the reason for the wait was definitely due to people shifting items around to stay under the weight limit.
Important advice for anyone flying on American Airlines out of Lima
Don’t be that person. Weigh your bags. You can buy a portable luggage scale. Usually there is also a scale available at the airport that you can and should use before getting in line.
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It’s small and lightweight so it’s easy to bring on a trip.
Machu Picchu is usually the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Peru, but there’s so much more! We really enjoyed our time in Huacachina and Paracas. We also could have used another day in Lima to enjoy the excellent food and culture.
Spend your money on tours and all of the great things Peru has to offer, not on flights and hotels:
- The current welcome bonus on the card_name credit card is 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. That’s enough to cover a roundtrip flight between the US and Peru (subject to availability).
Both of these cards also have no foreign transaction fees. This can save lots of money when traveling internationally.
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