(Vicki and Mark's website is theroadgoeseveron.com and Mark's blog with lots of pictures is at roadeveron.blogspot.com
We arrived in Lima from Santiago on March 26. Our Footprints Guide (which we liked much, much less than Lonely Planet) recommended a small hotel in the historic center. It was reasonably priced but I neglected to note the weather in Lima (in the 90s) and the lack of air conditioning. It also turned out to be next to the National Stadium and very much in earshot for futbol games, rock concerts, etc. Even though it was in the oldest part of town—it was too far to walk to the main square and almost all the museums were located elsewhere. In all it was part of the dramatic difference in touring Argentina, Chile and Peru. The first two countries were really quite easy for independent travel, with just the usual type of glitches here and there. Not so Peru. Peru is definitely still a third world country, though prices for tourist services are the same or higher than Argentina and Chile.
First of all, you can't use the public transportation system. There is no metro in Lima and most buses are collectives—private, overcrowded, poorly maintained. You have to use taxis—which are unmetered so every ride needs to be negotiated in advance and then fought over at the end when the driver wants to charge you more. In Lima we had decided that the well reviewed archaeological museum would be a must see. After a $15 taxi ride, we learned that only the floor with photos of the revolution in the 1980s (all in Spanish) was open. This after we had checked the website as well as our guidebook. The Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral were nothing to write home about and again unless you wanted to walk 3 miles in the heat, cost another taxi ride. The airport is located way to the north of the city and the horrendous traffic means you need to allow 1 ½ to two hours to get there by taxi. $20 to $30 and they won't turn on the AC. Coming back to Lima after Machu Picchu required another night's stay. This time we gave up and stayed in the Miraflores suburb with the other tourists. Not much to see other than a cliffside beach walk to a shopping center. The one great thing about Lima was the Museum Lorca. This private museum had a glorious collection from all the pre-Incan civilizations as well as Incan. It was a marvelous learning opportunity. Plus the gardens were astonishingly beautiful and amidst them was a lovely restaurant with reasonable prices and excellent food. If you have to go to Lima, it is a must. One other note for Peru that makes things difficult is that they do not do daylight savings time. It is dark in March at 6:30 pm. Given that crime against tourists is high, it means a very short day if you are not on a tour.
After our less than pleasant Lima experience and reading more from our guidebooks, we decided to do most of the rest of Peru by joining local tours. This turned out to be an excellent idea. We flew to Arequipa for $175 pp. Plane was late leaving again, but our hotel was picking us up for $20. The hotel was a lovely old resort-like set of buildings. Arequipa is high, 7600 ft, so not hot like Lima. In fact, in the evening it got quite cold, but the hotel rooms even with their marble baths, had no heat. We were offered an additional blanket. Not much help getting out of the shower. Also they had a rule you were not to wash out any clothes in your room. Yet they charged US hotel prices for laundry. Oh well. The travel agency, Giordina, we were using was located next door, and they did a good job at a pretty fair price—about 15% more than if we had arranged everything ourselves. Which we could probably do now that we have been there, but would have messed up royally then. We got a lovely half day guided tour of the city, including a bonus walk through of the market. It was worth the price just to have someone explain what all the various fruits, vegetables, meats were—largest variety of everything but seafood we have have seen anywhere. And we have been to a lot of markets world wide. Also the tour of the former convent of Santa Catalina was eye opening. Not so bad to be the second daughter if your convent provided you your own house and you could bring up to two servants. Of course, your Daddy had to provide sufficient dowry—a convent not for the down and out, but for the 40 or so ruling families who still today make up much of the elite of Peru.
After two days in Arequipa adjusting to the altitude, we set off with 3 other folks on the guided tour to Colco Canyon—the deepest on earth. It is not next door—a 4-5 hr van ride and in getting there you traverse an almost 16,000 ft pass. Be sure you have started your altitude sickness meds a day in advance. (More on that later.) Unfortunately, the Dutch woman on the trip wouldn't stop arguing with guide over whether the National Park entrance fee was included in her trip. It wasn't much money, $24, but she just wouldn't let it go. The guide wouldn't either. Plus he was a part time sociology professor who loved to hear himself talk and talk and repeat and talk. He kept telling us that we probably wouldn't be able to see into the canyon because it was the rainy season, wrong time to come, don't be disappointed, etc. We got to the tiny village near Chivay where the hotel was (owned by the travel agency) in mid afternoon. After a nice lunch at the hotel the rest of the group went to the hot springs. We had planned to until we learned it was a 572 step descent with no handrails. (You can never ask too many questions—we had paid for admission in advance of course.) Since we were still feeling the altitude (the hotel was at 12,000 ft) we gave it a skip. That evening we walked the two blocks into the village drawn by the music and an earlier discussion of the festival. This was Friday following Mardi Gras on Tuesday so we had thought any celebration would be over. But these isolated villages have an eclectic mix of native religion with Catholicism and this festival started Wednesday and went through Friday. Friday was the big night with lots of folks who had moved to Arequipa coming home to dance in the village of only a hundred full time residents. For this festival, there is only one circle dance around the square but it lasts at least 6 hours every night with everyone taking a break each half hour for 5 minutes or so. There was also a separate dance in the afternoon. The costumes were magnificent—with the men all dressed as women (based on a local Romeo and Juliet folk tale). The women wear as many as half a dozen skirts, each made from 10 yards or more of material that they gather up and tie together with a belt. Don't know how they kept them on, but they did. We were the only gringos watching—definitely the real thing and a wonderful experience for us. In the next week we would see snippets of the dance performed for tourists whenever the tour bus stopped in a town to visit a church or Incan sight.
We were extremely fortunate the next day as it was clear. Our canyon visit also included about a 45 minute hike along the rim to the Condor Viewpoint, where we were again fortunate to see lots of condors—including flying beneath us, which was a particular thrill. But this is not the Grand Canyon. There are no vistas, no wide spots, it is pretty much straight down and the depth includes the mountain looming right in front of you. Frankly, it was not worth the trip. Perhaps if you took the longer trip and hiked to the bottom and back—eight hours each way for strong hikers—not for us, and not advised during the rainy season anyway. We opted to spend another night in the village and then caught the tourist bus that had been arranged—again, tourists usually don't take the local buses. The tourist buses stop for meals at special tourist buffet restaurants—really not bad fare and they peel the fruits and veggies. You cannot drink the water in Peru like you can in Argentina and Chile. The local restaurants are very local and you better have a cast iron digestive system.
Our bus was a 7 hour affair headed to Puno on Lake Titicaca with a couple of scenic stops and bathroom breaks. We arrived just after dark and were met at the bus station and driven to the hotel arranged by the travel agency. Great service when after dark in a strange city. Next morning our driver picked us up at 7 am (all the tours in Peru start early, early because of the early darkness.) for the all day trip by boat to the floating islands of Uros and the traditional island of Taquile. Our guide was excellent and even though the group was about 50, we had an interesting and informative day. Yes, it was all touristy, but these people live the life they were showing to us. Rather than performing for tourists, they were using tourist dollars to be able to continue their lifestyle. Though there were a few housing upgrades with solar panels and televisions. So far the rainy season for us has been mostly occasional showers. We were told that on Lake Titicaca (12,000 elevation) there are only two seasons—cold and wet and cold and dry. By the way you can arrange to spend the night with either of the two groups—not our thing, and I definitely would not want to have to row to another island to use the facilities.
Next day we are off on the prearranged tourist bus—Wonder Peru Expeditions--for the almost 10 hour trip to Cusco. Excellent lunch at a tourist buffet was followed by three stops—pre Incan pyramidal ruins and local museum, largest still standing Incan temple, and an amazing early Catholic/indigenous church. All the entrances were included and well worth it. Arrival in Cusco ended our tour package with Giordina.
So now Cusco. This is the epicenter of where all foreign tourists are headed in Peru. In December, we had signed up with Llama Path to do a two day Inca Trail hike. Our two day private cost $550 each—if you have another couple to go with you can bring the cost down considerably. Still it sounds crazy expensive except that just going to see Machu Picchu is already expensive. You pay for the bus from Cusco to the train in Ollantaytambo, the train to Aguas Calientes, then the bus to Machu Picchu and then the entrance fee and hiring a guide at the site. That is a minimum of about $300 pp plus our fee included one night hotel in Aguas Calientes, extra bus trip down the mountain, 1 breakfast, lunch and dinner, and entrance fee for hiking the trail. (Of course, we also tipped our guide.) Anyway we had pretty good weather with rain for only about 2 hours on our trail day. It was a steep climb but very doable at a slow pace. Most folks take about 5 hours—we took 8 and got down to Machu Picchu for the last bus down the mountain with a whole 5 minutes to spare. There is no other way down to the town so missing the bus would have been a 5 mile steep, steep hike down after dark. I pretty much flew down the last hour with lots of help from our guide.
So we spent the night in Aguas Calientes and then with our guide went back up to tour Machu Picchu the next morning. He wanted to que for the bus at 6 but I wanted breakfast at 6 so we had about a 30 minute wait. I imagine the lines are incredibly long in high season. Touring the ruins was great. Older folks may take walking sticks which I highly advise. Lots of stone steps, no handrails—The Inca didn't keep a lot of old folk servants at this royal retreat I'll bet. The cafe at the sight is decent and we spent about 3 more hours after our 2 hour guided tour was finished.
We were actually in Cusco for several days before and after the Trail as they advise a cushion in case of strikes, etc. and for most folks acclimatization to the altitude. Even after 7 days at altitude starting in Arequipa and taking 125 mg of diamox twice a day, we were still dragging and worried about climbing on the trail. So Mark went to the pharmacy where they basically only sell the 250 mg size and the pharmacist advised us to switch to that twice a day—no prescription needed. It was a big help. In Cusco we visited most of Incan tourist sights. We skipped the branch of the Lorca museum but if you don't go to it in Lima, you should go in Cusco. We bought the ticket for the 3 Cathedral sights but should have only bought the Cathedral alone. It was stunning (no photos) but the other sights were a miss. We did enjoy the new Casa Concha Museum where the artifacts that Highram Bingham took back to Yale are displayed. President Obama talked Yale into finally returning them to Peru. Of particular interest to us was a computer simulation of a visit to Machu Picchu. We spent about an hour clicking on various areas and seeing photos taken at its “discovery” and hearing experts talk about what things were. It was great in preparation for our visit. We had also read the book Turn Left at Machu Picchu while we were traveling in Argentina and Peru. The sight we liked best in Cusco was Qorikancha, where there are really impressive ruins inside the monastery grounds.
We ate at two restaurants that came highly recommended to us and they did not disappoint: Baco and Cicciolina. We stayed at the very nice and well located Tierra Viva Hotel and got a pretty good rate of about $79 a night on hotels.com—but it was low season. Breakfast there was best ever with fresh everything.
We signed up with Llama Path for an all day trip to the Sacred Valley a couple of days after our hike. We were consolidated with another company but it was still good but tiring. Basically all the tour groups go to the same three ruins as far as Ollamtaytambo again. The only biggy that we missed in our 8 days in the Cusco area was the fortress out of town where the Incas made their last stand. I'm afraid by the last day we were ruined out!
Just a word to the wise if you want to go in the rainy season. On the train to Machu Picchu I talked with a man who had been waiting in Lima for three days to fly to Cusco—everyday a new problem, weather, mechanical, etc. The day we flew back to Lima the country was hit with tremendous rainfall and flooding. Many tourists were stranded in Aguas Calientes (at Machu Picchu) where the river swept into town and they had to be helicoptered out. The mudslides and floods were so bad that Lima had to cut off its water supply for several days and residents only had bottled water or roof cisterns. Really, March is not a good time to go to Peru, and no matter when you go allow lots of time and flexibility in your schedule. We were very, very lucky.
So what did we learn from 63 days in Argentina, Chile and Peru. First, traveling by suitcase is exhausting. Our schedule was too ambitious for what we wanted to do at our age. Two or three more weeks would have been about right, but then the costs mount.
Airfare within South America $2,150 (we used miles for free fares to Buenos Aires and from Lima)
Food and Eating Out (not alcohol) $1,927 ($31 a day; 1 main meal a day plus sandwiches or snacks)
Sleeping (incl. breakfast) $4,004 (a number of places were marginal, so this is a little low at $63 night)
Travel by taxi, bus, train, etc $2,155 (where tours included trans some costs went here)
Admissions, tours, etc. $2,860 (splurges-$850 boat/bus trip over Andes, $600 extra for Inca Trail hike)
ATM fees $150
Laundry $80 (did a lot of hand laundry)
Grand Total about $13,500. Yikes! In the back of my mind, I was thinking about $10,000, but we did what we wanted to while trying to be reasonable. If budgeting again in hindsight, I would allow $10 more a day for food, and $15 for accommodations for most folks. In Europe in our RV we spend about $5,000 for two months on the same expenses, but that doesn't include capital cost of RV. But at the South American rate we would completely pay for our European RV in 5 months of use. Thank heavens for RV travel!
Adios from Barcelona. Vicki and Mark