Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Inca Flightpath, part III....

(Note: the first part of this was written from my first Alaska Air 1st flight (award, not counter upgrade) in awhile, going LAX-SEA.  It’s typical so far- I’ve managed to get awkwardly asked if we’re here ‘as an American upgrade’…what?  Since when would that be a thing?  Plus I’ve spilled half a glass of chardonnay on my laptop…and the flight’s still young.  Wish me luck.)

The first two parts of this trip report can be found

[HERE] “The why and the how of booking this trip” and;

[HERE] “The what and the ….who?? Of a trip to Peru”

I decided to finish up this post now since I’ve been getting a lot of questions (comments, complaints) lately from friends that they can’t use their AA miles ‘for anything.’  While I understand (and fully agree) that redemptions can be difficult, and likely aren’t the best option if you have a strict itinerary you need on a short timeframe, there are still plenty of memorable experiences that can be had using AA miles.  This trip is a prime example.  If you’re able to plan well in advance, and approach it with an open ended sense of adventure, I promise there’s plenty you can use those miles for.  But, if you really don’t believe me, feel free to donate them right here…I’m happy to take them off your hands. ;)
What you can get with those miles- A seat in front of the wing down to Lima

This entry is the story of the trip once we touched down in Cusco.  First off, I should say that, despite repeated assurances from doctors, I was very very nervous about the altitude and its potential health effects on Mrs. Cruisingaltitude, as we were newly expecting BabyFlyer at the time.  Spoiler alert- all was fine, and it was probably me who noticed the thin air most when I decided that the Andes was a great place to start a swimming regimen, on account of all the pisco sours, Inca corn, buffet breakfasts & the alluring pool at Tambo. 

This is not to say that we didn’t both feel a little out of breath here and there, but overall it didn’t slow us down.  I do think staying in Urubmaba helped, bringing the altitude down to an ‘easy’ 9000ft. 

My two cents on the sacred valley- it is what you want it to be.  It has as many historic sites as you could visit, plenty of hiking, and amazing vistas wherever you look.  However, it’s also a great place to kick back, take a deep breath, and enjoy some rest and good food.  I suggest splitting the difference and doing a little of both.

The drive into the Sacred Valley- Quinoa fields and the Andes

We spent 4 nights in the valley, one of which was an all day trip to Machu Picchu.  This trip is worth it, if you haven’t been, it would be travel blasphemy to go to the sacred valley and not make the trek out there.  However, it does take at least a full day, and will likely be the most crowded part of the trip.  From someone who likes to go ‘places no one wants to be, at times no one wants to go there,’ I just felt a warning was in order.  It’s also the part of the trip where you feel the most nickel and dimed, from the train tickets, to the site tickets, to little things here and there.  Still though, you should go.  Take ‘that picture’ and put it on the holiday card.

Take "that picture," put it on the holiday card.

Getting there requires a train ticket from either the station at Tambo Del Inka, or from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, which is at the base of the mountain.  We ended up not taking the one at Tambo Del Inka because it only stops once per day, in the morning with an evening return.  From Aguas Calientes, there is a shuttle that drives up to Machu Picchu if you’re not in the mood to hike up the hill (it looked like quite a hike).

My one tip here to avoid some of the crowds, is to forgo the hype of being there early in the morning.  Unless you’re set on (and have tickets to) the hike to Huayna Picchu, or want to take your time to do the Sun Gate walk, you really don’t need all day.  Plus, arriving in the afternoon means you arrive as everyone else is leaving.  Honestly, the lighting later in the day makes the shadows even more dramatic (and can I just mention again how later in the day you might actually get pictures without approximately 354563 other tourists photobombing you??).

We were able to take our time, and feel at some points like we were the only ones there.  It also cuts way back on the time you’ll spend waiting in lines to take the shuttle to and from Aguas Calientes. 
The remainder of the days we did one sight, and gave ourselves the remainder of the day to rest and enjoy the resort.  If you’re looking for a resort-style vacation, over say hiking the Inca trail, then I can’t recommend this itinerary enough.  What’s even better is that after doing the Machu Picchu day, these side trips will feel like a fantastic deal.  You can buy a several day pass to many of the local sites for around $15 USD, thanks to the strong dollar to Sol conversion.  Further, if you get smart about it, and walk a few blocks from the hotel (leave the front gate, make a right) to the gas station in town, you can hire a taxi driver for a fraction of what Tambo will quote you.  Even without bargaining (which was expected) we were able to get a driver to take us for several hours, all included, to see the Maras salt flats, and other sites, from between $25 and $35, all in.  We’re pretty sure even at that rate we were getting hussled by local standards, but we thought it was a great deal, so everybody was happy.
Maras Salt Pools- Don't miss this one.  Also, don't get tricked by the guy trying to get the tourists to taste the water because it "tastes like ice cream."  It does not taste like ice cream.

Day trips around the valley are a great deal, and more relaxing than the crowds at Agua Calientes and Machu Picchu.


One more thing while I’m on the topic of great deals- the one part of the Machu Picchu excursion which was a steal was dinner in Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of the mountain.  It’s along the river, and has quite a few modern restaurants as well as some hotels, a natural hot spring you can hike to, and a large amount of stores and shops selling local wares as well as the general tourist purchases- shirts, stuffed alpacas, and the like.  I’d recommend grabbing a meal before heading back to Tambo.  We had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river for about $35, all inclusive.  You could easily give yourself a night in Aguas Calientes after visiting Machu Picchu to break up that part of the trip and have more time to explore the area.
River view from dinner after hiking Machu Picchu

I also have to stop and give a plug here to the main restaurant at Tambo.  Usually, the in-house place, besides risking being formulaic, would be a ridiculous mark up over heading out.  Here, however, due to the SPG Platinum discount, it really wasn’t to high, and the food was authentic and very nice.  We ended up eating there several times.   We also had the breakfast daily as a Platinum benefit, and it was extremely good.  Strangely enough, I had the best Congee I've ever that Peru.  

The main dining room at Tambo Del Inka- We had several wonderful dinners by the fireplace.

I also recommend having Tambo make you reservations at the other places in town in advance if you want to check them out.  The night before we left, we decided to give Qanela a try for some authentic local food.  The staff was very friendly, and the food was solid. 

What I’ll never forget though, was that the kitchen appeared to be in a different part of the building altogether, and the one (hilarious, very enthusiastic) waiter who spoke decent English and so was serving us and the other table sent over from Tambo, had to literally (yes, using this word in its correct application) run back and forth to get each dish.  We tried so, so hard not to laugh (too much), and he definitely earned a tip.

 What’s more, half way through dinner, the power went out entirely.  This was one of those moments where you get reminded that, despite the Dreamliner flights, and the 5 star resort service, you are in fact, in a foreign country.  Honestly, it’s needed some times.  After about 20 minutes, during which the (out of breath, flashlight-carrying) waiter hurried even faster to bring candles to the tables, the lights came back on.  He then shouted that they could now ‘make all the pisco sours!!’ ….and the dining room erupted into cheers.  What’s life without these moments, right?  I’d do it all again.
Fava bean appetizer with Maras salt


Peru is also one of the places that really brings home how very little I actually learned in my college Spanish courses.  Mexico makes me feel like I know something, because I can ask where the bathroom is and order a beer.  This is mostly because the staff at resorts in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta don’t need you to speak Spanish at all really.  In Peru, not so much.  I’d recommend brushing up on a couple things- most importantly, remind yourself how to count to 10, and then by 10s to 100.  This is how you’ll know what to pay the Taxi driver. 
A sacred valley 'traffic jam'.  Yes, that's actually 4 donkeys.

Also on the topic of money, Peru is one of the countries where it is almost impossible to exchange currency in cash unless the bills you’re exchanging are mint-perfect.  Even a tiny tear along the edge will be cause for rejection.  Go to the bank before you leave if you’re going to travel with US currency and try to get new bills.  I’ve also had this issue recently in Malaysia.  It’s both ridiculous and frustrating going around a foreign airport trying to get someone to take your money!
This was the 'damage' for which this bill was rejected...

To wrap up the report on what really was a fantastic experience all around, I’ll just give my $0.02 on the return trip.  Firstly, make sure you head back to CUZ early enough that if you get in a little traffic, you won’t be stressing.  Secondly, and in opposition to the first bit of advice, don’t bother getting to CUZ early, because the airport is crowded, disorganized, and there’s no lounges or good places to wait.  So really, good luck with all that.  I suppose if you had your planning together, a day in the city would be a good end to the trip, and better timing than doing it on the way out, because you'll have gotten used to the altitude at 9000ft, and the move to Cuzco's 11,500 won't feel as big.
I thought it was raining in was....

Our connection in LIM was late at night, but the lounges (there are 2, both contract lounges accessible by Priority Pass) were 24 hours.  The one we ended up in was fairly crowded until later, but had food, a bar etc.  I must have been tired though, because while I was exploring the lounge, I found a room with several massage chairs, and some loungers.  I was appreciating the touch when confusion set in- it seemed to be raining inside the club!?!?!  Yeah…. As it turns out, that room was actually open air, and I just couldn’t tell at night.  Couldn’t even blame jetlag, and I’m embarrassed it took me a significant amount of time to realize what was going on.  It was clearly time to head to the gate. 
The flight back was lovely, if not too short given how nice the plane was.  We arrived in good spirits & rested.  I'd do this trip again anytime, and may, as the availability is still wide open on LAN.  It was a fully enjoyable trip by all accounts, and definitely a good use of the miles and points.  Besides, it gives me one more check mark on all those lists of "places to see before you die" that Machu Picchu is always part of.  You could do a whole lot worse!
Travel well & fly safely,
Oh Tambo....I miss you already.

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