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Goway Destination Expert
I’ve always wanted to go to Peru ever since I was young. I was fascinated by the culture, along with amazing sights to see like Machu Picchu. Time went by and before I was able to see first-hand the wonders of the Incas, I experienced first-hand the wonders of motherhood. So, my dream trip to Peru remained on hold until the kids were older.
I waited until my boys Kieran and Riley were 13 and 10, respectively. I thought they would be old enough to physically handle the hiking and hopefully old enough to appreciate the experience. I began to plan our family vacation, something very different to our regular trips back home to Australia, or on all-inclusive Caribbean destinations.
We flew into Lima with Air Canada Rouge the last week of summer holidays and apparently, on the busiest day of the year recorded at Pearson Airport which was intimidating. Still, the airport wasn’t that bad, and our flight had so many empty seats that I moved to have an exit row seat to myself. Luck some befalls travelers. The direct flight is about 8 hours, leaving early evening. That’s a piece of cake when you fly to Australia every two years.
Our local guide was waiting for us when we arrived late in the evening, or more precisely VERY early in the morning. Standing there with our name on a sign, they were full of life for this time of the morning. We then walked through the pulsing throng of humanity that Lima Airport sees at almost every hour of the day. We finally reached our air-conditioned van for the drive to our hotel in the downtown Lima suburb of Miraflores. It was an easy drive into town at this time of the morning – about 30 minutes. During peak hours, the transit time can be substantially longer!
I was pleasantly surprised to find that our meet and greet representative even came to the hotel reception to ensure our check-in ran smoothly. With a very tired family – remember a 10 and 13-year old – this little extra touch was much appreciated. As it was 3am by the time we got to bed we were thankful for a sleep in on the first day.
The great thing about this trip is that it was totally customized in terms of duration, timing, and privacy. Our tour started at 1pm so we had free time in the morning to relax. The kids wanted to play in the heated pool in the morning. I had never experienced a private tour so this was a real treat for me. The Novotel had small, compact rooms but the décor in the communal areas such as the lobby and dining rooms were very modern.
Our guide Amalia was waiting for us at 1pm and we were away. The private tour was great. it meant our itinerary was flexible, and we could do whatever we wanted without worrying about anyone else.
Amalia showed us Miraflores, a trendy area by the Pacific Ocean, and Lovers Park for great views. Our next stop was the Old City where we saw colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, and the heavily guarded Presidential Palace in the main square. We found lots of people selling selfie sticks among other local handicrafts, my boys were particularly interested in the giant churros. We hadn’t eaten lunch so we stopped at a place to try chicharron which was braised pork in a bun. The meat was so succulent and juicy and I made a note of trying it again on this trip. One thing I found interesting is that we drove by Incan ruins in the middle of town, they were small ones but nonetheless, open to visit and climb. The tour continued with a brief visit to a monastery, after which Amalia asked us where we wanted to go. We wanted to eat dinner back in Miraflores so Amalia dropped us off there.
We ate dinner at Mangos restaurant in an area called Larcomar. It’s located on a cliffside shopping mall with walkways and steps to other shops and restaurants. This is a bustling, modern place reflecting the wealth that is in Lima and Peru. We sat at a table where we could see the ocean and handgliders sailing right by our restaurant. We ordered ceviche, octopus, antecuchos (beef heart skewers), and seafood rice. The kids ate pasta.
Everything was flavourful and lived up to Peru’s well-deserved reputation for some of the best culinary offerings in the world.
We caught a taxi back, negotiating that price before we got in. Our guides gave us an indication of how much it would be beforehand so we knew what the going rate was. Expert tip – negotiate before you get in and pay only that. Tip if you like.
The next day was an early start with a flight to Cusco, the ancient Incan capital. The national flight check in rule is 2 hours before a domestic flight, but it only took 25 minutes on a Sunday morning. Still, better early than miss your flight is the travel credo!
We flew Lima to Cusco and were warned about the high altitude before coming here but we didn’t have any medication to combat it. We found the airport selling pills for high altitude as well as coca candies in a pack, so I bought 2 packs of pills and 3 bags of candy to last us through our trip. Kieran seemed to be up in arms as he was googling that cocaine was made from the coca leaves and that he was being asked to take drugs so he was very resistant – very self-aware child – but in the end took them too.
Coca leaves are legal to chew and can be found everywhere. You take them like chewing tobacco and spit them out. To get any benefit you need to chew for a looong time. Also, word to the wise? It is most definitely an acquired taste!
Our guide Renato was waiting for us. Our ride seemed to be stuck behind a political convoy as elections were coming up in the country. We were all very conscious of our breathing and heart rate landing here. We kept checking our Fitbits to see if our heart beats were normal. We were at an altitude of 3500m above sea level and were told by our guide that people here naturally have more red blood cells than others and so have more oxygen circulating around their body.
We drove out of Cusco, past shanty towns into Poroy, and into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
We stopped in Chinchero, a small weaving town and saw a demonstration of how the local indigenous population make sheep, llama and alpaca wool into clothing. I thought the kids would be bored but even they were engaged by this fascinating process. We also learned about natural detergents derived from rocks, plus natural colour dyes from odd miscellaneous things such as plants, corn, salt, and live beetles off a cactus. Every natural resource is used to weave the wool, right down to the llama bone as a weaving instrument. Peru is equally famed for its textiles, and purchasing opportunities abound, ranging from local markets to high end boutiques in the cities.
Across the road, they had a small alpaca farm where the kids got to feed llamas, alpacas and vicunas. The whole trip we kept confusing llamas and alpacas! The easiest difference to spot is that llamas have banana shaped ears and alpacas have more pointy ears. They can all spit though.
The scenery heading into Urubamba Valley was amazing. This valley, and river of the same name, lead down and past Machu Picchu and flow right to the Amazon River, where the waters journey through Brazil and out to the Atlantic Ocean!
We stopped to have a buffet lunch in the valley, trying all kinds of Peruvian food. I liked trying all the meat dishes, but Kieran discovered Inka Cola, his new drink of choice, which he said tasted like Fanta creaming soda.
Our hotel for two nights was Casa Andina Premium Valle Sagrado Hotel and Villas. This wonderful hotel is spread out across beautiful grounds, with the main building being reception and dining and the hotel rooms in a villa style, spread out across beautiful grounds surrounded by mountains. The kids compared it to New Zealand. When we arrived, it was so hot that I put on shorts, but then the sun went down and at night it was very cold, so believe anyone who tells you to dress in layers here. You have to pack for all kinds of weather.
I tried alpaca for dinner that night and felt guilty, as I had had a grand time feeding them and taking photos earlier in the afternoon. It was here that we experienced what being at high altitude was, we seemed to be short of breath just walking from the restaurant back to our rooms at night.
The next day, Renato came to pick us up and took us to the Pisac Market where you can find the locals selling their wares, from fruits to clothing, and good souvenir shopping. I was particularly interested in the baby alpaca jumpers (that’s Australian for sweater) and the wraps. I got myself one of each.
After lunch our last stop was Ollantaytambo – a living Inca town and hub for both trains and treks to Machu Picchu. This was a bumpy ride on the cobblestones, but when we arrived I was surprised to see it milling with tourists, with a main square and lots of restaurants, shops and hotels. Certainly a happening place.
After walking through the village and the nearby markets, we climbed the ruins. Renato assured us this was the real test and that we had passed after walking all around it. It was very scenic at the top and everywhere we turned was a panoramic photo opportunity. Ollantaytambo was the only place that the Incas held off the Spanish in battle as they retreated down the Sacred Valley and into the Amazon.
Although we had passed the test I wasn’t sure how we would fare at Machu Picchu, especially if we were out of breath here. He said not to worry, because we had already spent two days here, and Machu Picchu was at an even lower altitude.
The next day was our Machu Picchu visit – the centerpiece of our whole trip. We packed overnight bags and left our bigger luggage behind, where it was taken back to Cusco.
At Ollantaytambo train station, we waited for our Vistadome train. With frequent trains coming in every half hour, the windows are nice and big, designed for viewing the passing landscapes. We passed lots of rivers and mountains and could see snowcapped ones in the distance which made it a picturesque 90-minute journey. On arrival in Aguas Calientes, we met our guide Abraham, who took us to our hotel and dropped our bags off.
Machu Picchu has two entry times – a morning session 6am to 12pm and an afternoon session 12pm to 5.30pm. We caught the bus up at 11am and entered on the afternoon ticket. They are very strict with these tickets and boarding the train and entering into Machu Picchu, we needed to carry and present our passports.
The bus ride up to Machu Picchu takes about 25 minutes and is very scenic too. It winds its way up the mountains and you get some great views of the area. Once at the top, you queue with everyone else to enter the grounds. While open 365 days of the year, Machu Picchu has no real “low season” so be prepared for crowds.
There were a few steps to climb up to an area where you can get a great picture of the whole complex with famed Huayna Picchu in the background. Everyone is there, all trying to get their pictures in different poses. Abraham took us around the ruins and explained things. What the Incan believed, why things were built and why it took almost 100 years to build it between 1450 to 1540. He pointed out the different rooms and what they were used for. We learned how the Inca were like astronomers, using the skies, the sun, and the stars to determine their way of life.
After the tour, we enjoyed free time to walk around. I thought it would be a good idea walk to the Inca Bridge. I had to convince two tired kids that it would be worth it. I eventually won that battle. Half the task was finding our way back up because all the pathways were pointing to the way out. We finally persuaded the guards to let us back in so we could continue our climb back up. There was a lot of complaining from the kids and I felt guilty, but further up we found some good vantage points for views of the grounds, even better than we had seen earlier with our guide which made us all think this was great. We made it to the Inca Bridge past some narrow tracks following steep cliffside drops. Kieran kept pointing out to me how I was leading the family down a very dangerous path. We found that on the way back the majority of people had already exited and we were able to take more pictures with hardly anyone around, so we were all glad we had stayed longer to explore.
Back in Aguas Calientes at the foot of the ruins, our hotel’s great location meant we were close to many shops and restaurants. We found a place that had a variety of food and our host was very gracious. His English was excellent and he was able to recommend things to try and gave us a free dessert. My sons kept teasing me this whole trip saying they wanted to try guinea pig knowing I would refuse to eat one and I told them I would also refuse to pay for them to try it.
We had paid for a second entrance ticket to Machu Picchu for the next morning and woke early enough to enter at 8am (6am is a stretch with kids). We hiked the Sun Gate, which was 2.5 hours round trip. The Sun Gate is the famed entrance via which Inca Trail walkers enter Machu Picchu, and it offers stunning views. We had enough time to soak in the scenery one last time, take more pictures and then leave. We made sure we passed the office that was stamping passports on the way out, getting our Machu Picchu stamp.
It was then back to Cusco where we spent the next day exploring. The downtown core seems very European with narrow cobblestone streets and the main square Plaza des Armas home to two large churches and colonial buildings. We visited the San Pedro markets, where the kids found pigs heads in their entirety and other interesting animal carcasses. Local butchers are a little bit different than those in the big cities or here in North America! One of the staple foods here is corn, big white giant corn. The corn itself I didn’t find as tasty as the yellow ones we have back in Canada but Kieran found these bags of giant sweet popcorn and raided one stall buying bags for 1 sole each. (40 cents CA / 30 cents USD). Peru has the most types of corn or maize anywhere in the world!
We had a tour planned in the afternoon, taking us into the cathedral, Qorikancha (Koricanhca – an Incan palace), Sacsayhuaman (you can just say ‘sexy woman’ if that’s easier), Puca Pucara and Q’encho. It was a fitting end to our Peru adventures before flying onto Argentina and the awesome Iguassu Falls.
And… we managed to avoid eating guinea pig!
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