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November 12, 2008

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Where's Sarah ...                 Peru



Destination: Peru
Adventure and luxury await in the Andes and the Amazon.
By Sarah Smith

My first tip for traveling in Peru: When LAN, the biggest airline in the country, advises you to arrive two hours before your flight, even a domestic one, listen to them. This may be a country where you'll pass burros on the road and have to drink bottled water, but they take air travel seriously.

More on our hard earned lessons later, because our first few flights went off beautifully. My husband Marc and I had just been married in a small town in Illinois, so we flew on American Airlines from Chicago to Miami to catch a plane to Lima. The five-hour flight was not very full, so we were able to each take a row to try to sleep. It worked better for me, because the cushions in Marc's row were a little old and came detached from the seat. Once we landed and ran the gamut of taxi drivers (inside the airport) to make it from the international terminal to the domestic one, we caught our plane to Cusco.

We thought LAN was wise to board this smaller, domestic plane from the front and back; it made the boarding process very smooth, though the waiting area (used by several airlines) was chaotic. Happily for us, our lovely little hotel, the Pension Alemana, sent a cab to meet us at the airport, about a 15-minute ride.

A small city that was once the heart of the Inca empire (legend held that the main square was the "navel of the world"), Cusco is easy for tourists to enjoy. There are tons of restaurants, Internet cafes, banks, and, of course, sites to see. We stayed in San Blas, a charming area up the hill from the Plaza de Armas, the main square. And while we loved our cozy room and the kind people who worked at the Pension Alemana, we'd recommend you ask for the one room off the courtyard that doesn't have any rooms above or next to it — we could hear too many voices at night! Pension Alemana, Tandapata 260, Tel: 51-84-226861.

Our first full day was a Sunday, so we found our way to the local bus station to take a small bus to Pisac, a town about 20 miles away from Cusco famous for its Sunday market and Inca ruins. The bus cost just over two soles (less than one U.S. dollar). We were a bit overwhelmed by all the vendors at the bustling market, but soon learned that most craft sellers in Pisac (and Cusco) offer essentially the same goods. So if you find something you like, just go for it, but be sure to bargain!

We then walked up to the Pisac ruins (you can also get a taxi to take you), which took about 45 minutes and was fairly steep. These were the first ruins we'd seen, and though in retrospect after Machu Picchu, they are small and historically less significant, they're worth the hike. The view of the Andes is incredible and the buildings are complete enough to give a sense of the Inca's impressive architectural knowledge.

Back in Cusco for two more days, we visited more of the tourist circuit. The two not-to-be-missed sites are Sacsawaman and the Cathedral.

Sacsawaman is an Inca fortress on the hill on the outskirts of the city. Again, you can get a taxi from town, but it's only a 20-minute walk from San Blas. With its massive series of walls and ceremonial plaza, Sacsayhuaman is one of the few locations that the Incas managed to take back from the invading Spaniards (only to lose it again eventually). The rocks are enormous. Just ponder what it took to build these impressive walls and you get a sense of the power of the Inca empire.

Back on the Plaza de Armas, Cusco's main cathedral is a huge and moving example of the way this country's people have blended their traditional beliefs with Catholicism. Don't miss the painting of The Last Supper, where Jesus is being served guinea pig, a local delicacy. An informative audio tour is included with the entry fee. We were amazed, after touring the beautiful building with its silver-plated altar, intricate carvings, and lush chapels, to see the very first cross brought to Peru. It's simple and wooden, and it's amazing that it started so much.

A couple of other stops if you have time in Cusco: Qorikancha is an Inca temple topped by a Spanish church. There's an Inca wall there that withstood the 1950 earthquake, even as the church crumbled around it. The Incas were on to something with their big stones and careful masonry; too bad the Spanish didn't learn from them! Skip the attached museum; it's underground, uninteresting and a little smelly. We also enjoyed an evening of traditional Peruvian dancing at the Centro Cusco de Arte Nativo Danzas Folkloricas. Great costumes!

To get to Aguas Calientes, the town below the famed Machu Picchu citadel, we sprang for the wonderful Vistadome train, which has windows in the roof to see the scenery. It's more expensive than the Backpacker train, but tickets for either should be reserved ahead of time—they can sell out, and it's worth an international call to Peru if the Peru Rail website isn't working, which is common. (Peru Rail,, Tel: 51-84-581414). We were served a lovely breakfast, and the three-and-a-half hour trip flew by, as we gawked out the windows at the Andes. Once in Aguas Calientes, we were met by a member of the Inkaterra staff, and that's when we realized we weren't just in a new city ... We were in a whole new world. Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Tel: 800-442-5042.

While we loved our little hotel in Cusco, we were blown away by Inkaterra's beautiful Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. Ready for lunch? Just show up at one of the two gourmet restaurants and provide your room number. (We learned to say ours in Spanish, though it wasn't necessary; Inkaterra's employees are impressively fluent, as well as well-educated about the region's flora, fauna and history). Interested in the grounds or the birds? Head over to the eco-center and sign up for a tour. A staffer even offered to go buy our Machu Picchu bus and entrance tickets, but we drew the line at that much coddling. We headed into town to buy them ourselves, but were grateful we'd been warned that the bus tickets need to be bought in dollars and the entrance tickets in soles.

The Inkaterra staff packed us a lunch to take up to Machu Picchu the next day, and we left on the very first bus of the day at 5:30am ... make that the eleventh bus. Even in September, the end of the high season, there were already enough people to fill 20 small buses.

Once there, we headed immediately to Huayna Picchu. That's the big mountain behind the citadel you see in every gorgeous shot of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to climb it each day, so it's wise to get to the line right away.

As we started up, we quickly learned why it's important to sign in at the trailhead. This is not a mountain for anyone with any fear of heights. Though it's not terribly strenuous (the stairs are steep and there are many, but you can rest along the way), it is frightening. No barriers, just steep drops. Thrilling! Though I witnessed several young women coming down in tears (walking down these steep stairs will give anyone's heart a little lurch), we managed to get up and down without any major freak-outs. Phew!

Midday at Machu Picchu is not ideal for appreciating the majesty of the place. It's the time when the tour buses and day-trippers take over, with dueling tour guides trying to squeeze their groups into the small temples and rooms. However, staying overnight in Aguas Calientes is the way to go. After 3pm but before 5pm, when the site closes, is when you can really see why the Incas chose this incredible location to build such an important site.

After we bade a sad goodbye to Inkaterra, we took the perfectly pleasant Backpacker train as far as Ollantaytambo, one of the towns in the Sacred Valley that connects Cusco with Machu Picchu. There, we checked in at the "train station hotel", El Albergue, which sits right on the platform. It's a pleasant-looking place inside, but we were a bit disappointed. The smells and sounds of the train don't really subside until late in the evening and it's a rather long walk to get to the town's plaza.

We'd also thought that the hotel itself rented bikes ... perhaps because their website says "we have bicycles for rent here at El Albergue." They don't, but the front desk clerk did make a call to help find us a guide. We met with him, and after much confusion (our fault, due to the very little Spanish we spoke), we sorted things out, thanks to the help of the owner of KB Hostal in town. (He actually does rent bikes.) We took a mountain bike ride to two sites: Moray, where the Incas tested their agricultural processes, and Salineras, salt flats that have been in use for hundreds of years. We were a little ruin-ed out by this point, so the salt flats were the highlight of the day for us. However, I have to warn any novice mountain bikers: This trip is not for wimps! All the rocky downhill riding terrified me. My husband, an experienced biker, felt the route was fairly advanced. El Albergue, Tel: 51-84-204014.

Exhausted, dirty and relieved to be alive, we ate a meal at the hotel that night, and I reconfirmed that the El Albergue staff had ordered us a taxi to take us to the airport the next morning for our next stop: Puerto Maldonado. And though I spoke with several people about it, I was extraordinarily frustrated the next morning to learn from the driver that it isn't 45 minutes to the Cusco airport, as I'd been told, but an hour and 40 minutes. This was not a language barrier problem: We went over the time I wanted to be at the airport (two hours before the flight!) several times, and I was repeatedly reassured that 45 minutes was plenty of time. Our driver did the best he could, but we still arrived at the airport 55 minutes before our flight was scheduled to leave. Fortunately, there are two flights a day to Puerto Maldonado and not only had we bought tickets for the earlier flight, but there were seats available on the later one.

Once in Puerto Maldonado, we were incredibly relieved, as you can imagine, to be met by more Inkaterra representatives. We felt like we'd be well taken care of again and we were right.

After a brief and refreshing stop at the resort's Butterfly House near the airport to take care of check-in details, we headed off to the main lodge. Getting to Inkaterra's Reserva Amazonica is part of the thrill. After a 15-minute drive through the motorcycle-filled town, we and a handful of other guests took a small motorboat ride about 50 minutes along the Madre de Dios river. In case you don't quite feel like you're getting away from it all yet, this boat trip will do the trick.

The lodge is the perfect blend of rustic and elegant. While in the Inkaterra buildings (the lovely main lodge with its soaring roof as well as our private and lovely cabana), we felt like we were in the jungle—but without too much dirt and grime. There's plenty of time to get sweaty and dusty on the exciting, active excursions. You may as well come back to a serene dinner, a comfy hammock and a cozy bed.

On the River by Night excursion our first evening, our guides located capybara and caymans for us to see on the riverbanks. It gets very dark at night—there's just one little light bulb in each cabana, near the bathroom—but the lanterns placed all around give the place a beautiful, magical air. The next morning, we had the most unusual wake-up call. At 5am, an Inkaterra employee knocked loudly but not rudely on our window. Because of the mosquito netting around the bed, we didn't feel exposed by having someone so close telling us it was time for breakfast.

Our second day, we took two excursions: The Canopy Walk and a hiking and boating trip to Lake Sandoval. I recommend both. The Canopy Walk, a series of narrow, swinging bridges high in the treetops, is especially great for bird-lovers, but just strolling among the trees is an amazing experience. At Lake Sandoval, we saw many monkeys and beautiful birds and hiked back to the lodge in the dark. The rainforest at night is not a quiet place. The sounds that start up at dusk are unlike any I'd heard before!

Inkaterra is connected with an NGO, the Inkaterra Foundation, which conserves and maintains the ecology of the region (both at Reserva Amazonica and Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel). Both sites also assure guests that their stays are carbon neutral. It was nice to know that our visit didn't harm the beautiful things we saw.

It took a boat ride, a bus trip, three flights, and a taxi to make it back to New York City, but that's as it should be. We've never felt so transported to another world as we did in Peru.

*Please tell us what you think of this story!

Sarah Smith, a senior editor at Parenting magazine, lives a block away from the greatest thing in New York City: Central Park. She loves outdoor adventures and camping as much as good food and cool museums. Back when she edited the travel section at Ladies' Home Journal, she started a list of all the places she wanted to visit. Here's another one crossed off!

Pics From The Trip


Off to Cusco on LAN


Outside Pension Alemana


Our cozy room


The serene courtyard


Bustling Pisac market


Pisac ruins


Santo Domingo church arch atop Qorikancha ruins


Fortress rock at Sacsayhuaman


View of Sacsayhuaman


Plaza de Armas and Cathedral


Dancing at at the Centro Cusco de Arte Nativo Danzas Folkloricas


On the Vistadome


The Vistadome passes Inkaterra


Our Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel room


Lunch at Inkaterra Machu Picchu


Outside our Machu Picchu hotel room


Heading up Huayna Picchu


Trusting Inca architecture atop Huayna Picchu


Huyana Picchu


Machu Picchu


Agricultural terraces at Machu Picchu


Llamas at Machu Picchu


A bicycling break at Moray


Harvesting salt at Salineras


El Albergue hotel room


On our way to Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica


The journey’s half the fun!


Our cabana


Inside our cabana


Beautiful canopy walk


Boat trip to Lake Sandoval


Sailing at sunset


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