Peru: So much more than Machu Picchu

When one thinks of Peru, Machu Picchu immediately comes to mind. And yes, it is unbelievable. The view of the antique Incan archeological site with the Huayna Picchu mountain towering behind is an experience many people will describe as second to none. We were mesmerized by the scene and found ourselves speechless while fully taking in the majesticness of the citadel rediscovered by Hiram Bingham just a little over 100 years ago. Yet on our journey to the site itself we discovered, as did Bingham many many years ago, that there so much more to Peru than Machu Picchu itself.

Lima: Foodie Heaven

Our first stop in our journey across Peru was Lima. We were somewhat skeptical about what our experience in Lima would be like. We had heard mixed reviews from friends back home who had made the trip as well as from various sites we had reviewed. People seem to either love it or see it as a necessary stop along the way to other tourists destinations in Peru. We actually loved it!

We stayed in the Miraflores district right across from the Larcomar Shopping Center and minutes walk from various must see attractions and restaurants galore. Lima is a very modern and cosmopolitan city. We also found it to be very clean and felt really  safe. There are endless opportunities ranging from shopping, an upbeat nightlife to paragliding off the sheer cliffs next to the seaside.

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Walking the streets alongside the Malecón de Miraflores hearing the waves crash on the seaside is a great way to spend an afternoon in Lima. A quick 10 minute taxi ride took us to hear some great street performers playing local bohemian favorites in Barranco. We also had the opportunity of touring the Larco Museum which houses thousands of Incan artifacts and guides you through the history of this unique civilization.

But now to what we really came here for… Peru and more specifically Lima is a foodie’s dream come true. The gastronomical options available are endless including having the honor of being the home of three of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The main dishes in Peru include anticuchos, lomo salteado and of course its world famous ceviche.

We had the opportunity of trying out various dining venues on the three days we spent in Lima including the 14 course tasting menu at the world renowned Astrid & Gastón. Yet I must say that our favorite by far was Costazul. The attention and warmth of the service offered at Costazul is unique. It was also the best ceviche we had while in Peru. All three plates we ordered (Ceviche, Octopus and Causa) were made to perfection.

IMG_8689.JPGCeviche at Costazul. Prepared just perfect…

What I believe sets this place apart is the fact that the restaurant is still family owned and operated. Carlos, the owner, was on-site greeting all the guests and making them feel at home. We invited him to join us at our table and had a wonderful conversation on both the gastronomy of Peru and the many things that Lima and his marvelous country have to offer. He gave us great insights on how the dishes were prepared to give them such a fresh and homemade taste. He also shared with us the characteristics of the ingredients in the ceviche and causa. Ended up toasting away with a complimentary shot of Pisco. Don Carlos and his family really made this meal special. Without a doubt the best dining experience we had on our trip.

Cusco: The heart of the Incan Empire

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Cusco is a short hour flight from Lima and what many tourists use as their hub when exploring the Sacred Valley and further on to Machu Picchu. Cusco is immersed in a very unique and enchanting atmosphere. It almost feels like you are stepping back in time and in many instances you are. Our stay at the JW Marriot El Convento only added to the charm. Imagine having as part of your trip staying at what was originally a 16th-century Augustinian convent while sipping an extraordinary Pisco Sour at the hotel’s bar. Yup… its that good.

The city has conserved much of its old charm. There are plenty of sites to explore right at the city’s downtown starting off with the Plaza de Armas.  The main square is surrounded by centuries old churches, antique shops and hundreds of dining options as well as many pubs and bars that party on well into the night. Amongst the sites that can’t be missed are the main cathedral or Basílica de la Virgen de la Asunción. The intricate artwork and craftsmanship of the various niches within this building are awe inspiring including its many mirrors. There is also the Convento de Santo Domingo built over the original archeological site of the Qurikancha, one of the Inca’s most revered sites. The Incas were gifted masons and in this site you can clearly see just how advanced their techniques had evolved. I would rate this site along with the alley with the Twelve Angled Stone as the two best places to admire the Inca Masonry.

One of the places we truly found fascinating is the Mercado Central de San Pedro just a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas. We have always found that these markets offer a true glimpse into the every day lives of the local people and this was not the exception. Here you can witness what the locals trade on their day to day. I had never seen such a variety of maize and potatoes as I saw here! This market also sales the arts and crafts you can find at the stores in the Plaza de Armas but at a much more reasonable cost.

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Which leads me to the food scene in Cusco. While you will not find the wide variety of options available in Lima, the options available in Cusco are by no means limited. The restaurants in the heart of the Incan empire mimic the heterogeneous nature of the city when it comes to tourism. Everything from fine dining experiences such as Gastón Acurio’s establishment called Chicha (think of Astrid & Gastón at a fraction of the cost) to an endless amount of smaller inns that cater towards the almost equal amount of backpackers in the area. You can’t leave Cusco without sinking your teeth into one of the local delicacies: Cuy (aka Guinea Pig). I must admit that it is quite an experience and not for the faint at heart (or better said stomach). While I did spot a street vendor or two that offers this local dish, your best bet is a small restaurant within walking distance from the Plaza de Armas called Kusikuy.

IMG_9449.JPGTrust me.. it tastes like chicken…

Our Hiram Bingham moment… Machu Picchu!

We were originally scheduled to depart to Machu Picchu on board PeruRail’s Vistadome from the Poroy train station, but unfortunately protests between Cusco and Ollantaytambo prevented us from grabbing this first stretch of the trip. Traveling overseas often requires you to think on your feet and quickly activate plan “B” which you came up with literally a few minutes ago. A long taxi drive and a last minute hotel reservation at Ollantaytambo, the next station on the route, swiftly solved the ordeal.

The next morning we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu pueblo). The ride in itself is superb. The decent from Cusco to Aguas Calientes takes you from a cold and somewhat dry high altitude ecosystem to a lush tropical mountain forest. The contrasts along the trip and to see how the forest slowly starts to take over the imagery was the first treat in this journey.

The pueblo of Machu Picchu is a quaint small town that acts as the base to exploring the ancient site. To take full advantage of the experience we decided to stay two nights as to have one full day we could dedicate to the site. The first day we wondered around the pueblo and took a highly recommend side tour to the Jardines de Mandor, a botanical garden with a waterfall at the end. A brisk hour and a half hike along the rail will get you to this site. Worth the visit if you have an afternoon to kill.

We got up bright and early to catch one of the multiple buses that takes you up to the citadel. You basically have two options to reach the site, take a bus or walk up. The walk we were told can be quite strenuous. The lines at 7:00 AM were already multiple blocks long but moved at a relatively good pace. Took us about 45 minutes to actually board the bus itself. It is then a quick 15 – 20 minute drive up the mountain. There are no words to describe what you feel at the first glimpses of the site while you are still on the bus.

The site is best observed from the outlooks next to the watchman’s hut to the left and up as soon as you enter the grounds. Try to get there early as we found most tourist tend to walk to the citadel first. We spent a good half hour in this area taking many pictures and simply admiring the site.

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Machu Picchu offers two different possibilities of hiking up the surrounding mountains. The most popular of the two is Huayna Picchu, the mountain in front of the archeological site pictured in almost every panoramic you see (such as the one above) and the mountain of Machu Picchu per say that is on the opposite side. We decide to do the second one. The Machu Picchu mountain trail is a bit longer than Huayna Picchu, but also a bit less steep. The entire hike will take between 3.5 – 4 hours total. The view from the top is well worth it!

Eating options are very limited in the site. The one true option is the Belmont Lodge’s restaurant which we found a bit pricy for a buffet type meal. It is though a good place to rest and recover from the hike prior to entering the citadel itself.

 IMG_8984.JPGView of the Salcantay mountain from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain.

Vinicuna: The Rainbow Mountain

I must say that this was probably the highlight of our trip to Peru. Not to say that we did not absolutely love Machu Picchu, but Vinicuna is simply (and literally) breathtaking. While the locals have known of the Rainbow Mountain for years, it was just recently discovered by the trekking / hiking community in Peru. We bumped into it on our research on the net prior to taking the trip. Once we got to Cusco we were surprised to learn of just how many few people actually knew of its existence, much less travelled to it. Our guide later told us that it was not really until about a year and a half ago that this tour started to become a bit more popular in part due to a new road that allows you to do the hike in one day versus multiple days it used to take in the past.

The trip itself started with an early morning departure from our Cusco hotel at 4:00 AM sharp alongside Brian who was our designated tour guide. An Action Peru Treks van then took us on a 3 hour trip along with an another couple to the base of the mountain where we all enjoyed a hot breakfast. While there were other tour companies around, we were the only ones that had this special treat. Good thing we were prepared for the cold! I believe we were a few degrees below freezing at the start of the day / trek. The temperature did increase quickly and steadily after the sun rose though.

IMG_9169.JPGRainbow Mountain. The colors are impressive, including the dark blue sky.

We then began to journey on a 7.5 km trek up the mountain. My wife and I were initially worried about just how difficult this trek could be. Especially because of the altitude. You start off at al already high 4,350 MASL (14,270 ‘ASL). Trust me… you can feel the height. While its not a walk in the park, I believe an average person in relatively good physical condition can do it. There was a constant incline all the way. But the good news is that after a short climb of approximately 1 km you meet your new best friend on the trail: your horseman and his horse. Our tour included 1 horse per couple. I decided to take an extra horse on the way just in case. At USD$30.00, I was later very glad I did.

I started off walking the first 3.5 kms along the way. With the exception of the first few meters until we reached the horses, the grounds remain somewhat flat through this first section of the trek. It is not until about 4 kms along the way that the trail starts to get much more steep. The horses really came in handy in this part of the trail. When we were about 750 meters to the “cradle” of Vinicuna we were asked to drop off the horses and do the remaining section by foot. While steep, what really hits you is the height. We took a steady and slow pace to the top and were fine. The end of the trail greeted us with the many colors of Vinicunca. It is an incredible view.The adrenaline rush immediately hit and I found myself practically sprinting up the last few meters to reach the 5,030 MASL / 16,500 ft  summit!

IMG_9180.JPGView from the 5,030 MASL summit back towards the valley below. Make sure to climb the last few meters to the top of the hill in front of the cradle to get the best views of the site.

It took us about 3:00 hrs to get to the top and then another 2:30 to get down. The hike back was just as exhilarating as it gave me a great opportunity to just really take in the site. I believe I was so concentrated on the hike up that I missed really soaking in the surrounding landscape. This trail offered us beautiful views of the mountains and terrain along the way. We bumped into many herds of wild alpacas and llamas roaming free. Once back at base camp we were greeted with a much needed hearty lunch. In the end we were back at our hotel by about 7:00 PM.

Highly recommend Action Peru Treks for this 1 day trek. We saw many other operators around, but many that I inquired about this specific trek seem to have very little experience with this tour. As I previously mentioned, keep in mind that Vinicunca was just recently “discovered” by the hiking community. Play it safe and go with the guys that actually know how to do this.

Loved this experience so much I just had to create a short video to remember it by…

 

Getting there: Planes, trains and automobiles…

First and foremost, let’s start by clarifying that getting to Lima is not the same than getting to Machu Picchu. I know.. pretty obvious, but the this advice will come in handy when calculating the total cost of transportation to get to Machu Picchu. From Lima, you’re still at the very least a good full day and a half and many $oles from getting to your final destination! The journey will most likely include taking a couple of planes, a few taxis, a train and a bus up the mountain.

To travel to Machu Picchu, most travelers will begin their journey by flying to the country’s capital: Lima. Once in Lima, you will then need to grab another short flight to the heart of the Inca empire and also one of the world’s highest cities: Cusco. From there, a 20 – 30 minute taxi ride will take you to the Poroy train station where you will board a train that will take you on a 4 hour journey to Aguas Calientes. Naturally you will want to spend some time in each city to take in everything each has to offer.

There are various service options when it comes to the train ride itself, from a no-frills economical version to a luxurious world class ride on board the Belmond Hiram Bingham. The price difference from one to the other is substantial. We chose to travel on the Vistadome which has large glass windows and ceilings to allow for a panoramic view of the landscape. Great service too. It is highly recommended that you book well ahead of time as these services tend to fill up fast during the high season. You can purchase the tickets directly through PeruRails website.

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There is just so much to love about Peru. It by far exceeded our expectations. Although initially Machu Picchu was THE reason why we decided to make the trip in the first place, we found a land rich in history, vivid in culture, awe inspiring in its many natural landscapes and warm in its people. Definitely a place I will come back to. In the words of Hiram Bingham himself:

“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no other place in the world which can compare with it.”

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Angkor Wat: Heart of the Khmer Empire

Angkor Wat was without a doubt, the highlight of our trip to Asia. We went there to view the incredible ruins of the Angkor Wat complex and found that there is so much more to this region of Cambodia than the remains of the ancient Khmer Empire. The hospitality and warmth of the Cambodian people is what sets this place apart. From the moment we arrived and were greeted by our hotel’s staff at the airport we knew we were in for something special.

The Temple of Angkor Wat

We got up bright and early on our first day to witness the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Left the hotel at 5:00 AM sharp while it was still dark outside. Took a quick stop to purchase our tickets to the site and finally arrived at the side of the outer most moat roughly 20 minutes later. We were not expecting to see so many people there already! Literally hundreds of tourists and photographers had already set themselves in front of the small moat around the temple in order to grab a great spot to catch the sunrise. We were still able to grab a great place though and take it all in. This is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

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The temple itself is astonishing and quite large. The sheer mass of the multi-level temple is quite a site. At the same time, the fine detail of the various sculptures within the temple are very inspiring. Even though there are hundreds of people around, we felt a sense of peace and mysticism that is indescribable. Throughout the temple, you will see Buddhist monks in prayer. We found Buddhism to be a very inclusive religion and thus you can easily take part in their worships. By the way, taking pictures of the monks is fine as long as you ask for their permission. You are asked though not to touch the monks.

Keep in mind that this is an active place of worship. You should plan ahead and dress accordingly for the visit. Basic rule is to cover your shoulders and legs (preferably below the knee). There are certain areas within the temple where the guards will not let you in if they deem that you are not dressed accordingly. We found this to be true in the main temple of Angkor Wat. Was not really an issue in the rest of the temples though.

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This is probably one of the temples you will spend the greatest amount of time in. We spent a bit over 2 hours here alone. But Angkor Wat is only one of literally dozens of temples scattered around the area. After a quick breakfast in the nearby restaurants, we were off to explore the many other temples in the area. Before the trip, I used Google Maps to map out which other temples were must do’s. For some reason, the distances between one temple and the other seem a lot shorter on the web than in real life!

We had a driver take us around the temples while we were there as part of the hotel package we reserved. We highly recommend you do get a driver. Not only is it the fastest way to get from one area to another, but also a good way of learning a bit about the different places you are visiting. Our driver was great! The cool towels and ice cold water he kept in the truck were a welcoming site every time we returned to the car after a long walk within the complex. If you do not have a driver, it is fairly easy to grab a tuk tuk between one temple and another although you may be challenged to find one in the more remote ones. The cost of taking a tuk tuk is actually very economical!

Lara Croft moment… 

Our next stop was the temple of Ta Prohm. This temple is known for the huge trees that grow right out of the ruins. It’s a spectacular site. This temple was also the setting for the original Tomb Raider. We had an improv guide (I believe he was actually a guard at the complex) that was great. He pointed out the spots within the temple that were perfect for a snapshot or two. This temple is filled with small niches with Buddhist and Hindu statutes and relics. Keep an eye for the small face peeking out from one of the overgrown trees in the area. Quite a site. This is a smaller temple and you should be able to go through it in about an hour or so, but don’t rush it!

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The temple of Bayon and its smiling faces

This is probably one of the most elaborate temples within the Angkor Wat complex. The multilevel temple is crowned with multiple towers containing the smiling faces of Lokesvara. The layout of the towers and accompanying faces have this peaceful look to them that will inspire you profoundly. After viewing this specific temple my wife and I then road on the back of an elephant that took us on a quick tour around the temple. Actually quite fun! It also allowed us to gain some very interesting vantage points to see the temple in all its splendor. No matter from which direction you view it, the temple is astonishing.

Right next to the temple, on its northern side is the Terrace of the Elephants. This is basically a very long wall belonging to the Angkor Thom complex that has some very interesting bass reliefs depicting a parade of elephants, lions and Garuda statutes guarding the entrance to the city.

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Shop, eat, drink and see… 

There are plenty of other temples in the complex and you will definitely need more than a day to take it all in. We did two full days (three nights) and probably would of have not minded staying one more. Temples such as the East Baray and Pre Rup are definitely worth a visit. And there is plenty more to Angkor Wat than just the temples. In the city there are various stores selling arts and crafts made by the locals. We specially liked Les Artisans d’Angkor which not only has an ample and beautiful selection, but also teaches local artisans the art of the trade to improve their living standards.

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The food in Cambodia is also incredible. Very similar to Thai, but with an interesting twist. Probably a little bit less spicy. One of the best dinners we had was actually in our hotel, the Borei Angkor resort, while viewing a performance of a  traditional Cambodian dance. Not only was the food delicious but the event and surrounding atmosphere made it a very special night. You should also plan on visiting Pub Street at night. This area is a very lively part of Siem Reap filled with food stalls, restaurants, night markets and as its name would suggest… bars. Probably not your best bet in terms of food, but you can’t beat the $0.50 beer on tap! If you dare, try the scorpions on a stick or even worse the infamous durian fruit.

Getting there and some other useful tips:

Cambodia, or more specifically Angkor Wat,  will most likely be a stop-over in a greater Asian trip. Krong Siem Reap (REP) will be a quick 1 – 2 hour flight from most of the major destinations in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos or even Malaysia and Singapore. There are many low cost airlines that serve the Siem Reap airport. You can actually find many deals that will get you there for under USD$100.00 on a single trip basis.

Cambodia requieres most of its visitors to apply for a visitors or tourist visa. If you are arriving by air, you basically have two options: apply for a visa upon arrival at the Siem Reap airport or plan ahead and obtain an e-visa prior to your arrival. We opted for the second option and were very glad we did so once there. The line for the visa upon arrival basically was conformed of practically everyone on the plane (who was not either Cambodian or a resident from some Southeast Asia countries). Ours in turn had none, zilch, nada… Probably saved at least 30 minutes in the entry process. The procedure for obtaining an E-visa is pretty straight forward and as its name implies, can be done in a matter of minutes through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation’s webpage. By the way, there is also an app for that…

So should you buy Cambodian Riels to pay for your purchases and entries to the various sites while in Siem Reap? If you are traveling from the US or have US currency on you, the simple answer is no. The US dollar is widely accepted practically everywhere in the country. Most of the shops and restaurants will even have their prices in USD rather than in the local currency. I would advise that you should make sure your dollars are in good shape. For some reason or another, Cambodians are very picky on which dollars they will take. Any dollar with a slight imperfection such as a small rip or stain will be rejected. So try to get access to brand new crisp bills at your local bank or money exchange store prior to arriving. When paying in USD you may or may not receive change back in USD. Often times you may get Riels, which of course you can use anywhere. Cambodians do not pay as much attention to the condition of the Riels as they do on the US dollar.