Lima, Llamas and Incas for Thanksgiving

As has been our tradition the last several years, we left the USA and spent Thanksgiving abroad since it’s our kids’ only long fall break.  This year, we decided to add a new continent to the kids’ list and strike an item off our bucket list as well by visiting Peru.

First, let me start off by saying that our trip was fabulous, and all of you should hurry up and put Peru on your travel itinerary.  The weather was good, the people were friendly, and pretty much everything is reasonably priced due to a favorable exchange rate. However, if you go, hire a guide.  Trust us on this.  Our guide, Aaron Paiva Leyton of Tour Guide Peru, was invaluable and worth every penny that he charges people.  We got a Peruvian education — not just on the cultural and historical sites, but also on the people, food and culture of Peru.  He made our trip so easy — all we had to do was show up in the hotel lobby at the time he told us to, and he took care of the rest.  We will forever remember Aaron (our Mary Poppins in Peru per Kenneth) and the fabulous time he showed us in Peru!

Getting to Peru is easy, but the timing of the flights is a little challenging.  We were able to book daylight flights on the way down there, but we didn’t get into Lima until nearly midnight.  So day 1 was a quick check in to the hotel, find the pj’s and toothbrushes in the suitcases, and right to sleep!  We split boys and girls to fly to Peru because we originally purchased this trip at a charity auction.  It came with two business class tickets on United, which the girls used and we bought the other two tickets for the boys on American Airlines (since we have so many miles and status on AA, it didn’t make sense to buy the other two on UA). Sometime, we’ll share thoughts on UA’s Polaris service and lounge versus AA, but not now.

 

Our first full day in Lima saw us visiting the old, colonial part of Lima.  We visited the Presidential Palace and saw the changing of the guard, and visited the Cathedral of Lima, where the remains of Francisco Pizarro are interred.  Both were very beautiful.  The highlight of city tour, however, was heading to Aaron’s family home for a traditional lunch made by his mother.  We feasted on ceviche, lomo saltado, a Peruvian potato salad, and, of course, the famous Pisco sour.  Everything was delicious…even the kids approved.  We ended the day walking down to the malecon to enjoy the sunset and a little bit of shopping before a quick dinner and bed.

 

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Bright and early the next morning, we flew to Cusco, a city high in the Andes mountains.  At nearly 12,000 ft elevation, we were a little bit nervous about altitude sickness, but luckily, we all adapted ok (even though we all did get a little winded walking up the stairs at the ruins.  We first went to explore the ruins at Sacsayhuamán.  Cusco was the center of Incan civilization, and this was their military training facility high on the hill.  Next, we descended the hill a little bit to visit what remains of the Temple of the Sun. Much of the original foundation remains, but the Spanish stripped the temple walls of their gold and jewels, and knocked down other parts to build a monastery.  Finally, we visited the cathedral in Cusco, which is where a lot of that gold ended up.  No photos inside the Cathedral were allowed, which was a shame because it was beautiful.

 

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The next day, we woke up and descended the mountain a bit further into the Sacred Valley.  We visited an area where they showed us how they make textiles in the traditional way, using only roots, plants water and bugs to dye the alpaca wool.  They also showed us how the weaving works…it takes them several months just to make a table runner.  Next, we visted the Maras salt mines.  Eons ago, this area was covered by the Pacific Ocean (keep in mind, altitude was about 9500 ft, so that was incredible!) and the rocks there even contain fossilized seashells.  Next, we went to the Ollantaytambo ruins, where Apple tells us that we climbed over 20 stories worth of stairs!  The views from the top were breathtaking!  Then we were very ready for lunch, and we had a true “farm to table” experience at our cute little hotel, where they cook in Pachamanca style — an ancient form of cooking in Peru that honors Mother Earth.  Everything they made came from their onsite garden/ranch, and it was cooked in a stone fire pit in front of our eyes in 15 minutes.

 

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After a stay at the cute El Albergue hotel in Ollantaytambo (seriously, it was out of a story book), we rose super early the next morning to take the train to Machu Picchu…clearly the highlight of our trip.  We lucked into an absolutely gorgeous day in Machu Picchu.  While the Weather Channel said it was going to be raining and 55 degrees, in actuality, it was nearly 80 degrees and sunny.  While that was a welcome change, when we were dressed more for 55 than 80, it meant all of us were a little bit sweatier than we thought we’d be!  Continuing our theme of climbing, we logged another 20+ stories worth of stairs here. (Note: if you hate stairs, you will not enjoy Peru!)  Machu Picchu was every bit as amazing as we had hoped it would be…maybe even better.  The views are breathtaking.  The construction of the buildings was unbelievable, especially since they’d have had no knowledge of European construction methods at that point.  Even more amazing, the Inca were only a civilization for about 400 years before the Spanish showed up.  In that short amount of time, they built all these structures, and spread their dominance throughout much of South America.  It’s truly awe-inspiring to see — and a place that I’m so glad we visited with the kids.

 

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After spending a day of planes, trains and automobiles to get back from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo to Cusco to Lima, we had two more days to enjoy Lima prior to heading home.  On the first day, we went to the Choco Museo to learn how to make chocolate.  We got to see how the fruit grows, try the white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans (it’s delicious, btw), roasted, peeled and ground our own beans before trying all the ancient cacao drinks.  We tried the chocolate tea (made from the shells of the cacao beans), the drink that the Mayans would have had (minus the blood) and the drink that the conquistadors exported back to Europe (the closest to today’s hot chocolate).  Then, we got to make our own chocolates.  I will say, we allowed the kids to choose this tour, and we didn’t have terribly high expectations…we harbored hesitations that this would be a bit of a tourist trap.  However, it was an absolutely fantastic experience and was just fascinating.  We did a quick shopping trip to Dédalo for some artistic souvenirs…I could have spent thousands of dollars in there if only we could have fit things in the suitcases! The next day, for our last day in Lima, we just walked through the Barranco area and had lunch overlooking the ocean before heading to the airport for our 1:30AM flights back home.

 

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Now that we’re back, I’m going to end our trip recap with a few overall thoughts on Peru. I know we have friends that are planning trips here, so I thought some of these would be helpful.

1. Do not plan to drive in Peru, especially in Lima, unless you have lots of experience driving in Latin America. I was thankful for the excellent drivers we had, but I still held my breath a few times.

2. Everywhere we went, the locals were friendly and helpful. Sure, it did help that we speak Spanish, but most of the restaurants we went to had English menus available and waiters that spoke English. That said, everyone appreciates it if you attempt at least a few words in their language.

3. Get the altitude pills “just in case” if you plan on going to Cusco. Unless you know that you aren’t affected by staying at nearly 12,000 ft altitude, take the meds just in case. The kids and I took them on our initial ascent and we were winded walking around and climbing stairs, but other than that, we were fine. I don’t know for sure if any of us would’ve felt altitude sickness if we’d not take the meds, but it was worth the call to the doctor and extra trip to the pharmacy to make sure no one spent the day miserable.

4. Remember that traveling through Peru takes a lot longer than traveling through the USA. We traveled less than 800 miles, and we had to take a train, a car, and a plane to do it…and the total trip lasted about 9 hours. Plan accordingly.

5. Do get out of Lima. It is a beautiful city, but most of the real treasures lie outside of the city.

6. This is not a trip to take if you’re injured or unable to climb stairs and walk over slippery and uneven terrain. We climbed at least 20 stories worth of stone stairs every day we toured ruins. You’re in the Andes. Everything requires climbing. I saw a few elderly people with canes struggling to walk the Machu Picchu ruins…and I saw a paramedic carrying a stretcher up the hill (don’t know where he went, though). This isn’t a leisurely walk through Roman or Greek ruins…the Incas built it all into the mountains and if you want to see it, you climb. The views are worth it. (And eventually, you go down!)

7. The weather channel doesn’t know squat. Bring plenty of clothing options and dress in layers. The day we went to Machu Picchu, TWC said it’d be 57 degrees and raining. It was actually almost 80 degrees and sunny. It said Cusco would be 47 and raining…it was actually almost 70 and dry. If I’d expected how the weather conditions can vary, I’d have packed some lighter clothes and we wouldn’t have sweated as much. We also got very sunburned because we didn’t pack our “beach” sunscreen thinking it would be cloudy…so take that sunscreen, just in case.  That said, the next day was cold and rainy…so it’s all about timing. And layers.

8. Finally, and most importantly…HIRE A GUIDE! We had the most amazing guide for our trip to Peru…an exclusive guide that traveled with us everywhere and made all the arrangements for us. He explained what we were seeing at the different sites, which is good, because without that, all you’re looking at is rocks. He also directed us for restaurant recs, shopping recs (so that we knew what to buy and what NOT to buy at each stop), and told us where we’d be safe. He also steered us away from the tourist traps, and made sure we were getting the trip that WE wanted. He made sure all the logistics were taken care is so all we had to do is show up in the hotel lobby at the time he told us. I couldn’t recommend Aaron Paiva Leyton and Tour Guide Peru more highly. If you’re lucky enough to hire Aaron, you are almost guaranteed a good time.

For those of you that made it all the way to the end of this very long post, here’s a picture of Fern and his new “girlfriend”!  Ha!

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