Our travel points hobby is legend. We’ve introduced you to how we earn massive amounts of airline miles and hotel points and use those for awesome trips we couldn’t afford otherwise. Then we took you through our, uh, eventful trip to Naples, Florida. And now that we’re back from our latest trip, it’s time to brag, rub your face in some photos, and tell you just how cheap it was for us to visit Peru!
I decided to write it up in two different ways: One will be the exhaustive travelogue, which starts today. This will probably be in three parts. And after that, for all you financial heads, I’ll do a special money-centric entry about the whole trip with breakdowns of every cost. There was also a special Peru edition of Cost Per Serving last week showing an extremely cheap dish we made! But for now, hopefully the travelogue will be a good read. Or at least I hope you like seeing people’s travel photos… If you’re only interested in the financial part, wait for the other entry. Or, oh here’s a fun thing, why not guess the entire cost of our trip based on the travelogue and see how close you come! The trip was ten days in total.
Peru has been on Marge’s mind for a while since her mom traveled there as an exchange student years ago. But for me, South America never registered as “a place to visit.” I can’t say why. Maybe watching all those Rick Steves travel shows gives you a Euro-centric view of travel. But then we saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown where he went to Peru, and I think that made up both of our minds, because the Peruvian food looked delicious. We’re going to Japan later this year, possibly because of all that exposure through watching NHK World, so maybe we make all of our travel decisions based on tv shows… I guess it doesn’t take much to convince us to visit a place. It wasn’t until much later, after thinking about all of the Peruvian food, that I remembered, oh right, Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is also in Peru! And we love hiking, so off we went.
Our trip started like every other long-haul trip: At the bus station. Technically, I probably could’ve started our flight to Peru from Albany, but I always find it easier to just get a flight leaving from New York City. An extra leg to Albany usually means a long layover in New York City, plus we would have to pay for parking at Albany airport. And extra flights can mean extra headaches. Marge’s parents had a trip with a EWR-ALB leg that was cancelled, and they ended up renting a car one-way to get home.
So our trips usually begin and end with an array of public transportation. Greyhound bus 2.5 hours to NYC, then a subway or train east or west, depending on the airport, and finally the AirTrain, a monorail contraption whose only duty is to get you to the airport. In this instance, though, our transit was interrupted.
See, our flight to Peru was originally supposed to leave at 3:30 PM on a Thursday, giving us more than enough time to get to the airport that day. Then they pushed it back to 7:30 AM, so extremely early that it necessitated an unplanned overnight stay in NYC!
So what was supposed to be Day 1 turned into Day 2. The new Day 1 now consisted of us getting on a bus at 6:30 after work and getting into NYC late at night, taking the subway to Queens, and sleeping at the cheapest hotel near the AirTrain, a downright awful Best Western in Jamaica. There were two middle-aged guys at the checkout desk, behind a layer of bulletproof glass. There I took a picture of the most pathetic sign ever posted inside a hotel:
Conference Room On The Sub-Cellar Floor.
Who wouldn’t love to have a conference in the sub-cellar of the Best Western in Jamaica, Queens?
The most hilarious thing about this hotel, and it’s reflected in the TripAdvisor reviews, is that every single room has TWO copies of this same painting on the wall.
Day 2: Flight to Peru, Overnight in Lima
Slept about four hours, then it was time to get up and walk to the AirTrain. As I mentioned before, abandoned wheeled luggage entirely and just used backpacks for this trip. We both found this to be a great decision throughout the trip. No waiting for baggage claim, no dragging bags around. Getting from place to place was much easier.
On the way out of the hotel we passed the same two dudes behind the bulletproof glass who were there when we checked in six hours earlier.
With righteous indignation I must point out that, upon check-in at JFK, no one informed us of a business class lounge. After so many free, upgraded Business Class flights, this is a luxury I have come to expect before our flight even begins: Free food, free alcohol, nice chairs, and none of the riff-raff that sits in the Scum Class waiting areas. I know Avianca is not the most common carrier, but surely there was a business class lounge somewhere we could have access to?
Our first flight was over five hours long to Bogota. Avianca served a delicious breakfast. I had the eggs, spinach, sausage,and potatoes, and Marge actually had a quesadilla. Later they brought out ham sandwiches and snacks called Achiras. All nummy.
I attempted to watch Interstellar on the tv. The screen kept failing and I struggled to make it one hour into the movie. A faulty seatback screen is probably not the best way to view a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster, but that wouldn’t stop me from trying.
On the second, shorter flight from Bogota to Lima, we were served another meal. I had chicken, Marge had the steak, and none were very impressive. Again, I tried desperately to watch Matthew McConaughey tend to his failing cornfield and pilot a spaceship in Interstellar, but Avianca’s weird spring-action television screen froze again and again. I eventually finished the movie. I don’t think a smooth viewing experience would’ve made it any easier to understand anyway.
We finally reached Lima airport around 4:30 PM. For the first time in my life, there was a man there holding a sign with my name on it since we arranged a taxi with our AirB&B host. See, Lima is lacking in public transportation options, and you basically need to take a cab to get to the Miraflores neighborhood. Not my ideal situation, but that’s the way it goes.
It’s a good thing we had a cab too, because I cannot imagine driving in Lima. It’s chaotic a lot of the time, but this was rush hour, and it felt like a demolition derby could break out at any second! I don’t think lane markings matter that much in Peru. Cars are just going in all directions, people are all over the place, and there is a constant racket of horns. Not angry horns, more polite like “toot-toot, I’m here, I’m moving in there” horns. But it is constant.
If I was driving, either I or several bystanders would be dead before I got to the hotel.
Our first night was spent in Lima before moving on to Cusco, and we stayed at an AirB&B. I would recommend the place, but apparently the owner sold it about a week after we left, and someone else is running it already. Weird.
We took a nap, strolled around the nighttime streets of Miraflores, and eventually had our dinner at Manolo, a famous diner, according to our host. I had already read about Manolo and was looking forward to their hot chocolate and churros. But this was dinnertime, so I had to order something respectable!
Actually, I ordered the craziest-looking thing on the menu, which was the Tortuga. That is a hot dog wrapped in bacon, inside a hamburger bun, covered in melted cheese. I also had my first taste of chicha morada, a purple drank popular all over Peru. I’m sure if you find one handmade it would be pretty good, but most versions I had were very sweet and tasted somewhere between Kool-Aid and juice, like they were from a container.
Did I mentioned we left the frozen weather of upstate New York to find Lima a perfectly comfortable 80 degrees? It was a nice change.
Day 3: Lima, Flight to Cusco, Cusco at Night
Friday. Our host and her sister gave us a nice breakfast. One great frugal helper for all you people looking to go to Peru: Every hotel has free breakfast. I doesn’t matter what kind of place you’re staying in, every single place will have a free breakfast. We got a free breakfast every day. They were very similar, but I’m not complaining! There is usually fresh juice, fruit, breads, jams, and a very strong coffee.
I wish I knew what the deal with the coffee was. One person called it “coffee essence,” another said it was because the beans were grown near Machu Picchu. I doubt that. But truthfully, they said it was strong, and it was strong. Not what we Americanos think of as strong coffee. This coffee was so strong you basically fill your mug 1/3 with coffee, and the rest with hot water. And we loved it. It was like this everywhere we stayed. Any ideas what you call this coffee?
We finally got to explore Lima on foot during the daytime. Miraflores is a really pretty neighborhood. This is the end of their summer, and everything was still in bloom. There is a string of really nice parks that look brand new running along the cliffside. And get the smelling salts out, because I’m about to compliment a mall!
Are you okay? No, really, are you still with me? This mall was truly gorgeous, like the nicest mall I’ve ever been to. We went back on our last day in Peru because it was such a nice place to be. Larcomar is a mostly outdoor mall carved into the cliffside, so you get lots of sun and sea breeze while you’re there. Lots of outdoor seating means you can buy a very cheap ice cream from the Bembo’s (Peru’s fast food favorite) and eat it over the sea, which we did.
Don’t expect any deals on shopping here, though. I found Peru to be very affordable in general, but not the classy neighborhoods in Lima. Of course, I had to check out my favorite pants at Banana Republic. I can get them for $25 or less at the Factory Store near me, but at Larcomar they were equivalent to $70.
We returned to our inn because we had to get our taxi to yet another flight (victims again of Avianca flight switching, I didn’t plan it this way) at 3:30 to Cusco. Strangely, the person we would be staying with in Cusco was the husband of the woman we stayed with in Lima. Margie had the strange idea, “What if the wife asks us to bring something to the husband?” Because we all know airlines do not want you to carry on things given to you by strangers.
And wouldn’t you know, she did ask us to bring something!
We relented, and took this coffee can that she gave us… but I wondered, what if it was drugs! I was nervous. Margie packed the coffee canister in her backpack and we determined to check it out before going into the airport… just in case. Our host seemed like a nice person and all, but you never know. Well, we took a closer look at it…
It wasn’t coffee. It was dulce de leche. Basically caramel! I could tell by the very dense weight of it that it was definitely not drugs. Only dulce de leche could weigh that freakin’ much. We got on our short 1.5 hour flight with no problem.
Lima is hot and on the coast. But Cusco is well inland and up in the Andes. In fact, it is so high up, I was nervous. It’s over 11,000 feet up. That’s two miles!* I’ve heard stories of the altitude making people sick. Sure, I’ve probably been that high up after climbing a mountain, but neither of us had stayed that high up for days, so I wasn’t sure if either of us would have a bad reaction. Luckily, after three days, we didn’t. But climbing stairs was exhausting!
A few words on Cusco:
It could be a great city. It has old world European charm. It has Incan ruins in the city proper. It has some great restaurants. But Cusco has two things ruining it: The hawkers and the cars. The hawkers stick around the tourist-y Plaza De Armas and some nearby blocks. There are people selling tours, sunglasses, paintings, and every restaurant has a person outside talking up their food. Walking the Plaza de Armas is like walking the American Gladiators’ Gauntlet. But instead of Laser and Turbo coming at you with giant pads, it’s people saying “Lady, maybe you would like a nice dinner, we have very nice traditional food” or “Machu Picchu tours, Pisac, Maras, Moray.”
The other problem is the cars. The cars in Cusco are of a different breed. So many old taxis spewing diesel fumes. It made the whole city smell, and with so many narrow, cobblestones streets, you really couldn’t get away from them. It actually made our clothes stink of diesel! Clean up your cars, Cusco, or remove them from the historic quarter!
On a side note, I can’t imagine who comes here without having a plan already, but I saw so many people in the tour group offices planning out their Macchu Pichu adventure. I can’t imagine waiting until you get here to do that. I also can’t imagine doing anything in a tour group, but that’s another rant for another day.
This is turning into a real rant, but Marge and I also noted the omniprecense of specialized hiking and exercise clothing being worn in Cusco. I know many people end up hiking either the Inca Trail or a similar trail to Machu Picchu. But these people were just walking around the city. And the next day, when we did leave the city limits to see some ruins and do some serious walking, I didn’t see these people at all. There weren’t any hikers out there doing any hiking. I feel like people want to dress the part and “be prepared.” But are they really doing serious hiking? I brought shorts, t-shirts, jeans, a zippered sweater, slacks. Keen sandals only, no hiking shoes or other shoes at all. Nothing special and I was fine.
While exploring Cusco at night, we had no idea where to eat, so we ducked into a quiet-looking, affordable place called Gaia on a distant side street. Still solidly in the tourist area, so I wasn’t too worried. You’re not supposed to drink the water in Peru, y’know. The overly effusive host brought us lomo saltado, another Peruvian specialty, fettucine with huancaina sauce, and two pisco sours.
The same host put me on the spot when recommending the fettucine with huancaina sauce to another customer. “He had it! It was good, right?” I didn’t want to disappoint him, but honestly it was just okay. Huancaina sauce is “spicy cheese sauce,” but like most spicy foods in Peru, I found it seriously lacking in spice.
Then we wandered into a church in the main square that seemed to be open. Frugal travel tip: Churches are always super interesting, both for the architecture and the insight into the local culture, and they’re usually free.
This church we walked into the the Cathedral of Cusco. There was a nighttime service going on (this was the holy week after all) and we were overjoyed to see the Senor de los Temblores had been removed from his niche and was front and center on the altar! For those who don’t know, the Senor de los Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes, occupies a unique space in Cusco’s Christian history.
Senor de los Temblores is a black representation of Jesus on the cross. Depending on who you ask, he is black from years of smoke and dust that was never cleaned off, or he was always dark-skinned to be closer in color to the native locals. There was a terrible earthquake in 1650, but Cusco sustained minimal damage. This was chalked up to this Jesus, hence the name Lord of the Earthquakes. Now, every year there is a big procession on Easter Monday where this Earthquake Jesus is paraded all around town.
Since we left Peru on Easter Day, Marge and I were very sad to have to miss the Earthquake Jesus parade on the next day. But at least we got to see him in his native habitat in the church. Here is a great video of the actual procession. It’s quite a party!
We returned to our inn to sleep up for our big hiking day on Saturday. Stay tuned for our two full days around Cusco, full of cultural and historic Incan adventures!
*Here’s a fun related Wikipedia: List of the highest large cities in the world.