Editor’s note: the FOMO is real with this one. Not only is Peru a destination right at the top of my travel wish list, but this specific trip was taken by my two best and oldest friends, Ari and Dan. For more of Dan’s incredible adventurous travel stories, click here to visit his index page.
As any seasoned traveler knows, no trip is without hiccups. A flight gets delayed. A reservation gets missed. No trip is perfect. But that is one of the joys of traveling, right? Recently I went on a trip that was more joyous than others.
It began on a red eye from Atlanta to Lima. Half-way through the flight, at approximately 130am, I was awoken by the pilot making an announcement. Apparently, the radar on the plane stopped working, which in and of itself is a fairly terrifying proposition. So the logical thing to do in this situation is to turn around and go back to the city of origin, right? The pilot explained that we could not proceed further south because of inclement weather, so that is exactly what we did. We arrived back in Atlanta around 5am, almost the exact time we were supposed to land in Lima. For most trips, where you spend several days in your destination city, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. But since I had had several people tell me to skip Lima, the plan was to immediately jump on a connecting flight to Cusco. Of course, we missed that flight, which completely threw off all of the plans for the entire trip. Consequently, I spent nearly the entire nine hour layover in Atlanta rebooking reservations.
After finally making it to Cusco a day late and essentially flying to Lima twice, we were set to journey to the hotel at Machu Picchu. This is where the trip would get back on track. The plan was to spend two nights at the Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel at the entrance to Machu Picchu. It is expensive, but would allow us to get up early each morning and beat the crowds to explore the ancient city. My good friend Ari and I were exhausted, but excited. The trip was finally getting started. That excitement turned to frustration once again, when we realized that a major train strike started that very day and all trains to Machu Picchu were closed indefinitely. As those of you who have been there know, there are only three ways to get to Machu Picchu: by train, which is by far the most common and convenient; by foot, which takes several days; or by helicopter, which is exceedingly expensive. Unfortunately, we didn’t have several days to make the long trek by foot. I actually did call to inquire about taking a helicopter, in case the trains stayed closed for the duration of our trip, but there was no availability for another month. So all we could do was wait. We switched hotels and stayed a block from the main train station. Each day I would wait in line and change our tickets to the following day in hope that the trains would start running again. As the days slipped away, my fear that we traveled so far only to be a denied a chance to see Machu Picchu increased exponentially.
The unforeseen benefit of our predicament was the extra time that we got to spend in Cusco. Normally treated as a way-station between Lima and Machu Picchu, Cusco is amazing city in its own right. Founded in approximately 1000 BCE, Cusco has been inhabited continuously for 3000 years and is the oldest city in the Americas. Most people also forget that it was also the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th through the 16th century. The city is a perfect blend between ancient and new, but there also is a European influence that is palpable as well, one of the many noticeable consequences of imperialism. We had a great lunch at the Plaza de Armas that was very reminiscent of meals I have at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid and in Salamanca. In fact, I ate a ceviche de trucha that was the best I have ever had. We had several delicious meals while we were Cusco. Most of the food in Cusco is pretty traditional Peruvian cuisine, but delicious nonetheless. The shopping in Cusco is great as well. Nearly all of the clothing is made of baby alpaca, which is the first coat sheered from an alpaca when it is 1-3 months old. It is incredibly soft and keeps you very warm. As a point of comparison, cashmere is usually 19 microns thick and the best quality baby alpaca is actually softer at 18 microns thick. The jewelry options are also fantastic. Peruvian gold and turquoise are famous and you can find some amazing pieces. I bought my wife a set of turquoise and gold earrings and necklace that she absolutely loves and wears almost every day.
The people were also very friendly, which is always a nice surprise. Llamas roamed throughout the city, which is unique. In terms of the layout, it reminded me a bit of Lisbon. It is constructed mostly of stone and is very mountainous. Another unique feature of the city is its height. At 11,152 feet above sea level, Cusco is one of the highest cities in the world. In fact, it is over twice as high as Denver. If and when you go, I highly recommend drinking the coca tea that is available all throughout the city. It definitely works to combat the altitude sickness! Three days into our trip, my travel companion got altitude sickness, so I decided to visit Saqsaywaman. It is an amazing citadel built on the northern outskirts of the city. It was constructed in the 15th century to perform important ceremonies, and also as a storage depot for arms, food, textiles, and precious metals. I would highly recommend that you check it out if you are in Cusco, but be warned. Due to the altitude, it is a bit of a strenuous hike up.
After switching our train reservations for three days in a row, we had one chance left to make it to Machu Picchu. As you can imagine, I was really nervous that we were going to miss it. But luckily, the trains started running just in time and we were able to get reservations. In order to get there, we had to to take a 1.5 hour bus ride at 330am to Ollantaytambo train station. From there, it is a 2 hour train ride to Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu. There are multiple options for the type of train you can travel on. I would recommend paying a little extra for the trains with many windows, as the scenery is pretty amazing. You can book tickets on Peru Rail or Inca Rail, the two main companies that travel that route. Once we got to Aguas Calientes, it was a short 20 min bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. We arrived at about 9am and the lines were pretty long already.
Although we made it to the entrance, our entry was not assured. Since technically our tickets were for the day before, there was no guarantee that they were going to honor them. I stood in line anxiously waiting to see if our efforts were fruitless. “It would really suck to come all this way and not be able to get in,” I thought. We approached the front of the line and I handed our tickets over. The ticket agent looked at them and then back at me. She scanned them and then got up to go talk to her supervisor. I held my breath. They talked for a bit and she came back. We had not only purchased entry into the site, but also to the top of Wayna Picchu. Our plan was to hike to the top of Machu Picchu for the best views. The ticket agent let us know that we could access Machu Picchu, but could not do the hike. I was so happy that we were able to get in that I didn’t even care.
As a world traveler, I have always felt that not having seen Machu Picchu was a significant void on my bucket list. Machu Picchu is one of those sites that is so legendary that it is difficult not to have unattainable expectations. Starting the climb through the entrance, I was a little worried that I would be disappointed. As I hiked up the trail, the trees parted, and I got my first real view of the site. Disappointment was the farthest feeling I could have experienced. Like most amazing places, pictures don’t come close to capturing the grandeur of this place. The site itself is expertly crafted and the architecture for that time period is beyond impressive. The fact that it has stood the test of time is amazing. Its history is equally fascinating, and gaining insight into the culture of the Incans was captivating. But personally, I think what makes the site so incredible is the surrounding mountains. They are truly breathtaking. The man-made structures coupled with the natural beauty is probably the most impressive combination I have ever seen.
As we followed Circuit 1 and descended down the mountain towards the entrance, our views of the citadel continued to shift. Each was seemingly more impressive than the last. The path down to the actual site took some time due to the masses, but we didn’t mind, as it afforded us many great photo opportunities. When we finally got to the entrance of the citadel, it felt like we were crossing a threshold into the distant past. I found myself wondering how many Incans journeyed from afar to stand in the spot I had spent so much effort to get to. As we wandered through the site, it was hard not to notice how well constructed it was. It is especially impressive given the location and age of this place. Nearly 600 years ago, it took thousands of men to push the giant stones up the mountainside. In total, it took about 90 years to complete the construction of Machu Picchu. We spent about 3 hours exploring, stopping to enjoy the views on multiple occasions. As a final awe-inspiring moment, we finished our tour with lunch at the café, which provides an amazing view of the nearby mountains.
After another half day of travel back to Cusco, we had one more night before beginning another long journey. From Cusco, we flew to Iquitos, with a stop in Lima. From Iquitos, we had a driver pick us up and drive us to a small town called Nauta. From there, it is about an hour boat ride, which starts on the Maranon River and ends on the Ucayali River, a tributary of the Amazon, to our final destination: the Treehouse Lodge, an ecolodge in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon. Aside from Machu Picchu, visiting the Amazon has always been a great desire of mine.
As the name suggests, all of the rooms of the Treehouse Lodge are treehouses at varying heights off the ground. Unlike most treehouses, however, this was as close to a 5 star experience you can get for being in the middle of the jungle. The lodge is beautiful and all-inclusive. We stayed in Treehouse #5 and absolutely loved it. The showers were cold, but the beds were comfortable, and the treehouse was well decorated and spacious. The netting on the treehouse and the beds did a surprisingly good job at keeping the critters out. We went during the wet season, when the chance of seeing animals is better, but the downside is that there are supposedly more mosquitos. We must have lucked out because they weren’t bad at all. Granted, I wore long sleeve shirts, pants, and bug spray the entire time, but I was pleasantly surprised as I normally get targeted. Overall, the food was fantastic. Most of the dishes were reminiscent of home cooked meals. The French toast was particularly delicious.
Our guide Tomas was amazing as well. He was very friendly, accommodating, and incredibly knowledgeable. We were there for 4 nights and did nearly all of the excursions they had to offer, including nighttime caiman viewing, early morning birdwatching, sunset with the dolphins, piranha fishing, jungle walks, giant water lilies, Amazon swim, and nighttime stargazing. Most of the excursions were spent on the river, as that is the best place to see the animals. Tomas knew every animal we saw, many of which he recognized just by sound. His eyesight must be amazing, because he spotted animals half a mile away – as we were flying by in a boat – that I couldn’t have seen if I was stationary with a pair of high-powered binoculars for an hour. All in all, we saw 54 species of birds, 8 species of monkeys, 4 species of snakes, as well as pink and grey river dolphins, sloths, bats, tree frogs, iguanas, caiman, opossums, tree rats, piranhas, and countless different insects. As you can imagine, the flora was equally as impressive. However, the water lilies were definitely the highlight. For anyone desiring to see the Amazon by land and river, I don’t think you will find a much better place than the Treehouse Lodge. It was one of the most unique experiences I have ever had and again, it exceeded my expectations.
After we finished up in the Amazon, we headed back to Lima. As we waited at the airport to travel from Iquitos to Lima, we nearly missed the flight. We arrived with plenty of time to spare, but thanks to the confusing instructions from Latam, we narrowly avoided another major calamity. As my travel buddy and I waited, we started to question why we hadn’t boarded yet. Our boarding passes said we were leaving out of Gate 1, the monitor said we were leaving out of Gate 2, and our flight actually left out of Gate 3. I noticed people boarding at Gate 3 and asked the flight attendant, who promptly told us that it was our flight as they were about to close the gate. We were the last to board the plane and had to run to make it on. All I could do was laugh, as it seemed pretty par for the course.
We finished up the trip with one night in Lima. Knowing that Lima has a great food scene, I made reservations to eat at Maido, #7 on the annual top 50 restaurants in the world at the time. The experience did not disappoint. The ambiance was chic and trendy, the service was solid, and the presentation was excellent. I had a pisco sour to start, the traditional Peruvian cocktail that was delicious. (Click here to read about pisco.) The meal began with the Intruder, the foie gras nigiri roll with eel sauce that they caramelize with a blowtorch tableside. I am huge fan of foie gras, but I have never had it on sushi before. It was amazing. Next up was the Toro Tartare, which was made with toro, caviar, sea urchin cream, and a ponzu sauce. It came with perfectly crispy rice crackers that provided a great vessel for the dish. As you might have guessed, it was the best tuna tartare I have ever had. But the piece de resistance was the Asado De Tira Nitsuke, a braised beef short rib cooked for 50 hours, with white rice, cecina, and pickled ginger. I have had short rib in many places around the world and this was easily the best. I was truly mind blasting.
For those seeking a heavy dose of history, beauty, nature, adventure, and flavor, Peru is an excellent choice. Spend time in Cusco (eat ceviche and check out Saqsaywaman), don’t miss Machu Picchu (get there early and stay at the Sanctuary Lodge if you can), check out the Treehouse Lodge in the Amazon (stay at least 3 days to experience it properly), and eat at Maido (experience the Toro Tartare and the Asado De Tira Nitsuke). There are also a couple spots on my bucket list that I missed and will definitely be going back for: to check out Rainbow Mountain and, for those of us who are a bit more adventurous, the Skylodge Adventure Suites. And let me know what you think. I would love to hear about your experience as well!
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