Archive for October, 2011

Used: 2011

One of the big reasons for staying in central Lima for my last few nights in Peru was that I just didn’t love where I stayed when I arrived. And I like mixing it up if I can. I flipped through my guide book and found a reasonably priced hotel in the center of the action called Kamana Hotel. I booked the hotel and a ride from the airport online once I was in the country and was confirmed by the next time I checked my email.

When I landed after my flight on Star Peru, the cab waiting was the only time in 2 weeks where my name was spelled correctly. Already made my day and off to a good start! The cabbie hardly spoke a lick of English and of course, my Spanish is miserable, though I did understand that he asked me where I was going next and all I could think of to say was “Casa Domingo” and make some hand gestures that I was flying home on Sunday. When he asked where I was from and said “Estados Unidos” he was the first person on my entire trip to respond with “Obama!”. Such a change from my last time in a foreign country, back in 08/09, in Australia when everyone was soooo excited every time I mentioned I was from the US (and not Canada).

The hotel is located in the center of the action, in between some of the major central sights on a smaller, but still very loud street. It is the main hotel for Tucan Travel tours and I saw people check in the same time I did who I had seen on Lake Titicaca and were on the same flight as me up from Puno who I knew were on those tours. It was the first hotel I had seen my entire time in Peru with a lift and there were Tucan tour posters in the elevator lobby.

No heads blocking my view, Downtown Lima

The bad: Even though I was on the top floor, it still couldn’t keep out the sound of all the honking at all hours of the day. A room not facing the street might be a better option. The rooms were a bit cramped that in my room they jammed in three single beds were there were obviously only meant to be two. I am guessing this is for the tour groups and would have sucked even more if my room actually had three people! It wasn’t a very comfortable layout and there wasn’t any place to sit and watch tv because of it. The rooms also felt a bit damp. They were clean, but there was a dampness in the air and having the gray overcast skies all the time (not the hotels fault, I know) didn’t help. This was also the first proper hotel I stayed at that didn’t provide breakfast (or glasses in the room!) and had computers in the lobby that charged for using them. Not every place I stayed had computers, but those that did allowed guests to use them for free.

Not the greatest view from my room.

The good: Besides the noise on the street, the location was very good. They had a 24 hour security guard out front and while some got to know me, all I had to do was show my key and I was quickly let in the building. It felt very safe, considering the central location. It is located in between some major plazas and easy walking distance to all of them, including San Francisco.

Square in Lima, love the bright yellow buildings!

The front desk was very helpful in providing maps to local sights and directions to the local supermarket, which was awesome! I actually ended up spending a lot of time there during my last few days in Peru as at that point, I was so ready to come home. The supermarket was HUGE and a great place to stock up on supplies and treats to bring home. The best part was for me, was a huge food-court they had on the upper floor where I ended up eating lunch for my last two days. The food was good and I wasn’t very hungry, thanks to the altitude for the majority of my trip, so I wasn’t stuck eating the huge portions that most Peruvians eat (very American-like in those regards) so I only paid for what I ate. It was all locals eating there and I stuck out like a sore thumb as a tourist, which I actually didn’t mind at all for this trip. The cashiers just smiled as I paid the price on the cash registers and we used hand signals and facial gestures when they offered me utensils and napkins.

In the room, the TV was awesome as it had been for the entirety of my trip and the shower had excellent pressure, probably the best shower I had for my entire trip.

Even though the hotel didn’t provide a free breakfast, it had a decent bar and restaurant attached to the ground floor with a huge menu. The prices were decent and the portions were small, which was good for me. Plus, always helpful, the menu had an English translation, which was perfect for me, so that I could just point to what I wanted and it was easy for everyone.

Tourists in Lima, playing themselves

Moral: While not the best place I stayed at on my trip, it was well worth the change from La Castellana [link]. Not sure if I would recommend it over Miraflores, as I tried to approach Downtown Lima as someone who first stepped off the plane from the US and I don’t know if I would have had a good time if I was in that position. But as someone who had spent 2 weeks in the country and got to know the town, people, country and customs more at that point, I felt more prepared for that craziness of Downtown. I am very glad I mixed it up and at the same time, glad I stayed in each part of town when I did.

Used: 2011

The La Castellana hotel [link] is located in a area of Lima called Miraflores, which is the more posh area of town. After getting a late start on my first day, I walked down to the Central Park of Miraflores and just walked around, stretching my legs after a day on an airplane. I saw a Starbucks, which of course is of no surprise, but right next door was a Pinkberry! Seeing that familer sign was a total shock to me! Do they even have them outside Los Angeles? It seems like such a Los Angeles chain to me! If these two aren’t a sign about how posh the neighborhood is, I don’t know what is. I wondered in and out of a department store at the edge of the park, which I always find interesting, seeing the prices and variety and labels on products.

Pinkberry and Starbucks, next to each other in Miraflores, Lima, Peru

I then wondered down a main street, towards the beach. The clouds hung very low over the coast and the visibility was very bad. Hanging over the cliffs of the coast was a very new outdoor shopping center called Larcomar where locals, and local and international tourists shopped and ate. It had a wide variety of stores and tourists stands among fast food places that were both local and international. The prices for fast food in Peru is surprisingly expensive, compared to the local restaurants, even the Peruvian fast food.

Typical winter day on the Lima coast

Larcomar, overlooking the Pacific Ocean

After eating lunch, back at the park (you need to flag down your server, European-style to get your check), I jumped on a city bus tour that starts and ends in Miraflores, but takes you to the downtown part of the city where lots of churches and older buildings are located. Normally I am not a fan of those double-decker city bus tours, but since this was my only day in a town where I didn’t speak the language and I was by myself and didn’t really want to take a cab alone, I figured this was my best bet to see the most stuff. And experience a side of the city that I hadn’t heard the greatest things about and figure a bus tour would be the best way to experience it.

Top o' the bus, driving through Lima town

The tour was surprisingly good! I think it helped that I wasn’t expecting much, but I am a total sucker for seeing new parts of town. After seeing Inca ruins right in the center of town, the bus made its way into central Lima. Since I took the tour on a Sunday, it included admission and a tour of San Francisco which was fantastic. The place is huge and contained any and everything I have ever seen in a church from artwork, tapestry, catacombs, statues and everything in between. Even though it was included on my bus tour, it is well worth the price of admission and extra for a tour. I was surprised on how many locals there, not sure if it was because it was a Sunday or not, but I haven’t seen this many locals at a touristy place in a very long time.

Ruins in Lima

Outside of San Francisco

The bus tour also drove us around many of the squares, but we didn’t get to stop and wander around and my pictures didn’t turn out very good as they were taken on a slow moving but and everyone heads were in the shots. Even though Miraflores is known as the “safer” part of town, there were so many people on the streets downtown, that how unsafe could it be for tourists? Because the bus just flew by lots of sites and squares that I wanted to wonder around more, when it came time to book my hotel for the end of my stay, since I didn’t love the place I was staying at in Miraflores, I decide to mix it up and stay at a place in central Lima. I used to be a total planner about everything, but my time in Australia and New Zealand taught me to go with the flow when I can. And since I knew I could book something sort of last-minute in Lima, I held off booking my last few nights accommodation back in Lima until I arrived in the country, just to see what the hotel and town was like. And I was so glad I waited!

Square in Downtown Lima

After driving around central Lima, the bus zoomed back to Miraflores and it started to rain on the way back, which probably wasn’t good for my health (I started to not feel well at night) but thankfully didn’t let it get too far. I just went back to the hotel for the night, to rest for the start of my Gap tour the next day.

The roads of Lima

Moral: For newcomers to Lima, I would highly recommend staying in Miraflores. Even though I didn’t go out at night and venture too far except for a run to the supermarket to buy water, I never felt unsafe during the day. Police are everywhere. And you know you are in a safe and touristy area when you see money changers on every corner. But after two weeks in the country, I felt safe enough and confident in myself to stay in central Lima. There is plenty of accommodation in that area and it’s not unsafe, but you venture only a few blocks in the wrong direction and you are easily out of the tourist area and it’s not a place I would go to at night. Miraflores was just more open and touristy, and not in a bad way.

Used: 2011

Since I arrived into Lima a day before my Gap tour was to begin at La Castellana Hotel, I just booked an extra night at this place as it seemed okay. And for the most part, it was a nice place to start my trip. The hotel is located in the trendy Miraflores area, in an old hacienda style house and is very old fashion with a courtyard in the middle.

There is a 24hour supermarket around the corner and when I asked the very nice and English speaking front desk if it was safe to go out after dark in the area on my first night, they looked at me like I was crazy. Of course it was safe! But I still ran the two blocks there, grabbed what would be the cheapest bottle of water I would find on my travels (s/1.45 for 2.5ltrs!) and ran back. Hey, it was my first night and I had no idea of anything yet.

My least favorite parts – when I started not feeling well on my second night and just wanted to keep warm and bundled up, I asked about heaters and they did not provide them. Breakfast kind of sucked before I realized that that is how it was all over the country. The rooms were pretty dark, not enough lights. And what would be the worst part and the worst welcome to Peru – the shower. Apparently, every room was different and while mine was really quiet (and others were loud), my shower was total total shit and others had it okay. It was hot, I’ll give it that, but the pressure, it was just a trickle and one of the worst that I had ever seen in my life. I had heard bad things about the showers in Peru, so my hopes were not high about the showers going forward, but I’ll say right now that this was the worst shower I had in Peru.

My favorite parts – Like I said before, very quiet. Beds were warm and comfortable (though a heater would have helped). And what would be a trend for the rest of my time in Peru, is kick ass TV. Seriously, TV in Peru was awesome. Full on cable at every place I stayed and pretty much everything is in English with Spanish subtitles (my favorite!!) though it was weird what was in Spanish and what wasn’t.

Moral: Not the best, but not the worst. A good place to start my trip and for the most part, no complaints. I grabbed a price chart on my way out because I hadn’t booked a place to stay for my last few days at the end of my trip but when seeing how much it cost for what I got, I decided against staying here again and ended up in another part of town. Since it wasn’t great, I don’t know if I would stay here again, given the chance. I would rather take my chances on somewhere else then a repeat visit.

Used: 2011

El Salvador Airport: The main airport in El Salvador is a single story medium sized outdated airport. It has excellent signage in English and plenty of bathrooms that were easy to find once I exited the plane. I bought a bottle of water and was a little nervous as I don’t speak Spanish and I had no El Salvadorian money. Luckily, the airport is set up for people like me. The bartender grabbed me a bottle of water and said US$2 and when I didn’t have exact change, actually changed my 20 with US change, which I had never experienced before. When I passed back through two weeks later, I was prepared for it and grabbed a water from the fridge and tossed US$2 on the bar.

Taca has a whole system down for their flights. All their flights from North, South and Central America all arrive around the same time, within an hour or so of each other and then all the connecting flights leave around the same time, so you have just enough time to land and transfer without having to sit around for a long time and wait. Both my connects were approximately an hour and everything was on time.

When you have a flight to North America, the passengers go through extra security, which is kind an annoying. At first I was going to try to do all carry on, but in packing and I realized I couldn’t fit it all and checked bags did not cost extra on any flights I took (more on that later) and then seeing and experiencing this extra security, I would recommend not doing carry on. Also, every employee I had to interact with from the bartender to security spoke English. This seems to be a big hub between North America and Latin and South America. They were well equipt for everything.

Bogotá Airport: My new least favorite airport. Take into account that I was just super anxious to get home so we did not start off on the right foot. We deplaned on the runway which is sort of fun but standing and being jammed into a bus is frustrating. In all my experiences when you transfer international flights without leaving immigration, you have to pass security again. I had used my extra money and bought two bottles of water in Lima before I left, but in going through security in Bogotá, security did not speak any English (lame at an airport!) and the someone behind me in line translated and asked if I had jams or something, which I did not. But I took out the water, assuming that this is what they were looking for. The officer said I could drink it there and when I went to open the first bottle it exploded everywhere, getting water over everything, which pissed me off, considering I had to pee super bad already. I was so frustrated, that I just tossed the bottled. Even though this has happened to me before, I don’t think it’s right and get very frustrated at the whole thing.

I then figure out which gate I am supposed to be at and it takes me FOREVER to find it because they are doing construction and the signage is terrible. Then, most of the waiting areas are blocked off because passengers have to go through extra security, like the North American flights in El Salvador, so there is nowhere to sit on the concourse. My layover was kind of long, around 3 hours, but I was so mad the entire time. I didn’t have any Colombian money (of course) and I don’t know if they took US dollars anywhere as I didn’t try to buy anything because I was so mad about the water. Thankfully after going through the extra security, it was a quick and easy load onto the plane, through an actual jet-way this time.

Lima Airport: This airport was much more large and modern that I expected. Those generic yellow signs that are everywhere in LHR are in Lima also, with everything in both English and Spanish. When you land in Lima, you are given two cards. The bottom half of one is torn at immigration and you have to carry it around with you at all times and show it at every accommodation you stay at in Peru as it has something to do with taxes. You have to present it when you pass immigration on the way out, so don’t loose it. I kept mine, so I don’t know what happens when you don’t have it.

As with the signs, everyone at the airport speaks English. When I passed immigration (very quickly I may add), the first thing the controller asked me is “English or Spanish”. I knew I was in a good place, with that one question. Every interaction I had at the airport was easy and in English. I actually landed here twice, when I first entered the country and then two weeks later on my way back.

Both times, I arranged pick up from the hotels I had booked and both times, everything worked out perfectly. When you make your bookings, there will always be an offer for transport and may cost extra, but well worth it. Takes the worry out after landing, especially after a long flight. Be aware on name spellings as if your name has a double letter, most likely, they’ll leave out the second letter. My name was spelled “Rebeca” almost everywhere. When I first landed, my name was spelled quiet incorrectly, but I figured it out and the second time I landed, my name was actually spelled exactly correct, which had never happened at all during my time in Peru! (Luckily, always spelled correctly when it mattered like on plane tickets and Inca Trail permits.)

My flight back home left super early and I had to leave town around 2:30am to get to the airport. A bit of a waste of a night (though I don’t regret doing it as I had somewhere to crash during the previous day) as when I arrived at the airport, people were scattered everywhere, sleeping. This place is brightly lit, safe, clean and warm so I would recommend sleeping here if you have an early flight. Or a long layover! There are TONS of places to eat and shop before immigration and even more once you pass. Though the domestic terminal leaves more to be desired. My flight on LAN was delayed (more on that later) and there was only one place to eat and a tiny place to shop. For how much volume passes through that small area, I am surprised there isn’t more to keep you occupied. Anyway, a much more modern airport then I was expecting.

Moral: Other then Bogotá, which might be a good airport, I just had a bad experience there, everything else was pleasant! El Salvador was a super cute, has everything you need and will most likely not be spending much time here, which is the goal of any airport and/or layover. Lima was really impressive. Not super huge, but very modern, clean, helpful and great communication and amenities. For my first time in Latin and South America, I was really impressed and happy when the major airports!

Used: 2011

When I booked my ticket to Peru, I booked it all on one ticket. It wasn’t until I printed out my itinerary right before I left, that I realized that the airline I was flying home on with two stops from Lima to Bogotá to El Salvador was not Taca. When I flew down and was reading the Taca airline magazine and couldn’t figure out for the life of me why Taca didn’t fly from Bogota to El Salvador and in checking my itinerary again, realized that I was flying on a different airline for my return! Avianca is part of the Taca family which is why I was sold this ticket, so I didn’t worry too much.

Since I had confirmed aisle seats all the way home, I tried to log into the Taca and Avianca websites the day before my flight and print out my boarding passes but for some reason, both websites would not let me log in. I think it was because Peru has an exit fee requirement (more on that later) but I really have no idea. Luckily, Lima has this all under control. Checking in was super easy and I was ticketed all the way through to LAX. I asked about window seats on my flights and the agent could only make the change for the Avianca flights but not the Taca flight. It was weird, some things connected and other things not.

Everything I loved about Taca is the same on Avianca. Good food and hot towels. Friendly service. Flights that leave on time. Sometimes half empty flights (LIM-BOG) and sometimes full flights (BOG-SAL). Leather seats, cup holders and personal entertainment systems are what make this airline better than Taca. My first flight from Lima to Bogotá was so super short on a empty plane. I had the entire row to myself which I can’t remember when the last time I had that. Unfortunately that made up on my Bogotá to El Salvador flight with a full flight.

Cup holder and personal entertainment systems is part of the reason why Avianca is my new favorite airline!

I don’t know if it was just the planes I was on, but after the safety video, the air hostesses made an announcement saying that against US aviation regulations, there is no emergency oxygen system in the bathroom, in the event of an emergency. Are they even allowed to fly to the US without this or is announcement enough to “override” the system? I know they fly to some east coast cities which is great because they are an awesome airline! Coat hanger and cup holder on the seat back is something more US airlines totally need this as they take up no room or weight.

Coat hanger, awesome! Why has no American airline implemented this? Did I mention, this is all in COACH?!

Moral: I love this airline! New planes, great amenities with all the awesome services of Taca. I wish they flew all the way to LA (oddly, they have signs at the airport attached to Taca’s name), but Taca seems to have a hold on the base route from LA until you get into the Latin and South America region. But when you see this airline show up on your ticket, cheer! They are awesome.

Deplaning in Colombia

Used: 2011

I had been pricing airfares to Peru for months. They kept jumping up and down for the summer. I wasn’t super picky about when I went as long as I went during the months of July or August. I waited too long and prices jumped into the $1000’s. I was out. Then I realized that I was super close to finally cashing in my frequent flier points for a free ticket. I was so excited about this! Dates were open for the end of August and all I had to do was buy $300 worth of points. SCORE!!! I held the ticket and waited for the points to get deposited into my account. As soon as they were approved, I did a quick check through Kayak to see what was available for the dates I saved and of course, up came a ticket through Taca airlines for just under $600, which is what I budgeted for at the beginning of the year. AGH!!!!! I actually clicked the link and it took me to the Orbitz website (ehhhh) where it tells me it has found a cheaper ticket! What the-?! How and why does this happen? So even though I have two stops on the way back (vs. one using my rewards) the price is too good to pass up. I buy the ticket. As always, I checked the Taca website to see if they can complete with Orbitz and they can’t. By far. Seriously, it’s like a $300 plus price difference.

I didn’t know much about Taca going into it at first, but knew they were a reputable airline with decent service to Latin and South America. Not fantastic, but all I care about is safety and price. And I knew they ticked both of those boxes. I asked everyone on my tour what airline they took and the other Americans had taken Spirit down from Washington DC and I groaned, knowing how bad they were and while they were cheap, I would NEVER use then to fly international. When I asked why they didn’t take Taca, they said that the flight agitator they used said Taca was might not be approved to fly when the time came. What the hell?! I had never heard that about them, it was so weird that they were told that. I felt bad too, because I paid less for my ticket and I didn’t have to fly Spirit.

They were a pretty decent airline. I checked in luggage for the first time in forever as two pieces were included into my ticket and check in was so super easy. Might have helped since I arrived wicked early. My flight down was split and I had to transfer planes in El Salvador, because Taca is their national airline. Each flight was approximately 5 hours. On the first flight, I would say the majority of the flight did not speak English as a first language, which is weird since the flight originated in the US. We were given two meals (yay food!) but there were not personal tv’s on the back seat, we were just shown two movies on overhead screens. Not too bad, 5 hours isn’t too long for me. The best part was that the flight was not full and there was only me at the window and some on the aisle, with the middle seat empty. My favorite! When that happens, I just pull down the center tray and use that, to keep my space clear.

The flight from El Salvador to Lima was a bit different. Packed plane, but I would say at least half of the passengers, if not more spoke English as a first language, which is funny considering the plane departed and arrived in Spanish-speaking countries. We only got one meal and I got a repeat of one of the movies I had seen already on the overhead screens. The flight was super bumpy as we were flying over land and over the equator where clouds tend to congregate and create bad weather. But at 4 and a half hours, at least the flight was shorter.

Heading home was fine. I only flew on Taca from El Salvador back to LAX and I knew what to expect. Throw in the fact that I was just super anxious to get home, it wasn’t the best flight, but no part of that had to do with Taca. Well, maybe a little. One meal and countless drinks, which were all fine. I ended up on an aisle seat, which I never sit at, but couldn’t change my seat to window before they were all taken up. I actually didn’t mind the aisle seat as I felt like I could spread out more into the aisle and the turbulence wasn’t as bad for me. I tend to stress out a bit when I sit at the window, oddly enough. The thing that makes me an ideal window seat mate is my ability to not use the bathroom during most flights. I can’t remember the last time I asked the person on the aisle to get up so I could go. On my long haul flights, I just hold it until my seat mates get up and then take advantage of the time they are up and get up every time they do. On anything less than 5 hours, I hold it. Why can’t you?! I realized the joys of the aisle on this flight, but having to get up twice for others, really pissed me off a lot. I am a window person, though and through. And a darn good one at that. For some reason, the English channel in my seat didn’t work, so I couldn’t watch the two movies shown, which normally would piss me of a lot, but I was so anxious to get home, it surprisingly didn’t bug me. Too much.

Moral: I would whole heartily recommend Taca. They have a really good system for their flights to Latin America. The food was good. The service was good. They were always on time. Of course, personal tv’s are my favorite, but for 5 hour flights, I can handle the lack of. And if the price can’t be beat, grab it!!

Used: 2011

When my sister named some activities she wanted to do when she came to visit me in New Zealand, wine tasting was high on the list. So when I found out there was a winery on The Big Island called Volcano Winery and it was right outside the park, I knew we would have to stop there.

The place was super cute and had a flight of 8 wines available for tasting. It was just my sister and I and a couple over from Oahu in our tasting group and interesting that the other tourists were essentially “locals”. The wines were quiet fruity and not too dry. The grapes are planted in the lava fields, hence the name. They do not have a distributor on the mainland as you have the buy the bottles yourself for delivery and shipment. They are available to buy around Hawaii and cost about $15-$20 each. We bought a bottle that I liked the most, the Symphony Mele, to drink later. They have two tasting counters and a pretty large shop of general wine-related tchotchkes, which I always find entertaining.

Moral: I love wineries in interesting places and this has to be one of the oddest in the US. Unfortunately, the wine isn’t anything special, but the women who poured our tasting was very nice, chatty and informative about all the wines available. They seem like they are still expanding, as they just added some new bottles recently but hopefully they keep the operation on the smaller size and enhance their creativity and difference. A highly recommended spot when visiting Volcanoes National Park.

*Sorry for lack of pictures! We concentrated on the tasting as their operation is quite small*

End of the World

Used: 2011

This whole trip was super relaxed. After a morning of sitting by the pool and swimming and tanning, we would have lunch at the house and get ready for some activities for the afternoon. Two activities I did on the first day with my family on The Big Island (my birthday!) was drive out to the southernmost point in the entire United States. A green sand beach is nearby, but hard to get to, so we skipped it. It’s a very bad dirt road for the last bit, passed some retired wind turbines and then a steep walk down to the cliffs where people have built very high diving platforms. It’s pretty crazy and can best be described in pictures.

Wind turbine graveyard

Southernmost point in the entire United States

South Point Cliff Dive, Hawaii

My dad has a Seniors pass to the National Parks system, so it was free to get our car into the park on our late afternoon drive home. The semi active volcano had started erupting just 2 days before I arrived, so I was excited! Most of the rim of the crater was blocked off and since we arrived so late in the day, we just stopped at the outdoor visitor center (which had an awesome drinking water spout to fill your bottle up, I approve!) before driving on to the crater outlook (kind of boring) and then driving on to the Jagger Center, which has the active volcano look out. There was steam coming out of the crater when we arrived and we wondered around the extremely informative center. Even though the crater was more active then it had been lately, lava still was not visible from the ground, but “glow” was. “Glow” can only be seen at night and it’s the lavas reflection in the steam that is rising. I really wanted to stay until dark to see it, so we camped out in the car for about an hour to wait until the sun set. TIP: you can’t really tell when you are driving up, but the crater is pretty high up and at least in the late afternoon, it was really cold in the park and we were not prepared when we left the house earlier that day. It was so cold that being in the car was fine, but even running out and seeing the glow, my sister and mother could only stand it for a few minutes to take a peak and then run back to the car. I lasted a bit more time to take some pictures with different settings and then running back to the warmth of the car.

Volcano steam

Blurry Glow

Grainy Glow

Moral: Unfortunately, we didn’t have more time to spend in the park, but all I really wanted to see was lava and that was complete! And I am a total sucker for geographical points in countries. Highest points, lowest points, farthest east/west/north/south. And none of this continental bullshit. I want the real thing! I love Hawaii because you always get the real thing in both geography and lava. You can not get either anywhere else.