Category: 2011

Used: 2011

When booking my trip, since I had such little time but wanted some form of control to my travels, I mixed up my tours and went with two companies. Because of that, it meant having to book my own airfare from Puno/Juliaca back to Lima before coming home. Since I had never been to Peru before and don’t know anyone that has been lately (or travel there with time restrictions), Google was my buddy in finding ways to get back to the capital. At the time of my planning, there were three airlines in Peru that ran the Puno-Lima route. The official airline of Peru, LAN as well as two local airlines, Peruvian Airlines and Star Peru. In checking the prices, LAN was easily three times as much as the local carries. LAN was crossed out immediately. And the only reason I picked Star Peru over Peruvian was based on cost. And thank god I picked Star! A week before my trip, I got an email from GAP saying that Peruvian had ceased flying due to inadequate regulations or something like that. GAP didn’t fly with them (we flew with LAN) but they emailed me, just in case my other travel plans in Peru involved flying with them. Very helpful. And thankfully, I wasn’t flying with them! But because Star Peru flies within Peru only, they had some pretty strange ways of doing business. Granted, I flew last year and my mom and sister are flying on them this year, apparently things have changed already in the span of one year and I’ll note the differences.

Exiting the plane in Lima. Note the constant overcast sky!

Last year, I booked my ticket online, about 4 months before I was to fly. I got a what looked like a very basic confirmation email a few days later and apparently they only billed my credit card US$15 to hold the reservation. I emailed the office in Miami (their US office) to find out if my reservation was processed and within 2 days, I got a confirmation from the office in Peru, saying my reservation was confirmed and instructions to pay the balance of my ticket once I arrive in Peru. I wasn’t too worried about this as I gave myself plenty of extra time in Cusco and Lima to figure this out. I had read on their website that the office at the Lima airport was open 24 hours, so when I landed at the start of my trip in Lima, I found my name on a sign and the rep from GAP asked if I could wait until the next plane arrived, so we could share a taxi into town. I said it was fine. I sat down for a few minutes before I remembered that I had to pay my balance to Star Peru. I went to find the rep and tried to tell him what I wanted to do, but he didn’t understand what I was trying to say at all (you would think more tourists would have this issue) but I gave up, knowing I would have time in Cusco to deal with this. When my mom bought her ticket for this month, it took a few cycles, but she was billed in full so she won’t have to find a local office once she is in Peru to pay the balance.

In Cusco, I had a map to the office and thankfully the town is so tiny and the office is on a main street in between the center of town and the airport, that I saw it when we first arrived so I knew how to find it after my tour ended. After the Inca Trail hike, I had one day to essentially “run errands” which involved paying the balance of my ticket. It was very easy! Since I had my confirmation print outs, barely any language was needed to communicate and I quickly and easily paid my balance. The whole transaction was quaint. Thankfully, they took credit cards for this part in person!

The following week was my flight and it was easy peasy. I got to check my HUGE suitcase for free. What I didn’t know at the time, was that the flight wasn’t nonstop. We had about a 20 minute flight from Juliaca to Arequipa, which was probably the shortest flight I have ever been on in my life. Even though I was assigned an aisle seat, the plane was dead empty (seriously, maybe like 30 people on the Southwest-size jet) so I had the whole row to myself and moved to the window. But then in Arequipa, the plane filled and I moved back to the aisle. Thankfully, I shared my row with some English-speaking tourists who didn’t say a word (the only reason I know so, if their guide books were in English, but I don’t know what country they were from) but the person across the aisle from me, let her daughter run wild around the airplane after we had taken off and I was so scared that the kid was going to pull the door open. Seriously, shit like that would NEVER happen in the US, the attendants would scream at the person to hold on to their kid, but in Peru apparently, anything goes. The plane was full on the flight back to Lima and we got served a box of snacks! YUM!!!! There was no entertainment, but for slightly over an hour, who cares.

Star Peru’s “gate area” in Lima. On the runway!

When we landed in Lima, unlike when I left on LAN for Cusco, it was like Star Peru was too cheap to rent a gate, so we exited onto the runway, which I don’t mind at all. We then jammed on a bus for a quick ride to the gate and spilled out right in the baggage claim. I grabbed my bag and spotted the sign from the hotel I was staying at in Peru for my last few days. This was the only time on the entire trip (except in official capacities) that my name was spelled correctly. Very nice!

Exiting the plane in Lima.

Moral: Unless the airline has total shit reviews and track records, try the local flights! They’ll usually be way cheaper than the national and international carriers, plus you’ll interact with the locals more. Thankfully, all the employees on Star Peru spoke English, so it was a non-issue, but the customers were way local. Have you ever flown on a local carrier you were impressed or disappointed in?

Used: 2011

I love tiny airports! They are easy to navigate and you rarely have to worry about missing your flight. Puno was a perfect example of it. Trusting the collective to get me to the airport on time was a fine decision. Since I knew the airport was tiny, pretty much everyone in my collective was going to be on my flight. I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Check in was a breeze and even though I flew on Star Peru, a local internal airline, the agent spoke English. Not that there was much to say. I checked my bag and then was pointed to the next window to pay my s/9.50 exit fee. No communication was even needed there.

Outside the Puno/Juliaca airport

Security was easy and hey, if you wanted to enter and exit, you could do it as much as you wanted, just had to pass security every time. I was a bit nervous going through security, mainly because I didn’t know what was past it, anywhere to eat or buy stuff, just in case, so I waited until my plane was scheduled to about to leave to go through. Turns out, that wasn’t even an issue because we were delayed for about an hour. Ah, the Peruvian way! Thankfully, we got to wait in the terminal instead of on the plane, so that was nice. Another favorite thing about small airports (or airlines) are the jetways! There are none and you have to enter and exit the planes right on the runway. I totally love that. All the flights in Puno, even LAN, have entrances and exits on the runway.

Don’t you wish all airports could be this empty?

Moral: Small airports are great when traveling in a new place. The lack of flights means you’ll never miss yours and they might board in a different way, which is always fun. Thankfully, since most airports in less developed nations cater mainly to tourists, you can be guaranteed that someone will speak English and have good clean (English!) signage as well. And the bathrooms will be clean and stocked with toilet paper. What is your favorite small airport?

Used: 2011

I am a bit carefree with my money when I travel, especially now. When I travel for vacation, it’s like a major once a year thing and for the most part I don’t care how much it costs. I mean, of course I like a deal, but I am not going to go out of my way to save like $20 in the grand scheme of things. My ATM card charges a fee. My credit card charges a fee. I don’t travel enough anymore to make switching these things cheaper at this time. Maybe I will in the future. But for now, I am fine with where I am at.

Since I had never been to South America before and I had heard horror stories about cards getting eaten by machines, for the first time in my travels, I bought money before I left. Unlike the banks in New Zealand where I could order money online and then pick it up a few days later (just one of the millions of reasons why American banks SUCK!!!) I had to go in person to order money. And then they called me when my money was available to pick up. I hate waiting in line at the bank and I had to do it TWICE!!! Agh. I requested approximately US$100 in mixed bills and got a call 2 days later that my money was ready. I was prepared and requested it about a month ahead of time, just in case as Peruvian soles aren’t the most popular of currencies. The teller at the bank told me that some people request like 100’s of pounds or euros and need them like in an hour. Man, I am such a planner. Anyway, the exchange rate I got was pretty bad (about s/2.60=US$1, when it was about s/2.70=US$1 in country) but for the most part I don’t regret it. I had money on arrival and I learned my lesson!

The biggest thing I probably would have changed is requesting all small bills. Things are dirt cheap in Peru and while I always used my bigger bills in more popular locations, I worried about using big bills in places that change might not have been available. Thankfully, I never got into that situation, but I was always aware of what bills I had and what I was using at each location.

I wanted to pay cash in as much as possible so I ended up hitting the ATM a lot. In most places you have a choice between taking out soles or USD. My biggest recommendation to anyone anywhere when traveling is always take out the max amount. In Peru it was US$100 or s/300. I used Chase in the US and my charges were s/10.00 (less than US$3.00) and US$5.00 for each transaction as well as a 1% fee when taking out soles. I noticed when I got home when I took out USD that I didn’t get charged the 1%! I actually took out USD’s most of the time as I had to pay for my Lake Titicaca trip in cash on arrival, so there was a bit of savings there. The reason I didn’t bring the cash into the country with me on arrival was for safety. I didn’t want to be carrying around like US$500 with me everywhere so while I probably ended up spending close to US$40 on fees, I just take that as a life lesson and factor it into my vacation budget.

Change places are everywhere. I had a pile of US cash on hand near the end of my trip and I didn’t want to waste more money at the ATM, so I would go into random store fronts and change a US$20. Of course, I was always a bit worried about counterfeit money, which is why I always changed a very small amount at a time (plus, US$20 will get you pretty far in Peru) but I never had an issue. Plus I got a decent exchange rate.

I had read about money changers on the streets of Lima in my guide-book and while I told myself I would never use them because they look shady, I ended up using one on my last day. They stand on major tourist street corners with piles of money in their hands and wear these bright yellow jackets (sort of like construction workers) and wear huge official medallions. They made eye contact with me all the time because I screamed “tourist” from my look (whatevs) but for the most part I waved them off. But when I did need one, I just gave them US$20 and then handed back a decent exchange of money. I never counted it but it seemed fine and the money was not counterfeit. Hell, it was only a US$20 and it was my last day. Plus, I get to write about my positive experience! I would never use one at night (I don’t think they even legally change money at night) but during the day, they are super helpful.

Moral: This was the first time in a while I traveled without having a bank account in the country I was travelling in. Yes, I know I could save money here and there and whatever, but this works for me right now with my lifestyle. I am really anal about my purse and keeping an eye and hand on my stuff and never traveled with a lot of money and didn’t worry too much about pickpocketing. I was just always alert and aware of my surroundings. I don’t know what I would do differently. This works for me. Everyone is different when it comes to money so I try not to give too much advice but just tell you what I do in certain situations.

Used: 2011

I love traveling because I get to see and experience things I would never see at home. Off the coast in Puno, on Lake Titicaca (hehe, remember laughing at that name when you were a kid, but you had no idea where it was? I can’t believe I have been there now!) the locals escaped the Spaniards like a million years ago (hey, you didn’t come here for a history lesson. That is what Wikipedia is for) and created their own “islands” and live on the lake, on floating reed islands! Unfortunately now, most live back on the mainland and travel to the islands daily to put on a “show” for the tourists. Despite the floating reed islands being super touristy, they were still really really cool. The reeds were really plush to step on, though I don’t know if I could sleep on them. The whole thing is super nuts.

Taking a boat out to the floating islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Taking a boat out to the floating islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

The tourists take motorized boats on the lake and they move so slow. Each ride took like 2-3 hours, even though the islands look a lot closer then they are. After the floating islands, we took a 2.5 hour ride to Taquile Island, which is the 3rd biggest island on the lake. The biggest island is technically in Bolivia, so I didn’t go. Taquile has a decent size population. We hiked up a very long hill to the “town square” and the guide explained facts about the island and people. We had a meh lunch. Typical high elevation food, but I was so not hungry and the food just kept coming! I was so used to just eating very small meals, that anything larger then one course was always too much for me. Oh well. While we waited for our food, the guide explained the clothing that the guys and gals wore on the island. On Lake Titicaca, the guys are weavers and create their hats and belts and they all mean something, of which I can’t remember what. Typical stuff, married, single, looking, etc. There was lots of tourist stuff to buy in the town square and the views of the lake were pretty amazing! Then it was back on the boat for another 2 hour trip to Amatani island, which is the 2nd biggest island on the lake, and were everyone does their homestay.

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

The home-stay on Amantani is quite touristy. They have the whole evening mapped out for everyone. After a pretty decent hike up to your homestay (with all your stuff, so pack LIGHT! It’s only one night with no shower, there is no excuses), I spent the afternoon watching the locals play some of the other tourists in a game of soccer. Then my guide lead me on a hike up to Pachamama, one of the two hills on the island to watch the sunset. It was quite a hike, but well worth it at the top. All along the route and at the top, there are people selling stuff and kids trying to get everyone to buy their crap, but I just shoo’d them away every time. If you feel bad for shooing people away, this is not the place for you. Thankfully, I don’t mind, so it wasn’t that annoying for me. The sunset was fantastic, much better then I thought it would be! Also, this is apparently were all the Australians are hiding out! There wasn’t a single one on my Inca Trail tour, which the British couple and I commented was odd, as they are known for being every where! I wish I had brought my flashlight as it got quite dark when we were walking back down the mountain to the homestay. Dinner was in an hour and I was pooped and cold, so I crawled into bed and took a nap until then. My room was super cute. I had the room to myself. It had a bed with tons of blankets and a table and chair. Not expected, but it had electricity, which I was surprised with. They only had an outhouse, which was a bit of a shlep and BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER! I can not say that enough.

My bed at the home stay on Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

My bed at the home stay on Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

When we arrived at the homestay earlier, I was given a cheat sheet on Quechua words. Since my guide was fluent in Quechua, Spanish and English but I arrived at dinner before him, it was slightly uncomfortable, but not too bad. The home stays are totally used to people and know about our cheat sheets, so they know what questions to ask. The one thing that kind of shocked me the most was that when they (or anyone actually) would ask me where I am from and I would say “United States” in English, they would give me a quizzical expression, they had no idea what I just said. It wasn’t until I would say it in Spanish (thanks growing up in Los Angeles!!) that they would understand me. I don’t know, I thought that was kind of odd. But that could be the selfishness talking. Otherwise, since they know what to ask me, I thought I did pretty good until the guide arrived in figuring out what they were asking me. Dinner was large and pretty good. I don’t know, as these high altitudes, I can’t eat very much in one sitting and all the portions are HUGE! I ate soup, some potato and a little rice and veg.

Football game! Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Football game! Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

After dinner, the women of the house came and dressed me in traditional Quechuan garb over my every day clothes for the dancing that all the tourist and home stay locals go to in the village hall, which sort of reminded me of a high school gym. The guys get to just wear ponchos, but the girls, we are decked out in heavy skirts and tops and scarves, to keep warm because it’s so cold. It’s very funny and I started chatting with another tourist in the hall who said something along the lines of “this is their way of making fun of us” which is probably true, but I didn’t care. The whole thing was so freakin’ touristy, which is something I kind of blah at, but here for some reason, I didn’t mind. I know this is how most of the island make money during the winter months. I am not much of a dancer, but it was fun, everyone dancing in huge circles. Reminded me a lot of dancing we do at Jewish weddings and B’ Mitzvahs. Dancing descends all cultures! Also, dancing keeps you warm as it was totally freezing, even with like 10 layers on. Tip: Bring some change to tip the band, which I forgot and felt really bad about because they were really good. After that long day, we came back to the home stay and I had one of the best sleeps I had in a while. It was pitch black and kind of cold, but the blankets do a really good job keeping you warm.

Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Sunset from Pachamama, Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Sunset from Pachamama, Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Amazing sky at sunset from Pachamama, Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Amazing sky at sunset from Pachamama, Amantani Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru

The next day, I got up for breakfast, which was smaller this time. Just one pancake and tea, which is perfect for me. Then it was time to kayak! Thinking back to the day before, thinking how long it took to get from on island to another, just on the motorized boat, I couldn’t imagine how long it took to kayak from one point to another! It took a little over two hours to kayak from Amantani Island to the Llachalan peninsula, which is technically part of the mainland. The trip was very nice and peaceful and it was fun to be that close to the water and play chicken with the boats on the lake. Paddling kept me very warm! Once we got to the Llachalan peninsula, we took a motorized boat back to Puno. After all that paddling, I was pooped and all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel, take a shower and rest for the rest of the day. I was also burning out from Peru at this point.

Kayaking on Lake Titicaca, Peru

Kayaking on Lake Titicaca, Peru

Moral: The home stay was a highlight of my trip, something I knew I wanted to do, but I didn’t realize I would like it that much. It was just the right amount of home interaction with time to myself. The layout and décor of the room also helped a lot. It was a lot better then I thought it would be. I liked mixing my travels up and I think doing the Inca Hike and kayaking on Lake Titicaca were two good activities. People raved about Colca Canyon, but more long term hiking? No thanks. I think I chose well.

Extremes of Puno, Peru

Used: 2011

When I arranged my Puno tour, I had Edgar’s Adventures arrange my hotel in Puno as well, which was a very good idea as I got an excellent price on it. They put me at Camino Real Turistico which ended up being great.

The location was fantastic, on a busy corner, but a few blocks away from the main square and shopping lane, but not in a bad part of town at all. When I took a cab through town, we went through some very sketchy areas and I noticed that a lot of the hostels were located there. This place only cost me US$30 and it was well worth it. The wifi didn’t appear to be working when I stayed, but they had a excellent, fast, free computer in the breakfast room which I used for a quick email. The breakfast was okay. At least they offer something, but free breakfasts in Peru have nothing on what they offer in Europe. I don’t miss the Peru breakfasts at all.

I stayed there twice for a night each (I spent a night on Amatani Island in between) and in a different room each time. The first night I had a twin room on the 5th floor and the bathroom was HUGE! They provided soaps and the water pressure and temperature was fantastic, I wanted to live there. Best shower I had my entire time in Peru. The second time I stayed there, I was on the 2nd floor and was a bit nervous it would be loud, but it really wasn’t too bad. Again, excellent bathroom. The TV in both rooms was fab, the beds were comfy and there were ample amount of lights in the room. That seems to be a problem in Peru, some rooms are just very dark.

The front desk didn’t speak the best English, but I got my point across and understood them as well as I was nearing the end of my trip. I booked a flight from Puno back to Lima on StarPeru (story about THAT coming soon. It’s a good one, I promise!) but the airport in Puno is technically in Julianica, which 45 minutes away. I knew this was a popular destination and since I knew that not many flights left every day, when I told them my flight, they knew exactly what I needed to book. There were two options. I could take a private taxi for s/60 (US$20) or a collective (essentially a locals airport shuttle) for s/15 (US$5). While I promised myself I would only take taxis if I needed to get around long distance in Peru, that price different was a bit much for me. And since I was going the same way everyone else was, I trusted them to get us all to the airport on time. And it was a fine decision! I was one of the first pick ups, so I got to see around town as locals and tourists and other groups got in the large van before we were finally off. It was funny, I had been in the country about 2 weeks already and when the front desk person called the collective to make my reservation (she also knew my name, I didn’t have to tell her, talk about personal attention!) I understood everything she said on the phone! I was so proud of myself. But of course, if she tried to talk to me in Spanish, I would answer in English. Agh. Oh well.

Moral: This was actually probably my favorite hotel in Peru. Everything was perfect except I couldn’t get wifi on my phone, but it didn’t matter too much as there was a free computer to use. Everything else about this place was great! I would stay here again and recommend it to anyone.

Used: 2011

Since I am not really a tour person, I split my time in Peru up into two different tours, just in case one of them went bad. I went with a worldwide known company for my Inca Trail tour but in figuring out what else I wanted to do in Peru, I found a local company that could organize my time in Puno. Edgar’s Adventures is a full service agency for all things Puno and I had them put together a package for Lake Titicaca, hotel and transportation for me.

They booked me on the Turismo Mer bus service from Cusco to Puno, a ride that takes about 10 hours and makes lots of tourist stops along the way. Sign me up! At first, the communication on my ticket was not very good until I found out that I really didn’t have a ticket, just show my ID at the office. Thankfully, they had my name on a list (spelled incorrectly, but it was fine as this was not an air itinerary and they accepted me anyway).

Animals and the runes, Peru

Couple of things about the bus. There are a bunch of different companies and they all pretty much make the same stops and are the same price. If you can bunch it all together in a tour, it will probably end up being cheaper. I know my ticket was. The seats are assigned and at first I was on the aisle, sitting next to this HUGE German man and I groaned the moment he sat down. THANKFULLY the bus was not full (there were actually two buses leaving at the same time, to the same place) and the moment we pulled away, I spotted an empty ROW and bolted for it. So thankfully, I had an empty row for the entire trip. And because there were two buses, what would have been even better is if they split the group into English and Spanish speakers. It was a full on tourist bus, but that doesn’t mean that tourists don’t speak Spanish! I would say my bus was split and I’ll just assume that the other bus was split too. What if they just separated us and then the guides wouldn’t have to repeat everything twice? That would be too easy. While the bus was full service, attendants coming around and offering drinks and bread for free, I have to say BRING TOILTE PAPER for the rest stops! I hate using facilities on my transportation and pretty much all our stops were BYOTP.

Raqchi, Peru

I have the worst memory when it comes to the stops (we probably stopped about 5 or 6 times during the day) but here are the ones that made an impression on me:

– Andahuaylillas: beautiful church that they are in the process of restoring in the middle of a cute little town. Very interesting as this is quite far outside of Cusco, so everything in town centers around the church. So European!
– Raqchi: A total tourist trap of a village. Mainly runes, but interesting for that aspect of it. Just don’t get pulled into the shops and you’ll be fine. Love that the locals bring and farm the animals right up next to the runes. It’s all just so different from regular life.
-Lunch was buffet, which meant you got to eat as much as you want. Typical chicken and rice and veggie dishes, nothing much to write home about, decent as always. Good bathroom at this stop!
-We then stopped at a high peak, but I was so tired, that I didn’t get out of the bus. There wasn’t much to see, it was more of a rest stop in the middle of some beautiful scenery, surrounded by women who had set up shop on the side of the road. Luckily, I was sitting on the side of the bus that faced the mountains and had a beautiful view, so I just took some pictures through the window, which was fine for me. I was just pooped.
-Just the ride through the countryside was very interesting, seeing the locals wash their clothes in the river. Just something you don’t see in America anymore and you kind of can’t believe there are still people in this world that live that way. But there you go.
-Like everything in Peru, we arrived in Puno nearly an hour after we were supposed to, but my contact was thankfully still waiting for me. Apparently this happens pretty much every day.

Beautiful scene, with stuff to buy of course! Peru

Moral: The reviews on the tourist buses are mixed (vs taking a “locals” bus). Since my time was limited, I didn’t mind at all, plus got to see some more stuff (even though I was a bit ruin’ed out at this point) but I can see the downside if you are long on time but short on funds. They are kind of pricy for what they are, but I am really glad I took one instead of flying, at least on this leg. I budgeted the time for this and it’s a very common route and lots of buses take it and as far as I can tell, they are all pretty much the same. I think they all stop at similar stops, so the only difference was the price or quality of the bus. And I had no problems with the quality and service on Turismo Mer. I would recommend them for anyone traveling this route in the future.

Scene from the bus, Peru

More scene from Peru

Used: 2011

Besides using Cusco as a hub for all things Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, there are other activities to do in and around town and still have a good time!

Besides running into people who will always know your name one of the highest rated (and rightly so) activities is the ChocoMuseum. The Irish couple on my tour had done this before the hike and shared their chocolate with the group one night and I loved it! I completely forgot about it once back in Cusco and after running around town on my one free day, trying to find a rafting operator that wasn’t trying to scam me and spoke English (not the easiest on a Sunday) I was wondering back to my hostel and I looked up in the square and saw the ChocoMuseo sign and the taste from the road immediately came back to me. My timing was perfect and after having a very quick look around the gallery, I joined the chocolate making workshop that was about to begin. There were two sets of partners and me. The Peruvians (I think, they were from Latin/South America, but spoke English), only the guy participated and the girl watched, tasted and took pictures and the Australian couple split their tour. Pretty much anyone can listen in (sort of, the kitchen is separate from the rest of the museum and café) but at the end when we made our own chocolate, they only give you a certain amount and the Australians split their allotment (though they did give them a bit extra anyway, very nice!). The workshop was given in English and fantastic. You got to taste the beans in different forms (coffee, tea leaves, paste and then chocolate) as the workshop proceeded and was very interactive as well. And then of course, the making of the chocolate is the best! I made little squares with all different fillings, trying to use and create the most uncommon ones. Of course, I made tons of chocolate filled with coca, as it’s illegal in the US (PS: No issue getting it back in the US) and they gave us little bags with cacao shells to make tea (once again, no issue getting it back in the US, even though it’s not “factory sealed”. Fingers weren’t crossed too tightly for the Australians though, as we all know how tight their MAF is) which I gave to my mom and she loved it, as it was a bit bitter for my taste.

I'm toasting the bean leaves, Cusco, Peru

The whole museum, café and workshop was fantastic. Everything is in English (and Spanish) and everyone who works there spoke English too. The museum is free and very professionally done and I highly recommend just taking a walk around. But of course, I do highly recommend the workshop too. It was s/75.00 when I did it which equaled about US$25 and totally worth it in my book. Peru is a once in a life time country and I wasn’t about to scrimp on something I really wanted to do over $25. Totally worth it!

Smashing the beans into paste, Cusco, Peru

Hot chocolate time!

When I was arranging my timing for Peru, I gave myself the last day of the tour to essentially be a rest day, though I did want to find a rafting company to join for the following day. I like to give myself a little flexibility when I travel and since I knew the competition was fierce for business, I thought I could get a better deal on the ground. I didn’t even realize it, but my one free day was a Sunday, when half of the shops are closed, even the touristy ones. So it was a bit harder then I had hoped to find a tour that wasn’t trying to gouge me (I knew approximately what I wanted to spend) and spoke English. I finally found a shop (Liz’s Explorer in Cusco) who booked me on a tour for the following day with Mayuc, one of the reputable operators in town. Little did I know at the time, but essentially all the store fronts sell tours for only a few companies and they sell them for whatever price they want, probably pay Mayuc a flat fee and pocket the rest of themselves, so try to bargain if you can. I am a horrible bargainer, so when I found a fare price, I just left it at that.

Huge dog at base camp. Rafting at Cusco, Peru

This was most of the scenary while rafting. Cusco, Peru

I love rafting and the trip was just okay. It was an over an hour bus ride to base camp where we got ready in our rafting gear before getting back on the bus to the raft landing. The larger group split up, into Spanish and English speakers to make it easier on everyone and it was just me and a grandmother and granddaughter, who was around 13 years old, both from New York. And Jewish. I just had to say that because I am to, it was something we had in common besides our Americaness, even though there is a difference between New York and California Jews, since my mom is from New York, I know the culture. Anyway, we got on the river quickly, named our raft “Hurricane” because Hurricane Irene had just reeked havoc on the East Coast that week (even though none of us were there) and paddled off. The scenery was really lovely and I loved hearing about the agriculture and history of the area. But the water level was very low and at one point we actually had to get out of the raft and walk on the rocks instead of paddle down a very low point of the river. That would be my biggest complaint. I had never done that before and the rocks were really slippery. It was not fun. The water was FREEZING and every time we went over rapids, I had to remember to close my mouth TIGHT as to not accidentally drink the water. The trip went on for close to 2 hours and we landed back at base to change our clothes for lunch. Lunch was really good, don’t really remember what we had, maybe chicken? But it was good and filling. Then we got to ride the zipline, which I hadn’t done since I was a kid at camp. This one went over the river twice and I screamed bloody murder when I was pushed down. It was really freakin’ scary! I liked it, but not as much as I thought I would. Then we got in the bus and headed back into town. Nothing to do with this trip, but I just have to mention my outfit after I changed after rafting. Teva sandals, shorts from my zip-off pants, Jansport backpack and my UMass sweatshirt. I looked like such a tourist, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself and ran back to my hostel before a local could rob me.

Zipline at base camp. Rafting at Cusco, Peru

Speaking of getting robbed, look out for it. I don’t know if it is because I grew up in LA and New York and just have this mentality that everyone is out to get me and therefore I always keep a very close eye on my bags and purse (though my sister was pick pocked in Rome and she is pretty aware. Anyway). For the most part, I didn’t walk alone at night (unless I walked fast and knew were I was going) and always carried my bag close to me and on the inside of the sidewalk. But the day the tour officially ended, a bunch of us found out that one of the girls on the tour had her purse snatched from her by a passing car when she was walking back from a bar. Of all the people on the tour, she definitely was the one most likely to be robbed and though she did a lot of things right (big group being the big one) she was on the outside of the sidewalk, it was like 4am and she was probably a little drunk. She apparently held on and got dragged before letting go and loosing it. Thankfully, the biggest thing they got was probably just a little money and her camera (no passport or ID), but it was still a wake up call for me. It happens.

Base camp. Rafting at Cusco, Peru

Moral: Rafting was a bit of a bust, especially since I put so much energy into it. Maybe with a big group of friends it would be better or a different time of year with more water, but I was kind of disappointed in it. Glad I went, but would maybe think twice about recommending it. I would highly recommend EVERYONE stop by the ChocoMuseo though. It was such a surprise, I loved it. I think I like things that are a surprise like that too. A must do!

Used: 2011

Due to regulations on the Inca Trail, if you are using a porter, each hiker is only allowed to bring 6kg (about 12 lbs) worth of stuff (or course, if you carry your own stuff, you can bring as much as you want (to carry)). This includes the weight of the sleeping bag (about 1.5kg) and the bag provided (.5, in my case). Everyone gets a mat free of charge, but if you rent an air mattress, that is another 1kg so you either have 4kg or 3kg worth of space to fill. When we first heard that, most of the girls in my group groaned. I just rolled my eyes. What did they even want to pack? We were going to be camping and hiking everyday with no showers or proper bathrooms. I have no idea what they expected.

Packing up at the head of the Inca Trail

We were given a list of recommended items and I’ll make a note of what I brought that was not on the list as well as things I forgot that would have been helpful.

-Daypack: I used my trusty old Jansport backpack and it was fine.
-Hat: I brought a wide-brimmed hat that was super helpful as I hate having the sun in my face or eyes. Everyone made good fun of me, that you could spot me a mile away, but I just shrugged. That is a good thing! I’ll never get lost!
-Bandana: I didn’t bring and was fine.
-Zipoff pants: YES! Super helpful when switching from hot to cold on the trail and happens really fast.
-T-Shirts: I brought one for everyday of the hike and was fine, plus one to sleep in though thermals probably would have been better.
-Thermal underwear/Long Johns: Didn’t bring, but probably should have as I was cold every night.
-Long pants: I am going to call these “pants you change into at the campsite”. They can be anything from jeans, work out pants, yoga pants or what I brought, my sleep pants. You are pretty sweaty at the end of the day and the first thing I did at every campsite was change my clothes into what I was going to sleep in. Yes, we still had to get through dinner, but I didn’t care.
-Sweater/Fleece: 1 or 2, for day and night, if you can spare the space (or just carry your day one in your pack to save space).
-Long Shirt: I guess, I didn’t bring one and was fine. I don’t like long sleeve shirts anyway. (See T-Shirts)
-Trekking shoes or hiking boats: I went with just my sneakers and I was okay. If you have hiking boats, please bring them, but I didn’t have a pair and didn’t want to spend the money on something I was probably not going to use again. Not the best idea, but I don’t regret my decision.
-Rain Poncho: I guess my group got lucky, because it didn’t rain a lick for 4 days. I did bring a beanie for cold nights. Hell, I am from LA. I don’t know how to dress for rain anyway.
-Sleeping Bag: You can rent these on arrival and they are appropriate for bag packing. I somewhat regret not bringing my own, if only because the ones provided by Gap annoyed the hell out of me by not being able to zip all the way down the side.
Flashlight: A MUST!!!!! Bring 2 if you can. It gets so dark at night, it’s unbelievable. I had never brought a flashlight on my travels before, but I brought one to Peru and it was a lifesaver!!
-Water bottle: I drink water like a camel and brought two 2lt bottles with me. Don’t forget to get the porters to help you fill them every morning before you start off, because that is it for the day!
-Bug repellent: didn’t bring, didn’t have issues. See Rain Poncho.
-Warm socks: The item everyone in our group bought in Ollantaytambo was a pair of socks from the locals for s/10 (US$3). I brought mine on the trek and when putting them on with my after hike (aka sleep) clothes, I put on the socks, over my own fresh ones. They were super helpful when sleeping.
-Camera: Duh
-Personal Medical kit: my group included a male doctor and a female nurse, so we were pretty set on medical supplies (and random medical questions to some issues some of us had at being at such a high altitude.) I brought some band aids and I was fine.
-Gloves: I forgot mine and wish I had brought them! It got so cold at night, these would have helped.
-Scarf: I bought one at one of the shops we stopped at as a gift for my mother, but wore it at night along the trail to get some authentic dust on it.
-Sun block/sun glasses: Yes. Though I only put block on the first day, because of my huge hat, it didn’t effect me the other days.
-Bathing suit: N/A for our group. We were so beat, I have no idea where those hot springs in Agues Caliente even are.
-Cash: there is all sorts of shit to buy along the route the first day and a half, until you get to Dead Woman’s Pass. But there is little need for any of it. I didn’t buy a thing as the farther up you get, the more expensive things get (obviously). You may need money at the end of the hike for anything you may want to Agues though and of course, do not leave your wallet or passport in your left luggage in Cusco. You need your passport for the trail!

Porters packing it up at the start of the Inca Trail

The biggest things I can’t believe they don’t require you to bring:

Wet wipes: These things were a daily life saver! Since there are no showers on the hike (until the last day, but they are super gross and worthless except to the porters) I wiped myself off every single day with these. I would arrive at camp, climb into my tent, strip down, wet wipe up and put on my sleep clothes. After a day of sweating, this was a highlight. They are a MUST!!!!
-Sandals (camp shoes): These were on my list and very helpful. Except for the sandal part. If you can spare the space, I highly recommend bringing a pair of CLOSED TOED SHOES for walking around camp and the bathroom because the last thing you want to do is put your gross hiking shoes back on after you have taken them off for the day. And the bathrooms are pretty gross (think squatting and what happens when you pee like that). I brought sandals and they were fine, I survived, but if I had known, I would have brought a cheap, crappy pair of old shoes.

And that is my packing list! Anything you want to add?

Moral: I think I did a really good job packing. I used everything I brought (including my blowup airplane pillow) and came back with 100% dirty clothes, which to me is always a sign of a successful trip.

Being lazy and cheering the porters on the Inca Trail

Used: 2011

After Gap changed my hotel booking and I canceled it, I had to find a place on my own. I checked out Trip Adviser and looked at places nearby and Frankenstein Hostel was the first place to pop up and was quite highly rated. It seemed like a good bet.

And thankfully, it was! I think it was good, since I was traveling alone that I had been in town for a few days before, so I had the lay of the land for the most part. The owner was around all the time, but the “front desk” was not supervised 24 hours (though you could ring a slightly awkward bell for service 24/7) but since I was in town for a few extra days, I didn’t need much (except for a cab on my last day).

The pictures on the website do it justice. It’s not super modern, but clean and comfortable and small and quiet (at least it was when I stayed, plus I had an upstairs room). I love the feeling of being outside even when your not. I liked the common area and chatted with some other guests who had just arrived, which was nice and would have not been able to do that at a hotel. TV in the common room with all the typical channels always ranks high with me. And really awesome free wireless internet, perfect for my phone. Love that the code name is the house dog’s name. The dog is HUGE, but thankfully didn’t go where the guests were and pretty much sat and slept in the lobby the whole time.

My room at Frankenstein Hostel

There was a small shared bathroom with plenty of hot water (though the pressure could have used some work, but it still wasn’t as bad as the first place I stayed in in Lima) and was also clean.

In the lobby, there was a recommendations book with reccs on various tour companies around town that I loved reading. I found a good rafting company through that and I liked reading what other people had to say about other companies used for the Inca Trail or the other trails in the area.

And of course, the price couldn’t be beat! I am so not used to prices like this for my own room and even though this was my once a year vacation and I could have splurged a little bit, staying somewhere different is always nice for a few days. And for like US$8 (!!!!!!!) it was well worth it. I don’t think I have ever stayed somewhere so cheap in my life.

Moral: While I am glad I stayed at hotels most of the time in Peru, I do like to mix up my accommodation a little bit and stay in different types of places, if only for a short time and I am really glad I did it in Cusco, where hostels are a dime a dozen and I had already been in town for a while (by tourists standards) so I knew the lay of the land. But I would recommend this place, if to get away from the larger (and louder) hostels in the area!

Used: 2011 (and pretty much every year of my life)

So like recently I went to San Francisco for the families annual holiday fun fest. We don’t celebrate Christmas but my sister does like getting us all together for the holidays, since it really is only the 4 of us. I flew on Southwest, which I call the bus line of the LAX-SFO route (flying Virgin is like taking the train; both will get you there, Virgin is just more comfy. But there is really nothing wrong with Southwest!).

If you have never flown Southwest (really you must, it’s such an experience!) they don’t have assign seating. Essentially it’s first come, first serve when you check in as you board in that order. Usually I try to get Group A (pretty much guarantee yourself a window seat) but since I didn’t have access to a computer for my return, I ended up in Group C (the “worst”). I don’t really mind this most of the time, as flying from LAX to SFO and vice versa only takes like 50 minutes, but I am partial to a window when given the chance.

Though when I flew over the holidays, and ended up in Group C, I came to a realization why Group C kind of rocks. At this point, there are no more windows or aisles, so really you have all the control. As you walk up the aisle, check everyone out and pick your seat based on who looks the least crazy. In between two big guys? Ew, no! Screaming babies or talkative old people? No thanks! Skinny people with headphones are my favorite (though cute guys with no rings are a close second, haha). Silence (and eye candy) and you’ll most likely get the arm rests. If you are in Group A and claim a window, you have no idea who is going to sit next to you. But loading in last, you have all the power! And for a short flight, who cares? Southwest still gives drinks, pretzels and peanuts as well as an airplane magazine and a Skymall catalogue. Can’t say as much from Virgin!

Moral: So next time you print your pass and you see Group C, don’t groan (well, you probably still will) but think of all the power you hold!