Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Peru: A One-Month Itinerary

      Diversity is Peru's prime attraction.  It has the Western Hemisphere's most intriguing Pre-Columbian ruins, it has a bustling cosmopolitan capital, it has trackless rain forests along the Amazon and its tributaries, it has oceanfront resorts, and it has mountains and volcanoes that ascend to (literally) breath-taking heights. It has areas where it rains daily while other parts of the country get less than a quarter-inch of rain a year.
A street of stairs connects Barranco, Lima's most 
bohemian neighborhood, with its Pacific beach.
      It is an intensely Catholic country that prizes its sun temples and other aspects of its non-Christian past. It is a country with 2,000 kinds of potatoes, at least 40 of which are widely cultivated and eaten.
It's the home of quinoa, the world's trendiest grain. It and Bolivia are the only places on the planet where coca (an essential ingredient of cocaine) is legally grown; coca leaves and edible products made with coca leaves are widely sold and coca tea is a fixture at every tourist buffet. Its native brandy, Pisco, is finding an international market as visitors return home with a taste for Pisco sours. Its llamas, alpacas and vicuna produce some of the finest wools in the world along with being among the most photogenic of animals.  In short, it's a great place for a long vacation. And, if you've traveled much in the Third World, you'll be pleased by the level of cleanliness throughout the country. Restaurants, hotel rooms and bathrooms were spotless wherever we were. Although there was some trash along roads in the mountains and along streams in towns, overall there's very little litter -- Lima's streets and sidewalks were as clean as those in most American cities if not cleaner.
The Hilton in Miraflores, one of Lima's most
affluent neighborhoods, offers a rooftop pool.
       In planning a trip to Peru, the most important consideration is its climates.  Note the plural. When the weather is ideal in one place, it's likely to be terrible at another.  Peru is said to have more micro-climates than any other nation on earth. So we decided to go when it was convenient for us and take our chances. Our trip, Nov. 6 to Dec. 6, 2014, put us in Peru in spring, which we knew would be the beginning of the rainy season at Machu Picchu.  We had a lovely and dry morning at the ruins, and we didn't get rained on until around 2 p.m. as we were waiting among a horde of people for shuttle buses to take us back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes.
     In the Amazon, we were twice out on little skiffs in late-afternoon rainstorms (the rain is quite warm) and were hit by heavy rains a couple of times aboard our cruise boat, La Estrella Amazonica. Arequipa, Cusco, Ollantaytambo, the Colca Canyon, Paracas and Lima were all without rain -- indeed, it hardly rains at all ever in some of these places -- but it could get quite cold in the evenings, even in seaside Paracas.  (All of these destinations are discussed in earlier posts; just keep scrolling down, hit "older posts" just above the large photo of the canal boat, and scroll some more. Or use the links that appear below.)   
We ate twice here at Canta Rana
in Lima's Barranco district. 
    We didn't rent a car in Peru. We flew when we could , took a bus when we couldn't fly, and used taxis and car services as needed.  Taxis in Lima are inexpensive, but mostly we walked. All flights within Peru were on Lan.  Click HERE for its easy-to-use website.
      We flew from Baltimore to Atlanta to Lima on Delta, no one's favorite airline, because it offered the best deal, though it meant a six-hour layover in Atlanta on the way home, making what was already an intolerably long travel day even longer. Most U.S.-bound flights leave Lima after midnight (Peru time is the same as Eastern Standard Time in the U.S.), meaning that you check out of your hotel room that morning, kill the day somehow and get to the airport bone-tired.   The trip down, however was much better.
       November 6  We left  Baltimore at 1:55 p.m., had a short layover in Atlanta and arrived in Lima just after midnight.  It cost 50 U.S. dollars to take a cab to our hotel, the new Hilton Miraflores (click HERE for website).  This is a very pleasant hotel -- professional but friendly staff, supremely comfortable beds, great location in the heart of Miraflores -- but it doesn't offer ocean views like the nearby Marriott, which is where most American visitors seem to stay.  We were on the fourth floor, so we had only a modest city view.  Click HERE for my earlier posting about Lima.
  November  9 We left Lima at 12:15 for the hour-and-a-half flight southeast to Arequipa. Here we stayed at Casa Arequipa (click HERE for website), a small hotel within walking distance of the city's main square, the Plaza de Armas.   Situated in an old mansion, the guest rooms tend to be small and rather dark, but the breakfast room on the roof is bright and airy with views of the surrounding volcanos.  Click HERE for my earlier posting about Arequipa.
A soaking pool warmed by natural hot
springs at Colca Lodge & Spa.
       November  11 Casa Arequipa arranged a Colca Valley and Colca Canyon overnight tour for us. We were in a van with an English-speaking guide and seven other tourists (three French, two Canadian, one Peruvian and one Italian).  Everyone could choose from a list of hotels where they wanted to spend the night. We chose the Colca Lodge and Spa (click HERE for its website), where we were first placed in an older second-floor room far from the main building. We complained and were moved to a much more deluxe room with a terrace and lounge chairs. We enjoyed the lodge's hot-springs-fed soaking pools and its excellent restaurant.  As for the valley and canyon tour itself, click HERE for my earlier posting.
Rooms at El Albergue in Ollantaytambo
have garden and mountain views.


 November  12 We returned for one more night at Casa Arequipa.
     November  13 We left Arequipa at 10:05 a.m. on a one-hour flight to Cusco. We had arranged for El Albergue, our hotel in Ollantaytambo, about 60 miles away and at a lower elevation, to pick us up at the airport. We'd been told that the best strategy for altitude sickness in Cusco is to stay first for a few days at slightly lower elevations. The drive to Ollantaytambo took about two hours, mostly on two-lane roads along the Urubamba River in what Peru promotes as "the Sacred Valley" because of its many Pre-Columbian ruins. Oddly, though there are trains from Cusco that pass through Ollantaytambo en route to Machu Picchu (and trains that run between Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo), there is no Cusco-Ollantaytambo service. El Albergue (click HERE for website) has its entrance literally on the platform at the train station. The main building houses a coffee bar, a fine-dining restaurant, the hotel desk and, upstairs, a few guest rooms. Most of the rooms are out back in separate buildings in a garden where we were hardly aware of the trains nearby. Our room, No. 10, was on the ground level, furnished with alpaca blankets and a portable heater to fight the nighttime mountain chill.  For our final night there we were in a upstairs room that had a heated bathroom floor. I would say this is THE place to stay in Ollantaytambo. A 10-minute walk took us into the town's main square and to the fortress ruins that are the reason to stop here.  The only minor drawback is that the restaurant's small dinner menu becomes monotonous. Click HERE for my posting on Ollantaytambo.
Lively Aguas Calientes teems with tourists headed
to or from Machu Picchu. 
 November  15 We took the 12:28 Peru Rail train (click HERE for website and then go to timetables) to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the foot of  Machu Picchu. The two-hour train ride is punctuated by fashion shows put on by the stewards who are selling expensive Peru-made clothing and accessories. I almost but didn't buy a Peru Rail baseball cap. Aguas Calientes, which has no cars because no road connects it with the world, only hiking trails and the rail line, has loads of places to stay and eat. It serves as the base for many of the 2,500 people (the maximum allowed) who tour Machu Picchu every day.  We stayed a night at RupaWasi (click HERE for website), a small inn hidden up a tiny alley composed of steep stairs.  It was at RupaWasi's restaurant that I for the first -- and so far only -- time tried the local delicacy of guinea pig, called cuy.  I had cuy confit, which seemed to be prepared along the lines of French duck confit. It was exceedingly greasy; I thought it tasted a bit like duck or goose. Jane had ribs that she described as perfect. Click HERE for posting about Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes.
    November  16 We got up early and took the 20-minute ride on a shuttle bus to Machu Picchu. We bought our tickets in advance through RupaWasi. We first tried to buy tickets through the official website (click HERE for it), but we couldn't make it work. After touring the ruins we returned to town in plenty of time for our 5:23 p.m. train back to Ollantaytambo, where we again stayed at El Albergue.
The courtyard at Andenes al Cielo
in Cusco, conveniently located but
its dark and sparsely furnished rooms
were a turnoff. 

This first door on the right leads to the lobby
of Casa Cartagena, a small hotel in Cusco. 

Our balcony at Casa Cartagena overlooked
its two-level courtyard. 

   November  17  The driver who had brought us to Ollantaytambo now drove us back to Cusco, where we had reservations at Andenes al Cielo (click HERE for website), a small inn conveniently located between the Plaza de Armas and the trendy San Blas neighborhood.  While the public areas of this hotel are pretty -- a multi-level courtyard with flowers and a fountain, a bright rooftop breakfast room -- the rooms themselves are dark because the only windows are on walkways used to reach all the other rooms. So you keep your shutters closed. Also, our room had a double bed, a single bed, a straight-back chair, a small desk and no other furniture. A tiny TV was mounted on the wall. Although we had reserved for four nights, we stayed only one. The hotel was cooperative about our changing the number of nights and I'd recommend it for its location, low price and decent breakfast -- with the caveat about the quality of the rooms themselves.  We used our first day in Cusco to scout out another hotel.
    November  18 After visiting several hotels, we finally chose Casa Cartagena, a boutique hotel one street over from Andenes al Cielo.  It was more expensive, but what we got for the money was a huge room with a balcony overlooking a courtyard. It's housed partially in what was once a jail, and there are signs everywhere of the age of its buildings. Unlike the other hotels we saw, which were furnished with antique or at least very traditional pieces, Casa Cartagena has very modern (or Mid-Century Modern) furnishings.  Its very traditional courtyard surrounds a very untraditional lighted white sphere.  It offered one of the best breakfast buffets of our trip, and in the evening there were Pisco sour lessons for those who want to learn to make their own drinks. Click HERE for the hotel's website,  Click HERE for my posting on Cusco, my favorite of all the places we visited in Peru.
            November 21 We left Cusco at 12:45 for the hour-and-a-half flight to Lima, where we were met at the airport by International Expeditions.  Its Amazon cruise package includes airport pickup in Lima, a Friday night stay at the Swissotel Lima, and flights to and from Iquitos, the Amazon city where its cruise boat is based. (Click HERE for International Expedition's Amazon website.) We found the Swissotel (click HERE for website) nice but dated. Nothing was shopworn or in bad repair, but it looked as if its furnishings could have come from Ethan Allen a few decades ago. The lobby concierge desk was very good in helping us purchase Lima-to-Paracas bus tickets that we would need after our Amazon trip. The bus company's website wasn't working properly, but the two gentlemen at the desk persevered, finally calling the company and arranging to have the tickets sent to the Swissotel by messenger. Our fifth-floor room had a huge bathroom and a view of the roof of another part of the hotel.
Our home for a week, La Estrella
Amazonica. Each guest cabin had its
own balcony and an ever-changing
view of the jungles along the river.


     November 22 International Expeditions took us all on a bus tour of central Lima before lunch and a 5:05 p.m. two-hour flight to Iquitos. After a bus ride through Iquitos, we arrived at International Expedition's river dock and its boat, La Estrella Amazonica, the Amazon Star. We had dinner on the boat and slept as it motored upstream. Click HERE for my posting about the cruise. Click HERE for a video made by Dick Greenberg, a fellow passenger, who did an excellent job of capturing the experience.
      November 29 After a last breakfast on the boat, we disembarked, took a bus tour of Iquitos and had lunch at the Hotel El Dorado. Part of the package included afternoon use of a room at the hotel where we could recharge our electronics and ourselves before a 5:25 p.m. flight back to Lima, where we parted ways with International Expeditions.  We were met at the airport by a driver sent by Second Home Peru (click HERE for website), a bed and breakfast in the home of the artist Victor Delfin. For this one-night stay, we had an ocean-view room in the main house, a half-timbered mansion overlooking walled gardens at the top of a bluff with the Pacific Ocean below.  This was the best place we stayed in Lima by far. It's in a neighborhood filled with art galleries, good restaurants  (want braised beef heart on skewers? delicious!), high-quality handicrafts shops, and sidewalks filled with young people and young families.
A mostly glass bar separates one of Hotel
Paracas's two pools from the Pacific Ocean.
Rooms were in multi-unit villas scattered around
the sprawling property.
    November 30 We took a Cruz del Sur bus (click HERE for website) for the four-hour ride from Lima to Paracas. We bought "first class" tickets, which put us in two of about 16 seats in the lower section of a double-decker bus. The seats reclined, had footrests and had video screens through which you could watch movies or access the Internet.  A "meal" came with the first-class passage -- some sort of chicken dish. We should have eaten before we got on the bus.  In Paracas, we stayed three nights at Hotel Paracas (click HERE for website).  It's a full-service resort and we didn't leave the grounds except for excursions. In fact, if you want to leave, there's really nowhere to go -- Paracas is little more than a collection of oceanfront hotels -- unless you have a car.  We did three excursions, a trip to two Pisco distilleries in Ica, about an hour's drive away; a two-hour trip to the Ballestas Islands; and a four-hour tour of the Paracas National Reserve.  All were arranged through T'ikariy, a tour service that has a desk at the hotel (click HERE for website). Click HERE for my posting on Paracas.
The bath in our first room (in the main
house) at Second Home Peru.


    December 3 We took the bus back to Lima.  This time at Second Home Peru we had a room in a building that clung to the cliff high above a major highway and the Pacific.  From the main building you cross a lawn to the edge of the cliff. Once there you can see a set of steps going down.  They take you to a short open-air corridor off of which are our room and two others. Continue down the steps to Victor Delfin's studio and residence, and down more steps to a beautiful swimming pool with a lion's head fountain. Everywhere are sculptures -- some whimsical, some stately, some odd and all interesting -- by Delfin.  The main house exhibits his paintings and sells his lithographs. Look at the paintings. Most of the centaurs and men, particularly in the erotic works, may be self-portraits done at different times in his life. Click HERE for his own website (in Spanish) to see more of his work.
     Entering our room, we found ourselves on a landing with a bathroom. The bathroom was open to and overlooked the lower sleeping area, off of which was a narrow balcony with a wonderful view of the curving shoreline and its beaches. The room was considerably smaller than our previous room in the main house, but the view made up for the lack of space. Whether or not one enjoys art -- and I'd characterize Delfin's work as an accessible but testosterone-infused blend of Inca imagery and European modernism of the first half of the 20th century -- this is a comfortable, convenient and friendly place to stay. Lilian Delfin is a gracious hostess ready to offer advice about Lima, and the breakfast, served in a kitchen building with a gigantic wood-burning stove, is simple but satisfying. Wine can be purchased in the office in the main house.  
    December 5 We checked out of the hotel in late morning, left our luggage in the office and went out to soak up as much of Barranco as we could before leaving for the airport at 9 p.m.
    December 6  We flew out of Lima at 1:35 a.m. and were back at our home on Tilghman Island in Maryland by 7 p.m.  A long, tiring end to an amazing trip.
The view from our room during our second
stay at Second Home Peru. The sculpture,
"El Beso," was the inspiration for the Park
of Love, about an hour's walk north along
the coastal bluff. To the left is Victor Delfin's
art studio.  Below the steep cliff you can see
the work on a major roadway that had traffic 

in knots during our time in Barranco.
At Second Home Peru, you can
swim in a sculpture garden. 

One of Victor Delfin's sculptures at the
edge of his garden overlooking the Pacific. The
roof is above three Second Home Peru mirador rooms,

including ours, that clung to the side of a cliff.