We recently returned from a week long trip to Peru with three of our closest friends. The five of us explored Panama City, Lima, and Cusco, soaked in the ancient monuments left to us by the Incan Empire, and relaxed at one of the highest value hotels we’ve ever stayed at. We chose Peru specifically because of the variety of experiences it offered on a relatively short trip.
Booking our trip
As with most of our trips, this one began by figuring out how we would get where we needed to be. Unlike other trips, this one involved finding transportation for five people instead of two. I knew it wouldn’t be easy and I knew I’d have to book whatever I found as soon as I found it. As such, I gathered the necessary information from everyone going on the trip and got to work.
Cash flights to Peru, even in economy, are pricey so I was looking exclusively for award travel. I knew it’d be likely that we would fly overnight, so I strongly preferred business class. I first checked for direct routes to Peru from the United States but quickly found that the routes that I had access to with my point balances would prove impossible to find for five people. In fact, it seems like most of the direct routes to Peru open between zero and two seats during the entire booking window.
I really didn’t want to split our group up so that meant I needed to find five seats on the same flights. I also knew that we were going to visit both Lima and Cusco during our time in Peru so was looking for a program that allowed stopovers. I eventually found an itinerary that fit these criteria and booked it immediately. The booking was made through UA and cost 70,000 Mileage Plus miles and $81.88 per person. The flights contained in this itinerary were:
- LAS to PTY on CM in J
- PTY to LIM on CM in J
- LIM to CUZ on AV in J
- LIM to PTY on CM in J
- PTY to LAS on CM in J
The flight times weren’t ideal and the hard product would leave a bit to be desired for our 6-hour flights to and from the United States, but it fit the criteria I had laid out and was relatively easy to book. The initial ticket accounted for most of our flights, but we still needed to get from Cusco to Lima for our flight home. For that, I relied on BA Avios and the program’s generous distance based award chart. I ended up booking CUZ to LIM on LA in Y for 4,500 Avios and $4.25 per person. I later paid $6.00 per person to move us into a priority row so that we could board early and would definitely have room for our carry on bags.
There were several changes to our itinerary during the months leading up to the trip, but UA’s system kept me apprised of changes and reservation agents moved things around for me when necessary. There was a mismatch between CM’s systems and UA’s systems at one point that made me a little nervous, but it all worked out. I was happy I was able to find availability for five people given the fact that I’d never booked for more than two people at once before.
For lodging, I decided to book early, leverage reward points, and try to keep everyone’s out of pocket costs as low as possible so we could spend money on tours and activities during our journey. We ended up with an overnight in Panama City, Panama and I booked us three rooms at the Aloft Panama City for 7,500 Bonvoy points per room for the stay. For our three nights in Lima, Peru, I settled on the Four Points by Sheraton Miraflores for 33,000 Bonvoy points per room per stay (this was booked prior to the Marriott / SPG merger completed and this rate is no longer available). For Cusco, Peru, I decided to book our stay at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a luxury hotel located in a converted convent. The cash rate was relatively low when I booked, so I opted to save our points for future travel.
Late night flights and a lazy start to our trip
We arrived at the airport at around 11:30PM in preparation for our flight scheduled to depart at 1:43AM. After a lengthy check-in process, followed by reprinting our boarding passes with precheck stamped on them, we were on our way through security. The Club at LAS was technically closed, but Angela and I managed to sweet talk our way in and grab a couple of bottles of water to drink before our flight.
Before we knew it, our flight was boarding (literally half an hour earlier than our boarding passes indicated it would start). We made our way to the gate and boarded with the first group. By the time we all made it on the plane, all of the overhead bins in the business class cabin were full. I had to stow my bag in the first bin in economy, which was a little annoying but a definite first-world problem. We settled in for the overnight flight to Panama City and hoped for the best.
To be quite frank, it was not something I’d recommend doing. The service was attentive and prompt, but the seat was uncomfortable and didn’t have a leg rest, the food tasted terrible, and no one got a meaningful amount of rest. We were woken up about two hours before landing for breakfast and spent the rest of the flight in a groggy eyed stupor. Deplaning went smoothly and before long we were on our way through immigration. After departing the line to fill out paperwork that we missed the first time (and that should have been given to us on the plane), we passed through customs and found that the driver that I had arranged was not present. After four calls to the Aloft Panama to figure out what was going on, a taxi was sent for us. We found out later that we should have just used Uber, which we proceeded to do over the rest of our trip.
When we arrived at the hotel we were all exhausted from the overnight flight. We were able to get into our rooms early, thankfully, and were granted access to the restaurant breakfast for four people due to the property recognizing my Marriott Ambassador status in addition to my wife’s Platinum status. We each rested for a few hours before heading out for a dinner at Atlantic & Pacific Co, located at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center.
I made a reservation via email about a month prior to our visit and was able to confirm a table on the patio overlooking the canal. Unfortunately, traffic was very bad on the way to the locks so we didn’t get to visit the museum because it closed before we arrived. We asked the security guard if we could enter the locks area before heading up to dinner and he waved us through. Eventually we got chased away from the canal’s edge by a different security guard so we headed upstairs.
The dinner itself was varied and delicious, but the real highlight was watching several ships pass through the locks during our time there. We got to witness the transition from day to night and enjoy the lights.
I highly recommend the taco appetizer. We both enjoyed our mains and Angela loved the cuatro leches dessert. Everything was good – it isn’t just a tourist trap.
On the way to Peru
We visited the gym the following morning (which was surprisingly well equipped), ate a filling breakfast, and grabbed an Uber to the airport. After a slow, but pleasant, check-in, we made our way through security and visited the Copa Club for a quick refresh before boarding our flight. We were delayed approximately 35 minutes because of a huge smoke cloud from local vegetation burning. In spite of this, the three hour daytime flight was much more enjoyable than the overnight flight had been. The service was friendly and attentive, the food was better, and the journey passed fairly quickly.
We arrived at the hotel around 5PM, checked in with an awesome agent, and headed to our rooms to unwind a bit before dinner. The hotel is very nice and our room was large and well-appointed with a separate bedroom and sleeping area. The property was perfect for our stay of a few days and the view from our room was pretty amazing. Surprisingly, each room received a small welcome amenity of chocolate truffles.
We all went to the local grocery store to pick up some bottled water and snacks and, after depositing our provisions at the hotel, headed out for dinner at Saqra. Our meal was delicious! We tried two different varieties of ceviche, three different cuts of steak, and two seafood dishes (an octopus starter and Angela’s fish entree). The meal was quite cheap, a recurring refrain for our time in Peru.
After dinner we found a small coffee shop and grabbed some espresso and treats before heading down to the ocean. We walked to the Pacific, enjoyed the sounds of the ocean crashing against the coast, and wandered along the beach a short ways before heading back. The waves hit the beach, covered in river rocks, and the riptide results in an extremely unique sound that is unlike anything I’ve heard before. In all, it was a very successful first evening in Peru.
Ancient monolithic monuments
Our first full day in Peru started off with a tour to the Temple of Pachacamac, an ancient archaeological site located to the southeast of Peru. We walked to a hotel a few blocks from where we were staying and were picked up at the specified time. A short drive through Peru’s traffic and into the desert surrounding the city brought us to our destination for the morning.
The site is in an interesting state. It seems to be half-restored, but it is not always clear exactly what parts are original. One thing that is clear, however, is that the site is sprawling. It was so big that we spent most of the time traversing it in a van rather than walking (for better or worse). There are several pyramids with ramps in the first part of the complex, the main temple of Pachacamac in the center, and the Temple of the Sun towards the top of the hill that sits near the site facing the coast. The vistas were incredible and it was interesting to see the combination of Incan and pre-Incan construction. The museum was small but informative and our tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly. I enjoyed the tour and would recommend it to others looking for an interesting way to spend the morning.
After our tour concluded, we were dropped off at Larcomar, an upscale shopping mall obviously targeted at tourists and wealthy Peruvians. We chose to eat a late lunch at Mangos. The meal was OK, but service was severely lacking and it isn’t somewhere I’d go out of my way to eat.
During the afternoon we wandered through the parks near our hotel, including Parque Kennedy, named after the US President John F. Kennedy for his aid to Peru during his presidency. The park, interestingly, is home to many stray cats. We visited the nearby ChocoMuseo and were treated to various cocoa related samples. After that, it was time for relaxation in preparation for an adventurous day ahead.
A thrilling ride around Lima and visiting the founding site
After a quick breakfast, we walked to the meeting point for the gastronomical bike tour we had booked through Huarique Bike. After signing some disclaimers, we were given our bikes and introduced to our tour guide, Manuel, and our “security guard” for the day. As an aside, the security guard should really be renamed the “bike bouncer” because his only real job was staying by the bikes while we went and ate at different places – security guard might give people the wrong idea. Unfortunately, one of the restaurants that was supposed to be included on our tour was closed because there was an issue with their kitchen. Fortunately, they were going to give us an extended tour with a different restaurant in a local market as a way to make up for it.
After a brief seat adjustment period, we were off into the city. Riding in Peruvian traffic was easy and straightforward. In Miraflores there were plentiful bike lanes and automobile traffic explicitly respected bicyclists’ right of way. Our first stop was the El Chinito sandwich stop where we were treated to a variety of meats as well as pickled red onions. All of the options were tasty, but the specialty chicharrón was definitely the best.
We left El Chinito and rode to the Barranco neighborhood where we were given a brief tour of the area by our guide. The neighborhood played host to a wide array of street art and distinct architectural styles. It was a real treat to see the brilliant murals on the sides of houses and shops and learn about the artists and others who live there.
Leaving Barranco we rode back to Miraflores for a stop at a medium sized outdoor market packed with fresh fish, meats, fruits, and vegetables. We were treated to an incredible spread of ceviche, plantain chips, and corn two ways (boiled and roasted). The fish was exceptionally fresh and the acid was so vibrant. It was one of the best things we ate on the entire trip and eating it felt like a true local experience. At the same market we were given a selection of fruits, including the incredibly sweet granadilla (Peruvian passion fruit).
Finally, we were off for the last stop on our tour where we enjoyed several different varieties of flavored ice. It was a nice break from the moderate heat. In all, the bike tour was phenomenal and something I would recommend to anyone looking for a way to see Lima from a few different angles. We rode about 25 miles over the course of four hours, stopping for food and to admire the views along the coast.
After a brief stop at the hotel to freshen up, we were off to Plaza de Armas for a visit to the most famous sights in the city. Plaza de Armas is the birthplace of Lima and the site of the founding of the city by Francisco Pizarro. While there, we visited the Cathedral of Lima and the Archbishop’s Palace of Lima.
The cathedral is the home of the tomb and remains of Francisco Pizarro, a number of side chapels, a museum of colonial religious art, and a crypt. Pizarro’s tomb and the crypt were both interesting and unique. The museum featured, to be quite frank, lackluster examples of period art and the chapels were impressive in some ways but very similar to those from the Spanish homeland in Europe. It was nice to visit, but I wouldn’t say going into the Cathedral of Lima is something you need to make specific time for if you’ve been to any of the major cathedrals in Europe (or are a huge Pizarro fan). The Archbishop’s Palace is also a “nice to see” but if you’re crunched for time, it might be best to just hang out in the Plaza and enjoy your time there.
We left the plaza, ate some street churros, and wandered through a park that is supposed to have murals on the walls. It must be seasonal, though, as we didn’t see any art. The park did have a giant living wall, though, and it was quite pretty.
For dinner, we opted for Asnapa because it had good reviews and was right across the street from our hotel. The dinner was a delight with good food and good service. The reviews were spot on and we were happy with our decision to eat there. We headed to the hotel afterwards and prepared for an early morning.
A short flight to Cusco, exploring the Incan capital, and gazing at the stars
The next morning we awoke super early for our flight to Cusco. While the flight wasn’t scheduled to depart until 7:55AM, the front desk suggested we leave for the airport around 4:45AM to arrive with enough time to not be rushed. I was glad for the suggestion because getting into the airport via car was a mess. We also dealt with a slow check-in, not because of any problem, but because identity verification and boarding pass printing for a group takes more than for two people.
After clearing security, we headed into the VIP Caral Lounge with access provided by Priority Pass. It was a decent enough place to sit and wait for our plane with good coffee, nice treats, and comfy chairs.
Our flight was slightly delayed. We boarded about half an hour late and were in the air shortly thereafter. The plane was much nicer than Copa’s 737 and the service was polite and attentive. It was an enjoyable hour and a half flight over some of the most stunning terrain I’ve ever seen. We deplaned via a rolling stairway, walked through the baggage area, and into Cusco proper. After calling for an Uber (and accidentally getting into a different silver Toyota Yaris), we arrived at our hotel.
The first impression of the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco is one of stunning beauty and sublime service. It really felt like everyone working there wanted to make sure we were having the best possible time. Check-in was smooth and we were informed, because we had arrived early, that we’d be notified when our room was ready. We stopped by the local tourist office to purchase the Boleto Turistico del Cusco in order to have access to all the sites we wanted, and set off for the first one, but not before a quick visit to the main plaza.
Our first tourist stop was Qorikancha. This site is now part of the Santo Domingo church where Dominican priests built a church on top of Incan foundations after Cusco was conquered by the Spanish. The detail in the intricate stonework was legitimately amazing (as you can tell by the attention I’m giving it).
Our next stop was the Twelve-angled stone. We grabbed a couple of pictures while examining this ancient construction artifact and continued on our way.
Our last major stop for the day was Sacsayhuamán. The general advice is to take it easy when you first arrive at altitude. Because of the compressed schedule we had arranged, that wasn’t really an option. Angela and I walked up to the aforementioned ruins and struggled almost every step of the way. Our hearts were pounding and our lungs felt heavy. We stopped every hundred feet or so, including a brief rest for Angela to hold a goat. Eventually, we made it up to the monolithic stone walls to take in the glory of the site.
It was beautiful, with amazing views over the city and some of the largest pieces of stone I’ve seen outside of the Great Pyramids of Giza. We spent a few hours wandering around, enjoying the scenery, and scoping out every part of the site.
After our afternoon of exploration, we headed back to the hotel to get our room keys and distribute everyone’s baggage before grabbing some pizza and preparing for some stargazing. We met in a plaza nearby our hotel, took a bus up to an observatory, and enjoyed an hour and a half of lecture about how Incans viewed the stars and some glimpses of stars, nebulas, and galaxies through high-powered telescopes.
We returned to our hotel and, before heading to sleep, I called down to the front desk and requested five bagged breakfasts for our early morning start and confirmed our taxi pickup time for the journey to the train station.
Our trip to Machu Picchu
We awoke early, retrieved our bagged breakfasts, and were picked up by our transport promptly at 5:10AM. The bagged breakfasts were definitely the best “to-go” breakfast I’ve ever received from a hotel with an apple, carrot cake, ham and cheese sandwich, yogurt, and a juice box.
We arrived at Poroy station 45 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart and settled in for the short wait. We’re lucky we got there early because we were able to relax at a table while the rest of the area filled up with people. The ticket takers verified our tickets matched our passports and ushered us on to the train. For the way out, we chose the Expedition train and for the way back we chose the Vistadome train. If possible, and I don’t remember if it is, I likely would have reversed this given that the big windows on the Vistadome did no good when it was pitch black out (and overcast so we couldn’t even see the stars).
A shade over three hours (and a quick snooze) later, we arrived at Aguas Caliente station. We disembarked, got our bearings, and started walking towards Machu Picchu. It took about twenty five minutes to walk from the train station to the trail head (down a road with buses screaming past you) and then it was a sixty minute uphill ascent, partially in the rain, to the summit and the ancient city. The trail was well-maintained, but the walk was a rough one which required quite a few stops along the way. There are stairs the entire way, but they are not a consistent height and were quite slippery in places due to the rain we encountered. All that being said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We got to see the mountains poking through the clouds during our ascent and it made me feel like we were earning our visit.
We queued for entry shortly after reaching the top. Luckily, we only had to wait ten minutes before passing through the gates and into the site. As we entered, the place seemed to be packed! There was barely a foot between each person and I was worried that was going to be the crux of experience. Luckily, as soon as you clear the first stairway the pack disperses and you’re free to wander, take pictures, and really enjoy the views, both of the city and from the city.
We took a few pictures of the other members of our group and then we split up and wandered freely for a while before briefly joining back up for a group photo.
After that, it was off to wander again. We took our time, but it felt like we were able to see the entire site and appreciate each nook and cranny in about three and a half hours. We exited, stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu exit stamp, and headed back down the mountain. The descent was much, much easier than the ascent. We walked back to the train station, grabbed some water, and waited for our trek back to Cusco.
The train ride back was interesting. We were treated to a creature from Peruvian folk tales and a fashion show. Three and a half hours later we were met by our driver and taken back to the hotel for some much needed sleep after one of the most adventurous days in recent memory.
A tour through the Sacred Valley
Our day started a little bit later so we were able to partake in the delicious breakfast spread offered on property. The eggs were properly cooked and delicious, fresh smoothies were available, and the pastries were incredible (especially the almond croissants). After breakfast, we were met by our tour guide, Reuben, and whisked off to the Sacred Valley.
Our first stop was a traditional camelid weaving factory where women use traditional techniques to produce some incredible pieces of clothing and decor. We were introduced to the animals that are sheared for their wool, including the rare vicuña. Afterwards we were shown the traditional dye making techniques using minerals and organic materials. After browsing the shop, it was off to a scenic viewing spot where we were able to take some pictures.
After snapping a few shots, we started towards Pisaq. On the way, we were given an opportunity to grab some panoramic shots of the Sacred Valley.
Once in Pisaq, our guide showed us an old Incan cemetary carved into the hills surrounding the main monument. He also alluded to how the Incans moved their giant monolithic pieces of stone and what the really impressive part of their construction was, the cutting and joinery of the giant blocks.
Following the Pisaq Archaeological Site, we were brought to a silver shop in Pisaq City where a few people in our group opted to procure some souvenirs before heading off for lunch. To be honest, lunch was nothing special – a buffet with the main courses served in small portions by staff – but it was a nice break in the day. The next stop was Ollantaytambo, another city filled with Incan and pre-Incan ruins. We climbed the terraces, observed the orientation of the site, and took a bunch of pictures.
We stopped at a scenic spot for a last few pictures on the way back to the hotel and peppered our tour guide with questions regarding further reading about the Incan civilization and the Spanish conquest.
For dinner, we chose to eat at Qespi, the bar in the lobby of our hotel. It was very good and astonishingly cheap given the quality of the meal and the service. I particularly enjoyed my “Mango Friends” specialty tea that I ordered without fully understanding what I was getting.
A much needed day of relaxation
We had originally planned on hiking to 14,000 feet and visiting a glacier lake on our last day in Cusco, but after some discussion, we decided to cancel our tour and spend our last day relaxing. We did a mini self-guided coffee tour of Cusco, visited the San Pedro covered market, pet the hotel’s resident baby alpaca, relaxed in the delightful spa, and ate guinea pig for the first time.
Taking a day off at the end of our trip was the right move and one that I think we all needed. After all of the exertion at elevation, our bodies were definitely at a breaking point.
The long journey home
After another delightful breakfast, we packed up, checked out, and started our lengthy itinerary home. Unfortunately, we had extremely long layovers in both Lima and Panama City before arriving in Las Vegas. I worked, everyone else slept or otherwise entertained themselves, and we made it, even if it wasn’t smooth along the way. 80% of the party was initially stopped at immigration in Lima, the Star Alliance contract lounge was closed in the same airport, the Priority Pass lounge was extremely strict about their four hour limit, and the Copa Club in Panama City has food that can only be described as lackluster.
There were some highlights, though! I was able to eat at the Priority Pass restaurant in Lima with Justin and it was legitimately good food (for free, even). I, and a few others, took a much-needed shower in the Copa Club in Panama City in some very nice facilities. Finally, I got a ton of work done on an important project so I was able to feel fulfilled at the end of our travels (and not behind).