Wanderlust Series Part Three: Aguas Calientes & Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes
Hello again! In this section of the Wanderlust Series, I’ll discuss my experiences and what I learned about travelling to Machu Picchu. Since we had 2 weeks to see a few spots in Peru and another in Colombia, we opted to take the train there. I’d love to say that we hiked the Inca Trail, and most people go that route if they are able, but we just didn’t have the time.

Getting to Aguas Calientes (And Feeling Great When You Arrive!)

First and foremost, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get acclimated to the elevation in Peru. I saw this warning everywhere I looked while researching for our trip. The elevation in Cusco is over 11,000 feet, which is enough to leave you more than just breathless at its splendor. If you don’t acclimate yourself (i.e. get physically used to the elevation), you can get altitude sickness which is no joke and will ruin that segment of your trip. What we did, and what worked perfectly for us, was to fly into Cusco and then immediately hop in a taxi to take us to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is the town at the base of Machu Picchu and sits at just under 7,000 feet elevation. Coming from sea level, as we did, this was still a jump from what we were used to, but not enough to really have any negative effects on us. Some people stay in Ollantaytambo, which sits at 9000 feet, but we felt that we were willing to spend a little more on our hotel to ensure that we didn’t get sick. We also wanted to get up and go straight to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, rather than taking a 6am train to the Ollantaytambo bus station.

We flew into Cusco and hired a taxi from inside the airport, as per the general warning. During certain times of the year, you can take a train directly from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, but we had to board in Ollantaytambo which meant hiring a driver for the 2 hour drive to the train station there. I want to say that cost us around $50 USD, and the taxi driver actually took US currency which was nice since we had some on hand.

As with many other places, the taxi driver we had would rather have a sure fare than not, so he offered to pick us back up from Ollantaytambo upon our return for a fraction of the cost for the ride there. So, that was nice. We picked up our tickets for the train and grabbed a bite to eat at the station while we waited. There was actually a pretty great little café in there so we had some Coca Tea and a sandwich- which was basically the first actual meal we had in Peru.

A word on Coca Tea.

It’s awesome. It’s not Cocaine, so don’t get all freaked out that you’re going to start feeling spastic. It’s like a stronger version of Black Tea, and it really does settle your stomach and help with headaches or any other signs of Altitude Sickness. I’m a coffee drinker, but Oliver and I both stuck with Coca Tea throughout our trip and we felt like it really made a difference. Plus it tasted pretty dang good… think an earthier version of green tea. It should also be noted that it’s quite easy to find altitude sickness medicine at any market in Peru, so if you DO get sick, you can remedy it quickly.

The train ride from Ollantaytambo into Aguas Calientes is GORGEOUS and takes about 1 ½ hours. You’ll want to purchase your train tickets prior to your trip, and buy them either through Peru Rail (which we did) or Inca Rail, depending on your starting point.

On the train to Aguas Calientes
We had some concerns about the luggage policy on the train, since Peru Rail doesn’t list baggage weight limits aside from carry-on luggage (which must be under 11 lbs.). If you’re only spending the day in Machu Picchu, that 11 lbs. is no big deal. However, we had our luggage for our entire two-week trip which was around 50 lbs. apiece. I’m happy to report that they weren’t very strict on baggage weight when we went, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Staying in Aguas Calientes – Our Experience

There are a lot of places to stay in Aguas Calientes, but I can’t really speak to any of them except for the one we stayed at. But I will say that we were totally blown away by our hotel room at Hotel Ferre Machu Picchu. The price was excellent, and it was right on the river. The picture below shows my feet hanging out of our bedroom window, for reference. We even ended up closing our window most of the time because the river was pretty loud outside of our room. It was totally walkable to everything we wanted to do, too. We walked there from the train station, and it was far enough from the main area of town to be secluded but close enough to it to grab something to eat without walking too far.

As we wandered through the town, we noticed that some of the hotels were near the river (by us), and others were really in the heart of the town. I would imagine that those places can be kind of noisy, and the view can’t be that great if you’re just looking at another building. All in all, we were really pleased with the place we chose.

What To Do With An Extra Day In Aguas Calientes

In order to make sure we were acclimated before we went to Machu Picchu, we spent an extra day in Aguas Calientes to be safe. So the day after we arrived, we did the hike to Mandor Gardens. I was also told that the Hot Springs in A.C. are awesome, but Oliver and I aren’t really into the idea of sitting in a hot body of water with strangers. The hike to Mandor Gardens took about an hour, in which you basically follow the railroad tracks out of the town (the opposite direction from which we arrived). There are a couple of sketchy parts where you have to go through a dark tunnel, and you should know that trains DO still travel along the tracks, but you can hear them coming from a little ways away. All the same- be careful in those tunnels.

We also discovered that you can walk along a dirt road where the buses come from Machu Picchu, as long as you stay to the right after the bridge to M.P. After you pass the campgrounds and a butterfly park you can veer up a small road to the right. If you get to what looks (and smells) like the city dump, you’re on the right path. You’ll see the railroad tracks in front of the dump so you should be able to keep walking along them without running into any tunnels, and once you get to a huge intersection of multiple tracks crossing just keep going dead straight and the sign for Mandor Gardens is maybe 100 yards past that crossing. We came back to town via the dirt road route and felt a LOT safer skipping out on the tunnels. We had asked our hotel for help finding the gardens and they gave us a map that made it look like the landmarks to follow were super close together but they really aren’t as close as they appeared in the map. As I said- the whole thing took us about an hour (one way). The park is s/10 per person, and has a bathroom which is really nice after a long walk like that!!
Mandor Gardens
Getting Ready for Machu Picchu

As I mentioned in Part One of the Wanderlust Series, you’ll want to have purchased your tickets to Machu Picchu well in advance. We were able to purchase our bus tickets up the mountain the day before we went. This can be done by heading to the booth near the bus stop and buying your tickets there. You’ll want to make sure you have your passport with you since the rates differ for locals vs. tourists. You’ll also want to make sure that you buy a sack lunch the day before you go. We got some amazing boxed lunches from LaBoulangerie de Paris, which you order and pay for the day before and then pick up as early as 5am the next morning. This was perfect since we assumed that we’d have to buy food and then store it somewhere until our early morning bus trip, but instead had fresh food waiting for us in the morning. 

Where To Eat in Aguas Calientes

Our absolute favorite place in A.C. was El Indio Feliz. The food was amazing and the décor really gave it a fun atmosphere. We wanted to go to The Tree House for dinner one night, but it was closed for renovations. We also really liked Café Inkaterra, but it was a little pricier than we’d have preferred. We ate pizza at Inka Wasi Restaurant and Pizzeria and Oliver thinks he got food poisoning there, but in fairness it also might have been altitude sickness. 

Bug & Sun Protection

It should be noted that both sunscreen and bug spray are pretty important the whole time you’re in Peru. We went in April and the sun was beating down pretty hard at times. And I made a HUGE mistake by not putting bug spray on my ankles while we were there and ended up with some kind of super-insect bug bites that stayed with me for almost a month afterward. We were there during the whole Zika scare, so it was also critical to us that we avoided all bug bites. I ordered Natrapel off the internet and wherever I sprayed it- I was fine.

Machu Picchu

You can find lots of tips for Machu Picchu on more knowledgeable websites, but here were some tidbits of info that I found helpful:

  • The bus to Machu Picchu drops you off at the gate, where there are bathrooms. There are NO bathrooms inside of the park, so you'll really want to try and go upon arrival. 
  • We were running behind when we got there, so we figured we wouldn't really need to hire a guide. This was a big mistake. After hiring a guide for Saksaywaman in Cusco- we realized that learning all of the amazing facts about these ruins was really awesome. I highly suggest hiring someone to show you all of the details you'd otherwise miss.
  • I was really worried (because I am clearly an over-planner) that my running shoes weren't sufficient for the hike up Wayna Picchu. I ended up being totally fine. I do suggest dressing in layers, though, since it can go from hot to cold (and vice versa) fairly quickly. I also recommend bringing a rain coat or parka.
  • Speaking of Wayna Picchu- this hike was amazing. There were really great views from the top, but several great vantage points during the descent back down as well. It was overcast and slightly raining when we started our hike, which ended up being a blessing in disguise because it kept us cool during what was a pretty strenuous hike. Wayna Picchu is almost ALL stairs, which was tough, and left me with Jelly Legs for about 2 days afterward. BUT the hike looks much harder than it actually is, and you'll feel like a bad ass showing people pictures of the GIANT mountain behind Machu Picchu that you hiked all the way up. For reference- I am in "okay" shape, and don't go to the gym more than once or twice per week. I struggled, but was fine. 
  • I will add some images below, with descriptions so that you can have more of a visual idea of our trip up to Machu Picchu. Next up- I'll post some details about our time in Cusco, Peru!
The Llamas are friendly (and hungry!)
We had fun feeding them.

Viewpoint from the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu

The HUGE mountain right behind Machu PIcchu is Wayna Picchu.
It looks a lot gnarlier than it is, leaving you to look & feel like a total champ!!

At the top of Wayna Picchu. 
The steepest stairs on the hike up Wayna Picchu.
Don't worry- there are plenty of holding rails like this!

Jumping picture from a vantage point on our way down Wayna Picchu.
We look much closer to the edge than we actually were.


Wanderlust Series Part Two: Lima, Peru

In an effort to be more helpful with my travel posts, I wanted to discuss more of the specifics of our recent trip to Peru & Colombia. We were there for two weeks, so I’ll need to break this post up in order to make everything a bit easier to digest.

Please understand that this is totally my biased opinion of our particular trip. I will say that I had certain expectations and shortcomings in the planning phase, so make note of the following:
  1. This was my first international vacation with a significant other. This was both exciting to think about, while also terrifying. 384 hours of being with ONE other English-speaking person – I don’t care how much you adore each other – is enough to make you panic a little bit.
  2. I have traveled a fair amount, and this was by far the most rural trip I’ve ever been on. This was made even more challenging because I speak very limited Spanish.
  3. I don’t generally stay in 5-star hotels, but I don't usually stay in 2-star hotels either (not that there's anything wrong with either end of that spectrum!!). I think I had pretty realistic expectations as far as knowing that I wasn't going to get "the royal treatment" when staying at a 3-star hotel or an AirBNB. 
  4. I am, more and more, getting an idea of what kind of travel I enjoy. I’ve really loved some of the bigger cities that I’ve been to, but I honestly just prefer small towns, beaches, and countryside trips. This is relevant in that I will almost always prefer the parts of a trip that are more laid back, as opposed to some people who love the rush and excitement of a big city.
  5. In retrospect, I didn’t do nearly enough research into where we should stay in Lima. I was overwhelmed by how huge the city is, and prioritized staying as close to the airport as possible without considering the actual location outside our hotel doors.

With all of that said, welcome to Peru...

Getting There.

We bought a flight from LAX to Lima by way of a 10-hour layover at San Salvador Airport in El Salvador. This airport was pretty small, with hardly anything to do, and we were told to absolutely NOT leave the airport for safety reasons. Our saving grace was that we discovered you could go into the Avianca Airlines VIP Lounge for only $25 USD per person. Not only were we much more comfortable, but we felt safer leaving our stuff fairly unsupervised while we took naps. There were also really nice bathrooms, showers, free snacks, and an open bar. It was well worth the $25, in my book. 
How to Sleep in the San Salvador Airport - VIP Style.
We got to Lima at about 9pm, exhausted but excited for our trip. Unfortunately, our driver was NOT at the airport when we arrived. This was obviously frustrating, especially because I never pay for international phone service. I know, I'm an idiot. Let me officially say: just buy the international phone card if you’re going to Peru. It’s a lot harder to get around on WIFI than in countries like France or Germany.

You NEVER hire a taxi driver outside of the airport (even just outside the doors, as it turns out. It’s really dangerous), so after about 45 minutes of standing there, one of the official airport taxi drivers asked us if we needed a ride. We told him the address, and got the reaction that NO ONE wants, which is to say that he shook his head and said “Oh no. Are you sure you want to go there?? Tourists shouldn’t go there.” Panic set in as we discovered that the area we had booked our AirBNB in was pretty much the worst part of the city. More on that in a moment.

The best thing about our first night in Lima.
We were devastated. We tried using the taxi driver’s phone to call our AirBNB driver, whose phone was disconnected. We had already paid for the room, and were basically determining if we wanted to just pay a few hundred bucks for a NEW driver and a NEW hotel, when our AirBNB driver showed up with a sign that had our names on it. And even though it may not have been the best move, we just took our chances and went with him. If I weren’t with my boyfriend, I would never have taken a risk like that and don’t recommend it to anyone else.

So we got to our AirBNB in Callao, which was secure behind a locked gate, but pretty clearly in a bad area. Oliver went to buy water from a liquor store (escorted by the AirBNB host), and had to exchange the money for the bottled water through a barred gate. It was pretty unnerving, although apparently common. On top of that, the apartment was very clearly not cleaned prior to our arrival, based on the toothpaste and hair in the sink. Our experience wasn’t the worst possible scenario, but it put a damper on the first night of our vacation in a new country. Live and learn, I suppose.

This is a typical street scene from what we saw of  Callao, although there
seemed to be a lot of random nightclubs and people hanging out at night.

A Word on Lima.

Lima is a HUGE city, and a lot of it isn’t particularly safe. As we discovered, the closer you are to the airport the more dangerous it is. You really want to stay more toward Miraflores or Barranco if you’re going to Lima. Barranco has cute colonial style buildings, and you really don’t save a ton of time or money by staying super close to the airport. As a matter of fact, during the 3 layovers we had in Lima, Oliver and I agreed that one thing we wish we’d done differently was to stay in the same AirBNB for each layover. Our host’s name was Juan Carlos, and you can find his awesome & affordable apartment here.

Miraflores & Barranco Trip Details.

Our flight details were to go Lima -> Cusco -> Lima -> Huaraz -> Lima -> Colombia. To avoid bouncing around, I’m going to discuss other parts of Peru in later posts and focus now on our various stints in Lima.

Once we got back to Lima from our stay in Cusco, we had a driver from our San Miguel/Miraflores hotel pick us up at the airport. Generally, whoever you’ve arranged to pick you up will have a sign with your name on it, and it’s no big deal to find them once you land. Our driver was a really nice woman who drove like an absolute maniac. It was pretty fun, but definitely an adventure. I will say that getting around in most of Peru can be pretty wild, so just be prepared for that and you’ll be fine. Our hotel was a bit south of the airport this time, in the San Miguel neighborhood. While it felt safer than Callao, and our hotel was really nice, I still would have enjoyed someplace else. However, we had to be at the airport once again at 5:30am, so we stayed as close as possible for a reasonable price.

Food in San Miguel/Miraflores.

The details of our hotel in San Miguel are a little confusing, even now, since the area is sometimes listed as being in San Miguel, but sometimes says it’s Miraflores. The reason I mention this is to reiterate how carefully you should plan out where to stay in the various parts of Lima. Downtown Miraflores is really nice and pretty urban, while San Miguel felt pretty gritty. You really want to stay closer to the areas near Parque Kennedy in Miraflores if you’re trying to find a nicer spot. And now- on to food!!

The uber-friendly guy at the front desk of our hotel recommended that we walk across the street to a considerably shady-looking Chinese restaurant. We passed on that idea and walked a few blocks inland to the busy Av. La Marina, which has a lot more options. There was a place called Norky’s a few blocks up, which looked “okay,” but we pushed on to find something that looked a little less fast food-ish. Long story short- we ended up at a place called El Autentico Rodizio, located at Av. La Marina 3151. It was an amazing Brazillian steakhouse-type place that seemed to be pretty popular with locals. It seems a bit hard to find online, but I assure you that it was really nice inside and the food and drinks were great!!

Barranco: Our Final Stop in Lima.

With one final evening in Lima at the end of our Peru trip, we finally got it right by staying in Barranco. Our afore-mentioned AirBNB was perfect, and very safe. We wandered around Barranco feeling very at-ease, although admittedly exhausted from planes, trains, and taxis. The beach was close to the place we stayed, but Barranco sits on the edge of a cliff looking down to a relatively rocky shoreline, so we gave up on trying to wander down to it. There are plenty of delicious places to eat in the area, so I won’t get too much into the food we ate, but I will mention that we made reservations to eat dinner at Maido in Miraflores, which is currently listed as the #13 best restaurant in the world. Needless to say, we were pretty excited about it.

Nikkei Experience Menu from Maido in Peru.
Sadly, the food fell pretty short of our expectations. I admit that there were some pretty good dishes, but for a $300+ price tag (including relatively inexpensive sake), we both felt that the Nikkei Experience tasting menu was subpar. The dishes were beautifully presented, though, including a dish with ground chili powder served on a frozen boulder, which completely changed the texture of the powder into an amazing a paste as soon as you scooped it up. 
A really yummy ice cream dessert from Maido called "Cacao"
**It bears mentioning that the #4 restaurant in the world (Central) is just down the street from here. We also met a couple in Huaraz who were in Peru working for the U.S. embassy, and they recommended a great restaurant called Rafael just one block from Maido on Calle San Martin.

I hope this guide comes in handy for anyone looking to visit Lima. If it does, or if you have questions, feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section below!! I’ll be back soon with more posts about our travels to Machu Picchu, along with what to do with 48 hours in Aguas Calientes. Also look for my upcoming post about our journey to 15,000 feet in Huascaran National Park, as well as our trip to Isla Grande in Colombia.


Wanderlust Series Part One: Planning Your Trip

I get a lot of questions from people looking to travel, and I also know that I always scour the internet for other people’s travel tips so that I can get real, honest advice about the places that I want to visit. That’s why I wanted to create this blog post series where I can offer up my experiences in detail, in the hope that it can help someone else as well!!

Planning your Trip: Where to Look

First of all, you should know that I love planning vacations. I will daydream about travelling someplace months before I even buy a plane ticket. This is great for people who, like my boyfriend, don’t want to comb through hotel prices & Google search “Coolest Yurts in Northern California.” Here are the websites/phone apps that I am obsessed with for planning the perfect vacation:
  • Skyscanner. I usually bounce around between a few apps to watch flight prices when I’m trying to purchase my initial flights, and Skyscanner tends to have the lowest pricing. The downside of this app is that it only allows you to buy one-way or round-trip flights, which kind of sucks if you’re planning a multi-leg vacation. I read somewhere that the best time of week to buy a flight is on a Tuesday evening, but I’ve purchased super cheap flights on a Saturday night so I don’t know how valid that claim is. I definitely recommend watching your flight for a minimum of two weeks because you’d be amazed how much those prices fluctuate. Case-in-point: my round-trip ticket to Bali went from $1,200 to $850 in just a few days.
  • Hopper. Hopper is my jam when I’m watching flight prices over the span of a few months. I don’t know if I’d say they offer the cheapest pricing compared to the other sites, but they DO make flight price predictions that show a daily fluctuation report, and those look forward almost a year in advance, which kicks ass. This app also watches the prices for you, and alerts you when they’re at their cheapest, which also rocks.
  • Kayak. This is my go-to site for multi-leg trips. I tend to look at the app on my phone, and then go to the website when I’m ready to buy the tickets since it redirects you to the booking site with the cheapest price.
  • AirBNB. I’m obsessed with this website. This is a site where people can rent their houses or apartments to people, and the prices are usually MUCH cheaper than local hotel prices. I will warn you, though, that there are areas that I don’t recommend using AirBNB for. Anywhere is the U.S. is a safe bet, and I had awesome experiences using it in Bali. But we had a few really bad experiences in Peru and it sort of woke me up from my AirBNB daydream. The key thing to remember here is that people can use angles and filters to make any house look really amazing, so read through the reviews and make sure you take any negative comments seriously. Having said that- some of these places are seriously amazing and unlike any hotel experience you could possibly have. We stayed in a refurbished RV just outside of San Francisco once that was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and there are even lists of Yurts, Treehouses, and boats that you can rent. I usually check the box that filters in only SuperHosts, because sometimes it’s the person hosting the AirBNB that makes it really special. Many SuperHosts will really go above and beyond to make your meals, suggest local spots, and even welcome you with a bottle of wine.
  • TripAdvisor, Expedia & LonelyPlanet. These are pretty commonly-known sites but in case you don’t know, now you know. These are also where I look for hotels if I’m not going with AirBNB.
  • Thrillist. This is my hands-down favorite website to find underground restaurants and non-touristy things to do. This site is primarily for major U.S. cities, but you can find quite a few suggestions for major international cities like London, Rome, etc.
  • Rick Steves website/books/podcast. Rick has awesome advice if you’re traveling most anywhere in Europe, and there are videos, lists, and books that can help guide you to a number of remote places that you’d otherwise miss.

  • The Amateur TravelerI like to check out this website/podcast to see what interesting places there are to visit. He has a ton of interviews with people who have lived or visited some really neat places around the globe, so it’s a good place to build up some excitement for your trip, or to expand your vacation ideas to places you might not have considered yet.
  • Honorable Mention: Pro HDR Photo app. This takes ridiculously good photos. I suggest only using it for scenery, since it takes 2 photos and combines them with the best colors from each. This means that you have to hold the camera VERY still for about 30 seconds. If you try to take a picture of something that’s moving, it’ll end up totally blurry.
  • I'm sure you already have it on your phone, but Instagram is also a really great place to check out potential travel locations. I like to look up hashtags of the cities, monuments, national parks, or even hotels that I want to go to. This is not only a great way to see if they look as fun as you expect, but as you get closer to your travel date it’s a nice way to check out the weather so you know what to pack.

Other Travel Planning Tips

Always, always, ALWAYS look up travel alerts and warnings for the places you’re going. You should also search online to find out if you need a Visa for the place you’re visiting (this is separate from just your passport), and also check to see if you need any immunizations.

Another important thing to note is to do a Google search to see if you need to apply for any type of permits for your trip. For example: if you want to attend Easter or Christmas Mass at the Vatican, you need to fax a request to the Papal Office at least 2 months in advance. You also need to file for a permit if you want to hike Machu Picchu, and a separate permit to hike Wayna Picchu and/or the Inca Trail. It’s also a good idea to make sure the place you’re trying to go is open the day you plan to go there (many popular museums, such as the Louvre in Paris, have various weekdays that they are closed to the public).

I hope this has been helpful for anyone planning a trip someplace fun. If you know of any other great planning websites, please leave a comment below so I can add it to my list/life!!