Thanks to Aerolineas Argentinas we arrive from BA into Lima some 2 hours late. It is well past midnight. Our Merc transfer from the airport has worked brilliantly and the staff at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel cannot be more helpful. Our room is on the smaller side, but it is well organized, and everything is just so. The king bed is probably the best we have had in all of South America, we sleep like babes. The neighborhood is great, cafes, restaurants, bars and a great supermarket. The Courtyard might not have a view of the sea but it sits in a cool district of Miraflores and the price is right. We would stay here again.
Cafe de la Paz.
Quite close to the Courtyard we found what became our favorite cafe and lunch spot in Lima – the Cafe de la Paz. Set in a largely pedestrian, tree lined street it was the perfect place to relax and watch the world go by. The coffee is excellent, as are the caipirinhas, and food choices range from small snacks to full meals. Everything we tried was good and well priced; the service was spot on; and we almost feel like locals.
The following day, we move “up” from the Courtyard, just along the road to the JW Marriott. (The JW was booked out the night we arrived.) And it is true, the 180 degree view from the 15th floor is rather spectacular, exposing an impressive coast. The hotel is very well organized and presses most of the right buttons, but at the edge it is getting close to its “use by date”. It is not that the place is tatty, it’s just that after half a dozen or so years even 5 star hotels need to be refreshed. On departure, we find that the front desk staff have befuddled our account. We have asked for a an explanation. We get four different accounts for what should be a simple explanation. Not a very good look. But we have to say that senior management has handled the conundrum reasonably well. Certainly worth a diversion in Peru.
Miraflores, where both our hotels are located, is an upmarket suburb adjacent to the coast with modern buildings, parks and gardens and lovely sea breezes. Just across the road from the JW Marriott is the well regarded Lacomer shopping complex. With all the upmarket shops and well-known brands it is a great place for leisurely shopping. There is also a wide range of restaurants and cafes, most with stunning sea and coast views, serving pisco sours, traditional cerviche and many other Peruvian cocktails and local dishes. We dine at the Tanta restaurant, which is pleasant enough, and reasonable value for money, but nothing outstanding.
Lima has a large number of historical ruins, known locally as huacas, which can be spotted in many neighborhoods. One large and easily accessible site, the Huaca Pullana, is located in Miraflores, surrounded by the modern city. It is well worth a visit and is very easy and cheap to get to. This site is pre-Incan and was used by the Wari and Lima cultures from 200 AD – 900 AD. Entry is very cheap and includes an informative and relaxed guided tour (no independent visiting allowed) with ample time for photographs. Tours are conducted in English or Spanish. There is a large mudbrick pyramid, plazas, burial and sacrificial sites. There are re-creations of the brick making processes and examples of the gardens and plants used in early times, as well as guinea pigs, llamas and poultry.
The Huaca Pucllana Restaurant adjacent to the site is noted for serving traditional food, and here you can sample some of the animals and produce raised on site. We did not eat here, but it is comprehensively reviewed on tripadvisor.
The Yellow Turibus, Lima
From the Lacomar we took a 4-hour tour of Miraflores, Barranco, and the Central Historic area of Lima on the Turibus. Our plan was to get a quick oversight of the huge metropolis which is Lima. We have enjoyed Miraflores and it is now time to see what the big city is all about. The guide on the Turibus works very hard to show us her city, but unfortunately it is not a great panorama that is spread out before us. Miraflores is cool but as we drive around the city we see a pretty ordinary cityscape overpowered by dreadful congestion and lung bursting pollution. Around the city there really is not much to see. The Plaza Mayor is mildly impressive but the catacombs tour through the Convent de San Francisco is a sham. It is a sad day when the priests of the convent have seen fit to reorganize the bones of long dead humans … for touristic purposes. Well anything for a catholic peso. Another version of the bus tour includes the Huaca Pucllana rather than the Convent de San Francisco, which would be a better alternative.
Basically the Turibus whips through the congested and polluted city as fast as possible, showing us not a lot, but using lots of words to say so. And we arrive back to Lacomar about an hour late, through diabolical pollution and overwhelming traffic congestion. But the worst of the trip happens as the double decker bus lurches towards low hanging branches and most dangerously, live power lines. For touristic purposes, all passengers are expected to sit on the upper deck, for the view. And occasionally we are warned of a low branch ahead, or a political banner threatening to decapitate, but the worst threats are the low hanging power lines, which are everywhere. So many close encounters, it is unbelievable that nobody was hurt or electrocuted. Travel at your own risk, you could die here. We were rather relieved to return to the relatively clean air and less congested streets of Miraflores.
From Lima it is on to Cusco, the starting point for the must see Peruvian site of Machu Picchu. Cusco airport is a bit of an artifact to an older age and it is chaotic, 2 planes have landed at the same time and it is not entirely clear where the bags will be, but they duly arrive. Our exit is not looking good, but hey there is our driver with the hotel sign. We are at the hotel in a flash and Martin is taking us through all the ropes. The Torre Dorada is not a 5 star facility and probably not even a 4. But it is exceedingly comfortable and welcoming, and the fine attention to detail is stunning. The staff at this hotel are number one for helpfulness and we could not have been looked after better. And all the exigencies are accounted and accommodated, which is exceptionally useful under the obvious circumstances. It truly is a home away from home.
We did the trek to Machu Picchu from Cusco in a day. It is possible to start closer by staying overnight at Ollantaytambo, where the train currently departs or the village of Aguas Calientes (now called Machu Picchu Pueblo) just below Machu Picchu. Depending on the state of the track, the train sometimes runs all the way from Cusco.
At present, however, the train starts from the small town of Ollaytantambo, which is reached by a two-hour ride in a minibus or taxi.
Our very helpful hotel organised us a taxi, and provided us with a substantial bagged breakfast to go as we left too early for the hotel breakfast. We left at around 4.30 am in order to catch a train around 7 am from Olleytantambo. After a scenic hour and a half trip in the train, and an enjoyable chat with some fellow travellers, we arrive at Aguas Calientes and join the queue to buy a bus ticket for the 30-minute ride up to the park entrance. Ticket in hand, we queued for one of the constant stream of buses, which left every few minutes as soon as they were full. The park entry is very congested (another queue) but eventually we made it in. The whole process is very bureaucratic. You need to show your passport to buy the train ticket, then again to enter the railway station, then again to get on the train, to buy your bus ticket, and to get onto the park. And just in case you make a quick identity change while admiring the view and dodging selfie sticks at Machu Picchu, you have to repeat the process on the way back. The exception to the bureaucracy was in picking up a minibus ride from Ollaytantambo back to Cusco, which was refreshingly laid back. Just find an empty seat on one, climb in and pay the very modest fare before you get off.
The Machu Picchu site is bigger than we expected, and the design and construction were very impressive. The weather was overcast and with the occasional shower but it was not enough to be a problem or to obscure the view. But while the Machu Picchu site was impressive, the rest of the experience was not. The paths were very crowded, and the guided tour groups were badly controlled and seemed to think they were the only ones who had paid to be there. Selfie sticks and umbrellas were everywhere and the owners seemed to have little regard for where they poked them. But what’s an eye or a gash in the head when it is someone else’s. Visitors entering and exiting shared the same quite narrow path and it was quite a fight to get out, especially when a tour guide was trying to marshal their group in the same spot.
The facilities were very limited – one poorly marked set of toilets at the entrance and very limited space or seating, other than a few short benches perfectly positioned to get the fumes from the buses waiting to depart on the return journey. Food choices were limited to bringing your own (and eating it amongst the bus fumes), a small cafe, or a large, very expensive (and empty) restaurant. We visited at a relatively quiet time of the year, but the park seemed pretty near capacity, and it would certainly be hard to get any more buses up the road. Park entry tickets must be purchased in advance. It is not possible to buy them at the site. No ticket, no entry.
Train tickets need to be booked in advance (PeruRail website) to ensure a spot. You may get lucky, but it is unlikely. Trains can be booked out weeks in advance. And it is not cheap (US$70-80 one way per person) depending on the train and time of day. We travelled in the Vistadome one way and the Expedition the other. There wasn’t a great deal of difference. The rail service is owned by an international company, so little if any of the money goes to the local community. In hindsight, Machu Picchu was not a ‘must see’ site for us, and we wouldn’t have gone, because for us the congestion and hassle outweighed the interest of the area. Everyone is different, but if you are a bit lukewarm about seeing it, try a google earth tour first, and then imagine it full of people and selfie sticks.
Cusco is an old town of some historical interest, with plazas, old churches, and a food market, but would not be worth a diversion for its own sake unless you are really into old churches. The food market had a slightly wider range of potato varieties than we are used to, but the range of fruit and vegetables in general was disappointingly similar to our local supermarkets. Not much that was exotic and interesting.
Leaving South America
We flew out of Cusco, via Lima, back to BA yet again. We arrived at around 5 am in the morning, far too early to check in to our onward international flight late that afternoon and far too early to get into a lounge to wait in any kind of comfort. To make matters worse one of us had contracted food poisoning in Cusco and was feeling extremely ill and in desperate need of sleep. There are no short-term rooms or accessible airport hotels at BA, so the only options are very uncomfortable seats or stretching out on the only carpeted area (very small), which the airport staff did not look on kindly. We spent several uncomfortable hours stretched out as best as possible on a row of metal slatted seats until we were finally able to check in and access the very comfortable Lufthansa lounge. We are not at all fond of the BA Eziza airport and have no wish to return anytime soon.