Categorized | OP/ED

A Journey to the “Land of the Incas”…

Posted on 09 June 2010

It has been over 15 years since I last visited Peru. My last visit was a business trip to Lima and when I landed at Lima International Airport…I was quickly whisked away to a business meeting. This past week I had the pleasure of returning to Peru as a visitor and whereas the Lima landscape has changed considerably, the people have not. The people of Peru remain friendly and appreciative of every visitor to their country.

 

This recent trip was with my wife, Carol, and several others as guest on an Educational Trip sponsored by Orient-Express. This journey included visiting parts of Peru that I have always wished to visit on my earlier travels to Peru. 

 

Our trip began with an overnight flight on LAN Airlines from Miami International Airport to Lima. Upon arriving in Miami our group assembled in the LAN VIP lounge and were greeted by Kim Bradford, Orient-Express’ Director of Meetings and Incentives, and Bianca Mendoza, at LAN Corporate Group Sales. This was my first flight on LAN Airlines and I have to say I will do it again. Unlike airlines who charge for everything used by passengers on a flight…pillow, blanket, headsets, luggage, drinks, etc., LAN does not. Their fleet is young, averaging 5+ years, and LAN fares are reasonable and competitive.

 

Our group used LAN Airlines for round trip domestic air travel between Lima and Cusco, as well as our roundtrip Miami to Lima. Bianca joined us for our entire trip, and made our air travel a true VIP experience. She is very knowledgeable and made air travel to, from, and within Peru effortless. LAN is also part of the One World Alliance making it convenient to travel from virtually any U.S. city. My recommendation…if you are planning a trip to Peru (or any other South American destination served by LAN), explore LAN Airlines. Major U.S. hubs for LAN are JFK, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco…likely your city is their next hub as they are growing.

 

Our international flight landed in Lima on time at 4:35am and we were greeted by Condor Travel representatives Erwin and Cecilia. After Immigration and Customs (which very much resembles Mexico’s pressing of the button where green means continue, and red means stop and have your luggage checked). Thankfully “green”, we were quickly whisked to our motorcoach bound for the Orient-Express Miraflores Park Hotel.

 

Upon arriving at the Miraflores Park Hotel we were greeted by an awaiting bell staff and the effervescent Rosa Deustua, Orient-Express’ Director of Sales and Marketing for all of Peru. I had previously met Rosa during a recent conference in Charleston, and it was a pleasure to once again visit with her in her home hotel. Her knowledge of the Orient-Express’ Peru assets (hotels and trains) is unparalleled.

 

Our room had a spectacular panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. After a welcome and refreshing shower, we enjoyed breakfast in the Observatory Restaurant on the 11th (top) floor of the hotel. Breakfast served in South America resembles those served in Europe, where in addition to familiar favorite dishes are plentiful samples of local delicacies.

 

Our next scheduled activity was a Lima city tour with one of Condor Travel’s capable guides, Elzinha. Our air-conditioned motorcoach took us through the streets of Lima to see the Government Palace, colonial churches, Plaza Mayor, and the San Francisco Monastery. In all, Lima has 11 suburban areas. During our 2-hour tour, we visited two…San Isidro and Miraflores. To tour all 11 would take two or three days. Traffic in Lima is similar to any other major international city…congested and chaotic. Without the benefit of traffic signals, I question how is it traffic flows so well without accidents…but it does.

 

Our next stop was for a tour and lunch at the Larco Museum. The Museum is private and contains the most incredible ceramics collection (approximately 55,000 pots can be viewed in the Museum) and a vast collection of gold Incan treasures.

 

Lunch was in the Cafe` Del Museo on the grounds of the Museum. It is a very nice contemporary restaurant with a sophisticated menu highlighting Peruvian cuisine and an extensive selection of Peruvian wines. Also within the confines of the Museum, are a few upscale gift shops. This was my first foray into the world of Peruvian Alpaca wool goods. Who knew there are so many types?  The most common finds are (from lowest to highest quality), adult Alpaca, baby Alpaca, super baby Alpaca and finally Vicuna. My first purchase in Peru was a Vicuna cape for Carol. Vicuna is the smallest and most beautiful of South American camelids. The Vicuna produces some of the finest fibers in the world. In the 19th century the Vicuna was hunted almost to extinction but today is on the protected species list. Only a very few items are made with Vicuna fibers and prices for these products reflect it.  Reputable stores purchase from suppliers that do no harm to the animal and will provide a certificate.  Poachers can produce no certification and are engaging in illegal activity.

 

This evening we were guests of Maximiliano Pazo, General Manager of the Miraflores Park, in their Mesa 18 restaurant. The restaurant décor was predominantly black & white, including the art.  It is a fabulously trendy restaurant and the food and service was outstanding…not to mention the excellent Peruvian wines.

 

After a restful evening of sleep, we gathered for our flight to Cusco (also correctly spelled Cuzco) and motorcoach to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Again, we were assisted at the airport by Bianca and met upon arrival by Condor Travel’s representative…Cecilia Ochoa, who was with us during our entire time in Peru. A lovely lady who, like her many associates at Condor Travel, knows the true meaning of customer service. We met our tour guide for the remaining part of our trip, Juan Eloy Cornejo. Juan is a true expert on the Incan culture. Fielding all kinds of questions from our little group, Juan seemed to be well schooled in all things Peru. He could answer a question on pretty much any topic and seemed to be a botanist, culturist, zoologist, ornithologist, and historian all in one person. Again, my recommendation is if you are going to Peru…seek out Condor Travel, Cecilia, and Juan.

 

During our drive into the “Valle Sagrado de los Incas” or “Sacred Valley of the Incas” we observed deep canyons, fertile ground, small rustic villages built between mountains, and the Urubamba River. The views were spectacular. During our travel this day, we stopped for a photo opportunity at a designated overlook site…where we were served “pisco” sours (a local drink with a “margarita-like” vibe) and surprised by a dance exhibition of merry men and ladies dressed in colorful folkloric costumes accompanied by a local Peruvian musical group. We all had the pleasure dancing with one or two of our new costumed friends.  Nobody knew the steps, but nobody cared either.

 

Back on the motorcoach…destination… lunch. Lunch was at a private farmhouse. Once we exited the main road, we traveled down a one lane dirt road quite a ways before reaching this most beautiful hacienda…Huayoccari. The hacienda was very large with multiple rooms and expansive views of the valley and mountains. They also had a marvelous private collection of fine local crafts including lots and lots of pottery. None of these items can be taken out of the country as they are historical artifacts. Our lunch was “country” delicacies and featured an appetizer that tasted like a version of a shepherd’s pie.  Potatoes are a huge part of Peruvian cuisine and we learned that they have approximately 3,000 varieties.  Who knew?

 

Following lunch at the hacienda Huayoccari some local artisans arrived to provide us a demonstration.  We were shown how raw Alpaca wool is washed to a bright white using a mash from the root of a local plant. Then, the various bright colors are achieved by soaking in a variety of natural plants.  Finally, the wool is loomed with an ingenious wood contraption. To make a blanket…a weaver will spend 5 weeks making the product that will sell for $25.  Needless to say, everyone in the group were happy to pay asking price for our purchases from that point forward.

 

Our overnight this evening was at the newest of Orient-Express’ Peru hotels…the Hotel Rio Sagrado. A beautiful upscale lodge perched on a hill in the Sacred Valley steps from the Urubamba River with a vista of a large mountain range on the other side of the river. Upon our arrival we were met by the General Manager, Rodrigo Hoffner and Roxana Gonzales, Sales Manager for Orient-Express Peru. Rodrigo was the former Food and Beverage Director at Maroma Resort and Spa in Mexico whom I had met previously. With 13 deluxe suites, 8 junior suites, and 2 villas…this property is newly constructed with amenities any well traveled guest would expect including heated bathroom floors. The Hotel Rio Sagrado is perfect for guests who desire a relaxing experience in a remote location to commune with nature. Therefore, do not expect to find a TV in your room, but rather be content to sleep to your iPod player/clock. For those who really cannot do without their daily dose of TV or news, there is a TV in the bar.

 

For dinner we were the guest of Rodrigo Hoffner in their El Huerto Restaurant. We were joined this evening by Sammy Niego, Managing Director, Condor Travel. How do they prepare such fine dining in such a remote location? After eating way too much at dinner several of us retreated to the intimate bar where we watched the first game of the NBA finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics while enjoying a few local libations.

 

After a restful evening and a leisurely breakfast, we once again boarded our motorcoach for Piscacucho Station where we boarded our train…destination Aguas Calientes – Machu Picchu. Along the way we passed through several key cities/villages including Pisac, Calca, Yucay, Urubamba, and the ancient village of Ollantaytambo. As we approached each town, Juan narrated their significance and place in the Incan civilization and culture. As I stated earlier, his knowledge and experience of the Incan culture is extremely impressive.

 

Normally, visitors wanting upscale historic train travel from Cusco to Machu Picchu would board the Hiram Bingham in Cusco and then take a short motorcoach ride to Machu Picchu. However, due to the recent heavy rains and mud slides which destroyed much of the train’s tracks between the Sacred Valley and Cusco, service is restricted. We took an alternative route… by motorcoach part of the way, then by train (one of Peru Rail’s other fine train products), then the short motorcoach to Machu Picchu. It is expected that the Hiram Bingham train will once again be in complete service by July1, 2010.

 

There are 3 ways to reach Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes: the 4-day Incan Trail hike, walking from the train staion, or via a motorcoach. If you have 4 days and enjoy hiking and sleeping in tents…take the Incan Trail. My preference; the motorcoach was just fine even with the numerous switchbacks going up to the ruins. Walking from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, in my humble opinion, is not an option!

 

Standing approximately 100 feet from the entrance to the Citadel of Machu Picchu is another Orient- Express hotel…The Sanctuary Lodge. The only hotel with such an enviable location in close proximity to the entrance to Machu Picchu, it consists of 29 rooms and 2 suites. Twelve of the rooms have spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. We were greeted by Gustavo de Leon, General Manager, who provided our group with a site inspection of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.  I can imagine that it would be perfect to spend an evening or two at The Sanctuary Lodge and enjoy sunrise and sunset in such a surreal setting.

 

Huayna Picchu is the towering mountain at the north end Machu Picchu, which is often the backdrop to photos you often see of the ruins. If you would like to hike the Huayna Picchu, an overnight stay at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is a very good suggestion as only the first 400 persons are allowed to hike Huayna Picchu daily, and it takes approximately 2 hours round trip.

 

It was around noon when we entered Machu Picchu. The climb up to the viewing site of the citadel is challenging, but worth every step and deep breath. Visitors should feel comfortable stopping periodically to regain their breath! Suggestion; wear comfortable clothes, hiking boots, or walking shoes. Shorts are in order depending on the time of the year…check the weather forecast before leaving home. If it is sunny, do not forget a hat or sun screen.

 

Our visit to Machu Picchu exceeded our every expectation. Walking through the “Sun Gate” and entering this most sacred place reminded me of the sentiments I had when I visited the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Egypt. To me, all three are “wonders” of the world. Pictures of Machu Picchu do not do it justice. To see the construction of the ruins by the Incas without the benefit of the wheel is just astounding. The engineering marvel of cutting stone to size and matching them without the benefit of mortar is amazing. Seeing the “Temple of the Sun” where the stonework is both a technological and scientific marvel is just unbelievable.

 

Visitors to Machu Picchu should not miss Intihuatana, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Main Temple, and the Temple of the Condor. Intihuatana is a carved stone serving as a sun dial.

 

Machu Picchu has approximately 2,500 visitors each day. Many visitors elect to not seek the services of a guide. I cannot imagine a visit to the ruins without the benefit of a guide. We all gained so much more information about Machu Picchu with the knowledge shared by our guide, Juan. Our stay at the ruins was approximately 3 hours. Although we meandered through the important features of the site, we could easily have stayed longer to enjoy the dramatic vistas.

 

Following our visit to Machu Picchu we feasted on a delicious buffet lunch at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge’s Tinkuy Restaurant overlooking the sacred mountain. The variety of food served in the Tinkuy is outstanding and fresh. Suggestion; try the roasted suckling pig…an uncommon treat.

 

We returned to Cusco which is surprisingly at a higher elevation than Machu Picchu. At approximately 11,000 feet in altitude, the air is really “thin”. We were encouraged to do everything “slowly” (not a problem after so many delicious meals), and hydrate often. Upon our return to Cusco we happily checked into the luxurious Orient-Express Hotel Monasterio.

 

We were at the Hotel Monasterio for two evenings. This is a former monastery converted into a spectacularly upscale, award-winning hotel. General Manager, Patricio Zucconi, is a Cusco native and former General Manager of The Sanctuary Lodge. He has extensive local knowledge, with a graciousness and calm presence which is common with all Orient-Express management. In addition to the hotels attentive staff…a key amenity at this hotel is its oxygenated rooms (optional) which is so welcome when you find yourself at 11,000 feet above sea level.

 

In Cusco, which was the former capital of the Incan empire, we toured with stops at Koricancha or “Temple of the Sun” which is where only the holiest of the holy visited during early Incan civilization. We also visited the Cathedral of Santo Domingo where residents had just celebrated “Corpus Christie”. This is their most religious annual festival…14 Parishes send their patron saint icons to the Cathedral and the icons are carried on the shoulders of 6 to 8 parishioners in a procession around the square in front of the Cathedral.

 

We next visited Sacsayhuamn just outside Cusco, which is also an ancient Incan ruin.  The walled complex sits on a hill overlooking Cusco. Again, the stone walls are impressive and significant and provide evidence the Incas were very good engineers. Following our visit to Sacsayhuamn, we proceeded to the Llaullipata forest where we were met by a Shaman (Indian priest) who presided over a “Thanks to Mother Earth” ceremony. During the ceremony, we all had an opportunity to participate in the blessing of Mother Earth for the goods she provides. If you have the opportunity to engage in this ceremony it is a special experience to have such a special insight into a part of their ancient culture.

 

For our final evening in Cusco we dined at the Hotel Monasterio’s Illariy Restaurant which serves nouvelle Andean and International cuisine. We enjoyed our breakfast in the El Tupay Restaurant lulled by background Gregorian chant music. Prior to leaving Cusco, we had Sunday Brunch at umbrella tables in the sunny center courtyard of the hotel. The outstanding food at Hotel Monasterio was only surpassed by the excellent and courteous service.

 

Before departing the Monastario, Patricio Zucconi gave is a sneak peak at the restoration of a convent next door that will become an extension of his lovely hotel.  It is due to complete in late 2011.  The restoration is true to original methods of construction but will provide features and amenities to please the most discerning guest.

 

It was difficult boarding the LAN Airbus-319 for our trip back to Lima…but board we did with fond memories of the previous days and our visit to Machu Picchu. During our flight I remembered a question Kim Bradford asked me earlier…of the three Wonders of the World I have visited, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and now Machu Picchu…which was the most impressive? At the time, I reference the Great Wall only because of its sheer size. However, upon further reflection, I believe Machu Picchu and the surrounding ruins reach the same pinnacle as the other two.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my return to the “Land of the Incas”, and if you have not, I certainly would recommend the journey with Orient-Express, LAN Airlines, and Condor Travel.

 

For more information regarding Orient-Express visit; www.orient-express.com

 

All the best,

 

Doyle J. and Carol Girouard

 

Should you have any questions or comments…please contact;

 

Doyle J. Girouard

CEO and Senior Managing Partner

The Cypress Group

Suite 1101

150 Creekway Bend

Southlake, TX 76092

Phone: 817-421-4774

Cell: 817-307-7577

Website: www.thecypressgroup.com

email; Doyle@thecypressgroup.com

Blog; www.TravelKeyNote.com

LinkedIn; http://www.linkedin.com/in/doylejgirouard

Twitter: http://twitter.com/doylejgirouard

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