As we were only having a short stopover in Lima on our way to Cusco, I’d booked us in to the Holiday Inn at Lima Airport which was really easy to get to and from the airport. It’s actually walkable from the airport but you really shouldn’t walk, especially at night and with luggage; I’d say it’s far too dangerous. The free shuttle bus takes about 2 minutes anyway, you’re met in arrivals by a member of hotel staff with a Holiday Inn board and they pop you in a car or minibus. The hotel itself is nice, modern and clean although we were only there about 10 hours! There was a lot of road noise and you could hear planes all night so earplugs really are a must! Although, my ears hurt from the headphones on the plane!
After our shuttle back to the airport, check in for our Avianca flight to Cusco was easy, Lima airport is pretty decent. Security was a breeze but it was before 6am! As we were up so early, we didn’t have breakfast at the hotel but used our Priority Pass for breakfast at the El Salon lounge instead.
The entrance to the lounge is easy to miss but once inside, it’s a pleasant little lounge, with an ok selection for breakfast. They had a buffet of fruit, boiled eggs, sandwiches and these really delicious apple empanadas and little cakes. The coffee, out of machine, was decent and very hot.
The flight to Cusco was fine, it’s less than 90 minutes, so you don’t expect much, but I was impressed with the legroom. We were treated to more fantastic mountain views and the bags were off quickly in Cusco which was better than our experience in Lima the night before! We were met by a friendly guy from the transport company I’d booked to take us to the hotel who gave us some advice and a bit of tourist information. As June is festival month and the height of the dry season, Cusco gets 6000 tourists a day!
The hotel was only about 25 minutes from the airport and I was impressed by the driving, as you never know what it’s going to be like abroad! Check in at the LP Los Portales Hotel was from 1100 and we arrived a bit before that so sat in their covered courtyard with a coca tea to ease the altitude sickness. The hotel is lovely and the comfy lounge area is really inviting. The lounge was one of the main reasons I booked the hotel but we only ended up using it twice!
The benefits of coca tea haven’t been scientifically proven but the tea and other coca products have been used across South America to ease altitude sickness and use as a stimulant for many generations. You can buy coca products all over Peru, from tea to chocolate, sweets and chewing gum. We had some of the chewing gum after each meal for the first few days to help with altitude sickness, although we actually fared quite well with it. Coca products are illegal outside of most South American countries so I wouldn’t try bringing anything back as a souvenir!
After settling in a bit, we took a slow walk up Avenue el Sol to the main square, Plaza de Armas, which took less than 10 minutes from the hotel. The square is lovely and with it being festival month, there was always something going on, either a protest or a dance of some kind.
We explored the narrow streets around the square and found the famous Jack’s Cafe, a must stop for travellers. The massive toastie was delicious, the cheese was so creamy and the skin on fries were perfect. I can’t even begin to describe the pancakes! For the first day in a new place, it’s a great stop off and there’s always a queue at the door which tells you how popular this place is. But don’t go because everyone goes, go because the food is tasty, huge and great value.
Needing to burn off that massive lunch, we set off on another walk around town and bought the Cusco Tourist Ticket which gives you entry to 10 museums and sites of interest around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It’s great value versus buying individual entry and we didn’t need to show our passports to buy or use the ticket.
After a bit of rest, we stalked some places for dinner and settled on the Andean Grill, a few hundred meters from Plaza de Armas. The other half had a burger and mum had a lasagne but I had alpaca kebabs which were delicious, tasted just like beef. Mum did get adventurous with a Machu Picchu cocktail and regaled us with a story about how she “can’t eat a pizza without thinking of Julie’s chin”. It was a surreal moment!
We purposefully took our first day in Cusco steady to give our bodies time to adjust to the altitude. At 3000 meters above sea level, altitude sickness is a real threat and you should give yourself time to adjust. It’s crazy but you do notice the difference the thin air makes to simple tasks like tying your shoelaces!
The following day, the hotel arranged a taxi to Sacsayhuaman (pronounced like sexywoman), an Inca citadel dating back to 1100. It’s the massive stone walls, built like a fortress that take your breath away rather than the 3700-meter altitude! We explored the ruins and enjoyed watching alpaca (or were they llama, I still can’t tell!) frolicking around.
After wondering around the Inca buildings, which were pretty similar to anything seen in the Yorkshire Dales, if we’re being honest, we climbed the steps to the Christo Blanco statue which overlooks Cusco. The climb certainly wasn’t easy in the thin air but little did we know that this would be a practice run for Machu Picchu Mountain!
After a few hours, we took a steady walk back down to San Cristobal church and made our way to the Inca museum in Cusco. Entry isn’t included in the tourist ticket but it’s cheap to go in and fairly interesting, although, by this time, we were all hungry and I don’t think we took it all in. We went back to Jack’s for another massive lunch!
We then spent the afternoon at the Santo Domingo church, which is built on top of the Inca Temple of the Sun, or Koricancha to give it it’s Quechuan name, after the Spanish invaded Peru in the 1500s. The site has the most amazing gardens and it was fascinating to see the mix of Inca and Christianity. Again, entry wasn’t included on the tourist ticket but it’s worth the small entry fee.
You can use the tourist ticket to get in to the Koricancha Museum and their amazing garden, just in front of the Koricancha but we went on a Sunday and the place was just closing. We sat on a bench in the sun and ate ice cream instead! Fortunately, there’s a great ice cream parlour just across the road which was handy! This site is about 100 meters from the hotel we stayed in too so it was nice to not have to walk far!
One of the hardest things to learn about Cusco and the Sacred Valley was the different names for everything. All of the sites have Quechuan (the indigenous language of Peru), Spanish and English names which all sound and are spelt slightly different. It makes it really easy to get confused as to what you want to see and took a bit of getting used to!
After a few days in Cusco, it was time to set off on a real adventure and the whole reason we, and most other people, visit Peru – Machu Picchu! We spent 2 days at Machu Picchu and I’ll cover that off in a separate post; it really is spectacular!
Returning from Machu Picchu, I thought we deserved a rest after multiple early starts and long, traumatic journeys so we just had a chill out day in Cusco. I say chill out, we still spent about 4 hours wondering the streets and squares, shopping and eating. We made the mistake of going back to Jack’s for lunch and, although it was tasty and massive and all the reasons we love it, the third time in a week was a bit overkill. Because we had such a big lunch, we just had a light dinner in the hotel. I had the best salad with pecans and dried fruit with roast chicken, it was amazing! Earlier in the day we spotted a chocolate shop near Jack’s and went back after dinner for the most ridiculous hot chocolate and brownie. It was a sugar overdose and we couldn’t finish it! The hot chocolate was piping hot and so thick! The brownie was huge! You can do chocolate making workshops but we didn’t have the time.
We’ve had 1 day of “rest” so it’s back to exploring with an 0720 pick-up for our full day tour of the Sacred Valley. We were picked up by minivan and drove around Cusco picking up other travellers, it took nearly 40 minutes to pick everyone up! One thing that does spoil the beauty of Cusco is the traffic. The cars are small, they have to be otherwise they won’t fit down the streets, but the constant noise and fumes does detract from what is a truly stunning place.
Once we’d picked everyone up, it was about 20 minute’s drive to Awana Kancha, a family run llama farm and ancestral experience. We made a brief 30-minute stop where we learnt how to dye and spin llama and alpaca wool to make clothes which was quite interesting. There’s nothing quite like seeing an old Peruvian woman in traditional dress, working at a loom whilst chatting on a smart phone!
It was about another 30 minutes to get to Pisac, including a very brief photo stop overlooking the Sacred Valley.
Pisac has some of the best examples of the famous Inca terraces used for farming at the 3780-meter altitude. You get a real sense of how intelligent the Inca people were and that these places weren’t built like this by accident. Cusco and the Sacred Valley was the heart of the Inca Kingdom which spanned Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. Some of the terraces were created naturally by mini tornadoes and the Incas learnt how the water flowed down the terraces and how they prevented landslides so copied the idea for their farming. That’s some clever shiz all those years ago.
Using these methods, the Incas were able to farm at heights of over 4000 meters and only needed to harvest once a year after learning how to use nature to freeze dry their food! When the Spanish invaded in the 1500s, they found over 40,000 food storage units!
After exploring the ruins, we headed to the market town, which has held a daily market since 1560. We had to endure a boring jewellery making demonstration, one of those where they don’t want you to leave until you buy something, before walking around the markets but it wasn’t too bad. Nowhere near as bad as we’ve had in India where every excursion includes a visit to a bloody carpet shop! I had a really tasty empanada with fruit and cinnamon and met some guinea pigs before they were turned in to dinner.
On route to Ollantaytambo, we stopped at a Tunupa restaurant for lunch. There’s a Tunupa overlooking Plaza de Armas in Cusco so I think it’s a chain. The smell of jasmine hits you as you walk through the gates and they have the most amazing gardens at the back, leading down to the Urubamba river. The food was great, with buffets of salads, fish and sea food, alpaca in a gravy sauce and the best sweet & sour chicken I’ve ever had. Who would have thought of putting whole cherries in a sweet & sour?! The desserts were nice too.
After lunch, it was a 20-minute drive to Ollantaytambo, the last Inca site on our tour. Ollantaytambo is another great example of how the Incas learnt from nature to build their farms and food storage units in the most efficient ways. Being great architects, the Incas used scale models cut into rock then larger models made out of bamboo before building. We saw how they used expansion joints made of iron to help their buildings withstand the pressures of earthquakes.
We spent just under 2 hours in Ollantaytambo, walking to top of the ruins, across the top and down the other side. Mum didn’t make it to the top, after the mammoth climb at Machu Picchu and the steps in Pisac, she was done in. She’d also worn a dress and the updrafts kept blowing it up and exposing her knickers so she decided to turn around and stay at ground level!
During the journey back to Cusco, I was impressed by the quality of the roads and, mostly, the driving was excellent too, apart from a few questionable overtakes! We passed a landslide on to the highway which gave a reminder of how fragile the mountain terrain is in this area. The scenery though, is stunningly beautiful and everywhere you look is spectacular. It took about 90 minutes to get back to Cusco which was pretty painless.
After a quick shower, we headed out for dinner and ate at Per.uk a British Peruvian fusion restaurant, rated one of the best in Cusco. Mum and the other half both had bangers and mash whereas I had guinea pig! They served it in nice little slices rather than the whole animal usually served. I can’t eat anything with a head! We stopped by a cafe just a few doors from our hotel for some (massive) cake and hot chocolate before bed.
Our penultimate day got off to a traumatic start which I’ll cover off in a separate blog, but after a light breakfast we set off to Cusco airport for the flight back to Lima.
The flight was 30 minutes late, according to an email I received from Avianca but there were no announcements in the airport and the screen showed the original departure time so we were a bit confused as to what was happening. Cusco airport was heaving but the downstairs lounge and gate area was much quieter so we sat down there to gather our thoughts.
The flight was painless and I was again impressed with the legroom on the plane. Why can’t all airlines have this much space in economy? The ride from the airport to the hotel in Miraflores was much less impressive and was the first example of true Peruvian driving! The driving was so bad, I called the transfer company from the hotel and told them not to give us the same driver for the trip back to the airport! It was terrifying!
The other half took an instant dislike to Lima. It’s no Cusco and the drive from the airport, a white-knuckle ride through the back roads and slums of a poor city, didn’t give the best first impression. He wasn’t impressed with the hotel and the fact that they didn’t have English menus and the restaurant only seemed to serve fish. I’d booked us in to the Ibis Larco Miraflores and it was actually fine for a short stay.
I decided to get some air and went for a walk around the hotel to see what was about and found a sports bar with an English menu for us to have lunch. Lunch didn’t go well and mum complained to the owner that the burger was undercooked and too bloody. We then went for a walk to the Larcomar shopping centre but the other half insisted that we needed to be safely back in the hotel before nightfall!
Lima can be a dangerous city but not all of its 11 million population are out to rob tourists and the area of Miraflores is relatively safe. Being the middle of winter though, the sky and Pacific Ocean were grey and foreboding. Lima is one of the driest cities on earth and has very little rainfall, despite the cloud!
For our last day, I’d booked a morning tour of Lima so that we could at least see the place and pass the time before our 2200 flight. We were picked up by bus from our hotel and made a brief stop at Huaca Pucllana, an ancient temple dating back to 200AD (older than Machu Picchu) made from mud bricks. We didn’t go inside, which was disappointing, as you need a good few hours to explore the site properly.
There are over 400 temples scattered around Lima and because it never rains, some are built from mud bricks, like Huaca Pucllana. There’s very few texts or documents from pre-Hispanic times, but archaeologists have learnt a lot from ceramics and textiles and there’s some great examples in the museums of Lima. We visited the Museum of the Central Reserve Bank which isn’t really about banking, although it does have some old coins, but houses an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts. I was really impressed with the ceramic animal shaped musical instruments.
The historic centre of Lima is a UNESCO world heritage site with protection orders on over 600 buildings and monuments. You can see them by the white & black sign on the building.
We stopped by the main square to see Lima Cathedral and the main government building before heading to the Francisco monastery. The church is free to enter but there’s a fee for the catacombs which was included in our tour. There’s an awesome library of old books, which look like they’re about to fall into a pile of dust.
Built in the 17th century, Franciscan monks still live there today and between 1672 and 1871, the catacombs were used as a public cemetery. There’s some 20,000 people thought to have been buried there and you can see the bones and skulls laid out in mass graves. 8-meter tunnels have protected the site from earthquakes over all these years.
After coming back to ground level, we were taken back to our hotel and we went to Larcomar for a final meal before heading back to the airport for the flight home. And what an experience that was…
Date of trip: June 2019
Price paid: £180.00 for 2 rooms for 1 night at the Holiday Inn Lima Airport booked direct (it was cheaper to buy IHG Reward points during a 100% bonus offer and use the points for the stay rather than pay the cash rate which was nearly £250.00).
£130.00pp for return flights from Lima to Cusco booked through Avianca.
£600.00 for 2 rooms over 5 nights at the LP Los Portales Hotel in Cusco booked through hotels.com.
£34.00 + 12,000 Avios (the remaining from the Iberia 9000 promotion) for 2 rooms for 1 night at the Ibis Larco Miraflores booked through Iberia Plus portal.
£30.00pp for the Cusco Tourist Ticket, £2.00pp for entry to Inca Museum and £3.00pp for entry to Koricancha all bought locally. £35.00pp for the Sacred Valley tour and £30.00pp for the guided tour of Lima booked through Expedia.
Points earned: 250 Iberia Avios for flying with Avianca. 2351 Virgin Flying Club points for paying using my Virgin Atlantic credit card. 1356 Virgin Flying Club points for booking through hotels.com. The hotels also credited towards a 10% rebate on hotels.com rewards.