This article is not so much about my world of media and tech (in which I am immersed and about which I regularly write for Forbes), as it is about escaping it. Something we all should do occasionally to get the headspace and perspective we need to prioritize what we do and how we do it. And simply to experience life without media/tech – heads fully up, rather than heads down.
My wife, Luisa, and I just recently returned from one epic week in Peru – one in which I “checked out” for the most part. Infrequent email checks. Even more infrequent calls. We landed in Lima, rafted in the Sacred Valley, and – for our trip’s climax and ultimate destination and payoff – visited the famed Citadel of Machu Picchu and climbed the actual mountain of Machu Picchu which towers above it. All along the way, we savored. Truly savored. And there was a lot to savor. The culture. The food. The drinks. The natural beauty and historical “wonder” of Peru. A trip for the ages. A true bucket lister.
Here’s how we did it – how we accomplished so much in so little time (1 week), without being frenetic and exhausted in the process. You may find our itinerary helpful as you plan your own trip to Peru. It hits all the right notes beautifully when you have a short period of time, and you certainly will save a lot of money in the process (literally thousands of dollars by booking it yourselves, rather than working with expensive travel operators and planners who will never be as precise in knowing your tastes, no matter how much guidance you give them and how hard they try). This is one of those rare trips where we did virtually everything right and with absolutely no real “misses.” Our travel goals were first and foremost to visit Machu Picchu. Next, to experience Peru and its people, its culture, and its natural beauty authentically, minimizing tourist intervention to the extent possible. And to do it all in a high end, luxurious – yet casual, “cool” and cost-effective manner. Mission accomplished.
I. LIMA (Days 1 & 2)
You likely know that to get to Machu Picchu (our ultimate goal), you need to fly into Cuzco, a city nearly two miles high, which is an altitude significantly higher than Machu Picchu itself (which is about 2/3 that) (by the way, an emotional debate rages about whether this city in the clouds is spelled “Cuzco” or “Cusco” – with an “s” instead of a “z” – so my use of “z” may cause consternation with some). We live in San Diego, California, essentially at sea level, so we smartly planned our trip to first land in Lima and then later acclimatize over the course of a few days by traveling first to the Urubamba region in the Sacred Valley (which is at a significantly lower altitude than Cuzco). We spent two full days and three nights in Lima, which gave us a great taste and flavor of the city.
A close friend had recently visited Peru and gave us an excellent recommendation for a high-end hotel in Lima – the Belmond Miraflores Park. Because the dollar goes far in Peru, and because we traveled to celebrate a milestone birthday for my wife on this trip, we decided to spring for high-end experiences throughout our travels. And we’re glad we did, since we are not backpackers. Although the Belmond is more elegant than our usual accommodations (my wife and I gravitate toward more contemporary hotels), our Belmond experience was wonderful in all respects. First, its location is ideal – essentially on the ocean and adjacent to Lima’s famous Barranco arts district. Second, the Belmond’s staff was extremely attentive, helpful and enthusiastic throughout our visit (special kudos to guest relations manager Alejandro Van Oordt with whom I corresponded for weeks to make sure that everything was just right – and to receive his excellent restaurant recommendations in advance in order to secure the dinner reservations we needed). Third, the Belmond’s adjacent restaurant/bar Tragaluz is downright hip and cool – with great cocktail mixology fused with stunning contemporary art that fills the room by a rising star local artist.
On day 1, we visited the famous Museo Larco, a small boutique museum that grounded us in Peru’s fascinating culture and overall evolution. It was the perfect way to begin our experience. The museum and its grounds themselves are beautiful, but its cafe truly shines. Be sure to lunch there (or at least have cocktails). You’ll be glad you did. That’s where we enjoyed our first of many Pisco Sours on our trip (the Pisco Sour is the Peruvian national drink). Following our museum jaunt, we took an Uber (yes, Uber operates in Lima) to Barranco to walk the arts district. A few notable destinations include the bar inside the Hotel B, which is much more of our typical style of hipster boutique hotel. It too is filled with stunning contemporary art that lines its walls. Cool vibe. And the drinks continued to flow (notice a pattern here?).
Later that evening we dined at Statera – an incredible culinary experience recommended by our extremely helpful concierge, Alejandro, at the Belmond (who followed my guidance closely about precisely what type of restaurant my wife and I enjoy). Statera is the new restaurant from one of Lima’s rising star chefs, and everything about our experience shined. The atmosphere (decidedly cool and intimate). The mixology. The culinary creativity and presentation. The ultimate tastes. And the overall service. Luisa and I marveled at the symphony of servers who attended to every moment of our experience (without overwhelming us). The ratio of Statera team members to customers must have been at least 4-1 (and likely more). We didn’t understand how those economics worked for the chef, but we tossed our cares aside and happily accepted that generous reality. Enjoyed it. Couldn’t stop talking about it. Everything about our culinary journey and experience was excellent. I can’t recommend this restaurant highly enough. We finished our first night at Ayahuasca, a stunning nightclub that features multiple rooms, each with its own individual bar and personality. If you enjoy nightlife and indulging, this is one not to miss. We didn’t, and we did (indulge).
Indulging also meant that we took the pressure off and enjoyed a later start to the next day. So, after our excellent rooftop breakfast at the Belmond, we took an Uber to a highly recommended casual cool restaurant called La Mar – a restaurant best known for its myriad flavors of ceviche. Give yourself a few hours to indulge in several of them. While day 1 featured active walking, exploring, enjoying, we spent this day 2 sitting back, relaxing, and dining slowly. Later in the day, for our evening dining experience, we visited our second highly recommended restaurant Amoramar. This one was tucked away on a side street in Barranco which was otherwise unremarkable, yet revealed this hidden gem – a garden restaurant that again shines in all respects. Another bull’s-eye. Try the squid ink pasta – and wash it down with even more Pisco Sours.
II. THE SACRED VALLEY (Days 3 & 4)
We departed Lima on day 3 to head toward our final destination – the sacred grounds of Machu Picchu. We took LATAM airlines into the high city of Cuzco, where we hired a private car (not expensive, and worth every dollar) to take us to the lower-altitude of the Sacred Valley (the ride itself was less than 90 minutes). Here, we would first acclimatize for a couple days and explore the beauty of the Urubamba region. We stayed at the stunning Tambo del Inka resort and spa. And, we’re glad we did.
Tambo del Inka was another bull’s-eye. Loved the hotel. Reminded us of the famous grand Ahwahnee Hotel in the heart of Yosemite, where we had stayed a few years earlier. Tambo del Inka similarly effortlessly fuses grandeur with nature. Celebrates and rejoices in it, rather than overwhelming it. High-end, yes, but casual and comfortable too. Downright majestic. Here we enjoyed a beautiful room, a stunning indoor/outdoor pool that backs up into the mountainside, excellent food and drink (yes, more ceviche and mixology). In the afternoon, we engaged in the obligatory Pisco Sour class at the hotel’s grand bar. Spend some time there.
On our first full day in the Sacred Valley, we chose activity. After researching the possibilities months before our trip (something I urge you to do), we chose to go on a private rafting trip through the river that runs through the Sacred Valley. At the recommendation of the Tambo del Inka’s concierge months before our trip, we chose Venturia as the tour company to lead the way – and our experience was impeccable. For about $600 total for the two of us (which also included the separate afternoon private tour of Ollantaytambo that I discuss below), we were taken by a private luxury van to the river and guided by an excellent, experienced and friendly rafting guide with a partner who followed us all along the way in a separate kayak (apparently in order to save us if we happened to fall into the river … something we didn’t request, by the way). We had rafted one month earlier on Lake Tahoe’s nearby Truckee River (also a great experience), but this Sacred Valley rafting tour was entirely different. Here, we had the river all to ourselves – no other raft in sight. It was breathtaking. Along the way we passed the famous – and famously insane – Skylodge, a “hotel” for the bravest of the brave that is comprised of four pods high on a completely vertical mountain face that requires expert climbing to arrive and depart. My wife vows to stay there some day, but I think I’ll pass.
Later that afternoon (and included in the $600 price), our rafting guides handed us off to a separate Venturia team that again whisked us away in a private shuttle to tour the famous Incan city and ruins of Ollantaytambo. There, our private guide – again extremely friendly and knowledgable – led us through the inspiring ruins and offered us helpful and interesting tales of its history and of the people who settled there. Yes, we could spot other tourists all around us here. But they didn’t overwhelm us or undercut our experience. Our choice to travel to Peru in early September was one important reason why (we missed the summer crush). Following our tour, we retreated back to Tambo del Inka to prepare for our next day’s long-anticipated pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.
III. MACHU PICCHU (Days 5 & 6)
Here’s another great thing about Tambo del Inka. The train station for the train that takes you to Machu Picchu is right there on site. Literally. That is a tremendous luxury that allows you to sleep in, yet still take the early Vistadome train at 7 am. We chose the Vistadome (about $200 for the two of us) because, true to its name, its many windows allowed for full views of the natural beauty that surrounded us as we journeyed downward to Machu Picchu. Make sure to reserve seats that face toward the direction you are traveling, rather than sit in the train’s reverse seating, in order to maximize your viewing experience. About 2.5 hours later, we arrived at the foot of Machu Picchu, in the city of Aguas Calientes. This is where most visitors to Machu Picchu stay, because only one – literally one – hotel is on site. That hotel is the famous Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, situated literally at the entrance to Machu Picchu. And, people, that is where you MUST stay! Otherwise, a 30-minute switchback-fueled bus ride from Aguas Calientes is essentially the only way to get there on the day of your visit.
We did (stay at the Sanctuary Lodge), and we would never do it any other way – for so many reasons. Yes, it is expensive. Expect to pay about $1,200-$1,500 per night for the most basic room. Believe me, we never pay that much – or anything close – when we travel. But this was a special milestone trip, and we sprung. And, even if we travel again to Machu Picchu with no milestone in sight, we will stay there. First, as I mention above, it is the only hotel actually on site at Machu Picchu. Second, it is small, luxurious, cozy, and intimate – feels more like an inn. So, heed this advice – book early to have a chance to stay there (many months in advance). Third, its food is amazing, authentic and gourmet in all respects – choice, presentation and taste. The chef clearly puts a lot of love into the Sanctuary Inn’s overall dining experience (it must be the energy that surrounds Machu Picchu). And breakfast, lunch and dinner – together with all of your drinks – are included in your daily rate. When you consider that, the daily rate is much easier to swallow (so to speak). Fourth, the entire staff is extremely friendly and attentive (special kudos to Belmond concierge Augusto De Los Rios, with whom I corresponded for months in advance, and Antonio in the bar, who mixed amazing drinks with great passion and enthusiasm). The staff’s smiles were infectious.
But here’s the most important reason to stay at the Sanctuary Lodge – for all intents and purposes, only guests are able to secure early and late access to the Citadel of Machu Picchu at times when tourist traffic is at its lowest. Remember, an endless line of buses from down below snakes up and down to Aguas Calientes throughout the day, which means that mid-day is the absolute worst time to visit the sacred grounds. Here’s one more critical reason to stay. On our second day at Machu Picchu (we stayed one night at the Sanctuary Lodge, which is all you need), it rained in the afternoon. Only lightly rained. Yet, because of that moisture, buses stopped shuttling tourists up to the site from Aguas Calientes below – tourists who had traveled from all corners of the Earth for their own on-site bucket listing visit to the Citadel. Those poor souls were simply cut off, unable to reach Machu Picchu up above. Their “once in a lifetime” trips were decimated. We, on the other hand, faced no such hurdles because we – as guests at the Sanctuary Lodge – were situated right there. At the entrance. No bus ride needed. So, on our second day – when the buses from below had stopped – we essentially had Machu Picchu all to ourselves. Amazing.
Back to our pilgrimage of Machu Picchu itself. The day we arrived, we first settled in at the Sanctuary Lodge (choosing a room with a direct view of the ruins … incredible!) after arriving from the valley below on the Vistadome. We sipped Pisco Sours, of course, as we prepared for our grand entrance to this one of seven wonders of the modern world. And we met our guide – arranged by the hotel weeks in advance of our trip – for a late afternoon private tour of the Citadel (from 3-5:30 pm, at which time the site closes down). Throughout that time, tourist traffic already was surprisingly (and thankfully) low – and those numbers diminished even further as the afternoon wore on. And, oh my. Our Machu Picchu experience at the Citadel was everything I had hoped for from the pictures. But also so much more. Magical. Mystical. Stunning. Spiritual. Unforgettable. Words can’t even describe it, so I won’t even try.
And the Incan gods blessed us with the weather. Days prior to our trip to Peru, we checked our weather app daily to see what would natural forces would await us – and each of our 7 days in Peru was highlighted by expected lightning storms. Thankfully, nature once again triumphed over technology, because we experienced lovely weather and sunshine on site. After walking the grounds for 2+ hours, and immersing ourselves in its indescribable beauty, we returned to the Sanctuary Lodge (again, only steps away) and enjoyed an amazing multi-course dinner. That was the capper to one of the most magical days of our lives.
We chose our next day carefully, since it would be our final hours at Machu Picchu before our return to Cuzco via train later in the day. Since we stayed at the Sanctuary Lodge, we had the opportunity to start early – and we seized it (leaving the hotel at 6:45 am). Two major hikes from the Citadel are available to those who plan ahead – both of which allow climbers to experience the Citadel looking down from up above. Most who choose to hike choose the more obvious of the two – Huayna Picchu Mountain with its steep, but much shorter, vertical climb that takes you about 1,000 feet above the Citadel. The ultimate destination on that hike – which apparently isn’t for the faint of heart or those with vertigo (due to its steepness) – is an Incan fortress. After much research and advice on the subject in advance of our trip, we chose the alternative much longer hike to the very top of Machu Picchu Mountain itself – a hike that takes you more than 2,000 feet above the Citadel below. And, again, we were glad we did.
Up and down took us about 3-1/2 hours with thousands of steps up and down along a trail that was frequently quite steep (although apparently much less so than the other hike, which we did not take). Arduous. Challenging. Frequently exhausting (especially when the sun is out). But once you reach the summit, absolutely stunning. The 360-degree view of the mountains that surround and envelop you – and of the Citadel down below – these are memories forever seared into our brains. We stayed at the summit for quite some time just soaking it all up. Amazing! (One confession – I suspended my digital detox for a few moments at top, as I used my iPhone to FaceTime my son and daughter to share the moment and majesty of it all – also marveling at the fact that I had more bars on top here than I do at my home in San Diego … yes, seriously). This Machu Picchu Mountain hike too is a “must do.” But make sure you are ready for it. The climb to the summit is a real, challenging hike (remember you are well above 10,000 feet and the air is thin). One more critical thing, make sure to buy your required hiking passes well in advance of your trip, because each of the two hikes limits its numbers to 200 hikers only in the morning and 200 more in the afternoon. Choose the morning. Cooler. Less crowded. Glorious.
Exhausted, but exhilarated, we passed all the Machu Picchu tourists down below as they waited in endless bus lines to Aguas Calientes and walked into the Sanctuary Lodge to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and Pisco Sours again), feeling grateful, and a bit guilty at our good fortune. Especially so because, remember, soon thereafter the weather changed and light rains began, stopping the buses and hapless pilgrims below from coming to the site. We, on the other hand, walked in yet again after our lunch – at which time Machu Picchu was essentially ours. We had it virtually to ourselves.
Now it was time to leave this magical place and prepare for our journey home to San Diego, with one more stop in Cuzco – at the highest altitude of them all. In advance of our trip, we were told to close our Machu Picchu chapter with the famed luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham train that takes you from Aguas Calientes to Cuzco (complete with a private bus from the Sanctuary Lodge to the Aguas Calientes train station). We listened and sprung for a very costly one-way 3 hour trip on this Orient Express throwback experience (about $550 for each of us). Yes, we enjoyed it. Yes, the train itself brings you back in time. And, yes, the train delivered excellent food, drink and an energetic young band that played classic rock and roll (all of us sang Hotel California along with them), all of which are included in the price of admission. Still, this was the one experience on the trip that felt a bit overtly “touristy” and that we would not necessarily do again. Nonetheless, convenience itself brings value, and the Hiram Bingham gave us that (among other things).
After several drinks and sing-a-longs on the Hiram Bingham, we arrived late in Cuzco and closed our day by checking in at the JW Marriott El Convento Hotel. Don’t let the JW name throw you. The hotel is housed in a converted classic Spanish convent and is beautiful. After listening to friends, and doing our own research in advance of our trip, we chose the JW over the highly recommended Belmond Monasterio Hotel (which itself is beautiful – we actually checked it out the next day), because the JW’s overall vibe is a bit less formal. It was the right choice for us. The JW’s classic Spanish architecture is beautiful. We chose a room on the top floor with a balcony that overlooks the hotel’s internal courtyard. You should too.
IV. CUZCO (Day 7)
So much to do, so little time. We had now reached our final day in Peru. Later that evening, our itinerary would whisk us away from Cuzco to Lima, and then directly from Lima back to San Diego. That meant that we had only hours to enjoy the magical city of Cuzco. And magical it was. Cuzco surprised us in all respects. We had no idea how big and beautiful it is. The city’s main square is a wonder of Spanish architecture from the 1500-1600 era. We spent most of our limited time walking the square and its surrounding streets, each of which was full of its own surprises – small cafes, art galleries, and eateries. We asked for a local’s recommendation for a nice casual, authentic, and excellent place for lunch. We took it and ate our final meal at Pachapapa (not to be confused with ” Pachamama,” the Peruvian word for mother earth). This place was perfect. It is affordable (very), its internal courtyard seating area is beautiful, and its food is excellent and prepared impeccably. For those of you brave souls out there, this is the place to try the local favorite of oven roasted guinea pig (yes guinea pig).
And that was it. Reality called. We returned to the hotel, packed our bags, took a car to the Cuzco airport and caught our flight to Lima – and later red-eye flight back to San Diego (where later that same day I somehow gathered the energy to join other revelers at the Kaaboo music festival).
Exhausted at that point. But exhilarated at the same time. Machu Picchu. The ultimate digital detox. An experience and state of mind that I hope to retain even as I return to the mountains of media and tech that await. You can bet that I’ll be mixing, pouring and enjoying Pisco Sours for the rest of my days ….
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