As my dad’s 60th birthday approached we were looking for something special to do. My mom and dad like to claim that I am not really their child because they both hate to travel and I obviously have an obsession with it. Throw a dart on a map and I’m ready to go there. Doesn’t matter where. Both of my parents, aside from the Caribbean, have never traveled outside of the country before. My dad’s dream vacation, as he told us some time ago, would be to visit Machu Picchu before “he gets too old to walk it”. I told him one day if he was lucky enough and I hadn’t put him into a retirement home already that I would take him. A few months shy of his birthday my mom decided that she wanted to send us (not including her – she wanted to go to the Bahamas) to Peru for my dad’s birthday. I booked the flight that day so no one could back out and my dad, my brother, and I were all set for a trip of a lifetime!
We arrived to the airport in Lima and I could tell my dad and brother were instantly cultured shocked. First of all, I come from a very tall family. My dad is 6’5 and the average height of a Peruvian is about 5’2. As we walked out of customs at 11 pm there were about 200 Peruvians waiting behind barricades for the person they were picking up to walk out. My dad and brother waved to everyone like they were walking the red carpet (they think they’re hilarious). We hopped in a cab which was an old and very small Toyota. The Peruvian man instructed us to all three get in the back and let me tell you, tight is an understatement. The second we got in the car I thought we were going to die. I have never seen driving like that before in my life. Picture in your mind Mario Kart Racing when everyone is driving all over the road, not minding the lines in the least bit. I thought my poor father was either going to have a heart attack or throw up. Here he is: this huge guy squished into the backseat of a taxi, never been out of the country before, sitting there embracing for impact. We headed about 25 minutes ($7 cab ride ka-ching!) from the airport to the Barranco District of Lima which is known for being the upscale artsy district. We arrived to Hotel B which I took the liberty of taking mom’s credit card and finding the best hotel I could find. Hey, a guy only turns 60 once! The hotel is beyond amazing and I very much recommend it to anyone that is traveling to Lima to stay there. It is a small boutique hotel with only 17 rooms and the main focus is art. Each room has it’s own special art installation and all of the paintings and drawings are amazing. Like I said, I absolutely loved that hotel. By the time we got checked in and showered it was about midnight. We called it a night because we had a long day of exploring ahead of us.
We woke up to a chilly day (August is still Winter there) had a delicious breakfast at the hotel, and headed out to downtown Lima. Our first stop was the Plaza San Martín to walk around and then to the Plaza Armas. This is considered the birthplace of Lima and the core of the city. There are beautifully constructed Cathedrals and buildings surrounding you while the Government Palace takes center stage. We walked all around the plaza and surrounding streets, in awe of the architecture. As we were walking around we saw a monastery open to visitors and we walked in to check it out. It wasn’t a well known place so there were very few tourist there but it was so gorgeous. Hand painted tiles covering the walls with gorgeous wood carved ceilings, beautiful fountains everywhere, and amazing old rooms perfectly kept. We loved it. We walked to every room snapping pictures and enjoying the day. After we had explored the whole monastery we went on the hunt for food. Now, if you know anything about Peru you know that they are known for their ceviche and I wasn’t leaving until I had some ceviche! My brother pointed to a few tourist traps for lunch but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted a small locals place and that is exactly what I found. Thank goodness I was there because I can speak a good amount of Spanish unlike my brother and father so I spent some time translating what was on the menu and then we ordered. This place was a tiny 5 table spot with a line out of the door. Street performers came in playing music for all the people as they sat there enjoying their ceviche. I felt like I was in a scene from Anthony Bourdain’s show. I ordered us the ceviche, lomo saltado (beef stir fry), and some Arroz con pollo (rice and chicken). My brother, who is not an adventurous eater in the least bit, was not happy with the choices. I told him I didn’t care because that is what I wanted and I’m the only one who speaks Spanish so HA! The food was all sooooooo good. We said salute with our Inca Cola (Peruvian soda that tastes like bubblegum and is strangely addicting) and devoured our Peruvian feast. We walked around little side streets taking in the day before stopping for a coffee and tres leches break. After relaxing for a little we wanted to go walk down on the cliffs and look at the beautiful ocean. It was cold and windy but the windy road was beautiful. The cliff is known for their para gliders so we watched them for a while wishing we had the balls to try it. The end of the road was a huge outdoor mall called Larcomar. I’m not a huge mall fan but this outdoor mall would make anyone want to shop. We walked around and stopped for some hot chocolate before hopping in a cab to go back. When we got back I asked the hotel’s concierge which restaurant they would recommend for dinner. They recommended a place on the water called Restaurant Costa Verde and were nice enough to set up a reservation for me. The restaurant was a trendy place right on the water with amazing food. My brother and I ordered some Pisco Sours and said ‘Salute!” to our first full day in Peru. I ordered a tuna dish with a fresh salsa on top and it was fantastic. We ate our dinner and drank our Pisco Sours while listening to the most soothing sound of the waves crashing into the rock below us. After dinner we had an after dinner drink at the lobby bar which was absolutely adorable and then called it a night. Tomorrow we were off to Cusco!
The next morning we had a delicious breakfast at the hotel and then headed to the airport to catch our flight to Cusco. Cusco is a beautiful and magical ancient city that was the historic capital of the Inca Empire. The city itself is situated at 11,200 feet above sea level and perfectly located near the mystic Andes mountains. Flying in you go over the majestic range and it is something special. Upon arrival they immediately greeted us at baggage claim with Coca tea to help us with any kind of altitude sickness we would feel. Now, even though I’ve been all over the world I have never really been in a high altitude that would make me sick so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought that as soon as you stepped off the plane it would hit you and I wasn’t feeling anything so I was feeling like a badass at that point. Look at me! I’m not going to feel sick at all like those silly people. Woops. We flagged down a cab and headed to our hotel which was amazing. We stayed at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio which is an old Monastery dating from 1592 that they converted into a 5 star hotel. It is absolutely breathtaking. We checked in an got a cup of Coca tea and explored the hotel. They did such an amazing job integrated the new with the old and preserving the old style. The hotel is located right next to the bustling Plaza de Armas so as soon as we were in our room we left to go explore. One of the great things about Cusco are all of the windy and historic side streets. Most of the women are dressed in the traditional colorful clothing which is somewhat of a culture shock but it is so amazing to see in person. The more we walked, the more I felt like my feet had lead weights attached to them. Slower and slower we went, gasping for air. Oh no, it was finally hitting us. We slowly walked to a museum to check out all the old artwork and statues there. We spent the rest of the day exploring Cusco and taking in all the beauty of the city. That night we were recommended to go to a restaurant right next to the hotel called Uchu. It was a small but absolutely adorable restaurant with AMAZING food. A must go. I got the Peruvian kebab which was beef marinated with the traditional sauce made of panca chilies, corn beer, cumin, garlic cream, vinegar, black beer, parsley and oregano. So. Good. The sauce was unlike anything I have had before and the dish came with a peanut, hot chili, and potato mash. Mind blown. We headed back to the room to have an early night because the next day we were off to see one of the ‘7 Wonders of the World’…. Machu Picchu. (eeeeeeek!!) As I laid down to go to bed, I could feel gravity smooshing me into my bed. I knew I was in trouble.
All throughout the night I could barely sleep. I couldn’t breath out of my nose so I was mouth breathing and feeling like I weighed 600 pounds. Even though our room had pure oxygen pumped into it I still could feel the sickness setting in. When it was finally time to wake up it really hit me… and boy oh boy did it hit me. I threw up a few times but there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t going to let this stop me from missing one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We went to breakfast, where I didn’t eat at all, and grabbed a canister of Coca tea to take with me. I was chugging that nasty stuff like it was my business clinging to the hope it would cure me. We hopped in the taxi where they headed to the train station where we would board the amazingly exquisite ‘Hiram Bingham Train’. Now, there are other trains that will take you down to Aguas Calientes where Machu Picchu is, but we decided to take the best one out there. It was a bit of a splurge but it was 100% worth every penny. Before boarding the train we were greeted with traditional Peruvian dancers and a warm quinoa drink that soothed my upset tummy. Just looking at the train got us extra excited. The train itself is decorated in the style of a 1920s Pullman carriage. There is a dining car with white linen tablecloths and beautiful crystal glasses and gorgeous views at every glance. It really makes you feel like you have stepped back in time and are part of a very aristocratic class. The next car is the bar car where you can pick up a delicious Pisco Sour and the last car is the observation car which was my favorite. The observation car has huge windows and an open back so you can soak in all of the beauty of the Andes mountains. I sipped on coffee while listening to the best Peruvian band in the observation cart and just looking at the countryside in awe. I instantly felt better. We chugged along the tracks and through the mountains before being told it was time for brunch. First course: Wayllabamba Trout with Fava beans, Andean mint, and airampo emulsion (prickly purple Andean pear). SO insanely good. Next up we had Aji de Gallina. It’s a chicken roulade with a yellow bell pepper sauce. UGH! Amazing. For dessert we had a Corn Milk Cheesecake with a wild gooseberry puree. They extract the corn ‘milk’ and make a cheesecake with it. I’ll tell you what…. that thing was beyond delicious. I’ve never had anything like it before. We enjoyed our fantastic meal while watching the Andes roll by. A truly magical dining experience. After we were done with brunch we headed back to the observation cart to enjoy the rest of our trip while listening to the band play. Off in the distance I saw a small little train station that we would get off at. It was a cute little town called ‘Aguas Calientes’. We got off the train and there was a bus waiting for us to take us up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu. We got on the bus and held on for dear life as this huge
death trap tour bus was winding up the dirt road high up with no railing. None of us could look out the window because if you looked over you would see nothing but the bottom of the valley 1,000 feet down. Terrifying. Once we got up to the entrance our guide that was assigned to us (only 10 people to a guide if you come on the train. Yea!) took us and we started walking walk towards the site.
It was a painfully beautiful crisp day with not a cloud in sight. The perfect day for exploring such a mystical place. As we walked up the steps we entered a ledge that overlooked the entire site. Wow. I actually don’t have words for how I felt looking at it. I wanted to cry! It’s even more spectacular in person. We stood there just taking it all in. I, of course, was snapping a million pictures and videos. We then started on the path down to begin the tour. It’s so crazy how they still do not really know much about the site. Why was it there? Who actually made it (some rocks date well beyond the Incans)? What purpose did it serve? Where did everyone go? My mind was racing looking at all of these rocks put together so precisely that you can’t even fit a hair in between them. How did they have such technology back then?! I’ll tell you what I think. Aliens did it! I’m convinced! The location of Machu Pichu is 2,00o feet up in the air surrounded by mountains all over and in the middle of nowhere. Call me crazy if you want but if you were to see everything up close your mind becomes a scrambled egg because you just can’t fathom it. Walking around we entered different spaces that served different purposes (or so they think) like food storage houses, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of Three Windows. Each perfectly situated on the mountain. Below us on an open field we could see a bunch of llamas walking around so naturally we wanted to go over and see them asap. They were SO cute! They came up and sniffed around and then immediately got bored and left us for people with food in their hand. Unfair advantage if you ask me. We spent a few hours walking around the sacred ruins in awe of all that they made so high up and with so little. While walking around I think I drank a gallon of coca tea that I brought with me so I was feeling much better but still having a hard time catching my breath. Maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was just me being at the most spiritual place I could ever imagine. There was such a energy there that you can’t even describe. Of all the places I have ever been to in the world, this was the most breathtaking by far. Also some of my favorite pictures I’ve ever captured was at Machu Picchu. Once we explored and saw all there was to be seen our small group headed up to a hotel that was situated outside of the entrance. They had a huge high tea set up for all of us which was amazing. They had little finger sandwiches and pastries and all kinds of delicious things. We were all starving from walking around all day and very happy to have some good food. Once everyone was done it was back on the dreaded bus and off the Aguas Calientes to get back on the train and head back to Cusco.
The next morning we woke up and had a nice breakfast at the hotel. I tried to eat as much as I could but I still didn’t feel the best. Little did my dad know for his birthday present I hired a private tour guide to take us all around the Sacred Valley. After breakfast we walked to the front and our lovely guide Eduardo was there waiting on us. My dad was so excited about our adventure! We hopped in his van and traveled an hour to the very picturesque Sacred Valley of the Incas. Once we arrived we were off to the Temple of Ollantaytambo. Looking at it was beautiful yet painful at the same time. It looks like a huge staircase going straight up. I mean, this thing is huge. It is so incredible that they had the manpower to build such a structure using what limited tools that they did. As we ascended the stairs I started sweating. I hate climbing that many stairs when I’m at sea level and not sick! I stood there as he spoke about the ruin and what they know about it. I discretely looked all around me. Was I really going to throw up on a sacred ruin right now?! I tried my best to push that urge aside until I got down to the bottom. I grabbed some coca tea at a stand in the market and started to feel a little better. Let’s get this day started! We walked around the beautiful valley for a while in awe of everything. We grabbed a quick soup at a local restaurant and then headed to the village of Pisac which is in the Sacred Valley. Pisac is known for it’s vibrant market and even though this was my dads birthday present he had to go shopping for a LITTLE at the market with me. The beautiful colors surrounded us at the outdoor market. The craftsmanship of the textiles are so intricate and impressive. I picked up some goodies for my loved ones and me and then we were off to a traditional Incan terraced farm and ruin. We walked around there for a while but the wind was whipping so much we were freeeeeezing and couldn’t stay too long. Next stop: a traditional weaving village where they had llamas and alpacas everywhere…aka my heaven. My brother and I were so excited to play with them. They’re just so fluffy I wanted to die! I picked up a beautiful alpaca scarf and some other goodies before leaving. We headed back to the hotel after to relax for a little bit before getting ready for dinner. Very close to our hotel is a museum called ” Museo de Arte Precolombino” and inside of it in the courtyard is an exquisite restaurant completely surrounded by glass. It feels like you’re eating in an art installation. I ordered the Quinoa Canneloni with a creamy truffle sauce. Very different but delicious. After our long day we were off to the hotel to call it a night. We were pooped from exploring and the altitude and we had an early flight out in the morning back home. The trip was quick but jam-packed with adventure and fun. Despite not feeling the greatest it really was one of the most magical experiences of my life exploring Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley and I highly recommend everyone checking it out at some point. You won’t regret it. Seeing it in person is incredible and at the same time overwhelming. How could these indigenous people create something so incredible with so little? It’s mind blowing. I loved the people…I loved the food… and now I’m hooked. I’ll be back for you Peru.