Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues

Cusco is a good base for several side trips in the Sacred Valley. Our second day in Cusco we spent exploring the countryside, namely the town of Pisac and its famous market. The Pisac markets operate every day, but the big days (and most heavy tourist days) are Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. You can easily take a bus or collectivo to Pisac but we met a couple who was planning on going the same day, so we shared a cab with them.

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The advantage of taking a cab (besides for the comfort) is getting to stop at the condor farm along the way. For all I know, the condor farm has an official name but I don’t know what it is. It’s one of those things locals tell you about but you won’t find in the guidebooks. It’s basically a small farm with some pretty cool local animals. There is no entrance fee but they ask for a donation at the end of the tour.

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Apparently, this is a big no-no, but Lisa likes to live on the edge. I snapped a picture before she was gobbled up.

After the condor farm, we made our way to Pisac. The town of Pisac is tiny and easy to walk around. We simply asked someone to point us in the direction of the the main plaza and that’s how we stumbled on the array of locals hawking their wares.

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Because everyone needs a pair of colorful sneakers.

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Hot.

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I don’t think this lady was too happy with me.

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I’m in love with this. It’s just so random.

And of course, I loved photographing the kids of Peru.

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The kids in traditional Peruvian dress will stick out their hands and say “propina” after you take a picture. That is how I learned my fifth spanish word. Propina, apparently, means tip.

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This kid became my best friend.

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After you visit the markets, you can hike up to the ruins overlooking Pisac or pay a taxi to take you to the top and walk down. We were a little ruined-out (and carrying quite a bit of purchases) so we hopped on a collectivo and made our way back to Cusco.

 

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Another Birthday, Another Deep Thought

I’m not a big believer in birthdays. I don’t believe in parties or birthday specific presents. If I want to treat myself to something nice, I shouldn’t have to wait until my birthday. And if you want to buy me a present you should do it any damn day you want. Personally, I think I deserve to be treated nicely all year round. But since I’m officially a year older, it’s a good time to reflect on the year behind me.

Highlights:

  • I’ve had some amazing trips and experiences. I hiked to Havasu Falls in Arizona over Labor Day, visited Cambodia, Thailand and Honk Kong over Thanksgiving, and just came back from Peru. These were all awesome experiences, filled with good people and beautiful scenery.
  • I’ve kind of fallen in like with Yoga – something I used to think was stupid and hipstery.

Lowlights:

  • I lost my best friend, the love of my life, and the guy I thought I was going to spend my life with (those are all descriptions of one person, not three different people). To borrow a classic cliche, my heart is broken and feels like it will never be whole again.

Looking Forward:

  • I know this makes me a political nerd, but the presidential cycle will be exciting and chaotic – all things I love in politics.
  • I am planning a December trip – I don’t know where yet, but I love the planning process. Maybe it will be Eastern Europe, or Argentina or someplace else entirely. Stay tuned.
  • My niece is nearly two, adorable and wickedly smart. She is at the age where everything coming out of her mouth is hysterical, even when I don’t understand it.
  • I am making an effort to try new things. Now that I’ve surprised myself by liking yoga, I’ve signed up for a stand-up paddle class in a week. Stay tuned for more on that as well.
  • When I feel sad, it sometimes seems like there is no way things will turn around. Rationally, I know that isn’t true. The rational part of my brain knows that life is full of surprises and some of them are bound to be good ones. I am looking forward to being positively surprised.

Happy birthday to me!

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Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)

Hotel points allow me to stay in hotels I never would be able to stay in otherwise. For some people, a bed is a bed no matter where they are. But I confess: I like luxury. I like being updated to a suite. Correction: I love being updated to a suite. I love sitting in a beautiful lobby, enjoying free wifi that actually works and relaxing on a sumptuous couch.

I loved our hotel in Cusco. Especially after the damp, dank excuse for a hotel we stayed at in Aguas Calientes.

After our visit to Machu Picchu, we made our way to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas, located at a breathtaking 11,500 feet. Cusco overflows with its Inca and colonial past. And our hotel in Cusco was no different.

SPG’s Palacio del Inka is located in central Cusco, a seven minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, in an old monastery. The entire hotel reaks of colonial elegance – medieval columns, rich, dark colors, velvet upholstery, ornate decorations, and stone floors.

Cusco map

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When we checked in, I was pleasantly surprised to find out we had been upgraded to a suite despite my lack of status. The suite consisted of two separate rooms — a separate living room area with a couch, desk, chairs and a television, and the bedroom — which had its own television. And get this — we had two bathrooms!

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The living room part of our suite

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The bedroom

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The master bathroom

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The view of Cusco from our window

Needless to say, we had an amazing stay. Thank you Starwood!

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The One Where I Finally Get To Use My Club Carlson Points

The Club Carlson credit card is one of the sweetest deals out there for the points obsessed. If you have the credit card, you get a second night free at any Club Carlson hotel when you pay for your first night with points.

This is an incredible deal, bit I’ve had the Club Carlson credit card for a year and a half and never took advantage of this perk.

The problem is there aren’t that many great Club Carlson properties (Radisson, Park Plaza) in America and South America. The best and most Club Carlson properties are in Europe, and I haven’t been to Europe since New Years 2013.

So when my friends Jen and Peter sent me a save the date for their wedding in Philadelphia months ago, I quickly called the Radisson Blu in Philadelphia and booked two nights for myself – the second night being free.

And it was totally worth it. (The wedding was nice too.)

The hotel has gone through a modern upgrade, and when I walked into the lobby my jaw dropped. High-end modern furniture is my undoing, and I wanted to steal all the furniture for my apartment.

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My room was large, comfortable and had more than enough outlets for all my technological gadgets.

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As a gold member, I got upgraded to the lounge floor where they serve breakfast and evening snacks daily.

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The hotel is also in a fun part of town, and while I have some serious gripes with Philadelphia (the dirt, the crime, the homelessness), there are about three to five pleasant blocks. I tried out a yoga class and managed to squeeze in some quality Barnes and Noble time.

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Yes, I read all of these. No, this is not abnormal behavior for me.

As I explore my options for my next big trip, I’m wondering if it is time to return to Europe so I can enjoy my Club Carlson credit card some more.

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Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu

We had grand plans to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and get to Machu Picchu for sunrise. That did not happen. By 6 a.m. we were seated on the bus, marveling as it winded its way up the mountain for the next half and hour.

The line was a little long, but I found some amazingly colorful birds to distract me from the morning chill.

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Remember to bring your passport!

We finally set our eyes on the majestic Machu Picchu at about 7 a.m.

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Since we were too cheap to hire a guide we wandered around at our own pace snapping way too many pictures and waiting for the sun to peak out over the mountaintop (I was freezing).

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This is one of my favorite pictures, taken by my friend Lisa.

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I developed a minor obsession with llamas.

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*IMG_4322After I took my thousandth picture of Machu Picchu, a nice couple from New York walked by with their guide and we started eavesdropping on their tour. Clearly, we were not as discreet as we thought because the husband invited us to crash their tour. So we shrugged our shoulders and said why not?

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Our new friends

To be honest with you, I was doing more snapping than listening, but I vaguely remember the guide talking about the Temple of the Sun, and it seemed important so I took a picture.

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But I really cared more about the llamas.

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And the terraces. I love terraces.

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*IMG_4641At 9:45 a.m. we left our impromptu tour group and made our way to Wayna Picchu for our 10:00 a.m. hike. This would be a good time to mention that Lisa hates heights, particularly heights involving unstable steps and narrow ledges. I should also mention that the hike up Wayna Picchu is literally stone steps the entire way. Except for the narrow tunnel at the very end and the rickety ladder. To Lisa’s credit, she agreed to try it, and despite the occasional whimpers from her general direction, she hiked up and down in one piece.

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Waiting to let the macho hikers go first.

The hike is supposed to take about one hour up and one hour down, but we were a) on the slow side and b) taking a lot of pictures, so it definitely took us longer. The views from the top are pretty awesome.

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That crazy windy road is the path the bus takes up to Machu Picchu!

At the end of the trail, you’ll have to squeeze through a tiny tunnel, climb a ladder, and slide across a rock that overlooks a pretty steep drop. Lisa gave me a look that said, “I’m going to kill you,” but she slid across like a pro.

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Perhaps the scariest part is the very narrow, very steep series of steps you need to climb down to return to the main trail. But if you have plenty of meat on your butt (guilty), it’s not as bad as it looks. Just sit down and slide down carefully.

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By the time we finished the hike, we were pretty tired and dirty. Remember, we had been up since 5:30 a.m. and we had spent a good six hours exploring the ruins. Really, all we could think about was how much we wanted to take a shower. There is nothing quite as disgusting as sunscreen mixed with dirt embedded in your pores. We made our way slowly to the exit, snapping our last photos of the famous Machu Pichu. We got on a bus at around 3:00 p.m. and our historic day was done.

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Practicalities: As I mentioned in Part 6, entrance tickets to Wayna Picchu are limited to 400 people a day. If you miss out, you can hike Machu Picchu mountain. Based on my research, the hike to the top of Machu Picchu mountain is somewhat longer but the views are prettier since you are looking down on Wayna Picchu and the surrounding ruins. The advantage of hiking Wayna Picchu is that when you show friends your pictures, you can point to the famous mountain overlooking the Machu Picchu ruins and say: “I hiked to the top of that!”

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Other practicalities: Bathrooms and food/water are available outside the park near the entrance so plan accordingly. Additionally, the bathrooms cost a sole per visit and no amount of begging will get you in without payment. You can buy water right outside the bathroom, but a small bottle will cost you 8 soles so bring water with you if you’re cheap. Finally, you can stamp your passport with a Machu Picchu stamp, which is rather silly but super fun.

 

 

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Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?

Getting to Machu Picchu is not that hard. But it sometimes seems like the Peruvian government goes out of its way to make it difficult.

The first thing you need to do is decide whether you are taking a guided Inca trail hike to Machu Picchu or the train with the rest of humanity. Either way, make this decision in advance especially if you decide to hike because there are a limited number of passes and I’m told they sell out quickly. You also need to decide if you want to purchase entrance to the Wayna Picchu (also called Huayna Picchu) hike. Wayna Picchu is the famous mountain in the backdrop of all the Machu Picchu pictures. They only allow 400 people up a day, 200 at 7 a.m. and 200 at 10 a.m. Entrance costs an additional $10.00.

We chose the coward’s route for a number of reasons: 1) We didn’t want to spend $600+ on a guided hike. 2) We didn’t want to sleep in tents. 3) We were nervous about climbing 4,000+ feet  at an altitude of 12,000 feet. 4) We didn’t want to spend half our vacation on the Inca trail. There were a number of other sites we wanted to see in Peru and hiking the Inca trail is a sizable time commitment.

The government limits the number of Machu Picchu entrance tickets to 2,500 a day, so buy your tickets as soon as you know your schedule. Buying the entrance tickets is probably the hardest part of getting to Machu Picchu. The site is in Spanish, and it frequently refuses to accept credit cards. Note: You can set the site to English, but it will only proceed to payment in Spanish. Yes, the appropriate reaction is this:

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We used this very helpful site to navigate the language barrier and other quirks. The site refused my credit card twice, but Lisa managed to get approval after she called her credit card company. It is important to note that the site will issue you a reservation slip before it issues tickets. The reservation slip is not the same as tickets, and will not gain you entrance to Machu Picchu. Make sure you receive and print out tickets, which will look like this:

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Note: Our tickets say Machupicchu + Huaynapicchu 2G 10:00 which means we purchased tickets for the Huayna Picchu hike at 10:00 a.m.

If all else fails, you can use a travel agency to book your tickets.

Next up, we booked our train tickets from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. In the olden days, there was only one train company. Today, there are two (PeruRail and IncaRail) leaving from Cusco, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. And among these companies, the trains vary from basic to nicer, to downright luxurious (and expensive). We ended up choosing our train based on our schedule which is how we ended up in the slightly more expensive Vista Dome train through Peru Rail. The Vista Dome features ceiling windows with slightly better views and a hysterical fashion show on the way home.

A very important note that we did not see mentioned on the many blogs we poured over: Officially, the trains to Machu Picchu limit the amount of luggage you can take to 10 kilos (22 lbs or so). You can pay to store your luggage at the train station (which works if you are leaving and returning to the same station) or you can fork over a hefty sum to have your luggage transferred to our next hotel. That is what we did. As we boarded the train, however, we saw plenty of people with real luggage, so it is not at all clear how much they enforce this rule. Carry at your own risk.

The train is comfortable and the view is pretty. Almost all the seats feature two rows facing each other with a table in the middle so make friends. We met a lovely couple from Canada and ended up hiking with them the next day.

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Enjoying the train ride to Aguas Calientes.

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Lisa and I with our Canadian friends!

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The fashion show on the return train trip.

When you get to Aguas Calientes, you will have two options for actually getting up to the famous Machu Picchu. You can walk up – have fun with that – it takes about an hour and a half. Or you can pay $19 ($38 round trip) to take a bus up the windy road. We bought our bus tickets as soon as we arrived on our way to our hotel.

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The buses start as early as 5:30 a.m. and go continuously throughout the day. There are also all sorts of rules about what you can bring into Machu Picchu – no food, no disposable water bottles, no walking sticks — but we saw people violating these rules left and right. My advice: Put any contraband in your backpack as you go through the entrance and you should be fine.

 

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Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly

The salt pans in Maras was one of my favorite trips in Peru. There’s not much to do but to walk along the salt pans and admire the unusual beauty of the sun shining on the salty water. But I had never seen anything quite like it, and that is part of the reason I love traveling: I love being continuously surprised by the world.

Practicalities: We needed to be at the train station in Ollantaytambo (Olly) by 3:00 p.m. to catch our train to Machu Picchu. That gave us about half a day to tour the salt pans in Maras and the ruins in nearby Moray. While it is possible to see these sights using a mixture of public transportation, random taxis and the legs God gave us, I balked at the idea of taking random taxis in my valiant effort to avoid getting kidnapped. Plus, we had our luggage with us. Instead, our hotel called a driver for us who picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 a.m., drove us to the salt pans and to Moray, and then dropped us off at the train station in Olly, while we left our luggage in the trunk. This cost us 120 soles ($43.00) which isn’t dirt cheap, but split between two people, isn’t terrible either. Note: You will also have to pay for admission to the salt pans and the Moray ruins.

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The salt pans is truly a sight to see. Based on my limited research (AKA Wikipedia), this is how it works: Salty water from a natural stream flows through a series of channels into terraced polygon-shaped puddles of water. The intense sun dries up the water, and the salt crystalizes on the surface, allowing locals to mine the deposits. While that may sound rather technical and uninteresting, the view is stunning. See for yourself.

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The taxi pulled over so we could take a picture of the salt pans from above.

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Mmmmm. Tasty.

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After the salt pans, our driver took us to Moray, home to Incan ruins consisting of impressive terraced circles that look like modern day crop circles. It’s not clear what the circles were used for, but you can hike down and speculate for yourself.

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My friend, Lisa, sitting at the bottom of one of the circles, enjoying the morning sun.

The views of the surrounding area were equally, if not, more beautiful.

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Part 4: A Town Called Olly

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…

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The first thing you need to know about Ollantaytambo is that we could not pronounce it. At all. I am certain every time we tried we screwed it up. It shall henceforth be known as Olly.

The second thing you need to know is that Olly is famous today for being the starting point for the intrepid souls hiking the Inca Trail and the less intrepid souls taking the train to Aguas Calientes. But it is also a perfect example of an Inca city, having been inhabited continuously since the 13th century.

Today, the small Sacred Valley town revolves mostly around its tourists trappings. The main plaza is surrounded by restaurants, inns, and stalls filled with Peruvian crafts.

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We came to Olly not to hike the Inca Trail (sleeping in a tent for four nights? No thank you.), but to visit the ancient ruins that served both as a fortress and a temple to the Incas.

When we arrived in Olly, we noticed a couple of things. First, it is even smaller than Urubamba. Second, the city felt older, perhaps because it is. Instead of partially paved roads, we found narrow cobblestone pathways, a reminder of the ancient city that once was.

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We spent the majority of the afternoon climbing the steps to the mountainous ruins and looking down on the city. The scenery was beautiful, and since our thighs were screaming out in pain, we took many breaks to simply sit and enjoy the view. What can I say? I’m a sucker for mountains and ruins.

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Practicalities: We took a taxi from our hotel in Urubamba for 40 soles since we had slept late and wanted to get started on our day. The taxi is comfortable and will stop along the way so you can take pictures. The total drive time is about half an hour. On the way back, I convinced Lisa to travel like the locals. After asking three people if they spoke English I found the bus stop in Ollantaytambo. Bus is a generous term. In the Sacred Valley, buses are actually collectivos – vans that only leave when they are stuffed to the gills with passengers and drop people off along its designated route, all for the super cheap price of a sole and a half (or 53 cents).

I’m not entirely sure why but I found the experience incredibly entertaining. In some collectivos, the seats fill up and passengers are left standing as the van hugs the curves of Peru’s winding roads. Personally, I thought the collectivos were a bargain, and completely worth feeling like a sardine in a can for a short ride.

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Part 3: When in Urubamba…

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever

Urubamba map

The town of Urubamba with my commentary

The town of Urubamba is small, but filled with quirky surprises. The hotel concierge provided us with a map and kindly pointed out the one place we could buy bottled water with a credit card. We became frequent visitors of said gas station (see above map).

Most of the roads are narrow and questionably paved. There does not appear to be any perceptible rules of traffic. Cars drive and people walk, hopefully not at the same time and not in the same place. There also doesn’t appear appear to be a concept of one-way versus two-way traffic. Basically, if a driver wants to go down a particular road, he just goes. We found this terribly confusing, but when in Urubamba…

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The houses are tiny, and many are falling apart. The citizens look overwhelmingly tired, but persistent. We were amazed by their ability to carry everything on their backs, from their children, to packages, to grass.

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Even in its smallest and poorest towns, Peru remains a country of color. Whether it’s the bright textiles they sell, or the bright blue and red doorways, or the random murals on street walls, they embrace color as a way of life. And so did we.

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After a short stroll, we made our way to the market, where you can purchase all sorts of fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and grains — some you didn’t even know existed. The children run around while the parents (usually the mothers) hawk their products.

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Someone is not happy…

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My friend Lisa buying some delicious mangos at the local market

Urubamba pics side by side


 

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PART 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy

About two years ago I read a review of SPG’s Tambo del Inka in Peru’s Sacred Valley, and I decided that one day I’d go to Peru and stay in that hotel. Oh sure, there are other reasons to go to Peru. Machu Picchu comes to mind. But I’d like to add this hotel to the list.

As a category five, the hotel cost us 12,000 points a night for two nights – instead of paying $300 per night. When we walked in, it was too early to go to our room, so we enjoyed the free wifi in the enormous lobby and lounged outdoors on some very comfortable couches overlooking the river.

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Tambo del Inka is designed as a natural oasis – high ceilings with big glass windows, lots of natural wood and light, and bright Peruvian colors. When you walk outside the hotel, you are greeted by a beautiful fountain and the mountains overlooking the Sacred Valley.

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Our room was similarly pleasant. It was fairly large considering I do not have status and we did not get upgraded. By European standards, you might say our room was positively huge. The hotel also supplied our room daily with fresh bottle of water, which goes a long way in my book.

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Everything about the hotel enhanced our sense of relaxation. We almost didn’t want to leave and had to force ourselves to go outside and explore the surrounding towns. Sometimes, a hotel is just a place to sleep as you explore a new city or country. Tambo del Inka was much, much more.

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