LAND OF THE INCA: EXPLORING PERU WITH NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPEDITIONS

Over Thanksgiving week, my family and I decided to forego the American traditions of turkey and stuffing and took off on a trip around Peru with National Geographic Expeditions (in partnership with Lindblad Expeditions). The trip we took is called Peru: Land of the Inca: 8 days exploring ancient Incan settlements throughout the mountains and valleys of the Peruvian Andes, topped off with a two-day visit to Machu Picchu.

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Machu Picchu has been at the top of my travel to do list for so long, I was ecstatic to visit this historic site. Note that this trip does not include the rigorous 4-day hike along the Inca trail, but does offer plenty of opportunity for physical activity, as well as a diverse itinerary covering Peruvian history and tradition – plus a lot of delicious food and luxurious accommodations!

Day 1: Arriving in Peru

Our first day was spent traveling to Lima, Peru from New York. LATAM Airlines operates a daily direct flight to/from NYC’s JFK airport and Lima, however both flights are overnight. On the way to Peru, we opted for a day flight, so we flew American Airlines from JFK to Miami, and then from Miami to Peru. It made for quite a long travel day! We arrived in Lima around 9 pm where we were met by a National Geographic representative, who escorted us across the street to the Wyndham Costa del Sol Airport Hotel (for a quick night’s sleep before our flight to Cusco in the morning).

Day 2: Flight to Cusco / Sacred Valley

After meeting the rest of the group (19 of us in total) and a quick briefing in the hotel by our Tour Manager, Rocio, we were back at the Lima airport for our quick hour-long flight to Cusco.

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Flying over the Peruvian Andes on our way to Cusco

Cusco actually has the highest altitude (11,100 feet) of any of the places we were set to visit on the trip, so in order to acclimatize, we immediately headed out of Cusco and drove down into the Sacred Valley (~9,000 feet in altitude). In Cusco, we were also met by our guide, Katherina who immediately began sharing her abundant knowledge of Peru and the Incas.

Our first stop in the Sacred Valley was the archaeological site of Moray. Famished after a morning of traveling, we stopped for lunch at a beautiful restaurant near the site called El Parador de Moray. We enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch in this gorgeous setting and I had my first sip of coca tea – an herbal tea made from the coca leaf which is supposed to help prevent altitude sickness.

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El Parador de Moray – our first lunch stop
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Some fresh coca tea to fight off altitude sickness

After lunch, we spent a little time admiring the agricultural terraces at the site of Moray, which date to 1400 AD and were believed to be used by the Incas to experiment with planting certain crops at varying altitudes and with different soil mixtures.

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The Incan agricultural terraces at Moray date to 1400 AD

In the afternoon, we drove further into the Sacred Valley and stopped in the town of Urubamba where we would be spending two nights. Kati first took us on a tour of a local food market and then to the pottery studio of Pablo Seminario, a renowned Peruvian pottery artist who has modernized ancient Peruvian pottery techniques.

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Local vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables at the market in Urubamba
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An artist at work at Pablo Seminario’s studio

In the evening, we checked into Hotel Sol y Luna, a Relais & Chateaux property in Urubamba. Each guest room is actually an individual “casita” nestled among a beautiful blooming garden buzzing with hummingbirds. We spent the evening at the hotel and enjoyed a delicious dinner at the property’s upscale restaurant Killa Wasi – where we had our first taste of guinea pig, alpaca, and trout ceviche – all traditional Peruvian dishes.

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Our casitas at Hotel Sol y Luna
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Picture-perfect pool at Hotel Sol y Luna
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Fresh trout ceviche with Tiger’s Milk, sweet potato puree and corn nuts – at Killa Wasi

Day 3: Sacred Valley

The first item on the agenda for Day 3 was a lecture from Peter Frost, an archaeologist, independent scholar and National Geographic grantee who has studied Incan sites in Peru for over 30 years. This was truly one of the highlights of the trip and one of the major benefits of traveling on a National Geographic tour – it was as if instead of watching educational programming on the National Geographic channel, we had stepped into the television and were living it ourselves. Peter shared his opinions on Incan architecture – how they cut perfect stones and moved massive weight over long distances – as well as Incan tradition and research on new Inca sites that he has uncovered in the valley. Following the lecture, Peter accompanied us to the nearby Inca site of Ollantaytambo, where we saw the massive stones in person.

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The archaeological site of Ollantaytambo
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Temple of the Sun at Ollantaytambo

After walking around the site for about 2 hours, we headed off to lunch at Hacienda Huayoccari, a 17th century estate that has been in the same family for generations. We explored the family’s private museum while sipping on our very first Pisco sour – a traditional Peruvian cocktail made with Pisco, lime juice, egg white, and bitters. Following lunch, we also had the chance to explore the beautiful garden on the estate.

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Lunch views at Hacienda Huayoccari

Before heading back to our hotel, we drove down to the ranch part of the estate to see a few cultural demonstrations: first, of the Peruvian Paso horse (which takes a prancing step); second, of the Peruvian “Marinera” dance; and third, a weaving demonstration by a women’s non-profit group that specializes in creating traditional Peruvian textiles using Inca techniques.

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The Peruvian Paso horse
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The Marinera dance in action

For dinner that evening, we enjoyed a more casual meal at the Wayra Ranch at Hotel Sol y Luna, accompanied by a 20-minute theatrical performance about the Incan gods.

Day 4: Machu Picchu

Today we were up early and all very excited for our trip to Machu Picchu!! We drove back to the town of Ollantaytambo, where we boarded the Peru Rail train to the small town of Aguas Calientes (~1 hour 45 minutes). From the town, we boarded a shuttle up the steep mountain to Machu Picchu!

Most visitors to the site, stay in the town of Aguas Calientes and need to take the shuttle up and back to explore Machu Picchu, however we were lucky enough to spend the night at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, located just outside the gates of the park. After checking in, we entered the park to explore. Given that it was earlier in the day, the park was quite crowded, however I was still immediately overcome by the fact that I was standing in this magical place that I had dreamed of for so long. After a quick for lunch at the hotel to avoid the heat of the day, we returned to Machu Picchu later that afternoon for another two hours of exploring. The latter part of the day was much less crowded, less buggy and more enjoyable. [Pro Tip: Machu Picchu was the only place we were attacked by mosquitos and gnats, so cover yourself in bug spray and wear long layers].

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Taking in the magic of Machu Picchu
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Llamas roam freely around the site
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Machu Picchu
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The site is perched precariously on the mountaintop
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Two llamas headed home after a long day’s work

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That evening, we enjoyed a complimentary Pisco sour class and tasting at the Belmond, before indulging in a well-earned meal at the Tampu Restaurant in the hotel.

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Learning to make Pisco sours at the Tampu Bar
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The finished product
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Grilled alpaca for dinner at Tampu Restaurant

Day 5: Machu Picchu / Cusco

Happy Thanksgiving! I was up at the crack of dawn this day to enjoy as much of Machu Picchu as possible. The park opened at 6 am and I wanted to enjoy a morning exploring the site on my own with limited crowds and early light. To be honest, the shuttle buses were already running at ten of 6, so by 6 am there was a line at the entrance! However, it moved quickly, and once inside, I was able to enjoy the peace of the early morning sun with clear blue skies.

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First light at Machu Picchu
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On a clear day, we could see all the surrounding mountains

At 7 am, we rejoined the group for a hike to the Sun Gate – Inti Punku. For hikers trekking the Inca trail all the way into Machu Picchu, the Sun Gate is their last checkpoint and first glimpse of their destination. However, the Sun Gate also makes a perfect half-day hike from Machu Picchu. It’s about 3 miles roundtrip and though steep in parts, the view from the top is well worth it.

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The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate
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Zoomed out view from the Sun Gate
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We ran into a llama crossing on our way back down from the Sun Gate

Alas, the time came to say farewell to Machu Picchu and we headed back down via shuttle bus to the town of Aguas Calientes for a quick lunch at Cafe Inkaterra at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, before boarding the Peru Rail back to Ollanta station. From Ollanta, we re-boarded our bus and drove two hours through scenic valleys to Cusco.

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Children in traditional Peruvian dress at a market we stopped at en route to Cusco

After a long afternoon of traveling, we finally arrived in Cusco and checked into the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, a former monastery that has been converted into a hotel right in the historic center of Cusco. And that night we enjoyed a fabulous (Thanksgiving) dinner at El Tupay restaurant in the hotel, accompanied by two brilliant opera singers.

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Belmond Hotel Monasterio

Day 6: Cusco

As I mentioned in the beginning, Cusco was the highest altitude of the trip and we definitely all felt it. The hotel offers oxygenated rooms for those who need it, or a complimentary 15 minutes using an oxygen tank.

In the morning, we had a full tour of Cusco, including:

  • Coricancha: the most important central temple of the Inca empire. The site was later converted to a church following the Spanish invasion however visitors can still see remnants of the Incan site.
  • Sacsayhuaman: a former Incan temple, and later citadel, located just outside of Cusco to the north.
  • Awana Kancha: home to domesticated Peruvian llama and alpaca (which you can feed and pet) as well as wild Peruvian vicuna. The site includes an extensive gift shop where you can shop textiles dyed and woven from the wool of these animals.
  • Cusco Cathedral: an extremely impressive piece of architecture set at the center of Cusco, the Cusco Cathedral was built by the Spanish in the mid-1600s, however key aspects of Incan tradition and religion are clearly reflected in the design and decor of the church.
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Coricancha, later converted to the Convent of Santo Domingo
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A gateway at Sacsayhuaman
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Getting up close and personal with the llamas and alpacas at Awana Kancha
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The central square of Cusco

After lunch, we had some free time to explore Cusco which we spent shopping for souvenirs and enjoying a cocktail/snack in the courtyard of the Hotel Monasterio.

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Cocktail time at Hotel Monasterio

In the evening, we were free to enjoy dinner anywhere in town. Given the high altitude, we weren’t so hungry, but went out for a tapas-style meal at Limo, where we shared a bunch of small plates. Everything was delicious!

Day 7: Lima

Today was an early wake-up call (4:45 am!) for our flight back to Lima and the last full day of our tour. We arrived in Lima around 9 am and boarded a new bus with our Lima guide, Carla. Our first stop in Lima was the Larco Herrera Museum, a privately-owned museum featuring pre-Columbian art from all over Peru. It was here that we had the opportunity to learn more about the Pre-Incan cultures that dominated the country before the Incan empire took over.

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Facade of the Larco Herrero Museum in Lima
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Stunning gardens at the Larco Herrera Museum

Venturing into the heart of downtown Lima, we had some time to view the central square of the city, before enjoying our final group lunch at a 500-year old Spanish mansion, Casa de Aliaga. We enjoyed some passed hors d’oeuvres and pisco sours while we toured the historic home and were entertained by Kike Pinto, a musician specializing in indigenous instruments of ancient Peru. And for lunch, we enjoyed a delectable final feast all together in the opulent dining room.

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Central Square of Lima
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Kike Pinto performing at Casa Aliaga

After lunch and our tour of Lima, we headed to the beautiful Miraflores neighborhood set along the Pacific ocean where we checked into our final hotel, the Belmond Miraflores Park. This might just be my favorite hotel room of all time.

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Heaven in bed form at the Belmond Miraflores Park
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My luxurious bathroom
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I guess I can handle this view

For our final evening of the trip, we had a free dinner. I had booked reservations months in advance at Astrid y Gaston, ranked the #30 best restaurant in the world. Located inside a 300-year old hacienda in the San Isidro district, Astrid y Gaston features innovative presentations of modern Peruvian cuisine. We enjoyed a fabulous final meal there as a family and recounted our favorite memories from the past week.

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Day 8: Return to New York

Our wake-up call today was even earlier than the day before – 3:45 am! – in order to catch our 7:45 am flight from Lima to Miami and then on to New York. Unfortunately when we awoke at that ungodly hour, we were informed that our flight to Miami was delayed for 12 hours due to mechanical problems. Since this then totally messed up our connection, we were able to switch all of us to the LATAM direct flight that evening. This then gave us a whole day to relax at the Belmond Miraflores Park hotel – enjoying the rooftop pool, the spa, and catching up on some emails in the beautiful lobby library. Finally, much later that evening, we were off to the airport and back to NYC.

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Library in the lobby of the Belmond Miraflores Park
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Lobby bar in the Belmond Miraflores Park

Overall, the trip was absolutely incredible. Except for our flight hiccup on the very last day, the itinerary ran incredibly smoothly and we packed a whole bunch of history, culture and fun into our week in Peru. The National Geographic / Lindblad staff were fabulous and I would definitely travel on one of their trips in the future! We are eyeing the Galapagos Islands for 2017.

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