Our Budget Machu Picchu Adventure
When I was filling up the Amazing Race application form back in 2011, there was a question asking "What country and place would you most like to visit?" and I remember clearly that my answer was Machu Picchu in Peru! Machu Picchu has always been on my travel bucket list but it has always seemed to be just a distant dream coz South America is so far away and I thought I would only be able to afford traveling there when I'm older (richer)…haha!
Couple backpacks for the backpacking couple...lol! Proud of hubby for packing less and traveling light! <3
How we got our return flight from the US to Peru for only $92/pax:
I don't remember why but somehow I was randomly looking on United’s website for award travels in February and found that it is actually possible to get a return ticket from the US to Peru for 40,000 miles. Thanks to my previous travels on SIA, Lufthansa and United, and several hotel stays over the last 2 years, I accumulated just enough points for this trip. Hubby also had enough points from traveling to Malaysia over the last few years. So we decided to make this trip happen and started looking into the available dates.
In fact, it wasn't easy finding 2 award tickets from Huntsville to Cusco (closest airport to Machu Picchu) and the dates were quite restricted. Spent few days searching for several possible dates and finally decided on flying in directly to Cusco (skipping Lima) and spend a week around the area. After all, our main purpose of this trip was to visit Machu Picchu and we couldn’t take off too many days from work anyway. Besides, it requires 40,000 miles flying in to either Lima or Cusco, might as well save on one domestic return ticket right? In my opinion, the best use of a flat rate award is to travel from a local domestic airport to another foreign domestic airport. Gotta get the most value out of it since it hadn't been easy accumulating all these miles…haha! Our tickets would have cost us $1,400/pax but instead, we paid only $92/pax for the taxes. Oh how I love airline miles! =)
Long journey ahead but we were excited to set foot in South America for the very first time! Checking off my 5th continent! =D
May 25-26 (Sun-Mon): Loooong journey...Huntsville-Houston-Lima-Cusco-Ollantaytambo-Aguas Calientes
Speaking about flights, our flight was changed twice since we booked it. Our original route was Huntsville-Denver-Panama-Lima-Cusco; Cusco-Lima-Panama-DC-Huntsville, but the final route turned out to be Huntsville-Houston-Lima-Cusco; Cusco-Lima-Panama-DC-Nashville. Someone pointed out that my trips always seem to take more than 24 hours to get there, well that’s true for most of my international travels coz I depart from smaller city so transits are unavoidable, and I guess that’s the tradeoff for traveling cheap…haha!!
Our route ~ 1pm: Huntsville-Houston (2hr) ; 4.30pm Houston-Lima (6.5hr) ; 5.50am Lima-Cusco (1.4hr).
Come to think about it, even though hubby and I have traveled together several times in the past 4 years, this trip was our first time traveling long haul together. It’s great to have a ‘permanent’ travel partner now and I must say that we've learnt to be better travel partners over the years. Thanks hubby for accompanying me in fulfilling my wanderlust!! <3
Hubby was very happy with the in-seat entertainment coz he wasn't expecting the flight to be as nice as this. We've learned to keep our expectations low when traveling on American flights, especially after experiencing Singapore Airlines. =P
Finally made it to Peru after traveling for 10 hours, but we still had an overnight transit before taking our last flight to Cusco the next morning. Since it was only about 6 hours, we decided to spend the night at Lima airport. Found a quieter (apart from the noise of vacuum cleaners) corner to rest for the night. Also collected our Perurail tickets that we bought online beforehand.
Flew on Avianca from Lima to Cusco. Short flight but kinda surprised to be served with some snacks and beverage.
I was really tired and sleepy during this flight but the amazing views from the plane kept me awake.
Made me realize how mountainous Peru is! That explains why terraces were so important in the Incan architectures.
Made it to Cusco at 7.15am but our plan was to get outta Cusco as soon as possible to avoid altitude sickness. Cusco is 11,000ft (3400m) above sea level and it's recommended for tourists to acclimate at somewhere with lower altitude. Hopped on a taxi (12soles/$4) to get to the collectivo (van) station.
First impression of Cusco...lots of dirt and seemed like there are a lot of construction-in-progress. The streets were pretty busy coz we arrived during rush hour and I noticed almost all of the traffic polices are female.
There were a lot of collectivos waiting to fill their vans up at the station but we were lucky to find one that costs only 10 soles ($3) per person and it was almost full so we didn't have to wait at all! P.S. The collectivos don’t run by a strict timetable, they just leave whenever it's full.
Being a planning freak, I prefer having everything booked in advance but I was surprised how easy and convenient it was to hop on a local transportation here, and you don't really have to worry about being scammed, especially when you're traveling with a van-full of locals. Best of all, it's so cheap!! Only $4 for the 2 hours journey from Cusco to Ollantaytambo...even cheaper than our 15 minutes taxi ride!!!
I was dozing off in the packed van but once again forced myself to stay awake to enjoy the scenery of Sacred Valley...not knowing that we'll go through this same road for 3 more times in the next few days...lol!! Anyway, I think I figured out why this whole region is called Sacred Valley. As I mentioned earlier, Peru is such a mountainous country, but surprisingly this area has a lot of flat lands and the Urubamba river flowing through, making it possible to farm and become the heartland of the Inca Empire.
Made it to the quaint little town of Ollantaytambo around 10am and had some time to kill before catching our train to Aguas Calientes at 12.58pm.
Lunch at La Esquina Cafe. It was good to finally have a 'real' meal after traveling for 24 hours!
Stocked up on our water supply and bought 2 huge 2.5L water to prep for our hike up to Machu Picchu the next day. I usually don't buy bottled water but since we can't afford to fall sick here, we'd rather be safe than sorry. =P
Boarded Perurail's Expedition train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Taking a train is pretty much the only way to get to Machu Picchu, unless you don't mind spending hours walking and taking various modes of transportation to save money. P.S. Perurail is a monopoly in this region, and that means the price of the train ticket is crazily expensive. This 1.5 hour train ride costed us $59/pax one way. The train is comfortable and nice, but still kinda ridiculous if you compare it to our 2 hours collectivo ride that costed only $4.
We were lucky that our seat was on the left side of the train, so we had the better view of the mountains and Urubamba river all along the journey. =)
Finally finally finally...after traveling for almost 26 hours in various modes of transports (flight-cab-van-train), we made it to our final destination...AGUAS CALIENTES!!! Our hostel host was already waiting for us at the station holding a card with my name on it. =) Stayed at El Tambo hostel which was centrally located near the main square. $50/night for a queen room with ensuite bathroom and includes breakfast, not bad at all!
This town is the gateway for all the tourists who wants to visit Machu Picchu. The town itself is very small but quite pretty coz it's surrounded by mountains and has a river running through it.
Since this is such a touristy town, everything here is quite pricey. But we found this chinese restaurant that's quite reasonably priced. Ordered wonton soup, fried rice, and noodles for a total of 25 soles/$8. Not bad eh? At this point, we were both so tired and the only thing we needed was a good night's rest before hiking up MP the next day. So that's a wrap for day 1 and 2 of our trip, stay tuned for the next post...Machu Picchu!!