A trip to Perú

Our experience with Go Ahead Tours

It wasn’t (isn’t) totally post pandemic yet, but last July, Gary and I decided it was about time to go—somewhere. Machu Picchu had been at the top of our list for quite a while. But what actually made me committed was the way that Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa described the Cuzco Plaza in El pez en el agua (A Fish in the Water), a two-fold memoir in which chapters about his childhood and youth alternate with about his bid for the Peruvian presidency in 1990:

It was sunset, and a burning sun lit up the foothills of the mountain range and the Carmenca slope. The San Blas roofs and the pre-Hispanic stones of churches and convents looked as if they were covered in flames. There were no clouds in the pure indigo blue of the sky where a few stars already twinkled. The crowd that filled the huge plaza seemed about to burst with enthusiasm and in the transparent air of the sierra, the men’s weathered faces and the vivid colors of the women’s skirts and the banners and the flags waved by so many hands were very clear and seemed within the reach of anyone who, from the stage raised in the cathedral’s atrium, stretched out his arms to touch them.

(My translation. See original text in Spanish at the end.)

I found a company, Go Ahead Tours, that had great reviews online (rightly so, it turned out) and reserved our spot. Our excellent tour director, Raul Quillahuaman, was in contact with us way before the trip started and provided extremely detailed information about the Covid procedures, the paperwork necessary to enter Peru, what clothes to take, etc.

It concerned me a bit that we would be arriving at Jorge Chávez International Airport around midnight. Fortunately, it was busy and lit up. A Go Ahead Tours bus driver was waiting for us and took us to the hotel, a tall new building called Casa Andina Premium in the Miraflores district.

The next day we walked around Lima and explored the Plaza de Armas, which was impressive. It was quite cold that morning, our first one in Perú!

We also visited the cathedral and the San Francisco Church. I found the covered balconies (I think they are called “balcones teatinos”) fascinating!

Gary was delighted when the local guide took us to the archeological site Huaca Pullana—a clay pyramid built on several platforms with scattered pits, huts and other structures. Here is a reproduction of the ritual offerings that used to be made there:

Later, we took a plane to Cuzco. The magnificent Andes were so close that we could see glaciers from the window.

As a side note, people were wearing masks at the airport, on the plane and in public places as well.

Our group was eclectic: a lawyer, a college professor, a retired paralegal, three college students from India with their parents, a housewife and her son… “Mi familia,” Raul called us.

We arrived in Cuzco, a site recognized by UNESCO as the ancient capital of the Inca empire. The hotel was another Casa Andina Premium property but very different from the first one. Located on the Plazoleta Limacpampa, it was an old, renovated hacienda with ample rooms. There were several inner courtyards with fountains and an assortment of plants. Best part: it was walking distance from the Plaza de Armas and a number of restaurants and markets.

Gary and our Tour Director, Raúl, at Casa Andina.

Alma Restaurant and Bar provided a fantastic culinary experience. Most of the meals were included, but one night we were on our own and had beef with vegetables (tomatoes, mushrooms and corn), soup and desserts, and the total for two was around thirty dollars. All meals were served with bread, butter and salsa huancaina, and the breakfast buffet offered coffee (espresso, cappuccino and café con leche, my favorite) yogurt, at least seven kinds of quinoa, sausages, patties, made-to-order eggs and fresh fruit. The restaurant was elegant in a colonial style kind of way.

Alma Restaurant and Bar in Casa Andina in Cuzco

Our Cuzco guide was JJ (Juan José), who took us to the Santo Domingo church and later to a covered market, Mercado San Pedro.

JJ at Mercado San Pedro

The market was an amazing sensory experience in terms of colors, textures and above all, flavors. I highly recommend you visit that place, either on a tour or on your own. Try the local cheese! Ah, sabroso.

Say cheese!

Another memorable visit was the one we paid to the Sacsayhuamán ruins—huge stone walls built on a hill. I had seen them on tv before, but nothing compares to standing next to them. No one knows exactly how the megalithic stones were quarried and placed in their present location. Indeed, they are said to be so well fitted that not even a piece of paper can be inserted in the joints. Not that we could try—the remains of the walls are protected by ropes and you can only see them from a few feet away. The walls were supposedly covered in gold plates, some of which were used to pay Atahualpa’s ransom. And the remaining plates? Quién sabe…

It was raining that day, which apparently is a rare occurrence in the Peruvian winter. Fine with me, though. The light rain provided a nicely spooky feel to the place!

The Sacsayhuamán ruins

Back to Cuzco, we walked around the Plaza de Armas. It was magnificent, as expected! There are fountains, which seemed to be ubiquitous in Peru, and big gardens where local people sat or walk around.

La Plaza de Cuzco

JJ and Raúl took us to a local store where vendors explained to us the difference between “baby alpaca” wool (sheared from the neck and chest area of an alpaca) and “maybe alpaca” wool, probably machine-made with who knows what. The real baby alpaca is not only softer but also way cooler than its imitations. Gary and I got a couple of sweaters there.

Later we visited the village of Chinchero and made a stop al Balkon del Inca, a textile coop ran by Quechuan women who demonstrated their spinning and dying techniques.

Demonstration at Balkon del Inka co-op

The views around Chinchero were magnificent.

Next stop was Ollantaytambo (“tambo” means “place of rest,” the guide informed us). Some people explored the fortress stone walls and walked around with JJ. But I was tired (and quite full after a great lunch) so I stayed at the base. There’s a lovely coffee house where we bought chocolate ice cream, smooth and creamy, that reminded me of Häagen-Dazs.

From Ollantaytambo we boarded a train to Machu Picchu, or actually to the village of Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the mountain.

From the train

We spent the night in another rather nice hotel, El Mapi by Inkaterra. There were many expensive shops and the whole place had an Aspen-esque air.

The next morning, after a short but winding bus drive to the mountain, we were divided into two groups: those who would take the longest and hardest route and those who preferred the easiest, shortest one. You can imagine which one I took. Gary could have gone with the more adventurous team, but (bless his buttons!) he decided to stay with me. Our mountain guide, Irene, was super helpful.

Irene, our mountain guide

We visited the Temple of the Three Windows and the Chamber of Ornaments, and other places.

It was hot, despite being the winter in the Southern Hemisphere. I am happy we didn’t go in their summer! Maybe we will return someday so Gary can explore the whole mountain and the Inca trail.

We had lunch at a restaurant in Aguas Calientes and then boarded the train to Urubamba. On the train, we were treated to a dance performance and enjoyed wonderful scenic views of the Sacred Valley.

Performance on the train

We stayed two nights in Sonesta Posada del Inca on Plaza Manco II, a former convent where most rooms had plaques with the names and some interesting information about the nuns who used to live and pray there.

That was the highlight of our trip. I feel a little guilty, as it should have been Machu Picchu, but the quietness and peace of the convent-turned-hotel was hard to match.

Relaxing at the convent-turned-hotel

The restaurant was great and so was the coffee house where we had the best cappuccino in the whole tour.

Gary waiting for his cappuccino

The hotel has preserved the original chapel.

Chapel inside the hotel complex

As we were leaving Cuzco, we stopped in another village and bought some beautiful pieces of jewelry like this silver Pachamama pendant and chain.

Behind the store was an oven that reminded me of New Mexico kivas, where the most delicious ham and cheese empanadas were cooked.

Our tour director and the empanadas

All in all, it was a fantastic experience and I look forward to taking another tour with Go Ahead!

From El pez en el agua:

Era el atardecer y un sol ardiente encendía las faldas de la cordillera y la cuesta de Carmenca. Los tejados de San Blas y las piedras prehispánicas de iglesias y conventos echaban llamas. En el purísimo azul añil del cielo no había nubes y destellaban ya algunas estrellas. La apretada muchedumbre que cubría la enorme plaza parecía a punto de estallar de entusiasmo y en el aire transparente de la sierra las caras curtidas de los hombres y los vivos colores de las polleras femeninas y los carteles y banderas que agitaba ese bosque de manos eran muy nítidos y parecían al alcance de cualquiera que, desde el estrado levantado en el atrio de la catedral, hubiera estirado el brazo para tocarlos.

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