The summer of 2022 was a rough one for travel, but American Airlines led the way in flight cancellations. We ran into the buzzsaw of American’s incompetence on our way to Peru: we were supposed to depart San Francisco on a Saturday morning and, after a brief layover in Dallas, arrive in Lima shortly after midnight local time. Thanks to American’s inability to properly weight the plane, our connecting flight to Lima was delayed 15 hours, forcing us to spend the night in Dallas and lose the first day of our vacation.
We finally arrived in Arequipa, a lovely city in southern Peru, late in the evening. We checked into our hotel and went straight to Zig Zag for a late dinner. We enjoyed a very tasty meal of alpaca, steak, and chicken, as well as some excellent Peruvian cocktails.
In the morning, we got a quick walking tour of Arequipa. We saw the exteriors of the town’s churches and some of its beautiful courtyards. The highlight was Santa Catalina monastery, a convent created in 1579 by a wealthy Spanish widow for the second daughters of rich Spanish families. The convent is enormous, a true city-within-a-city, with winding cobbled streets and stately rooms for the nuns. It also has an impressive communal laundry and a beautiful garden.
Piling into a van, we started the long drive to Colca Canyon. Along the way we spotted lots of fluffy Andean wildlife, including llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and a mountain rabbit. The road from Arequipa winds high into the Andes, cresting at Mirador de los Volcanes at 16,109 feet (4,910 meters) of elevation. The viewpoint lives up to its name—you can see several towering volcanoes, some of them over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). One of the volcanoes erupted as we soaked in the impressive mountain views.
Descending into Colca Canyon, we reached the Colca Lodge, a beautiful hotel on the north side of the valley. We spent the evening exploring the lodge’s grounds and soaking in the natural hot springs.
The next morning we drove further into Colca Canyon, through the town of Maca, to Mirador Cruz del Cóndor, one of the best places in the world to spot Andean condors. With wingspans approaching 11 feet, the majestic condors are some of the largest flying birds in the world. We got lucky: countless condors were soaring above and below the viewpoint for most of the hour or so we were there. Every time we prepared to leave, another bird (or several) would cruise into view, forcing me to snap just a few more pictures.
We drove back out of the canyon, stopping frequently to absorb its natural beauty. Then we pushed east, passing Lake Lagunillas at 13,900 feet above sea level, and dropping down to the city of Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet of elevation, Titicaca is generally regarded as the world’s highest navigable lake for commercial craft and is the largest lake in South America.
The following day we explored the remarkable cultures of Lake Titicaca. First, we visited the Uros people, who live on floating islands made of reeds. The islands are anchored to the bottom of the lake and typically last 60-80 years before the community builds a new island.
Next we visited Taquile Island, whose people are famous for their textile crafts. We sampled the island’s culture and climbed near its high point at almost 13,300 feet (about 800 feet above the surface of the lake). Then we returned to our boat for the sail back to Puno.
We spent most of the next day on a train, the ten-and-a-half-hour ride from Puno to Cusco with PeruRail’s Titicaca Train. The ride offers spectacular scenery, as well as entertainment including music and dancing, a fashion show, high tea, and cocktail-making lessons. We reached Cusco in time for a late dinner, then stopped by an Irish pub to watch the Warriors win the last game of the NBA finals.
From Cusco we ventured into the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Pisac, where the ruins of a large Inca town dating to the mid-15th century cling to the top of a hill overlooking the valley. We drove on to Ollantaytambo, the site of more stunning Inca ruins, including a remarkable unfinished temple (its construction was interrupted by the Spanish conquest).
Our second day in the Sacred Valley dawned clear and beautiful. We began with a visit to Chinchero, a mountain town known for its textiles, and a demonstration of weaving techniques. Then we toured Salineras de Maras, a salt mine that has operated since pre-Inca times. Next we climbed to Moray, a breathtaking Inca farm with terraces in circular configurations against a beautiful Andean backdrop. It’s believed the Inca used the rings of the terraced farm to experiment with agriculture at different elevations and humidity levels.
At around 2pm, we began an incredible gastronomic experience at Mil. Mil features an eight-course tasting menu, with each dish demonstrating some unique aspect of the surroudning alpine environment. The food is creative and delectable, and uses ingredients and techniques inspired by the local cultures. Each course can also be paired with a beverage: an alcoholic or non-alcoholic creation that also relies on the distinct environment of the high Andes.
Bursting with delicious food, we drove back to our hotel in the valley. Andenia is a small hotel with comfortable rooms, verdant grounds, a great restaurant, and a fun bar. We returned in time to catch the last glow of sunset over the valley walls, which the turned the sky an improbable purple color.
Our goal the next day was simply to reach Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. We drove back to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Aguas Calientes. There’s not much to see in town, but we sampled a few craft beer bars before dinner at our hotel and an early bedtime.
Rising before daybreak, we ate a quick breakfast before boarding the bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. I’d visited Machu Picchu before, but it didn’t matter. Machu Picchu is one of the most awesome places on the planet, and I was just as astonished as the first time I’d seen it.
We toured the sanctuary before Lauren and I scrambled up Huayna Picchu, the big mountain in the background of the photo. It’s a short but steep hike, up several hundred feet from Machu Picchu. The hike offers a new perspective on the sanctuary and drives home the extent of the terraces that surround the main city. There are also more Inca ruins near the top of the mountain. Descending, we rode the bus back to Aguas Calientes, then the train to Ollantaytambo, and another bus back to Cusco.
My wife and in-laws spent the next day touring the sites in and around Cusco. But because I’d seen most of them on my previous trip to Peru, I decided to go see Vinicunca, also known as “Rainbow Mountain.” I was a little skeptical, because Vinicunca has been made famous by luridly oversaturated Instagram photos. The trip also required departing Cusco around 3 in the morning.
I slept for most of the three-hour drive from Cusco to the base of the trail. The hike is about 4.4 miles and up 1,400 feet to a summit facing Vinicunca; it took me about an hour. At 16,522 feet, the summit is the highest I’ve ever been. And I wasn’t disappointed: Vinicunca is amazingly beautiful. My tour had left early enough, and I’d hiked quickly enough, that we beat most of the crowds. I admired the views of Vinicunca and the surrounding Andean peaks for a while before descending from the summit.
As crowds of tourists began crawling up the slopes near Vinicunca, I walked into the tranquil Red Valley. I had the entire place to myself, and it was peaceful and quiet, the light breeze the only sound I could hear. I spent half an hour or so enjoying the incredible view before hiking back to the parking lot. The tour bus returned me to Cusco around 3 in the afternoon. After a quick nap, I spent the evening exploring Cusco with Lauren. We tried some local beers and had a delicious dinner.
Early the next morning we flew back to Lima. We visited Lima’s cathedral and explored its neighborhoods. We also saw the Larco Museum, which features an extensive collection of pre-Colombian art. It was a rare sunny day, so we were even able to enjoy views of the ocean from the fashionable Miraflores neighborhood.
We celebrated the last evening of our trip with an excellent dinner at Astrid y Gaston. Then we returned to our hotel before catching a flight home the next morning.