A big “gracias” to American, Four Points, LAN and Crowne Plaza, too, for a magnificent FREE trip to Machu Picchu and more, in pretty Peru. I highly recommend you visit. Does Andean culture interest you?
Well, was I surprised to find out that for a free ticket from the US to Lima, Peru, I only needed 30,000 miles round-trip in economy class! (It has since gone up to a minimum of 35,000 miles depending on your dates of travel. That’s a great value for a ticket that would’ve cost around $700-800 on a sale fare had I paid with money and not used miles (and the taxes were very low, too). We traveled in early June 2016, which turned out to be a perfect time to be there. The weather was absolutely gorgeous- sunny, dry and in the low 70s every day and a little cooler at night. Not yet high tourist season, I would travel to Peru again this time of year, and highly recommend it!
A tiny taste of the pageantry, live music and dance the beautiful Corpus Christi procession in Cuzco, Peru has to offer
American Airlines is excellent for service to Latin America. A variety of flight times and itineraries available- most of them with very short layovers, a generous luggage allowance (meaningful when you want to help stimulate the local economy by shopping for beautiful handicrafts), and best of all, a user-friendly interface not only for booking, but especially for holding free trips for a few days giving you some time to finalize your plans, make them my go-to airlines for flights on this side of the Atlantic.
That they actually held the reservations was a lifesaver for me, because three of us wanted to travel on the same itinerary, all on miles. This is not a task easily accomplished without a little bit of patience and a lot of perseverance. It took three days of my calling once or twice each morning to get us all on the same flights both directions, and with good connection times- efforts completely worth a value of over $2000, don’t you think?
By the way, in case you’re wondering why I had to call, rather than simply book online, well, there were two different reasons: 1.) because although my family members and I were traveling on the same itinerary- all using miles, the miles would be coming from different AAdvantage accounts, and 2.) because we were using AA miles to travel on flights wholly inside of Peru. We got excellent service while speaking to a live person and we were not charged extra for her help in reserving our tickets. Go AA!
Although I do not recommend American for free flights from the East Coast to Europe or North Africa because they often insist on routing you through London Heathrow, (unless you manage to find an available flight on their seasonal-from-some-departure cities-direct service to Paris) and the taxes, fees and fuel surcharges are exorbitant, if you have American miles, it’s hard to beat using them for travel in the US, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Peru, therefore, is perfect. What an amazing land! The Andes are awe-inspiring, and the country is a sheer delight for travelers, and if you are lucky enough to have some vacation time to spare (you could make it at least ten days instead of a week, preferably more), then by all means, do so. Seeing other places besides the standard Lima (and don’t miss the Larco Museum there- in a gorgeous garden setting, it offers a stunning collection of indigenous art and artifacts, expertly displayed), or Cuzco (the ruins at Sacsayhuayman are splendid and our favorite restaurant there was Baco), and Machu Picchu (ever ethereal), is a must!
A glimpse of the permanent exhibit at the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru
Peru is absolutely filled with delicious eye candy and fascinating culture galore. I hope to share more details with you later about where we went and what we did, but in a nutshell, we also loved Arequipa– a beautiful, colonial small city surrounded by volcanoes, mountains, and canyons in which we had the good fortune to see the impressive condors in their natural setting, and packs of wild vicuñas, too. In Arequipa we stayed in the lovely hotel Portal de San Lazaro, which we found thanks to http://www.booking.com and highly recommend it. And if you go to Arequipa don’t miss the Santa Catalina Monastery or the five hundred year old mummy Juanita. Also, for the shoppers among you, this is the best city for for woolen goods, alpaca and more. (I was also very impressed by the high-quality offerings – mixed in with the lesser quality goods- at the market at Pisac, in the Sacred Valley…).
An austere passageway at the lovely Santa Catalina Monastery in Arequipa, Peru
And oh what a find Ollantaytambo is! It’s a pristine, very pretty and quiet little town, criss-crossed by a river and babbling brooks, set in a backdrop of mountains, and home to its own impressive set of Incan ruins. Highly recommended by two different friends who had gone there separately, it’s the best place to base yourself for visiting Machu Picchu. From Ollanta, it’s an easy, appealing and comfortable train ride to the over-developed, crazy, crowded tourist trap town of Aguas Calientes (now capitalizing on their proximity to the famous ruins by changing their name to Machu Picchu Pueblo) from which you get the short shuttle bus ride up to the ruins.
Greeted by this new friend as we walked around Ollanta’s ruins.
In Ollantaytambo we stayed in the superb little Hostal Iskay (http://www.hostaliskay.com/) a small and sweet rustic inn with the best breakfast and impressive views. I highly recommend it. I also recommend their excellent day trip around the Sacred Valley! For approximately $33 per person, they picked up the three of us on the morning of our arrival at the airport in Cusco, then took us around, in a comfortable car, to some of the best sites around the Urubamba Valley- Incan ruins, natural salt mines, an Indian market, amazing mountain views, etc. and brought us to our hotel in the evening. An excellent full day, and one that warmed us up for our visit to Machu Picchu the following day.
Shopping for handwoven goods of vibrant colors and bold designs at the market in Pisac
Thanks to AA’s partnership with LAN (now LATAM) and their generously convenient policies, we were also able to book our three one-way fares inside the country, for free, too. For only 6,000 miles each way (which has since gone up to 10,000 miles for a one way), we flew from Lima to Arequipa, Arequipa to Cusco (the closest airport to Machu Picchu) and Cusco back to Lima, for a total of 18,000 miles each, allowing us to save much time as we covered a lot of Peruvian terrain.
Our total outlay on flights to, from, and inside Peru, therefore, was 48,000 miles per person. Had we bought the same flights with money instead of purchasing them with miles, we would have paid more than $1,200 each. In case you are wondering where and how we got the miles (relatively quickly and easily), it was from the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite credit card, whose bonus has just gone back up to 60k miles again, so, carpe diem! Note: it’s a good idea to shop around when you are looking for the best deals on promotion miles for new credit cards. The details change a lot, regularly, and not always for the better, so if you see something that looks good (and trust me, this one is very good), jump on it.
That brings us to the FREE hotels. For our first three nights we stayed at the fabulous Four Points by Sheraton in Miraflores, Lima, a very nice hotel with especially excellent staff, and super concierges who helped us book day trips for fun activities like dune buggying in the desert sands in Ica / Huacachina , and taking a morning cruise tour from Paracas to the Ballestas Islands, known colloquially as the “poor man’s Galapagos”. This hotel is a Category 4 Starwood property, therefore it cost 10,000 points per night for a free room (and if you use points for four nights you get the fifth night for free). We got points by opening a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, with a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points (good for 3 nights in Lima). Here is the link.
Visiting the Ballestas Islands- the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, by boat
[Also, it’s important to note that if you are part of a couple, it is much more advantageous to get two separate credit cards, so that you can get double the bonus points, which means two times the freebie fun! And one thing that I really respect and admire SPG for, is that they are very good about letting friends or family, (as long as you reside at the same home/mailing address), share or transfer points. This is very practical and can be quite helpful, and it’s also rather generous. At the moment there is no fee to transfer points to the account of someone who lives with you. Let’s see what happens though, when Marriott makes their final changes to SPG (2018 probably).]
After Lima, we traveled around the country for another week and a half, but we came back to spend our last two nights here, too, reason being that other friends who visited Peru a few years earlier, had booked their flights too close to one another, and after weather problems cancelled one flight, missed their connection from Lima back to the US, and had to pay an additional last-minute chunk of change for the four of them to get home. I didn’t want to follow in those footsteps… A couple of extra days in Lima thus, at the end of the trip as well as the beginning, was worth it, and it was then that we discovered the fantastic restaurant La Mar. I highly recommend it. If you’d like, you can read my review on tripadvisor. (See my reviews post page for the link.) Or check out La Mar here.
Fresh ceviche…yummy (“muy sabroso”)
For our brief return to Lima, we stayed in the Crowne Plaza Miraflores, another snazzy hotel (www.ihg.com) and it, too, was free! Each night there cost 25,000 points (and that included an automatic upgrade to a deluxe mini-suite). The points came from an IHG credit card by Chase with a bonus promotion of at least 60,000 points at this link.
Flights free, hotel free. Plan now! Buen viaje....