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Casa de Piedra Hotel Boutique (La Paz)
Like in Arequipa, Peru, we wanted to stay in a local hotel – not a western chain. Our research led us to the Casa Piedra Hotel Boutique in La Paz. We would be spending three nights in this hotel, which was just a 3 minute walk to the Plaza San Francisco and the neighboring church. The hotel was about 25 minutes from the main airport in El Alto. The hotel didn’t have an elevator, so you had to schlep your luggage up the stairs from street level to the lobby. The restaurant is on the street level and our room was on the main floor with the reception area.
After we landed, we headed straight to the hotel, arriving at reception around 14h45. When we approached reception, we were greeted by name (again). Either we stick out like sore thumbs, or we were the last ones expected to check in that day. In any event, we were given our keys (actual metal keys) and shown to our room, which was just off the main stairs.
We booked a double room with two twin beds. We will book two beds if we think it is important to do so culturally (not necessarily the case here) or if the king beds don’t look like actual king sized beds. We’ve gotten burned many times when booking a king bed and getting stuck with a double. I need room and space when sleeping. Little did we know that the beds would be perfect for us on this stay – La Paz was rough on us.
Our room had a private bathroom, which was elevated from the rest of the room (likely, the bathroom was added as an after thought and it needed to be elevated to accommodate the plumbing requirements). The beds were small (narrow), but pretty comfortable.
Our room had a lofted space with a small dining table and two chairs. The room had great ceiling height, but in the lofted space you were so crowded, it was virtually unusable.
Our room also had a small desk, which under normal circumstances would have been great to write post cards, or do a little work, if needed. We used the desk only to store our hats and nothing else.
The room itself was perfectly comfortable. The door wasn’t all that secure – it never came open, but if someone wanted to get into our room, it wouldn’t be difficult and it likely would go unnoticed by everyone on property. I just made sure I kept all my valuables with me at all times. The bathroom (I failed to take pictures of the bathroom for some reason) had pretty respectable water pressure and access to hot water.
I thought the building itself was a charmer – a lovely old colonial building that has rustic, but not overly so. The floors creaked as you walked across the room or down the hall, but not so much that it bothered you while you were sleeping or relaxing in your room.
We had dinner one night in the hotel and the food was mediocre at best. We were feeling the affects of the altitude at this point. We were short of breath and were really feeling some GI distress. I didn’t realize that altitude would wreak havoc on your stomach as much as it did to us in La Paz. That’s another issue I had with the hotel (and it is likely an issue with many older hotels in La Paz) – you couldn’t flush your toilet paper, you had to put the soiled TP in the waste bin next to the toilet. In general, that wouldn’t be a big problem – we’d just make sure that we used the facilities while out and about or before the room was serviced. Unfortunately, with our upset stomachs, we spent a lot of time trapped in the room and the waste bin filled up quicker than it normally would. I tried a couple times to get the bin emptied, to no avail. Gross, I know. We had upset stomachs and the room didn’t smell as fresh as it should have.
In general, the hotel worked out fine for us and I would likely return, if I needed to be back in La Paz again. That being said, I really don’t think I’ll ever be going back to La Paz again. The altitude sickness really soured me on the City.
Where did you stay on your visit to La Paz? Do you prefer to stay at traditional western chain hotels, or more locally owned and operated properties? What do you think about the inability to flush the toilet paper?
Thoughts on Arequipa
We didn’t have much time in Arequipa, but what little time we did have we loved. First things first, Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, with nearly 900,000 people. The city, founded in 1540, is 2,300 meters (7,600 feet) above sea level and has a very temperate climate with average monthly high temperatures of about 21C (70F) and lows of about 8C (45F). It was perfectly sunny during our visit and at this altitude the sun is quite strong. I’m glad I wore extra strength sun screen this morning.
We checked into our hotel first thing in the morning then immediately headed out to explore. Through some pretty basic research we found the city offers complimentary City Tours at 10h00 and 15h00 daily. We hit the first tour and had about 20 people on the tour with us. We were the only Americans in our group.
The tour itself was good, especially considering it was a free tour. The fast paced tour had a nice mix of history, local anecdotes and geology (Arequipa is surrounded by active volcanoes). The tour ended at a rooftop bar, where we all had a final toast of a Pisco Sour. I’m sure there are better tours of the area, but I thought these guys did a great job. You can find more details by visiting FreeTour.com.
Santa Catalina Monastery
We spent the rest of our arrival day and the next wandering the city. We spent a couple hours touring (both self guided and with the help of a complimentary English speaking guide) the old Santa Catalina Monastery, which was built in 1579. The space was beautiful and I learned so much about the 16th and 17th Century Clergy. Little did I know that the for many families it was expected that one of your children would enter the clergy either as a priest or a nun. To enter this prestigious convent, the family had to pay a substantial sum, but you could also have your servants help out (cook, clean, etc for you). I guess being shipped off 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) and likely never to see your family again is pretty rough, but bringing along your own servant should make it a little more bearable.
Museo Santuarios Andinos
One of the attractions I’m very pleased we visited was the Museo Santuarios Andinos. The main reason most people visit this museum is to see the mummified remains of Juanita – a young Incan woman who was sacrificed by the local priests as an offering to the God’s so they would spare the city destruction by the active volcanoes. Before you see Juanita, you learn about both the archaeological expedition that found her and the theoretical idea on how she actually got to 6,300 meters (20,000 feet). We spent about 2 hours at the museum. If you are in Arequipa, you need to visit Juanita.
Casa Museo Mario Vargas Llosa
The final thing we did in Arequipa was to visit Casa Museo Mario Vargas Llosa. We didn’t know own anything about Vargas Llosa before visiting the museum. Vargas Llosa is an author, journalist and Nobel Prize Winner. We arrived at the museum about 45 minutes before it closed. We had to really push the receptionist to allow us to enter the museum. Little did we know that we couldn’t actually walk around ourselves, we had to have a guide who would take us room to room.
She was very accommodating and powered through about three quarters of the museum, in about 30 minutes. It seemed like we were running through exhibits at a couple of points. The tour was completely in Spanish and the guide spoke clearly yet very quickly. I think I probably picked up about half of what she was saying. I was pleased with her and proud of myself.
We didn’t have anything else on our list to see in Arequipa, but I was disappointed we left when we did. I really like the city. My biggest struggle with the city was the air pollution though. There were so many vehicles and it sure felt like the emission standards were dramatically lower than those we see in the US or Western Europe.
When you put together your plans for travels through Peru, you need to take some time and explore the city of Arequipa.
What did you think of Arequipa? Was it worth your visit? Did you have enough time or did you feel rushed? Was the weather perfect for you like it was for us?
Casa Andina – Private Collection (Arequipa)
Our trip continued to Arequipa, Peru. We wanted to get away from the western hotel chains for a bit on this trip and since we’d already stayed at a couple of Starwood properties (Westin Lima Convention Center, Palacio del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Tambo del Inka, A Luxury Collection Hotel) we decided to stay in a local hotel. We found great reviews for the Casa Andina hotel on both Booking.com and TripAdvisor. The pictures and reviews coupled with the pricing and the location made this a no-brainer.
We arrived from Cuzco on the early flight and made it to the hotel before 09h30. Traffic in Arequipa was non-existent. We entered the hotel from the street and walked directly into the beautiful reception area which was bordered by the stunning courtyard. Check-in was very quick and the young woman at the desk was so welcoming – each time we came across her during our stay, she called us by our last names. While it isn’t that hard, recognition by staff while bumming around the property shows me that they care – they put in a little bit of effort to help their guests truly feel welcome.
The room was on the third floor – we took the elevator only twice, once at check-in and again when we were checking out. Carrying the luggage up the stairs wasn’t in our future. The elevators moved at a decent pace, but in general I prefer to take the stairs.
The room wasn’t anything fancy – a small, utilitarian room that fit our needs perfectly.
We took our breakfast one day in the hotel and it was perfectly acceptable. I’m not a big breakfast guy, in general. I’m fine with a couple pieces of fruit and some juice. We did use the courtyard lounge area each night of our stay. We sampled the cocktails at the bar and sat in the open courtyard (covered by tenting) while writing post cards or reading up on our next destinations. It was such a quiet and relaxing way to close out the evening each day.
If our journey takes us back to Arequipa, I would definitely stay at this property again. The combination of the perfect location, wonderful staff and truly relaxing environment was perfect for our short time in the city.
Where do you prefer to stay in Arequipa? What about other cities? What are key points you look for in a hotel?
Machu Picchu was the main attraction on this trip. I remember seeing pictures of it as a child and my mother telling me all that she read about it and how much she really wanted to see the site. Our trip to South America was built around our day at Machu Picchu.
We were up and in the restaurant at Tambo del Inka at around 05h30. In my post about the hotel, I talk about my thoughts on hotel breakfasts and the interesting sheen of the cold cuts I chose to eat and our train ride to Machu Picchu. We pulled into the station that serves Machu Picchu a little before 09h30. This was the end of the line and everyone was excited and scurried off the train to find their guides, most of which were meeting us at this station. My first thought – where is the bathroom. Yes, the shiny cold cuts were already causing issues.
We found our guide who immediately checked to make sure we had water, sun screen and then suggested we buy a hat because the sun can really bake down on you at the ruins – we did and like the time we bought a hat at Angkor Wat, we paid about 8USD for two — which made both us and the retailer happy – which means we got ripped off. I find markets like this to be the true free economy – you pay whatever you think it is worth, trying to get the best deal and in the end, if the retailer can’t make money, they won’t sell it to you.
We walked with our guide over to the long line of buses that would take us from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu. There were a ton of people, as to be expected. We patiently waited in line for about 10-15 minutes until it was our turn to board. I got the last seat on the bus, which was sitting right next to the driver. I had a perfect view out the front window – I could see every turn and the sharp drop off just centimeters from our tires. I found that seat to be comforting as my bird’s eye view left nothing to my imagination – I knew exactly what was happening, while the folks behind me were just along for a wild ride.
We arrived at the main entrance for the ruins after about a 20 minute ride up the mountain going over about a dozen switchbacks and passing a good number of other buses which pushed us right to the edge of the road. I decided to pop into the washroom again before we began our actual tour.
There was a spot where you could get your passport stamped with a quasi-official Machu Picchu stamp – we decided to get stamped but I’m sure I’ll regret that once I run out of pages in my passport!
Our guide did a really great job of telling us the history – who rediscovered the ruins, his passion for the area and how he just wouldn’t believe that the folk tales of this ancient city were all false. He knew something was there, just over grown. Our guide moved quickly all the while telling us great facts on the history of the area including details on the Indigenous Inca people as well as Spanish Conquistadors, modern archaeologists and historical geological changes. He did a great job.
The views were spectacular – although they were exactly as I had seen in thousands of pictures. I always love finding a new angle or vantage point, but I couldn’t find one on this trip. Our guide was good about taking our cameras and getting pictures of us at the ruins – a thing that some guides aren’t all that skilled at.
At one point, out guide asked if we wanted to take a bit more strenuous of a hike to see an old bridge. This was pretty early in the tour, so I was still feeling somewhat fine. We took a 15 minute (one way) side trip to see and old Inca bridge. The trek out there was along a narrow path that hugged the side of the mountain – with little to no room for error. One slight misstep and you’d be over the edge. We couldn’t cross the bridge as it was too dangerous (and the path was closed long before the bridge – closed at the perfect spot so you could get a great picture).
Evidently this technique was used throughout the Inca Trail – a portion of the path was cut away and replaced with wooden planks. This was a defense mechanism – if raiders were coming after the residents of Machu Picchu, they could flee and pull the planks up and the offending parties would be stuck on the other side. Pretty ingenious, if you ask me.
We continued our exploration of the ruins and I was honestly surprised at how many elderly people were there hiking. They weren’t necessarily in the best shape either – they were walking with their walking poles and were determined to see everything at the site. I do hope when I get to be their age I am as active as they are. They were so passionate about the ruins too – it wasn’t just a bucket list trip for them either.
As we got back to the main attractions (away from the bridge, which not everyone visited), we encountered a ton of tourists. We ran into a ton of people with selfie sticks, trying to get the perfect picture. Then when they’d hit you with their phone on a 2 meter long stick, they would get pissed at you! Just like everywhere else in the world.
We had walked through the part of Machu Picchu that was for the upper class and priests and were working our way through the neighborhood where the normal people would live. I was starting to feel awful at this point. My stomach was doing cartwheels. I was thirsty, but with every sip of water, I was afraid I would begin vomiting. I was sweaty and lightheaded. I continued on. We learned about the ancient sun dial and how the buildings were perfectly positioned to allow light to flow in during the solstices. Everything was so perfectly planned.
At this point, it was about 13h15 and I just wanted to sit down…no, I just wanted to lie down and rest.
Our tour included a buffet lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge. We arrived long before the lunch rush. I waited in line for the washroom. I return to our table and MS and our guide just now realize something was wrong. I had done such a good job of hiding my utter miserableness. I sat at the table while they ate. I grabbed a piece of bread but couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I revisited the washroom a few times while they ate. This was one of those times where you wish you could just transport yourself someplace – anyplace. The idea of the winding road down to the train station – then the 3 hour train ride back to the hotel made me even sicker. And then it started to rain.
The lines to take the bus down the mountain were so long. There were hundreds of people all trying to leave at the same time. I left MS and the guide a couple more times to visit the washroom. Then the sun came out and it was sweltering. I’m sure my fever didn’t make this any better.
Eventually we boarded the bus and headed back down to Aguas Calientes to board our train back to Tambo del Inka. I visited the washroom again at the train station.
The return trip on the train was even slower than the outbound trip. We left a little late, so we had to wait a few times for trains going up the mountain to pass us on the single track. We were also surrounded by people coming back from actually hiking the Inca Trail – they were young, loud and drunk. I use to be one of those people. This trip, I was the sick, cranky old man.
When we arrived back at the hotel it was dark. It was cold. It was wet. I was in a foul mood. I had a fever with chills. I just wanted to crawl into a ball and die. I asked MS to run into the town and get me some saltines and some Gatorade – which of course they had. You gotta love visiting a tourist area where people encounter stomach issues from time to time.
Machu Picchu was one of those sites whose beauty takes your breath away (and I’m not making an altitude pun). As you can see from the photos, we were there on a perfectly beautiful day. Our views were as beautiful as any photoshopped picture anyone could take and manipulate. I could have sat on the edge of one of those rocky outcroppings and stared over the ruins of this former great city, wondering what their daily life was like, why did they leave (disease, enemies, rumors of the Spanish?), was it really a lost city that no one knew the location of until the early part of the 20th century?
Despite being on the brink of utter destruction caused by bad hotel breakfast food poisoning, this day at Machu Picchu was wonderful. I don’t think you need more than one day to see everything at Machu Picchu. You could stay at Aguas Calientes and get up early to see the sun rise, which I hear is utterly spectacular – the same goes for the sunset. Other than that, I don’t think you’d get much more from another full day at the ruins.
Our tour was coordinated through out hotel and we used Tikariy as the tour operator. Everything was coordinated over email and once we arrived at the hotel we had a quick meeting with the operator who gave us another rundown of the tour. She also gave us our train tickets, bus passes and Machu Picchu entry tickets. Of course this tour went off without a hitch (other than the Starwood Food Poisoning) – this is what they do – they coordinate day trips to Machu Picchu and they did a great job of it.
Travel: 2016 Year in Review
Last night we closed out 2016 and as is a tradition for me, I like to provide a Travel Year In Review. I’m not sure if you’ve all noticed this yourself, but the disparity between paying for a coach seat and paying for a business or first class seat (at least domestically) has shrunk pretty dramatically. I found myself actually purchasing domestic first outright a couple times – often the difference between a coach seat and United’s domestic first has been just $100-$150 round trip (and that’s between ORD and LAX/PDX/SFO). You get double the Premier Qualifying Miles and a bit more on the your Premier Qualifying Dollars too. Thanks to these pricing changes, I was able to cross a new threshold with United this year – I’m now Premier Platinum (more on that to come). Here’s how my year ended up – with the previous 3 years included as a comparison.
By the Numbers: (2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013)
Total Miles Flown: 68,278 | 72,293 | 53,322 | 73,825
Total Segments Flown: 45 | 41 | 37 | 44
Cabin Segment Breakdown (F/B/C): 8/5/32 | 2/5/34 | 0/5/32 | 7/4/33
Total Airlines Flown (new airlines bolded): 5 (United, LATAM, Avianca, Air France, Air Canada) | 5 | 4 | 7
Total Hotel Nights: 69 | 67 | 56 | 71
Total Hotel Stays: 35 | 47 | 32 | 31
Total Airlines Miles Redeemed: 0 | 155,000 | 37,500 | 105,000
Total Hotel Points Redeemed: 106,000 | 283,500 | 134,000 | 13,400
Countries Visited (new Countries bolded): 2+2 (Peru, Bolivia, Canada, France) 3+2 | 6+1 | 8+1
Longest Single Segment: ORD-CDG @ 4,153 | ORD-HKG @ 7,787 | MUC-ORD @ 4,535 | ORD-PVG @ 7,056
Shortest Single Segment: CUZ-AQP @ 195 | CVG-ORD @ 264| YUL-YQB @ 145
Northernmost Airport: CDG (Paris) | LHR (Heathrow) | ARN (Stockholm) | LHR (Heathrow)
Southernmost Airport: LPB (La Paz) | HKG (Hong Kong) | MCO (Orlando) | SGN (Ho Chi Minh City)
The most frequent non-home airport: Tie between EWR & LAX (Newark and Los Angeles) | BNA (Nashville) | YYZ (Toronto) | BNA (Nashville)
I flew enough miles to:
Circumnavigate the world: 2.3 times | 2.9 times | 2.0 times
Make it a quarter | a third | a fifth of the way to the moon
How did your 2016 Year in Travel turn out? Did you keep your status – upgrade your status? Were you able to check off one – or more – of your travel bucket list items this year? What is in store for 2017? Do you plan on taking that one big trip you’ve been talking about, or are going to take many smaller trips to visit friends and family? If you want my advice, it doesn’t matter where you go, just go. Enjoy the journey. Experience the destination. Share a drink, a meal and a laugh.