Overview & Disclaimers. Let me start off by saying that I don’t typically write reviews. If the food/service/hotel, experience is good, then I prefer to simply let it roll and frankly have better things to do than take the time to outline that ‘someone did their job as it should have been done.’ This likely falls into the category of most service industries where a happy client may tell one person while a dis-satisfied client will tell 10+ people. This trip / experience was different however and given the dearth of information (below) I was able to find, I wanted to point others in the right direction. Anyway, disclaimers aside this Peru-Ecuador trip was a high school graduation present for my twin daughters; a last hurrah before they leave for college.
The planning (because I’m a compulsive planner) began over a year ago when a work colleague suggested Vaya Adventures (‘Vaya’). Never having heard of the business (or frankly having used a travel agent in years – thank you internet) I ran the usual searches (Yelp, Google, Trip Advisor) and frankly found very little. What I did find was positive but just not much of it. I got hooked up with Gabrielle Venturi from Vaya and the trip began to take shape. This was not a cheap trip or budget travel by any stretch of the imagination and I feel that based upon what I know now that I likely could have saved some off the total costs if I had chosen to arrange things myself. That said, despite the price tag, I feel like we got tremendous quality and value (you get what you pay for) with the itinerary that Gabrielle put together as I will explain more fully below. Also, I simply did not have the South America knowledge base to fully coordinate the trip myself and likely would have missed some hotel gems as I likely would have gone with ‘known brands’ (Marriot, Hyatt, etc.).
Hotels/Guides/Drivers and more.
Costa del Sol Ramada – as promised a representative was waiting at the Lima airport to walk us across the street (literally) to this hotel (and again waiting for us the next morning to walk us back – overkill a bit but some measure of ‘hand holding’ is reassuring too). As our flight arrived into Lima at 11:30 PM and we were catching an early morning flight the next day to Cusco, Gabrielle recommended this ‘chain hotel’ which served its purpose. The Ramada isn’t going to win any awards but it is close, clean and has a complimentary breakfast. Check.
We were picked up at the airport in Cusco by our driver, Arturo and our guide Wilfredo. These two men would be our private companions for the next ten days. On the way to our first official excursion (I say official as there were certain things in the formal itinerary and there were other options Wilfredo offered) we took a detour to a llama and alpaca ‘farm/zoo.’ This is where I noticed the first point of differentiation using Vaya versus some of the other tour companies for South America (use Google, there are many). Anyway, a tour bus of 45-60 people was herded through the farm with one guide trying to talk over the din of multiple people/questions, etc. In contrast, the four of us (me, my two girls and Wilfredo) wandered at our own pace through the facility. Then I watched the group sitting on the grass having their boxed lunch of a ham sandwich, a cookie and an apple. I didn’t think anything of it at the time as that lunch would be standard fair for a group tour. However, when it came time for our picnic lunch, it was whipped up by Arturo - beef stroganoff, rice and carrot cake. I didn’t initially realize the value added component of a ‘private tour’ when I received the itinerary from Gabrielle but it made a world of difference to our overall experience and ultimately our enjoyment.
Sacred Dreams Lodge. This is a beautiful facility and an oasis of peace. That said it is not near anything. There are no dining options, except the hotel, as the facility sits dead smack in the middle of a large residential area. We were the only guests at the resort for our two nights and received a lot of hands on attention (including an upgrade to a suite – because no one else was there). While beautiful, any more than two nights would likely have been an issue as there’s just nothing to do/see once you’ve perused the facility that first day. Given location is typically everything, this resort is a 6 (out of 10) in its current location; however the facility is so good that it easily gets to an 8.5 with a better geographic location.
Inkaterra Lodge (and a hiccup). We took Peru Rail into Aguas Calientes as a jumping off point for our Machu Picchu adventures. The Inkaterra Lodge is right next to the train station (but you don’t hear the trains – crazy I know) and a destination itself. Beautiful hot tubs cascading down a small hillside with poolside tea and brownies daily. They offer bird watching (on property) as well as having a bear sanctuary (captivity & semi captivity until release) which we enjoyed. Couple all those points with the fact that it is walking distance to the buses that get you to Machu Picchu and this resort gets a 9.9 – amazing! In the early stages of my itinerary I was a tad disappointed that we weren’t staying in the Sanctuary Lodge, at the foot of the entrance to Machu Picchu. Do yourself a favor and don’t stay there, stay at the Inkaterra. Once I visited Machu Picchu I understood why Gabrielle recommended the Inkaterra and she was spot on.
There is really only one critique of the Vaya itinerary that I have and it involves luggage. The night before getting on the train our guide Wilfredo told us to bring ‘all of our necessities’ for Machu Picchu. I assumed that meant keep things light as you don’t walk to be hiking around all day with a bunch of useless stuff in your backpack. Well we all know what happens when we assume! What he meant was that our luggage was scheduled to go from the Sacred Dreams Lodge onto the next stop (after the Inkaterra) in Cusco. In other words, we weren’t supposed to have our luggage at all in Aguas Calientes.
We discovered our ‘failure to communicate’ on the train that morning. This was a problem as we could surely survive the clothing issues, what we couldn’t get around was that my daughter’s prescription medications were in her luggage. Never one to panic, Wilfredo was on his cell phone and Arturo had the bags sent to us on a later train that afternoon. Wilfredo talked to the porters at the train station and at the Inkaterra to ensure it would get done. I’d encourage Vaya to make specific mention of the luggage issue in the itinerary to avoid misunderstandings. A small glitch overall and ultimately solved regardless.
The only hiccup occurred when we actually opened the luggage. While the luggage zippers were zip tied closed by Peru Rail, my daughters laptop was missing, lost somewhere between the Sacred Dreams Lodge and us ultimately getting the bags at the Inkaterra. The measure of a business or company is not measured by issues that happen, but by how those issues are dealt with and ultimately resolved. That laptop could have disappeared from any place from Seattle, to Boston to Aguas Calientes so we weren’t going to let that hiccup ruin our trip. Wilfredo was genuinely concerned about the laptop and went out of his way to talk to the train porters as well as the hotel porters in an effort to get some answers.
Later that night at dinner, in the 7PM range, Wilfredo walked into the dining room and asked if he could talk to me for several minutes. I was surprised to see him. It turns out he’d spent the afternoon trying to track back the laptop to the point of missing his own scheduled train departure (he had another tour to do the following day as we would be re-visit macho Picchu on our own) and actually had a Peru Rail official there to discuss the issue. While there was no resolve to the issue, how could there be – someone had ‘sticky fingers’ – I was overwhelmed by the lengths that Wilfredo went to caring about and addressing things. Ultimately Vaya went above what they would be ‘legally’ required to do and within a day or two of the trip concluding offered what I considered to be fair financial compensation and the laptop issue is fully resolved.
Add to the above the fact that Wilfredo as a guide was incredible – fully 9.99. His knowledge and passion of and for the Incan culture, etc. was beyond belief. It felt like we were receiving a College Master’s Level Course in all things Incan. He pointed out aspects of paintings in the churches that helped tie things together. Truly, truly amazing. Wilfredo also knew how to approach the many exhibits, ruins, etc. Typically we would approach a site and tour in reverse order which allowed us to steer away from the larger tourist groups herding the conventional way through the sites. It got to be a standing joke that everywhere (and I literally mean everywhere) we went Wilfredo knew at least one and more likely several people. Wilfredo was incredibly knowledgeable, generous with his time and will remain a part of our trip (and the pictures) every bit as much as the sites themselves.
Libertador Cusco. On the way back from Machu Picchu we spent two nights at the Libertador Cusco. It was perfectly centrally located but I found it a bit stuffy, along the lines of a Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, etc. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it was in stark contrast to the more natural settings we experienced previously. However, the Libertador was right downtown and literally across a narrow street from the Cathedral of the Sun. Two days was plenty here.
From here we said our goodbyes to Arturo and Wilfredo and flew to Quito, Ecuador as a staging point for our Galapagos Cruise on the Corals 1. Here the guide situation takes an interesting turn. Our young Quito guide, whose name I’m sure I knew at some point arrives to meet us a tad late. No problem, I’m generally a go with flow person so what’s a few minutes when you’re dealing with an international arrival and having to pass through Ecuadorian Customs and Immigration. He hands me a welcome letter with our names on the envelope and we laugh as my daughter is referenced as ‘Mr.’ Charming actually and we take it as a bit of linguistic humor as we’ve undoubtedly botched what little Spanish we know during the trip so far. Then I open the envelope and inside is a letter with the salutation to someone with a completely different name (no linguistic humor here) and the letter itself is dated May 2014, mind you we visited in July 2014. Whatever, I throw the welcome letter in the bag and we’re off.
Casa San Marcos. We stayed two nights in Casa San Marcos which is a charming old mansion with lots of artifacts around the hotel and in the rooms themselves. Located very near the multiple squares in Quito we really enjoyed the location and being able to go out and explore ourselves.
Our Quito guide (apologies for the lack of a name but obviously that’s telling in itself) showed us around the various cathedrals for a half day tour. While it was enjoyable, we went from having a master’s level presentation (Wilfredo) to a guide who had obviously read the guidebooks and given tours before but didn’t have the depth of knowledge to offer what was beyond the superficial explanation of the sites. A nice young man but well over his head following Wilfredo in Peru. The clincher was that on the morning we were flying to the Galapagos we had a 4:30 AM pick up time. No problem, we get mobilized, get to the airport and get our luggage checked. I’m about to go through what amounts to a TSA check to then on to security when this young man remembers, “oh wait a minute, remember that welcome letter I gave you, well there’s a satisfaction survey in there I forgot to ask you to complete, it’s important that I turn that in as I’m a freelancer.” I told him that if he’d mentioned something earlier I would have done it but it’s now 5AM, I’m in line to get to my flight so have a nice day. Again, a nice guy but very little attention to detail.
Galapagos Islands Cruise - Corals 1 (5 days, 4 nights). What can I say about the Galapagos. We got to swim with sea turtles, penguins, and sharks, saw Darwin’s finches, blue footed boobies and flightless cormorants, walked on volcanic ash over 3,000 years old. There were three naturalists on the boat and while we certainly had our preferred one, all three were good to great. The Galapagos are amazing; if you can go!
Thank you Gabrielle for putting together an amazing trip with memories that will last a lifetime. If you have the chance, work with Vaya as they know Peru and Ecuador and I have no qualms about recommending them.