My First Post Covid Trip to Machu Picchu
The Trip from the US to Cusco
There was absolutely no downside to booking business class seats from the US to Peru in December 2020 using my totally refundable points. So I did. However I made the mistake of waiting too long to book my local flights between Lima and Cusco. Turns out I was traveling to Cusco on the first Sunday after Christmas. And so was everyone else. When I finally got around to booking my flight from Lima to Cusco, Latam flights topped out at $450 USD roundtrip. Or one way. Didnt' matter. The pain to your wallet was real.
Before I even got out of the my home state airport, I had to deal with an American Airlines situation regarding the size of my carryon and the size of the overhead bins. While I was sitting at the gate, an agent came around and put a gatecheck tag on my carryon bag. The bag that was full of cameras and batteries. I was instructed to take out all batteries and valuables which included pretty much everything in the bag! The agent and I had a frank discussion about the options. I was carrying a new backpack to give to one of our guides in Cusco, so I shoved cameras, batteries and valuables into the backpack which would be my new carryon bag and would fit the overhead bin. But I was only allowed 2 carryons and now I had 3. So the agent instructed me to do the "old switcheroo" at the end of the boarding ramp. I hid my briefcase in the now-empty rolling carryon as I showed my boarding pass. At the end of the ramp I opened the rolling carryon and took out my briefcase with my valuables and give the near-empty roller to the handler who would gatecheck it for me. Then I carried my briefcase and the backpack bulging with camera gear that popped out of the top of the backpack. The next leg of my trip to Lima would be in business class where the overhead bins were so big and roomy, I could have crawled in and slept.
So I booked myself one-way on Sky Airlines from Lima to Cusco. You know what they say. Live and learn. I learned that you're at the mercy of the airline when you're standing at the checkin counter with a piece of luggage that barely meets the maximum limit for checked bags. All my attempts to pre-pay for my checked bag were ignored. That should have been a red flag. You are obliged to pay whatever baggage fee they ask. That's the deal. So I forked over $72 USD not just for the hefty bag, which I knew would cost something, but they informed me that my carryon bag was too big and I would have to check it too. Given that my carryon bag was full of camera gear this created another problem that no amount of money could solve. But that's another blog post for another day. I paid $72 USD one way to check my bags. And the agents sealed the deal with a middle seat towards the rear of the plane.
I did do something that turned out to be pretty smart even though it was an accident. I booked my flight from Cusco back to Lima on Latam through Delta Airlines. In case you haven't heard, Delta and Latam are now married. They're actually code share partners. But like some married couples, they still have separate bank accounts, so you can't book Latam flights directly on the Delta website. You have to call a Delta agent over the phone. I intended to use my Delta points but no seats were available the date I needed. However, it was worth the $123 USD I paid. When I showed up to checkin, there was no extra baggage fee and they didn't charge me extra for the little things like sitting on the aisle. I did make some changes to my carryon bag before I returned home, and swapped out the rolling bag for a smaller hand-carried duffle bag.
If you follow my posts, you know that I have been traveling to Peru since 2007. I always travel with lots of "stuff." Camping gear, donations for schools, swag for our clients, not to mention camera gear. One time I carried down a folding toilet (brand new!) and a printer! This trip was no different. With the airlines squeezing passengers to pay extra for checked bags, boarding passes and seats not next to the toilets, I have learned to pick and choose those amenities that are worth the extra cost. I'm willing to pay extra for a good seat on an international flight, but if I have to sit in the middle seat for an hour and 20 minutes between Lima and Cusco, so be it.
In spite of everything Sky Airlines did to ensure that I would willingly pay any amount to never fly with them again, I made it to Cusco airport where I knew that Hubert and Jhorki would be waiting to help me. Unfortunately as I was leaving my house in the US to drive to the airport, the handle on my checked bag literally broke off. The only option was to duct tape the remainder of the useless broken pieces so at least they wouldn't interfere with baggage handlers. I was certain I could manange all my luggage by getting a luggage cart in Lima airport and in Cusco airport. Or so I thought.
Lima airport was a little spooky. It was too quiet. No matter what time I arrived in years past, the airport was always bustling, not only with travelers but with local taxi drivers and enthusiastic latin people waiting to greet their loved ones. As soon as I cleared customs on previous trips, I would enter a corral surrounded by a sea of waving, talking humans all trying to make eye contact with me. I missed that! Now all passengers quietly exit the building where a few industrious taxi drivers half-heartedly approach passengers who need ride. I hurried over to the Wyndham hotel which is literally a 2-3 minute walk, only to discover the door was locked. And it was dark. I had a reservation, so I was pretty sure they were open for business. But with covid, you never really know. I could see someone in the dimly lit lobby and energetically knocked on the glass door until he acknowledged my existence. A bellhop came over and unlocked the door and I was sucked in to the quiet bowels of the hotel only to find that it was empty except for the bellhop who ignored me, and the desk clerk who processed my checkin more quickly than ever before. I was able to roll the luggage cart up to my room on the 6th floor and leave the airport luggage cart parked in the hallway without a word. In previous visits, the bellhops would have already moved my luggage from the overused airport luggage cart onto one of their gleaming golden racks and a bellhop would have wisked my luggage to the elevator and right up to my room where he would have lugged my heavy bags into my room, while smiling all the time. Those days are over my friend. Welcome to the post-covid apocolypse reality.
After a very short rest in a bed, I can't really say that I slept, I checked out of the hotel before the restaurant opened in the morning. The desk clerk handed me a crisply folded brown lunch bag with a sandwich and an apple, each pre-wrapped in cellophane. It was a gesture of hospitality that I appreciated greatly, and I felt a twinge of compassion for this corporate giant brought to its knees by covid. Although there was no coffee to be found in the hotel, my plan was to go to the gate and get coffee there. A sleepy bellhop unlocked the door and I scuffled out with my luggage cart into the early morning Lima air. I maneuvered the luggage cart over the rough concrete terrain and showed my passport to enter the airport where I checked in with Sky Airlines. Then went upstairs where I got a huge surprise before going through security to my gate.
As I exited the elevator with my cart, I saw a line of people snaked around the mostly closed retail shops and down the hall, and realized this was the line to go through security! I have never seen this many people queued up this far back. I quickly maneuvered myself into the line which was actually moving. This explained why the Latam flights were so expensive. Turns out lots of people were flying from Lima to Cusco on the Sunday after Christmas. Fortunately, the authorities were on it and it was all hands on deck in security. Every station was open and agents were churning people and their stuff through security like short-order cooks in a diner. "Order up! Next!"
Before I started searching for my first cup of joe, I checked the departure board only to see that my flight was boarding now. Early. Startled into motion, I hurried to my gate where everyone was lined up and boarding. How the heck did this happen? Did I miss something? One thing you can count on in Peru, is that they don't do anything early. Everyone is trained to wait in line for pretty much everything. People wait in line at banks, cell phone companies, trains and buses. Something wasn't right and I didn't have time to figure it out at that moment. I lined up and boarded. But I was stopped at the ramp and asked if I had a face shield. I bought one before I left the US, but I was hoping not to wear it. I had to stop and dig through my jam-packed briefcase to unfurl the plastic face covering. I peeled off the protective layer but still the plastic was opaque, not transparent, like everyone else's. I put it on anyway and boarded half-blinded by the milky covering over my face. I found my seat between two Peruvian dudes who just wanted to be left alone and sat there in my cloudy world wondering what was going on. The only thing I could do was close my eyes.
After sitting for what seemed like a really long time, I realized that the airline was boarding early to allow extra time due to covid restrictions. Even through my milky white shield, I could see that every seat was occupied although they announced repeatedly that people should stand apart in the aisle. So we all sat there mostly in a stupor as we waited for take-off and somehow, thankfully, I arrived in Cusco, where the final phase and grand finale performance of my 2-day travel experience reached the pinnacle of absurdity.
The flight attendants kept everyone seated and stood in the aisle as 2-3 rows at a time were allowed to get off. I walked to the baggage claim where I got my first indication that things were not right. There were no luggage carts at all. Everyone had to carry all their luggage. This was not good but I figured I could manage to drag everything out the door and Hubert would be waiting. After claiming my bags, I loaded everything onto my body and started dragging the heavy bag out the door expecting to see guides and drivers. It didn't take long to figure out that the airport was completely closed and all passengers, with their luggage, were expected to hike around the parking lot and up to the street without assistance of any kind. Welcome to Cusco!
Hubert saw me struggling to drag my luggage up the walkway but was helpless. He asked the police if he could enter to assist, but the answer of course was no. Meanwhile, more than 100 people passed through the narrow exit gate which was surrounded by drivers, relatives and other local congestion. Apparently, someone thought this was better than allowing people to enter the airport and use the expansive outdoor space to wait for passengers.
In case you're wondering, I promise all this was worth it. Of all the trips I have been on to Peru, this was perhaps one of the most amazing for many reasons which I will go in to on my next posts.
We went straight to the Blue House hostel where hot coffee was provided and I continued to the Sacred Valley for my first of many adventures with Hubert, Jhorki, Yurbi and Vidal.