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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peru Vacation Day 1: Getting There

I previously provided a quick update on the first day of my Peru vacation. This is a more detailed version of that update. As mentioned in that update, we flew from Washington Dulles to Lima via San Salvador on TACA airlines. I had never flown on TACA before and had only a vague idea who they were. I used Google to research them a little bit, so that I could make sure I was not flying some unsafe carrier with a spotty record.

There are several airlines that fly to Lima from the US. Delta flies from Atlanta to Lima non-stop. Continental flies from Houston to Lima non-stop. American flies from Miami to Lima non-stop. LAN Peru, a Peruvian airline also flies to Lima non-stop out of Miami. We chose TACA because of two reasons. We wanted to fly out of Washington Dulles since we were going to be there for some other reason just before the trip anyways. The second reason is that TACA turned out to be much cheaper than the other options.

Our TACA ticket was booked as a round-trip Washington Dulles-Lima-Cusco-Lima-Washington Dulles. On most other airlines, the domestic Peruvian segments between Lima and Cusco would have to be booked separately from the international portion (except for LAN Peru, none of the other airlines mentioned above can fly domestic Peruvian segments because they are US-based airlines), and that increases the total cost of the air transportation significantly. Making the entire booking on one airline, as one round-trip makes the planning simpler and reduces the cost too. The total cost of all our air travel during this vacation wasjust $848 per person!

But this is an insight that only a good tour agent can provide you. Most tour agents will quote you a price for the land portion of the tour (guided tours and trips within Peru), and say that airfare to and between the places you visit is additional. They may not make any money off booking the air tickets for you, but they also do not have much of an incentive to make it work out as cheap for you as possible. Our tour agent, Eureka Travel, worked diligently to check prices on multiple airlines over multiple itineraries across multiple dates to get us the best prices possible on the air travel portion of our vacation also. A good tour operator will do this. A mediocre one will let you fend for yourself in this regard.

In fact, most trips that involve travel within Peru to both Cusco and Puno will have you traveling from Lima to Cusco and then traveling back from Juliaca (about an hour from Puno) to Lima (Puno does not have its own airport). This is obviously not a round trip, and can increase the cost of the air travel significantly. If you have an extra day to spare on such a vacation, ask your tour operator to transport you by land back to Cusco so that you can buy a Lima-Cusco-Lima round trip air ticket. Even factoring in the cost of the ground transportation and possibly an extra night of hotel stay, you will probably come out ahead of booking separate Lima-Cusco and Juliaca-Lima one-way air tickets. And the land travel between Puno and Cusco is quite scenic, and may involve some sight-seeing stops also.

It is also difficult to book this kind of ticket online. The main problem is that you want a couple of days layover in Lima in the middle of the round trip (either on the way to Cusco or on the way out). You don't just want to fly into Lima and immediately fly out to Cusco. If you book your international travel separately from the domestic Peruvian segments, this is not a problem (of course, then the problem is to ensure that at least in one direction, your connections work out fast in Lima so that you don't waste too much time sitting around at the airport there). You can pick and choose the dates for the trips based on how long you want to stay in Lima. But, if you book a round-trip like I did, where Lima is just an intermediate stop, most online booking portals like Expedia will not give you the fine control you need to tell them that you want a couple of days break in Lima.

This is, once again, where a good travel agent can come to your rescue. Our agent was able to work with the airline directly to make sure we got our desired layovers and breaks in our air travel bookings. On this first day, we were flying up to Lima as part of our round-trip and then completing one half of the round trip (flying up to Cusco) only a couple of days later. This was not a problem for our travel agent to accomplish, and it did not increase our round trip air fare at all. And on the way back, our tickets were booked so that we had just an hour and a half connection time in Lima, which suited us perfectly since we had no desire to sit around at the airport waiting for our next flight.

So, on this vacation, our first flight was from Washington Dulles to San Salvador (IAD-SAL), in El Salvador. The distance is 3,023 km (1,879 miles). The flight time is about 4 hours. San Salvador is 2 hours behind Washington, D.C. in the summer (in the winter, when Washington, D.C. is not in Daylight Savings Time, the time difference is only 1 hour). The flight number was TA 581 and the scheduled timings were 11:18 - 13:53.

Check-in for this flight was quite a zoo. There was a pretty long line in front of the counters by the time we reached the counters at 08:10. At the entrance to the queue, a weight-checker was checking the weights of the bags and asking people to repack bags that were too heavy. Most of the bags were stuffed full and weighed far beyond the allowable 50 lbs.

Our bags, by comparison, were feather-light, and we were let through quickly and cheerfully. Lining up and waiting in line were not much in evidence among the passengers on this flight, so we had to constantly be vigilant about moving forward with the person in front so as not to create a gap into which someone else could insert themselves.

When we reached the counter, check-in took a long time for some reason, with the agent scanning (or trying to scan) my passport repeatedly into his computer. We were finally done by 08:50, with the agent giving us our boarding passes, and assuring us that our bags had been checked through to Lima. We were also given our boarding passes for the next flight from San Salvador to Lima.

We then had to clear security. It took us more than 20 minutes to get through security. After that, we took the newly constructed AeroTrain to the B concourse for our flight. We reached our gate by 09:20. There were lots of seats in the gate area, so we sat down and had some apples and bananas while we waited for the flight.

Boarding for the flight began at 10:20. We pre-boarded when they called for passengers with young children and senior citizens. We were in our seats by 10:30. Our boarding passes and passports were checked at the entrance to the jetbridge.

The aircraft had 12 first class seats and 182 coach seats, for a total of 194 seats. Our seats were over the wing. The seat was comfortable enough, with adequate leg-room. However, the seat-back pocket was a hard plastic enclosure in the back of the seat in front, which was not expandable. So, I had no place to put even a one-inch thick tourbook which I wanted to read during the flight. I ended up balancing it on my lap throughout the flight. The entertainment guide on the aircraft suggested that the airline had some aircraft equipped with individual seat-back AVOD entertainment systems, but this aircraft was not one of them. The aircraft had overhead monitors every few rows in coach, and they were showing commercials as we waited for boarding to be completed. The flight was quite full, with pretty much every seat occupied.

Boarding was completed at 11:00, and we pushed back at 11:10. Before pushback, the overhead screens were stowed. After pushback, the flight attendants conducted a safety briefing live, in Spanish and English. The English was fast and accented, and quite hard to understand. All announcements during the flight were in both Spanish and English, but the English announcements were quite hard to decipher because of the heavy accent. All the flight attendants seemed to understand English quite well, though.

Headsets for entertainment were handed out about 20 minutes into the flight. I got one hoping to listen to some music rather than watching a movie, but apart from the Spanish and English audio for the movie on the overhead screen, there was no audio on any of the other channels. So, I ended up not using the headsets (which were two-pronged to prevent theft). Immigration paperwork for passengers whose final destination was San Salvador was also handed out about half an hour into the flight. Since we were connecting passengers, we did not have to fill out that paperwork.

Lunch was served about an hour and a quarter into the flight. We had tried to place special orders for vegetarian meals (I am not vegetarian, but my family is), but the airline does not seem to have the capability to cater special meals at all. Initially, our online itinerary mentioned vegetarian/vegan meals for all of us, but when we called to confirm that, we were told that there was no provision for special meals on these flights, and that we had to take our chances with whatever was available on the flight. Fortunately, one of the choices for the lunch was vegetarian, so we had no problem with food. My lunch was pretty tasty. And for a beverage, I chose tamarind-banana juice, which was quite tasty.

The flight attendants disappeared after serving food and did not come around to serve passengers even when the call button was pressed. Eventually about half an hour before landing, they came through the cabin to collect the headsets back from the passengers. At that time, the entertainment system was turned off, and the overhead screens were stowed. We started our descent soon after. We mostly descended over green fields, and I saw no evidence of any urban development at all all the way until we touched down on the runway.

The San Salvador airport is very modern and nice. It is well-designed for connections with a single open concourse that allows passengers to move freely from gate to gate. So, connecting passengers like me did not have to clear immigration or pass through security again to get to their connecting flights. There was lots of shopping in the airport with many high-end duty-free shops selling perfumes, jewelry, alcohol and tobacco among other things.

Interestingly, El Salvador does not seem to have any currency of its own. All transactions are conducted only in US dollars. I bought a handicraft at the airport hoping to get some Salvadorean currency in change since my wife collects currencies from around the world. I was very disappointed when my change was provided in US dollars, and the shopkeeper assured me that the only currency El Salvador has is the stuff they have, framed for display and sale in the shop!

The distance from San Salvador to Lima (SAL-LIM) is about 3,136 km (1,949 miles). Once again, flight time is close to 4 hours, give or take. Lima is one hour ahead of San Salvador (neither country has any Daylight Savings Time). We were booked on flight TA 41, whose scheduled timings were 15:08 - 20:23.

We had been assigned seats and our boarding passes for this flight had been printed out at Dulles itself. So, we did not have to check in again for this flight. Boarding for this flight started at 14:35. Boarding was by rows, and we could not make out the announcements clearly because of alternating announcements in Spanish and another flight boarding at the adjacent gate at the same time. But we boarded soon after boarding began, and were in our seats by 14:50. The seats on this aircraft were leather seats instead of cloth seats as on the previous flight. There are 12 first class and 138 coach seats on the aircraft and all of them seemed to be occupied.

We pushed back at 15:05. The safety briefing was once again performed live by the flight attendants in both Spanish and English. We took off on runway 25 after a leisurely taxi. A few minutes after take-off, we were given customs and immigration forms to fill out, and I spent some time filling them out. Interestingly, the customs form specifically mentions that it is forbidden to import any foreign beverages named "Pisco" into Peru!

Lunch/dinner was served a little after an hour after take-off. Once again, there was a vegetarian and non-vegetarian choice, so we did not have any problems with this meal either. But my meal was not as good as the previous one.

I dozed after the meal until we started out descent into Lima. We descended through thick overcast (which I later found out is the norm at Lima during winter) and I saw some parts of the northern end of Lima before we touched down. We reached the gate pretty quickly, but there was a long delay before passengers were let off the aircraft.

The Lima airport looked very large and modern. Signage was very good, and there was no queue at immigration. We were greeted by a friendly immigration agent who processed us through in less than a minute. We reached baggage claim by 20:30. Bags were out, but not ours. We waited around and collected our bags when they came out around 20:40. We then changed some US money into local currency. Money changing is big business in Lima. Practically everywhere you turn, you encounter money changers. They compete with each other by offering "no commissions", or higher exchange rates, etc. This was true at the airport also, where there were two kiosks set up by money changers, with one offering a slightly higher exchange rate, and the other offering lower exchange rates, but charging no commissions.

We then went through customs. Customs clearance at Lima is somewhat unique in my experience. Travelers who have nothing to declare have to press a button at a machine near the customs officer who collects our customs forms. The machine has a green light and a red light. If the machine flashes the green light, we are free to leave. If it flashes red, we have to get our bags inspected. Luckily, the lights flashed green for us, so we were out of the airport by 21:00. A driver arranged by our tour operator was waiting with a sign with my name on it, and picked us up as soon as we came out of the terminal.

Lima's airport is located in a suburb of Lima, the town of Callao, which is also where the Lima seaport is located. It is only 11 km from the historic center of Lima, but a lot farther to Miraflores, which is where our hotel was located. The driver told us it would take about 35 minutes to reach our hotel, and it did. Part of the way, we drove along the pacific coast. But, since it was dark, I could only make out vague details.

Our hotel was the San Agustin Colonial. It is an old hotel, colored blue, located on Commandante Espinar Blvd. In the night, I did not have much opportunity to figure out what was around the hotel. Our rooms were tiny, but quite comfortable. It was late, and it was time to go to bed for the day. Exploration will have to wait till tomorrow.

A word of caution, however: The hotel was not very handicapped-friendly. The hotel had an elevator, but between the elevator and our hotel rooms were several steps up and down along the corridors. The bathroom also had an elevated shower area. If you need handicapped access, make sure you do some careful research because this hotel is hardly unique when it comes to inconvenient location of steps, as I found out in my experience at other hotels in Peru also!

I will put together another post with just photographs from this part of the trip. I initially wanted to put the pictures in this post, but this has become quite a long post already. So, the pictures will have to wait for the next post.

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