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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Peru Vacation Day 9: Flying Back Home

This was the last day of our Peru vacation, as mentioned in the quick update here. We were scheduled to fly back from Cusco to Washington Dulles airport, with stops in Lima and El Salvador. We had packed up all our stuff carefully the previous day, making sure that the breakable handicrafts we had picked up were wrapped in several layers of clothes, and laid between more layers of clothes etc.

Cusco-Lima-El Salvador-Washington Dulles MapMap showing our flight route back to the US. Cusco (CUZ) to Lima (LIM) to El Salvador (SAL) to Washington Dulles (IAD). The distance are 364 miles, 1932 miles and 1894 miles, making the total distance 4190 miles.

The Taypikala hotel in Cusco has a check-out time of 9 AM, which is quite early. Our flight out of Cusco was scheduled for 12:10 PM, and our guide told us somebody would be by to pick us up from the hotel at 10:00 AM. This meant that we had to have breakfast, finish packing, then move all our belongings to the lobby and turn in our room keys before 9 AM. For over an hour, we then had to wait in the lobby of the hotel.

We were picked up at our hotel at 10:15 and dropped at the airport at 10:25. There was a long line for check-in, caused in part because all passenger bags were being hand-checked prior to check-in. The inspector questioned me for a few minutes about how long I had been at Cusco, where I had visited, and what I had seen, etc.

Fortunately, the hand-checking did not involve completely unpacking and repacking the bags since that would have been time-consuming with all the carefully packed handicrafts layered in among the clothes to protect them.

We reached the counter at around 11:00. Check-in was quite quick, and we were done by 11:10. He checked our bags through to Washington Dulles, gave us our boarding passes for all three flights, and asked us to pay the departure tax for Cusco before going through security to the gate.

There were no lines for pretty much anything else in Cusco. We were the only passengers in front of the departure tax counters. The tax is $4.28, and when I paid it with a $5 note, I was given 2 peruvian soles as change rather than $0.72 in American currency. We then headed to security, where again there were no lines at all. I was asked to remove my belt, but I did not have to remove my shoes or take my laptop out of its bag.

Gate area in Cusco airportThe gate area at Cusco Airport. The airport had lots of shopping to cater to travelers' needs for alcohol, chocolate, jewelry, and other duty-free items.

The gate area at the airport does not have a public address system. Gate agents use a portable system with a microphone attached to an amplifier and speakers to make announcements. At about 11:35, the gate agent called us over and upgraded us to first class on the flight (I have no idea why), with new seat assignments.

Boarding began at 11:50, and being in first class, we boarded pretty quickly and were in our seats by 11:55. We had to walk down a long ramp to the tarmac and then get on board the aircraft through stairs. Passengers seated in the rear of the aircraft were boarded through stairs leading up to the rear door of the aircraft.

Snack on Cusco-Lima flightPicture of the snack offered in first class on the flight from Cusco to Lima. Obviously this is a little more substantial than the snack that was offered in coach class on the flight from Lima to Cusco about a week back (that is pictured in this post).

We were provided pre-departure drinks. Doors were closed just before 12:10, and we pushed back just after 12:10. There was a live safety demonstration in Spanish and English. We taxied onto runway 28 and went all the way to its end before turning around on it and taking off on runway 10. We were given a more substantial snack on this flight than we had been given in economy class in the reverse direction. The view was decent for the first 45 minutes or so, after which we descended through thick overcast for our landing on runway 15 at Lima.

The correct timings for this flight were 12:10 - 13:30.

Cusco-Lima aerial view over AndesAn aerial view of a river bed in the Andes mountains between Cusco and Lima.

At Lima, all passengers, whether connecting or terminating, domestic or international, are herded down a corridor that winds its way eventually to the baggage claim area of Lima airport. From there, connecting passengers have to make their way back to the check-in area (it is all on the lower level of the airport, with only the gates being on the upper level of the airport), pass through there and find their way back to the departure gates after paying the Lima airport exit taxes and passing security, etc. It was a long walk, and signage was not great, but we managed pretty well.

Since we already had boarding passes for this flight, issued at Cusco, we did not have to spend any time in the check-in area or stand in any lines there. We quickly made our way past the area, up escalators, to the long snaking line for paying the departure tax (which was $31.00). After that, we passed through security (I was hand-wanded because the passport in my pocket tripped the magnetometer), and then through emigration clearance. The entry passes stuck inside our passports when we entered the country were taken out, our passports were exit-stamped, and we were allowed to proceed to our gate. We reached the gate by 14:00.

Lima airport international gates areaThe entrance to the international flight area at Lima airport. This airport, once again was filled with lots of stores selling lots of duty-free goods to travelers.

Our aircraft arrived around 14:05. Boarding began at 14:30, and we were in our seats by 14:40. Headsets were passed out to passengers before push-back. We pushed back at 15:05, and the safety demonstration was done by video with Spanish audio and English subtitles (this was the only TACA flight we were on on which the safety demonstration was not done live by flight attendants). We took off on runway 15 after a leisurely taxi.

We flew along the pacific coast of South America for about the first hour of our flight. The land appeared quite barren, with few cities along the coast. I could see several areas with sand-dunes, and a few dried river-beds and estuaries. Mountains were visible farther inland at times. There were several rocky islands just off the coast that seemed mostly uninhabited.

After the first hour, we flew inland for the next half an hour or so. The landscape was not very different from before though. We did fly over a couple of cities that looked reasonably large, but without a moving map to consult, I had no idea what cities they were.

The dry landscape on the coastline was not very surprising in retrospect. My research revealed that Lima is considered to be located in a desert (albeit a coastal desert), and is in fact considered the second largest city in the world located in a desert, after Cairo.

After that, we crossed the coastline once again, and started flying over the open ocean. Cloud cover also increased gradually, and soon afterwards, we started flying through light overcast which reduced visibility to a few hundred feet. The meal service reached our seats around this time. Unfortunately, they had run out of meal choices entirely, and they just handed passengers the only remaining meals they had (which was some kind of pasta dish which was unremarkable, but not bad).

We encountered a couple of short bouts of mild turbulence, but the flight was quite smooth otherwise. I watched some video without audio (I did not take headsets when they were handed out). As we descended below the clouds on approach, I saw that we were once again flying along the coastline, but the landscape was very different. It was very green with lots of villages, and several muddy rivers flowing into the ocean. We turned inland and landed on runway 7.

The correct timings for this flight were 14:58 - 18:23.

San Salvador airport was a lot easier to navigate than Lima airport. The gate we arrived at was the departure gate for a US-bound flight, so we were not allowed to enter the gate area. Instead, we were led along a corridor past the gate, and then onto the main concourse. To get into the gate area for our US-bound flight, we had to go through a make-shift, all-manual, security setup at the entrance to our gate.

As I waited at an adjacent gate while my family went off to use the facilities, I saw several police officers roaming the gate areas with drug-sniffing dogs. At about 18:45, we went through security to enter our gate area. We were patted down, and our bags were hand-checked (quite cursorily). There were no electronic wands, leave alone x-rays or magnetometers. It was quite painless.

Boarding began at 19:15, and we were in our seats by 19:20. The flight, once again was completely full. We pushed back at 19:40, and we took off on runway 25 in light drizzle. The drizzle intensified into a downpour as we ascended through a pretty spectacular lightning storm for the next 20 minutes. But apart from some occasional light chop, the flight remained remarkably smooth.

By the time the meal service reached us, they had once again run out of choices, and were handing out the only remaining entrée to all passengers. I dozed on and off after the meal service, and woke up fully only on descent into Washington Dulles Airport. We descended through clouds for a smooth landing on runway 19L.

We taxied for quite a while to our gate, and then we had to disembark and take a mobile lounge to the main terminal. At the main terminal, there was a long wait for immigration clearance since there were only 3 officers handling US citizens and green card holders. The immigration officer's stamp in my passport as well as on the customs form read July 12th, even though it had been July 13th for at least a couple of hours by then!

We reached the baggage carousel at about 02:25 AM. Our bags were already on the belt, so we collected them, and cleared customs quickly by 02:35 AM.

The correct timings for this flight were 19:34 - 01:53 of the next day.

Overall, this was a wonderful trip. All the flights were on time or late by inconsequential amounts. The hotels were not 5-star luxury hotels, but they were definitely quite acceptable and up to standards. All the sightseeing tours were well-organized, and executed like clock-work.

The guides seemed to be quite knowledgeable and I learned a lot given that the actual sites we visited had absolutely no explanatory signs or placards of any sort. The scenic parts of the trip did not disappoint, and the weather cooperated spectacularly.

I was also glad that none of us had any problems with the high altitude (this trip included my longest continuous stretch of time spent at an altitude of over 10,000 feet). It was more expensive than the usual trips I take, but I came out of it feeling that it was worth it. The extra costs of the upgrades we had made to the tour package (train from Cusco to Puno and bus back from Puno to Cusco) also proved to be well worth it in terms of the new and interesting sights we took in on these trips.

Just the feeling of liberation that comes from knowing that you don't have to plan each day yourself, arrange for transportation, guides, etc., that everything is already taken care of by professionals, and all you have to do is be ready at the appointed time at the appointed place, contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this vacation. Fully organized trips might end up becoming a favorite of mine in the future!

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