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I don’t do as much freelance writing as I used to since I’m busy enough running my online media company’s own blogs and websites, so I’ve gotten kind of slack about putting up links to travel stories I’ve written for other publications. Catch-up time now for ones from Peru and Mexico.

A few years back I won a voucher from tour company Viator that I eventually used for an excursion in Puerto Vallarta. That initial correspondence led to me doing a bunch of stories for their blog over the years though and here are two that came out recently.

Out-of-the-ordinary Peru: Ballestas Islands and the Nazca Lines

Watery Mexico City on the Canals of Xochimilco

The one print magazine I still write for on a regular basis is Global Traveler. Here’s the destination feature of mine they published recently on Mexico City:

Mexican Gusto

The print version is much prettier of course, but you need to be a subscriber or pick it up on a newsstand or in an airport lounge for that.

Next up? I’m doing the book reviews in the next issue of Perceptive Travel, coming out this Sunday.

Peru is a travel bargain. Or Peru is very expensive. It all depends on how you travel.

I inhabit the strange world of travel writing where for my job I go back and forth from cheap hotels to plush palaces, from crowded buses to executive taxis depending on the assignment. That shows me over and over again that how cheap a destination is perceived to be depends greatly on who you ask.

Which brings us to Peru. Exhibit A is two photos from Lima, where I am right now. If you eat where locals of average means eat and make a call or use the internet cafe where they go, your money goes a long way here, even in the capital city. It’s currently 2.75 soles to the dollar. You can get almost anywhere in a taxi for a few bucks, the buses are almost free if you can figure them out, and you can go on HostelBookers.com and find a place to sleep for under $10. Below is what I paid through them for a nice hotel in a good neighborhood of Miraflores: $29 a night with a big private room, steaming hot shower with towels, satellite TV, breakfast, and free internet. Not bad.

If you’re staying at one of the top hotels in town, however, your experience will be quite different. Exhibit B is a photo taken at a place I stayed later in the week while on assignment. Funny enough, that collection of a little bottle of Argentine wine, Ritz crackers, processed cheese, and fancy Slim Jims at the swanky hotel is more than my previous hotel room was! At a JW Marriott I was in, a bottle of Evian water was $9 for a liter, more than a good meal at dozens of restaurants in central Miraflores, or a “meal of the day” for you and a few friends at a basic place. Or three liters of “box wine” from Argentina to share, for that matter.

Here’s a shot that’ll really show you what you can spend in Peru if you want. It’s the rate for one night at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge right by the ruins. Granted this includes meals since you can’t go anywhere once you’re there, but still, the $825 (lowest available rate) it costs for one night there will last many backpackers for weeks. The funny part? It’s usually sold out. You have to book months in advance.

So if you tell your aunt Ester that Peru is really cheap after she just got back from a luxury tour of Peru that cost her and your uncle almost 10 grand, she’s liable to disagree. For what she spent, she could have been in Europe.

The same can be true for a lot of the cheapest places to travel in the world. If you ask someone who has stayed in a plush palace hotel resort in Rajasthan, then India is not really much of a bargain. A backpacker staying in guesthouses? A very different story. The same is true in Thailand, Mexico, Hungary, or pretty much anywhere with a good upscale tourism infrastructure, but low costs for locals.

For you and me, Peru can be a very inexpensive destination, even though you will have to blow your budget to hike the Inca Trail or get out to Machu Picchu on the train and back. For others, it depends…

I’m in Paracas, Peru right now, which is not exactly the prettiest place in the world. A red tide swept through recently, leaving a beach already the color of concrete covered with a carpet of dead crabs. The water is the color of algae, big ships are anchored offshore past the fishing boat fleet. A sign on the beach by the hotel where I’m staying has a sign that says “Swim at your own risk. Stingray zone.” That’s a first.

But people don’t come here to admire the pretty buildings, most of them either brand new or in tatters after a devastating earthquake four years ago that leveled nearby Pisco. They come here to get up close to the sea wildlife hanging out around the Ballestra Islands about a half hour offshore. This area is often nicknamed “the poor man’s Galapagos” because instead of paying three grand or more per person for a week, you spend $15 or so for a few hours’ boat tour.

It’s well worth it, especially if you’re heading down to Arequipa, Nazca, or Puno anyway. This is three hours south of Lima on the way.

I’ll let the photos do the talking for what you see, but the scenery here is dramatic on its own, with lots of eroded arches and caves. Then every available surface is covered with Peruvian boobies, sea lions, Humbolt Penguins, and crabs. Swarms of birds the likes I’ve never seen before are a constant—so many that some hillsides look like they’re heads with hair moving in the breeze. Wear a hat in case a ¬†flock of them decides to fly over your boat!

Naturally there’s a lot of guano coming out of these birds’ butts and it gets collected several times a year to use as fertilizer, making the desert bloom nearby. Most of it goes on top the asparagus crop: Peru is supposedly the #1 exporter of asparagus. Wash well before eating!

And by the way, we didn’t see any stingrays, but a group of dolphins swam right by the boat at the end. Nice topper to the tour.

If you’re going to be spending time in South America, get on the e-mail list for South America Explorers Club before you go and make the investment in a membership with them before you take off. I always find some good information from them before it comes out in the mainstream news, including this little tidbit on train service in Peru. I’m going to quote their newsletter verbatim here as I don’t have any further insight on it.

Machu Picchu Train Update – The long-awaited new competitive train services to Machu Picchu have begun! Inca Rail, which has an office on Avenida el Sol runs trains daily from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Despite originally only offering a high-end luxury train service, Inca Rail are now offering budget options and have frequent special offers, visit their office (Avenida del Sol 611) or website for further details – www.incarail.com. Andean Railways Corp, who also have an office on Avenida el Sol, hope to begin service in the very near future with a higher level of service at a comparable price to PeruRail. Andean Railways will have early trains from Ollantaytambo, leaving 7:30 a.m. with a return at 4:30 p.m., at an expected RT price of about $120; a midday service, leaving 12:36 p.m. with a return 10:30 a.m. next day would be somewhat less, around $100. The Andean Rail website is not as yet operational, but we will keep you updated as to any changes.

Now I’m assuming those prices are in Peruvian soles (about three to the dollar) as otherwise those fares definitely don’t seem like anything worth jumping up and down about. I remember paying less than $50 for my one-way trip upper-class seat from Aguas Caliente to Ollantaytambo just over a year ago after I hiked the Salkantay Trail. But if there is relief from the current monopoly, that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing as prices have kept going up up up the past five years and the stream of visitors to Machu Picchu shows no signs of slowing.

I did have a cool experience on that train though that I haven’t ever documented before, so here’s my chance.

We’re rolling along the tracks at night, people chatting, reading, or sleeping. Next thing I know some music comes on, there’s an announcement about a fashion show, and the two attendants take turns strutting their stuff down the aisle of the train car, donning “Made in Peru” fashions that passengers could purchase. There were sweaters, shawls, scarves, and hats, all displayed on a fast-changing model/attendant. It was dark, so I couldn’t get many good photos, but here’s one of each model.

It was one of those strange experiences that’s totally unexpected, part of the joy of travel that we lose when we know everything that is going to happen in advance. It’s still very vivid in my mind as a result.

Most tourists that come to Peru go through a well-defined circuit. I was right with the herd the first time I visited, so this time I wanted to spend more time in the Sacred Valley, the beautiful region between Cusco and Machu Picchu that most people just breeze through on a one-day tour. (Or they take the train through it and don’t even stop.)

This is a fantastic region though, a string of towns and trails that in lesser countries would be the main draw. You’ve got stunning scenery, impressive Inca ruins, women decked out in their embroidered cacophony of colors, sprawling markets, and a calendar of festivals that could keep you partying for weeks.

There are a few greatest hits attractions that are on all the tour bus stops, such as Pisac and Chinchero on market days. There are other spots, however, where you will only find intrepid backpackers who aren’t in a hurry. Head into the mountains and you’ll see more animals than people.

After I met the alpaca above at 4,050 meters, I descended with a guide through a canyon and past this Pukamarka village, which was so picture-perfect it was hard to believe it was not part of a movie set. But not an electric wire in sight.

Past the village, on the other side of the pass, we went through a canyon where we saw an eagle and falcons were fighting in the air overhead. Then the trail came to a gate and an incredible Inca structure that almost nobody visits, Huchuy Qosqo. It is perched 3,350 meters above the town of Lamay and the thing is, we took the easy way to get there. If you take the most direct route, it’s a very steep and long hike up the side of the mountain, which will take you several hours and a probably a gallon of water. Amazingly, there’s still a hut up there manned by someone who collects admission ($7).

My guide was from Andean Experience, but if you put “Huchuy Qosqo” into a search you’ll find dozens of operators doing one-day hikes to the ruins by the route I took or incorporating this into longer group treks. You can do it on your own too in theory, but the trails aren’t marked and the locals speak Quechua, so you’d better find a good map.

There are sites like this all over the Sacred Valley, and villages where I longed to stop and stay for a week. Alas, there’s never enough time…