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Machu Picchu has become one of the most popular travel destinations in South America — and it’s easy to see why. The centuries-old ruins of a lavish estate seem to float above the rest of the world, offering incredible views of jagged peaks jutting through the clouds and condors soaring over lush river valleys. It can be very expensive to reach this amazing site, but new TPG Contributor William Morse shows you how to use points and miles to book an unforgettable Machu Picchu adventure for next to nothing. (All photos by the author and his travel companions, unless specified.)
My friends Ryan, Mark and I wanted to go somewhere together, but as three men in our thirties with dozens of countries under our cumulative belts, the typical relaxing vacation was out of the question. We needed a challenge — a fancy challenge. We narrowed down our options to Machu Picchu, which seemed remote enough for adventure but on a path lined with great points-and-miles redemption opportunities.
By combining the United MileagePlus miles I earned from my United MileagePlus Explorer and United Mileage Plus Explorer Business cards and by transferring Chase Ultimate Reward points that I earned with my Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus Business, I was able to book two United round-trip business-class tickets from LAX to Lima (LIM) for 140,000 points and $140.18. Without this redemption, the cost of these tickets would have been $7,371.98.
Alternatively, American Airlines offers round-trip flights for as little as 35,000 American AAdvantage miles in economy or 60,000 in business when MileSAAver redemptions are available. This is an exceptionally good deal if you have a Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, which gives you a 10% mileage refund on miles redeemed up to a total of 10,000 miles a year. This drops your total to 110,000 miles and roughly $300 in taxes and fees for two round-trip business class tickets. However, when searching I didn’t find nearly the award availability or ease of travel as I did by using United.
We booked through United but flew on an Avianca, which (aside from some pretty lackluster in-flight service) was a nice experience on an aging A320 with larger seats and slightly more edible food that what you’d expect from domestic first.
Ten hours later we landed in Lima and took a cab to our hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton Miraflores. Just recently, redemption rates here have increased to 10,000 Starpoints per night, which is a little steep, but we were lucky and booked our rooms for 7,000 Starpoints per night before the rate hike; cash rates start at about $170 a night. The hotel was really nice, but with only 36 hours in Lima, we were less concerned about comfort and amenities than a great location — which this place had.
However, for the best location in Miraflores (see more on this below), check out the JW Marriott Hotel Lima, which offers views of the Pacific. This Category 8 property starts at $173 or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night.
What to Do in Lima
One of Lima’s most cosmopolitan neighborhoods, Miraflores is set about 20 minutes from downtown, high on a cliff that plummets sharply down and rolls across the PanAmerican Highway out into the Pacific. It’s packed with dining and shopping options and centrally located to attractions like the Church of San Francisco — a 16th-century monastery with beautifully preserved Baroque architecture and catacombs filled with a larger skeleton collection than a Halloween wholesaler.
If dead people aren’t your thing, take a trip up to the Museo Larco, a privately owned museum housed in an 18th-century vice-royal building set on top of a 7th-century pyramid with a collection of erotic pottery so detailed it could make a blind cattle-rancher blush.
Dead people and erotic pottery — by now you’re probably pretty hungry. (Fortunately, Lima has been dubbed the gastronomic capital of South America.) Go grab a Pisco Sour and some delicious ceviche at Cala, an upscale, local and seafood-focused favorite that sits right above the Pacific. Stick around after the sun sets when it turns into a lounge with drinks and dancing.
On to Cusco
The only practical way to get to Machu Picchu is to fly to the city of Cusco — a UNESCO World Heritage site and former capital of the Incan Empire. Carriers that fly from Lima (LIM) to Cusco (CUZ) include LAN, Avianca and Star Peru; we flew on Peruvian Air, for about $144 per person. This flight we paid for out of pocket, but I used my Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to make sure I earned double points and had the option to redeem for my travel costs plus a 10% bonus on miles redeemed.
Once in Cusco, we stayed at the SPG Category 4 Palacio del Inka and booked a room for two nights using SPG Cash & Points at 5,000 points and $75. With my SPG Platinum status, I used a Suite Night Award to upgrade to a one-bedroom suite — a no brainer at this historical spot. (We used points earned with the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card in American Express to stay on the same grounds where Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro once slept; legend has it he chose the breakfast as his complimentary Platinum gift upon arrival.) A former Spanish Colonial palace with impeccable stonework, meticulous grounds and countless courtyards in the heart of historic Cusco, the hotel dates back almost 500 years and was constructed on Inca temple ruins.
The JW Marriott El Convento (also a Visa Signature Hotel) starts at $159 or 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. The Wyndham Cusco Saqsayhuaman is another option, but with Wyndham’s new flat 15,000 points-per-night redemption rate and the hotel’s low average nightly room rate of $79, you’d be wiser to save your points for a more valuable redemption.
While you’re in Cusco, which serves as the launching point to Machu Picchu, be sure to pick up some clothing made with alpaca wool, and if you’re adventurous enough, try the local delicacy cuy — or as we call it in North America, guinea pig. Imagine a greasier and gamier duck that’s really difficult to eat and still has a head on it: ladies and gentlemen, I present cuy!
After 36 hours in Cusco we left our hotel at 2:30am and jumped into a van on our way to Sorapampa — base camp and starting point for hiking the Salkantay Trek. We hired Salkantay Trekking to guide us on the two-day, two-night journey, which ran $310 per person because we each provided our own train ticket; otherwise, the per-person price would have been $380.
However, rather than paying for my trek in cash, I could have used Chase Ultimate Rewards’ Activities option to book a five-day trek for as little as 37,871 Ultimate Rewards points, which — since you get 1.25x your points when spent on travel — is a $473.39 value. (I also found it interesting that you can actually book an “Ayahuasca Spiritual Experience with Wachuma San Pedro” for as little as 24,237 points — but I’m not asking any questions.)
The Salkantay Trek itself was breathtaking. We hiked across a glacier, alongside wild horses drinking from gushing streams, through an emerald green valley to an altitude of 15,200 feet under the shadow of Mount Salkantay and its 20,574-foot peak jutting so fiercely into the sky you’d think it was trying to escape the Earth. And after another day and a half through jungle valleys, along side waterfalls and over rickety bridges, we finished our 33-mile trek at sunrise at Machu Picchu with the place nearly to ourselves. Mist seemed to tumble through the ruins as the sun crept over the same rugged peaks that kept this place a secret for so long. The magnitude of the compound is so expansive and remote, pictures can hardly do it justice.
Machu Picchu could’ve kept us for hours longer but it was time for the next leg of our adventure — a panoramic-train-ride through the Andes on Peru Rail’s Vistadome train from Machu Picchu to Tambo del Inka, another SPG Luxury Collection property with its own train station. For ~$100 one-way, we rolled through more lush jungle, passing craggy, sky-scraping mountains. The scenery from our car entertained us until a clown wearing a wig and a strange rat mask came dancing through the car, enticing passengers to buy overpriced alpaca goods from the train staff who were now serving as fashion models, using the aisle as their runway.
I had so wanted to like the train … but something was lost in translation.
We arrived at the Tambo del Inka, which is nestled in Peru’s Sacred Valley, a fertile country setting hugged by hills and split by the Urubama River — and the perfect place to rest after our trek. We booked two nights at this SPG Category 5, LEED-certified property for 12,000 Starpoints per night, adding a Suite Night Award which gave us a very large one-bedroom suite which would have cost $528 per night after taxes and fees. Built with rich woods and contrasting stone, the hotel features the Hawa Restaurant and The Spa at Valle Sagrado; while the pool and sauna was as far as I got with the spa, I tried Hawa’s sea bass with vegetable risotto made with organic vegetables grown on the grounds. It was the best thing I ate the entire trip.
From there we said goodbye and started our long trek back to Cusco, then on to Lima, where we had a long layover on our way back home. The return trip always proves most valuable when flying business or first, but I was so tired that I simply sprawled out and slept through the meal service, still full from all that cuy.
A culturally rich country filled with diverse landscapes, Peru proves that you can combine a rugged adventure with luxury hotels and first-class flights for next to nothing using points and miles. I encourage you to go there yourself — someday soon!