A seven-night trek through Peru
From the Andes to the Amazon and so many points in between, Peru is a land of magical mystery, ancient Incan ruins, lost civilizations and remarkable landscapes. To most first-time visitors, however, it's first and foremost the place where you'll find Machu Picchu. Of course, Peru is much more than that, but the ancient citadel is something you have to see at least once in a lifetime. Unlike many other tourist attractions, it exceeds almost every expectation. You have numerous options to reach the summit, but our recommendation is an easy and almost essential seven-night journey, taking you from touch down in Lima to the summit and back.
Dancers dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing
Lima for two nights
Your first taste of Peru should be its capital, the "City of Kings." Once little more than a stop-off en route to Machu Picchu, Lima has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. The capital city has been revitalized by new hotels and bars, and it's fueled by museums and galleries that tell the story of a city dating back to 1535. Best of all, Lima has become the gastronomic capital of South America, with two entries inside the top 10 of the coveted World's 50 Best Restaurants list. The cuisine of Lima is inspired by indigenous ingredients, flavors and traditions from every corner of the globe. Stay at the grand, elegant and centrally-located Hilton Miraflores and get your bearings early by taking a half-day Lima Walks tour around the historic center. Then, attempt to get a table at one of those two celebrated restaurants — Central (the world's 6th best) and Maido (the 10th).
After two nights of exploration and glorious gluttony, it's time to depart and fly east.
Plaza de Armas in Cusco
Cusco for two nights
An hour's flight from Lima lies Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and key stop-off on the way to Machu Picchu. Climbing from Lima to Machu Picchu's near 8,000-foot altitude in one trip will likely bring on altitude sickness, so head to Cusco first. It's 11,000 feet above sea level, giving you the chance to acclimate at leisure as you explore what was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Check in at the historic Marriott hotel, Palacio Del Inka, built in 1438 and once part of the Inca Temple of the Sun. It's located close to the Plaza de Armas, the square at the heart of a very walkable city. Purchase a Boleto Turistico del Cusco pass, which gives you access to most of the historic sites in Cusco and along the Sacred Valley, excluding Machu Picchu. Take the 45-minute walk out to the remarkable Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman that overlook the city, then walk back to Cusco via San Blas, a charming neighborhood full of galleries and boutiques. You'll want to reward yourself for the effort by stopping in at the Museo del Pisco for at least one pisco sour.
Soon enough, your thoughts will turn again to Machu Picchu. It's possible to do a day trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu and back. It's also possible (and very popular) to trek along the Sacred Valley, taking the classic Inca Trail over five days. But for this vacation, we're suggesting the more leisurely route, first taking a train from Cusco to Ollantaytambo.
The cobbled streets of Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo for one night
Check out early and take a train 90 minutes northwest to "Ollanta," a beautiful small town full of cobbled streets and charming cafes deep in the Sacred Valley — the lush green valley just north of Cusco. Staying in the town will allow you to explore the incredible Inca ruins that dot the surrounding area when many of the other day-tripping tourists have gone. Apu Lodge and Casa de Wow are two excellent options for a brief overnight stay.
Aguas Calientes for one night
From Ollantaytambo, jump back on the train that will take you to Aguas Calientes, the last stop before Machu Picchu. Book at the town's standout hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, and from there begin your climb up into the clouds — a strenuous 90-minute walk or 25-minute bus ride.
Machu Picchu gets crowded quickly, so make sure you book your tickets via the Ministerio de Cultura's website as far in advance as possible. Basic entry will get you into Machu Picchu's main ruins, terraces and temples. For more elevated views, you'll need to upgrade your ticket to include Montaña Machu Picchu, a mountain with no ruins but fewer crowds, or the smaller Huayna Picchu, where you'll find the ceremonial Temple of the Moon. Staying a night in Aguas Calientes allows you to return to Machu Picchu when it reopens at 6:00 a.m. to see it in a different light, and with less tourists.
After lunch, and perhaps an afternoon at Aguas Calientes' open-air thermal springs, catch the train back to Cusco for the final leg of your journey.
Pisco sour cocktail
Lima for one night
If time and budget allow, you can keep exploring Peru's other experiences: an Amazon boat cruise, hiking Cañón del Colca or rafting the Urubamba River. Our suggestion is to return to Cusco and fly back to Lima for one final night, purely to remind yourself of the city's standing as South America's gastronomic capital. Eat well once more and sleep in luxury at Hotel B, then fly home with a happy heart.
View of Lima from Miraflores
When to visitBeing a large country with many microclimates, there is no right time to visit Peru. However, if your whole journey revolves around Machu Picchu and making sure your photos have clear blue skies and sun-lit ruins, aim to visit between May and October when the weather is at its best. Avoid November through March during the rainy season.
Things to know while visiting
- Machu Picchu translates as "Old Peak" or "Ancient Mountain," and its ruins were rediscovered in 1911 by the American archeologist Hiram Bingham.
- The Cerro Blanco in the Sechura Desert is the highest sand dune in the world, measuring 3,860 feet at its summit. It's perfect for sand boarding, and the descent takes four minutes at top speed.
- Peru is said to be home to more than 3,000 different varieties of potato.
- Memorize the popular phrase: "Soy mas Peruano que la papa." Translation: "I am more Peruvian than the potato".
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Eric Rubens (@erubes1) is a MileagePlus member based in Southern California. He is a photographer/videographer who loves meeting new people and traveling the world.
When planning a vacation, one of the first steps is picking a theme. If you're in search of mountains, many look to the Rockies, Swiss Alps, or Dolomites. If a tropical vacation is desired, Hawaii, Mexico, or the Caribbean may be calling your name. There are so many beautiful destinations in this world, but is it possible for one of them to be blessed with incredible mountains, picturesque beaches, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the world?
Cape Town is one of the few places I've found that seems to have it all. With the iconic Table Mountain and Lion's Head rising out of the city, there are hikes leading up to majestic views down the African coastline. The beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay are some of the most incredible beaches on this planet. If wildlife peaks your interest, there's Boulder's Beach, home to one of the only land-based penguin colonies in the world. Did I mention the safari is a short trip away? Add in an exchange rate that is very favorable and you have all the makings of a trip you'll never forget.
Camps Bay Beach
Planning a trip to Africa for the first time can be both intimidating and a bit challenging. I found very few of my friends or family had been, which made my voyage to South Africa even more exciting. Cape Town is home to a hip urban scene, a vibrant melting pot of culture, and jaw dropping landscapes that'll make you wonder why you didn't visit sooner. There's no city quite like it, and this list of top things to do will make sure you maximize your time in the Mother City. Several theories exist regarding the origin of Cape Town's nickname as "The Mother City." Some say it can be traced back to the beginning of the city's history as a trading hub in the 17th century, or its status as South Africa's first metropolis. But many locals have their own theories – one running joke is that it takes nine months to get anything done in the very laid back city.
View from the top of Table Mountain
#1: Take a hike or tram up to the top of Table Mountain
This iconic mountain rising from the city is arguably home to Cape Town's best views. The 2 to 3-hour hike to the top makes for a fun activity if you're up for it. Otherwise, take in the view from the aerial cableway, complete with 360-degree rotating floor and running every 5 minutes from the base. Once up top, there's plenty of walking trails, souvenir shopping, and food and drinks. Table Mountain is known for the blanket of fog that rolls over the peak, so weather at the top can change quickly. Make sure to check the weather before heading up and bring a jacket, since the wind can be intense!
Penguins at Boulder Beach
#2: Visit the penguin colony at Boulder's Beach
Even though it's an hour or so drive from the city, visiting Boulder's Beach and its nearly 2,000 penguins is an unforgettable experience. Watching the penguins lounge on the beach and come in and out of the waves makes for some incredible pictures and a unique encounter. You can also swim in the nearby waters and will often come face to face with members of the colony.
#3: Wake up for a sunrise hike up Lion's Head
One of the most bucket list-worthy activities on a visit to Cape Town is catching sunrise atop Lion's Head. It's a challenging hike and not for those with a fear of heights, but you won't soon forget the view from the summit. If you're willing to scramble and make your way up the final ladders, 360-degree views of the city await, and the sunrise over the city is one for the ages.
#4: Explore the Cape Winelands and the beauty of Constantia
South Africa has some of the best vineyards in the world. Even though the towns of Franschooek and Stellenbosch get the majority of the press, nearby Constantia is home to the oldest wine estate in the country, Groot Constantia. Its proximity (just 15 minutes from the city center) makes it perfect for a day trip. The city sightseeing "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus tour has a purple line that connects through this region, so getting here is easy! If wine tasting isn't your thing, the Alphen Trail is a beautiful trek through the countryside and sure to put you in a relaxing mood.
Chapman's Peak Drive
#5: Take a road trip down Chapman's Peak Drive
One of the most beautiful drives awaits just south of Cape Town. Carved into the cliffs and winding along the ocean, this road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek offers majestic views of the coastline. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road since the sheer beauty can be distracting!
#6: View the diversity of flora throughout Kirstenbosch Gardens
The flora and fauna of South Africa is some of the most diverse in the world, and no place showcases it better than Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Tucked along the slopes of Table Mountain and widely recognized as one of the most impressive gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch is home to over 7,000 species of plants. The newly completed Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway allows you to walk above the tree line. If you visit in summer, try to make one of the Sunday concerts in the gardens, which are a hit with locals and visitors.
V & A Waterfront
#7: Shop your heart out along the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Known as one of the biggest tourism hubs of the city, the always bustling V&A Waterfront is home to many of Cape Town's finest restaurants, shopping, and the launching point of many tours. There are countless ways to spend your time here, but make sure to stop by the V&A food market, where over 40 vendors sell gourmet street food from around the world.
#8: Make your way to the Southern tip of Africa
If you're up for an adventure, take a trip to The Cape of Good Hope. You'll most likely encounter penguins, baboons, and who knows what else along the 1.5-hour drive. The weather can be very unpredictable, so make sure to check it before making the trip south. While there, visit the lighthouse and if you're hungry grab a bite at the appropriately named Two Oceans Restaurant.
#9 Take a tour of historical Robben Island
Even though the prison has been shut down since 1996, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Cape Town's most popular tours. Tours take around 4 hours including a ferry ride to the island famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned.
-Use the "hop on hop off" bus for an easy guided tour of the city. The route takes you to many of the best spots throughout Cape Town and allows you to explore at your own pace. Buy tickets ahead of time to save on fare!
-Cape Town has some incredible boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. My favorites are: Tintswalo Atlantic, 52 De Wet Luxury Boutique Hotel, and Derwent House Boutique Hotel.
-Make sure you don't carry too many valuables on you if you're walking around at night. Although beautiful and mostly safe, there is still a good amount of opportunistic crime throughout the city. Always pay attention to your surroundings.
Opinions expressed by the author are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of United.
Planning a Caribbean vacation around hurricane season isn't necessary if you head to Dutch-affiliated Curaçao. The southernmost of all Caribbean islands — just off Venezuela's coast — is rarely even grazed by hurricanes. It also has an ideal tropical climate with average winter highs in the 80s (and water temperatures to match) and only about one inch of rain a month.
Curaçao will be more accessible beginning December 7, 2019, when weekly nonstops begin from New York/Newark on United Airlines. The new seasonal service on 737-700 aircraft makes Curaçao the 21st Caribbean island destination for United, which already flies to the other two nearby "ABC islands" — Aruba and Bonaire. Why choose Curaçao? Because like the island's famous blue liqueur, it's colorful, exotic and appealing.
Jet lag won't be an issue for Americans flying to Curaçao because it's in the same time zone as New York. Nor is it a long flight — about five hours nonstop from New York/Newark. Upon arrival you can take a taxi, rental car or hotel shuttle from Curaçao International Airport to your accommodations — a resort (reserve early), boutique inn, vacation house or B&B. Most are in Willemstad, a coastal city only five miles from the airport.
Forts above the port
Straat Curaçao Getty Images/iStockphoto
The historic city center and harbor areas of Curaçao's only city of Willemstad are designated as a UNESCO Heritage Site, mostly for the 17th to 19th century Dutch colonial architecture of the houses and forts. The houses are painted a rainbow of bright colors in the Caribbean tradition, and the city is packed with forts — Fort Amsterdam (built in 1636), Fort Beekenburg (1703), Fort Nassau (1797) and Fort Waakzaamheid (1803). All four offer stellar views and are free to visitors.
On the waterfront
Curacao colorful houses Getty Images/iStockphoto
Along with forts, the harbor area is home to the oldest continuously operating synagogue (and museum) in the Western Hemisphere, an African art museum that tells the story of the slave trade through West African art and artifacts, and a maritime museum. These visits can be followed by a tour and tasting at the Curaçao Distillery, where you'll see how the peels of the native Laraha bitter oranges are turned into curaçao liqueur.
Snorkel from the sand
Two people snorkeling off coast of tropical island Getty Images
The chief allure of this 38-mile-long island is, of course, the ocean. Besides sunbathing at any of the dozens of powder-sand cove beaches, you can wade right in and snorkel in the turquoise, bathlike sea, usually around 80 degrees. Visibility is up to 100 feet, a snorkeler's dream. More adventurous types can snorkel or dive from day boats that head to prime diving sites like the Mushroom Forest (mushroom-shaped coral), Blue Cave and several shipwreck spots. There's also a nice aquarium on the shoreline where marine life is seen up close in their natural habitat —from land or aboard a minisub that dives 1,000 feet.
Curaçao is a convenient tropical destination for Americans because U.S. dollars and credit cards are commonly accepted, English is widely spoken and no visa is required. But the local culture and cuisine are still exotic enough to be intriguing with local specialties like stewed iguana and cactus soup served in restaurants and from food carts in Willemstad.
If you go
One of our most treasured events of the year is here – Fantasy Flights! Our Fantasy Flights bring holiday cheer to children in need by taking them on a special trip to the "North Pole." Each station creates a North Pole with care, in preparation for all the children who will soon be there…
Our participating stations this year are HNL (Honolulu), FRA (Frankfurt), CLE (Cleveland), DEN (Denver), IAD (Washington Dulles), LAX (Los Angeles), SFO (San Francisco), MCO (Orlando), ORD (Chicago O'Hare), GUM (Guam), EWR (New York/New Jersey), NRT (Tokyo-Narita), PHX (Phoenix), IAH (Houston), MCI (Kansas City) and SAT (San Antonio).
Please stay tuned for stories, photos and more from these magical events. #UAFantasyFlights