Travel Style

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I originally wrote this series in 2012.  As it has turned out to be quite popular, I am in the process of updating it to reflect current information for 2016.

“Top 10 Things to Do, See, and Eat in Peru” Series Index

2. Swim with the Pink Dolphins in the Amazon Rainforest

Sixty percent of Peru is Amazon Rainforest. Peru’s natural beauty rivals its historical and cultural beauty. The most accessible jumping off points for visits to the rainforest are Puerto Maldonado in the southeast and Iquitos in the northeast.

I think Iquitos is a more interesting city, but otherwise the options are pretty equal. In both cases, you’ll have the chance to take a boat down the river to the eco-lodge of your choice in all budget ranges. Choose one in your budget range with a good first-hand review or internet reviews.

Daily hikes will reveal a wealth of interesting plant and animal life. Nightly hikes or boat rides will spot the nocturnal animals like caimans. There aren’t a lot of amazing animal ecosystems left, so a chance to see a rainforest full of monkeys, butterflies, frogs, and lizards shouldn’t be missed.

But by far the coolest animal in the Peruvian rainforest is the pink dolphin–yes, they’re really pink.

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Spotting or swimming with these guys is the highlight of the Amazon. The other highlight is the lack of cell phone service. Bring some good books, and because electricity is scarce even at the lodges, a charged e-reader might be advisable.

The main lowlights in the jungle are the intense humidity and mosquitos. Bring your DEET-packed bug spray and mentally prepare yourself to be wet the entire time.

If you’re extremely adventurous, you can take boat cruises down the Amazon of varying length. You can even cross into Brazil or Bolivia via boat. I haven’t done any of the boat cruises, but I’d be interested if anyone has any experience.

Hotels: eco-lodges or tents depending on your price range.

Time needed to visit: 2-5 days.

How to Get There

4,500 Avios from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado or Lima to Iquitos each way and a few dollars in tax (flying LATAM).

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Best Time to Visit

The high tourist season for the Peruvian Amazon is the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, June to September. There are less mosquitoes and animals tend to hang out around the rivers more, making sitings a bit easier. But as always, tourist high season = higher prices. A pro to going during the wetter, more mosquito ridden time aside from cheaper services/accommodation: water levels are higher in the summer, making exploration of the river more accessible.

3. See the Less Famous Inca Ruins in the Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley is the area around Cuzco dotted with Inca ruins, tiny towns, and Quechua speakers. Most people see some of the sites as part of a package tour that includes Cuzco and Machu Picchu. The area is amazing, and should not be rushed through. It rewards the independent traveler.

I think the must-sees are Ollantaytambo, Q’allaqasa and Intihuatana at Pisac, and Chinchero Market. (Pro tip for any Spanish speakers: Quechua speakers pronounce “ll” like “li,” so Quechua place names are pronounced this way. That’s why the nickname for Ollantaytambo and the first name of Peru’s president are pronounced “Olianta.”

Ollantaytambo is a small town with cobblestone streets and stone houses. The city has been continuously inhabited for 900 years, so you can see for yourself the urban planning of the Incas. The town itself deserves a long walk in the evening. (Maybe the night before taking the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. More about taking the train from here to Machu Picchu at #1).

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But the star of Ollantaytambo is the terraced fortress smiling down on the town. These are some of the best Inca ruins in Peru and show how the Inca farmed and how they protected their cities. You can also see the stone storehouses on the mountain that the Incas used to preserve their crops. How the Incas figured out that the location and design of the storehouses preserved their crops longer is beyond me!

ollantay2Q’allasqa is one of my favorite Inca ruins, a well-preserved citadel on top of a mountain. Intihuatana is the nearby Temple of the Sun, the Inca god. What’s so great about these ruins is that they almost rival Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo in impressiveness, and they are completely deserted. Pisac’s big market days are Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, so if you come on other days, these ruins are all yours.

Finally, while Pisac’s market is bigger, I prefer Chinchero’s market. Chichero’s Sunday and smaller Tuesday/Thursday markets have all the tourist tchotchkes you can buy throughout Peru: Inca chess sets, llama figurines made with real llama fur, “alpaca” scarves (that are mostly llama fur.)

But what makes Chinchero’s market better than most markets is that it is attached to a real locals’ market. Locals come from surrounding villages to sell their crops, animals, and other products. You can watch how real markets have worked in Peru for centuries.

Here’s some bargaining advice gleaned from economic theory worthy of Gary Leff. Just be ruthless and get the lowest price you can, which is probably under half of the original asking price and may be as low as one fifth depending on the item. Aren’t you being selfish as a rich foreigner by doing this to a poor Peruvian?

No. Economic theory would suggest that if people overpay the vendors, vendors’ expected earnings will increase, causing more people to choose selling at the market on the margin. More vendors will rush in driving expected earnings back down to where the marginal vendor is indifferent between selling at the market and his old job again. So overpaying doesn’t enrich the vendors long term; it just creates more of them.

There’s plenty to do in the Sacred Valley, so don’t skip over it on the way to Machu Picchu, and see it independently if you feel comfortable traveling that way. It will be more rewarding than a packaged tour, which will rush through these site and will ensure you are always at a place packed with tourists.

Hotels: Base yourself in Cuzco, and do day trips. The exception is Ollantaytambo where I recommend an overnight en route to Machu Picchu. More in the Machu Picchu section.

Time needed to visit: 3+ days

How to Get There

You can take private cars, tour bus, or public bus from Cuzco or between these towns. To learn how to get to Lima, read the Prologue of this series. To learn how to get to from Lima to Cuzco, read the Machu Picchu section of this series.

Sarah Page’s Two Cents: The Sacred Valley

I did not travel to the Amazon when I visited Peru. I did spend time in the Sacred Valley though, and found the towns dotting it to be culturally rich and charming. While I loved the historic architecture and significance of Cuzco, it’s full of tourists. The Sacred Valley still maintains that untouched charm that off the beaten path travelers strive for.  Below are some of my recommendations that I particularly enjoyed in the Sacred Valley.

Pisac

I recommend hiking to Intihuatana from the trail that begins in the town and winds up through the Incan terraces. There are beautiful views along the way you won’t see if you take a bus to the top, and overall the hike isn’t that long (from my memory it took a couple hours, but I stopped for a lot of pictures).
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Intihuatana

Walking down from Intihuatana on the other side of the mountain is more terracing.

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Wind down through that for about 10 minute and you’ll get to a parking lot where you can either take a bus or a taxi back to the town of Pisac.

Ollantaytambo

Another Incan ruin I enjoyed that Scott didn’t mention is Puma Marca. There is a trail you can take from the town of Ollantaytambo all the way to the ruins.  Overall the hike takes anywhere from four to six hours roundtrip on foot. It winds through terraces along the side of a mountain, looking down on farms, rivers, and eucalyptus tree forests nestled in a valley. I was completely alone the entire time, except for a few local farmers and cows I passed by.

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The Incan ruins are beautiful as well, and not so commonly visited. I had them all to myself even though I was there during the peak tourist season.

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Puma Marca

The hike to Pumamarca isn’t exactly the most well marked, but you can google the directions to follow (like these). Just pack lots of water and snacks and a sense of adventure and you will be greatly rewarded. It’s one of my fondest memories in Peru, and traveling, perhaps ever.

Food in the Sacred Valley

I ate at a lovely little place called Mullu Cafe in the square of Pisac that head a massive menu full of interesting, healthy options. It’s always refreshing to find tasty, healthy food when traveling as it’s not the easiest to come by. The owner’s name is Josip, so be sure to say hello if you stop in. You can tell him Sarah from Buenos Aires sent you!

And while we’re on the subject of food: if you drive by a place near Lamay (in the Sacred Valley) with a large statue of a guinea pig, STOP.

Sarah Page Maxwell in the Sacred Valley
If you see this guinea pig statue in the Sacred Valley, stop and eat!

They serve a delicious “cuy”, aka guinea pig, which is a traditional dish in this region of Peru. The woman in this picture had spent hours roasting the cuy rotisserie-style, by HAND. The Peruvians take pride in their cuy.

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In Ollantaytambo, two meals stick out in my memory. One was the Aji de Gallina at a place called Coffee Tree. Aji de Gallina is one of my favorite traditional Peruvian dishes made with shredded chicken stewed in a spicy, creamy sauce served on top of rice. La Esquina was great for hearty, creative salads (again, a hard thing to come by traveling!) and serves the local craft beer Sacred Valley Brewing Company.

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Bottom Line

You can see exotic flora and fauna in the Amazon in one of the few truly diverse animal ecosystems left on this planet. You can see ancient Incan ruins set in charming towns throughout the Sacred Valley, with great hiking and food to boot. Don’t miss out on either of these destinations as they lay at the heart of Peruvian culture.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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21

I originally wrote this series in 2012.  As it has turned out to be quite popular, I am in the process of updating it to reflect current information for 2016.

“Top 10 Things to Do, See, and Eat in Peru” Series Index

1. Machu Picchu at Dawn

Some sites are so hyped, you think they can’t possibly deliver. Machu Picchu is one such site, but it has delivered for me three times. The key to Machu Pichhu: for the most memorable, awe-inspiring trip to Machu Picchu, do not go on a package tour, and arrive at dawn.

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the Background

The Logistics of Machu Picchu

Buy a ticket online at http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ (Clicking on the Union Jack will give you a mostly-English Spanglish page.) One entrance ticket to just Machu Picchu is $38. You don’t have to buy the ticket months in advance. There aren’t any tickets available for the following week, but if you look one week out there’s tons available (416 on July 29). Granted, this is the high season, so if you’re buying a ticket in the low season you probably don’t need to buy with much advance notice at all. But you should buy the tickets when you know what day you’ll be at Machu Picchu because there is a strict limit of 2,500 visitors per day.

To get to Machu Picchu, you have to get to Cuzco. That’s easy enough by bus from Arequipa or Puno or by air from Lima for 4,500 Avios and a few dollars tax each way on Latam Airlines (although I would check the price of cash tickets, I see them now for $78 one way).

From Cuzco, you have to get to Aguas Calientes, the city at the base of Machu Picchu. You can only do that by train…

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A clown doing tricks on the Vistadome train.

…or by hiking the Inca Trail. More on that at the bottom of this post.

Alternatively you can take the train from Cuzco (technically the station is called Poroy), Ollantaytambo, or Urubamba. I recommend taking it from Ollantaytambo but returning to Cuzco. Taking the train from Ollantaytambo is cheaper, and since you’ll want to see Ollantaytambo (see #3), it saves you from backtracking. It’s like an open jaw train ticket.

You can buy your tickets online at https://www.perurail.com/en/. I recommend buying the train ticket for the afternoon or evening before going to Machu Picchu and the latest return you can get on the day of your trip to Machu Picchu. There is not much to do in Aguas Calientes, so you don’t need to spend extra time there (although I do recommend Indio Feliz for a meal, and the hot springs are OK).

Example: If you want to see Machu Picchu on August 15, buy the Ollantaytambo – Machu Picchu ticket for the afternoon or evening of August 14, and buy the Machu Picchu – Cuzco ticket for the last train on August 15.

From Aguas Calientes, you have to get up the mountain to Machu Picchu. You can walk it or take the bus. The bus costs about $8 each way. I take the bus in the morning because the buses start at 5:30 AM, when I don’t have the strength to walk an hour plus up a steep hill at high altitude. But if you like hiking and saving $8, I think the walk back is pleasant.

When you get into Aguas Calientes on your afternoon train, go buy a bus ticket immediately from the bus departure area for the earliest departure time you can snag; buses start at 5:30 AM.

Why not do a packaged tour of Machu Picchu?

The vast majority of packaged tours get to Machu Picchu about 10 AM and leave in the mid-afternoon. Not only do you miss the incredible sun rise over the mountains, but you miss the tranquility of being at the site with only a few dozen people. You will not want to feel rushed or herded. You will want to explore Machu Picchu at your own pace.

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So I strongly recommend seeing Machu Picchu independently and being up the mountain as early as possible. That will give you a few hours to relax and explore on your own. Then right at 10 AM, as the place will become flooded with visitors, you make your escape up Huayna Picchu.

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View of the bus route from Huayna Picchu. Look at all those switchbacks for only $8.

Huayna Picchu (or Wayna Picchu) is a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu with incredible views and photo ops. The hike is about one hour up. It’s not particularly tough, but I had to stop several times to catch my breath because of the altitude. If you are in moderate physical condition, you can handle it.

Important Note about Huayna Picchu: Only a limited number of people are allowed up Huayna Picchu in two groups, one that is allowed to enter between 7 and 8 AM, and another that can enter between 10 and 11 AM. I strongly recommend being in the 10 AM group, as the first time slot is a better time to be at Machu Picchu than the second.

To get a slot in either group, you have to purchase it in advance as part of your ticket. These tickets are much harder to come by than just Machu Picchu tickets. A scan of the ticket website shows that combined Machu Picchu/Huayna Picchu tickets should probably be purchased at least a month in advance.

A ticket just to Machu Picchu is $38, while the Machu Picchu/Huayna Picchu combined ticket is $45.

Guides: I went once with a guide, but I hiked Huayna Picchu during his tour. The other times I was without a guide. That was fine for me. Any guide book will have information as good as most guides.

Outside the ruins are a number of willing guides. Make sure you negotiate the price in advance and clarify that that is the total price. “That was the price per person!” is a classic trick. No guarantee on quality. The best guides and most expensive are in Cuzco.

Getting there: 4,500 Avios from Lima-CUZ on Latam (or a cheap cash ticket), train to Aguas Calientes, bus to ruins

Hotels: Aguas Calientes has all manner of hotels in every price range. There is an $1300/night hotel at Machu Picchu itself, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. If you have the money for one room there, you probably have the money to put your favorite travel blogger up for a night in another room!

Time needed to visit: 6 hours including Huayna Picchu

When to go: The best weather coincides with peak season of June to August. December through April is the rainy season, but the crowds are gone, and Machu Picchu looks incredible shrouded in clouds. My pick is February, when the Inca Trail is closed, so there are fewer people at Machu Picchu than any other time. But if you want do a trek, that’s a different story.

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Trekking to Get to Machu Picchu

An Aside by Sarah Page

I’m going to chime in here as I traveled to Peru last year and hiked the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu over the course of four days and three nights. It was a fantastic experience that I will absolutely never forget, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend that you be in relatively good shape though if you do one of the longer treks like this, as it is a lot of hiking over the course of several days.

Some of the popular trail options include:

  • Inca (the one you’ve probably heard of, by far the most popular)
  • Salkantay
  • Lares
  • Vilcabamba
  • Cachicata

You also have options when it comes to the length of the trek you choose– packages are offered for anywhere from one day to two weeks on varying trails.

You have to have a permit to hike the Inca trail, as tickets to enter are strictly capacity controlled by the Peruvian government. They sell out months in advance (especially for the high, dry season). You can check availability for the Inca trail here. You also must do the trek with a guide authorized by the Peruvian government (they should take care of the permit for you). I do not think the rest of the trails I named above require that you have a permit to enter, nor do they require you be accompanied by a guide.

There are packages where you trek with a group (like I did) or you can hire a private guide.

If you’re going to do a trek, it’s probably wiser to choose dates during the dry season (June to August). I love hiking, but hiking when it’s wet and cold (the Salkantay trail mounts peaks that are above the snow line) can be miserable. There will be more people on the trails and at Machu Picchu at this time of course.

Here are some pictures from when I hiked the Salkantay.

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We only look a little bit cold, right? On the Salkantay you reach the highest summit on the first day: approximately 15,000 feet. The rest of the trail is much more amiable. You actual hike through multiple microclimates and are walking through coffee and banana plantations by the end– I found the diversity to be the most interesting thing by far.

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Entrepreneurial Peruvian outside of a coffee farm :)

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I used a tour operator named Enigma and also recommend it highly. The guides were super knowledgable and friendly, and the food was impressive. Every time the group arrived to a destination for a break or to camp for the night, the guides/staff had already set up a tent with table and chairs (as well as a separate tent for themselves in which they erected a make shift kitchen), where hot drinks and delicious meals were served.

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Pro tip: If you hire a porter (donkey) to carry any of your things, make sure you don’t put anything in that pack that you might want with you on a daily basis as the donkeys walk at a different pace from the people. And if you’re hiking the Salkantay especially, wear waterproof boots. I learned those lessons the hard way.

Bottom Line

If there is one thing you should not miss when you go to Peru, it’s Machu Picchu. It lives up to its reputation.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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I originally wrote this series in 2012.  As it has turned out to be quite popular, I am in the process of updating it to reflect current information for 2016. 

“Top 10 Things to Do, See, and Eat in Peru” Series Index

Why Peru?

There’s no country I know better than Peru, and I’m including the United States in that statement. Over the course of five trips, I’ve spent about six months in Peru. I even made it on a mistake fare for only $238 roundtrip from Los Angeles a few years ago.

Just to give you a taste…Peru has Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, awesome beaches, interesting deserts, amazing history, internationally-acclaimed gastronomy, one of the world’s mega-cities, friendly people, a neutral Spanish accent, cheap everything, and great mileage-redemption opportunities. 

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A field of wild growing quinoa

I get a lot of questions about what to do, see, and eat; where to stay; and how to get around in Peru, so this series is for all those that are curious.

In the coming weeks I will be updating this series I originally wrote in 2012 (linked above), with new and relevant travel logistics, prices, insight, and tips. This post will talk about some Peru basics like how to get there, when to go, and safety. I’ll start with safety because I think fear is what keeps a lot of people from seeing one of the best countries for tourism in the entire world.

Peru Safety

Peru is a developing country where you should take all the normal safety precautions. If you do, you will be in no more danger than many European countries and substantially less danger than in Central America or Mexico. In my opinion, by far the number one danger to tourists in Peru is taxis.

Not their driving–although I’ve definitely been in a taxi that reversed several blocks against oncoming traffic–but the possibility of an armed robbery by a person posing as a taxi driver. Peru, like many developing countries, has a lot of unregulated taxis operating. And anyone who slaps a taxi sticker on the window of a car is operating a taxi business.

That means enterprising criminals slap a taxi sticker on a car to rob tourists. Luckily this is very easy to avoid. You are most vulnerable at airports or bus stations when you have all your luggage and don’t know anything about the new city. At major airports, there will be an official taxi service. At the Lima airport, it is right outside the exit from baggage claim/customs. Take a taxi from there and you pay double the street price but ensure your safety.

At hotels, casinos, and nice restaurants, the doorman will assist you. He knows the safe taxi drivers, and sometimes only lets those he knows into the taxi area. Ask for a taxi de confianza, and you’ll  be on your way.

If you find a trustworthy taxi driver, ask for his card. He will love the prospect of future business, and you can call someone you know from then on.

If for whatever reason, you find yourself in a situation where it is impossible to follow these tips, at least mitigate the danger of picking a robber by only traveling in taxis with a driver and no other passengers, picking a car that has been painted such that it is a full time taxi, and pick an older driver.

From the preceding, you might conclude that taxis pose a grave risk to a traveler in Peru. In my experience, taking street taxis without following the foregoing precautions for six months, I’ve never had an issue. But for the utmost safety, choose your taxis as I’ve outlined.

An important side note about how taxis function in Peru: they do not use meters. You will need to negotiate a price to where you are going before you get in to avoid getting ripped off. If it’s your first time going to a new location you have no idea how much it should cost, ask someone trustworthy before heading off to flag a cab.

Other Safety Risks

There are other safety risks like the remnants of the Shining Path–Sendoro Luminoso–in the rural, mountainous east, and growing cocaine production in the jungle northeast. But you won’t be going near those places, so they won’t endanger you.

When to Go

The bad stuff is out of the way. Your fears have been allayed. When should you go? Anytime!

Peru is a tropical country, so the seasons are less hot-cold and more wet-dry. High season is North American summer as American and European travelers have more time to visit. That’s a fine time to visit as it’s the dry season and mild temperatures prevail.

My favorite time to visit is North American winter. January and February are the warmest months in Lima, and they’re the only time of year when the Lima isn’t covered in a low, persistent cloud cover that makes the city seem uglier and more somber (not to mention extremely humid).  Unfortunately January and February are the wet season in-and-around Cuzco, where you’ll probably spend the majority of your time. But I think Machu Picchu is especially mystical shrouded in cloud and fog, and there are less people.

All times of year are fine for visiting, and all times of year have drawbacks.

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Pisac, Peru in the Sacred Valley

How to Deal with Money

Avoid the ATMs and money exchange houses at airports as they have the worst rates (this advice does not just apply to Peru, it applies to basically anywhere). If you really need to, change a tiny bit of money at the airport just to pay your taxi driver, and then use an ATM or change house around your first accommodation to get more cash. If you are a serious international traveler, you should consider opening a Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account. It sounds a lot more serious than it actually is–the basic gist is that you will pay zero ATM fees worldwide.

There are a good deal of places in Peru (especially the smaller and more rural areas) that only take cash, so it’s good to have on hand. Small change is handy for tipping as well. Standard tipping rates are 10% on meals.

If you’re going to use a credit card abroad, it should go without saying to use one with no foreign transaction fees. And if you can, use a Mastercard as opposed to a Visa or American Express as you’ll probably lose less on currency conversion fees (a whole different beast than foreign transaction fees).

How to Get There

Lima (LIM) is the international hub in Peru with direct flights to many US cities on the following airlines:

  • American Airlines- Dallas, Miami
  • Avianca- Miami
  • Delta- Atlanta
  • LATAM- Miami, Los Angeles, New York-JFK, Washington, D.C.
  • United- Houston and Newark
  • Spirit Airlines – Fort Lauderdale

In addition, many people find great deals to Lima on Aeromexico (via Mexico City) and Avianca (via San Salvador, airport code SAL).

Lima is an easy place to get to with a cheap cash ticket or a miles redemption. American Airlines has the most options since it partners with LATAM. From North America to Peru (South America Region 1), American Airlines charges:

  • 17,500 miles one way in economy from January 16 – June 14 and September 7 – November 14 flown exclusively on American Airlines planes
  • 20,000 miles one way for other economy awards (flying partner LATAM or American outside of the Off Peak dates)
  • 30,000 miles one way in Business Class

If you have them, the cheapest ways to get to Peru from the United States are:

  • with 15,000 Alaska miles each year from January 16 – June 14 or September 7 – November 14 on American Airlines flights
  • with 15,000 Etihad miles each year from January 16 – June 14 or September 7 – November 14 on American Airlines flights

This is because you can still book old American Airlines chart prices with Alaska or Etihad Miles, at least for the moment.

For other ideas about how to get to Peru cheaply with miles and points when your origin isn’t the United States, read this post about how to book a round-the-world trip in 2016.

How to Get Those Miles

American Airlines Miles

Limited Time Offer: The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® with 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles and Admirals Club lounge membership
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Alaska Airlines Miles

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card’s and the Alaska Airlines Visa® Business Card’s are both currently offering 30,000 miles for spending $1,000 within three months of opening the account (on each). Alaska cards are, as far as I know, still churnable.

While I can not directly link to the current public Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card offer, you may find it by clicking below if you decide to apply. (I receive a commission, and your support keeps this blog going.)

Etihad Miles

Etihad miles are most easily accrued via transfer from SPG Points, ThankYou Points, and Membership Rewards.

The Citi Prestige® Card comes with 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases are made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open. Read my review of the Citi Prestige Card.

Bottom Line

Stay tuned for the following posts with updated travel information about all the highlights of Peru.

My next post in this series will start the Top 10 countdown. Is there anything you want to make sure I cover or add to this series? Leave it in the comments.

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Machu Picchu

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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3

I travel a lot internationally. My nomadic lifestyle means I’m outside the United States for the majority of the year, withdrawing cash from ATMs pretty regularly. If I didn’t use a debit card that reimburses all ATM fees (international and domestic), I would be losing a lot of money.

Thankfully I have one that does just that with the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account. You can read all about how much money it saves me in this post about how I pay zero ATM fees worldwide. It charges no maintenance fees, no ATM withdrawal fees, and has no minimum balance.

Right now Charles Schwab is running a promotion. You can sign up for the same account I have and get a $100 for doing it.

How to Get a Charles Schwab Checking Account with No ATM Fees Worldwide and $100 Sign Up Bonus

Step 1: Click this link, and then click Open an Account.

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Step 2: You will be given the following options. Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 2.05.29 PMIf you want the High Yield Investor Checking Account (what I have) with no maintenance fees, no withdrawal fees, and no minimum balance/minimum deposit requirement, then click Schwab Bank Checking Account.

Step 3: Click continue.

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Step 4: You will ultimately be taken to this screen.

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You are required to open a brokerage account in conjunction with the High Yield Investor Checking Account, but don’t worry, the brokerage account also has no fees nor a minimum deposit/balance requirement.

Step 5: Either log in to Schwab if you already have an account or create a new one if you don’t, and follow the rest of the prompts for registration.

Terms and Conditions

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(click to enlarge)

Notice that the first line of the terms and conditions states: “A minimum deposit of $1000 is required to open most Schwab brokerage accounts…”, but don’t let that confuse you. If you open a High Yield Investor Checking Account in conjunction with a brokerage account via the steps outlined above, you will not be required to make a minimum deposit of $1,000 (nor keep any minimum balance in the brokerage account– I do not even use mine). However, if you choose Brokerage account in Step 2, then the $1,000 minimum deposit/balance requirement will probably apply.

I chatted with a Charles Schwab representative online that confirmed this.

Bottom Line

Applying for this debit card will trigger a hard credit inquiry, so I wouldn’t really consider signing up unless you travel often and will truly benefit from this account aside from the $100 bonus. The $100 bonus should just be icing on the cake to a card that will otherwise save you money with all the reimbursed ATM fees.

Application link (I don’t receive any compensation if you sign up, but you do have to apply via that link if you want the $100 bonus).

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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18

I’m honestly a little confused by the motives of the participants in tonight’s scam, so I turn to the commentariat for insight on who was doing what and how I could have acted differently.

Background

Budapest Honeypot Scam

A well-known scam in Budapest, Hungary is that a girl or girls, ideally pretty, comes up to a guy or guys, flirts with them, convinces them to go to a bar, orders drinks, and then the bill is outrageous. This page describes the scam in full, and the first commenter gives his experience losing $353.

I’m well aware of that scam, and twice in Budapest a few years ago, pretty girls came up to flirt with me on the street.

Of course, I dismissed them immediately because zero times in my life have women come up to hit on me, at least not as blatantly as these two women in Hungary. It was obvious that something was off.

Belgrade Taxi Scam

A well-known scam in Belgrade, Serbia is that the taxi meter runs up much faster than it should. In fact, my American friend and I were in a taxi with a $30 meter after a 3 km taxi ride last year in Belgrade. We got out and didn’t pay. Read the full story here.

Tonight’s Adventure

I was walking along the strip of splavovi (raft night clubs) when I spotted two girls, one of whom was wearing an outfit that made me want to talk to her. They weren’t along the main riverfront sidewalk, they were on a sidewalk that connected that to the road.

I walked up and we started chatting. One girl was engrossed in a phone call, and the other one and I chatted about why I was learning Serbian and how I was progressing.

The other girl gets off the phone and says they are going to a splav called Lašta that is in another area. By this point, the girl I’ve been talking to is loving me, so she invites me to come. I tell them that I really do not want to go because I was planning on going to a splav just a few meters away, but that I have a rule that I cannot turn down adventure.

We walk up to the road and there is a line of taxis. Phone girl goes up to the nearest one and talks to the driver. I am not listening, not that I would understand any way. She breaks that conversation off and goes to talk to the driver of the next taxi. She breaks that off and goes back to the first. Some sort of agreement is reached and we hop in, the girls in the back and me in the front.

Serbian taximeters go up 3 dinar (3 cents) at a time, rather rapidly. I couldn’t immediately tell anything was wrong, but I quickly noticed the meter went over 1,000 and then over 2,000 when I knew the total fare should be under 1,000 ($9.)

During the ride, everyone was having a blast. I was entertaining the girls with my week’s worth of Serbian (guy who doesn’t speak the language correctly is a bottomless comedy well), and the taxi driver was enjoying our conversation and being friendly. The only potentially interesting comment during the ride was phone girl saying I was good looking like a model. That raises the probability she was honeypot scamming me, but not to 100% because that was actually only the second time this week a Serbian told me that, and the first was not scamming me.

Although I noticed that the meter was way too high, we were on traffic-less roads, zipping along way too fast for me to try to get out. I decided the best plan was to get out immediately when we stopped and handle any altercation from outside the car. When we got close, I unbuckled my seat belt to be ready to hop out, and when we stopped I immediately got out and walked a few meters away while the cab driver called, “My friend!” At this point, the meter was over 5,000 dinar ($46) for what should have been a $6 ride.

While I watched, the girls and driver seemed to be having a conversation about the meter. One girl had a 1,000 dinar note out and the other had a different note (200?). I inferred the girls were saying that they would not pay 5,000 and were offering a more reasonable amount. The driver tried to call me over, but I stayed five meters away.

He got out of the car and walked toward me. He was young, but short and chubby. In a fight, I didn’t know who would win, but in a flight, I really liked my chances, so I walked away, trying to keep distance. I walked by the girls and said, “5,000 dinar is insane. It’s a scam. What did you pay him?”

Phone girl said, “He says it is customary for the man to pay the taxi. He wants you to pay.”

He picked up his pace, so I started to jog away. He started to jog, so I started running and didn’t look back. I ran a few hundred meters, looking for hiding places and eventually found a gate to parking lot that was rather dark. When I got into the parking lot, I saw police cars and police men at the edge of the lot conducting sobriety tests. I decided to sit in the lot. I figured if nothing happened for 20 minutes, I could just go to the splav like nothing happened, and if anyone came through the gate, I could walk to the police. After about five minutes two guys came through the gate.

Have you seen that research about how unreliable eye witnesses are? I get it. The adrenaline was pumping, and I really don’t know if either of those guys was my taxi driver, but they seemed to pick up the pace when they saw me, so I walked over to the cops. When I got there and looked back, I didn’t see the two guys any more. I asked the cops how much a taxi from where I started should have cost and they said a maximum of 1,000 dinars. When I said, my meter said 5,000, the guy said “What was the license plate? We will take him to prison.”

I didn’t get the plate, and I didn’t take the cop up on his offer to stick around and watch for the taxi exiting to arrest him. I just hailed a cab and went back to the area where I had been originally. Although this ride was slightly longer in distance because the one way roads were against us, it cost just 692 dinar, less than one-seventh of the scam taxi.

Comment

Were the girls in on the scam? Could I have done anything differently? (Other than not going with two strangers in a taxi because I am going to keep doing that. I think the risk is pretty low based on the valuables I carry, the city I’m in, my ability to read people, my size, and my gender.)

I’ll give my thoughts below, but I don’t want to influence you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think the girls were very unlikely to be in on the scam, but I think they sold me out at the end to make things easier for themselves.

My reasoning is that most people are terrible actors. Atrocious. Not good. Even most people who are professional actors are bad. Most amateurs who “act” like they like you in a honeypot scam are so outrageously over the top and phony. They come up to you, which basically never happens to guys. They give you unwarranted compliments. They are pushy about their plan. They have no coherent back story.

These girls were standing alone a little out of the way. They would have to be very patient to initiate their scam like that instead of going up to guys. They didn’t seem overly into me. Inviting me seemed more like an afterthought. They laughed a lot, but no more than usually happens to me. (It’s hard to describe in words, but I contend 99.9% of honeypot scams fall well outside the reality of most people’s interactions, and this interaction was normal to me.) They talked to two different taxi drivers before we got into one.

Their reasoning for going to the club was that phone girl’s ex-boss was there and invited them. That’s a reasonable backstory, though not so great that I consider it evidence one way or the other.

The girls didn’t notice the insane meter during the ride, which counts against them a bit, but I really don’t have much of a feel for how much most people look at the meter–I am a cheapskate who looks constantly–and this one was mounted very low where they would have had to have leaned forward to see it.

When we got there, the girls seemed to be having a reasonable disagreement where they were offering 1,000 dinar for the ride. Again, I can’t imagine scammers would nail this detail so well, since most people are bad actors.

So, I think the girls were not in on the scam. But I think they sold me out. Instead of saying, “No. Nobody is paying this scam,” phone girl said rather nonchalantly that the driver wanted me to pay. I can’t fully condemn her because my heart was already pumping and English isn’t her first language, so I don’t know exactly what she was trying to convey with that line. But I do think that they had decided, “Well either the driver will scam Scott or not, but either way we aren’t paying, so let’s just get in the club.”

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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1

I was almost the star of a Quilmes Copa America commercial in Argentina. Quilmes is the biggest beer brand in Argentina. The Copa America is like the World Cup but only for South American countries (except this year for the 100th anniversary it is being held in the United States and six North American, Central American, and Caribbean teams are playing too.)

I assume this commercial will be running nonstop for the next month in Argentina, where the Copa America will be one of the biggest stories, and I auditioned for the lead role of American Border Patrol Agent!

Back Story

There is a very active Facebook group called Buenos Aires Expat Hub where all things interesting to expats are shared. Last month, a casting agent posted in that group that they were seeking Americans for a commercial audition for the next morning. I replied because I always seek out unique experiences, and she got back to me with the script and address for the audition.

I memorized the stilted English that only an Argentine could love.

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 6.17.37 PMThe next morning I walked a few blocks to the casting office. They were casting commercials for several huge companies, and I was surrounded by professional actors and their girlfriends.

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One pretty actress came in to audition, and when she turned her head I noticed that her face and neck were completely different colors from all the make up she had caked on. These people were serious. I, on the other hand, was carrying the little bag they give you when you fly Emirates First Class with a water bottle and a protein shake so I could go to the gym afterwards.

About an hour after I was told to arrive, they called three of us into a small room to audition. There was a 40-something American guy who was clearly a professional actor who said he had been living in Buenos Aires for ten years. There was a Dutch guy who spoke English like a Dutch guy. There was a frequent flyer miles blogger.

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We had to stand up one by one and have pictures taken straight on and of our profiles. We introduced ourselves, and then we ran the lines.

When it was my turn, I channeled the menacing Border Patrol Agents who threatened to x-ray me on my way back from Central America. I tried to over-act my part, since subtlety doesn’t seem to be prized based on the TV I’ve seen in Argentina.

It was over in five minutes, and I was out the door. I figured I had a very slim chance of hearing from them again, but I actually got an email that night.

“QUILMES PRE SELECCION” the subject blared, and it asked several questions that they’d already asked me like whether I was available on the day of filming and whether I’d shave my beard.

Five days later I got another email telling me I was still in the “PRE SELECCIONADOS” (what is this a credit card mailer?) and telling me I’d get a call first thing in the morning and that wardrobe fitting was the next morning.

That was it. I never heard from them again.

I never expected to get the job, so I put the whole thing aside as a funny story and travel memory.

Then, last night in Prague, I got an text from my friend in Buenos Aires saying she had seen the commercial. Here’s what I am not starring in:

I’ll give the commercial a 7/10 and the actor an 8/10. He certainly did better than I would have.

Are any readers “big in Japan (or Argentina)”?

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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1

I recently spent three days in Bonito, Brazil, a small city in Southwestern Brazil famous for its caves and rivers.

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There are two ways to get to Bonito:

  1. Fly twice weekly from Viracopos-Campinas (Sao Paulo area)
  2. Fly to Campo Grande and take a four hour bus

I flew into Bonito on Azul Airlines on a Sunday from Rio de Janeiro (via Viracopos-Campinas) and flew out the next Wednesday to Sao Paulo (Azul/Viracopos-Campinas/Free Azul Bus Trip Report Here). I thought a three day trip was perfect to see the highlights of the area.

Overall Bonito has the coolest caves I’ve ever seen and the best river snorkeling I’ve ever done, however the tours are run in an overly slow and expensive way.

The Tours

I did the #1, #2, and #3 things to do in Bonito according to Trip Advisor (if you ignore that #1 and #2 are the same thing.)

Rio da Prata

On Monday, I snorkeled the Rio da Prata. The tour cost 156 reais, the transportation was 60 reais (transportation is charged separately on all Bonito tours), and an option buffet lunch was 48 reais for a total cost of $76.

I was picked up at 8:30 AM from my hotel and driven about an hour and a half out of town in a minibus on which I was one of two non-Brazilians.

The tour guide spoke basically no English. I don’t mean he didn’t have the ability to speak English. He definitely did have the ability to get his point across in English when needed, but he wouldn’t try. He would say something in Portuguese, and that was it. This was a theme throughout my trip to Bonito (partly because I had the same guide Wednesday), and I found it very annoying. Not knowing what’s going on is frustrating, and I only got the basic idea in Portuguese most of the time (due to the similarity with Spanish, which I speak.) If Bonito wants to draw more foreign tourists, and it already draws enough that guides should be bilingual at least for the script of their tours, guides need to speak Portuguese and English on the tours.

We arrived at 10 AM and were given knee-length wetsuits and a snorkel. We were driven to the woods and walked another 20 minutes to the river.

We snorkeled about 25 minutes, walked a few minutes to another part of the river, snorkeled another 25 minutes until our branch hit a bigger river, and then could snorkel another 10 minutes or be driven in a boat the final stretch. I chose the boat because while the first 50 minutes were very cold, the last 10 minutes were unbearable.

I didn’t get any pictures of the snorkeling, but here is a google images search for the activity. As you can see, the snorkeling is amazing. I’ve never seen such a quantity of fish while snorkeling anywhere in the world, and the very clear water means great visibility. Other than the “dourado,” which I heard people repeating over and over, I am not sure which species I saw out there. Some people in my group spotted an alligator–hopefully a small one!

About 2 PM, we finally made it back to the lodge on the property where a buffet lunch was being served. It had a small salad bar, chicken, beef, rice, beans, potatoes, and a large dessert selection. It is a bit expensive for Brazil at 48 reais ($14), but otherwise unimpeachable. The food was being refreshed quickly and was delicious. During lunch, a torrential downpour started. I hadn’t brought a sweatshirt–a mistake I wouldn’t repeat–so I huddled near the foods’ warming trays for the next half hour.

At around 3:30, we left and headed to the nearby Buraco das Araras, which is a sinkhole where you can spot macaws. I learned about this additional stop on the Rio do Prata tour after booking. If you want to pay 68 reais ($19) extra, you can go on the 1.5 hour walk. Otherwise, you sit in a covered pavilion with a TV showing a Brazilian soap opera and a wifi network that doesn’t work. The compulsory combination of these two tours is supremely frustrating as I was in the half of the group that didn’t join in the second tour.

At about 6:30 PM, we were dropped back off at our hotels.

I would definitely recommend the Rio da Prata snorkeling, though you would be much better off with your own car. You could be back in town by 4 PM by skipping the macaws.

Abismo Anhumas

This was the highlight of the trip.

An abismo is a cave with the opening on top. In the Abismo Anhumas, the tiny opening leads to a large cavern below with a lake in which you can snorkel, scuba dive, and boat.

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First you rappel 72 meters down, and later you have to pull yourself up the 72 meters.

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This tour is very expensive and includes a lot of waiting around, but I still highly recommend it.

The tour costs 700 reais plus 60 more to rent a full body wetsuit and snorkel plus 35 more for transportation, $228 total. Any evening before the tour, you have to go to the tour company’s office in town to learn how to rappel and pull yourself up and then to the scuba company’s office to be fitted for a wetsuit.

On the day of the tour, I was picked up at 6 AM at my hostel for the 30 minute ride to the abismo. Of the six people in the van, three of us were non-Brazilians, but again we got almost no English. Luckily one of the Brazilians was a 17 year old who had learned English from watching TV and movies and happily translated for us.

We arrived at the abismo at 6:30 AM, and that’s when the waiting began. In the eight hours from pick up to drop off, there was an hour of travel, an hour of doing, and six hours of waiting.

First we waited to rappel down in pairs. The rappelling down was extremely fun, very scary (to look down over 220 feet!), and took about three minutes. The delays were caused by having to send down all the people and equipment on the same two pulleys.

Once we got down there, the eight tourists (two more had arrived via their own car) were split into two groups of four for a 20 minute boat ride around the small lake to examine the stalactites, stalagmites, and walls.

Then we got into our wetsuits and snorkels and had a 15 minute snorkel. The snorkeling is all about seeing the underwater rock formations, which are marvelous, because there are very few fish in the cave. You can also scuba dive in the cave if you are certified, and I am sure that is more fun and more expensive.

After the snorkel, we waited several hours–because I was in the last pair–for our turn to pull ourselves out of the cave, which took about 20 minutes.

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You will have quite a sense of accomplishment when you get to the top; it was exhausting, and something the 20 feet of practice a few nights before had not prepared me for!

While I got satisfaction out of pulling myself out of the cave, Abismo Anhumas needs a machine to pull people and things out to save time. According to an employee, they want one and are just waiting on the permit… for the last 15 years. Until they get that machine to pull you out, bring a good book on this tour. There is enough light at the bottom of the cave to read.

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As frustrating as one hour of doing in an eight hour day is, I would still recommend this tour. The rush of rappelling down into a cave, and the beauty of pulling yourself out as heavy rainstorm rages outside–but only a few drops get into the opening and make their way down to the bottom–are worth the wait.

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Here is a google image search for Abismo Anhumas.

Gruta do Lago Azul

On my last day, I did a half day tour to the Blue Lake Grotto that ended in plenty of time to catch my 4 PM flight.

This tour is only 45 reais plus 35 for transport or $23.

I was picked up at 8:30 AM at my hostel and returned by 12:30 PM. My guide from Monday was back to speak no English to a group that now included four foreigners. We drove 30 minutes to the gruta, which is literally next door to the Abismo Anhumas. We put on some helmets and walked a few minutes to the entrance. There are steps leading to the bottom of the cave. You check it out, take a few pics, and head back up.

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The cave is stunningly beautiful–the blue effect is caused by magnesium or something–remember, no English explanation–but the tour is frustrating.
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I was just in the cave region of Vietnam in January, and you mostly get yourself from cave to cave and walk in and out on your own schedule, which is quicker and more convenient than going in a tour bus. I assume Bonito has the tour bus system as a make-work plan for its citizens, but I’m sure the people of Bonito could do something more productive than turn a 1.5 hour activity (30 minutes at the cave and an hour roundtrip driving) into a 4 hour activity. (We sat around a lot before going in and after coming out of the cave. I have no idea why.)

All of my ranting about the pace of these tours leads to an obvious suggestion…

Renting a Car

There is a Localiza Rental Car agency in town that sends two people to the airport to meet planes. Renting a car is definitely the way to go if you drive stick and don’t mind dirt roads. (About 15 minutes each day were on paved roads, and the rest on dirt roads.)

With your own car, you’d save on the transport fee on the tours, and more importantly you’d save a ton of time. You could save 3+ hours on the Rio da Prata by leaving right after lunch instead of waiting around another 45 minutes then heading to the macaw tour for an hour and a half before coming home.

And you could combine Abismo Anhumas and Gruta do Lago Azul in one day. Get the earliest time at Abismo Anhumas and ask to be the first pair in your group to exit the cave. Then drive a few minutes to the gruta next door. (You do have to have a reserved time at the gruta, and the last one is 2 or 3 PM, but this is very doable, just set it up with a tour agency in advance.)

Before You Go/Getting In

If you land at Bonito Airport, you can make the 15 minute trip to town by bus for 25 reais ($7) or a taxi for 60 reais ($17). You must reserve your spot on the bus in advance. Any travel agency can reserve the spot on the bus.

I would recommend being in touch with a travel agency before you go to reserve your tours, especially the Abismo Anhumas during the high season (January, February, July, August) because it is limited to (I didn’t write this down) 15 or 35 people per day.

I stayed at the Papaya Hostel for 40 reais ($11) per night in a bunk in a dorm room. I recommend it. It had what you’d expect from a hostel (kitchen, lockers, high carb breakfast) plus a few extras like a small pool. The English owner was a very helpful island of English in an unrelenting sea of Portuguese. She corresponded with me at length before my stay to book my tours through their partner agency (as far as I can tell at the cheapest price possible.) And in person, she was happy to give restaurant recommendations, directions to the supermarket, and some bread and cheese for my breakfast the night before my 6 AM pick up. The hostel is fairly empty–seemed like 3-8 other guests per night–in the offseason, so don’t worry about a party hostel wrecking your sleep.

Food

I went to the #1 ranked restaurant on Tripadvisor, Zapi Zen, for dinner one night, mainly because our translator on the Abismo Anhumas tour was the son of the owner. It mostly has individual-sized pizzas for about $7. I ordered the Abismo Anhumas, which was eggplant and garlic.

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The pizza was quite good, certainly far better than the string of all-you-can-eat buffets that line the main street. Brazilians love all-you-can-eat places that charge $10, leave the food out all day, and use only the cheapest cuts of meat. I don’t.

The best of that bunch is Casarao on weekends when it has enough people to actually refresh its dishes frequently. The buffet plus a water was 43 reais ($12).

At the Palacio do Sorvete, you can get sorvete assado (grilled ice cream.) Why not, I thought?
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I’m really not sure what was happening. “Grilling” didn’t cause the ice cream to melt, and it wasn’t very special for 22 reais ($6.)

Bottom Line

Overall Bonito has the coolest caves I’ve ever seen and the best river snorkeling I’ve ever done, however the tours are run in an overly slow and expensive way.

You can do the area easily in three days, or two if you have your own car.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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18

I’m a nomad. Here are my current travel plans. Also see Late 2015 Travel, Early 2016 Travel, and Where I Slept in 2015.

I have a clear picture of where I’ll be until about October 2016. Last week, I booked a flurry of awards, mostly with obscure mileage programs to lock in my dates for 2016. Here’s what I’m planning, with links to already written Anatomy of an Award posts:

I am spending a few weeks in Brazil to visit friends and position for Singapore First Class flight. I was only planning on spending four days in Brazil, but it is unseasonably cold in Buenos Aires, so I am leaving a week earlier than planned. I’ll spend the extra time in Bonito, Brazil, which looks absolutely gorgeous.

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I am spending the first two weeks in Europe in Barcelona, visiting friends in Germany, and in the Czech Republic, where I can’t believe I haven’t made it to yet–Prague seems like it is right up my alley. Then the heart of the trip begins.

My main goal for the Summer of 2016 is to learn the Serbo-Croat language. I really enjoy languages. I studied Latin and Spanish in high school and am a bit of a grammar nerd in English. After years of living and traveling in South America and Spain, I am fluent in Spanish. I could, of course, improve further, but I figure that I am good enough that the amount of effort I’d need to improve in Spanish would be better spent learning a completely new language.

In the past I’ve considered Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Serbo-Croat. I don’t like Brazil or Portugal enough to want to spend the months there to learn the language, and Bucharest (Romania) is a step below Belgrade (Serbia) and Zagreb (Croatia) in my mind, so I eliminated those languages. Russian was my top choice, but the hassle of getting a Russian visa (I’d have to come back to the United States and wait for days or weeks while the paperwork cleared) and the fact that it rains 15 days a month in St. Petersburg and Moscow during the Summer led me to pick Serbo-Croat. (Yes, I also considered learning Russian in another country but decided against it.)

The benefit of learning Serbo-Croat is that (please don’t start a linguistics debate in the comments over this sentence) it is the language of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. I can travel throughout those countries while learning the language. I think I’ll spend June in Belgrade with daily language classes to get a base and September in Zagreb. July and August when European capitals thin out as people head to the sea, I’ll head to the Montenegrin and Croatian beaches, and at some point I’ll find time for at least Sarajevo, Bosnia and Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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The drawback of Serbo-Croat is that it is a non-romance language with noun declensions, the Cyrillic alphabet (Serbia only), and only 12 million people speak it natively. But I’m going to give it a go and am eager to see what progress I can make in four months.

I plan to spend about 3.5 out of 4 months in Serbo-Croat-speaking countries over the heart of summer. The two weeks outside will be in Spain where I will follow the University of Virginia basketball team as it plays several games against lower division pro teams. (College basketball teams get to take a once-every-four-years international trip over the summer. They do it because it’s fun, and they get extra practices, which are especially useful for newcomers to the program, which UVA has six of this year.) I love Spain, I love UVA basketball, and I am eager to see the new players three months before I otherwise could.

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Finally I’ll head back from Europe to the USA in time to catch my friends’ wedding, visit family in Hawaii, and make the Chicago Seminars. That takes me through mid-October, after which it will probably be time to head back to Southern South America as Spring heats up.

Northern Hemisphere Summer 2016 will see me:

  • change hemispheres as the seasons change because everyone should live in Summer all year round
  • visit family in Hawaii
  • visit friends in Rio de Janeiro and Leipzig
  • return to favorites like Zagreb, Belgrade, Dubrovnik (cliff jumping!), Sao Paulo, and Spain
  • go to the Czech Republic, Bosnia, and Montenegro for the first time
  • explore natural beauty in Bonito, Brazil; a Croatian National Park; and the Adriatic coast
  • watch UVA basketball play four times in person
  • speak twice at the Chicago Seminars
  • …and hopefully learn the Serbo-Croat language

I’ll fly in products ranging from low-cost carrier economy to one of the world’s fanciest First Classes on the Singapore 777.

All of the awards were carefully thought out to maximize miles, so I am excited to explain why I’ve been and will be using so many Asiana and Singapore miles, and why you might want to use them also.

Some of the awards even touch on interesting problems like how long a transfer takes, what to do when there is only space in your desired cabin on some legs, and choosing which miles to use.

I still need to book the Lufthansa First Class award from Europe to the United States, and I will need to wait several months as Lufthansa only releases award space in First Class to partners within 15 days of departure. (Please don’t devalue in the next five months, Asiana!)

I still need to book Virginia-Hawaii-Chicago. Right now the award space isn’t very good, but I expect that it improves dramatically as my dates approach.

Hopefully your mid-2016 travel schedule excites you as much as mine excites me. Where are you headed?

I’ll crank out the rest of the Anatomy of an Award posts soon–where I break down how to search the award, how to book the award, what miles to use, and how to get those miles–and I’ll keep this post updated as I do.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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0

I have Global Entry. For $100, the time it took to fill out a detailed form (an hour), and a twenty minute interview at an international airport, I can skip the immigration and customs lines every time I land in the United States for five years. Plus getting Global Entry enrolls you in TSA Precheck, which saves time at security on all flights in the United States.

The $100 is a great price for all the time I’ve saved, and you can easily avoid the $100 fee. Both the Citi Prestige® Card and the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® refund the $100 fee as a statement credit if you use the cards to pay for a Global Entry application. (This benefit can only be used once every five years.)

But if the $100 is prohibitive or you don’t have a card that refunds it or maybe you don’t live near an international airport, there is an app that looks like Global Entry Lite.

I just heard about Mobile Passport for the first time. It is basically an app that allows you to fill in the Customs form.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.43.11 AMYou fill out the form, submit it over the internet, and get a barcode that allows you to use a dedicated Mobile Passport line.
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There are Mobile Passport lines at the following airports.

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What I don’t understand is whether you also have a dedicated line at Immigration. In my experience, that line is usually longer, so skipping both lines would have more value than skipping the Customs line alone.

Here is a first hand account of using Mobile Passport.

Have you used Mobile Passport? What was your experience?

 

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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3

Last week, during President Obama’s visit to Argentina, Argentina suspended the $160 fee required for Americans to visit.

While this is, for the moment, a temporary suspension of the fee (which you can check the official status of here), this is widely expected to lead to a permanent elimination of the fee.

This follows a series of sane decisions by the newly elected government, like letting the currency float freely to eliminate the black market for dollars and terrible distortion to the economy and possibilities for theft by well-connected people.

I paid the reciprocity fee, which is good for ten years, in February 2013. I have entered the country several times with that payment, so I feel I got my money’s worth. Of course, Argentina is smart to remove the fee, which will increase the amount of American tourism.

Use the $160 you’ll save for intra-Argentina flights like the one I took in November to Salta to drive through the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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9

Updated April 22, 2016 with the news that Uber is now in Buenos Aires

In the last three years, I’ve spent over a year in total in Argentina, so I wanted to give a quick update on the money situation down here.

From 2010 until December 2015, Argentina had an official exchange rate that was a complete fiction. You could not buy dollars at the official rate.

The market (or as I prefer to call it, “real”) exchange rate often offered 50-100% more pesos per dollar than the official (or as I prefer to call it, “fake”) rate, leading to a black market for dollars called the “dólar blue.” During the dólar blue years, savvy travelers eschewed changing money in banks or using ATM cards or credit cards while in Argentina because those transactions were at the official rate. Instead, the play was to bring crisp $100 bills and change them in cuevas, illegal exchange houses.

In December 2015, Argentina’s new president got rid of the official exchange rate, meaning that the Argentine peso now floats freely in the market like pretty much every other currency on Earth. That means that dealing with money down here is almost completely normal, though not quite.

ATMs

You can use your ATM card at Argentine ATMs, and you will get the fair interbank exchange rate. However, there are drawbacks. If your ATM card has a Visa logo, you can find the rate you will get here.

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Today the rate was 14.57 pesos to the dollar. For comparison, at a bank today, I would have been given 14.49 pesos per dollar (0.5% less) and at a cueva 14.95 pesos per dollar (2.5% more). See below for where I got those other numbers.

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My Charles Schwab Visa card only seems to work in some ATMs, and I can’t figure out the pattern for which ones it works in and which ones it doesn’t work in. Dave and Daniel suggested that it works at ATMs in the Banelco network, and it is true that my go-to ATM is in that network. Here is where you can find the location of Banelco ATMs.

There is a 2,400 peso limit to ATM transactions ($165). You can pull out 2,400 pesos twice in a row without even removing your card, though you will have to pay the ATM fee twice.

There is a 90 peso ($6) fee at the ATM I use. Make sure to get this ATM card, which has no fees worldwide and even refunds the fees that other ATMs charge.

Today, each of my ATM withdrawals was for 2,490 pesos after the fee. That worked out to $170.84 as predicted by checking the Visa exchange rate site above. When March ends, I will be refunded the 180 pesos worth of ATM fees or about $12 because I have the Charles Schwab card.

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Banks

You can freely change dollars to pesos at banks, just bring your passport with you. You should get the rate listed on this site under “dólar oficial” and “compra.” I find the approximately 3% spread between the buy and sell prices to be annoyingly high, but not nearly as bad as at those money exchange places at most airports.

You need crisp $100 bills with no defects to get the best rates.

Cuevas

I don’t understand why, but the illegal exchange places–cuevas–that existed during the blue dollar years are still operating.

They even offer a slightly different price than banks–sometimes better, sometimes worse, fluctuating between 1% and 4% difference recently–which you can check on this site under “dólar informal” and “compra.”

You need crisp $100 bills with no defects to get the best rates.

Credit Cards

In Argentina, cash is definitely king for every day transactions. Many shops and restaurants–including pretty much all the ones I patronize–don’t accept credit cards though major places like chain super markets and hotels do. Taxis are also cash only.

However, credit cards are now useful to rent cars or book domestic flights within Argentina at a fair exchange rate. During the blue dollar days, making plans of this nature was a huge hassle.

Money Scams

At the moment, there aren’t any widespread money scams that I know of. That’s probably because the 100 peso note is the largest, and it is worth about $7, hardly worth bothering to counterfeit. By mid-2016, there will be 200 and 500 peso notes. In 2017, there will be a 1,000 peso note.

I am, overall, pleased that higher denomination notes will circulate. The good:

  • It is ridiculous for the largest bill to be worth $7 if you want to carry hundreds or thousands of dollars-worth of pesos.
  • It will save time counting out your ATM withdrawal, your rent payment, your personal trainer’s monthly fee, etc.
  • ATM withdrawal limits should rise. They are so low at the moment because ATMs constantly run out of money because they can only be filled with $7 bills.

The bad:

  • It will often be hard to get change for a 500 or 1,000 peso note in a taxi or at restaurants or businesses with small turnover.
  • I fully expect this dormant taxi scam to return.

Uber

Uber started operating in Buenos Aires in April 2016, provoking many taxi protests. The app undercuts the flag drop of taxis by 25% and the per mile rate by 50%. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet because it was free for the first few days, so getting a car was nearly impossible.

Further Reading

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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6

I’ve wondered when we would get a real-time wearable translator. The makers of “ili” say that it will be this Summer. Watch their first commercial.

Note this disclaimer: “UPDATE: In light of viewer feedback, we would like to clarify that the man and women are all actors and actresses; no one was forced to act against their will in any way.”

The commercial shows the actor’s British English being converted to Japanese in real time, though I have no way to judge the quality of that translation. The commercial doesn’t show any Japanese being converted to English, though I imagine it works in both directions. It also doesn’t show any other languages or that the device can recognize American English. I am sure we will learn more about its capabilities in the coming months.

I definitely think travel will be enhanced by wearable translators, and it devalues my plan to make my future children natively trilingual. Excuse me while I spend the rest of the day daydreaming about being able to speak and understand every language in the world.

Thoughts? How much are you willing to pay for an ili?

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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6

My beautiful, old, extra-pages-added-later passport was set to expire in May 2016. Since many countries don’t allow entry unless your passport has at least six months remaining validity, I knew I should aim to get a new passport by November 2015. I was in Argentina from October to December 2015 before coming back to Hawaii for 10 days before heading to Asia for a month.

Those 10 days in Hawaii would be my only chance to get a new passport, so I would need to apply for and get the passport within 10 days. That’s very easy to do.

In a life-or-death emergency, you can get a passport pretty much immediately.Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 7.49.18 PM

Obviously I didn’t qualify for that, but I did qualify to apply in person at a Department of State Passport Agency.

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There are a few dozen including one in Honolulu.

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I called 877-487-2778 to make an appointment for December 19, the first weekday after my arrival.

To the appointment, I brought:

  • Appointment confirmation number (given to me when I called to make the appointment)
  • Proof of international travel (a printout of my itinerary from Honolulu to Tokyo in United Business Class)
  • Passport application form (made sure to check the box for a 52 page passport, since it doesn’t cost extra and I ran out of room in my last 28 page passport)
  • My then-current passport
  • One passport photo
  • A credit card to pay the $170 fee ($110 for a passport renewal + $60 expedite fee)

I arrived at the appointed time, walked to the check in line that had no one else in it, handed everything over, and took a seat. A minute later, I was called up to pay the $170. I was given a pick up time three days later.

I didn’t ask whether that meant I could pick up the passport at my leisure any time after the specified time or whether I had to arrive at the exact specified time. I unintentionally found out the answer.

I was in and out on the day of my appointment in under 5 minutes. I imagine busier passport agencies are slower.

On the day I was supposed to pick up my new passport, I went on a hike with three friends. We got hopelessly lost, but through a combination of the GPS on our phones and the basic survival skill of following a river downstream, we eventually got back to a trail, having hiked hours longer than expected. (One friend rushed off, arriving just in time for the start of her shift as an ER doctor.) I had missed my passport appointment, and since it was already 4 PM, the office was closed.

The next morning, I headed to the passport agency at 10 AM, not sure what to expect. I went to the check in line–again no one was in it–and explained that I had an appointment to pick up my passport the previous day and showed my driver’s license. The lady at the check in counter had my passport at her desk and handed it and my old passport–now with a hole punch through the cover to show that it is no longer valid–to me. Woo-hoo!

In only four days, I had a brand new passport and my old one back. One day the old one will just be a souvenir, but for now I have to hold on to it for its still-valid Brazil visa.

Bottom Line

The normal passport processing time is six weeks. The normal expedited time is three weeks. I applied in person at a passport agency and got mine in three days.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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22

I just walked to the airport for the first time in my life in Da Nang, Vietnam. The 3.4 mile walk took about an hour and 20 minutes including a 20 minute stop at a KFC along the way.

I have been wanting to walk to an airport for some time for the novelty factor. In Chiang Mai, Thailand a few weeks ago, I had the time and an even shorter 2.4 mile walk, but the 90 degree heat and my friend’s heavy bag made walking impractical.

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In Da Nang, I was alone and the weather was cool with a slight drizzle. The walk took me over down a dirt road, across the dragon bridge, and finally to the airport along a very easy and safe for pedestrians route.

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I have never seen an airport that is so smack dab in the middle of the urban development. If I had stayed in the main nightlife and restaurants district on the west bank of the river, I would have had an even shorter walk than from my Airbnb close to the beach. My walking time rivaled driving from downtown Los Angeles to LAX, Washington DC to Dulles, or Buenos Aires to EZE in traffic.

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I only saved abut $3 by walking instead of taking a taxi, but that wasn’t the point. I just wanted an enjoyable stroll and to be able to say that I once walked to an airport.

Have you ever walked to an airport?

I remember once finding a site that listed walking and biking options to airports worldwide. I can’t find it now, but some individual airports, like the San Diego Airport, provide walking instructions.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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7

Visa requirements change all the time. Check out the current visa requirements for Vietnam for Americans here from the US State Department.

Americans need a visa to get into Vietnam. We can either get one from a Vietnamese consulate or embassy before travel or one on arrival with some pre-planning.

I just landed in Vietnam and got a visa on arrival. Here was the process:

  1. Renew my passport because it had less than six months validity and Vietnam like many countries requires six months validity to let you in.
  2. Book an international flight to Ho Chi Minh (SGN), Hanoi (HAN) or Da Nang (DAD) airports.
  3. Pay Cheap Vietnam Visa $8 to get a letter emailed to me that entitles me to a visa on arrival.
  4. Print out that letter and bring it to Vietnam, along with a passport sized photo, $25, and a completed arrival form.
  5. Hand a Vietnamese agent my passport, the letter, photo, $25, and arrival form. Wait about 30 minutes and get my visa.

1. Renew My Passport

My passport was set to expire in May 2016. Vietnam requires that your passport have six months remaining validity upon entry. (For that matter, so do several other countries I am visiting at the moment.)

I am rarely in the United States, so I took advantage of being in Hawaii over Christmas to get an expedited passport renewal at a passport office. I will write about that experience soon.

2. Book an international flight to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, or Da Nang

I flew today from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City on a very cheap Jetstar flight.

Land crossings and arrivals at airports other than SGN, HAN, and DAD do not allow for visas on arrival.

3. Pay Cheap Vietnam Visa $8

To get a visa on arrival in Vietnam, you need to have a letter with you that says you are authorized to get a visa on arrival. Many Vietnamese companies will send you this letter. I used cheapvietnamvisa.net because they were the cheapest I found.

Their prices range from $8 to $82, depending on how quickly you need the letter and whether you want a private letter.

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I chose the slowest option and the group letter.

Immediately after paying, I got a confirmation email.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.12.11 PM Then three days later, I got the letter I needed as an attachment to another email.Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.12.41 PM It was three pages. Because I hadn’t chosen the private letter, I was among about 20 people granted approval in the same letter. The letter lists all of our names, genders, birthdays, passport numbers, and arrival dates.Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.12.47 PMPay the extra money for a private letter if you don’t want strangers to have that information about you.

4. Bring your passport, the printed letter, a passport photo, $25 cash, and an arrival form to Vietnam

  • Bring your passport (duh!)
  • I printed all three pages of the letter.
  • I brought $25 USD. I didn’t see an ATM before the visa on arrival area. I did hear some people paying in other currencies, so I believe other currencies are accepted, but why not pay in the currency they ask for?
  • I brought six standard passport/visa photos you can get anywhere in the world. Only one was requested from me, but I believe online sources say two are required.
  • I pre-printed and filled out the arrival form because I heard there is sometimes a line just to get this form.

5. Hand all that stuff over and wait

I was out the door of my flight at 8:24 PM and headed straight to the visa on arrival area, which is before and to the left of passport control at Ho Chi Minh City’s airport (SGN.) There were a few dozen people waiting for their visas, but no one in line to hand in their forms.

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I handed over my letter, passport, photo, and arrival form. Then I waited.

A woman was calling names of processed visas. She called my name at 9:02 PM, after I had waited 35 minutes. I paid her $25 and got my passport back with a 30-day, single-entry Vietnam visa in it.

Four minutes later, I had cleared immigration and customs where there were no lines.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

Earn 60,000 bonus American Airlines miles after spending $5,000 in the first three months on the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®. Plus get American Airlines lounge access for you and guests. My full review of the card.

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