Visiting Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail has been at the top of my list of things to do before I die ever since I saw pictures of Machu Picchu in National Geographic when I was a kid. So, I figured I would finally stop putting it off and make it happen. Discussing it with a friend of mine, we made plans to visit Peru in 2012 and hike the Inca Trail. Accomplishing a lifetime dream of mine 24 years and 9 months later..
We made the decision to go, but that is just the tip of the iceberg for the planning and preparation required to execute a memorable, safe trip. First, we needed to decide on when to go. Reviewing the Inca Trail dates for 2012, it was really open except for February when the Inca Trail is commonly closed for maintenance. No problem, we had too much in our professions going on that month anyway. So when? Since Peru is in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are opposite to where we live in the United States. Machu Picchu has a semi-tropical climate, with warm and humid days and cooler nights and negligible variation from Winter and Summer when compared to where I live in Colorado. But the rain…I would much rather hike in snow than rain, but preferably neither. To quote Wikitravel.org, the “rainy season in Machu Picchu is from November to March, so be prepared. The wet months are January to April, when roads are often closed by landslides or flooding. The best months for visiting Machu Picchu are from April to October. The High season is June to August (book well in advance).” Well May it is then! Now to book it…
Reserving the Inca Trail isn’t as easy as going to some website like ClickHere4IncaTrail2MachuPicchu.com. The Inca Trail is highly regulated by the Peruvian government. There are only 500 permits available each day which applies to everyone, including all of the porters, cooks, and guides. So, that just leaves only about 200 passes that are allocated to tourists each day. Not a whole lot. But, we were ready to start booking dates in July, 2011. So no problem right? Wrong. The tickets for 2012 weren’t put on sale by the Peruvian Government until December 2011/January 2012. Being the planner that I am and worried about not being able to get our reservations for May (we already made our airline reservations), my fun meter was pegged and I was stressing. It’s important to note that every tour operator will book your Inca Trail passes far in advance, without having the passes confirmed. You can check Inca Trail ticket availability here to confirm for yourselves the dates you are interested in.
You have to hike the Inca Trail with a guide, so which tour operator should we go with? A colleague and friend recommended SAS Travel Peru as they took them back in 2001 and felt that they were professional and had a great time. Good enough for me, so that’s who we first contacted. I did say first contacted because the initial impressions were not terribly positive. Driven by the lack of responses from SAS, we decided to pursue another tour company. So, we then reached out to Mayuc, Apus Peru, Enigma Peru, Q’ente, Aventours (aka Ecoinka), Andean Life, Explorandes, Inca Explorers, United Mice, Chaska Tours, and Andean Treks. We received mixed feedback from these tour operators, mostly pretty positive, some mediocre and some not at all. After going through the responses, we ended up selecting Aventours (aka Ecoinka) as our tour operator based on the cost, their timely, detailed responses from Walter and Rick and the extra night on their Inca Trail tour at their private camping site outside of km 82. As it turned out, we finally had our Inca Trail permits booked from Aventours on January 31st, 2012 for our hike from May 6-9, 2012. The cost for the permits to hike the Inca Trail was 254 sol ($95). In addition to the 4 day/4 night Inca Trail tour with just my friend and I, we added an extra day tour through the Sacred Valley at the beginning of the trip making our tour 5 days and 4 nights.
Airfare booked (way in advance using 70,000 airline miles + $70.74), Aventours (aka Ecoinka) Inca Trail tour operator selected, Inca Trail permits purchased, almost there… Now, need to book our airfare from Lima to Cusco, hotel in Cusco, hotel near Machu Picchu for the extra day we planned to stay there and the train back to Cusco from Machu Picchu.
Our flights into Lima were really late, so we ended up booking a mid-morning flight out of Lima to Cusco on LAN Airlines for $352.81. Upon arrival in Cusco, we were promptly picked up by our hotel driver, who took us straight to our hotel.
Aventours was really good about assisting us with our lodging in Cusco. They referred us to the Torre Dorada Hotel for $110/double room per night. The hotel is located just a couple miles from the Cusco Plaza de Armas. They had a driver who was always available, breakfast was cooked to order, rooms great, clean and safe. Would definitely stay there again. We ended up staying there both before and after our Inca Trail hike. If you should expect to leave and return from the same hotel, I recommend finding a hotel to keep some of your personal belongings while you embark on the Inca Trail. Else, your tour operator will probably do the same for you. Torre Dorada did this for us and it worked out great being able to leave our dirty clothes and clean clothes for the return home.
Depending upon which Inca Trail tour you take to Machu Picchu, you may or may not be able to spend most of the day at Machu Picchu. Hikes that come through the famous Machu Picchu Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise will be able to spend most of the day in and around the magnificent Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Our tour lagged most other Inca Trail tours, so we weren’t going to get to Machu Picchu until that afternoon. As a result, we had planned on staying an extra night near Machu Picchu so we could watch both a sunset and sunrise there. Most people stay in Aquas Calientes off the Urubamba River down the mountain from Machu Picchu. There are many lodging options in every price range, in addition to restaurants and shops. Although you can hike up to Machu Picchu from there, most elect to take the busy bus route to/from Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. We decided to splurge and split a room at the all inclusive Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge Hotel just outside the gates of Machu Picchu National Park instead though. And I do mean splurge, at $907.50 (including tax) a night, this place was expensive. The hotel was nice, but not $907.50 a night nice. It was fantastic to have a long hot shower, gorge ourselves in the plethora of culinary delights and liquid refreshments though. A well deserved reward for the end of a journey. Since there aren’t any other food options at Machu Picchu besides the cafeteria just outside the main gate, it was really nice to be able to have a really nice lunch and cocktail in the Sanctuary Lodge restaurant. In addition, they also held our belongings and arranged our bus to the train station in Aguas Calientes, which was really helpful. Finally, just being able to roll out of bed, grab a nice breakfast and step out in line (and there was a long line) to get into Machu Picchu was really a great way to start the day.
Getting back from Machu Picchu to Cusco requires taking a train from Aquas Calientes to Cusco. The primary provider for this service is Peru Rail which provides 3 return train services. The ‘Exhibition’ backpacker service ($75) which only departs at 4:43pm, the ‘Vistadome’ panoramic view service ($86) which departs at 3:20pm, 4:22pm and 5:27pm and the ‘Hiram Bingham’ luxury service ($380) which only departs at 5:50pm. We had tickets on the Vistadome 604 train, departing at 5:27pm to maximize our time at Machu Picchu. The train ride is just over 3 hours and doesn’t arrive into Cusco, but nearby Poroy. Thus, there remains a 20 minute bus ride to get to Cusco. Instead of taking the bus to Cusco, our tour operator Aventours conveniently arranged for us to be picked up in Poroy and took us to our Torre Dorada Hotel in Cusco.
In addition to all of the planning and preparation for when you arrive to Peru, before any international trip you should always check what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) advisories are for that country. The CDC advises for Peru several vaccinations, such as the routine ones (measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT) vaccine, polio-virus vaccine, etc.), Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A and B and malaria. Of course what you actually need is dependent upon where you are going within Peru. Since Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Inca Trail is high in the Andes, only Hepatitis A and Typhoid were required.
Finally, it’s a good idea to purchase travel insurance as well since you never know what can happen. There’s two types of insurance worth getting before your trip. The first is emergency medical and evacuation from International SOS, which we purchased should something occur while on our hike. The other is basic travel insurance for your reservations. In the past I have used CSA Travel Protection. For this trip, I did not take travel insurance since the airfare was purchased with miles and the hotels and tour could be canceled with minimal penalties.
This is the first of three posts on this unforgettable trip that I want to share with you. I hope you find them informative, helpful, interesting and motivational because you really should make Machu Picchu a must-see destination.