Machu Picchu is called the lost city for a reason. Nestled into the mountains roughly five hours from Cusco, it is not really close to anything.
To get to Machu Picchu involves flying from Lima to Cusco, driving from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, taking the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (newly christened Machu Picchu Pueblo), and finally hopping on a bus to reach the famed Inca site. Given plane and train schedules and a park closing time of 5 p.m. sharp, even a headlong rush to Machu Picchu would take a minimum of two days.
Technically speaking, you could check Machu Picchu off your bucket list in four crammed days. Here is a possible itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Lima
Day 2: Fly to Cusco, drive to Ollantaytambo, and take a train to Aguas Calientes
Day 3: Visit Machu Picchu and return to Cusco
Day 4: Fly from Cusco to Lima and then home
Of course, you would miss a lot: marveling at how the Incas were able to fit impossibly heavy stones together so precisely without the benefit of mortar in Cusco, sipping chicha and admiring ancient weaving techniques in the Sacred Valley, bravely sampling baked cuy (guinea pig), and witnessing the melding of colonial and Inca cultures in Qoricancha and Cusco’s cathedral.
A more reasonable schedule is seven days. It would give you time to enjoy what the area has to offer. Here is a possible itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Lima
Day 2: Fly to Cusco and explore it on your own as you acclimatize to the altitude
Day 3: Visit Inca ruins and learn how Inca symbolism pervades religious works in Cusco’s cathedral and Qoricancha
Day 4: Pet llamas in the Sacred Valley, visit a remote community to see a demonstration of ancient weaving techniques, sample chicha, and taste cuy
Day 5: Explore Machu Picchu and soak in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes
Day 6: Have a picnic at the ancient salt pools of Salinas de Maras on the way back to Cusco
Day 7: Fly back to Lima and return home
If your flight home leaves in the evening, you may even have a chance to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites in colonial Lima and enjoy ceviche for lunch.
Interested in visiting Machu Picchu? Check out our 7-day itinerary Machu Picchu Tour by Train.
I am hiking the Inca Trail this May. I must admit I am a tad nervous. It might have to do with the fact that I’ll need to cross over Dead Woman’s Pass. Gulp! I’ve heard the name comes from the shape of the mountain, which looks like a woman’s profile in repose. I certainly hope it’s not because I’ll feel like a dead woman by the time I climb to the top.
Alternatively, I could be nervous from the fact that I’ll be hiking 26 miles over the course of four days. Doesn’t this distance seem like something better traveled by car rather than by foot? Alas, there are no cars on the Inca Trail. The Peruvian government does not even allow emergency horses. This negates my plan B—hopping on a horse if I get too tired.
As I am sure you’ll agree, I must be in good shape for the hike. Here is my fitness plan:
Go to the gym. I’ve been weight training under the direction of a personal trainer for the last nine months or so. Recently, I started a new program called slow cadence weight training. I lift really heavy weights really slowly until I can’t lift them anymore. I like this workout because it increases strength and aerobic capacity at the same time. And, did I mention that I only have to go the gym for 20 minutes a week to achieve optimum results?
Hike, hike, hike. To ensure I hike enough, I joined the Team in Training (TNT) hike team. This means I am raising money to support the mission of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society while I hike. It also means I am rolling out of bed at 6 a.m. every Saturday to hit the trail with the team. Last Saturday, we hiked 8 miles. I think we’ll be hiking 10 to 12 miles during our upcoming outings. While I’m training, I try to hike really fast. I figure the quick pace will help make up for training at sea level whereas the Inca Trail hike is at altitude. Dead Woman’s Pass, for example, is nearly 14,000 feet.
Climb stairs. Tonight I am starting stair training with my TNT mentor, Michelle. It helps to have a buddy to do this grueling one-hour workout. Without one, I’m afraid I’d cut it short or worse yet, not go at all.
I hope all of this training will adequately prepare me for the rigors of the Inca Trail—South America’s most famous hike. It would be awfully embarrassing if I had to turn back or ask one of the porters to carry me piggyback style. As they say in Spanish, “Que verguenza!” (How embarrassing!)
The city of Cusco is the gateway to Machu Picchu. Tourists travel through Cusco to access the mysterious Inca citadel.
The first time I flew into Cusco, I immediately felt the effects of the altitude (10,560 feet) as I disembarked from the plane. Later that afternoon, I nearly fainted from altitude sickness in the middle of the ancient Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman just outside the city.
I was quite surprised by my reaction. I had skied at altitudes of nearly 12,000 feet before. The only symptom I had experienced then was shortness of breath.
Because many people suffer from the effects of altitude sickness upon arriving in Cusco, many tour operators schedule free time the first day. This allows those travelers who have a pounding headache or queasy stomach to relax in their hotel rooms.
Even if you are altitude-sensitive like me, it is possible to visit Cusco without dreading that first day. I’ve been to Cusco five times since that first trip and each time I hop off the plane, grab my backpack in baggage claim, and head off to a series of meetings I’ve scheduled for that day. How is this possible?
I consulted with my doctor back home and he prescribed Diomox. I start taking it a couple of days before I arrive in Cusco. While I experience some side effects such as tingling in my hands and feet, it seems to take care of the altitude sickness.
I also drink plenty of water and coca tea, and swear off alcohol and heavy food that first day.
Diomox is not for everyone. So, you should definitely consult with your doctor about whether it, or something else, could work for you. Some people cannot tolerate altitude at all.
Altitude sickness is no fun. But with a little planning, an ounce of prevention could be worth a pound of cure.
For more information on altitude sickness, see: http://www.high-altitude-medicine.com/.
Last year a friend and I hiked the last day of the famed Inca Trail. I don’t know about the earlier part of the trail, but from KM104 to Machu Picchu we climbed staircase after staircase of Gringo-killer steps. I thought the Incas were short people. You’d never know it by the size of some of these steps.
We didn’t have lunch that day, as we counted on eating at the restaurant near the last campsite. Unfortunately, it was closed! So, I was feeling pretty lightheaded and my energy was definitely lagging. This is when my friend finally took pity on me and taught me a nifty little trick to climb stairs without running out of breath. It’s called rest stepping because you literally take a micro rest as you mount each step. /br>
Here’s the technique.
Place a foot on the step above. Make sure your weight is on your back leg (bottom foot). Then, completely straighten your back leg. Rest.
Push off your bottom foot and place that foot on the next step. Make sure your weight is on your new back leg (new bottom foot). Then, completely straighten your back leg. Rest.
Continue in this manner until you reach the top of the stairs.
The amount of time you rest between steps is up to you. I didn’t rest much as we worried about making it to Machu Picchu in time to catch the last bus to Aguas Calientes. (I didn’t want to hike all the way to town with my stomach growling.) I definitely noticed a big difference, though, when I tried rest stepping. I was able to make it up 60 plus very big, very steep steps without huffing and puffing. I was delighted.
Try it out and let me know what you think.
Peru is a hiker’s paradise. The scenery is stunning—llamas grazing in the shadows of majestic glaciers, locals doing chores in their colorful garb, exotic birds flitting through the cloud forest. As you pass through rural mountain communities, you gain a glimpse into a lifestyle that is not much different from that of the Incas.
My biggest obstacle to enjoying this hiking experience, though, is the discomfort that comes from hiking at high altitude. There never seems to be enough air. A hike I might consider moderately strenuous at sea level turns into an epic endurance event at altitude.
Since I trek at least a couple times a year in Peru to scout potential routes, I’ve had to find ways to make the experience more comfortable, more doable. Here are the eight lessons I’ve learned that work for me.
Do drugs. I always take Diomox. I start a couple of days before I arrive at high altitude. I continue the medication during the hike until I get to a reasonable altitude (for me that‘s about 8,000 feet) and I know I won’t be ascending again. I’ve found that it’s better to stay ahead of the symptoms than to deal with them once they appear, especially when hiking. Who wants to hike with a pounding headache or sick stomach?
Chew coca leaves. You’ll see the porters on the Inca Trail chewing coca leaves all day long. When I trek in Peru, I do too. They help me breathe at high altitude. One word of caution, though–coca leaves can give you an upset stomach. So, if you’ve never had them, try them before you leave the comfort of your hotel room.
Drink plenty of water. It is essential to combating altitude sickness. I also think it’s easy not to realize how much water you are losing. This is because the air is so dry that you don’t realize how much you are sweating. This makes dehydration a real possibility.
Focus on exhaling. This seems counterintuitive. However, I’ve found when I focus on exhaling strongly, I can inhale more deeply. This means I don’t run out of breath as quickly.
Slow down. I once followed an old Quechua woman up a steep path. She strolled slowly. I did the same. I realized that it was better to go at a pace I could maintain for a really long time than to have to stop constantly to catch my breath because I was hiking too fast.
Take small steps going uphill. The steeper the incline, the smaller my steps. This trick reduces the level of effort needed to climb.
Traverse the hill. When I neared 13,000 feet on the Salkantay trek, I hiked back and forth across the path and slowly ascended. I’m sure it looked weird, but it reduced the level of effort I needed to make progress.
Be patient. People who live at sea level are not going to move as fast at high altitude. There is no need to compete with the locals who will pass you moving at top speed in their flip-flops. So, relax and enjoy the scenery. You’ll make it to camp in due time.
Over drinks the other night, a friend mentioned how much she missed going backpacking here in California. The problem was she didn’t have anyone to go with. Then, she gave me one of those looks. You see she knows that I do a lot of backpacking in Peru and is mystified why I only indulge in this sport south of the equator.
Here are my reasons. In Peru:
I don’t have to carry my own backpack. I carry a daypack with water and snacks while a horse, llama, or porter carries my backpack.
I eat gourmet meals on the trail. Lomo saltado, homemade soup, pancakes and eggs, freshly popped popcorn, and trout are examples of some of the meals I’ve eaten while backpacking. No Top Ramen, freeze-dried veggies, or beef jerky for me!
The cook brings a steaming cup of coca tea to my tent each morning. It’s not quite breakfast in bed, but it’s as close as I’ve gotten while camping.
If I get really tired or sprain an ankle, I can ride the emergency horse. (Note there is no emergency horse on the Inca Trail, so you better be in good shape before you attempt it. Also, if you weigh more than 170 or 180 pounds, you’re on your own. The horses in Peru are too small to carry you.)
The porters set up bathroom tents at camp so I don’t have to look for a random tree or rock to hide behind while I am there.
A professional, knowledgeable guide ensures that I don’t get lost, describes local flora and fauna, explains what I am looking at when I pass through Inca ruins, and shares stories about life in Peru.
In short, backpacking in Peru is an interesting combination of roughing it and luxury. And, that little bit of luxury makes all the difference!
If you’ve spent any time at the beach, I am sure you are familiar with the phenomenon of “playa” hair. (Playa means beach in Spanish.) It results from a combination of saltwater, sand, and sunblock interacting with hair. There comes a point in the day when I can’t wait to take a shower to get rid of the icky, itchy feeling that comes from playa hair.
The phenomenon of playa hair is also a problem when backpacking. In this case, it results from a combination of sweat, dirt, and sunblock interacting with hair. It leaves me with the same icky, itchy feeling I get at the beach. The added problem is that washing my hair in the middle of a trek in Peru is a whole lot trickier. Sufficient water is not always available. Plus, it gets quite cold at night. So, wet hair can leave me feeling chilled, especially after a long day of strenuous physical exercise.
Hair care may not seem like a big deal to those intrepid backpackers out there. But, I’ve actually chosen to go on shorter treks so I wouldn’t have to deal with playa hair for too long. Meanwhile, I’ve done a lot of experimentation to solve the problem.
First, here’s what didn’t work (at least for me): dry shampoo. Maybe because my hair is quite long, using dry shampoo only made the situation worse. It added dry, white flakes to the whole itchy mess. Not good!
There were a couple of methods that worked, though. Lots of little braids, Bo Derek style, were somewhat successful. The braids seemed to keep most of my hair clean. Plus, they kept my hair away from my face. Paired with a hat or bandana, the braids were workable, although not ideal. Ideal would have been a steaming hot shower!
Another method was washing my hair with biodegradable shampoo/conditioner when sufficient water was available. I twisted my hair in a special towel called the Turbie Twist™. It did a great job of soaking up the moisture. I was even able to put my hair in a ponytail about 15 minutes later without it dripping down my back. Plus, the good news is that, at least on the Inca Trail, you usually reach camp in the afternoon. So, there is plenty of time before sundown for hair to dry.
Now that you know how to deal with playa hair, there’s no reason to wait—sign up today for one of our amazing treks in Peru!
Several years ago in an attempt to improve my halting Spanish, I participated in a two-week immersion program in Costa Rica. I wrote on my program application that I really needed to practice speaking.
I think that the ability to speak is a sticking point for many people who are learning a second language. Reading, completing grammar exercises, and basic understanding all seem manageable. But, speaking is where people get stuck. For me, there was a significant delay between thinking about what I wanted to say, figuring out how to say it, and getting the words out of my mouth. Plus, I feared making a mistake and sounding stupid. As a result, speaking just never seemed to happen.
I finally began to see a real improvement when I started to take classes with Carlos Bazan at Enjoy Spanish and I started to visit Peru on a more regular basis.
Carlos has a knack for getting people to feel comfortable speaking (mistakes and all). Quite simply he is an excellent conversationalist, asking the right questions to encourage discussion and correcting mistakes in a nonthreatening way. In fact, he is the highest-rated Spanish teacher on Yelp.
As for Peru, it was the countless little interactions that built my confidence to speak: ordering in restaurants, talking with the front desk staff at hotels, shopping at markets, negotiating fares with taxi drivers, and asking for directions—even if it was only to the restroom. My success with these interactions encouraged me to attempt more challenging situations, such as participating in business meetings in Spanish.
Based on my experience working with Carlos and visiting Peru, we have decided to offer a Spanish immersion trip to Peru. Rather than sitting in a classroom practicing verb conjugations and memorizing vocabulary lists, you’ll use your Spanish in the context of daily interactions with locals. Carlos will be with the group throughout the tour, facilitating conversation opportunities, correcting mistakes, and offering encouragement. You’ll also have the chance to see many sights in Peru, including Machu Picchu—one of the new seven wonders of the world.
So if you feel stuck when you speak Spanish, this revolutionary immersion trip might be right for you.
On my first trip to Peru, my dad and I were in the same group as a grandfather-grandson pair, Rick and Peter. Rick had given this adventure to Peter as a high school graduation gift. When I first met Rick and Peter and learned their story, I thought, “What an amazing idea for a graduation gift! No boring class ring for Peter! This is going to be an experience of a lifetime—something they will both cherish forever.” And, by all accounts, it certainly was a memorable trip.
I never laughed so hard as when Peter recounted how bats had swooped into their open-air room in the rainforest eco-lodge where we stayed and pooped all over his grandfather’s things. Apparently, Rick had neatly laid out his clothing, shaving kit, and toothbrush on the bare wooden shelves provided. On the other hand, Peter had left his things largely unpacked. So, Peter still had a useable toothbrush while Rick sipped his morning coffee chagrined.
In addition to the bat mishap, the two fished for piranhas, sampled alpaca meat, hiked through Machu Picchu, explored the cobbled streets of Cusco, and even discovered the only edible pizza in town, which we enjoyed with them.
I can’t imagine a more memorable graduation gift, or in this case, a more life-changing one. When Peter returned to New York, he promptly embarked on a six-month adventure to South America, perfecting his classroom Spanish to fluency in the process. I just e-mailed him this week and learned he had completed a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Wow! This trip may have set him on a direction for a career. Can you imagine having that kind of impact on the lives of your grandchildren?
And, while I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that going on such an adventure deepened Rick and Peter’s relationship. I know my Dad and I certainly strengthened ours. No matter what the future holds, we’ll always have Peru, and so will Rick and Peter.
Llama Expeditions' Amazon to Machu Picchu Tour offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience for grandchildren and their still youthful grandparents!
In addition to zip-off hiking pants, broken-in hiking boots, and wick-away shirts, here are a few items that can make your Inca Trail hike a tad more comfortable.
Socks—Liner socks can help you avoid blisters. Hiking socks can offer extra cushioning, which feels great provided they fit well with your hiking boots. And, wool socks can help keep your feet from turning icy while you sleep.
Cash—You’ll want to take un sol coins for the hot showers at the last campsite and cash in good condition to tip your porters and cooks. They don’t accompany you all the way to Machu Picchu, so your only opportunity to tip them is on the trail.
Leaves—Chewing muña or coca leaves can alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Plus, sharing coca leaves is the fastest way to make friends with your porters and cooks.
Warm stuff—It’s cold in the mountains, especially during the Andean winter months of June, July, and August. Plus, you are more likely to become chilled at night after a day of strenuous exercise. So, bring things to keep you warm. I always pack a hot water bottle, hand and foot warmers, a fleece neck warmer, an alpaca hat, a super-warm sleeping bag, and gloves. I typically run cold, but it’s better to be in a position to share warm things than to shiver and wish I had them.
Rain gear—You can find cheap plastic ponchos just about everywhere in Cusco. Buy two in case one tears on the trail. (I’ve actually had this happen to me.) Waterproof hiking pants are a godsend!
Sun protection—I’ve gotten red in spite of using sun block and wearing a hat because the Andean sun is so strong. Sunglasses are an absolute must, as well. In fact, you might want to pack an extra pair just in case you lose the first pair.
Hiking poles—On Day 3, you hike down steps for a really long time. Many people find this more challenging than hiking up Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2. Hiking poles can help save your knees. The poles need rubber tips, though; otherwise, you are not permitted to use them on the Inca Trail.
Bathroom kit—Plan on keeping a roll of toilet paper and some hand sanitizer in your daypack for bathroom stops along the trail. Pepto-Bismol, Imodium, and Ciprofloxacin are also good to have along.
Deck of cards—How else will you win those un sol coins for the hot showers from your fellow trekkers if you don’t have cards to play a rousing game of Texas Hold ‘Em at the end of the day?
As the Girl Scouts like to say, “Be prepared.” You’ll have more fun that way!