Christy and I have taken a big hiking trip somewhere exotic every year since we met in 1999. Aside from one brief visit to New England, we’ve always traveled west. This year, we decided to try a different direction.
Initially we intended to visit Europe. Christy has always wanted to see the Tour de France, and the Alps offer some of the finest hiking on the planet. It seemed like a great idea until I started researching the costs involved. Flights to pretty much anywhere in Europe were all well over $1,000, and I didn’t have enough frequent flier miles to get us anywhere. Combine that with the costs of lodging, food, and transportation for a month, and I didn’t see any way that we could pull it off.
I shifted my focus from east to south. For years now I’ve wanted to visit Peru. Peru contains the second-highest mountains on Earth, a vast swath of the Amazon rain forest, the world’s deepest canyons, and hundreds of fascinating archeological sites. The most famous, Machu Picchu, is perched on a mountaintop at the end of the 30-mile Inca Trail. That hike is considered by many to be among the most spectacular treks in the world.
A bit of research revealed that flights to Lima, Peru, cost roughly half of those to Europe. Even better, using frequent flier miles was an option. That, along with the promise of relatively cheap lodging and transportation, convinced us to make our first trip to South America. The fact that we don’t speak Spanish didn’t dissuade us.
Initially I was concerned that traveling south of the equator in June might be a mistake. Technically, it would be winter down there. However, a bit of research revealed that our summer was actually the best time to go. Because Peru is close to the equator, there isn’t a big difference in temperature between summer and winter. However, most of the country has distinct wet and dry seasons. In the mountains and jungle, the wet season generally runs from November or December through March or April. The weather is usually dry through the remainder of the year. The only exception to this is in the coastal desert, which includes the capital of Lima. There, our winter months bring sunshine and heat. The rest of the year, the coast is hidden under a blanket of persistent fog.
I started researching Peru in January. I quickly realized that planning a month in Peru was going to be lot more complicated than the typical hiking and camping trip in the Rockies. In fact, it turned out to be nearly a full-time job.
There are a few ways to approach a trip to Peru. One option is to let a travel agency handle everything. This approach is expensive though. The other extreme is to plan everything independently, or simply figure it out when you get there. We opted for something in between. We planned most of our trip on our own, but we did use some travel agencies to assist with certain parts of the trip. Having local assistance was certainly helpful at times. On the other hand, we were on our own for the most part.
Peru is a big country. So how did we decide on what to do? Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was a must. That would only take 4 days though. Even with an extra day at Machu Picchu and a few days in Cuzco prior to the hike, we still had 3 weeks to plan.
I have a coffee table book titled “Classic Treks” that I picked up on clearance at Barnes and Noble for $2. It describes 30 hikes that it considers to be among the best in the world. That book has proven to be invaluable, and it really came in handy for this trip. In addition to a chapter on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, it also describes a long hike through the Cordillera Huayhush in the Andes of central Peru. The Huayhush, along with the Cordillera Blanca nearby, contains the second-highest mountains in the world. The hike described in the book sounded compelling. We’d spend 10 days or so wandering past alpine lakes and glaciers, and cresting passes over 16,000’ high. We’d also pass through rural villages and farms largely untouched by civilization.
That left us with about a week. Originally I considered visiting Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. Just outside Arequipa is a group of active volcanoes, including El Misti. El Misti, at an elevation of 19,101’, offers a challenging but non-technical ascent. However, the mountain is very high, and the climb (featuring 8,000’ of elevation gain) is grueling. Since there is no water on the volcano, all of it must be carried.
The more I thought about climbing El Misti, the less appealing it sounded. Climbing a 19K foot mountain would be cool, but would it be enjoyable? Plus, acclimating for the climb would be difficult. Christy has had problems with altitude sickness in the past, and a climb of this nature would be asking for trouble. We decided to skip it.
We considered a number of other areas, but ultimately passed on them. We strongly considered visiting Paracas and the Isla Ballestas to view the wildlife. This area is sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Galapagos. In the end though, we weren’t able to squeeze that area in. Not far from Paracas is Nazca, which is famous for the Nazca Lines. The Nazca Lines are one of the world’s great archaeological mysteries. They consist of rocks organized into hundreds of straight lines, geometric figures, animals, and plants. However, the lines can only really be seen from above. Viewing them requires taking a tourist flight. We didn’t include that in our budget, so we left the Nazca Lines out of our trip. If we return to Peru, I’ll consider them a priority.
Since we didn’t visit Arequipa, we missed out on Colca Canyon and Cotahuasi Canyon. These canyons, which are nearly 11,000’ deep, are considered to be the deepest in the world. We also didn’t make it to Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake. Aside from its fantastic name, Titicaca is also considered the world’s highest navigable lake, at over 12,000’ in elevation. Lake Titicaca certainly would’ve been worth a visit, and it will be high on the “to-do” list if we return to Peru.
We also didn’t visit northern Peru. There are some interesting attractions and nice beaches in northern Peru, but getting around in Peru isn’t easy, and we had limits on our time and budget.
After much debate, we decided to spend our remaining time in Peru in the Amazon rain forest. Visiting the rain forest entailed some additional expense, but we felt that missing it after traveling all the way to Peru would be inexcusable. In hindsight, I feel like we made a good choice. We enjoyed some unique experiences and saw some amazing sights in the jungle.
The challenges of traveling within Peru are worth highlighting. Peru is about the size of California, but the highway system isn’t exactly on the same level. The mountainous terrain makes road construction and maintenance difficult and expensive. In fact, some areas of the mountains and jungle can’t be reached by road at all. Those that are typically involve long, tedious journeys. For example, there are two ways to get from Lima, the capital, to Cuzco. The first is a 30-hour bus ride that costs about $60, one-way. The other option is a one-hour flight that costs about $100, one-way. We decided to fly.
We used a travel agency (http://www.traficoperu.com/english/default.asp) to book our flights within Peru. Oddly, booking the same flights directly with the airline resulted in higher fares. Ultimately we booked three one-way flights, starting and ending in Lima. Initially I booked the flights through the travel agency on South America’s premier airline, LAN. The total cost – for both of us – was only $324. I was feeling pretty good about this until I received an email from the travel agency a few hours later. The subject of the email was DONT ACTION, which didn’t sound encouraging. The message stated that they couldn’t book our flights, because the quoted price was only for Peruvian citizens. The price for foreigners? $890.
I was astonished. Was that even legal? I guess maybe in Peru it is. For a little while there, it looked like we might be taking the bus after all. As for the jungle, that would be out of the question.
After my temper cooled I checked back with the agency. They suggested a similar itinerary on a low-cost airline, Star Peru. The total cost through Star Peru was $470. That was a bit more than the $324 we were originally quoted, but a lot better than $890. We booked it.
Over the next several months I exhaustively researched all the places we would go. I made hotel reservations and booked several nights at a jungle lodge. We got our vaccinations and made a feeble attempt at learning Spanish. Most importantly, we purchased permits for our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Due to the popularity of the trek, the government now enforces a quota of 500 people starting the trail each day. Going independently isn’t an option, either, as all hikers must be accompanied by a guide and porters. As a result, trekking to Machu Picchu is now quite expensive – the trip we booked cost about $450 each.
In the end, our plan looked like this:
Part I: Fly to Lima and spend 2 days and 3 nights exploring Peru’s capital.
Part 2: Fly to Puerto Maldonado and spend 3 nights at a jungle lodge on the Madre de Dios River – a tributary of the Amazon.
Part 3: Fly to Cuzco and spend 3 day exploring the city and the nearby archeological sites (and 3 nights acclimatizing to the altitude). Then spend 5 days hiking the Inca Trail and exploring Machu Picchu.
Part 4: Fly back to Lima, and then take an overnight bus to Huaraz. Spend a couple of days doing dayhikes to further acclimatize to the altitude before embarking on a 10-day backpacking trip around the Cordillera Huayhush. Afterwards, we’d return to Huaraz, and then Lima, and then home.
It was a good plan, as far as plans go. Of course, international travel rarely goes according to plan. To be honest, our plan was more of a suggestion than a set itinerary. In fact, it changed multiple times before we even left home. The times on our flights within Peru changed twice after we booked them. The second change forced us to completely rearrange the fourth part of the trip.
Learning Spanish was also part of the “plan”. Unfortunately, Christy and I have to work for a living, and neither of us were able to dedicate much time to learning a second language. By the time we departed, we had some of the basics down, but not much more.
I had two major concerns going into our trip. One was robbery. I’d read too many stories about travelers getting mugged or having their bags snatched. The other was simply staying healthy. We visited a travel health clinic in April, where we discovered that diseases in Peru can be classified in one of two ways:
1) Blood-borne diseases transmitted by mosquitoes or animals
2) Diseases transmitted by dirty food or water that result in continuous projectile diarrhea
We spent a small fortune getting vaccinations. Vaccinations for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and Yellow Fever cost us $715. We also picked up a traveler’s diarrhea kit, which included our old friend, Imodium, as well as a broad-based antibiotic. Not included in this cost was Malaria pills. There is no vaccination for Malaria, but there are pills available that offer some protection against the disease. We each got a prescription for these, and quickly discovered that there’s a big difference in the prescription drug benefit between Christy’s insurance and mine. Through her plan, the pills cost about $30, while mine were $90. After Christy got her prescription filled, I called the clinic back and told them that the drug store lost it. They called it in again, and Christy picked up a second bottle for another $30.
When we decided to visit the jungle, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. In Peru, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Malaria are only present in the jungle. We could’ve skipped all of the vaccinations except Hepatitis A if we’d left the jungle out of our trip. Of course, we didn’t realize the full costs involved when we planned it. By the time we discovered how expensive the vaccinations were, we’d already booked our lodge and flights. At that point, we didn’t want to attempt to change everything. Was it worth it? I don’t know. The jungle was really cool though, so maybe it was.
By mid-June, almost everything was in place. Food for our 10-day backpacking trip was dehydrated. Our gear and clothes were organized, and only awaited final packing. Most importantly, we’d found a teenager to house and dog sit while we were gone. Despite all of our preparations, I wasn’t looking forward to the trip like I should’ve been. Instead, I was more worried about what might go wrong. Would our inability to speak Spanish cause problems? Would we get robbed? Would the house still be standing when we returned home? Unfortunately, this was my mindset the night before our trip.
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