Photo Friday: Cusco, Peru

As I was surfing through the archives, reminiscing, I came to December 2008/January 2009 and did a double take. No Cusco pictures? None? Zero? Zip? How could that be? Cusco was beautiful. It was interesting. It was definitely photogenic. I looked again. And then I remembered. Oh yeah, Ispent the first part of our time in Cusco with my head over the toilet, held hostage by a stomach virus. And then there was the fact that my brother Gregory was visiting, and we enjoyed his real live presence so much that we didn’t feel any need to get online. After that, well, we kept traveling and things kept happening and there was so much that we wanted to share that lovely, lovely Cusco was neglected.

I’m here now to make up for that. To beg the forgiveness of this breathtaking (and yes, I do mean that literally) city. For this Photo Friday edition of Lives of Wander, I present Cusco and the surrounding countryside.

An aerial view of Cusco, a sea of red roofs tucked into the valley.

Cusco’s main plaza, Plaza de Armas, as seen from the hills above the city. Lushly landscaped and surrounded by shops, restaurants, and historic buildings, the plaza is always crowded with both locals and visitors.

The Cathedral of Santa Domingo has a place of prominence in the Plaza de Armas. The cathedral sits on a foundation of an Incan temple destroyed by Spanish colonizers. If you look closely, you’ll notice that this is true of many of Cusco’s buildings.

Though I enjoyed the architecture of Cusco in its entirety, I particularly loved the balconies, both those that were intricately carved and the more simple ones lining the streets.

Souvenirs and necessities are sold side by side in the Cusco market.

Intricately decorated gourds are sold by the mound.

Though the traditional dress of the women in this photo is still worn by many Quechua people, many of the people you find in Cusco in such attire are wearing it in the hopes of making a few bucks off tourists who want to take their photos or pose with their llamas.

Just a short bus ride from the city center, life is rural. Farms here are necessarily small as the mountainous terrain makes it hard to find suitable land for growing.

There was something a little bit surreal to me about this bright yellow VW bug parked on a hillside in the Cusco countryside just a few hundred yards from a set of Incan ruins. I love strange juxtapositions and the reminder of the way life marches on.

A large statue of Jesus stands above the city, guarding Cusco.

While down in the city, the baby Jesus is attended to by Mary, Joseph, and a llama. (We were in Cusco the week after Christmas.)

If you’re planning to hike the Inca Trail or one of the alternative trails to Machu Picchu, be sure to pad your schedule so that you’ll have a few days in Cusco. Besides needing those days to get used to the high altitude, you’ll find that your days will be packed simply exploring Cusco and the nearby villages and Incan ruins. Though Cusco is certainly a very touristed city, it didn’t, at least to me, feel touristy.

For more Photo Friday posts, be sure to check out the links from Delicious Baby.

***Photos 1 (Aerial view of Cusco), 3 (Cathedral of Santa Domingo), 4 (Carved Balcony), 5 (Street of Balconies), 6 (Cusco Market), and 7 (Gourds) are courtesy of my brother Gregory Dowell, who traveled with us to Cusco. See more of his excellent photography, including images from Chicago’s recent Thunder Blizzard on his blog.

In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa

We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia

Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island

Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive

Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan

India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

I Heart Wong

Nobody likes Lima. At least that’s the way it seems. Save two travelers, everyone we met prior to our entering Peru, told us to spend as little time there as possible. Even National Geographic, in an article on Peru, says to leave Lima behind ASAP. And hey, they have their reasons.

Lima is a sprawling, chaotic city. It seems to stretch forever, without any real rhyme or reason to its construction. Getting around is a pain in the butt. Sure, there are buses, but you have to know exactly where you’re going and which bus goes there if you’re to have a chance to make it to your destination. And talk about overcrowded. People are on top of each other, hanging out the doors. Taxis, well, they aren’t particularly cheap (especially if you are a gringo), and you’ll sit in traffic forever. The attractions—a few museums, some churches, a plaza or two—are nice but nothing special. You’ve seen better elsewhere. So yeah, Lima shouldn’t top any travelers list of place to go.

But me, I like Lima. Why? Well, it’s pretty simple. Wong.

Wong is the name of one of the major grocery stores in Lima, and to put it simply, it’s awesome. In all of our months of travel, it’s by far the best grocery store we’ve found. They have everything. Want to have a Thai cocount curry? They’ve got the ingredients. Want pita bread, croissants, ciabatta, foccacia, or any other type of bread you can imagine? It’s all fresh-made, warm from the oven. Want fruits that you have never heard of and can hardly even imagine? They’re at Wong, and they just might be sized bigger than your head. Fresh-squeezed juice? Just let them know what size you want. Pre-made lunches? Good luck choosing between the Asian stir-fries, the Italian food, and the ceviche. Oh, and don’t forget a piece of chocolate cake for dessert. And while you’re trying to decide between the million and one pieces of deliciousness in the Wong, go ahead and take one of each of the thousand free samples they’re handing out. Maybe it will help you decide; maybe it will just confuse you more.

Lest I shortchange the Wong, let me tell you that it’s not just groceries you can buy there; you can also get any other item your household might need. Plus essentials such as bus and air tickets. In sum, everything; you can get everything at the Wong.

And while normally I lament the supergiants that take over, driving mom & pop out of business, I have to admit that when I went into the Wong, my first words were “Jeff, I think we’re in heaven.” After months of supermarkets without any selection, bakeries out of bread, and meals concocted from what we could scrap together rather than the ingredients we really needed, the Wong was just what I needed.

Now We’re Traveling

Things have been going just a bit too smoothly for us so far on this trip. Giving credit where credit is due, a large part of that is due to the voracious consumption of information for planning. I think we all know who is the general driving force behind this. I mean, if you exhaust and explore every possible option from every angle, it’s hard to make the wrong choice too many times. But alas, on our border crossing from Peru to Ecuador, our over-preparation was our greatest weakness.

We were in Huanchaco, a beach town near Trujillo, looking to get across the border. There are two main routes from here, the coastal route via Tumbes, Peru to Machala, Ecuador, widely regarded as a busy, thief infested, scam ridden border crossing, and the inland route through Piura, Peru to Loja, Ecuador, which is much less used, has a direct international through bus, and our guidebook alleges is a much more pleasant experience. Needless to say, it was pretty clear which way we would be heading, especially since we also wanted to visit Vilcabamba, a pleasant gringo-haven town just south of Loja (more on Vilcabamba to come as we are currently here).

So off to Piura we headed on an afternoon bus, complete with a 4 feature Jean Claude Van Damme marathon (in Spanish!). We hoped to then hop on the TransLoja International bus the next morning. Unfortunately, neither we nor our various gold mines of information accounted for unhappy agricultural workers. I mean, I’m sure they’re unhappy, underpaid and overexploited, but do they have to go and close down the highway as their protest?

These striking agricultural workers meant our bus to whisk us across the border was not running, had not run for the previous two days and its status for the next few days depended on the positive resolution of the strike. Everyone assured us this would happen, but as we awoke the next morning and called the bus company, they told us no buses that day, and as the Latin American cliche goes, maybe a bus would go “manana”.

With the uncertainty of the buses, we decided to take matters into our own hands and to hop a bus to the nearby town of Sullana where collectivo taxis run to the border. Surely these guys would be up on the latest developments or know ways around these wily farmhands.

Arriving at the collectivo stand we quickly learned that yes, the road was still blocked, but yes, there was a way around; it just cost twice as much and took twice as long. Skeptical, I started asking some of the other local passengers waiting just the same and found that (shockingly for all the other “negotiating” we’d done with taxi drivers in the area) we had been told the honest price. While this meant not getting to the border until only a few hours before dark, we eventually filled up a car and headed out. And by filled up a car, I mean eight close friends and luggage in a five passenger station wagon.

So it was with that backstory that we found ourselves bumping along a badly maintained dirt road, clearly anyone’s distant second (third? tenth?) option for travel. No one was surprised when the car rolled over yet another bump, a strong hissing started, and within 100 yards we were stopped repairing a flat tire. Eight people piled out, several went to urinate (neither of us, for the record, we were preoccupied trying to get dirt out of my eye that had flown in earlier), and the driver set about fixing the tire. Three hours after leaving Sullana, we made it half way to the border (on what is normally an hour and a half trip up the highway). Fortunately, the rest was on the highway, and we found ourselves finishing the trip going a little too fast.

As advertised, the border crossing was a cinch. We were the only ones and everyone was helpful and friendly as we walked to Ecuador (my first border crossing on foot!). On the other side, we got a taxi to the the town of Mancara, where we hoped to catch a late afternoon bus to Loja for the evening. Unfortunately, the next bus was an overnighter at 11 pm. It was currently 5:30 pm. So, already exhausted from the day’s adventure, we found some dinner (having not eaten since a morning pastry) and sat around the bus station for five hours as the rain started outside.

Upon leaving the station, we discovered that I had the “wet seat” just below the air hole on the top of the bus. While closed, it sure wasn’t impermeable to water, as a steady drip set in. Fortunately, we found two seats in the back of the bus right next to the toilets (normally the worst seats on a bus, except that night). Even more fortunately, nobody decided they needed to use the toilet during the course of our five hour ride. We passed out as best we could, and got off in Loja at 4:30 in the morning. We found tickets to Vilcabamba at 5:30, slept through that hour ride, and stumbled up to our hotel, where we promptly passed out in hammocks until we were allowed to check in.

Thus went our trip into Ecuador. I hope those farmhands held out for the motherlode.

Breaking Down the Inca Trail: Days 3 & 4

Continued. Read the first part here.

Day 3
The rain that started the minute we got into our tents last night hasn’t let up by morning despite my numerous pleas to whatever gods will hear me, so we crawl out of our warm sleeping bags into a cold, wet day at 5:00 a.m. We have 15 km to cover, rain or shine. Behind us, Dead Woman’s Pass is covered in snow.

Ahead of us another pass waits, the Trail’s second, which we must climb 450 meters to reach. We begin the ascent, taking one short break in the rain to check out the ruins of Runkuracay, a resting spot for Machu Picchu pilgrims.

Through the pass, we descend to about the same elevation we started the day at and then climb again to the third pass. On our way, we pass through the first of two Inca Tunnels, magnificent passageways chiseled from enormous rock slabs, and walk again though cloud forest.

We also pass more Inca ruins, the most intact and impressive along the path. Lunch comes early today, and with it, the end of the rain. It’s been a wet morning, but as it is the wet season, we’ve been remarkably lucky that this is all we have encountered. Though I had my fingers crossed, I half expected to walk in the rain all day every day. Blue skies and sunshine roll in for the afternoon, which is fortunate as the hardest part of the day’s hike awaits us: the Gringo Killer. For over 2.5 hours, we must go down. Someone says there are over 2,000 stairs. I don’t count. I just know there are a lot. By the time we make camp at Winay Wayna, just before dinner, all of our knees are screaming. Since the porters are leaving us after breakfast the next morning, we have a short thank you ceremony for them, and then we all fall, literally, into our tents, absolutely exhausted.

Day 4
The benefit of yesterday’s long day is that we are as close to Machu Picchu as anyone on the Inca Trail can be. Trail regulations keep anyone from hiking before 5:30 a.m., but as soon as the clock turns, we are off, racing to the Sun Gate to get our first view of Machu Picchu. Though it’s barely dawn, the day looks clear. We can only hope it lasts as we speedwalk a couple of miles through more “Inca Flats.” As with the whole trail, it’s “no pain, no gain,” so we must make a good climb before reaching the Sun Gate. We haul ourselves up and then gape down at Machu Picchu, spread out before us.

Though many others (including plenty of people who went in the dry season) told us to expect rain, mist, or at minimum clouds covering the site, we are blessed with blue skies and sunshine.  Our view is clear. A few thin clouds pass by but we have a perfect view down on the amazingly well-preserved ruins of Machu Picchu.

After snapping lots of photos, we continue down to the site for close exploration. For two hours, our guide leads us to some of the more significant sites. We then spend a few more hours exploring on our own, marveling at the perfect stonework of the temples, admiring the ingenuity of the fountains and water systems, wondering just how they managed to carve the terraces into the steepness of the mountainside, and just enjoying what truly is one of the wonders of the world.

Breaking Down the Inca Trail: Days 1 & 2

The Classic Inca Trail is a four day hike, covering 26 miles. Here’s how it broke down for us.

Day 1
Around 5:30 a.m., we board a bus in Cusco and travel 1.5 hours to Ollantaytambo, where we have a chance to eat breakfast and grab any last minute items we forgot. We then continue on to the start of the Inca Trail, where we pass through the official checkpoint, take a group photo, and begin our day’s 12 kilometers of hiking.

This is the easiest day and the hiking takes place along what is referred to as the “Inca Flat.” Apparently Peruvians have a very different idea of flat than I do, because we are pretty much going uphill most of the time. The ascent isn’t extreme, but we do gain over 1,500 feet during the course of the day, with one rather steep section. A good introduction, it gets our lungs burning and our hearts panting.

During the morning, we follow the course of the Urubamba River, stopping to allow locals with their llamas to pass, to learn about the use of native plants, and to see our first set of ruins.

Lunch comes late, at around 2:30, and it’s a lot more food than we are expecting, a lot more food than I usually like to eat when I hike. Two more hours of uphill walking leads us to our first camp, in the rural setting of Wayllabamba. After another multi-course meal, we all fall into our tents, exhausted after a long day of walking and so very thankful for the porters who have everything so perfectly set up when we arrive. They are absolutely incredible, carrying giant packs and practically running the trail as we pant along at a snail’s pace. I’m in awe.

Day 2
The crow of a rooster wakes us before our official 5:30 a.m. wake-up time. Another 12 km day awaits us, but this one promises to be much more difficult as it involves going up, up, up, up, up, and up. For five hours, we haul ourselves up to the aptly-named Dead Woman’s Pass. We break it into three sections; the first section is a short one that involves only one hour of hiking before a short stop where the group, all moving at different paces, regroups.

The next stretch is two hours and involves climbing step after step after step. Luckily, the climb is through beautiful cloud forest, the waterfalls and flowers and hummingbirds inspiring us to continue putting one foot in front of another.

A mini-lunch of sandwiches, popcorn, and tea awaits us at the next break, as does the first real rain of our trip. With two hours of climbing in front of us, we can’t wait it out, so we set out in the rain, which fortunately doesn’t last more than an hour. We’ve now passed beyond the tree line and must clamber up a dirt path, the scrub bushes on the side of the path serving as mini-goals—just 10 more yards and then I can catch my breath.

The final ascent to the 4,200 meter pass, the highest elevation on the trail, involves a steep staircase.

We drag ourselves up it, and then from the top, look down in awe at the distance we have covered.

Unfortunately, we can’t bask in the glory for long as the hard work isn’t over. To get to the Paqaymayu campsite, the day’s destination, we now must descend 700 meters. Thanks to the day’s rains, the stone steps are slippery and in parts it seems like we’re walking down a waterfall. It’s slow going, but thanks to the day’s early start, we arrive in camp in early afternoon, where we pass the rest of the day eating (or at least that’s how it seems with lunch, tea, and dinner following one after another).

To Be Continued…
(Sorry, I hate those endings too, but my connection is slow right now making the illustrating of the text with photos brutal. Plus I have an early morning flight back to Lima, so this will have to do for now. Check back Friday for the final installment.)

Machu Picchu: Conquered

We survived. My brother Gregory, Jeff, and I have made our pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, the sacred site of the Quechua people* and returned to Cusco, more or less intact.

This past summer, Jeff and I hiked somewhere around 500 miles. More than once, we hiked over 20 miles in one day, and then woke up the next day to do it again. I wouldn’t say it was fun and I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it wasn’t killer. The hike to Machu Picchu by way of the classic Inca Trail is about 26 miles long, and it’s done over the course of four days. Sounds not too bad, right?

Ha. Think again. The Inca Trail is hard. This is no stroll in the park, no walk in the woods. This is a long, hard haul at extremely high elevation. You begin at 2,600 meters. (That’s 8,528 feet for those of you who can’t figure out the metric system.) By the first night, you are at 3,100 meters (10,137 feet). That’s twice the elevation of Denver, which many of us Americans consider to be high and hard on the lungs. On the second day, you ascend to 4,200 meters (13,776 feet). You go up a lot. But it’s not just uphill. You also go downhill–hard and fast–and then go back uphill all over again. The ground is rough, much of it paved with uneven stones. Sometimes the only thing on the side of the trail is a steep drop-off. And being the rainy season, creeks spill over the trail, stones become slippery, and rivers rage. The Inca Trail is not for the faint of heart.

But it’s difficulties are balanced by its rewards. On the first day, you pass local people in traditional dress, working the land and living the way they have for hundreds of years.

Every day magnificent scenery surrounds you—sheer mountains that seem to rise straight from the earth, snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, cloud forest jungle—and because it’s the rainy season thousands of orchids, bromelids, and other flowers.

And you don’t have to wait until you get to Machu Picchu to see Incan ruins, as there are many ruins along the way: small sites that served as resting spots, larger sites that astronomers used to predict the best times for planting and harvest, and a variety of other impressive ruins where pilgrims to Machu Picchu stopped five hundred years ago.

All in all, we had a fabulous time. Our group of 12—aside from an unfortunately whiny Canadian couple—was good, our guides were knowledgeable and encouraging, the food was plentiful and pretty tasty, the tents warm, the porters amazing, and the weather surprisingly good for the heart of rainy season. And Machu Picchu, well, it was definitely worth the work.

Check back tomorrow for a day by day break-down of the trip, along with some more photos. And yes, we know that we have not yet posted anything about our first few adventures prior to the Inca Trail. We will take some time and rewind back to that after we enjoy our last few days with Gregory.

*It’s incorrect to refer to the people as Incas. There was only one Inca—the king.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everybody out there! We passed it in Cuzco, although with no TV to watch the ball drop on, we may have celebrated a few minutes off. The pouring rain kept us inside and the cold kept us under our covers, so it was a calm and quiet one for us here. Resolutions of less overanalyzing have already been made and broken. But you can’t go wrong starting a new year by hiking the Inca Trail, which we start bright and early tomorrow morning. Since we haven’t had time to line up posts while we’re out, you’ll just have to manage without us till we get back January 6th.

While we’re gone, we’d love to hear how friends and family rang in the new year. We wish all of you a happy and prosperous new year!

A Visitor!

We’ve been traveling for almost three months now. This means that we’ve spent approximately the last 2000 hours together, with one another being our only consistent support in our grand endeavor. And honestly, while that brings us closer and all that, when you do everything together and see everything together and notice everything together and are removed from the pace of everyday life together, you run out of things to talk about. Everything we take in about the world happens at the same time. Our conversations often amount to “hmm, did you see that, that was weird” … “huh, yeah.” Sure, there’s an awful lot of conversation about what to do next, what we just did, what do you want to eat, and so on. But there’s also a lot of comfortable silence these days.

So I think we’re both a little excited to have someone else to talk to. Get filled in on all the weird little things that make the news. Someone to update me on the football world. Theresa’s brother Greg arrives tonight to join us in exploring Lima, Nazca and Cuzco. Since it’s all got to happen in ten days, it will be a flurry of activity and we may not be terribly active here. Instead, we may be too busy talking.

Face Off #3: Machu Picchu

High atop our list of must-see sites in South America is Machu Picchu, “the lost city of the Incas.” This architectural and cultural wonder evokes awe from even the most jaded travelers. The remains of this lost city are remarkably well preserved. This isn’t one of those sites where you’re supposed to look at a tiny pile of stones and conjure up an image of grandeur. No, sirree. This is more like wandering into an abandoned (but ancient) town, where you expect a local to pop his head out of the window at any moment. Additionally, the location of Machu Picchu is stunning, tucked away in a valley high in the Andes Mountains, snow-capped peaks providing a photo-perfect background. If you go to Peru and don’t visit Machu Picchu, well, you’re just plain silly.

As for visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site, there are two options. One, you can take the train. Two, you can hike. We’ve already decided that we’ll hike. Machu Picchu seems like the kind of place that needs to be earned. But the decision-making doesn’t end there. Whereas once nearly every person who hiked to Machu Picchu took the “Inca Trail” (a bit of a generalized name, since there are literally dozens if not hundreds of “Inca trails” throughout South America), now there are multiple routes one can take to reach the famed city. And that’s where we need your help: Which route should we take—the famed Inca Trail or one of the “new” alternatives? Here’s a little bit of info to help you with your decision.

The classic Inca Trail: This 45-km hike typically lasts four days and starts on the Urubamba River at kilometer marker 82. (The actual trailhead is 82 km away at the village of Ollantaytambo, but no one starts from there.) The trail climbs through three major passes, the highest at 4,215 meters named Dead Woman’s Pass. It passes through jungle and cloud forest, and it also passes Inca ruins. Parts of the trail are thought to be the original stone path created by the Incas. The trail ends at the “Sun Gate” entrance to Machu Picchu, with most groups arriving there around sunrise. The trail is one-way and trekkers return to Cusco via train.

In the past decades the popularity of the trail surged so much that it was pretty much being loved to death. As a result, Peru established rules in the past year to regulate the trail. A maximum of 500 people (including guides and porters) are allowed to begin the trail each day. (But think, that’s still 2,000 people on the trail on any given day!) You are no longer allowed to trek independently but must either go with a group or hire a registered guide. You also are not longer able to simply show up in Cusco and be out on the trail in a day or two. All hikers must be registered with the authorities a month in advance, so you must book in advance. In high season, spots are booked months, if not a full year, in advance. Additionally, specific areas have been designated for camping, and the trail is closed for the entire month of February for clean-up. At this point, the cost of this hike with a reputable agency is about $400-$500 (depending on the state of the dollar…eek).

Alternatives to the Inca Trail: There are two primary alternative routes to the classic Inca Trail. The first, the Salkantay Mountain Trek, lasts five days and is a bit more difficult than the Inca Trail. It leads around Mount Salkantay, which means “Savage Mountain” in the local quechua language, passing through spectacular scenery and traditional Andean villages. The landscape varies from mountain peaks, rivers, and lakes to jungles with waterfalls. The trek actually ends near the Santa Teresa Valley, from where you take a train to Aguas Calientes, and then rise early the next morning to hike (or take a bus) to Machu Picchu. Though this hike does not have the Incan ruins along it that the classic trail has, it has awesome vistas, natural beauty, and a chance to see some authentic Andean villages, and offers a more strenuous trek. It is also not as strictly regulated as the classic trail, and thus you can still arrange a hike upon arrival in Cusco rather than months in advance. Price-wise, this trek is about equivalent to the classic trail, although it is a day longer. In the November 2007 edition of National Geographic Adventure, the Salkantay Trek was named one of the “25 best new trips in the world.” It was the featured trip for South America in an article titled “Machu Picchu the Cool Way.”

The other alternative is the four-day Lares Trek, which tours the Sacred Valley at a difficulty approximate to that of the Inca Trail. This trail leads past gorgeous mountain lakes and through very traditional Andean villages where weaving is still a common practice and the herding of sheep and alpaca is a means of making a life. As with the Salkantay Trek, the actual trek ends short of Machu Picchu, and you end by taking a train to Aguas Calientes, where you overnight before ascending to the famed city. Also, as with the Salkantay Trek, the trail focuses more on beautiful scenery and village life than Incan ruins. My friends Joyce and Jack did this trip last October and thoroughly enjoyed it. This trail can be organized at the last minute, and it costs about $75 less than the classic trail.

Things to Consider:

1. All options end with you in Machu Picchu.

2. Hiking the classic Inca Trail requires advance planning, often of several months, especially in the high season. The other two options can be arranged upon arrival in Machu Picchu.

3. We will be visiting Machu Picchu in late December or early January, which is definitely not the high season. We have to keep in mind Christmas break travelers, but we have more flexibility and shouldn’t have to plan ridiculously far in advance regardless of what we want to do.

3. The classic Inca trail is a very popular route. Even with the limits it can sometimes feel crowded. (For instance, at the designated campsites at night.) I haven’t been able to track any data done yet, however, on how often the limit is reached in December/January or whether the trail is below capacity at that time. I’m not sure how many people like to hike in the rain. (Hey, I think it gives it atmosphere. And contrary to what you all may believe, I’m not made of sugar, so I won’t melt.)

4. The alternative trails, often referred to as the off-the-beaten-track alternative, are becoming more and more beaten track by the day. Backpackers who don’t like to plan in advance and budget travelers looking to bargain have made the numbers of these trails swell, and since there are no regulations they can get very crowded. I haven’t been able to dig up any concrete numbers, however.

5. If you book in advance, the price difference between the various hikes isn’t that great. You may, however, be able to bargain for a good rate with the alternative trails since you can wait until you’re in Cusco to book. There’s the possibility of getting in on an already organized trip at a bargain rate.

6. The “new” rules for the Inca Trail can seem annoying. Gone is that cherished backpacker freedom of showing up somewhere and making something happen. Gone is the ability to try the trail yourself or to pitch camp where you please. And prices have gone up as the trail has become more regulated and agencies have had to meet certain requirements. But, at the same time, these rules and regulations have helped protect the trail from too much wear and tear, it’s eliminated some of the more shady agencies, and it’s provided a better life for porters and guides. Isn’t that possibly worth the money and hassle? On the flip side, what is the status of the less regulated trails? Are the agencies being good stewards of the earth and responsible employers? Some are, but I’m sure some aren’t. A little more research will be required, but there are resources that make that easy enough.

7. Classics become classics for a reason, don’t they? On the other hand, aren’t classics sometimes overrated? And are all classics instant or do some become that way with age? Are the alternatives just classics-in-waiting?

What do you think? Cast your vote below and then leave your thoughts in the comments.

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