Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Plan Your Own Tour of Peru and Machu Picchu

It's on most people's bucket list - a visit to the Inka wonder of Machu Picchu, an abandoned stone ruin high in the Peruvian Andes.

If you're eighteen you're going to set off with backpacks and hire a guide to take you along the four-day Inka trail, a hiking extravaganza with pitched tents and a couple of hostel stays (which you can only do accompanied by an official Peru outback guide company).

If you're a retiree, you're likely to connect with one of many Peru tour organizers. For five thousand a person they will book everything for you: buses, hotels, transfer points, and tickets. Just go where they say to and everything is arranged for you, with pre-set times and groups wondering the ruins together in the dozens.

However, if you're like us - middle-age adventurers who love to get away from the beaten trail, forge our own private path, and discover places and hikes all to ourselves - then you may opt to plan your own trip. If this were Italy or even China, that might not be too hard. But in a place like Peru it might be a challenge. We did it - and it was fantastic. However there are things you should know to make sure your Peruvian adventure goes as seamlessly as a five-star tour, without the crowds and pre-arranged cattle calls. Here are the pointers from our experience if you'd like to try this yourselves.

STEP 1: PLAN YOUR MAIN ITINERARY IN 1, 2, 3

Most working people going to Peru will have one to two weeks to tour the country before e-mail and cell phone messages back up to overflowing. First step is to decide how much time you'll have to reasonably escape. You'll be able to check email at major hotels and get cell reception in the towns of the Inca Valley, but internet in Peru is slower than American high-speed, so forget connecting to work on that fifty-tab Excel spreadsheet while you're gone (besides, you'll not want to sacrifice an evening or afternoon when you'll want to be recouperating from your hiking adventure with a Pisco Sour). Decide if one week, 10 days, or a full two weeks is how much you can reasonably escape. That will determining
the sights you choose.

LEG 1: THE ONE-WEEK ITINERARY (BASIC PERU STARTER TRIP)

If you've got a week, then you have no choice - you're going to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, then heading back to Lima and home. These are the main attractions you are coming to see. And in fact, this first leg is the basic first leg on the 10-day and 14-day tours as well. The difference is that the longer two trips allow you to add one one or two side-trips additionally. But no one goes to Peru without the intention of visiting Machu Picchu - which will be the highlight of your trip, wherever you go. So plan this as the first leg of your visit, since you'll want to check off the bucket list item before anything else.
Our First View Into the Sacred Valley

For the first leg, all the tour books recommend the same thing - go straight through Lima on the way in country to Cusco (you can often book a flight straight through on Expedia and save about $100 a ticket), capital of the Sacred Valley, then immediately get out of Cusco for the lower altitudes down in the Sacred Valley, in order to ameliorate the altitude sickness (which is real, don't think just because you've been to the top of San Jaucinto in Palm Springs that it's anything similar). We stayed at Tambo del Inka in Urubamba, and believe me, you want to get to this hotel right away. It's the only 5-star LEED certified hotel in Peru, and as a destinatation it was a real highlight. If you leave on a Saturday, plan on one overnight through Lima to arrive Cusco early Sunday morning, then head out on your Sacred Valley tour (more on that in later posts) with Tambo del Inka as your destination. Two days to tour the valley, then up to Aguas Calientes and Machu Piccu for two more, then back to tour Cusco on Friday, Lima on Saturday, and home overnight Saturday for a Sunday morning arrival.
Tambo del Inka, Poolside

THE TEN-DAY and TWO-WEEK ITINERARIES

So, if you're staying longer, instead of heading to Lima on Saturday, this is where you can tack on one (or two, for two weeks) additional side-trips. Popular choices include Arequipa / Colca Canyon (which is what we did) for nature lovers, and Puno / Lake Titicaca to see some aquatic wonders. Other good options are Nazca (for the famous Nazca Lines), Trujillo for some northern flavor, and Iquitos for Amazon lovers. Here's a good overview of the highlights. For the ten-day itinerary, pick one of these. For a two-week itinerary, pick two.

We did a ten-day excursion and for us - with a doggie at home in Camp Bow Wow - it was long enough. We were ready to return to our own bed, have clean laundry (finding clean socks in the duffle bag becomes a challenge by Day 10), and see our doggie. Our choice of add-on was Arequipa / Colca Canyon, which did not disappoint - describing Colca Canyon as "twice as deep as the Grand Canyon," which it is - does not quite capture the wonderful terraces and beautiful light of the valley. It was much less traveled than the Inca Valley so offers great off-the-beaten-track adventures as well.

Colca Canyon
If we'd had longer we would have definitely added on Puno / Lake Titicaca, which is easy to get to from Arequipa / Colca Canyon (half a day's drive) and offers many wonders of its own...and the access from Arequipa means one less flight and a little less expense in transportation. But others may prefer a few days in the Amazon or a beach adventure. Up to you.

Once you've planned your itinerary, your next step is going to be to select hotels, book tickets, and arrange transportation and tour guides. More advice on how to get this started with Leg 1 in the next post: "How to Plan an Awesome Tour of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley"

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