Craig Welzbacher standing in while Chris and Jeanne are in Nepal climbing Mera Peak.
My wife and I decided to go to Peru this summer to see Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. It’s been a bucket list item for me for the last 20 years, although at 40, I hopefully still have a long way to go before kicking it. And unlike Western Europe, where you can land and just rent a car, ride rail and travel to easily accessed destinations with all the modern amenities, developing countries pose slightly more difficult planning logistics. Peru is no exception.
This is where one often encounters the “guided tour” when researching online. There are numerous companies that take all that difficult planning out of the equation and make it easy. Just get to the Lima airport and the rest will be taken care of: travel, accommodations, most food and a guide for one lump sum. These are tempting. And there are options from a few days long to multiple weeks and 4 star plush to responsible “carbon offset” tours.
But, the more you look at the details you realize that these are mostly cookie cutter tours that are meant to appeal to a general tourist audience. Not a DIY trekker or adventurer. They sacrifice leisure and spontaneity for rapid time lines and only the most obvious landmarks and locations. Want to hang a bit longer and see those other ruins, sorry, you’ll miss the tour bus to the next town. Also they are owned and operated by larger companies taking tourist profits from local community businesses. Not our style. So, we decided to plan the whole trip ourselves and make sure we had ample time in all locations. It took a bit more time on our part when researching but it was a bet which would pay off numerous times as I’ll explain later.
First off, where to begin your research? Online travel sites like Fodors www.fodors.com and Lonely Planet www.lonelyplanet.com are both excellent starts. And we found their user forums to be valuable sources of information as you can ask your own questions as well as search other’s similar to yours. Users are posting on a daily basis and can tell you about weather, hotels, destinations and flight prices, etc. For example, we learned that there were political protests going on near Puno with road closures when we traveled in June, so we planned not to go to Lake Titicaca to avoid potential delays.
But don’t discount using the old Google search button either. Our number one online resource was an independent travel site about Peru we found simply by searching for the Sacred Valley. www.andeantravelweb.com It’s a non profit site run buy Peru enthusiasts with honest reviews on hotels, restaurants, places to go, local tour companies, ecotourism, off the beaten path backpacking treks all the way to hot air balloon tours. This proved to be our most used resource. We relied on the site as a basis for where to stay and where to eat in each town we visited as well as what hikes and ruins to see.
Most of the aforementioned guided tours sell you on the wide array of destinations you will go to starting with a trip to the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and either Lake Titicaca, the Amazon, or the Galapagos. All hundreds of miles apart. The problem here is while it takes an hour flight to go from say LA to San Francisco, it can take 12 -24 hours to get that same distance in a developing country. Do you want to be on a bus for a day or held up in a small airport with delays rather then seeing the sites? We decided to stay only in the Sacred Valley river valley area so we could spend a good amount of time exploring the ruins, culture and get some daily hikes in thus maximizing our vacation time. This area is absolutely gorgeous and was a key area for Inca civilization for hundreds of years ending with the mecca of all destinations, Machu Picchu. It really is the main reason to visit Peru.
The major towns in the Scared Valley are Cusco, Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Cusco is your arrival city from Lima and an amazing 400+ year old Spanish town built on the foundations of Inca ruins, and Ollantaytambo will be your launching point to get to Machu Piccu by rail or the 4 day hike on the Inca trail. Most tours will spend about two to three days in this whole area, including Machu Piccu. We spent nine. And we still could have stayed longer.
Remember when I mentioned planning our own trip would pay off in spite of the added research time? Let me explain.
Two days in Pisac let us extensively hike the ruins above the town which are gorgeous and huge. It let us stay up late and walk back in the dark to our hotel outside of town where I took some long exposure pictures of the starry sky. We spent hours in the famous Pisac Sunday market and lounged on a veranda for lunch while we watched the tour buses come and go within two hours.
Three days in Ollantaytambo allowed us to hike up the Inca Fortress ruins in early morning to see the Temple of the Sun virtually alone. The tours arrived at 3pm in the heat of the day. It allowed us to eat at all the local hidden gem restaurants in town. We took an 8 hour horse trek spontaneously on our second day to see the Moray crop rings and the Inca salt pans. No one but us and our guide for hours on Peruvian Paso horses in the foothills. On our third day we just happened to be in town when the summer solstice celebration occurs with a huge Inca reenactment performing the forbidden love story of Ollanta Rami on the ruins with hundreds of villagers dressed in Inca attire. Tour buses came in at 5pm that day and missed it.
Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes (portal towns to the ruins)
An over night in AC, allowed us to rise at 4 am and make the first buses to the ruins to hike Huanu Picchu and see the sun rise on the ruins virtually empty. We spent 9-10 hours in the ruins including a private guided tour (highly recommended) and a wonderful hike up to the Sun Gate where Incas would first arrive to view MP after the 4 day trek from the Sacred Valley. The tours were in and out from 11pm to 3 pm in order to catch the train back in time.
With three whole days in Cusco, we saw the Saints being carried back to their respective churches at the end of the Corpus Christi celebration including nightly fireworks in front of all the churches, we saw the rally cars launch at the beginning of the Cusco to Lima rally. We shopped, we visited all the churches and the museums, we ate amazing local foods (the quinoa potato soups and loma saltado are to die for), we hung out at an awesome expatriate English pub and watched soccer with the Brits. None of that could have taken place on a fixed tour. We would have had a night, half a day and then been shuttled off to the airport.
Have I made my point? I hope so. I also don’t want to bash all the guided tours, there are companies that host some amazing back country and trekking packages and if you are short on time or overwhelmed on where to begin researching then the more common tours will give you a good introduction to Peru. If you’re reading the Maximum Adventure blog though, you are probably already not of the guided tour ilk. My advice, forge your own path and you will open yourself up to an amazing trip full of wonderful random experiences…at your own pace…on your own terms.