Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Peru - Machu Picchu and the Amazon rainforest

Machu Picchu was one of those places I always wanted to see - a masterpiece of architecture built atop the Andes mountain in Peru. It had been on my list of places to visit so in Oct 2012, four friends and I spent 2 weeks in Peru - starting with the strenuous 4-day 26-mile trek on the Inca Trail trek to see the ruins of Machu Picchu and ending with a relaxing visit to the Amazon rainforest. Here's a recap of our trip.

Vaccinations and medications
Check the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website or visit your travel clinic to get your vaccines before traveling to Peru. We got the following vaccinations:
  • Hepatitis A
  • Typhoid
  • Yellow fever (for the Amazon rainforest)
  • Anti-malarial pills (for the Amazon rainforest)

Signing up to hike the Inca Trail
Once you've decided to hike the Inca Trail the first thing you should do is check for availability. Summer months (May, June, July, August) book up several months in advance. The Peruvian government issues only 500 Inca Trail permits per day for both visitors and porters so check for permit availability on the official government website here: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/
  • Click on the "Queries" tab
  • Under "Archaeological Center" drop down, select "Camino Inka"
  • Navigate to your desired month and year
  • The remaining number of permits is displayed for each calendar day
  • Keep in mind the best months to hike are May-September (dry season)

Next, book a trek with a reputable trekking company. The trekking company should book your permit for you but confirm this with them. We chose the 4 day/3 night comfort service with Llama Path - http://llamapath.com/ based on great reviews on TripAdvisor. Vegetarians, don't fear. When you sign up, Llama Path will ask you to indicate any dietary restrictions so you can tell them about your requirements and food allergies. We hired a few porters for our group (two people shared a porter) and we also rented sleeping bags and sleeping mats. We brought our own hiking poles. Cost was $550/person + $60 Wayna Picchu + sleeping bag +  sleeping mat rental.

Each porter could carry 14 kg so we each packed a bag weighing a max of 7 kg. I gave my porter everything I would need during the 4D/3N trip that I didn't want to carry in my day bag. I carried in my day bag: snacks, water, hat, camera, sunscreen, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and poncho. We stored the rest of our luggage at the Llama Path office. 

About the Inca Trail trek
So you've decided to hike! Some things you should know...
  • Check average temperatures for the month you're visiting. This will help you finalize your packing list. The day to night temp range was quite wide when we went in October - we had to pack for hot and cold weather and rain. Average weather for Machu Picchu.
  • The elevation is quite high (depending on where you're from) so you might move slower than you normally do. This is why it's important to acclimate for a few days before starting the hike. Arrive a few days early in Cusco. Some people on our hike experienced headaches, sluggishness, and loss of appetite.
  • If you're really not feeling well or you get injured during the hike, you have until the end of the 1st day to turn around. If you decide to keep going, you must complete the journey. There's no turning back and there's no assistance. You're getting there on your own 2 feet - you can't ride a horse or a donkey. This was an important point for me because just 3 days prior to flying to Peru I injured myself while doing Tough Mudder in Tahoe. I misjudged an obstacle and ended up falling down about 7 feet and landing on one straight leg. I got an MRI and there was a ton of swelling and a possible fracture of my tibia. I saw a sports medicine doctor who said that injuries like that can't be set so putting some stress on it might actually be good for healing. I was on crutches the day before my flight. My knee was super swollen and sore but I let pain be my guide and I ended up hiking the entire trail. In retrospect I think getting it moving was the best thing I could have done for it. No pain, no gain!
  • It's also a good idea to go on a few hikes and work out in the months leading up to the hike. It's pretty strenuous at times and it's tough mentally. When you're achy and tired you have to push yourself to keep going.
  • Your day will start at 3am or 5am and you're hiking up to 10 to 12 hours some days. You do get a break for lunch though!
  • You can hike at your own pace so there's no need to rush. One guide will usually be at the front of the pack and one guide will be at the very back. If you're fast then you get to camp quicker and you have more downtime before dinner. If you're slow then you have less downtime before dinner.
  • Some of the stairs you'll climb are really steep. Take your time and use your poles to save your knees.
  • There are almost no toilets along the way (other than maybe 2 facilities) so you have to go off the trail a bit if nature calls. Carry your own toilet paper! Those facilities I do remember were sometimes just a hole in the ground. Train your quads! :o)
  • The toilets at camp flush but they are squat toilets. Again, carry your own toilet paper. There's no electricity so wear your headlamp. There's also no soap so bring your own or use hand sanitizer.
  • Bring your mosquito/bug repellent. We visited the ruins of Winay Wayna at the end of day 3. Our camp was nearby so I switched to flip flops to let my feet breathe as I explored Winay Wayna. I encountered these tiny black bugs, no bigger than the point of a ball point pen. You can immediately feel their bite and they also draw blood. I ended up with a few bites but they itched and swelled up immediately. I experienced very few, if any, mosquito bites. They only come out at dawn and dusk and I stayed covered in long sleeves and pants.
  • When you sign up for the hike you can also sign up to hike Huayna Picchu. It's another mountain close by that rises about 360 m above Machu Picchu. Only 200 tickets are available per day to hike Huayna Picchu and they do sell out ahead of time (you probably can't buy them at the gate to Huayna Picchu). Our trekking company booked these tickets for us. You can only hike at certain hours so you must purchase tickets for either 7am or 10am. Depending on when you reach Machu Picchu you may need to rush to start your ascent. We bought tickets for 10am but in hindsight I could've skipped it. It was another hour of intense climbing (some of it so narrow and steep that I had to get on all fours to navigate) after hiking for 4 days. The views up top really are amazing though. I've posted some pictures below. You will have to show your ticket at the front gate to Huayna Picchu and sign in and note the time. The rangers want to make sure everyone returns and is accounted for.

Packing list for the Inca Trail
  1. Backpack
  2. Hiking pants - I got pant similar to these Columbia convertible pants - when it got hot I could zip off part of the pants to turn them into shorts!
  3. Dri-fit shirts (I wore long sleeve shirts to protect myself from the sun)
  4. Jacket - I wore my puffy jacket which kept me warm on cold nights. I even wore it to sleep! It squished down small so it fit well in my backpack.
  5. Wide-brim hiking hat - these Sunday Afternoon Adventure Hats are really nice. It has have a neck cape to protect the delicate skin on the back of your neck, mesh side panels for breathability, an adjustable slide strap to keep it on in case of wind, and UPF 50 fabric. They come in a variety of colors too!
  6. Sunglasses
  7. Hiking poles (they save your knees when you climb down steep stairs)
  8. Wool socks - I splurged on Smartwool hiking socks and didn't develop a single blister after hiking for 4 days. Bring a few pairs so that you can rotate between them.
  9. Hiking shoes - I didn't think there was a huge chance of twisting my ankle so I opted for hiking shoes instead of traditional boots. I wore Keen hiking shoes similar to these. I broke them in on previous hikes and they were very comfortable.
  10. Sunscreen
  11. Toiletries
  12. Bug/mosquito repellent
  13. Water bottles (every morning the porters will refill your water bottles with boiled water that has cooled down). I really love these klean kanteen stainless steel bottles. I bring mine on every trip. They come in a variety of cool colors and sizes.
  14. Camera
  15. Thermals (it got really cold at night, down to the mid 30s F/near 0 C) - I put on these Smartwool thermal bottoms and I was warm at night. I actually really dislike any type of wool but found these soft enough to tolerate. 
  16. Gloves
  17. Sleeping clothes
  18. Headlamp - I got a simple Petzl headlamp which came in handy for not only finding my way to the bathroom but also providing light while I was in it. You definitely need your hands free to hold your toilet paper!
  19. Plastic bag for dirty clothes
  20. Quick drying travel towel - I picked up a small AQUIS microfiber towel which was perfect for the trip. I felt ridiculous drying myself with something the size of a dish towel but it dried fast and it didn't take up much room in my luggage. Win!
  21. Toilet paper (you have to bring your own for the hike)
  22. Bandana (great for protecting your neck from the sun)
  23. Flip flops (you want to let your feet breathe when you stop hiking each day)
  24. Wet wipes (4 days of hiking and no shower - it gets gross)
  25. Hand sanitizer
  26. Poncho (if you're going during the rainy season)

Cusco - 3 days
  • We stayed at Pariwana Hostel. We had 5 people but we booked and paid for all 6 of the beds in a dorm so we could have the room to ourselves but the hostel ended up putting someone on our room every night. That was a bit inconvenient and I complained about it but the hostel management didn't care. Breakfast was included but it was just bread, butter, jam, and tea. It came out to about $13 a person in a 6-person dorm. Read reviews of Pariwana Hostel on TripAdvisor.
  • We arrived in Cusco 3 days before our trek so we could get acclimated to the high altitude. It wasn't too bad but I noticed that I moved a bit slower than usual. I got a prescription for altitude sickness medication but I never used it. Instead, I drank tons of coca tea. When in Rome, er... Cusco.
  • We found a local market to buy bottled water. We only drank bottled water and used it to brush our teeth during our entire time in Peru.
  • We enjoyed local fare such as Aji de Gallina, quinoa soup, and just a few of the thousands of varieties of potatoes.
  • I also discovered a new drink in Peru that I love: chicha morada. It's made by boiling purple corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar. Enjoy it without ice of course. If you can't drink the local water, you can't have ice in your drinks.

Cusco - Plaza de Armas
Cusco - Plaza de Armas

Cusco - View of the mountains from the town square

Cusco - Checking out Plaza de Armas
  • We took a cab to Saksaywaman and found a tour guide hanging out on the premises. Helpful tip: Negotiate the fee before starting the tour! Saksaywaman is a walled complex in the northern outskirts of Cusco. The walls were constructed of boulders which were carefully cut and fit together without mortar. Read reviews of Saksaywaman (or Sacsayhuaman) on TripAdvisor.
Cusco - Saksaywaman

Cusco - Saksaywaman from ground level

Cusco - Saksaywaman walls

Cusco - Close-up of a wall at Saksaywaman. Look how these
boulders were cut and shaped so they fit together perfectly without mortar.

Cusco - With our tour guide at Saksaywaman

Cusco - Saksaywaman - Can you see boulders arranged in the shape of a guinea pig?

Cusco - View of Cusco from Saksaywaman

Cusco - Kids having fun on a natural slide at Saksaywaman
  • We took a local "bus" back to the center of town for 1 Sol a person. Say goodbye to personal space!
Cusco - local bus ride

Cusco - how many people can fit in a minivan?
  • We went in search of the 12-sided stone, located in Hatunrumiyoc, a narrow cobblestone street near Plaza de Armas.
Cusco - Spotted! The 12-sided stone!
  • Cusco at night is pretty spectacular. It's great for photo ops so walk around and explore.
Cusco - Plaza de Armas at night

Cusco - One of the many narrow streets in town
  • The day before we started hiking the Inca trail we did a Sacred Valley day tour with Llama Path. We visited a farm with llamas, Ollantaytambo, and Moray. Read about Ollantaytambo on TripAdvisor.
Sacred Valley tour - visit a llama farm

Sacred Valley tour - watch your fingers when you feed the llamas!

Sacred Valley tour - Agricultural terraces dug into the mountainside

Sacred Valley tour - Ollantaytambo. Each of these agricultural terraces permitted 
farming on what was otherwise unusable terrain. Terraces also allowed the Incas 
to take advantage of the conditions created by variations in altitude to grow 
staples such as corn, quinoa, and potatoes. The terraces were engineered for 
efficient drainage, created by layers of stones, gravel, sand, and topsoil.

Sacred Valley tour - Ollantaytambo - Get those rain ponchos ready

Sacred Valley tour - Crop circles at Moray. It's believed Moray was an agricultural experiment station as the depth and orientation with respect to sun and wind of these usual crop circles caused a temperature differential as much as 27 degrees F from top to bottom. 

Inca Trail trek - 4 days
  • The next day we woke up at 3am (yeah they don't tell you the start time on the website!) to get ready for the Inca Trail hike. We drove for about an hour to the trail head to start our 4 day journey.
Inca Trail - All smiles starting our 26-mile journey
  • We signed up for a group trek so we had 14 total hikers whose ages ranged from early 20s to late 50s. We were mostly Americans, the rest Canadians and Germans. Accompanying us were about 20 porters, cooks, and guides. The porters carried everything on their backs (tents, tables, chairs, 50kg propane tanks, sleeping bags, our bags, food, and kerosene lamps) and walked ahead to set up for lunch.
  • We covered 14 km (8.6 miles) our first day. Day 2 was the most challenging at 16 km (almost 10 miles) because of 2 high passes including Dead Woman's Pass at an elevation of 4200 m/13,779 ft. I had to remind myself to look up from the steep trails to take in the amazing views of ruins along the journey.
  • You're waking up at 5am and hiking for stretches of up to 5 hours before a break. By the time you're done with dinner you're ready to crash at 8pm.
  • The porters wake us up at 5am with hot coca tea and a bowl of warm water. We washed our hands first and then put in our contacts. Then we washed our faces, applied sunscreen, got dressed, put on our hiking shoes, and had breakfast before setting out.
Inca Trail - Ruins that we saw along our trek

Inca Trail - Lunch time!

Inca Trail - Steep stairs

Inca Trail - View of the valley as we head up Dead Woman's Pass

Inca Trail - Made it to the top! 4215 m

Inca Trail - Highest jump ever

Inca Trail - Get ready for some narrow stairs

Inca Trail - Our tents at camp

Inca Trail - Picture with our porters and cooks

Inca Trail - The Llama Path "Red Army" - after we finish breakfast and start hiking they break down the campsite, pack up, and start hiking. They pass us on the trail to get 
to the next camp site to set up all the tents and start cooking our next meal.

Inca Trail - Exploring Phuyupatamarca, one of the ruins along our trek

Inca Trail - Typical stairs on our trek

Inca Trail - Some of these views were breathtaking

Inca Trail - We camped very close to Winay Wayna on our last night of the trek. I changed to flip flops and was attacked by these tiny black bugs that draw blood. Be careful! The bite sites were tender and swelled for a few days. Made it harder to hike the next day. :o(

Inca Trail - Terraces in Winay Wayna were incredibly high

Inca Trail - View from the top of Winay Wayna

Inca Trail - Our cook baked a cake for our last night

Inca Trail - Dinner on our last night

Inca Trail - The 4th and final day started at 3am... We're lined up to 
start hiking to the Sun Gate as soon as the gates to the trail open.

Inca Trail - The hour hike to the Sun Gate begins!

Inca Trail - Waiting at the Sun Gate to get a view of Machu Picchu

Inca Trail - We stare at a thick blanket of clouds for 40 minutes until they start to burn off

Inca Trail - Machu Picchu finally revealed!

Machu Picchu - Another short hike later and we're finally at Machu Picchu. 
We look pretty good for not having showered for 4 days, right? :o)

Machu Picchu - Walking among the ruins

Machu Picchu - You can see the agricultural terraces where the Incas raised crops. 
Off in the distance you can see Huayna Picchu which is 360 m taller than 
Machu Picchu. We were going to climb that too. What were we thinking?

Huayna Picchu - Only 400 visitors can climb Huayna Picchu a day and we purchased our permits when we signed up for the Inca Trail trek. It took us an hour to climb to the top. Read reviews of Huayna Picchu on TripAdvisor.

Huayna Picchu - Some portions of the climb were really steep and narrow. 
I had to use the steel cables to get up and down these stairs.

Huayna Picchu - The views of Machu Picchu were amazing. Look at those switchbacks heading down the mountain. That road is for buses to bring passengers to and from the train.

Huayna Picchu - We caught a photographer setting up a shot using an old fashioned camera

Inca Trail - Heading back to Cusco on the train. It took us 
4 days to hike there and only 3 hours to get back on the train. 

Amazon rainforest - 4 days

Amazon rainforest packing list
  1. Permethrin-treated long pants and long sleeve shirts
  2. Mosquito repellent
  3. Headlamp or flashlight
  4. Most of the same items as on the Inca Trail packing list except items for cold weather and hiking poles
  • Our tour company picked us up from PEM airport and took us to their headquarters. They gave us each a duffle bag - we filled it with everything we needed for our 4 day tour and left the rest of our luggage at their office. We took a bus and a 45-minute boat ride to the lodge. Lunch was served on the boat.
  • Our rooms at Posada Amazonas didn't have electricity. Or locks on the doors. Or even doors - there was just a curtain. We had to charge our phone and camera batteries in the main lodge during certain hours. Use your headlamp or flashlight in your rooms after sunset. Taking a shower by candlelight is pretty incredible!
  • The rainforest is warm and damp and the sounds you hear are amazing. You know that sound machine from The Sharper Image? It's like that but so much better. You hear birds, monkeys, and insects. And they're loud!
Amazon rainforest - Boat ride to Posada Amazonas

Amazon rainforest - Enjoying lunch on the boat

Amazon rainforest - Posada Amazonas lodge main entrance

Amazon rainforest - Our room - one whole wall was open to the rainforest and there's no electricity in our room. You have to use candles or your head lamp at night.

Amazon rainforest - Each room has a private bathroom 
with a great shower and hot water. No electricity though.

Amazon rainforest - Our private bathroom has everything you need!

Amazon rainforest - There are no locks on the doors and you only have walls 
but no enclosed ceiling so you can easily hear your human and rainforest neighbors.

Amazon rainforest - These wet conditions call for mud boots! 
The lodge provides boots for all of our walks.

Amazon rainforest - Monkeys hang out in the canopy surrounding our lodge

Amazon rainforest - Ant colony entrance

Amazon rainforest - A trail of leaf-cutter ants

Amazon rainforest - Leaf-cutter ants in action

Amazon rainforest - The walking palm tree (Socratea Exorrhiza) has roots above 
ground that allow it to "walk," albeit slowly. Its old roots die off while new roots grow 
in the direction of better light; some trees can move up to a meter each year.

Amazon rainforest - You can see new roots of the walking palm tree starting to grow.

Amazon rainforest - Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake - Caimen

Amazon rainforest - We went fishing for piranha in the lake!

Amazon rainforest - Taking a boat ride to see medicinal plants

Amazon rainforest - Local medicine man and one of our guides explain the healing 
properties of the Chuchuhuasi tree. It's used to relieve pain and soothe muscle aches.

Amazon rainforest - We got to sample elixirs made from medicinal plants

Amazon rainforest - Standing at the base of the largest tree in the vicinity: the giant ceiba tree 

Amazon rainforest - Macaws

Amazon rainforest - Capybara, the world's largest rodent

Amazon rainforest - Climb the canopy tower to see some amazing views

Amazon rainforest - The canopy tower feels a little shaky as you ascend

Amazon rainforest - Views from the top of the canopy tower

Amazon rainforest - Boat ride at sunset

Amazon rainforest - Dinner on our last night at Posada Amazonas

Puerto Maldonado Airport - Heading to Lima

Lima - 1 day
  • We stayed at a great hotel - 3B Barronco's Chic & Basic Hotel. Breakfast was included and it was good! It came out to about $75 for a room (1 double or 2 twins) Read reviews of 3B on TripAdvisor.
  • We only spent one night in Lima so we did a quick tour of the city center and ate at a great ceviche restaurant called Canta Rana. Read reviews of Canta Rana on TripAdvisor.
  • I of course enjoyed more chicha morada when I got to Lima. :o)

Lima - Historic Centre of Lima

Lima - The buildings in the Historic Centre had these amazing balconies

Lima - Close-up of a balcony; the woodwork is so ornate

Lima - Walking around town

Lima - Canta Rana restaurant

Lima - Amazing ceviche at Canta Rana

I was on a 4-week sabbatical so after returning home from Peru I jumped on another plane to visit Spain for 2 weeks. It was to be my first solo international trip and I was terrified. My fears were unfounded because it turned out to be an amazing adventure! Please read about my trip in my Spain blog post Solo travel in Spain - San Sebastian, Barcelona, Granada, Seville

If you enjoyed this please check out my other trip blogs:
Happy travels and thanks for reading!


  1. Thank you so much for such detailed trip report and photos. We will not be able to do the Inca trail but will do by train.

  2. You're welcome and thank you for the compliment, Suren. Enjoy touring Machu Picchu!

  3. I plan on traveling to Peru by myself for the first time and seeing this extensive and detailed post has gotten me even more excited!! I'll be using this as a template as to what I'm going to do when I get there :) How much did your trip end up costing you?

  4. Glad to hear you're looking forward to your trip - it was a great experience! And super excited to hear you'll use this as a template.

    I think you could do the trip for $2500. Airfare was the biggest chunk but we also stayed in hostels to keep our costs down. The price of the trek and rainforest have probably gone up since I went but those could easily run $600 and $650, respectively.

    Let me know if you have any other questions.

  5. Great trip report. We are going in September and you provided tons of information. Thank you!

  6. You're welcome Cheryl! And thanks for the compliment. I hope you enjoy your trip to Peru!

  7. Hi Conny,

    Thanks for your informative post. I'm trying to decide between Huayna Picchu or Macchu Picchu Mountain. Which would you suggest?


    1. Hi Katy,

      I can't speak to Machu Picchu Mountain since I only hiked Huayna Picchu. I was running off of fumes by the time I started HP and the only thing that kept me going was knowing that my friends were also on the hike with me. Parts of it were very challenging - narrow stairways, dirt paths, crawling through tunnels, steep steps, and nowhere to really sit when you get to the very top. The views were breathtaking though. Just remember that you have to go down the same way you came up! :o)

      I've read that Machu Picchu Mountain is a longer hike and the views are from a different side. Sounds like both are challenging.

      I found a thread that might help you:

      Enjoy your trip!

  8. hi conny wu,
    where did you stay in lima and cusco?

    1. Hi Bir,

      In Cusco we stayed at a Pariwana Hostel. We had 5 people but we booked and paid for all 6 of the beds in a dorm so we could have the room to ourselves but the hostel ended up putting someone on our room. That was a bit inconvenient and I complained about it but the hostel management didn't care. The stay was fine other than that. Breakfast was just bread, butter, jam, and tea.

      Pariwana Hostel reviews on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294314-d1642693-Reviews-Pariwana_Hostel-Cusco_Cusco_Region.html

      In Lima we stayed at a great hotel - 3B Barronco's Chic & Basic Hotel. Breakfast was included and it was good!

      3B reviews on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294316-d1547377-Reviews-3B_Barranco_s_Chic_and_Basic_B_B-Lima_Lima_Region.html

      Hope this helps!

  9. thank you so much for these advices! Im going to do the inca trail with my friend in november. We r very excited, but i must admit that im a bit scared

    1. Hi Liliana, Thanks for your comment! Don't be scared! You can go at your own pace and enjoy the view. Have fun and take pictures!

  10. Awesome trip report - my husband and I are going to do a similar trip in October (inca trail and puerto maldonado). I was wondering if you booked the trip on your own or whether you used a package? It seems to me the trip would be best booked as individual tours/legs but, I haven't priced it out.

    1. Thank you, Photo Beginnings. We booked the trip on our own by finding individual tours for each city. I think booking separately gives you more control over the timing but I didn't price out a package vs individual tours so I don't know which was more economical overall. Hope you have a great time in Peru!

  11. Great information and very entertaining as well. thank you for including practicalities - what you took, where you stayed etc as that really helps us others planning and dreaming.

    1. Thank you, TracyLane. Appreciate your kind comment. Glad my post was helpful!

  12. I wish I found more travel blogs like yours. So informative and answers a lot of FAQs.

    One question though, would you suggest this hike for children (ages 12-16) ? At least the 2 day hike?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, JM. Glad you found my post helpful!

      If they're up for long distances then I think kids could find the hike fun and challenging. It's a lot of ground to cover and I believe you hike the same distance in 2 days as you would the 3 day hike except you do it in 2 days. It's a lot more distance per day so the 3 day hike might be more appropriate.