Machu Picchu is one of the world’s great travel destinations, and although it can be reached by train, the best way to get there is to hike the Inca Trail. My wife and I had always wanted to hike the trail, but when we were working, we had never been able to fit it into our busy lives. After we retired, we had the time, but we were not sure we would be able to do it. However, we had kept ourselves in good shape, and so we decided to try.
Now, we have done it, and the experience was definitely worth the effort. On the four-day hike we covered about 26 miles through the high Andes. We crossed two passes above 13,000 feet and visited remote Inca sites that can be visited in no other way, and we made friends with the diverse group of people who trekked with us. If you are retired, and you have a taste for travel and adventure, now is the time go to Peru and hike the Inca Trail. Here are some of the reasons why.
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You can do it
If you are comfortable hiking in Yosemite, Glacier Park or the Canadian Rockies, you will have no trouble hiking the Inca Trail as long as you give yourself time to become acclimated to the altitude before you start. Besides, hiking the Inca Trail with a trekking company is very luxurious hiking. We carried only day packs with water, some snacks and our rain jackets. Porters carried all of the heavy gear, and they set up and took down the tents. A cook prepared the meals, which were served at a table in a tent, and César, our English-speaking guide, made the Inca cities we visited come alive for us.
All this service was quite inexpensive. We used a company called “Andean Treks,” which was one of the more expensive alternatives, and the cost in the fall of 2009 was only $695 per person for a five day trip (including a day at Machu Picchu) and the return to Cuzco by train.
You have plenty of time to enjoy the trip.
People with jobs cannot usually take off for more than a week or two at a time. They fly into Cusco, hike the trail and fly home. They have no time to acclimate themselves to the altitude and little time to enjoy the beauty of the country. Our hike was the culmination of a four-week trip in which we strolled the streets of the beautiful colonial cities of Arequipa and Cuzco and visited the Colca Canyon where pre-Inca peoples still cultivate their mountainside terraces as they have for centuries.
We stood on the floating islands of the Uros in Lake Titicaca, and in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, we climbed the terraced defenses of the fortress temple of Ollantaytambo. Visiting all these places was exciting and interesting, and it also gave us time to acclimate ourselves to the high altitude before starting the trek to Machu Picchu.
You have plenty of time to plan the trip.
If you like adventure travel, you probably like dreaming about it and planning it. You enjoy reading travel guides and searching the internet for information. You also like to read about the history, culture and society of the places you are planning to visit because the knowledge you gain gives you a deeper appreciation and a greater enjoyment of what you encounter there. Well, now you have plenty of time for all of that. So, you will have a more rewarding trip when you go.
We planned our trip using the resources of guidebooks and the internet. We made all our travel and hotel reservations by telephone or email or by using the web sites of travel agencies and transportation companies. We made use of the local guides that are available at all of the major places that tourists visit.
You have more money than you did when you were in your twenties.
Independent travelers don’t need to stay in the most expensive hotels or eat in the most expensive restaurants, but they don’t need to suffer either. Young people traveling on very limited budgets have to stay in some pretty grungy places, and eat some pretty questionable food, but you can be more comfortable without spending an arm and a leg. We spent between $40 and $50 US per night in Peru for very clean, comfortable hotel rooms with private baths in hotels with English-speaking staff. We also were able to sample Peru’s wonderful food in restaurants that were reasonable for us but would have been expensive for typical backpackers.
You know more than you did when you were younger.
What you get from a trip depends on what you bring to it. You see things in the context of all of your previous knowledge and experience, and the broader that experience is, the deeper will be your appreciation of what you see and hear on the trip. By now, you’ve seen a lot of things and visited a lot of countries, and you have a lifetime of experiences that you can use to deepen your enjoyment of your trip.
In my case, I have lived in a third-world country and carried water on my back to water a garden. So, when I saw the irrigation channels that the ancient Peruvians built to bring water from high mountain springs to their agricultural terraces, I understood immediately what those channels meant to the people. Whatever your experience is, you can use it to illuminate the things you see in Peru in ways that would not have been available to you when you were younger.
You see things from a different point of view and appreciate things that you would have missed when you were younger.
I don’t know about you, but I am definitely a better listener and a more careful observer now than I was when I was young. Details that I would have missed in those days, I now appreciate and remember. I also enjoy seeing people in a way that I did not when I was younger. When I sat in the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa and saw backpackers checking their maps or young parents with children, I got a kick out of it because I knew what it felt like to do those things, and the sight of them brought back memories that I did not have when I was young.
You can plan a trip that suits your physical condition.
For our Inca Trail trek, we chose Andean Treks (www.andeantreks.com/\) because their trek was 5 days long (including a day at Machu Picchu) while most companies use a four-day schedule. The five-day schedule gave us more time at Machu Picchu and more time to visit sites along the trail. It also allowed a slower pace on the trail, which was good for people of our age.
You meet other people your age who share your love of independent travel and adventure.
Many retired people we know are afraid to travel on their own, and they are afraid that they will not be strong enough for adventurous trips. So, it is a pleasure to meet people our age who like independent travel. In addition, they are often very different from us in other ways. So, we can learn from them. Our group on the Inca Trail included Bill and Katie, retired naval officers from Virginia. Their experience and perspectives were very different from ours, which made for interesting conversations around the dinner table in the evenings on the trail.
You’ll love the food.
Peru has some of the best food in Latin America. If you think all Latin American food is like Mexican food, you are in for a surprise. Peruvian food is completely different, and it includes things like grilled alpaca steak and ceviche you’ll want to try. Ceviche is raw fish or shellfish marinated in lime or lemon juice and served with toasted corn, sweet potatoes and raw onion. The citrus juices “cook” the fish. So, it is not really raw as sushi is. You should not go to Peru without trying this wonderful dish at least once and you should accompany it with Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour.
We ate ceviche for lunch at a restaurant called “Punta Sal” (www.puntasal.com) on the malecón above the beach in Miraflores, one of Lima’s most attractive districts. The food was delicious, and our third-floor table by a window gave us a view of a scene that included scuba divers, hang gliders, boys on skate boards and families out for a stroll with their children. And of course, there were the young lovers hanging out in the Parque del Amor and taking inspiration from the love poems inscribed in mosaic tiles on the park benches.
Planning a Trip to Peru on Your Own
When to Go:
The best times to go to Peru are either April/May or September/October. The summer is crowded, and the winter is Peru’s rainy season. The Inca Trail is closed in February.
An American needs a valid passport, but no visa is required.
Hiking the Inca Trail: www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/index.html is an independent web site with lots of useful information about Peru and about trekking in Peru. The site also has links to the web sites of a number of trekking companies. You cannot hike the Inca Trail on your own. You have to choose a trekking company. The company you choose will take care of getting the trail permits you need, but the Peruvian government limits the number of permits issued in order to prevent erosion and deterioration of the trail. So, make your reservations several months in advance.
Books to Help You Prepare For Your Trip:
John Hemming’s The Conquest of the Incas tells the story of the Spanish conquest of Peru. It is the definitive work on the subject and fun to read besides.Christine Hunefeldt’s A Brief History of Peru is an introduction to the history of modern Peru.The Peru Reader edited by Orin Starn and others is a collection of readings that give a good introduction to many facets of Peruvian society.