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For my first trip to South America I could have chosen any one of the twelve countries to visit but I selected Peru, primarily because of Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This trip would see me visit my fifth of the series, having previously travelled to Petra (Jordan), the Colosseum (Italy), the Taj Mahal (India) and several sections of the Great Wall of China. I still have Chichen Itza (Mexico) and Christ the Redeemer (Brazil) left to complete the set.
I decided from the ouset that it would be best to organise the Machu Picchu element first; once that most important part was secured I would then have fixed dates to build around. I knew in order to reach the site I first had to traverse the Andean Mountains beginning at Cusco; research led me to discover there were three main options:
Option one: The luxurious 1920s Belmond Hiram Bingham train transports passengers from Cusco to Aguas Calientes in just a few hours. The train is reportedly similar in style to the world-famous Orient Express and combines local entertainment with fine dining and drinks. The package includes a ticket for the shuttle bus (for the final leg up the mountain to the Machu Picchu sanctuary), entry to the site and a short guided tour. Upon completion of the site visit there would be lunch served at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge hotel (a five-star establishment adjacent to the site entrance), before returning to Cusco via the same route. In total the round trip would take a mere thirteen hours to complete. There were several other train companies offering transport only, with the guide and the various tickets having to be booked separately.
Option two: The more traditional hikes along the Inca trail would take between two and seven days to complete depending on the starting point. A guide would assist with the meals and a porter with the luggage; a trail permit and entry ticket would also be included. As this was a camping trip, with only the most basic of facilities available, it also promised the accompaniment of groups of unwashed youths. I would usually refer to this type of expedition as the Aussie/Kiwi option. Not that there is too much wrong with the antipodean approach; I would probably do the same if I were on their limited budget and timetable.
Option three: The Mountain Lodges of Peru offered a six-day trip over the mountains utilising their purpose-built lodges. Day seven would see the visit to the sanctuary for a morning tour, with an option to further explore Machu Picchu on day eight. The Salkantay trail was a much higher route than the more popular Inca trail and would be less busy (but more tiring) as a result. As well as the guides, the party would also include chefs, porters and a masseuse. But most intriguingly of all, for the first five days, the travel between the lodges would be by horse!
Although the train option appealed to me from a comfort and luxury point of view, I never really gave it serious consideration as it seemed far too brief and left little or no time for delays. Besides I had already formed the opinion, even at this early stage, that the journey over the mountains was almost as important as the final destination.
As for the camping, it ticked the boxes in terms of duration and challenge, but I marked that down as my plan B and desperately tried to find an alternative. Fortunately, there was indeed one other choice available which appealed to me as soon as I discovered it. The lodge to lodge trek promised to provide enough of a challenge during the day (horse riding over the Andes no less), while still delivering the reward of some comfort at the end of it. There would be proper beds, a private bathroom with shower, good food; I could have a massage and hopefully there would be some refined company. If all that wasn’t enough, the lodges also had a bar!
Not a hard decision to make then - option three it was to be.
I conducted all of my correspondence with the company by email, beginning in the summer of 2015. I was initially offered dates for the following May, but that was conditional on at least one other person signing up. Even though the rep was confident that wouldn’t be an issue, I would still have to wait before my booking was confirmed. This of course meant I also had to delay making all my other arrangements; I couldn’t even book the flight.
The delay was a problem for me as I do like to arrange my trips as far in advance as possible. This is partly because I like to be organised and partly because my short-term memory isn’t what it used to be. I tend to find if I don’t complete a transaction at the first attempt I sometimes forget to revisit it. My mind tricks me into believing it has been addressed because I ‘remember’ dealing with it; the fact that the matter was left incomplete is occasionally lost to me.
I kept patient for about three months before deciding to proceed with all the bookings (outside of the lodge to lodge element); I really could delay no longer. Beginning with the fixed start date in the Andes in mind, I worked backwards four or five days until I found a suitable flight. This would allow me some time in Lima and Cusco for sightseeing and the important acclimatisation period.
The booking for the transatlantic flights was incredibly lucky in terms of timing because in 1982 the Peruvian government had sided with the Argentinians, against the British, over the Falkland’s conflict. As a result direct flights between Peru and the United Kingdom were withdrawn. They only decided to reinstate direct flights two weeks before my trip, some thirty-four years later! This meant I could now fly direct, without having to change in the Netherlands. I opted for a British Airways (standard) World Traveller ticket for the out-bound flight, but I upgraded to Club World (business class) for the return. I reasoned I would be tired and maybe a little saddle-sore on the long journey home. Additionally, it was because I couldn’t face the prospect of having a crying, preschool child sitting behind me kicking the back of my seat for hours on end; on this matter I write from experience!
Knowing I was to arrive in Lima in the evening, I booked a budget hotel for my arrival night, as I would need little more than a bed. For day two I opted for a five-star, coastal hotel which I financially justified by adding the two hotel costs together and averaging them out. This would allow me some time for sightseeing, before setting off to Cusco. For my return to Lima (with the trek and Machu Picchu completed) I chose accommodation in another location for variation. All these hotels were based in the recommended Miraflores district.
The next decision I had to make concerned the Lima to Cusco transit. I had a straight choice between an internal flight and a luxury coach. As I dislike flying I opted for the coach despite it being scheduled to take a mind-numbing twenty-two hours! The London–Lima–London flights were unavoidable, in practical terms, but in this instance I did have a viable alternative. Besides, I thought it offered the opportunity of seeing more of the country by driving along the coastal road and up into the mountains.
For my two nights in Cusco I booked the hotel owned by the Mountain Lodges of Peru, mainly as it was centrally located, near the main square. As well as being recommended by them (!), it also had the convenience of being the venue for the lodge to lodge team briefing on the evening before our departure into the mountains. There I would meet the other members of the group and be able to ask last-minute questions of the guide. Hopefully I would have recovered from the jet lag by the time I arrived in Cusco, as I would then have altitude sickness to contend with.
As I was to return to Cusco after the trek, I also booked an additional night in the same hotel, where I would be reunited with my excess luggage. My allowance on the trail was limited to how much the mules were permitted to carry, so my main case and laptop would have to remain behind. The allowance was a mere 10kg, all of which had to be squeezed into a holdall loaned to me by the company.
With my travel and accommodation booked, I then turned my attention to finding things to do and exploring places of interest. For Lima, I thought I would start off with a cookery class, as that would offer a good introduction to the country’s food and drink. I do like to cook when I am at home, particularly on a Sunday (my only day of the week off work). After the morning cookery lesson was completed I would then embark on an afternoon guided bus tour of the city. I have found, on previous trips, that this type of excursion often provides a very good overview of new places. Upon completion of the tour I may then apply my new-found knowledge of the city to select areas I would like to revisit. Unfortunately, on this occasion, my time in Lima was somewhat limited, so I would just have to make do with the highlights. For balance, the following morning would see me visit a museum which holds numerous examples of recovered Inca artefacts.
For my time in Cusco, I booked a guided tour of the Sacred Valley to continue my Inca education. This area was once at the heart of their empire and therefore a must-see on this trip. Before I arrived at Machu Picchu I wanted to learn something about the Incas and how they lived. I selected a group tour which is something I rarely do given the choice. I just had to hope the guide would keep to the schedule as I had to be back in time to ready myself for the aforementioned lodge to lodge briefing later that evening.
Once based back in Lima, I allowed for an excursion to fly over the Nazca Lines. This trip would involve an initial three to four hour drive south from Lima, before a one and a half hour flight over the lines in a small aeroplane. As they could only be seen properly from the air I had little choice other than to fly, despite my loathing of this form of transport. Assuming I survived, (there were reports of very poor safety records) I would then stop off for lunch, before facing another three to four hour drive back to Lima.
In January 2016, some five months after my initial enquiry, I finally received confirmation of my booking from the Mountain Lodges of Peru. I was also informed that they had received a lot of reservations from hikers, so I was to be the only one riding. I hadn’t thought hiking and staying at the lodges to be an option; it certainly wasn’t offered to me. To be fair though, I had enquired about a riding trip, so it was probably right to assume that was my preference. They did try to offer alternative dates, where riders had been confirmed, but I declined as I now had far too many booking commitments to start making changes.
Although I usually plan my trips well and in fine detail, on this occasion I inexplicably paid little regard to the most important part until seven weeks prior to my departure. I had arranged to spend five days of my Peru expedition on horseback, without any idea whatsoever about horsemanship. When I think back it seems ridiculous not to have considered this aspect, as both my and the horse’s safety should have been foremost in my mind. I had even been pre-warned by the company that I would be trotting along dangerous, narrow, shingle-laden paths and galloping across wide-open plains. I was advised that moderate experience was expected, but no proof of ability was required. In order to rectify this unforgiveable oversight, I booked six one-hour lessons at my local riding school. I was accompanied in the lessons by my niece Emily, while my dad looked on from the relative comfort (and safety) of the viewing gallery.
With the planning complete I just had to give some consideration to my clothing and accessories. The Mountain Lodges of Peru had helpfully provided a list of items to consider for the lodge to lodge element, so that was a good starting point. I just had to ensure I had something for all locations and all occasions. The most challenging purchases were of course related to the horse-riding gear, as I hadn’t any experience whatsoever in that area. A local shop assistant kitted me out with a helmet, gloves, short boots and chaps (calf protectors in lieu of long boots). Breeches (elasticated, tight-fitting trousers) I ordered off the internet, along with some long-sleeved thermal tops. In the end my riding gear wasn’t very colour-coordinated, with blacks, blues and browns, which was mildly disappointing. But with these final preparations in place, I just had to await my day of departure.
I hope this preamble has whetted your appetite for the story to follow. The bulk of the text I have written with the help of prepared notes I scribbled down during the trip. This was of tremendous help as my memory isn’t too good - have I mentioned that? Along with the many photos I took this enabled me to capture the spirit and mood of the days, as well as the linear sequence of events. For the trek over the mountains I have added the elevations in metres, which were indicators for the dreaded altitude sickness; the higher the number the worse I felt, in general terms. I have also included some prices in Peruvian currency in order to make sense of the value of items in the country, five soles (S/.5) equates to about one English pound.
Be advised though, that the following pages are a record of my trip and not a guidebook in the conventional sense. There are plenty of other books on the shelves, penned by experts who have laboured for years accumulating facts and figures about Peru. In a small way I have tapped into these resources myself, notably for the information regarding the history of the Incas. They had long since departed before my visit, so I needed some assistance! Details of the origins of all additional material are listed at the back of the book, my gratitude to all of the contributors.