When I had initially began to look at making my bucket list visit to Machu Picchu, I was astounded by the prices of the tours (averaging over $1500 for a 7-day trip, flights not included). I was about to bite the bullet and just go ahead and book one of the tours when my loving, but frugal, fiancé proposed that we plan the trip ourselves and that we would probably do it cheaper…and he was right. I do consider myself a pretty frugal traveler, saving money where I can without necessarily staying in hostels. I don’t require 4-5 star hotels but will spend money on once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Ok, let me start off by saying that traveling during shoulder season (November) was the best decision. Not only were the flights cheaper but the Sacred Valley was green & beautiful. Also, there were less tourists. My pet peeve is overly crowded places when I travel, and while I know that many times, it’s unavoidable if you’re visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site such as Machu Picchu but it definitely lessens the crowds and makes for better views.
*Also, I chose NOT to do the Inca Trail there because of time restraints and the fact that I couldn’t fathom paying several hundred dollars to have someone help me backpack to the peak seeing as I backpack all the time by myself. The rules have changed & for conservation purposes, you cannot do the trail on your own.
We ended up being able to book ourselves 10 days in Peru (Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu) with a multi-city flight, 3-star hotels w/ breakfasts included for about $1300. My one splurge, as usual when I travel, is doing something in that particular region/area/country that I would otherwise be unable to do elsewhere. I consider this my “souvenir.” I am not one for many material items and I hate collecting items that I can never practically use or that I don’t necessarily have a symbolic attachment to.
While in Peru, my “souvenir” moment and big splurge was staying at the iconic “Skylodge Adventure Suite” hotel that hangs 1,300ft on the side of a cliff overlooking the stunning Sacred Valley. That one-night stay did add an additional $400, but here’s why it was well worth the hefty price tag:
They will pick you up and drop you off wherever you need. Although I was already in the Sacred Valley and it was only a 10-15 min drive to pick me up, my return drive was 2 hours to Cuzco and they had no qualms about taking me there. It also included an approx. 1hr hr rock scramble/ladder climb to the pod and included helmets, headlights and superb climbing gear and a harness. I do rock climb in the gym and it is nothing like rock climbing, more like climbing a ladder. They drilled steel ladder holds into the side of this cliff and their sturdy safety gear really ensures that you don’t fall, even children do this climb.
Once you reach the pod, the guides make you a 4-course dinner with a bottle of wine each. (Lemme tell ya, probably not the best thing to chug before climbing your way down to your sleeping pod in the middle of the night. LOL) Then they show you the way to your sleeping pods & each included their own restroom. The bathroom is very much like “glamping” and the beds were actually really comfortable with down blankets.And fear not, the hanging pods are extremely sturdy! I even had my fiancé, who used to do work with a general contractor, check out all the holds, cables and welding. In the morning, I woke up around 0700, donned my climbing gear & took this beautiful shot of the Sacred Valley from the top of my pod:
I sat in silence & awe for several minutes of the beauty before me and the quiet & stillness of the world as it slowly woke up.
The guides make everybody a full breakfast with more than enough to overfill your stomach in the morning and then gear up for your 2hr zipline down to the bottom. Let me tell ya, they don’t short you for what you’re paying! This ain’t no 30-second joyride down, there are 6 different ziplines at several different speeds. I have to say that this “Adventure Suite” was definitely the highlight of my trip and made it all worth it.
Ok, so here is the low-down, on Machu Picchu if you are doing this on your own. First, you need to decide when you are going to visit so that you can go on the government site to book your tickets for Machu Picchu. They are slotted for only 4,000 visitors a day. If you are wanting to trek the challenging peak behind it called Huayna Picchu (where 99% of those iconic touristy photos overlooking Machu Picchu is taken from), that peak is only slotted for 200 visitors a day. I used this website to help navigate the extremely unfriendly government website that every ticket must be purchased from. Once you have a ticket, you can plan the rest of your trip around it. Here are some things that I wish I had known before going there:
- Have reliable wifi/data. I don’t typically use my reliable Verizon phone plan overseas because I don’t necessarily always get reliable internet wherever I am. I bought (or you can rent) your own hotspot called skyroam. I pay $10 daily for 24hr access to wifi and I have even gotten internet access while in areas that locals had shoddy access. I even had wifi on Machu Picchu! This is a lifesaver, seriously! I don’t mean to have constant access to social media but in terms of getting Uber or looking up information, especially when traveling alone (which I do often & have gotten myself into some sticky situations that could have easily turned into another rendition of “Taken,” but we’ll save that story for another time).
- Carry cash and exchange it at the airport (or at least have cash on you at all times). They use Peruvian Soles and do not really take US dollars…also, if you give US dollars, you are overpaying them by A LOT. Peru is still a third-world country and their card machines aren’t necessarily reliable nor do they have banks for exchange everywhere…especially in Ollantaytambo, the cute little town where you will catch the train to take you to Aguas Calientes (aka base town of Machu Picchu).
- With that being said, stay at least one night in Ollantaytambo and explore the Sacred Valley! It’s adorable, especially in the town square at night, and there’s much to see and do in the Sacred Valley (Pinkuyulluna, Salt Mines, Skylodge Adventure Suites, etc). I feel like many tourists miss this opportunity as they only see it as a stopover to catch the train to Machu Picchu.
- Beware of the taxi hustlers that bombard you as you walk out of the airport. Most of them don’t actually drive a taxi but will hustle you, then take you to a taxi driver to negotiate a cut of your money. I strongly recommend Uber. Download it. At the very least, if you decide to take a taxi, you can haggle the price off of what Uber tells you it should cost to get to/fro. Otherwise, aside from the nightmare of a taxi ride from the airport, I used Uber for the whole trip. Again, another reason a hotspot/internet is important!
- It’s very touristy! Because of that most of the restaurants in the main areas are over-priced. Plates were ranging from $10-$15 USD. Essentially, you’re paying for ambiance, not the taste of the food. My favorite places to eat were with the locals, delicious foods but they look like hole-in-the-wall places. My fiancé and I got generous helpings of dinner for $3 USD for both!
- Again, it’s very touristy! If you are expecting to see any wildlife, even on the cliffs above the Sacred Valley, you’re wrong.
- The train ride to/from MP only allows you 11lbs of luggage. Yes, you heard me correctly. Many people only brought a backpack. I was unaware of this and brought my suitcase (30lbs) and the rail seemed to have no issues accommodating me. However, my friend brought her 50lb piece of luggage and she definitely caught flack for it. Also, there are NO cars in Aguas Calientes and you must trek your own luggage up/down hills to reach your hotel. They do have a luggage storage at the railway in Ollantaytambo (for free).
- The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (base of Machu Picchu) is ugly. I’m sorry to admit, and this must be the spoiled Californian in me, but it’s mostly high desert scenery which I found very anticlimactic. (side note: this spoiled brat lives in the Central Valley, CA and is surrounded by 5 national parks).
- Machu Picchu is not that high. Yes, you heard me. The peak of MP sits at about 8,000ft elevation. I don’t know if I can attribute my acclimation to the fact that every now and again I do hikes ranging from 6-10,000ft elevation at home. I didn’t feel any altitude affects in Cuzco (10,000ft elevation) or MP.
- Lastly, for my “hike,” instead of taking the 30min bus ride up the mountain from Aquas Calientes to Machu Picchu, I decided to forgo the $15 fee and hike it instead. It’s about 5 miles of never-ending switchbacks through a jungle-like atmosphere. But as I said, it’s so touristy that, even at 5am when we started the hike, I did not see a single animal. Going as a moderate pace, I made the 5mile hike with a 1,307ft elevation gain in about 1hr 15min. It was a decent, challenging hike and very refreshing being in the mountains all by ourselves.
Hope this tidbit helps anybody traveling to Machu Picchu!