5/18/10: Inca Trail, Peru
The Inca Trail. Based on our sampling of world travelers, it is the one thing that divides our kind more than any other. It has the power to destroy friendships, but it can also bring travelers together like nothing else. One person will tell you you’d be a fool to miss it. The next will be adamant that it’s a waste of time and money. The first will say that only lazy Americans take the train to Machu Picchu, and that they ruin the site for those who worked hard to get there. The other will tell you it’s ok to be that lazy American – you’ll get a better experience than those elitist Inca Trail folks.
Well, we’ve now completed the Inca Trail and are therefore qualified to join the argument. Our opinion: the Inca Trail is great!
I’ll be honest – we probably would not have done the trail if it weren’t for Dad and Steve. There are many drawbacks for the average backpacker: it costs a lot of money, it costs mucho dinero and then it costs even more money. Let me break down our costs:
- $495: This is the “ticket price.” It theoretically includes everything for the four days.
- $2.50: 5% Paypal fee on the 10% deposit.
- $24: Money lost in ridiculous exchange rate. You have to pay the balance in Soles and even though the actual rate is around 2.85, they charge 3.00.
- $57: Cost for half a porter (you need him to carry the bulky sleeping pads), plus a sleeping bag rental plus a walking stick. Obviously these are all optional, but most people use them.
- $15: Ever since the mudslide, it has cost more to ride the train back from Machu Picchu.
- $17.50: The cost of the breakfast, lunch and dinner that are not included in the four days.
- $55: Approximate money per person tipped to porters, guides and the chef.
Add this up and the four days on the trail wound up costing each person about $666 (I did not intend for the total to end up this ominous). That’s almost $170 per day – way out of a backpacker’s budget. Sure, getting there are your own just for one day will run you close to $200, but that’s for one day, not four. The Inca Trail is expensive.
What a lot of backpackers do instead is take a lesser-known trail such as the Salkantay to Machu Picchu. Doing such a trail allows these backpackers to turn their nose up at the mainstream Inca Trail-ers in the same way that fans of Indie music do so to fans of Britney Spears. (“Have you heard the new Cleats on Concrete song? Of course you haven’t – you’re too busy listening to the radio.”) I’ve found myself almost apologizing to such trekkers after telling them we were going to do the Inca Trail. “Well, we didn’t want to ruin my family’s vacation, so we thought we’d take them on the famous trail. We wouldn’t actually do it ourselves.”
The fact of the matter though is that we did do the Inca Trail, and we loved every minute of it. Our tour operator, Llama Path was amazing. I know a lot of it was aesthetics, but the team uniforms and the togetherness of the porters along the trail really made them look more professional than anyone else. It was always fun to see the Red Army plowing ahead, or pitching the campsite off in the distance. They took all the hardest work out of the experience and let us enjoy the grueling walk with no concerns other than taking good pictures. Our guides were fantastic – they knew seemingly everything about everything, and Marco talked about it all with more passion than Jim Cramer talking about stocks. Not only did I experience the trail by walking it, but I also experienced its history and culture through stories from our guides.
What made everything worthwhile though was the six kilometer walk to Machu Picchu on the fourth day of the trek. Around every turn I strained my neck to try to get my first glimpse of the ruins just a second earlier than I should. I felt like I earned this view over the previous three days, and when Machu Picchu finally came into view it had that much more meaning to me. The “alternate route” backpackers will scoff at this, or say they had the same feeling after finishing the Salkantay, and those who took the train up in the morning will say that Machu Picchu is Machu Picchu, no matter how you get there. But for me, completing the Inca Trail first made it that much more memorable. I could have stood on the hillside overlooking the site for hours on end and not have gotten bored.
I know that people’s opinions about the Inca Trail are as diverse and as strong as those about politics, or sports, and here I have given you mine: do it, and do it with Llama Path. You’ll be glad you did.
Picture of the Day: A good angle to get the scale of just how big Machu Picchu really is. And these are only the terraces near the entrance.