After months of planning and preparations, we finally commenced our journey from Europe to Peru on 23rd May 2019. Getting to Machu Picchu by way of a long hike on the famous Inca Trail was the only option we considered. Taking the train, in our view, would be a wasted journey. There was no other way to appreciate and experience the Incan culture and history as immersively as hiking the Classic Inca Trail.
Madrid to Lima
Our planning began eleven months before our actual trip. The first thing we did was to make our bookings for the flights. Our trip originated from Madrid. From there, we flew to the capital of Peru – Lima. As you may recall, we managed to bag a great steal. Our business class seats cost us only €447 each. See our previous post here: https://www.sageflyer.com/amazing-iberia-avios-offer/
Our Iberia flight, IB6659, was very good, although it did not start well because it was delayed by an hour due to an electrical fault. After we took off, the inflight entertainment system was frozen for almost two hours. Then miraculously they managed to reset the system. The business class cabin on this Airbus A340-600 was quite spacious. The cabin layout was 1-2-1; compare that with Lufthansa’s A340-600 which had 2-2-2.
Every seat had direct aisle access. Privacy was very good, especially for those on the window seats. The food was noticeably tasty compared to my last Iberia flight.
A good selection of the latest Hollywood movies was on offer. Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, The Mule, Widows, Aquaman, to name a few.
After ten hours in the air, our flight from Madrid landed at Lima Airport just thirty minutes behind schedule.
As we were the first few to disembark from the aircraft and there was no other international flight arriving at the same time, we managed to get to the front of the immigration queue before the crowd did. In the aircraft, Iberia announced that no landing card was required, but clearly, they were wrong. You are required to complete the landing card, which we completed hastily. We were through the immigration in less than fifteen minutes. We did not require Peruvian visa to enter the country as we hold UK and Canadian passports.
From Lima, we took a connecting flight to Cusco – the gateway to Machu Picchu. This was on a separate ticket using a British Airways Avios redemption. It cost us 9,000 Avios points plus €13.77 each for a return Lima-Cusco-Lima ticket. See our previous post here: https://sageflyer.com/redeemaviosshorthaul/
Our domestic flight was not until 04:43 am. This translated into over nine hours of waiting in Lima Airport. Originally, we were booked to fly out on the first flight at 03:43 am but LATAM cancelled this flight and rebooked us to the next one. The dilemma here was whether to get an overnight hotel by the airport or just wait around in the airport. In the end, we decided to wait out in the airport because it made more economic sense. The only hotel that is adjoined to the terminal is Wyndham Costa Del Sol. The rate was consistently hovering around USD180-200 per night and we only needed the room for about 5-6 hours only. Upon arrival, we walked into Wyndham and asked for a short stay rate; they wanted USD225. Of course, we declined.
You may be wondering why we needed to catch the first flight out of Lima to Cusco. Our tour operator had a prerequisite that we must arrive Cusco at least two days before the hike began and must present ourselves physically to their office (or face cancellation and lose our deposits). The prime reason was for acclimatisation purposes. By arriving very early in the morning, we gave ourselves two full days to adjust to the climate and altitude in Cusco.
Lima to Cusco
Upon arrival in Lima Airport, we proceeded to the domestic terminal to check in for our Cusco flight. It was literally the next annex of the international arrival hall. Simply exit the arrival hall, then turn left. As we stepped out, we were greeted by not so pleasant odour; the vicinity of Lima Airport was engulfed by a distinct fishy smell.
Unlike at some airports, you do not have to wait until three hours before departure time to check in. It was a huge relief; this freed us from our bags and gave us more flexibility. The check-in staff told us that we cannot enter the airside (past security) until three hours before the flight, and if we attempted, the security will turn us away.
On the landside of the domestic terminal, there was absolutely nowhere to sit. On the first floor, there was a Starbucks and a couple of eateries. You can certainly pass a couple of hours here but very unlikely for a long 5-7 hours wait. (Yes, how many grande latte can you drink?)
We decided to chance our luck and attempted to enter the airside. At the first point of check where the boarding pass was inspected, they casually waved us through. At the second point, just before the main security, the young security personnel spoke to us in Spanish. We can only assume that he was saying that we cannot enter the airside. We replied back in English, telling him that all we wanted to do was to go to the lounge inside the terminal. Amidst the language confusion, after a little hesitation, he scanned our boarding passes and let us through to the security. Bingo!! After the security check, we proceeded to the El Salon Lounge using our Priority Pass, courtesy of American Express Platinum.
This was a decent lounge – new and modern. The food was not that great but the sofas were comfortable. It had one shower room. The maximum allowable hours in this lounge was 4 hours. I used my card to gain access for the first four hours, and subsequently, the plan was to use my wife’s Priority Pass to get another 4 hours.
So, instead of spending time in the crowded terminal landside with nowhere to sit, we had an almost empty lounge to ourselves, along with free food and drinks. So, our advice is do take the chance. You might just sneak past the security! We believe it is true that you cannot enter the airside of the domestic terminal until three hours before departure. Our daughters tried their luck the day before and were turned away. It also explained why the El Salon Lounge was literally empty from 8 pm to 1:45 am. We were the only guests between 10 pm and 1:30 am. The lounge staff even gave us a pillow and blanket to make our rest more comfortable. The soft-leather sofas were very comfortable to sit on, but not so friendly to laze and sleep. It was peaceful and quiet until the airport authority allowed the waiting crowd from the landside in. At 2am, the El Salon lounge was filled to the brim.
Take note, LATAM / Oneworld does not offer lounge in the domestic terminal. I did not see one for Star Alliance or SkyTeam either.
If you do not have Priority Pass, you can purchase access to the lounge for USD25 per person and that is good for four hours. I can see the value in it because the domestic terminal was bad. It was sardine-packed with passengers, and unless you are super lucky, the only place to sit is the floor.
Our Lima to Cusco flight departed from Gate 1 which was located on the smallish ground floor (one floor below the El Salon Lounge). Boarding started 45 minutes before take-off. The whole departure hall was absolutely packed, and there was no priority boarding for elite frequent flyers. There was a sense of chaos but somehow everything flowed nicely. We were bussed to the aircraft and boarded with time to spare. Our flight LA2025 left dot on time at 4:43 am.
A quick glance inside the aircraft showed it was flying at full capacity despite the ungodly hours. The passengers were almost entirely foreign tourists. It was a strange but equally efficient flight. After the aircraft reached the cruising altitude, the cabin crew dimmed the lights to the very minimum. There was absolutely no inflight service. It was kind of “lights off and go to sleep” and ironically, many did (except myself and a few others)! We arrived Cusco at 05:48 am (scheduled 06:10 am), early by 22 minutes.
Cusco Airport is very small. It was straight to the baggage belt. After the bags were retrieved, we exited the hall to the waiting drivers. Expect to be hustled, but they are not the persistent and annoying type. Just politely decline and they will walk away.
Cusco Airport to downtown Cusco
We prebooked our taxi with TaxiDatum. As our flight arrived earlier than scheduled, we expected to have to wait for the driver. We finally located him at 06:17 am (pickup was initially arranged for 06:10 am). The drive into town centre was about 20 minutes. We were told by email that the fare would be USD8 from Cusco Airport to Hilton Garden Inn. I gave him a USD20 note and asked for USD10 change. He gave me a change of 20 Soles which I accepted in good faith that it was an equivalent of USD10. After retiring to my room, I checked the rates. 20 soles were equivalent to USD6. So, in effect, I was charged USD14 ($20 less $6) for the fare. Lesson learned (always have the correct amount in the first place).
Hilton Garden Inn – Our hotel in Cusco
We stayed in this hotel for two nights before leaving for the Inca Trail (see review in our previous post). It is perched on top of a hill. There was nothing much to complain about this hotel. It is a very nice modern and comfortable hotel with very friendly and courteous staff. Despite being a Garden Inn brand, it was actually miles superior than many of the full Hiltons in Europe and North America. Our rooms were spacious and nicely decorated with top quality furnishing. It is not in the heart of the town centre, but 10-15 minutes on foot will get you to the main centre at Plaza de Armas. But be warned, it is a steep incline on the way back to the hotel. For individuals who are attempting to hike the Inca or other trails to get to Machu Picchu, this is a really good test for you because of the steep incline and high altitude. Just as a reminder, Cusco is located at an altitude of 3,399 metres whereas Machu Picchu is around 2,430 metres. But be mindful that if you are hiking the Inca Trail, the highest peak that you will scale is 4,215 metres (at Warmiwanuska). If you are too lazy to walk back, a taxi would cost about 7 Soles to get you to Hilton Garden Inn from town centre.
There are many local boutique hotels in the city centre. Other international chain hotels we noted were JW Marriott and Novotel. Once you have booked your flights, I suggest make the booking for the hotel too. They tend to fill up quickly and the rates do creep up. For example, when we made our booking about eight months in advance, it cost us only USD99.91 (exclusive taxes and charges) per night per room. Later, when we decided to get an extra night, two months before our stay, the rate had more than doubled!
On our return from the Inca Trail, we stayed another night at Hilton Garden Inn. While we were away, we stored all our luggage in the hotel, free of charge.
The Peruvians love US Dollars! Our Inca Trail hike had to be paid in USD cash. In many places, you can pay in USD or in Soles (the local currency, pronounced ‘sol-les’), but beware of the conversion rate. When we were at Lima Airport, we were contemplating of changing some Euros into US dollars and Soles. The rates were not so friendly; in fact way, it was way off the scale, so we decided to hold off until we get to our destination. And luckily, we did.
At the advice of our tour operator (Llama Path), we went to Avenue El Sol. There are many money changers on this street, many operating out of little booths. Shop around but I would avoid the ones peddling cash by the street side. Use xe.com app to get the real time rates. When we converted our cash, XE was showing EUR 1.00 to USD 1.12 and the money changer matched it to the last cent. As for the Peruvian Sol, we were getting 3.70 Soles to 1 Euro. Specifically, we went to the money changer located at 320 Ave El Sol, Cusco. It is a few doors away from the big Interbank. The top façade displays the word “Multi Dolar”. As you enter the small store, it is on the most left counter.
Armed with the US dollars that we converted, we went back to the tour operator to pay for the balance of the Inca Trail.
Choice of Tour Operator and Finalising the Inca Trail
There are a handful of tour operators offering the Classic Inca Trail. The notable ones are Llama Path, Peru Treks, SAS Travel and Enigma. Some of them do not offer daily departures. There were not too many differentiators between them. In pricing, the variation was around plus or minus USD100. In the end, we chose Llama Path because we liked their commitment to sustainable tourism and the stories on how they cared for their porters.
Llama Path offers group or private hike. A group hike has 8 to 10 people. As there were four of us, we decided to use the private hike. The price difference between private and group service was about USD 120 per person. For a family of four, we paid a total of USD 3952. This included optional items such as half porter (to carry our personal stuff up to 8kg each), sleeping bags, inflatable pads, hiking poles and the Vistadome train tickets from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) to Ollantaytambo.
Our tour operator made a precondition that we show up in person to their office to pay for the balance of our hike, at least two days before the hike. After doing the trail, we can fully appreciate this requirement. They really do not want people showing up for the hike unprepared and not properly acclimatised. This hike is not a walk in the park. Over four days, we ascended two steep mountain passes and covered a hike of 45 km. At the peak of Warmiwanuska (Dead Woman’s Pass), the altitude is 4,215 meters (13,829 feet).
Acclimitising and Altitude Sickness
This is one of the most common questions. Will you get sick at this altitude? As a reminder, the elevation is summarised below:
|Altitude (meters)||Altitude (feet)|
|Cusco town||3,399 m||11,152 ft|
|Highest peak on Inca Trail||4,215 m||13,829 ft|
|Machu Picchu||2,430 m||7,972 ft|
There is no easy answer and it is specific to an individual. You can be young and fit, and still suffer from a multitude of altitude sickness symptoms. On the other hand, you can be old and not so fit, and yet elude all the symptoms. Altitude sickness is where you experience light headedness, faintish state, short of breath, dizziness, headaches, nausea, fatigue – either one, several or all of them, due to the thin oxygen level at high elevation. This is the main reason why the tour operators require you to report in Cusco in person at least two days before your hike to ensure that you are properly acclimatised.
As for the four of us, we thankfully did not suffer any symptoms. We had two full days (full 48 hours) in Cusco to acclimatise, and we did not take any form of medication, but we did drink coca leaves tea (complimentary in the lobby of Hilton Garden Inn Cusco) – more for the fun of it than as a remedial precaution.
You definitely want to avoid altitude sickness from ruining your hiking plan. It costs a lot of money to get to Peru and to do the Inca Trail. You might also want to avoid doing the walk of shame – where streams of hikers are ascending up the Inca while you are the only one descending down the opposite direction. (We actually saw only one hiker having to do this.)
If you are worried that you might suffer from altitude sickness, try getting to Cusco at least three days for proper acclimatisation. Or you can get a medical prescription for altitude sickness, but we have been told that it takes at least 48 hours for it to be effective, so you will have to take it two days before arriving Cusco.
What we did during our acclimatisation period in Cusco?
We refrained from doing strenuous activities, saving the energy for the long trek ahead of us. On our first day of arrival in Cusco, we sorted out all the remaining issues with our tour operator. In the afternoon and evening, we casually explored Cusco downtown by foot. Cusco is a charming little town, rich in culture and history. The Peruvian food is pretty good too and affordable. On the second day, we took a private tour from our tour operator (Llama Path) to explore the outer neighbourhoods of Cusco. We visited De Chinchero Archaeological Park, Maras Moray and Salineras De Maras (salt mine). Moras Moray is an interesting Inca ruin where many terraces in circular patterns are found, once used for agricultural cultivation of various crops.
The Inca Trail
This classic trek on the Peruvian Andes was for four days and three nights. It started from KM 82, near the town of Ollantaytambo at an altitude of 2,720 meters (8,920 feet) and finished at Machu Picchu itself. The hike was tough and long, especially on the second day where we scaled up 4,215 meters. The total distance according to our tour operator was 45 km, but my Runkeeper app recorded a much shorter distance. The temperature ranged from -2°C to 28°C while we did the trek in May. During day time, the sun was scorching hot (felt like high thirties). At night, it went down to negative, especially on the second night (highest elevation).
A team of eleven staff was utilised to support us (a group of four hikers) over the four days – 1 guide, 1 chef, 1 sous chef and 8 porters (each with distinct area of responsibility). At this point, I wondered why 11 to support 4? The ratio was a bit off for a so-called sustainable tourism. During the journey, it became clear to me that the number was the bare minimum required to support the complete functions of our group. They literally had to carry everything from start to finish. They were such a lovely and friendly bunch of people. Our breakfasts, lunches and dinners were delicious and can easily rival that of the good restaurants, if not better.
You have to be fit to do this hike. It is not a walk in the park. We found it quite tough and we are relatively fit people (we run half and full marathons). And you have to be prepared to rough it out too. If dirt, sleeping on hard grounds, not showering for days and a lack of proper toilets bother you, you are best advised not to attempt this hike. There were also many very early mornings too. We woke up very early each day (Day 1 03:00, Day 2 04:00, Day 3 05:30) and on the last day, we had to get up at 02:10 am – for our final push from Wina Huaya to Machu Picchu.
On the early morning of Day 4, at about 7 am, we ascended Sun Gate (Inti Punku), and then descended to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is great! It was great to see and experience the mysterious lost civilisation of the mighty Inca Empire. But the journey on the Inca Trail itself is what made the whole trip magnificent!
This also meant we have now visited six of the new Seven Wonders of the World! (Completed previously – Roman Colosseum in Italy, Petra in Jordan, Taj Mahal in India, Great Wall of China in China, and Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.) We will be winging our way to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico in the near future.
Trip Back to Cusco from Machu Picchu
After two hours and a bit on Machu Picchu site itself, we called it quits around 9:30 am. By this time, the non-hiking tourists were streaming into Machu Picchu in big numbers. We had been on our feet for eight hours, and the sun was blazing hot and was draining our energy by the minute to an extent that we could not focus on our guide. We took the shuttle bus down from Machu Picchu site to Aguas Calientes town which took about 20 minutes. The train station at Aguas Calientes was only a short walk away from the bus stop. At this point, we became aware of a Vistadome train leaving for Ollantaytambo at 10:50 am. We had our train booked for 16:43 departure. Our guide managed to get our ticket changed and we paid a very small penalty to make the change. It was sad to say goodbye to our guide, whom we had grown to be fond of, over the course of our hike, in a hurried manner. We would have relished the opportunity to buy him a very nice lunch and drink, and say our goodbye properly.
The train journey from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo was beautiful and scenic. It hugged the river line for most parts. The train had only two coaches attached. Inside the train, we were served a drink and a snack, and later, the staff put on a short cultural and fashion show. The train journey took 1 hour and 35 minutes.
For more information on the train services, go to Peru Rail. You will find that the Hiram Bingham train is outrageously expensive (USD 485 per person), followed by Vistadome (USD105) and the budget train Expedition (USD70). These prices were for a one way ticket from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) to Poroy (Cusco). The cost of the train ticket was included in our tour price. There are a lot more train services from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo (Harry Bingham train is not available on this route). Obviously, if you had the choice, choose the Poroy train as you will get to your hotel in Cusco in less than half an hour.
Despite the last minute changes, a representative from Llama Path was already waiting for us at the Ollantaytambo train station. We continued our trip to Cusco in a small coach for another 1.5 hours where the driver dropped us off at our hotel, Hilton Garden Inn Cusco.
It was an exhausting trip but we treasured every moment of it.
Date of the Inca Trail Hike:
26th May to 29th May 2019 inclusive