There was a time when would-be explorers were entirely at the mercy of travel agents. Prices were firmly fixed with little room to wiggle. But the age of the Internet armed the savvy adventurer with access to an important asset: information, and with it the ability to easily scout out competitive rates. A little legwork will yield a surprising degree of savings in advance of your next vacation.
My recent trip to Peru is one such example—I was determined to cross Machu Picchu off my bucket list, and equally set on not breaking the bank to do it. A few hours of web searching formed the basis of an itinerary that began in the massive urban jungle of Lima, leading me through the Andes, into the Sacred Valley surrounding Cusco, and eventually to the rugged peaks overlooking the storied Incan ruins. Read on for my tips for hotels, restaurants, and more — you’ll be amazed at how much money I saved.
This ancient attraction—named both a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World—is as breathtaking as you’d imagine. But trekking to the site, situated atop an 8,000-foot-tall mountain is no simple task. Permits must be reserved, multiple forms of transit are required, and the closest direct flight from the States brings you into Lima—some 750 miles of meandering mountain road away. And although you could take a 30-minute bus ride from the small town of Aguas Calientes directly to the site’s entrance, able-bodied adventurers might prefer to trek through the glaciated peaks and lush jungles of the Andes.
My rudimentary research uncovered an enticing possibility: a trek along the so-called Alternative Inca Trail. With prices starting at $369, View Peru Tours offers an all-inclusive five-day hike that is difficult to beat. Much of the journey is completed with a guide accompanying you over high mountain peaks and through the Andean jungle; on the fifth day, travelers actually visit Macchu Pichu, with a few hours of guided tours and a few more of solo exploration. Some fees, including hotel rooms and food, are included in the price. The only additional fee you might consider is booking access to either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountain—the two peaks towering above the ruins. They require an advanced purchase of a $20 ticket, which sells out fast during the high season (July–October).
Flights to Peru bring travelers into Jorge Chávez International Airport, on the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis of Lima. With skewed street patterns, and frequent traffic circles, it can be easy to get lost; to avoid that fate, hop in a cab and head straight to the oceanside neighborhood of Milaflores. A reasonable fare shouldn’t cost more than 20 Peruvian nuevo sol ($7). If you’re game to try a hostel, Enjoy Hostels offers clean (albeit shared) rooms for $9 a night. Located mere blocks from some of Lima’s most thriving nightlife in one direction, and verdant Pacific cliffs on the other, it’s an ideal location. But those who’d like a slightly higher level of comfort should check out the Casa Andina Classic on the edge of Milaflores, with rooms starting at $60.
For food, you don’t want to miss out on Chifa — a hybrid cuisine combining Chinese and Peruvian flavors. Walk 10 minutes north of Milaflores to visit Chifa Hou Wha, offering an inexpensive menu in a lively setting. Try the arroz chaufa mixto especial, a Peruvian take on Chinese fried rice sprinkled with a medley of meats and seafood.
When it’s time to head down to Cusco, there are two options: bus or plane. The former can be achieved by way of the Civa bus for $24 one way. But beware: you can spend upwards of 22 hours (!) ascending the Andes through the night on winding mountain roads. If you think that sounds romantic, think again; it’s more nauseating than anything else. (Still, if you want to take your chances, BusBud has deals available.) Far more sensible is a flight on Peruvian-based Avianca Airlines. When booked several weeks out, round trip travel between Lima and Cusco can be secured for approximately $200. Each way is just under an hour of flight time—infinitely more appealing than a full day spent on a dilapidated bus.
The Imperial City at the epicenter of the vast Urabamba Valley, Cusco is a rapidly expanding urban hub. From the airport, head straight to the Plaza de Armas—the scenic and cultural heart of town. The 15 minute cab ride (costing around 30 Peruvian Sol) will take you past seemingly endless construction rising above the lively avenues, buzzing with frenzied foot traffic and colorful street vendors. Lay your bags down at the Intro Hostel, where $48 gets you a private room and bath (and breakfast) in a picturesque 400-year-old colonial structure.
Get yourself acclimated to the valley’s 10,000 foot elevation by slowly making your way to the iconic Cristo Blanco statue overlooking the town. The 30 minute climb is gentle, and offers a sweeping view across the horizon. When you get back down, your stomach will likely be growling. Tackle your hunger at Adobo, an unassuming family-run restaurant serving the eponymous tender pork stew, a local speciality. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, do as the Cusqueñans do: try cuy, roasted guinea pig. When it comes to nightlife, the Temple Club stays packed until all hours with revelers dancing to DJ sets. The $5 cover charge is generally waived at the door if you tell them that you’re staying at the nearby Intro.