I wrote my bucket list when I was seventeen. It has grown since then, but the whole point of this project is to hold myself to that original list, even if some of my teenaged aspirations don't seem quite as appealing as they used to. For example: Although I was a diver in high school, I've developed a slight fear of heights as I've gotten older. As you might guess, "go sky diving" is still sitting ominously undone on my bucket list.
Last year, "Hike to Machu Picchu" was also an unaccomplished item on the list. The thought of South America was still exciting, but it struck me: what if I woke up tomorrow and "hike to Machu Picchu" sounded like it was on par with "go skydiving"? Fear couldn't get in the way of this dream, so I resolved: I would hike to Machu Picchu in the next year.
And I did. Machu Picchu happened. Along with other South American adventures :) Before I share the memories and highlights from the trip, I thought I'd write about the unglamorous part of vacationing: the planning. Read on for how this all came together.
Length of Trip: 18 days (March 9 - 26)
Cities & Countries Visited: Peru (Cusco, Pisac, Maras, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes), Argentina (Buenos Aires), Uruguay (Colonia)
Itinerary: There are a thousand different ways to do this trip--below is the way I chose. If you click on the image, it will enlarge and become clear/readable. Anything yellow represents how I traveled. The purple and blue boxes at the bottom of each day show what city I was in and where I stayed. A summary of my daily activities is in the white space of each day.
Why March? As anyone from Chicago can attest, by the time February ends, we would do just about anything to escape the snow. Even though March is still the end of the rainy season in Peru, I found an Incan Trail Trek that would put me atop Machu Picchu on my birthday. The prospect of rain didn't seem too bad after that.
How I Chose My Route The catalyst of the trip was the need to check off "hike to Machu Picchu". Although there are is more than one way to hike to Machu Picchu, the idea of going with a tour operator on the popular 4-day Incan Trail trek was appealing to me as a solo traveler. The tour operator that I chose required payment of the trek balance in person in Cusco, at least 2 days prior to trek departure (to ensure acclimation to the altitude). Given this requirement, I already knew what my first week looked like: 2-3 days in Cusco, 4 days of Inca Trail. As I started researching, I flushed out the trip a little to include day trips from Cusco, an extra night at the base town of Machu Picchu, and week in Buenos Aires to visit my friends and colleagues that live there.
Why I Didn't Go to Lake Titicaca (Peru) or Iguazu Falls (Argentina) Technically, it was possible to fit these into the timeframe, but doing so would stretch me too thin. I would not have time to truly enjoy Cusco and Buenos Aires. Iguazu Falls was especially hard to pass up (it too is on my bucket list), but I chose the slower approach to travel. Iguazu is for another time.
Pre-trip preparation: I've got a gypsy bone or two, but I'm not one of those people who can leave the country tomorrow with a backpack and a pipe dream. An international plane fare is expensive and my vacation days are just as--if not more--valuable. As such, I do as much planning beforehand to prevent wasting precious time abroad. The preparation for this trip was a little easier than the SE Asia trip because of the following:
- Visas: I didn't have to worry about visas, which was SO nice. :) US citizens simply present a valid passport to enter Peru and Uruguay as a tourist. Entering Argentina, was only slightly more difficult. I paid a $160 "reciprocity fee" online (valid 10 yrs for multiple entries) and presented the certificate at immigration. Check the most up-to-date entry/exit requirements for your citizenship before booking your trip.
- Vaccines: Before going to SE Asia, I got 7 vaccinations. I needed boosters to extend my protection against the big ones like Tetanus, Typhoid, Meningitis, etc. and I also got pre-exposure Rabies for the time we spent in caves. Having had a good base already, I only needed one more for South America: Yellow Fever.
- Currency Exchange: In the past, I've ordered a small amount of the foreign currency from my bank in advance of my trip. I've found that it makes for an easy transition into the new country...right off the bat, you have legal tender for a cab or bus fare and you don't have to wait in line to exchange for a shit rate at the airport. However, this time, I tried something different. My B&B in Cusco (Bill & Nic's House, more about them in a later post!) had an awesome blog post about what to expect when coming to Peru. One of the things they caution is that Peruvian banks will not accept US dollars that are wrinkled/torn/old. For this reason, any vendor or exchange place will not accept your worn USD. Based on their advice, I brought crisp/new bills in $1 and $5 denominations for easy exchanging. Boy, am I glad I did. They truly are sticklers...USD with a barely-perceptible tear might as well be Monopoly money in Peru! In Argentina, my colleague/friend/hostess, Maite, had promised to cover me until I had a chance to exchange at a place with a good rate. It worked out really well and I didn't have to stress about it beforehand.
- Meds/First Aid: I had my doctor prescribe me a few things that I could take on the trip as a precaution. I have a very weak stomach, so the first prescription was CiPro in case I ate something that caused an issue. The second prescription was Diamox, which I took in the days leading up to my highest elevation. It really helped to prevent altitude sickness--I experienced NONE. I also carried some standard things like Pepto Bismol, advil, StingEz for mosquito bites, and moleskin.
On Traveling Alone I've never seen the movie Taken so objective 1.a. (don't get kidnapped) is not the result of a cinematic imagination. The reality of it is that traveling alone means that you have to be alert. Unfortunately, this is especially true as a solo female traveler. Pile on the fact that I don't speak a lick of Spanish, and...yeah, it was difficult. I was "on" 100% of the time, and it was pretty exhausting. At the end of the day, though, it was just a matter of adjusting expectations; it will be a different kind of trip, not a worse trip. I didn't stay out late, I didn't get drunk, I studied a map of where I was going before I left the hotel, and I kept my wits about me. In light of all of those precautions, I still experienced and saw some amazing things.
Communications To communicate with people from home, I put my iPhone on airplane mode and downloaded Whatsapp. When I had a strong Wifi signal hatsapp allowed me to text family and friends for free. To communicate with people within Peru/Argentina, I have to admit that I relied heavily on Bill & Nic (the owners of the B&B in Cusco) and my friend, Maite. They were my crutch.
Travel Essentials More on this to come :)
Regrets That I ate pizza in Aguas Calientes (I'm 99.99% sure this is why I had to resort to the CiPro) and that I didn't eat MORE empanadas in Buenos Aires. Also, that I didn't learn any Spanish before frolicking in South America. Whoops.
Of Possible Interest
Bill & Nic's Blog Post about Money in Peru - a MUST READ Bill and Nic are Americans who have been living in Peru for the past 7+ years. They became fluent, volunteered, and started a B&B...so yeah, they have a lot of first-hand knowledge to share and I found it immensely valuable.
Floreria Atlantico - the "secret" bar beneath a flower shop