I was several months pregnant and already imagining where I’d visit with my newborn son when the proofs for the latest edition of the Moon Big Island of Hawai‘i guidebook arrived. As a travel writer, my reviews are subjective in part based on my personal preferences and experiences of a place. I always bring someone else with me to a hotel or a restaurant or a beach for a second (or third) viewpoint, and take every opportunity to ask other locals and visitors their opinions as a way to achieve what academics call “data saturation”—when the researcher begins to get the same responses over and over again.
In my guidebook, I make lots of suggestions about places that are keiki-friendly (the Hawaiian word for child) and even kid-fun, but until recently I hadn’t seen those places through the lens of a parent with a five-month-old baby. My recommendations haven’t changed, but now I better understand what makes a place baby-friendly and what makes for a rough afternoon for the parent.
I’ve brought tents to the beach, umbrellas, and even made a fort—but the best solution to keeping your little one out of the sun is a beach with lots of big trees.
My top choice for a beach that offers lots of shade and shallow water is Richardson Beach in Hilo. I’ve spent hours sitting on this quaint beach overlooking Hilo Bay without breaking a sweat (a definite perk for breastfeeding moms).
On the Kona side of the island, Spencer Beach Park offers large covered seating areas as well as a grassy area in case you’re trying actively to keep your keiki from eating sand.
Best Bet for Hiking
For the most part, strollers won’t work on Big Island trails thanks to the beautiful uneven lava that makes up most of the island. If you’re a baby-wearing caregiver, a good option for a hike is Kilauea Iki trail in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. It takes between two and three hours (a good length for a breastfeeding mom) and at least half the trail has shade.
Dining Out with Kids
If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time during a meal pushing a stroller back and forth to ensure your sleeping baby stays asleep. Some restaurants on the Big Island are very small with tables only for a few people, which isn’t very stroller-friendly.
Look for restaurants with large outdoor eating areas that are perfect for fussy babies and parents who have to take turns getting up with the baby during the meal. Kona Brewing Company is an ideal spot: it’s loud and has lots of outdoor space. Likewise, Daylight Mind Coffee Company in Waikoloa serves lunch and dinner and provides a lot of outdoor space for comforting your keiki.
If you like staying at bed and breakfasts, check before you book to see if they allow babies. Some might allow babies, but not younger kids (who can run around and break things) and asking the owner if they have a portable crib or other items can save you some room in your suitcase.
Both the Hilton Waikoloa Village and the Sheraton in Keauhou Bay with their waterslides are meccas for kids, but these kid-saturated establishments might not work for all families looking for a quieter getaway. A condo rental, like Hali‘i Kai at Waikoloa presents a good option for families who like to have a kitchen, and extra bedrooms for the keiki you’re trying to sleep-train out of your bed.
Expert traveler Bree Kessler covers the best sights and adventures that the Big Island has to offer, from soaking up the sun on Kona’s iconic white sand beaches to sampling local delicacies at Hilo’s popular farmer’s market.
Three days are perfect for a whirlwind romance with the city of San Francisco. Here’s where to eat and play, plus a side trip to Muir Woods National Monument.
Start your day with breakfast at the Ferry Building. Grab a latte at Blue Bottle Café or graze from one of the many on-site vendors before taking a two-mile stroll along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf. Then circle back to Pier 33 and hop on a (booked in advance) ferry to Alcatraz to tour the former island prison. Back on land, walk west on Bay Street for about six blocks, then board the Powell-Mason cable car at the intersection of Bay and Taylor Streets. Hop off for some window shopping and lunch at Union Square.
In the afternoon, head to the Sunset District to explore verdant Golden Gate Park. The fabulous de Young Museum is directly across from the California Academy of Sciences. Art lovers and science geeks can part ways here or squeeze in a trip to enjoy both! Near Golden Gate Park, visit the Haight, the hippie enclave made famous in the 1960s. Enjoy the finely crafted cocktails and nibbles at Alembic or head back downtown to splurge on dinner at Farallon. End the day with martinis at the swank Top of the Mark.
North Beach is home to Mama’s on Washington Square, whose specialty “m’omelettes” have made this joint a local favorite for decades. After brunch, stop in at City Lights, the legendary Beat Generation bookstore, then enjoy an old-school cappuccino at Caffé Trieste. Climb to the top of Coit Tower to catch a great view of the city skyline—look west to find crooked Lombard Street.
Spend the afternoon in the hip Mission District. Order an authentic Mission burrito at La Taqueria or sweets from Tartine Bakery. History buffs should visit 18th-century Mission Dolores. End your stay in the Mission with thin-crust pizzas and classic cocktails at Beretta.
Get an early start for breakfast at popular Dottie’s True Blue Café. Afterward, spend a few hours discovering the world of science at the Exploratorium, or, if the weather cooperates, explore The Presidio and take a hike along Crissy Field. Stop for coffee and a snack at Warming Hut Bookstore & Café, then it’s off to the ultimate San Francisco photo op, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Muir Woods National Monument Side Trip
Extend the love affair with a side trip to wander the redwoods in Marin. Muir Woods National Monument is home to acres of staggeringly beautiful redwood forest just north of San Francisco. The Muir Woods Visitors Center is a great place to begin your exploration. Hike the Main Trail, a paved boardwalk through the beautiful redwoods. Pick up a self-guided trail leaflet at the visitors center and follow the interpretive numbers along the way to learn about the flora and fauna of this unique ecosystem.
Fill up on a hearty lunch of British comfort food at The Pelican Inn. Dark wood and a long trestle table give a proper Old English feel to the dimly lit dining room. It’s just a short walk from the restaurant to lovely Muir Beach, perfect for wildlife-watching and beachcombing. End the day with oysters and drinks at the Farley Bar at Cavallo Point Lodge. Snag a blanket and a seat on the porch to watch the fog roll in over the Golden Gate Bridge.
East of Lake Cocibolca lie hundreds of thousands of hectares of rolling hillside in a broad ecological transition zone where undulated, scrubby pastureland gradually unfolds into the pine savannas and wetlands of the Caribbean coast. It’s less populated than the Pacific region—Chontales and Boaco residents are easily outnumbered by their cattle. It’s the cattle that make this area famous. Chontales ranches produce more than 60 percent of Nicaragua’s dairy products, including dozens of varieties of cheese and millions of gallons of milk.
The flavor of Chontales and Boaco play no small part in the flavor of Nicaragua as a whole, from the cowboys, to the wide open sky, to the pre-Columbian relics and the small-town lifestyle. This entire region is firmly off the beaten path, so expect to be the only tourist for miles in most of the towns and sights. Boaco is known for its exceptional dairy products and makes a reasonable base for treks or drives into the hills between Boaco and Matagalpa Departments. Juigalpa is a much bigger and more economically active urban center that remains an overgrown cowboy town. Here you’ll rub shoulders with cowboys and campesinos (country folk) sporting their cleanest boots on their twice-a-month trip to the city to pick up supplies, strike a few deals, and do their errands.
Juigalpa’s patron saint celebrations in mid-August are among the best in Nicaragua and draw a crowd from as far away as Managua to enjoy the elaborate bull-riding competitions, horsemanship contests, and traditional dances, all under the magnificent backdrop of the Amerrisque mountain range. Originally settled by the Chontal people, these mountains remain little explored, and the continual discovery of ancient statues and sculpture imply the grandeur of the mysteries this area still retains.
Planning Your Time in Chontales
Many travelers treat this region as an uninteresting and unavoidable expanse to be traveled through as quickly as possible en route to Nicaragua’s Río San Juan or the Atlantic coast. But travelers who tire of the Granada hype and the overwhelming presence of other foreigners will be amply rewarded with a trip to Chontales.
How much time you’ll need depends on your inclination for adventure and ability to forgo some creature comforts. You could easily spend a day and a night in one of many quiet agrarian towns like Boaco, Camoapa, and Cuapa. The attraction is simply a bucolic, rural lifestyle. Most towns in the area have some basic accommodation and small local sites of historical, cultural, or geologic interest. Add an additional day if the bouldering and hiking opportunities in Cuisaltepe or Cuapa whet your appetite, and another day on horseback in San José de los Remates (you can even continue on the little-traveled high road to Matagalpa).
Public buses connect most of the region. In some of the smaller towns there are only a few buses that run daily, and it’s best to ask around because they don’t always run on schedule. If there isn’t a bus at the time you want, you can get a ride or take a taxi out to the highway (empalme de Boaco for Boaco, empalme San Fransico for Camoapa), where buses pass constantly between San Carlos, Rama, Juigalpa, Boaco, and Managua.
Nestled snugly in a 379-meter-high notch in the Amerrisque mountains, Boaco is a departmental capital and an agriculture center whose soil struggles to support both cattle and corn. Modern Boaco (the city’s name is a combination of Aztec and Sumu words that mean “land of the sorcerers”) is the third incarnation of the city. In the 18th and 19th century, two previous Boacos were built and destroyed in the same place.
The modern city of Boaco began on a hilltop and crept down the hillside into a valley. It literally has two different levels, the elevated city center and lower commercial sector, which earned it the nickname The City of Two Floors. (The fact that, compared to the rest of Nicaragua, Boaco has an unusual number of houses that have two or more floors reinforces the moniker.)
During the Contra War, Boaco was spared from direct battles. But in the hillsides that surround, the city violence dislodged countless campesinos, all of whom eventually found their way to the city of Boaco seeking refuge. Many decided to stay, and Boaco has swelled over the past 20 years, faster than it can provide for its new inhabitants, most of whom occupy neighborhoods of small concrete homes around the outskirts of the city.
The last big settlement on the road southeast to El Rama (or south to San Carlos and the Río San Juan), Juigalpa is a prosperous city of 70,000 cattle ranchers and farmers. Juigalpa bears the traces of its indigenous roots in elaborate statuary and other archaeological pieces still being discovered in the mountains east of town. Juigalpa in Aztec means “great city” or “spawning grounds of the black snails.” Its first inhabitants were likely the Chontal, displaced from the Rivas area by the stronger Nicaraos. They resisted the Spanish occupation fiercely in the 16th century, rising up no fewer than 14 times to attack the installations of the colonial government.
Upon Nicaragua’s independence, the land that comprised Chontales and Boaco was controlled by Granada. In 1858, the Department of Chontales was formed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, travelers bound for the gold mines of Santo Domingo and La Libertad crossed Lake Cocibolca, landed in Puerto Díaz, and spent a night in Juigalpa before proceeding.
This is a perfect winter day on the Colorado Plateau: it’s cold but sunny, and there’s new white snow on the sandstone and the evergreens. The red dirt is wet, the washes trickle with melting ice, and the big blue sky shines clean and cloudless.
And yet the bucket-list parks in the region around northern Arizona and southern Utah, perennial stops on the great Southwest Road Trip, remain largely summer destinations. From December though March, visitor numbers at Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park plunge with the average temperatures.
In August 2015, at the the height of Grand Canyon’s busy season, 793,412 people visited the South Rim. In January, the park’s least busy month, that number plummeted to 191,781. The National Park Service’s visitor reports show that Grand Canyon’s more humble neighbors experienced a similarly lonely winter. Zion recorded 479,538 visitors in July 2015, but in January had just 78,318. Bryce Canyon welcomed 305,465 in June 2015, and a mere 21,949 in January.
I was in Zion in July 2015. The lines of cars and the chaotic, overfull parking lot outside the park gates made me question my choices. I visited Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon that summer as well. At Grand Canyon, I had to wait in a makeshift line to take a photograph outside the Lookout Studio. Hiking the popular trails in Bryce Canyon, I was never alone.
While none of these minor irritations, which are all part of today’s National Park experience, ruined my visit, we all fantasize about having the place to ourselves. According to the numbers, you could come close during the winter months.
For those who seek solitude and tranquility, and who don’t mind wearing winter coats, gloves, and knit caps, it’s worth considering a winter trip to these otherwise busy and stressful parks. It will be cold; it will be wet and windy, and it will probably snow. But there will also be many of those perfect winter days.
About the Weather
Grand Canyon National Park
Average winter highs on the South Rim (the North Rim is closed Nov–May), which sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level in a pine forest, typically range from the high forties to the mid fifties. There’ll be an even colder wind in your face much of the time, and intermittent rain and snow storms throughout the season. There’s often snow on ground but it melts quickly when the sun comes out, which it does most days.
Zion National Park
Probably the best of the three parks for a winter visit, Zion is in the “Dixie” region of southern Utah, which is renowned for its temperate climate. Expect high temperatures in the fifties and sixties, rain and sometimes snow, and rising, dangerous waterways.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Winter visitors to Bryce Canyon, which sits at around 8,000 feet above sea level, should expect very cold temperatures and snow. Highs range from the thirties to the forties. The park’s famous hoodoos are often covered in a thick layer of snow, but the roads are kept plowed and safe.
Always check road conditions before traveling to these parks during the winter months. For road conditions inside Grand Canyon National Park, call 928/638-7496. For conditions outside the park, check with the Arizona Department of Transportation (888/411-7623). The Utah Department of Transportation (801/964-6000) provides updates on road conditions around Zion and Bryce.
The Sea-to-Sky Highway, one of western Canada’s most stunning roadways, connects Vancouver to the year-round outdoor mecca of Whistler.
Just a two-hour drive, it’s perfect for a day trip or as part of a longer exploration. Whistler offers not just North America’s largest snow sports resort but also plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, paddling the glacier-fed lakes, and exploring the region’s First Nations heritage.
Between Whistler and Vancouver, the town of Squamish is a hot spot for outdoor activities, including excellent hiking and the region’s best white-water rafting. For those looking for gentler adventures, Squamish’s Sea-to-Sky Gondola delivers stellar mountain views and access to mountaintop hiking trails.
Driving to Whistler from Vancouver
Allow about two hours to make the 75-mile (120-kilometer) drive between Vancouver and Whistler along the spectacular Sea-to-Sky Highway.
From downtown Vancouver, take West Georgia Street to the Lions Gate Bridge. Watch the signs carefully as you approach Stanley Park en route to the bridge to stay in the proper lane. The center lane on the three-lane bridge reverses its travel direction at different times of day, typically creating two travel lanes into the city in the morning and two travel lanes toward the North Shore during the afternoon rush hour.
After you cross the Lions Gate Bridge, bear left toward Marine Drive west/Highway 1/Highway 99. Enter Marine Drive and stay in the far right lane to take the first right onto Taylor Way (the sign says “Whistler”). Follow Taylor Way up the hill, and exit left onto Highway 1 west. Continue on Highway 1 until it merges with Highway 99 (Sea-to-Sky Hwy.). Stay on Highway 99 through Squamish and into Whistler.
Driving to Whistler from Kamloops
If you’re driving to Whistler from Kamloops or from points farther east in the Canadian Rockies, follow Highway 1 west. At Kamloops, continue west on Highway 1 to Cache Creek, where you make a sharp right turn onto Highway 97 north, following the signs for “BC-99/Prince George/Lillooet.” When Highways 97 and 99 meet, take Highway 99 west, which will take you through Lillooet, Pemberton, and on into Whistler. Kamloops to Whistler is 185 miles (295 kilometers), a four-hour drive.
Driving to Whistler from Vancouver Island (via Ferry)
If you’re traveling between Vancouver Island and Whistler, you don’t have to go through the city of Vancouver. Take the B.C. Ferries (888/223-3779) service from Nanaimo’s Departure Bay Terminal to Horseshoe Bay, which is on the mainland northwest of Vancouver. The Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay Ferry (one-way adults $16.90, ages 5-11 $8.45, cars $55.40, bikes $2) takes one hour and 40 minutes.
The Departure Bay Terminal (680 Trans-Canada Hwy., Nanaimo) is two miles (3 kilometers) north of downtown Nanaimo.
From Horseshoe Bay, drive north on Highway 99 (Sea-to-Sky Hwy.). It’s 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler; allow about 75-90 minutes for the drive.
From late June through early September, ferries between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay generally make eight or nine trips daily, with six or seven daily runs the rest of the year; check the B.C. Ferries website for the seasonal schedule.
The hydropathy craze of the mid-1800s began when Vincenz Priessnitz, the son of a farmer, with no medical training whatsoever, established a water-cure clinic in the town of Gräfenberg, located on an Austrian mountain that’s now part of the Czech Republic. The clinic became so popular that British doctors replicated it in the area of Malvern Hills in the West Midlands of England.
Included in T.S. Oliver’s Taking the Cure
The springs at Malvern were renowned for their purity, but the quality of the drinking water was only part of the reason that well-to-do patients paid large sums to seek treatment there for arthritis, gout, kidney ailments, and nervous disorders. Although there wasn’t any scientific basis for using water as a physical therapy, guests became convinced that it helped them.
The wet-sheet treatment, the upper and lower douches, and the plunge bath were only some of the therapies that doctors at Malvern’s hydropathy clinic recommended. In Ruler of the Night, Thomas De Quincey becomes subjected to the extremes of the wet-sheet method as a way of curing him of his opium addiction. Meanwhile, a killer stalks one of the clinic’s guests.
There are various ways to reach Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You can take the Inca Trail or the Salcantay route, ride the train from Ollantaytambo (90 minutes) or from near Cusco (2.5 hours), take the Inca Jungle Trail, or take the bus through Santa Teresa. In Aguas Calientes, there are frequent bus shuttles to Machu Picchu, though some choose the two-hour forest hike that cuts across the road’s switchbacks. Once inside Machu Picchu, the only way to get around is by foot.
Taking the Train to Aguas Calientes
The breakup of the longtime PeruRail monopoly has so far failed to bring down prices, and there is no escaping that the train is expensive by backpacker standards. Expect to pay US$75 one-way (US$120 round-trip). Before booking train service to Machu Picchu or asking your hotel to book trains for you, check the websites of the companies.
Inca Rail (Portal de Panes St. 105, Plaza de Armas, Cusco, tel. 084/58-1860) has two trains that offer a number of daily departures from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. The Machu Picchu Train leaves Ollantaytambo daily at 7:20am, arriving in Aguas Calientes 90 minutes later. It leaves for Ollantaytambo on the return trip at 4:12pm. Prices vary according to time but are approximately US$75 one-way.
The second train, Inca Train, offers three daily departures from Ollantaytambo at 6:40am, 11:15am, and 4:36pm, as well as three daily departures from Aguas Calientes at 8:30am, 2:30pm, and 7pm. The trains have an executive class (US$50 one-way) and a first class (US$75 one-way).
The traditional option is PeruRail (Av. Pachacútec, Cusco, tel. 084/58-1414), which offers train service from Ollantaytambo, Pachar (about an hour and a half from Cusco), and Poroy (near Cusco) to Aguas Calientes. The price varies depending on the station and train; the company offers the Expedition (US$140-240 round-trip, US$70 one-way), the Vistadome (US$160-260 round-trip, US$90 one-way), and the luxury Hiram Bingham service (US$588 round-trip, US$334 one-way). The Expedition train is nearly as comfortable as the Vistadome, with large, soft seats and plenty of legroom. Food for sale includes sandwiches (US$4) and candy bars (US$2). The perks of the Vistadome include large viewing windows in the ceilings, shows put on by train attendants (including fashion walks to promote alpaca clothing), luxurious seats, lights snacks and beverages, and live Andean music.
The Hiram Bingham service is in a whole different league. A full brunch is served on the ride from Poroy (15 minutes outside Cusco) to Machu Picchu, where guests are treated to a deluxe ruins tour and a full tea at the Sanctuary Lodge. On the ride home, predinner pisco sours are served in the elegant dark-wood bar, accompanied by a live band and dancing. A gourmet four-course dinner follows at your private table, accompanied by a selection of wines. Afterwards, there is live music and dancing for those with energy. Hands down, this is the most luxurious train service in Latin America. If it feels like the Orient Express, that’s because it is—PeruRail has been operated by Orient-Express Ltd. since the late 1990s.
All trains depart from Ollantaytambo or Pachar except the Hiram Bingham service. The Hiram Bingham luxury train avoids the famous (or infamous) switchbacks out of Cusco by leaving from the Poroy station, which is a 15-minute drive from Cusco. Its bus departs Cusco at 8:10am. The train leaves Poroy at 9:40am and arrives in Aguas Calientes at 12:30pm. On the return, the train departs Aguas Calientes at 5:50pm and gets to Poroy at 8:50pm. The bus returns to Cusco at 10pm.
The Cusco-Machu Picchu train crosses high, desolate plains before descending to meet the Urubamba Valley. Once past Ollantaytambo, the rail enters a gorge that grows narrower and deeper as it continues its descent. Look for occasional glimpses of snow-covered Verónica (5,750 meters) to the right. At kilometer 88 there is a modern bridge built on Inca foundations. As the vegetation and the air grow thicker, the train descends into what the Peruvians call the ceja de selva (eyebrow of the jungle), and the Río Urubamba starts crashing over house-sized boulders. The train continues until reaching Aguas Calientes.
Bus Journey from Santa Teresa
The elaborate bus ride to Machu Picchu via Santa Teresa is hardly worth it unless you are really counting your pennies. From the Terminal de Santiago in Cusco, take a bus to Santa María (six hours, US$3). From Santa María, it is a two-hour bus ride to Santa Teresa. From there, shared taxis called colectivos will take you across the river to Oroya, where you can take a 5:30pm train to Aguas Calientes (US$8), or where you can walk three hours to the town. No matter what, if you choose this route, you will need to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, which may put another dent in your pocket.
Route 66 through Missouri was patched together from rutted roads, farm to market routes, and Osage Indian migratory paths.
In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase opened Missouri to western settlement and the Lewis and Clark expedition, which started here, symbolized the entrance to the New Frontier. Other seminal trails that originated here were the Overland, Oregon, and Santa Fe. Missouri also has a rich Civil War history. In 1858, the U.S. government installed telegraph lines along the Osage Indian trail and called it the “Old Wire Road.” This critical route was used for communication and the delivery of supplies during the Civil War and eventually paved the way for Route 66.
The path was laid, but the roads were made of wooden planks that quickly rotted and made travel a miserable experience. The first automobiles appeared in Missouri in 1891, and within 20 years there were more than 16,000 cars on its rickety roads. In 1920, the “Get Missouri Out of the Mud” campaign allocated $60 million to improve the roads. By 1931, the entire Route 66 stretch through Missouri was paved; it was the third state (preceded by Illinois and Kansas) along the Mother Road to turn to smooth asphalt.
During the Depression, federal funds were used to re-route Route 66 along major thruways in an effort to boost tourism and commerce. Even though Route 66 had become one of the busiest highways in the nation, the Federal government considered it obsolete because it didn’t meet the road building standards issued under the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Compared to the success of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes, Route 66 fell short. Denser concrete was added to handle the heavy traffic, but once I-44 was underway in 1956, Route 66 quickly became a distant memory. In fact, the original Route 66 signs between St. Louis and Joplin were removed as early as 1977, eight years before the official decommissioning of the road.
For approximately 300 miles, large segments of Route 66 remain intact through 11 Missouri counties. This road trip drives over lush rolling hills and past roadside churches, quaint towns, and pristine farmland to historic landmarks restored with the help of the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Program, including the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba and the Boots Motel in Carthage.
Planning Your Time
If you use your time wisely, you can make it across Missouri in two days—but there is a lot to do and see. Start the first day in St. Louis and head west about 216 miles to spend the night in Springfield, a drive of about 4-5 hours. The second day will eventually see you cross three states off your Route 66 bucket list as you exit through Missouri through Joplin, zip along the 13-mile stretch in Kansas, and end in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In Missouri, Route 66 was re-routed more times than in any other state. After the Depression, Springfield, Joplin, and Rolla added alternate routes, but the most convoluted changes were in the St. Louis area, where Route 66 branches off into six different roadways west of the Mississippi River.
If you’re pressed for time, I-44 offers an alternate option for speedy transport between towns. It’s best to drive this portion of Route 66 during the spring or the fall, since winter roads can be icy and the summers can be muggy. Although you’ll be driving through the some remote areas of the Ozarks, there are several towns with gas stations en route, so keep the tank at least half-full and you’ll be fine.
Most travelers to Peru think there is just one option for trekking to Machu Picchu—the four-day Inca Trail hike—but now there are at least four ways to hike to the Inca citadel. The following treks are the best ways to make a pilgrimage to the lost city of the Inca.
Planning the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is the only trek in Peru where all trekkers must hike with a licensed guide and where there is a limit of 500 people per day. These rules are a result of the Inca Trail’s popularity and the impact that tens of thousands of trekkers have had on its stone trail and the surrounding ecosystem. For the Inca Trail, your only option is to sign up with a licensed agency—and sign up early, as the Inca Trail fills up six months or more ahead of time.
As a result of these new rules, Inca Trail prices have increased from as low as US$90 in 2000 to a minimum of US$500 today. Local agencies no longer offer last-minute Inca Trail trips; bookings are now done almost exclusively online as the trail’s licensed operators have to confirm all reservations several months in advance. Check the official departure availability. If a date you want is already booked, it’s still worth checking with agencies, as they often have cancellations.
Planning Other Treks
Any other trek in Peru, including the Salcantay alternative route to Machu Picchu, has a couple of planning options. The easiest, and most expensive, is to sign up with a reputable agency and let it take care of all the details. But you can also custom-design a trip and then hire an agency to take care of logistics such as transport, food, lodging, porters, cooks, and certified guides.
If you can find a reliable trekking or climbing guide, available for US$80-110 per day, he or she can organize all these details for you for an extra fee. Or you can do it all on your own, which is complicated to negotiate properly but possible if you speak Spanish and are experienced at trekking.
When to Go
The traditional trekking season in Peru is May-August, but the best weather is June and July. Avoid the last week in July, when Peru’s hotels are often booked solid for the Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) celebration around July 28.
On the Inca Trail, you will encounter fewer people during the months of April, May, September, and October. These shoulder months are the best times to trek in Peru, as they are outside of both the rainiest months (November-March) and the busiest tourist months (June-August). April and May, and even March if you don’t mind an occasional rainstorm, are especially scenic because the rainy season has just ended and the highlands are lush and green.
Plan for at least 3-4 days to acclimatize before heading out on a trek anywhere in Andean Peru. The Inca Trail has two passes of approximately 4,000 meters, and you will tackle these far better if you are physically ready to do so.
Acclimatize by sleeping low and hiking high. A great way to acclimatize in the Cusco area is to spend your first few days in the Sacred Valley and then hike up out of the valley floor from places like Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo.
Agencies and Guides
The motto “you get what you pay for” is especially true when it comes to hiring a trekking agency or guide. Go with an established, well-recommended agency. If you skimp on an agency, you can be guaranteed the agency will either skimp on you (poor food, no bathroom tent), the porters (low wages, no health care), or the environment (pit latrines, no regard for Leave No Trace principles).
On Your Own
Because of the altitude, most groups end up hiring a porter (mule driver) who carries loads on donkeys or llamas. It’s hard to enjoy the scenery while hiking with a full pack at Peru’s altitudes, no matter how fit you are. There are other reasons to hire a porter: It is a great cultural experience, helps the local economy, and makes your trip safer—porters often know the routes as well (or better) than a mountain guide, provide evacuation support, and can serve as camp guards.
Porters will expect you to pay their wages the day that they return to the main town, usually the day after the end of your trek. This means that for a four-day trek, you will pay the porter five days of wages.
Groups usually hire a cook, too. Peru’s cooks pack in fruit, vegetables, sacks of rice, and often a live chicken or two. Pay the people you hire fairly and treat them with respect. You are their employer, so you are ultimately responsible for their health and safety. These are some standard daily wages: US$10 for a porter and US$8 for every mule, US$15 for camp guardian, US$25 for a porter, and US$25-30 for a cook. Also, you are expected to provide shelter and food for your cook and porters.
If you are on your own, you will have to negotiate the entry and grazing fees that Andean communities increasingly charge trekking groups that pass through their lands. The fees change rapidly and, in general, are relatively minor. Grazing fees are generally around US$2-5 per horse. Enquire with an agency about fees ahead of time.
Maps and Gear
The best place to get maps is the South American Explorers Club in Cusco (Pardo 847, tel. 084/24-5484) or in the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima (Enrique Palacios 956, tel. 01/444-2150).
Most people who are trekking or climbing on their own bring all their own gear, but high-quality equipment can be rented for affordable prices in Cusco and Huaraz. Email agencies ahead of time for reservations and prices.
Peru’s tropical sun is intense, so bring strong sunscreen, a sun hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and a long-sleeved shirt. Most trekkers use trekking poles for descending the scree slopes and steep trails. The weather is cold, but extreme storms are rare in the dry months from May to September. Bringing plenty of layers, including waterproof ones, is essential. On most Peru treks, sleeping bags rated for 0°F and thermal long underwear or fleece pants are fine.
Pretty much all supplies, with the exception of freeze-dried food, are available in markets in Cusco. You’ll find pasta, powdered soup, cheese, powdered milk, beef jerky, dried fruit, and more. White gas (bencina blanca) is sold at hardware stores along Calle Plateros in Cusco and at numerous places in Huaraz and Caraz. Get a shop recommendation from an agency or gear store to ensure you find the highest quality gas, and fire up your stove before you go to make sure everything works. Remember that airlines sometimes reject travelers with camp stoves and fuel bottles that have been previously used. It’s best to travel with a new stove and bottles, if at all possible.
Hazards and Precautions
While the vast majority of trekkers to the Cusco and Huaraz areas never encounter any safety threats, the more popular trekking areas have seen an increase in theft. If you leave your camp for a day hike, make sure to leave behind a camp guardian, such as a porter. Minimize the impact of theft by bringing the minimum of valuables and only enough cash for the duration of your trek.
The main hazards of trekking in Peru, however, are straightforward: sun, altitude, and cold. If you protect yourself from the sun, acclimatize properly, and have the right gear, you will have a great time.