For as long as I can remember Machu Picchu has held the #1 spot on my travel list. Every year I end up somewhere else but there. I had barely been back a week from my six weeks in Australia and New Zealand when LAN airlines advertised a $499 RT special to Lima from LA. How could I say no? I even convinced my step-mom Diana, who has never been out of the country, that she needed to finally get a stamp in her passport and accompany me on a trek to Machu Picchu. Luckily she didn’t take much convincing!
The ticket was the easy part. Not easy was sifting through hundreds of reviews to find a reputable and locally responsible tour operator. My head was spinning after a day of research and too many tales of bad trips with drunken or incompetent guides. We were already too late for the Inca trail: permits sell out 6 months in advance and our trip was less than 3 months away. And we didn’t have time for a longer 5-6 day trek since Diana had only a week of vacation. This wasn’t going to be my usual month-long trip.
Randomly, I picked up an old National Geographic mentioning the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu as a fabulous alternative to the Inca Trail that may in fact, be even better. It’s rated as one of the top 15 treks in the world and known for being tough, scenic, and minus the Inca Trail crowds. With Diana being an avid hiker and me being the crazy person I am, we were instantly intrigued with the idea of a trek that ascends to over 15,000′ in altitude.
The Salkantay was built for a 5-day excursion so not many companies offered a 4-day trek option. After a bit more research we finally settled on Quechuas Expeditions. They had a bit higher prices but only positive reviews on a number of forums. They had a reputation for treating their guides and porters very well and responded quickly to our email questions.
On Wednesday, April 4th, we packed our bags and arrived in Lima at midnight after a mostly smooth, easy 8-hr flight from LA. Given the hour and Lima’s seedy reputation, we arranged for airport pickup from the 1900 Backpacker Hostel where we were staying. Definitely well advised as Lima at 1am was a bit sketchy to say the least, especially in the neighborhood we were headed to. Most hostels and hotels will arrange free pickups. Ours arranged the pickup but it cost us 45 soles, about $17. Definitely arrange airport pickup. Lima seemed full of stories of con artist cabbies.
Our driver was courteous, pointing out a few landmarks and offering us Lima trivia while we drove through the slums listening to the BeeGees. I could see the look of uncertainty on Diana’s face when we arrived at the hostel – it was nothing more than a padlocked, gated door on a dark, questionable street. She whispered to me, “Uh, are WE going in THERE?”
Once inside though, the hostel was basic and clean and the night staff polite. Our room had a large open window overlooking a courtyard a floor beneath us. I welcomed the air due to the humid warmth of Lima. Diana, however, thought it was an invitation for a would-be rapist to somehow climb up and get us in the middle of the night. I could see her disbelief as I popped in my earplugs and quickly went to sleep. She didn’t sleep a wink though, freaked out about the window and of course, it was her first international trip. Ahhh, it brought back memories of my first trip, terrified and wondering what the hell I was doing! I figured she’d get used to it in no time.
My only negative review of the 1900 Backpacker Hostel was its noise. At multiple times in the night it seemed to be happy hour right outside our door. Luckily our stay was only a few hours as we were up bright and early at 6am to catch a flight to Cusco (find more at Aerobell.com).
We hope to have enough time to do a quick stopover in Miraflores and see a bit more of Lima when we return from Cusco next Wednesday. The 1900 Backpackers Hostel seems safe and clean and convenient to the airport (about a 25-min cab ride) but the area surrounding is definitely smoggy, polluted, slummy, and not too inviting. I was quite surprised at the amount of traffic and goings-on for 1am on a weeknight. I’ve been a lot of places and so far Lima is on my short list of places I really wouldn’t feel comfortable perusing alone. I’ll try to hold judgment until we’ve seen more, but so far it lived up to its dirty, seedy reputation.