Monday, April 30, 2007

Peru Trekking: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I just returned to the United States from one of our new trips launched this year, Trekking in Peru. The lost city of Machu Picchu is by far the most famous travel destination in Peru and the four-day Inca Trail is known worldwide as one of the greatest adventure travel experiences on the globe.

This was an Exploratory Adventure for Zephyr, which means we were contracting with a local outfit and, although we spent many hours researching the destination and working with the local outfitter to create a fantastic trip, I had not actually been on the Inca Trail before myself. I must admit I was a bit leery of the popularity of the Inca Trail and what that would do to the experience. In fact, I had already scheduled to spend extra time after the trip to research a new, alternative trek.

Our group of 17 met in Lima, took a flight as a group to Cusco, and immediately ventured into the Sacred Valley of the Incas which runs along the Urubamba River between Cusco and Machu Picchu. We spent several days in the valley, visiting Incan ruins, taking short hikes, and eating way too much Peruvian food. The real goal, however, for these two days is to acclimatize to the high altitude of the Peruvian highlands in preparation for our trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

The Peruvians realize they have a tourism gem in Machu Picchu and an adventure travel gem in the Inca Trail. While there are thousands of miles of Incan trails in Peru, to step onto the "Inca Trail" which runs from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu requires a permit. The government limits permits to 500 per day.

500 per day sounds like a huge number to me and was the chief cause of my concern that the Inca Trail was over-hyped and over-visited. I envisioned massive numbers of people tripping over themselves on the trail, competing for limited camping spots at night, and generally ruining the experience.

It wasn't that way at all.

All trekkers are now required to be with a local guide, which is not only great for local employment but an excellent way to make sure trekkers have as little impact on the local environment as possible. In addition, most everyone follows the system of "luxury trekking" with porters, cooks, and camp staff. The upshot is that of the 500 permits per day, perhaps only 220 actually go to trekkers.

Our group had two guides (Juan and Santiago), a cook, assistant cook, camp assistant, and over 20 porters! This was indeed luxury camping, with a cooking tent, dining tent, tea in the morning delivered to our tent doors, hot water to wash each afternoon, and delicious meals served three times per day. I think all of us were wowed by this, including those who trekked with Zephyr in Tibet (this was even more luxurious) but especially those who were new to camping.

We in the Zephyr office spent a lot of time finding the right local partner for our Peru trip and we ended up with one of the best around. Our local operator is small, run by a great guy who treats our groups with priority importance, and has a few practices that are simply superior to other local companies. Among my favorite was this: Each morning on the trail, while the other trekkers left early to seemingly compete for first place, our group took our time, enjoyed breakfast, and was almost always the last to leave the designated campsite. This meant the large number of trekkers was at the worst of times not an issue and for most of the trip invisible to our group.

That left the Inca Trail practically to ourselves. The Trail presents its main challenge on Day 2, rising up to Dead Woman Pass at almost 14,000 feet in elevation. This was daunting to some and a challenge for many. After that, it passes ruin after ruin, each somewhat unique and always fascinating. Juan and Santiago took us through each ruin and we learned about the Inca's life, culture, and architecture. The views throughout were incredible and the trail itself is amazing, a combination of local dirt paths and the fitted stonework of the Inca masons. Camp life was fun, consisting of great meals one would never expect in the middle of the wild and stimulating conversations among our group and with our guides. No words I write here or photos I can post will do justice to the experience.

By the fourth day, everyone was a little sore, a little tired, and ready for a shower and bed. We made a push up one last hill through the Sun Gate for our first view of Machu Picchu. Hanging out above the lost city for over an hour, we took in the view of this amazing place. To be honest, however, I think many of our group felt as if Machu Picchu was the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, nice but not necessary. I felt that way myself.

We had just spent four days on the Inca Tail. We had strained and perspired, enjoyed wonderful views and explored amazing ruins, bonded with each other, and in essence lived the highs and lows not just of the trail but of life itself. We had lived the Inca Trail for four days and I, for one, thought of it not anymore as a great adventure travel destination but as a means to understanding the Incas and Peru itself.

We did visit Machu Picchu the next day and then spent time in wonderful Cusco but the experience of the trail remained with us as the highlight of the trip. The Inca Trail is difficult and not for everyone but any concerns I had about it being overcrowded or past its adventure prime vanished in the mists of the Andean mountains. The Inca Trail is indeed one of the great adventures on earth. We'll be back next year. (Thanks to Janet Hoffman for the first photo.)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Self-Guided Vacations in Italy

I spent 17 days in Italy this past month helping to create Zephyr's newest business division: Self-Guided Adventures in Italy. This is a totally new concept for us and a fairly new concept in the travel world, so I'll explain.

Self-guided adventures are sort of a middle ground between taking a guided tour and going it alone. On a Zephyr Self-Guided Adventure, you will go to our website and select your activity (biking, hiking, or driving), your desired route in Italy, and your preferred travel date. We then book your hotels for you, give you detailed route directions, and provide you with a bike on biking tours. We also have a local representative who will meet you upon your arrival and help you in case of emergency. In short, we make it easy for you to have a vacation in Italy on your own.

The really cool thing is that we are taking the self-guided concept to new levels. We spent much of our time in Italy videotaping our local guide, Giovanni, as he explained the sites, culture, food, and wine of the area. We will place these on "personal video players" and loan them to our self-guided participants. It's like having your own e-Giovanni with you as you travel through Italy!

What's more, we are converting our printed route directions for the driving tour into a GPS system that will work in your car, just like at home. That way, you'll never get lost driving in Italy, which we know is a big concern of those who consider driving there.

Self-guided tours are not for everyone. If you don't have a group with whom to travel or prefer the support of a van and professional guides, a guided tour is a much better option. In plain English, if you aren't sure you could make it to the next hotel on your own, best to go on a guided Zephyr tour! However, if you are confident in your abilities, have your own group of travelers, or want flexibility in your dates, this is a good system.

We are starting only in Tuscany and Umbria, because we know it so well. Next year? How about Self-Guided Adventures in France! Check out the website: