Machu Picchu on a Budget

I took this trip several years ago, but think the information is useful enough to go ahead with a delayed post of it. I shared the details with a friend, who used the same hotel and trek company, more recently, and loved it. Whether or not you plan to hike some version of the Inca Trail, visits to Cusco and Machu Picchu are so worth it. I did this for quite a reasonable price considering the level of service received… naturally, I want to share the info.

You’ll most likely fly into Lima, then connect to Cusco.

Tip: schedule the flight to Cusco early in the morning, when the chance of cancellation for wind conditions is less likely.

Less wind over the Andes = less scary

Cusco is a beautiful little city, set at a gentle 11,000+ feet (3,400 m) of elevation. If you don’t live at that altitude, you WILL feel this. You might even wonder, “how the hell will I walk for 4 days like this?” It is possible to have that thought and still complete the Inca Trail hike. Diamox also helps with the elevation (see here for some drug info).


Beautiful Cusco

I stayed at a quaint hotel, called Encantada, on the outskirts of downtown Cusco. It was quiet, comfortable, and cozy, with warm and helpful staff. The location keeps you off the noisy streets of the city and also allows some time to practice walking up hills at a higher than normal elevation.

Breakfast is offered every morning and coca tea is always available in the lobby, which is more like an idyllic living room (with fireplace) than a hotel lobby.

There are plenty of restaurants, shops, and day hikes to keep you occupied and happy in Cusco for days. My main goal was to hike the Inca Trail, so I only planned for the “required” 2 days of acclimation before setting off. I wish I’d had more time to explore.

The hike

If you are relatively active and fit, you can do this hike… and should. I’m referring to the 3 night/4 day Inca Trail trek. There are tons of guide companies, of varying cost and amenities, from which to choose. After hours of reading reviews, I went with Llama Path–a porter and eco-friendly company that seemed to have smaller groups, happy customers, and were reasonably priced.

Our group of 8 also had 1 guide, a chef, and whole staff of porters tasked with carrying (and setting up/breaking down) camp. We saw other groups out there with at least 20 people in them. 8 was nice.


Our small group + our “red army”

At times, I felt as though I couldn’t take another step, even with the mound of coca leaves in my cheek, but we all made our way up countless steps, over an almost 14,000 foot pass (Dead Woman’s Pass–named because the mountain looks like a woman in repose, not because they’re terribly sexist), down through the jungle, only to go up again, and finally to Machu Picchu.


Day 2 is definitely the most trying with 2 high altitude passes

Somehow, the food they serve is actually really good. Perhaps it’s the combination of altitude and exhaustion, but I swear it was delicious, relatively speaking.  Each morning you’re awoken by one of the staff members bringing coca leaf tea to your tent in an effort to help with the altitude. It may or may not work.

The views are stunning and the hike is a wonderful experience which ends (obviously) at the breathtaking site of Machu Picchu. Once you’ve walked 4 days to get there, you do feel ever so slightly more entitled to it than the folks who took the train in, but there’s nothing to be done about them. When we arrived, however, the Machu Picchu from all the famous photos was not who greeted us…


A cloud-masked Machu Picchu

There is another peak to climb, called Huayna Picchu, that requires a separate ticket and does sell out. I missed the opportunity when I went, but heard the views are spectacular. If you want to walk up another hill, buy that ticket as soon as you can upon arrival.

I highly recommend doing this hike if you’re physically able. Walking through such a beautiful part of the world, en route to the magical place of Machu Picchu is quite rewarding… and worth it. You’ll pass many Inca sites along the trail as well. After touring MP, a bus takes the group to Aguas Calientes, where you can explore, eat, and wait for your scheduled train back to the bus, which takes you to Cusco. The last day is a long one, worth it, but long.

Without further adieu, more pictures:



Day 1



Dead Woman’s Pass did not harm this woman!


Day 3 Inca ruins



The alpacas are adorable and everywhere


Who doesn’t do yoga at MP?



A far less dangerous perch than it appears


The End!

Burning Man, part 2

Blogs about burning man, many of them written by tip-giving first timers, are a dime a dozen. And here’s another…

I now believe you cannot, or should not, go to Burning Man just once. I spent the whole week trying to figure it out and survive. Don’t get me wrong, I experienced many amazing things, but I missed SO MUCH (umm, like the Thunder Dome). The greeters– see part 1— hand out booklets with events for the week that I Never. Even. Opened.

I saw tons of art, made it to 1 of my 2 ice/Arctica shifts (tisk tisk), attended countless weddings, danced a lot, but didn’t even scratch the surface.

Approximately 70,000 men, women, and children show up with everything they need to survive for a week in harsh conditions. They also bring something, whether tangible or not, to share with the community, without expectations for what they’ll receive. It’s a beautiful thing. Yes, there is nudity. Yes, there are drugs. Yes, there is alcohol. But in my week at burning man, I didn’t see anyone vomit (thank god!), nor did I see one belligerent person. That’s more than I can say for most concerts, or even a night at a crowded bar. I read somewhere that, while it exists, Black Rock City is bigger than downtown San Francisco. Then it disappears. Remarkable.

It’s a bit cliché to say that you can’t truly grasp BM without going, but it’s true. You can’t imagine the scale of the art, the beauty of the participants, or the misery of a dust storm day, without experiencing it.

For newbies, we were well-prepared, but took notes for potential future burns.

We did:

-Rent an escape campervan in San Francisco. The bed was comfy enough and we opted to keep it set up all the time, basically rendering the van a bedroom with a kitchen off the back. This meant we needed a place to keep our bags and change.

-We also rented a shade structure from the van company thinking it was more like a tent. It was actually just a bottomless, screened in shade tent. Luckily we had a tarp to create a floor and cover one side to block sun (and allow for a tiny amount of privacy, on 1 of 4 sides). It did not keep out any dust.


We’d change:

-If renting a van, we’d do a much better job of blacking out the windows for sleeping in. Once the sun came up our van turned into a greenhouse.

-A large tent with shade and an air mattress would suffice, and be cheaper than the van.

-I’d base myself in Reno because coming from San Fran/Sacramento added time and stress. Decompressing there would also be a nice change.

-You can never have enough wipes. Never. We felt squeaky clean with just wipes and decided it was WAY more trouble than it was worth to use the solar shower, which requires a plan for evaporating gray water. A complete wipe down, followed by lotion, before bed is enough to feel fresh.

-Bring more pickles. You I can never have enough.

-Bring more whiskey. There is never enough.

-Particulate respirator masks would be nice. My dust cough still lingers…

-Cook food and freeze (to reheat on the Playa).

*Rumor has it you can fly from Reno to BRC for 300 very well spent dollars*

Forget all these logistics! Here are some tons of my favorite photos…

around dusk on day 1

around dusk on day 1

one of our Pollination BRC brides

one of our Pollination BRC brides photo by Sava Papos

fun times at camp

fun times at camp

tutu tuesday

tutu tuesday

the lotus photo by sava papos

the lotus
photo by sava papos

spring-loaded rockinghorses? yes, please!

spring-loaded rockinghorses? yes, please!

art through a dust storm

art through a dust storm photo by Sava Papos

playa art

playa art

BEAUTIFUL deep playa art

BEAUTIFUL deep playa art

sometimes you gotta dress like a bee and hand out honey sticks to weary passersby

sometimes you gotta dress like a bee and hand out honey sticks to weary passersby

what makes your heart sing? write it down and pin it on the slowly revolving heart. beautiful.

what makes your heart sing? write it down and pin it on the slowly revolving heart. beautiful.

the totem of confessions by michael garlington

the totem of confessions by michael garlington





the temple of promise

the temple of promise

the old woman who lived in a shoe?

the old woman who lived in a shoe?

en route to the burning of The Man

en route to the burning of The Man

the fireworks before the burn were some of the best i've ever seen

the fireworks before the burn were some of the best i’ve ever seen

it's nice when new friends wake you up on a chilly morning with fresh coffee

it’s nice when new friends wake you up on a chilly morning with fresh coffee

heading to the temple burn, off in the distance

heading to the temple burn, off in the distance

the temple burn is very somber, very quiet, and very moving

the temple burn is very somber, very quiet, and very moving. it marks the end of burning man.

The Road to Burning Man (part 1 of 2 BM posts)

I am a planner by nature. I love to make plans– for trips, lunches, weekend getaways, even little things like life. Burning Man is a great exercise for someone like me. One of the 10 principles is “radical self reliance” and when the goal is a full week in the middle-of-nowhere desert of northern Nevada, at least one planner in the group is a necessity.

My friend/adventure accomplice and I were definitely well equipped for first timers, but if I’ve learned anything about life Burning Man, it’s that you can never prepare for everything.

Our very long day started at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco,  where we picked up a jellyfish adorned campervan. IMG_8023

The trafficky drive, past my beloved wine country, to Sacramento was uneventful. A quick stop at a friend’s for miscellaneous supplies and off to Walmart we went.

Tasked with getting more food and supplies, the chaotic store– full of burners and completely picked over– created a high stress situation for this exhausted type-A person. We wanted nothing but to spend the last night of civilized luxury relaxing in our hotel with a bottle of wine, but were still frantically searching through big box store hell. Oh, the woes of BM prep.

Finally, with enough items checked off the list to finish in the morning, we proceeded to the jellyfish to de-MOOP (MOOP = matter out of place) our wares before heading to our riverside hotel oasis. Perhaps the most important of the 10 principles is to “leave no trace” on the playa. You pack out what you pack in, so it behooves you to minimize any unneeded packaging (aka potential MOOP) prior to setting off.

I plugged the address into waze in hopes of taking the fastest route possible. As soon as we pulled out of the burner-laden parking lot, I was directed into what appeared to be a construction zone. Much to my dismay, it was not a work zone, but a sobriety check! Now, bear in mind that we were both completely sober and not carrying 1 illegal item. That being said, WE WERE DRIVING A JELLYFISH VAN! A jellyfish van bearing no mark of the rental company. I was my normal no-nonsense self with the cop, but despite breaking no laws, was shaking slightly just knowing they could pull us over and search ol’ jelly (who was completely packed), further delaying aforementioned luxury and WINE. The Police officer seemed to stare into my soul while questioning me, though he must’ve been satisfied with that, and my answers, because he let us move along.

We made it to the Westin, but not without making a spectacle of ourselves by driving into the entry circle from the wrong side. Before you judge my driving, let me assure you that their circle is backwards and you enter from the left versus the right. Picture this: it’s approximately 9 pm on a Saturday night, at a hotel that shares its space with a popular restaurant. We pulled up the wrong way, had no room to turn  around, and paraded past all the fancy patrons who had come to enjoy their dinner on the river… with 1 jellyfish van and 2 incredibly weary travelers. We had a laugh with the bellmen and got ourselves checked in to our small slice of heaven.

Fast forward through our lovely night of room service, champagne, amazingly comfy beds, and our last hot showers for A WEEK. The following morning we were able to find the rest of our needed items and stock up on wine and whiskey.IMG_8029

Hitting the road at 1:15, we hoped to arrive in Black Rock City by 6 or 7 pm. The primary goal was to reach camp before dark. We made great time from Sacramento to Reno and our excitement heightened as we exited the highway onto Nevada State Route 447, a 2 lane road through Indian reservations, unbelievably rural “towns”, a whole lotta nothin’, and past Pyramid Lake. Before reaching any of that, we stopped at the first gas station to buy bike lights, a BM necessity for nighttime riding. Since it’s essential you get gas before going to Black Rock City, in the event you run into massive traffic jams during exodus, we got in line.

After perusing nearby gas prices (without looking too closely) on my trusty phone, we figured gas may be cheaper in the next “town”. Just a few miles down the road, the traffic seemed to build a bit. With Nixon, Nevada on the GPS, we planned to fuel up as we passed through. Mobile service was spotty when we came upon a store with a lot of activity and, of course, a line. We kept right on going towards Nixon. A couple of slow miles down the road, we regained GPS signal and realized that store/town was Nixon, and the only gas station for more than 50 miles. After some deliberation, and slowing traffic, we figured the best idea was to turn around.

With a full gas tank, empty bladders, and a couple of extra water jugs, we hit the road again… sort of. The rural, open road had transformed from a slow-moving line of cars to an occasionally shifting parking lot, all in about 20 minutes. We saw a lot of this:


The concept of making good time was gone. We would move for a few miles and then stop completely, turn off your engine type of stop, for 45 minutes to an hour. As we watched the sun set over Pyramid Lake


my dreams of arriving in Black Rock City before dark were dashed. The routine of driving a few miles and then stopping for at least an hour hit an all-time high of THREE HOURS at one point. Both of us tried to sleep. Both of us got out to meet our car neighbors. Both of us had to pee on the side of the road. As the hours droned on, and sleep eluded us, my throat (which always betrays me when I get worn out) grew more and more sore.

With each stop, we talked about how much we’d like to celebrate our first Burning Man with a bottle of champagne. A few cars around us were well into their celebrations, but my research told me that local law enforcement is NOT very pro-burner, so we opted to leave all booze tucked away and just keep truckin’ (thanks Jerry).

FINALLY , we arrived at the gate around 2 am and were greeted by… another line.


All those brake lights indicated another 2 hours of waiting. We began to feel the dust infiltrate our lungs as our dreams of champagne shifted to just being horizontal in a bed. Once we made it past the ticket taker and van search, we were in line to be formally greeted. As is BM tradition, virgin burners are forced asked to get out of the car and roll around in the dust. We unenthusiastically obliged and were soon off to find our camp in the 9 o’clock plaza, at the rapid pace of 5 mph– the BRC, strictly enforced speed limit.

We found our new home easily and wedged the van into a corner of the slumbering camp before setting off for the porta-potties… at 4:30 AM!!! Now, I grew up showing horses and in barns. I have peed in porta-potties, horse trailers, horse stalls, the side of the road, the side of a ski slope, you name it. With this in mind, I feel quite confident when I say that there is no more disgusting toilet than those at Burning Man in the middle of the night. On our walk back to camp, my mind was moving a million miles a minute, trying to sort out how on earth I could stomach those johns for an entire week, let alone survive on camping food. Here’s where xanax comes in handy–it quiets the mind to allow for sleep.

We managed to set up the bed, cram our yet to be assembled bikes on the front seats, and drift into a blissful, techno soundtracked coma repose around 5 am. An unknown amount of time passed, the van became as hot as the surface of the sun, and we awoke to a joyful voice calling, “Carolineeee and Saaaava!”

It was only 8:30. My throat was so sore I could hardly swallow and I was so tired I felt more Walking Dead than Burning Man. Joy was not in my heart.

Welcome to Black Rock City… it’s gonna be great!

To be continued…