By Cheryl Pruss
Pre-planning, a time consuming money saver!
Creating your own itinerary, choosing your route and methods of travel, picking out the sites that you want to see and the hotels that you want to stay at takes about as much time as the travel itself. Why would anyone want to do that when you can go online and pick a tour group that has an itinerary for a tour that looks like it would work? The obvious reason to devote your personal effort to this is the customized itinerary – you can be exactly where you want to be on the date that you want to be there. A less obvious reason, but important to us all, is you can save a lot of money versus a packaged tour. In my recent experience, we paid about 45% of what we would’ve paid for a packaged tour and we spent 4 weeks traveling instead of 2 weeks planned for the packaged tour. We found that hotels and tour operators have listed prices, and in almost every case we were able to get lower prices by asking for their best rates. One tour operator gave us a price that was 48% of their initial website price. In addition, several, very nice hotels also reduced their prices by nearly 50%.
Where to start with your trip pre-planning
Some first steps to successful trip pre-planning include knowing your budget for the trip, deciding what are your must see places and considering any dates that you might want to be in these must see places. Good sources of information about must see places include friends who have traveled where you are planning to travel, the internet, guidebooks or perhaps magazine articles you may have read or programs you may have seen on TV. In our recent experience we talked to a friend who was born and lived in Peru and other friends who had traveled there as tourists. We looked at the US state department website for travel alerts and information on health concerns and bought a guidebook at the local book store. We had just seen an Anthony Bourdain TV show about his visit to Peru and we picked up the recent National Geographic magazine about the Inkas. We also found that we could go on YOUTUBE, type in the name of the hotel or tourist site that we wanted to see and usually find videos of the place. This, more than once, helped us make a decision about which place to book. As far as dates go, the main reason for our travel was to celebrate a milestone birthday. I was turning 60, and the date was very close to Easter this year, which the guidebook said was a time of important processions and celebrations throughout Peru. This is the low season when not as many tourists are there and the rainy season is at its end. This contributed to the great value prices we found.
Macchu Picchu (near Cuzco in the Andes) was going to be a main focus of our trip. I wanted to be there on my birthday to see the sunrise. My husband worked diligently to secure those reservations first, and despite the website stating that trains and the hotel that we wanted to stay at were fully booked for the date that we wanted, he was able to call directly to Peru, via SKYPE, and get our desired reservations. We built the rest of our itinerary around the Macchu Picchu portion of our trip. Since Macchu Picchu and Cuzco are at high altitudes, we planned an itinerary that would help us acclimate to the high altitude before reaching Macchu Picchu. We then added the other places that we knew that we wanted to visit, and researched the transportation options between the locations we wanted to visit.
Arequipa was our first stop, selected because our Peruvian friend said it was a favorite city of hers. While visiting there we planned to travel to the Colca Canyon which meant crossing over a 16,000 ft pass to get there. The Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US, and has places to observe condors flying using the wind updrafts of the Canyon. Indigenous people live a lifestyle unchanged for centuries in the Colca Canyon. Another important reason to start here was that it allowed us to begin acclimating to the high altitude before going to Macchu Picchu. We took a tour of the Canyon, providing transportation, a guide and different lodging options. After researching on the internet, we booked the lodging and saved money versus the lodging costs listed on the tour operator’s website. It was harvest time during our visit and we observed whole families harvesting potatoes. The grandmother was off on the side, cooking a meal and watching an under 2 year old. The rest of the family, which looked like the mother, father, children, maybe aunts, uncles and cousins, were using hand tools to dig up the potatoes. All were working in the fields wearing brightly colored, traditional clothing. Women and girls wore colorful, long full skirts and bowler ats. There weren’t a lot of condors on the day that we visited, but we did manage to see two soaring on the updrafts. While traveling to the Colca Canyon we saw vicunas, llamas and alpacas in the wild and stopped for coca tea to help mitigate the feelings of altitude sickness.
Cuzco in preparation for Macchu Picchu
Since Cuzco is the place from which trains leave for Macchu Picchu, it made sense to spend a couple of days there before our trip. It was Easter week and we had read that there would be processions through the streets of Cuzco during the week. On our arrival day a big procession was held celebrating Dia de Dios de los Temblors (the day of the God of the Earthquakes). We went down to the Plaza de Armas (the main square) early and saw by the preparations that this is a BIG DEAL. There were TV crews interviewing attendees and people were already staking out their good seats. TV cameras on booms were suspended above where the crowd would be in a few hours. We then went to find the procession which started about 3 hours earlier and was slowly winding through the streets of Cuzco. The procession included religious groups, bands and a “float” being carried by 10 men. The float had the God of the Earthquakes on a cross with red lights on either side looking like fire engulfing the image. There were beautiful flowers at the feet of the image. When the procession got to the main Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, it slowly made its way up to the door. Then we noticed that the float was shaking. A simulated earthquake was going on! Then all of the sirens of every emergency vehicle in Cuzco were turned on for several minutes. Finally, the float made its way into the Cathedral and the sirens stopped. El Dios de los Temblors had once again saved the city from ruin by earthquake!