K, let's talk bucket list places. I have a good one for you...
Machu Picchu, hands down.
It deserves completely to be one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
And I would add to that to arrive at Machu Picchu by foot, along the spectacular 4-day Inca Trail. It's not to be missed.
The truth: I wasn't even prepared for how stunning it all would be (the trail and the ruins).
Yes, you will find yourself walking through the dark at 3:30 am with a head lamp. For days you'll squat over a hole in the ground in an unpleasant outhouse. You might get insomnia from the high altitude (I did). You'll sweat through your clothes and walk higher and further than your muscles want to. And you'll hobble for days afterward due to soreness.
BUT. You will also have your expectations exceeded as you walk through some of the most amazing vistas on earth. You will experience fellowship at the base camps and along the trail with your group of travelers from all over the world. You will be amazed by the scenery along the trail and wonder if Machu Picchu will be anticlimactic. And then it won't be. The mist and the lushness and the height and amazingness of it all will be other worldly. And you will ooh and ahh and say to each other that you can't believe you're here and that this is one of the best things you've ever done and seen, and that you'd recommend it to anyone and everyone.
A FEW TIPS FOR MACHU PICCHU + THE INCA TRAIL...
-Book your trek well in advance. It is required that you go with a trekking company on the Inca Trail. You must also reserve your ticket to Machu Picchu in advance. Though the trekking company normally will do this for you.
-Book a reputable trekking company. We were very happy with our company, Peru Treks. They were completely professional in every way. Another company that a friend and retreat guest used and highly recommended is G Tours.
-Plan to stay in Cusco a minimum of 2 days so you can adjust to the altitude before your scheduled trek. Our company actually required a two day stay. (Cusco has so much to see, though, that 3-4 days there would be worthwhile.)
-Plan to leave your excess luggage behind in your hotel in Cusco while you go on the hike.
-Drink a TON of water due to the high altitude. This is the BEST way to prevent altitude sickness. Two people out of our group of 16 got sick on the trail.
-Buy coca leaves to chew on the trail (you can buy these in Cusco, or in Ollantaytambo on your first day). Drink Coca Tea at the campsites (this is normally provided for you.) Coca also helps to prevent or cure altitude sickness.
-Save your cutest hiking outfit for the last day...for when you reach Machu Picchu. It will help you to not feel quite as grungy and dirty while taking photographs.
-After, get a hot stone massage and foot soak in the town of Aguas Calientes. You'll head to this town after the final day of your hike and after your visit to Machu Picchu. We were very happy with a place called Otto's Spa and Boutique. It's not a fancy place at all. But for $20 they do a combo treatment of a salt foot soak, a Shiatsu massage, and a hot stone massage; they have clean showers; they provide flip flops for you; and their masseuses were excellent! Not bad for $20. (I can't remember if they provided shampoo. If not, head to the nearest tienda or pharmacy as they all sell the single use shampoos.)
-Don't go anywhere without a rain jacket around your waist or in a backpack.
-Don't go to the hot springs in Aguas Calientes (the little town below Machu Picchu). The water in the soaking tubs is NOT caliente! It's barely lukewarm. You'll have to pay money to get in, money to rent a towel, money to rent a bathing suit (or perhaps you brought one), money to rent flip flops. I personally don't think it's worth it. We thought we could at least take a shower there after our 4 day hike. But they don't have showers! They have one spout of water (in the public area.) You should have seen other trekkers (including us) trying to wash their selves with a bar of soap under that one little spout. haha. We were that desperate. It was not one of my proudest moments.
-Don't be afraid of coca leaves. Though it may show up in a drug test.
-Don't swallow the coca leaves. You're only supposed to chew them and swallow the juice. The only person in our group that had stomach problems didn't know to spit out the chewed leaves.
-Don't drink any water unless it's bottled or has been boiled for a very long time. Some friends tried boiling water from a stream and they got terribly sick. They made the mistake of not letting it boil long enough.
-Don't photograph indigenous people unless you've asked. They often want to be paid money.
WHAT TO BRING ON THE INCA TRAIL...
-2 (or 3) Performance Tops (I didn't have any and wish I did.)
-2 Hiking Pants (We love our REI pants.)
-3 Pairs of Underwear (one change for the trail, one for after your first shower, when you're done.)
-3 Wool Hiking Socks (we love the REI hiking socks. Smart Wool is another excellent brand.)
-Rain Jacket (love our's from Patagonia)
-Fleece Jacket (love our's from Cotopaxi)
-Light Down Jacket (love mine from Uniqlo)
-Heat Tech long underwear for the night
-Rain Pants that zip up the sides (if you go during rainy season)
-Rain Cover for your Backpack
-Bandanna for your neck if your neck will be exposed
-Sun Hat or Baseball Hat
-Beanie for warmth at night and while sleeping
-Gloves for Walking Sticks
-Sunscreen (a mini, travel sized bottle)
-Bug Repellent (the tiniest one you can find)
-Soap (a mini hotel bar will do)
-Toothbrush & Mini Toothpaste
-Itty Bitty Nail Clipper
-Snacks: Rice Cakes, Nuts, Cliff Bars, Fruit Leather, Chocolate
-Vitamin D (this is our #1 way to reverse an approaching cold or sore throat)
-Wet Wipes (Pack 8 of them in a zip lock. 2 per day.)
-Kleenex (mini pack)
-Probiotics (in case of diarrhea. Our group didn't have any problems.)
-Solar Charger (so you can keep using your camera phone)
-Microfiber Wash Cloth - for impromptu bathing at camp
-Sleeping Aid (if you don't sleep well in a tent. High altitude can sometimes cause insomnia.)
-Disposable Pads or Tampons (rinsing a cup or washing reusable pads would be complicated.)
-MONEY - Approximately 350 soles per person in small bills to buy water, snacks, and provide tips for the porters, cooks, and guides. Also, it's best if you come to Peru with cash...ATMs have small withdrawal limits and hit you up with big fees each time.
-Make-up. The extra weight is not worth it.
-Shampoo, Flip Flops, or Shower supplies. (Showers are provided one or two times on the trail. But trust me, you will not want to use them. We're not talking a risk of athlete's foot here, but risks of staph infections or more.)
-A Pillow. Instead, use some folded up clothes put inside a shirt.
-Too many extra clothes. Just re-wear your clothes. Embrace the grunge. Your body will thank you for it, trust me.
-Too much extra weight in water. Water is available to buy along the trail, 1 liter at a time.