#RealTravel: My Friends Bailed, So I Mastered Machu Picchu Alone

We know that real-life travel isn’t what you read about in glossy magazines or see on the Travel Channel.

We want to hear what it is like when you—our readers—go on vacation.

What motivates you to take a trip, and how does it change your life? In this new Yahoo Travel series, we get the download, along with all your tips and strategies. If you’ve got a trip that you think Yahoo Travel should spotlight, tweet us using the hashtag #RealTravel.


Yours truly only feet from the summit of Wayna Picchu. Machu Picchu sits 2,000 feet below in the background. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)

Who: Susan Portnoy, New York City-based PR consultant by day; The Insatiable Traveler, always.

Where: I ventured high up in the Peruvian Andes to explore the lost city of Machu Picchu, a 700-year-old Incan metropolis touching the sky. I unexpectedly went solo — and had no idea that it would change my life.

Solo Challenge: Three months before my trip, my friends bailed. Ack! For 30 seconds I took it for granted that I wouldn’t go either — how could I? Who wants to go on a vacation alone? What fun would that be? The next 30 seconds I was crippled with disappointment. By minute two I was defiant. I. WANT. TO. GO. Five minutes after getting the news I swallowed the butterflies, fear, and self-doubt and pulled the trigger: I bought a non-refundable airline ticket to Peru.


A view of Temple of the Three Windows. Going in the off-season in May, I was able to enjoy the temple, among other sights, without sharing it with thousands of other travelers. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)

The Cost: About $3500 for a 7-day adventure including international flight, two nights in Lima, domestic flights from Lima to Cusco, train to Aguas Calientes, and sightseeing in and around the sacred valley.

Why: I am fascinated by ruins, the older the better. Give me decaying temples and old stone dwellings, and I’m a happy camper. (I know, I’m weird.) Top it off with spectacular mountain views, and to say I’m giddy is an understatement. I knew that to get a proper ruin-fix I would have to go Machu Picchu. When the time came in May of 2007 my inner Indiana Jones was bouncing off the walls with excitement.

Turning Point: I discovered two great loves on that trip: solo travel and photography. The latter began as a crutch. I used my camera for the same reason we play with our smart phones when we’re alone in a room full of strangers — it gave me something to focus on when I felt out of place. It became a form of creative expression and a personal challenge that I am passionate about today.

As for loving solo travel, that was definitely a process. I was out of sorts at first but then I started to relish the permission my circumstances afforded me: I did what I wanted when I wanted without guilt. I found that I was more resourceful, brave, and competent in a strange country than I anticipated. Machu Picchu became the first of many solo adventures to follow.

My Favorite Find: Surprisingly, this silver and Andean Turquoise ring set me back less than $100 at a shabby souvenir stand near the entrance to Machu Picchu. Score!


(Photo: Susan Portnoy)

What I Loved: No matter how many photos you’ve seen of Machu Picchu, they don’t begin to do it justice. Cliché as it may sound it was unbelievably breathtaking: I still remember my first view of the ruins from a ledge overlooking the city.


First impressions are hard to beat. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)

Any Tips? Go off-season. It’s the difference between sharing the lost city with a few hundred people or a few thousand.

Where I Stayed: Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a beautiful spot on the edge of a little city called Aguas Calientes that sits at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is perched. It’s surrounded by lush gardens and has large, luxurious rooms. After hours of sightseeing it was a wonderful place to rest and relax. It’s not cheap (about $550 a night), but I went off-season and there was a decent discount.


(Photo: Inkaterra.com)


Sunrise: There’s a 5am bus that takes visitors to Machu Picchu to see the sunrise that’s worth dragging yourself out of bed. At first the city is covered in a fog so thick you can barely see 20 feet in front of you. As the sun rises the mist begins to swirl as if in a witch’s caldron, slowly revealing the ruins below. It was as if I was in an episode of Game of Thrones — it was wonderfully mysterious and cinematic.


As the sun rises the fog slowly lifts off the ruins. I’ve never seen anything like it since. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)

Wayna Picchu: At the far end of the Machu Picchu another mountain called Wayna Picchu looms over the city. A narrow hiking trail ascends nearly 2,000 feet to the summit where more terraces and Incan temples can be found. Take caution if you’re not in good shape or afraid of heights — the stone steps are steep, flanked by the mountain on one side and sheer drops on the other — but test your resolve and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most spectacular views. Ever.


The Wayna Picchu trail… going down was a lot more fun than going up. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)


A closer look at the ruins from the summit of Wayna Picchu. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)


Two other travelers arrive at Machu Picchu at 5am to watch the sun rise. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)


I took this photo on my way to hike to the summit of Wayna Picchu that overlooks Machu Picchu. The trail is steep and requires some effort but I highly recommend it. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)


A wonderful view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains awaits those that climb to the summit of Wayna Picchu. Only buses from Aguas Calientes are able to use the curvy road to the left. (Photo: Susan Portnoy)

Want more like this? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter so that we can inspire you every day.