How not to travel – an idiot’s guide

I’m halfway through my monumental whirlwind tour of the ‘gringo trail’ of Peru. It’s been a great trip so far, but I’m going to concentrate today on the valuable lessons I have learned over the course of ten very stressful hours in the last day. The alternative title to this post could be, “Don’t let this happen to YOU!”.

Let’s begin.

We’ve been travelling for a week and a bit and seen the pisco and wine vineyards of Lunahuana, the sand dunes of Huacachina, the lovely city of Arequipa, and in the last couple of days the freezing heights of Puno and lake Titicaca. We were about to move on to the grand finale of the trip – Cuzco and Machu Picchu – when disaster struck. One of our number fell horribly ill; too ill to travel, and we were too worried to leave him behind, so we bunked the coach to Cuzco and decided to make any necessary rearrangements once the lie of the land was clearer. This of course was a good thing to do, and has eventually lead to optimum trip replanning and the avoidance of other problems. What it also lead to was the second most stressful day I’ve ever had on any holiday, ever.

Yesterday dawned early and cold, as it is wont to do in Puno, and I had a clear mission to accomplish. I sent dad off to watch the Fiestas Patrias (independence day celebrations) parades down near the lake front and set to work to rearrange hostel bookings, purchase last minute train tickets to get to Machu Picchu (our original plan had involved a picturesque bus trip to the thermal baths at Sta. Teresa and a hike to Aguascalientes at the foot of Machu Picchu, but the change of plans had left us short of time) and purchase tickets to the site itself.

The first parts were all accomplished with ease. The hostels were changed or cancelled as necessary and I found affordable train tickets. It is much easier to find train tickets going there than coming back, as huge swarms of people take the Inca Trail, Salkantay, Lares or other trails, and yet others do the cheapie option I had planned to do. However, after up to four days of trekking, almost everyone takes the train back.

12pm. Bingo, mission accomplished, I thought. WRONG.

Any idiot will tell you that tickets to Machu Picchu should be booked safely well in advance of your journey. Any idiot would be completely correct. This idiot, being a true and total idiot, had failed to heed this #1 piece of advice. I hadn’t necessarily totally ignored it. We had planned a pretty tight schedule with some hard travelling, and in acknowledgement of the fact that one of our party is an OAP (or at least, he has his bus pass) I had made a calculated decision to wait to book tickets until we had got the bulk of the journey safely behind us on time, rather than rushing to meet a tight Machu Picchu deadline. In fact a week before our trip I looked up the number of available tickets and there were still 1700 of the daily 2500 available. There were also a number of tickets for the very next day. “Safe,” I thought, “I’ll wait to see if we’re travelling at the pace we’ve planned and book them from Puno.”


Of course, what I had failed to take into account was that this is the week of the Fiestas Patrias, when every right-minded Peruvian with holiday time and a bit of spare cash is going to head straight for the Pride of Peru. It is also peak tourist season, when every traveller in South America from – well, pretty much everywhere – is also heading straight for the Wonder of the World. In a state of nervous excitement approaching mild heart tremor, I discovered that the next available tickets turned out to be for the 29th, the day before dad’s flight back to Lima, and two days after the day our hard-sought train tickets were booked for.


Here I need to take a little time to explain how easy the Peruvian government make it to get tickets to the #1 national treasure, one of the seven wonders of the world.


There is one, government-run website on which tickets can be purchased. This website, when my super partner – who we will henceforth refer to as Wonderboy – tried to use it to book the tickets while I and the Papatron were on our Puno island adventures, was down. Would there have been tickets to suit our plans if this had not been the case? We will never know. Back to the plot. On this helpful, easy to use, and only in Spanish website, you select the date you want to go, the bits you want to see (i.e. just the site itself, the site and the museum, the site and the trek up Wayna Picchu [the big mountainy bit at the back], etc.) how many tickets (only up to 9 may be purchased by one person), and you click to make your reservation.

Step 2. No, you don’t input your chosen method of payment. That would be simple, straightforward, normal, similar to all other online shopping experiences, and make a whole lot of sense. Instead, a clock starts ticking and you have 6 hours to complete the next two steps.

Enter Mission Impossible theme tune.

First, you take the reference number to the only bank at which you can pay for the tickets, the Banco de la Nacion. There you pay for your tickets and get a little voucher. Once you’ve done that, you take the voucher back to a computer, input your reference, confirm the transaction and print two copies of each ticket.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And it is, if you know that these are the steps you must take, and if you are in a place where you know where the nearest B de la N is, and if you have a computer and printer handy, rather than having to find internet cafes to complete all the booking parts on. A visiting friend who speaks no Spanish recently made his reservation one evening, only to find it had expired the next day when he went to pay for it.

So back to my day. Knowing that I had six hours to complete the payment, I booked the tickets for the 29th and went, heart in mouth, to try and beg Peru Rail to change my rail tickets, hoping to the high heavens that there would still be return trains available. By this point, realising that I may be about to lose a significant sum of money should the changing not work out, I had decided that the best thing to do would be to ensure that dad could get to see it so I concentrated on getting at least one set of rail tickets to match the entrance ticket.

We went to the Peru Rail office, Puno, at 3pm. Directly when they open after the three hour lunch break. The only rail service that runs from Puno is the $160 tourist train to Cuzco. This is a service that runs once a day on limited days, so not exactly the London rush from Liverpool Street. However, it took one whole hour for the man behind the counter to change the outbound and return tickets for one person to another date, and find the email address to apply for the refund on the other tickets. Because of course it wasn’t possible for the person who works in the office of the company to do that. Silly us. Thankfully not a single other customer appeared during the entire time we were there.

Some of this time was down to a language mistake. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there are a number of false cognates that can play merry hell with English – Spanish communications. This time I fell foul of one, asking the helpful counter man to “cambiar y cancelar” my tickets. What I meant was to change and cancel my reservation, forgetting that to ‘cancelar’ means to pay for, or ‘pay up’. So what I got, first off, was my full, printed set of tickets for the original days. After working out this confusion, it turned out that while he could change dad’s tickets, I would have to email off for a refund on mine. And my return journey fears proved prescient and resulted in a less convenient travel time at a slightly higher price. However, on the up side, within an hour we had what we wanted, more or less, for very little extra expense, and all that seemed to remain was to change the ticket booking for the site itself to one and complete the payment process.

I duly trekked back to an internet cafe. Thankfully, in Latin America, where people who don’t have home computers or home internet access are numerous and public means of communication are frankly a whole load more plentiful and reliable, there are internet cafes all over the place. I tried to alter the reservation for two. No such option. I tried to make a new reservation for one. Unfortunately one of the few things that happens accurately and efficiently is the government making sure that the same people aren’t trying to sneakily duplicate reservations for Machu Picchu. Damn them. No joy. I found the number of the one, single place that is authorised to make alterations to existing reservations. Despite the fact that most people in Peru work ten or eleven hour days, six days a week, this office closes daily at 4pm. BASTARDS.

I was left with two options: 1. To wait for the six hours to expire without having paid and make a new reservation. This would mean waiting until the following day as the bank would close before that could happen, and I could see that in the couple of hours that had elapsed since making the original reservation, over 200 of 700 remaining tickets had been sold. The other option was to pay for both, tuck my tail between my legs and head back to Peru Rail for another confrontation with the poor official who had already been confused by my original ticket change requests, and put plans back on to go myself.

We went for option two. The Peru Rail man must have seen us coming as he had disappeared and didn’t reappear until the watchman spotted us and called him on his mobile. This is also testiment to how un-busy this office is. This second transaction, although clear from the start this time, also took an hour. During this time the only other people to enter the building were the official’s wife and daughter or granddaughter, who were waiting for him to knock off. Presumably early, as they turned up at 5pm and the office hours are listed until 6pm.

Finally, by 6.30, having started off at around 9.30am, the whole process: tickets to Machu Picchu, rail tickets to and from Aguascalientes, rearranged hostels, rearranged buses to Cuzco, rearranged hostel in Aguascalientes, to-ing and fro-ing from bank to internet cafe to rail station and so on were all completed and confirmed in triplicate. All that remained was to pick up our bags and head to the bus station for the next step of our journey.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)
    Sep 28, 2014 @ 10:40:51

    Thank you for some excellent tips on going to Machu Pichu. I’ll be saving this page for future reference. What a strange thing to not be able to buy the tickets online.



    • Pieces of 8
      Sep 29, 2014 @ 22:05:12

      Uurrrgghhh! It was a hellish day, but I have to admit a lot of it was my own stupid fault!
      The main lesson is: book reasonably well in advance, and check that you can book a return train before you pay up for the MP tickets. It should be plain sailing!

      Enjoy your trip. I recommend taking a torch and getting to the sun gate for sunrise. It’s a really early start, but it’s well worth it!



  2. RedandGonzo
    Jul 28, 2013 @ 12:34:36

    Oh my lord, that sounds so stressful. Ugh! But it sounds like it worked out? Or at least I hope it does…safe travels!



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