Jen and I thought we could save money by making our own pre- and post-trip arrangements. We also wanted to go with a Peruvian company so our money would directly benefit the local guides and porters. That led us to Cuzco-based United Mice, whose four-day trek cost just $440 a person and included the transportation, permit fees, camping equipment, porters, all meals, and English-speaking Quechua guides. We didn't anticipate fabulous service for that price, but the porters and guides far exceeded our expectations. They even baked my sister and me a cake for our birthday.
Before and after the trip we stayed at the Niños Hotel in Cuzco. That was an easy decision. At the time it was ranked number one on the user-review site TripAdvisor (a partner site of SmarterTravel.com) and it only cost $34 a night. Niños Hotel wasn't top ranked because it's the fanciest hotel in town, but because it's clean, friendly, centrally located, and all of its profits go towards a program to help Cuzco's street children.
Lima, Peru's capital, is the major gateway city into the country. We paid a total of $841 per person on Continental for round-trip flights between New York and Lima, which is typical for high-season travel in August. Had we booked earlier than May, we might have paid about $100 less.
From Lima we flew to Cuzco on LAN Peru for $240 per person. When planning your trip, try to arrive in Cuzco several days ahead of your trek, not only to acclimatize, but to have some wiggle room should your flight be canceled. The airline's nickname, "LAN Perhaps," is well earned for the frequency it cancels flights. Three of the four LAN flights I booked for our trip were canceled and had to be rebooked.
With the exception of Lima, a sprawling mess of a city, Peru was easy to navigate and felt safe for women travelers. The Peruvians were helpful and courteous whenever I needed to ask for directions or buy something. I'm sure it helped that I knew a little Spanish, dressed modestly, and treated everyone with respect.
Peru.info, the country's official tourism website, is a good resource for planning your Inca Trail trek. So is AndeanTravelWeb.com. But the most helpful planning resource I found was The Inca Trail, Cuzco, & Machu Picchu by Richard Danbury, available for about $14 on Amazon.
After returning to Cuzco, Jen and I and went to dinner at the nicest restaurant in town to officially celebrate our 27th birthday and a successful journey. Over a dessert of coca leaf crème brulee, we started brainstorming ideas for our next trip together. Hiking in New Zealand or Patagonia? Maybe cycling in Vietnam or China? The possibilities seemed limitless.