A couple weeks ago, a Facebook friend posed a question about whether she should do a multiple day hike to get to Machu Picchu or take the train to save time. Before I expanded the list of comments, I already knew what to expect based on my own experience with making that decision. My thoughts were correct. The majority of the responses could be summarized like this: “Do the trek so you can leave Peru with no regrets!”
I chimed in as the only person who overtly spoke positively about taking the train, which is how I got to Machu Picchu. It was a great experience for me. I had a fantastic travel buddy for the train ride and exploring Machu Picchu, I got back to Cusco in time to celebrate Peruvian Independence Day, and I followed through on my overall goal which was to spend the larger portion of the trip in Bolivia exploring remote corners of a remote country. I never look back and say, “Man, I wish I’d done the trek to Machu Picchu!” It simply was never important to me. It may be many people’s dream, but it’s not mine.
I think real honest enthusiasm from travelers who hiked the Inca trail sparked the trek-to-Machu Picchu fervor. But the “must do!” hype around it speaks to a larger theme of urgent, consumption-oriented travel. In the end, is it really worth it to obsessively tick off boxes and fixate on one particular popular experience when there are many equally fulfilling alternatives to that?
I certainly have succumbed to this kind of travel. I’ve rushed through places, trying to see as much as was humanly possible in a short period of time, driven by a well-intentioned mentality that life is short and I may never return to those places again. I still value the idea of making the most of your time in a place, but the numbers game doesn’t seem as important as it used to. While I love the experience of seeing so many different things, I’ve found that rushing through the world and ticking off boxes can limit what you truly see in the long run.
Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes I am in some exceptionally unique far away place for a specific reason (for example, visiting my mom in Namibia over the holidays or going to India for a wedding) and squeeze more into a limited time than I’d like. But for trips that I come up with, I’ve begun to plan for longer amounts of time in fewer places.
I didn’t expect to encounter so many people who think that is a terrible idea. I often feel like I have to justify my decisions to spend a long time in one spot, return to place I’ve already visited, or to not do a “must-do” experience.
I met a group of guys from Ensenada when I first returned to Oaxaca last summer. They’d stayed in the city for a couple days and then left for more adventures around the state. They came back to Oaxaca city the day before I left to go back to Mexico City. When I saw them again, the first thing one of them said to me was, “Wow, you’re still here?!”
“Yes,” I replied. “But I’m leaving tomorrow!” As soon as I added that second part, I knew it wasn’t necessary. Sure, I’d missed out on plenty of potential opportunities in Mexico and elsewhere by revisiting the small city of Oaxaca for the second summer in a row. But I left knowing the city even better, having seen nearby places I hadn’t been to on my first visit, and knowing that my passion for it wasn’t a fluke — it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Sure, I missed a great challenge and amazing scenery by not trekking to Machu Picchu. But in Bolivia, I encountered unexpected challenges in stunning places over and over. I trekked through a swamp in the Amazon, through an ancient fern forest to the top of a mountain, across an island in one of the highest lakes in the world and hardly encountered foreigners other than the ones I was with. I wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the trek to Machu Picchu.
Life is short and the world can seem overwhelmingly huge for an adventurous spirit. But one of travel’s greatest lessons to embrace is how small you are in comparison to the world. You may not be able to see everything, but you can make the most of what you do see — and making the most of a place is subject to the traveler’s own ideas, not some list created by someone else.
In this world of limitless potential experiences, find out what you really want to explore and do that as much as you can. And remember that regretting what you could not do or didn’t have the time for on your travels is a choice. There is always another option: gratitude for what you did experience.