Pay Attention to that “When to Go” Part in Guidebooks

It’s been an ugly few days for travelers who decided to visit Machu Picchu in the rainy season. “Helicopters had taken 700 people by mid-afternoon from the remote village, the closest to the ancient Inca ruins 8,000 feet up in the Andes mountains. About 2,000 travelers were trapped in the town for days, strapping resources and testing travelers’ patience.”

That’s the short version from the Associated Press. The trouble started when train service—the only way in or out—was halted because of rain and mud. People were sleeping in the streets, scrounging for food, and generally being miserable. It got worse as the days went on since more people kept arriving via the Inca Trail, including all the porters who couldn’t get home to their families.

This was a bad rainstorm, but pretty much any guidebook on Peru tells you that mid-January to the end of February is the absolute worst time to visit Machu Picchu and you’re almost sure to get drenched. The Inca Trail isn’t even open in February because it’s too slippery and muddy. (Plus they do maintenance work then while they’ve got it closed.) Whether from ignorance or a “maybe we’ll get lucky” sentiment, a lot of tourists avoid this advice and go anyway. Sometimes it works out, just like sometimes people win at keno or roulette. The odds are not in your favor though.

A few years ago I did a public chat session thing for Budget Travel magazine’s online site on traveling in Mexico and Central America. The question that kept coming up over and over was basically, “Is it really all that rainy during the rainy season in Costa Rica?” The answer is “buckets of rain,” but you see they wanted to go during the summer break, when they had already set their vacation time or when their kids had a long stretch off school. The problem is, weather systems don’t give a crap about your schedule, whether that’s rainy season in Costa Rica, monsoon time in southern India, or hurricane season in Cancun.

Find a way to fit your schedule into Mother Nature’s schedule instead of trying to hope she’ll smile down on you and change her historic patterns. I feel sorry for everyone stranded in ugly Aguas Calientes town for days in Peru and I’m glad it wasn’t me. It never would have been me though—I look at a guidebook before making plans.

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  1. Nancy D. Brown

    Good point Tim. My friend hiked the trail during Christmas a couple of years ago and they had terrible rains, too.
    I’m sorry for the flooding and the deaths in Aguas Calientes. Traveler beware.
    What a Trip!

  2. Kyle

    I’ll have to disagree a bit on this one as it depends on what your expectations are and what you are doing. If you want to have a 2 week vacation and see everything to see (i.e. you are moving around a lot), yes the rain will make that difficult. Going to steep terrain like the Andes is also probably not a good idea. But, I also spent a lot of time in central America during the rainy season and it wasn’t too much of a bother. Usually, it would rain buckets but it was at the exact same time every day, so it was quite predictable. Typically, I could get my sightseeing time / beach time in the morning and be inside for reading by 4pm.

    • tim

      Kyle, in some places that may be true, but not Costa Rica. It rains buckets all day long for days sometimes, with no hint of the sun, especially on the Caribbean side. I also spent eight days in Belize this summer and it rained seven of them, for far more than an hour in the afternoon. Some days were a complete bust in terms of activities. Fine for us as we knew that going in and expected it, but some other tourists we met had no clue they were coming during rainy season or were just hoping it didn’t apply to them.

  3. Bob Thomas

    Great, great point about “when to go.” Some travelers jump at the deeply discounted prices available in “low season,” but there’s a reason for the discount, and you may be taking a risk of lousy weather than can impact your trip.

  4. brian

    Agree with you Tim on going when the weather is much more favorable. Nothing kills a trip faster than rain rain and more rain. We go when we can but secretly hope that the sun shines and birds sing while we are there and then goes back to the expected weather for that time of the year.

    It never happens that way.

    And Costa Rica, it can rain for days on end. Definitely true!

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