LARPing Massive Darkness on the Inca Trail

One of the board games we love to play is called Massive Darkness. It’s a fun dungeon crawler that we play on 3D terrain pieces. A game could look like below: Sibyl and friends (in brown) are hiding in the dark so the horde of dwarves heads the other way.

Massive Darkness

Playing Massive Darkness on Dwarven Forge Dungeon Terrain.

In terms of setup, this is pretty basic. For one, it’s not painted. And it’s just dungeons. Similar terrain is available for caverns, castles, and whole medieval cities. What’s important is that the dungeons don’t have roofs, because you need to move the miniatures. All you need are stone walls, fountains, steps, …

Can you guess what went through my mind when I saw Llactapata?


Llactapata, Peru

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to descent into Llactapata, but found plenty more cities over the next few days. Here are some of my favorite shots.

Inca Cities are Awesome Inca Cities are Awesome Inca Cities are Awesome Inca Cities are Awesome Inca Cities are Awesome Inca Cities are Awesome  Inca Cities are Awesome Inca Cities are Awesome

Of course, you need brave warriors to populate these areas. The paint scheme of our miniatures is optimized for new players, with bright colors so players can keep their minis apart. Below you can see Elias preparing the Lightbringers for the descent into the City of Eternal Live (not making that up – Wiñawayna means forever young in Quechua).

The Fellowship of the Trail preparing to enter the City of Eternal Life

The Lightbringers under the leadership of Elias prepare to descent into Wiñawayna,  City of Eternal Life

Without further ado, Sibil, a nightshade ranger (blue), Whisper, a bloodmoon nightrunner (yellow), Bjorn, a shadow barbarian (orange), Moira, a sorceress (purple), and Sigfried, a pit fighter beserker (red) headed into the maze. Elias, our Battle Wizard led from behind.

Inca Cities are Awesome

Descent into Wiñawayna down the fountain stairs. Sibyl is far ahead. Far in the back, we’ll see a minor roaming monster.

The Fellowship of the Trail

Sibyl and Whisper carry the (white) Lifebringer through Wiñawayna

Bjorn went to slay the minor roaming monster on his own.

Unfortuntately, Bjorn’s exploration spawned an Overseer who activated Siegfried. Siegfried wasted no time taking out Sibyl and Whisper in a glorious battle.

Important: Before you call your travel agent: LARPing on the Inca Trail is not that much fun. You’ll play  “Return to the Shire” and walk for days on end through amazing landscape. The trail and the ruins are awesome impressive temples, cities, and artifacts of an ancient civilization and not playgrounds. Do not shoot fireballs, shout, run, or climb any of the walls. Because Machu Picchu is sinking and archaeologists worry about the impact of thousands of tourists you are not even allowed to jump. We didn’t do any of these forbidden things, well, except for the jumping, but that was way before we reached Machu Picchu – and why we learned about the rules.

IRL Links (you see what I am doing)

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Trip Report: Be our Guest on the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail offers some of the best gourmet dining in Peru. All the cooking happens in pots on a gas flame in half of the mess tent which doubles as porter’s tent for the night. It’s also the only shelter when it rains, which is why the porters crowd in. The tent is red, like everything Llama Path, which explains the funky light on some of the pictures.The kitchen team in action

The chefs often start as porters, then assistant chef, then they go to chef training. We trekked with Llama Path, and our chef Dennis was nothing short of amazing. These chefs compete annually in designing new dishes, and the winning dishes get then rolled out for all tours. But now let’s look at some of what Dennis, our chef served us. We’ll start with the easy dishes on the first day.

Inca Trail Food

Inca Trail Food on day 1.

Food safety is on top of everyone’s mind: no tour operator wants their clients to get sick. In our group nobody got sick – and we ate pretty much everything, including fruit, salads, Guacamole, and fish and meat. The support team also prepares water to wash hands and face three times a day. The water comes when you wake up, or when you arrive at camp. I’d rather have it right before a meal, though. I noticed (but didn’t share while on the trek) that no porter washed hands after using the bathroom – not our’s and not any of the other tour groups….Maybe they wash before they start handling food?

Inca Trail Food

Inca Trail Food. Dinners are typically more fancy than lunch, and the amount of  fruit and green leaves is slowly reducing over the days – but never totally goes away.

As you can see, food is plenty. Our guide said that some groups eat it all, but we rarely eat more than half. Maybe it’s because we were a small (private) group and we got the same number of dishes that large groups (up to 18 tourists) get. Out guide did mention llama path had the best food, and he had been gaining weight. Anything we didn’t eat went to the support team to finish. We did finish most of the deserts, and sweet breakfast items. Pancakes with chocolate sauce, fruit salad, panetone.

Inca Trail Food: Deserts

Deserts and Breakfast.

This is the Inca Trail, with world class chefs, they get more elaborate every day. The chefs are actually being poached by Peruvian restaurants from across the world. We were told that some clients actually marry the chefs and open a Peruvian restaurant back home. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes! Or check out the last day’s food…

Inca Trail Food

On the last day, Denis and team went all out. Remember, we have been on the trail for three days…

And then, there is the chocolate cake. When I am “cooking” while backpacking, it’s mostly freeze dried food. Maybe it’s time to up the ante?

Inca Trail Food: Denis and the Chocolate Cake

Our amazing chef Denis with the most delicious chocolate cake.

Early one morning, when I got up in the dark, I saw them cooking outside the mess tent (some porters were still in there). Quinoa soup is the breakfast for porters, and according to the guide, they prefer this over the tourist food.

Breakfast for porters

Quinoa Soup in the making.

If the above is not enough, there are chicherias and restaurants along the Inca Trail, if only during the first day. They even serve cui, and keep them right in the kitchen. You can probably pet your lunch :-).

Inca Trail Restaurants

On the first day, there are a few restaurants. They even have cui, right there in the kitchen.


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Trip Report: Inca Trail

Rainy Season? Oops! We were extremely lucky with the weather – it rained only 2 days. Our Inca Trail was a magical experience of cities in the clouds, fog filled abysses, and rain forests. And the sun did come out as we arrived at the Sun Gate.

Fog Filled Abysses

Fog Filled Abysses.

Day 1:

After a 3:45am wake-up call, we are picked up at 4:30am at the hotel in Cusco. The night was especially short because 8h before we were at the clinic with two of the three kids and came back with cipro for the stomach, and amoxicillin for the ears. But at 4am everyone feels good enough go for it! We board the bus and after a quick stop at the Llama Path porter house and a longer stop for breakfast (i.e. no sleep on the bus…) we arrive at the trail head – km 82 of the railroad. As a private group of only 5 clients we organize and repack quickly. We cross the bridge minutes before 9am.

km 82 bridge

The bridge at km 82, the beginning of the Inca Trail.

And we are on our way. The trail starts with Peru flat for about two hours, then it climbs for real. After the first steep climb we find our first Inca city – Llactapata. We can only see it across a small valley, but it’s still pretty impressive. It also reminds me of some games we play, but that is another story.


Llactapata (sometimes referred to as Patallacta, e.g. on Google Maps) from the view point. There is another starting point below Llactapata if you arrive by train, but most tours start at km88, the end of the road.

Inca Ruins

Inca Ruins next to the view point. Because you cannot get close to Llactapata (it’s quite a detour), I think they restored some walls close to the train, so tourists can see them up close on the first day.

Around 3pm we reach the place where many groups stop (Wayllabamba, 3000m). But with Llama Path, we keep going for another 2 hours to Ayapata (3300m). There is not much to do in camp anyway, and tomorrow, we’ll be glad we climbed those 300m already. Minutes after 5pm, everyone arrived at the camp. We were on the trail for over 8 hours (including breaks), mostly uphill! The confidence grows that maybe, this can be done! Personally I was happy it didn’t rain, as that might have dampened motivation of the troops.

Day 2:

Today is the day! We will climb Dead Woman’s pass and go above 4200m. It’s the highest point on the Inca Trail and it’s almost 1km higher than where we slept. Which means another early start (5am wake up call). The support team serves coca tea in the tents, but we are way too excited to sit in a tent.

Luckily there is no rain, and breakfast includes pan cakes with chocolate sauce and fruit salad. Nobody wants to be carried back on a horse so – at 5:30am – we hike on. On the way up, we get a bit of hail, and a bit of rain. Once we reach the pass, we take a few pictures, and then the clouds come in all the way and the pour starts. The groups that stopped early yesterday will have lunch up here – in the pour. For us going forward is the way out, so we mount our ponchos, and descend into the rain clouds.

View back from dead woman pass

View back on the trail from Dead Woman Pass, displaying the sexy lama sign. We are at 4200m, and the next two hours will be downhill. In the pour! (Rain <-> Rain Jacket, Pour <-> Poncho)

We hike on, steep down to the temple of the lunch at Pacamayo. We’ll drop 700m over the next two hours.

During a break in the rain we can see the temple of the lunch at Pacamayo, and the Peruvian flat trail leading to it. Don’t be fooled, it’s (flat) steps descending all the way, and the uneven rocks require constant concentration. They Inca cobble stones beat a mud path, though.

By the time we arrive at Pacamayo, it’s pouring again, and heavier. But in the lunch tent it’s dry, and the food is delicious. It keeps pouring while we eat, and the porters crowd into the kitchen half of the tent, or seek cover in the bathroom buildings. We need to go on, there is the second pass waiting for us. So we put our wet ponchos back on, and march on. The 400m climb up to the second pass is the steepest yet. Sometimes the Inca Trail becomes a creek, but the centuries old Inca stairs are holding up very well.


Runkurakay on the way up is a small Inca outpost, and we don’t linger long and continued to the second pass.

Orchids on the Inca Trail

Orchids on the Inca Trail

We walk through fairytale Polylepis forests. Polylepsis are odd and rare and thrives only in the cold mist and thin air of the Andes Mountains. The orchids are beautiful.

The worst thing about the rain is that there are no views of the mountains, but the path and the ruins are beautiful in the fog. Mostly, it feels like Middle Earth, except the hobbits are a lot more colorfully dressed. Or maybe Dagobah?

When we reach the steps to Sayaqmarka a decision has to be made. We have been on the trail for over 10h, we climbed two passes, including 4200m Dead Woman Pass. It’s a no-brainer for everyone, although the group is split between no-brainer-no and no-brainer-yes. But we are not going to just ignore steps like this, are we? After all, it’s not even raining right now.

The 108 Steps to Sayaqmarqa

The 108 steep Inca steps to Sayaqmarqa. Do they look promising? Or dangerous? There is no way we are not going up these steps.

Sayaqmarqa means innaccessible town, and it’s a good name. The city is placed on a ridge, accessible only through two very narrow and steep stair cases (on of which is still covered by the jungle). It’s a fortress with an irrigation system that provides water to the inhabitants. They built a little aqueduct to bring the water in over the city wall, and irrigation canals throughout the city.



Sayaqmarka IrrigationSayaqmarka Irrigation

After 12 hours on the trail, we arrive in camp. We are hungry, wet, cold, tired. This was the most strenuous day in their live for most of us. But we all did it, and we arrived in day light. They guides tell many stories about this day, and what it takes to get clients to finish. Almost everyone makes it, but some arrive late at night, some on the back of porters.

Day 3:

Today we sleep in – 6am – as we have an easy day, and it’s going to be mostly downhill. The weather improved over night, and we are treated to a view.

View from Chaquiqocha

A promising morning: We wake up to a view.

Tomorrow, we’ll get up at 3am, so this leisurely morning is a great time to take a picture with our porters. The porters make the Inca Trail experience possible. We have a total of 11 porters, which include a chef, a sous-chef – learning to be a chef –  a waiter, a head porter – who has a different hat color – and security, who especially watches the tents when client gear is in them, but no clients, e.g. for dinner. All 11 carry full loads, including a mess tent (the grey tarp covered one above) that doubles as sleeping tent for the porters and three four-people igloo tents (green above). Llama Path puts 2 people and their gear into the four people tents, which is spacious. For our group of 5, we asked them to carry only 2 tents for the family (and one for the guide).

Inca Trail Support Team

Our whole support team (Lio, the guide, taking the picture). Dennis, the chef on the left, followed by the sous-chef and our waiter. On the right we have the head porter (black hat) and camp security (yellow vest)

The hike starts with an short twenty minute climb and then Peruvian flat to the third pass. That’s the first place with bars. Not the drink kind of bar, but the cell phone signal kind of bars. We don’t stay long, given there is no view, and nothing interesting happening on the Internets anyway.

Incatrail Day 3 uphill.

Inca trail Day 3 uphill.

We are ready for the over 3000 steep Inca steps down until the “gradual downhill” starts. It’s raining, but not pouring, so the ponchos stay in the packs. Earlier, I mentioned the word steep. Compared to what’s coming, that steep section yesterday was gradual.

Inca Trail Steps in the Rain

Rosalio pondering a short flight of stairs.

Our descent takes us down to Phuyupatamarca, the City above (or in) the clouds. Today, it’s in the clouds. And it’s even more awesome than what we have seen so far.

In Phuyupatamarca we find a black lama, which are extremely rare, and were favorite sacrificial animals of the Incas. Rosalio jokes about sacrificing it for better weather, and I am getting all excited, but we end up saving the animal.

About an hour before camp, there is another intersection: Take the a porter shortcut directly to camp at Wiñawayna, or detour to Intipata (Sun Place). Thanks to the Llama Path itinerary, we have plenty of time, and of course we head towards Intipata. However it’s pouring again, so we don’t spend too much time there, and just have a quick look at the convex terraces, then head down to Wiñawayna.

We arrive drenched at our camping spot, and head straight for the temple of the lunch. If we’d try to get into our tents, everything would be wet. In the afternoon, the rain stops for a few hours, and we use those hours to tour the amazing city of Wiñawayna.

For about the third time on this hike, this new city trumps everything we have seen so far. Wiñawayna is just beautiful and amazing. It has terraces, which are engineered for agriculture, and differ in clima from the top to the bottom, ancient temples, built with different walls, and aligned with the firmament, and residential houses and store-rooms. Wiñawayna also has an irrigation/plumbing systems, with a long row of fountains. You can spend hours just exploring this small city.

One geeky reason why these cities are so wonderful? They remind me of the dungeons we built at home to play games like Massive Darkness. You see, if you play these kind of miniature games, you need rooms and passages and you cannot really have roofs, because you need to move the miniatures. So we LARP for a few minutes.

Day 4:

The non-sacrifice worked! There is no rain, and you can actually see stars in the sky! You can also see far but it’s hard to tell, though, because we get up at 3am, and instantly head to the ranger station to line up at the entry gate. And we are the first group! After over 2 hours of waiting (and playing games on our phones) we pass the gate and start hiking towards the sun gate.

This trail brings more steep drops, amazing views (finally, more than fog filled abysses) and the steepest stairs of them all – You can touch the steps in front of you without bending over. In addition, they are a false summit. You think it’s the end, but it’s not, there is a final push after.

Steep Inca Steps, shortly before reaching the Sun Gate

The trail saves the steepest stairs for the last day.

Only a few people of the later groups catch up with us, so when we reach the Sun Gate, it’s pretty much just us. The other fast hikers have to wait for their groups, so we head out again as the first group, and arrive as the first Inca Trail group at Machu Picchu – and find a few hundred  people who arrived by bus!

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

We made it! Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It’s less than an hour of gentle downhill from here.

By now the weather is fantastic, and a few hundred is still pretty empty for a city the size of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu will get it’s own blog post.

More Pictures

If you want more pictures, check out the 250 picture version!

By the numbers

  • Inca Trail with Llama Path, 4 days/3 nights.
  • Distance: 43km/26 miles.
  • Max Elevation 4300m/ ft at Dead Woman Pass.
  • Floors . Steps
    These numbers are measured by fitbit and cellphone (strava) and include some walking around ruins on the way. fitbit calories are for the full day.

    • Fitbit
      • Day 1: Distance: km/13.94 miles. Floors 341 . Steps 30,003. Calories: 6,852
      • Day 2: Distance: km/9.87 miles. Floors 382. Steps 21,237. Calories 7,298
      • Day 3: Distance: km/10.23 miles. Floors 85. Steps 26,384. Calories 4,547
      • Day 4: Distance: km/16.6 miles. Floors 135. Steps 35,784. Calories 5,714
    • Strava
      • Day 1: 8.4 mi, 3128 ft elevation gain, 2h:59min moving time
      • Day 2: 7.7 mi, 4443ft elevation gain, 4h:09min moving time
      • Day 3: 5.7 mi, 922ft elevation gain, 2h:28min moving time
      • Day 4:
  • Gringos 5: 2 adults, 3 kids.
  • Support 12: 1 guide, 11 porters – including 1 chef, 1 assistant chef, 1 head porter, 1 security, 1 waiter.
  • Backpacks
    • Porters (by 2003 law) are allowed to carry 20 kg/44 lbs each. 5 kg/11 lbs of this is for their own personal gear. Their packs get weighted all the time by the head porter (and re-distributed if needed), and at check points by the rangers.
    • With Llama Path, you can give 7 kg to a porter (if you pay for it upfront). This includes 3 kg for the sleeping pad and bag, which leaves you with 4kg – enough.
    • Porters make 43Soles or $15day. Tip recommendations on the Web vary widely, and are confusing as some numbers are per group, others per day, etc. and they don’t add up if you do the math. Llama Path recommends 65 soles per porter, twice that for the Chef and above that for the guide.

Picture of Inca Trail Elevation Profile on a sign on the Inca Trail

Inca Trail Elevation Profile


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Tested Itinerary: Inca Trail and Machu Picchu – 12 days

Is hiking the Inca Trail (or just seeing Machu Picchu) on your bucket list? This tested Inca Trail itinerary will take you to Cusco, Lake Titicaca, and finally to Machu Picchu, the great city of the Incas, with minimal planning and maximum fun.

We did this trip with 3 kids from 9-14 years old. If you want to trek the Inca Trail, you’ll need two weeks to make this trip comfortable given the necessary acclimatization.

This post focuses only on the itinerary aspects of this trip, and makes some recommendations on choices to make. The quickest way to book this is to copy the tested itinerary section below into an e-mail to a local agency (recommendations at the bottom) and have them come up with proposals.

The Tested Itinerary

  • Day 1 – Fly to Cusco. Relax for at least 24h, you are at 3400m/11,000ft above sea level. If you arrive in the morning, arrange early hotel check-in. Get a hotel in walking distance to the Plaza de Armas.
  • Day 2 – Hang out around the Plaza de Armas. Keep taking it easy. Maybe day trip to the Sacred Valley.
  • Day 3 – Head to Puno by Bus. Keep taking it easy.  Spend a few days at 3800m/12,500ft.
  • Day 4/5 – Uros Island, Homestay on Amantani, visit Taquile
  • Day 6 – Head back to Cusco by Train. You are now properly acclimatized to get ready to hike.
  • Day 7-10 Hike the Inca Trail.
    Alternatively, book a 2-day tour by train/bus.
  • Day 11 – Recover and shop in Cusco
  • Day 12 – Fly home
  • If you do this over Christmas plan around the following
    • 12/24 Santurantikuy – possibly the biggest crafts market in Latin America
    • 12/31 Christmas Eve – awesome new year party on the Plaza de Armas
  • If you have additional time (do this after the trek):
    • Spend a night at the Skylodge
    • Visit the Salt Mines
    • Spend a few days in the Peruvian Amazon

Getting There

From SFO and other US cities, it’s likely a red eye on United through Houston.


Unless you know that you acclimatize fast to elevations over 3500m, assume you will need a week to get comfortable. The Inca Trail is hard enough without high altitude symptoms (head ache, nausea, or worse…). You will climb a 4200m high pass. Spend a few days in Cusco or – as suggested above – in Puno, which is even higher.

Inca Trail Itineraries

Tl;DR; book the Inca Trail with Llama Path. They have a good itinerary, and are a responsible tour operator.

Different tour operators prefer different itineraries. If you do private tours, they may accommodate changes to it, but it will not be their regular way of doing, which may complicate things. Here are some options

  • 4 days/3 nights Llama Path: You will leave Cusco at ~4am. You will hike more than other groups on day 1 and 2, but less on day 3, which allows you more time in the ruins of the third day. On the 4th day, you will get up at 3am, wait 2 hours in the dark, and arrive at Machu Picchu around 7:30am. It’s hard core.
  • 5 days/4 nights APUs Peru: You will leave early on the first day, too, but then have slightly shorter hikes. On the 4th day, you will hike the last 2 hours to Machu Pichu and arrive in the afternoon. Then you spend a night in a Hotel at the bottom of Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) and go back to Machu Picchu the next day.
  • 2 days/1 night Llama Path. You hike the first day, visit one beautiful Inca city in the morning, and reach Machu Picchu in the afternoon. Then spend a night in Aguas Calientes and go back.
  • Skip the pain – take the train to Aguas Calientes. Stay in Aguas Calientes and take the first bus up to Machu Picchu.


You have two options:

  • Winter (June/July), when it’s colder, but the weather is a lot nicer. It probably won’t rain (but you are in the mountains, the weather is unpredictable…)
  • Summer (December, e.g. over norther hemisphere winter break), when it’s warmer, but it will rain. We hiked 2 days in the rain! It was awesome, although some might disagree.

Travel Agencies

Your desired itinerary will decide which travel agency you will be using for the Inca Trail. If you go with the recomended Llama Path, then you likely want a different agency for the rest. I recommend APUs Peru, especially if you are into cultural travel.


My wife – a textile artist – found APUS Peru because they organize textile tours. They have multiple cultural offerings, and everything we did with them was good. I kept changing our plans, but they were very easy to work with. Also, their pre-trip documentation on how to behave on treks was outstanding, and better than what we saw from Llama Path. They have their own Inca Trail offering, which is a bit less hard core than the Llama Path 4-day one, so it’s worth consideration if you are so inclined. We especially liked our guide Arturo. He was super competent, and had some interesting perspectives.

Llama Path

Llama Path is not only a responsible operator, it championed many of the improvements for porters and the environment. They introduced uniforms and working as a group and are the only one with a porter house. They also don’t make porters carry toilets (you have to use the campground restrooms). You can read about their commitment on their site.

With Llama Path, the food is amazing and plenty (click on that link!). Their food handling was safe enough that nobody got sick on the trip, and we ate pretty much everything (of course one never knows, you decide what to eat).

Our guide Rosalio, or Lio was super experienced and everything went smooth. He did the Inca Trail 800 times, and he run it once (as part of the Inca Trail marathon) in under 4h – the local porters are totally crushing the world elite in that event.


Get a local SIM card from Claro or Movistar. The message boards are full of people pointing out that global roaming is very limited in Peru. Local SIMs are cheap and you likely have much better coverage. It takes half an hour to get one in any Claro store in a big city. You can recharge it in small stores anywhere.


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General Travel Tips

Every person and family is different, and every trip is different, but there are some general tips that apply to most trips:

Book Early

Book early, at least 6 months in advance. You get better everything: lodging, flight connections, rental cars, show tickets, entry times, etc. Some of the most exciting hotels have 2-3 rooms only. Some local flights have 20 seats only. Last minute prices may be cheaper, but it normally is for the rooms and attractions that fill up last.

The best part? The trip may only be a week or two, but now you have 6 months of excited anticipation, reading travel guides and trip reports and watching movies on the topic. You just added so much value to your trip for free!

Book Local

Remember fax and paper vouchers? Long time ago, you had to work with a home country travel agency, because having the home pro’s talk to the destination pro’s was the only way to make it work over fax. That creates jobs at home, and increases your trip cost. But they all have destination partners who deal with anything that may come up.

Today you can book directly with the local destination agency. Chose one that is personally recommended to you, or has high ratings on sites like tripadvisor. They all speak English, and they will all go the extra mile – because good reviews is the number one driver of their business. And they know the local region very well.

If you are more adventurous, you can book almost everything directly from the provider these days. But it will be a lot more work for you, and the connections in-between may or may not work. If you book through a local agency, they will make the itinerary work, and deal with anything that comes up during your trip.

Travel Light

There is very little value from taking everything with you. Pack light. Even if you have drivers and porters carry your baggage most of the time. Make sure everything you bring has multiple uses, and dress in layers. Get quick drying fabrics, so you can launder them over night in the sink if needed.


Install Whatsapp (or WeChat for China). It’s the most widely used messaging app, and all the guides and drivers will have it on their phone. If you want connectivity beyond WiFi, you need a data plan. If you have T-Mobile in the US, you have global roaming which works in most places. If not, ask your carrier to give you global roaming (may be ridiculously expensive, e.g. with ATT). Or get a local SIM. In most places, it will take less than half an hour. Don’t do it at the airport, do it after you checked in at the hotel, at a local place.

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