Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.
The Lost City of the Inca. Re-discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, Machu Picchu is the epitome of wonderment. I don’t know where I first learned of Machu Picchu–maybe it was in a National Geographic article (thanks Mawma and Pawpa for that subscription when I was a kid), or in my 12th grade Humanities class, or during my graduate training in architectural history. Whenever it was and ever since, I’ve wanted to go there. To see for myself the craftsmanship of the Inca and the beauty of the awe-inspiring landscape.
Fortunately for me, it was also a dream of my husband, whose vision included hiking the Inca Trail. (Apparently, we’re in good company.) I’ve already shared our experience on the Inca Trail–an experience I’ll treasure all my life. Instead of providing the history of Machu Picchu (you’ll be far better educated picking up a book like the one we bought, The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour), I’m going to write more about the experience itself, logistics of visiting, and share some pictures (of course)!
Much is still unknown about Machu Picchu and its various components. Today, most seem to agree that it was a royal estate and religious center. Built by Inca ruler Pachacuti in the mid-1400s, it was used for less than a century until the Spaniards conquered in the 1530s. Then it was abandoned, forgotten, and overgrown for 350 years.
When you visit, expect:
- Lots of crowds
- Cold, hot, wet, and dry weather (all in one day!)
- Knee-pummeling stairs (wear good shoes or boots!)
- To be totally and utterly awe-struck
If you want a bit of the Inca Trail experience without actually hiking the Inca Trail, plan to make the early morning trek up to the Sun Gate–it will be challenging. For a somewhat easier hike, the walk to the Inca Bridge is totally worth it; you do have to sign in and out at a guard station–a precaution, I’m sure, to ensure that all visitors safely return by closing time. If you’re more adventurous than me, you might consider paying extra to hike to the top of Wayna Picchu (buy tickets in advance–only 400 people are admitted each day).
Photos from Day 1 (click on any photo to see them larger):
Photos from Day 2 (click on any photo to see them larger):
And if you can’t get enough of Machu Picchu, check out these before and after excavation photos at National Geographic.
There are two ways to experience Machu Picchu. The first is to take a (very expensive) train to Aguas Calientes, then ride a bus up to the site. The second is to hike the classic Inca Trail (or one of the alternative routes) like we did.
If you decide to take the train to Aguas Calientes, you can book from Cusco (actually Poroy–20 minutes outside of town by taxi) on Perurail. Another option is to travel to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley and catch the train there for a slightly reduced fare–many tour groups provide this option–or you can ride the Cruz del Sur bus to Ollantaytambo or take a taxi on your own. If you take a taxi you can arrange additional stops at Inca sites along the way–most hotels in Cusco are happy to arrange transport. If you depart from Ollantaytambo you have the option of riding Inca Rail as well. I’d definitely recommend researching your options on this decision. Ollantaytambo in itself is worth a visit–we stayed there one night and wish we could have stayed longer.
If you hike the Inca Trail, most tour operators will provide transport from your central Cusco hotel to KM 82, the start of the trail. You’re still dependent on the bus and train, however, to return from Machu Picchu. In our case, we rode Perurail to Ollantaytambo, enjoyed a night there, then rode a Cruz del Sur bus back to Cusco. We were not impressed with Perurail. Despite purchasing our tickets on-line together, when we presented our receipt to get boarding passes, we were not seated together. Fortunately, our mis-pairing was with another couple in the same situation, so we just switched seats with each other and we were all happy. The other problem we experienced was at the station in Aguas Calientes, waiting to board. Despite asking an attendant several times if we were waiting at the correct spot, our train began to board at a different gate we weren’t even aware of and we nearly missed it. One tip about the train: for the return trip, sit on the right side–it offers better views of the Urubamba River and several ruins.
The buses between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu run frequently beginning at 5:30AM until 3:30 PM. The last bus leaving Machu Picchu for Aguas Calientes is 5:30PM. You simply queue up until each bus is full–the longest we waited for a bus was about 15 minutes. We rode a bus down from Machu Picchu the first day, and then from Aguas Calientes and back the second day. There’s no need to purchase tickets in advance, though we did through our Inca Trail tour operator, Aventours. The ride takes about 20 minutes and is spectacular, though bumpy. I actually felt a bit of motion sickness each time we rode it. The buses wind up the switchbacks, sometimes having to stop and back up to let another bus pass.
Food and Services
Just outside the Machu Picchu gates there is a plaza with a dining court above and restrooms below. There are no restrooms once you enter the site, so be sure to take advantages of the restrooms there. They cost 1 sol to use, but are very clean and stocked with toilet paper! You can exit and re-enter the site on the same day, but it is a bit of a hassle–the distances within the site are large and if you need to exit you may have a long hike ahead of you. Then you have to wait in line again, which requires a passport check.
We found the food to be adequate at the dining court. Sandwiches were pricey ($6-8 US) but we were able to share one and be satisfied. You can also eat the buffet inside the very expensive Sanctuary Lodge for $40 US. Many hotels in town will also pack a box lunch for you. Although food isn’t allowed in the park, we were assured we’d be fine eating our lunch prepared for us by our porters if we found an out-of-they-way spot. We did and had no problems. Just be sure to be a good steward and carry all your trash out with you.
There is also a gift shop. I was interested in a “I survived the Inca Trail” souvenir t-shirt–until I saw the price tag! I wisely decided to wait and see if I could find a similar shirt in town. And I did in the handicrafts market near the train station.
Fortunately, our guide for the Inca Trail gave us a tour of Machu Picchu before leaving us; if you need to arrange a guide, there are many stationed in this plaza area. Their qualifications vary–just agree on a price to cover your entire group before you enter and don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.”
These days, I’m not sure many people still call this town “Aguas Calientes.” Apparently there has been a push for it to be called simply, “Machu Picchu,” and it seems to be sticking. This is strictly a tourist town. There is no car access and other than the buses going up to Machu Picchu, you don’t see many vehicles. Because it is a tourist town, everything is more expensive–food, lodging, souvenirs, etc.
We made a very good decision in spending two days at Machu Picchu. The first day, fresh off the Inca Trail, we were pretty worn out and exhausted. It was nice to be able to ride the bus down to town, check into our hotel, take a shower (!!!), eat a nice meal, get a good night’s sleep, then wake up and experience Machu Picchu all over again. Fresh and rested for day 2.
We weren’t that interested in town. It’s certainly charming in its way but having been developed mostly in the last 30 years, there wasn’t much historic architecture to attract us–especially after having spent time in La Paz, Arequipa, and Cusco. We stayed at the Rupa Wasi Eco Lodge, which is simple and pleasant. It and its lovely Tree House Restaurant became the destination for us. It is an easy walk (though with some steep stairs) from the buses for Machu Picchu–a bit longer walk to the train station. We had a yummy dinner at the Tree House Restaurant, then breakfast there the next morning (included with our room).
From Aguas Calientes, we traveled back to Ollantaytambo–stay tuned to read about that beautiful town in the Sacred Valley.