There’s a lot we could tell you about Machu Picchu that cannot already be found in countless travel guides and on websites: that the fabled ruins are situated on a small hilltop high up in the Andes (2.430 meters), that the site was only rediscovered a little over hundred years ago and that archeologists have speculated ever since about the origins and importance of Machu Picchu to the Incas without getting much closer to the answer. It’s all part of the mystery.
Though some more in-depth understanding and background of what is known of the almost 600 year history of Machu Picchu is necessary to truly appreciate this long forgotten citadel, first and foremost it’s a place that you have to experience by just walking around.
One of the New7Wonders of the World
Machu Picchu had been one the number one spot of our bucket list for a very long time, even before it became one of the New7Wonders of the World. It was our primary motivation to visit South America this year. It turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of a trip that already had so many memorable moments.
To get to Machu Picchu we took a Peru Rail train from Ollantaytambo in the afternoon to Aguas Calientes. Glass ceiling windows afforded grand views of the mountains. Along the way we passed the starting-off point for the famous 4 day Inca Trail. We’d considered walking it, but since we don’t like hardcore camping we wanted to do the 2 day Inca Trail. Regretfully spots were not available. Considering that Machu Picchu was our focal point we didn’t really mind taking the train (we love train travel actually).
Aguas Calientes greeted us with a labyrinth of souvenir stalls just outside the train station. Walking to our hostal we discovered that the rest of the town mainly consists of restaurants, hostals, hotels and tour agencies. So much for some authentic vibe, but there’s no way around Aguas Calientes if you want to visit Machu Picchu.
Early morning waiting lines
Because we wanted to get one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu to beat the crowds that arrive midmorning we got up very early the next morning to get to the bus stop. When we got there around 5.15 AM (the first bus leaves at 5.30) we had to get all the way to the back of the mother of all waiting lines. Hundreds of people had beaten us to it.
Luckily we had already bought our bus tickets the night before, which saved us some time. The bus operation however was very efficient and half an hour later we were on our way for the forty minute ride up to Machu Picchu. Here again we had to queue to get to the entrance, but once inside most people dispersed so quickly that it didn’t feel too crowded.
Still, there were far more people than we had expected (and that number would grow significantly during the morning and early afternoon as the short time lapse video below shows).
Sitting on the terraces
We walked to one of the higher terraces for the iconic view of Machu Picchu with Wayne Picchu in the background. We sat down and stared at it in awe for about two hours, while clouds drifted in and out, the ruins sometimes completely disappearing form sight, adding to the mystery of the place.
We pitied the people who had acquired one of the daily 400 much coveted tickets for the arduous climb up Wayna Picchu. The mountain seemed to be covered in clouds much of the morning. I’d wanted to go up as well, but after Eugénie had seen pictures of the hike up she politely declined accompanying me. I than decided to not go as well.
Instead we had bought tickets for the longer but less scary 1,5-2 hour walk up Machu Picchu Mountain for all-encompassing views from the opposite side of Machu Picchu. But when conditions were still extremely cloudy before the final entry time, we decided to abstain from going there too.
Hiking to the Sun Gate
That left us more than enough time to wander around the ruins, taking an alternative hike op to the Sun Gate (where people who walk the Inca Trail lay their eyes on Machu Picchu for the first time) and walking the (very) short trail to the old Inca bridge. But most of the time was spent just sitting on the terraces and completely absorbing the view we had yearned for for so many years.
A little after 4 PM we went down again to Aguas Calientes for an early dinner and the early evening train back to Ollantaytambo. Here we had to wait a long time for the shared taxi to leave for our final destination of the day, Cusco.
We were exhausted, smelly an sticky (thanks to a toxic cocktail of sweet, factor 50 sunscreen and Off bug repellant) but full of adrenalin as well: we had finally seen Machu Picchu!
Travel tips Machu Picchu
Sleep – We spent one night at the El Tambo Machu Picchu hostel. It had comfortable beds, a tidy bathroom, a hot shower and strong wifi. Breakfast was served from 5 AM so we could get an early start for Machu Picchu. We left our luggage at the hostel and picked it up after our visit.
Ticket – Since Machu Picchu is the number one tourist destination in Peru and only 2.500 people are allowed inside the complex each day, make sure you book your entry ticket (145 soles/42 euros) early, especially when travelling during high season (June-September). You can contact a local travel agent or – like we did – arrange it yourself through http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe. The site is in English as well. Don’t forget to bring your passport! You have to show both your entry ticket and passport when entering the site.
Transport – Like the entry ticket it’s wise to book your Peru Rail train ticket before getting to Peru too. We paid $ 122 return from Ollantaytambo (it’s considerably more expensive from Cusco), taking the more luxurious Vistadome train (with roof windows) on the way to Aguas Calientes and an Expedition train back. Peru Rail train tickets can be booked at http://www.perurail.com.
Peru Rail expects travelers to bring carry-on bags only; possibilities for taking large pieces of luggage with you on the train are limited. If you don’t want to chance leaving your suitcases behind at the departure station you can send Peru Rail an email requesting to take your luggage with you. We were allowed to bring our backpacks without a problem.
Eat – A lot of websites and guidebooks mention that it is not allowed to bring food onto the site, but we were not checked for this when entering Machu Picchu. If you don’t bring your own lunch there’s a (pricey) restaurant next to the entrance. Here you will find toilets as well (there are no toilets inside Machu Picchu!). Your ticket is valid for one day so you can leave and re-enter the site (just show your ticket and passport each time you enter).
Health – There are a lot of annoying flies at Machu Picchu so be sure to cover up your legs and arms and/or use a bug repellent with DEET. We saw people whose legs and arms looked like battlefields. I only suffered some minor bites on my hands, Eugénie escaped unscathed.
Inca Trail – Only 500 people per day (including guides and porters) are permitted to the Inca Trail each day and tickets sell out quickly, sometimes as early as six months in advance. This quota includes tickets sold for the 2 day Inca Trail, like we discovered to our disappointment three months before our trip. We were too late. Alternative treks like the Salkantay Trek, however, can be booked until a few days in advance.