That said here are some tips: Machu Picchu (MP) isn’t cheap. Buy the entrance tickets to MP while you are in Cusco. Our friends Chad and Anna on their blog have a detailed explanation of how to get to MP on the cheap using local transport as well some insightful investigation on where all the money is going (visit http://chanatrek.com/?p=152
). For time purposes we chose to do the train – you can buy the tickets on line. The train connecting Cusco with Machu Picchu is currently under construction due to the floods in February which caused landslides and destroyed whole portions of the track
. Thus, we took buses from Cusco to a town outside Ollantaytambo (another village in the Sacred Valley) and then caught the train from there to Machu Picchu Pueblo (aka Aguas Calientes). We were on the "New Backpacker" train – we have no clue how it’s different from the other trains – but the train itself is nice with large, clean windows on both sides and on the roof, providing almost 360 views. The train ride was the most memorable we’ve been on with gorgeous views - and we quickly became friends with the couple we sat across from, Emma & Matt, who live in Seattle.
When we arrived in Aguas Calientes we tried to hike up the Putucusi mountain, which offers views of Aguas and Machu Picchu, but again due to the landslide, the trail, which has ladder-sections, was completely wiped out in parts, including ladders broken in pieces. Don’t think that’s going to be operational for a few months…
We were warned that Aguas Calientes was not much to look at – nothing more than an over-sprawled tourist trap of restaurants, shops, and hostels. And yes, it is that – commercialized to the nth degree because everyone who is going to MP goes through here at some point, but the setting is amazing – right outside our hostel we had a view of tall, green, massive mountains that cradle the sacred site high above
. Plus, although its whole purpose is tourism – the people who live here still have normal lives to lead. On our first night we saw a school parade and performance in the local school auditorium, which was a lot of fun. It was similar to any school performance in any part of the world: parents with cameras at-the-ready; a slightly cheesy but enthusiastic host, excited kids, and other volunteers/parents cooking and selling goods for the masses. The only difference: fireworks, Peruvians love fireworks evidently because every 10 minutes there were pops and sparks. Each class performed a dance, and every act we saw was very good – excellent costumes, good music, and the kids nailed their choreography. So yes, even though Aguas is over-commercialization at its worst, in one way, the Peruvian culture still thrives there regardless.
Dinner is entertainment as well - there are so many restaurants, competition is stiff. The waitresses come out on the street cajoling passer-bys with enticements: “4 drinks for 1; appetizers free.” 10 feet away the hostess from the next establishment will shout out “5 for 1!” If you relax, and don’t get too overwhelmed by it, you can actually have some fun playing people off one another and get a great deal. We had our first pisco sour here – and it’s good - kind of like a margarita.
The good thing about AC is that it allows you to get on the first load of buses headed to MP in the morning and it allows you to stay in MP until it closes
. For all you high rollers out there – there is a hotel right outside the gate and they have done a good job at making it low-key (it blends in with the environment) price: $700 to $1000 a night! So today we woke up at 4 in the morning, packed up (we had small backpacks only), had a cup of coffee and headed to the buses. At 5 am there was already a line – luckily we bought our bus tickets the night before so no need to stand in 2 lines. It’s a smooth operation – there is a caravan of buses and at roughly 5:25 the buses start loading and once they are full they’re off.
Before you arrive in MP you hear all these stories: no food or water is allowed, no backpacks etc. Here’s the truth: if you hiked to MP on one of the trails and have huge bags and walking sticks with you, you do have to check those items – however, our small backpacks, which contained water and food, were allowed, no problem. Another thing to note: the main entrance to MP is on the southern side of the ruins, the only bathrooms are also at the main entrance. So if nature calls on the northern side it’s a hike to get back.
As you pass through the gates, walk up the trail, and peer over the ledge the glimpse of MP takes you back – it’s bigger than you imagine
. The setting is dramatic and mystical – the ruins are situated in the saddle between two mountain peaks, which makes it look like something out of a fantasy book. We arrived around 6:00ish and the sun hadn’t made its way over the mountains to hit the ruins, so most of the ruins were in the shade and mist – which gives it a ghost-like effect. It wasn’t until 7am that the sun’s rays hit. After taking a bunch of pictures from different angles, we walked to the other side of the ruins to wait our turn to climb Wayna/Huayna Picchu. Although a do-able hike by anyone (a grandmother made it up to the top) it is a very
steep ascent; a cardiovascular workout that will leave anyone (star athlete included) huffing and puffing a bit. We climbed it in 40 minutes –the record apparently is 22 minutes. Access is restricted to 400 hundred people a day; so you have to arrive at MP when it opens in order to hike it. The gates for Wayna Picchu open at 7am and in staggered starts 200 are allowed to go up and are supposed to be finished by 10am so that the second 200 can go up. The views were tremendous - great overview of the ruins – we stayed up there for a few hours just taking it all in and talking with a couple of other travelers – including one we will always remember, a really good guy who went by Cubby – the name says it all!
After a bathroom/lunch break we headed back in to explore; at this point there were many more groups at the site
. Since we were not on an organized tour we eavesdropped on other tours, which is very easy to do. The guides explained that the name Machu Picchu means old or ancient mountain. MP wasn’t discovered by the Spanish conquerors of the Inca empire, but found by an American explorer. There are lots of theories about its purpose: an agricultural center which because of its fertile surroundings provided the Inca nobles with plenty of coca and maize; and a religious site with numerous temples. The Incas used certain techniques in making Machu Picchu that made it resistant to landslides and earthquake tremors. What’s cool is that llamas roam the ruins throughout the day; the llamas are the eco-friendly lawn-mowers of the ruins. And they are fun to watch. With your ticket you’re given a map of the highlights: the names of the sections sounded like terms from an Indiana Jones movie: House of the High Priest, Temple of the Three Windows, the Sacred Rock, Temple of the Sun. But the best was just wandering around finding places to sit and contemplate the magnitude of it all, and looking out at the majesty that surrounded us.
MP is actually lower in elevation than Cusco, but you wouldn’t know it climbing up the steep steps throughout the ruins. Again, although we might have lost some of our muscle strength throughout the year on this trip – we still are in pretty good shape and by the end of the day we were beat! We stayed until the whistle blew and the guards started waving us out. Truly, one of the most memorable days on our trip.
Final tips: 1) Bring cash with you – there are a couple of ATMs in AC but they are unreliable – both were down; one guy frantically came up to us trying to find a working machine, there were none. 2) After your day at Machu Picchu eat at Indo Feliz – it’s warm, cozy, and has really good food. Not cheap but the set meal is a bargain for the type of food you’re getting! A great way to end any day of sight seeing!
We talked about it and out of all the Wonders of the World/UNESCO World Heritage sites that we've seen – Machu Picchu is the most magnificent. A lot of that has to do with the setting – it’s truly breathtaking. Although there is a lot to learn/know about MP – the best part is just sitting back and enjoying the vistas.