Considered by some to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Mystic Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Therefore visiting the famous Inca ruins of Machu Pichu has long been on our ‘Travel Wish List’ along with the rest of the world it would seem.
The ruins were re-discovered and revealed to the world in 1911, by American Explorer Hiram Bingham and are in surprisingly good condition due to the fact that the Spaniards never found this city tucked away as it is, in a remote high valley.
The city of Cusco is the usual starting point for those wishing to visit this archaeological wonder. However it is not a good idea to arrive tired after a long flight and not acclimated to elevation. If you are used to living at sea level the rarefied air at 11,200 feet (3400 meters) is going to take its toll and may cause altitude sickness. Not good if you only have a small window of time. Note: Machu Pichu itself is at 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level.
As we have more time than the average visitor, we had worked our way up in elevation with each place we visited before Cusco. We also spent a couple of weeks housesitting in Cusco itself before tackling Machu Pichu (more on that to follow).
Arriving in Cusco is just one step in the journey to Machu Pichu, from there you have two options. You can choose to walk the Caminos Del Inca, the Inka trail, which is 4 days of hiking and camping (porters can be hired to carry your gear). However as we were there in the rainy season and like our creature comforts too much we opted for the second option which is to arrive by train. Trains take four hours from Cusco (Polroy station) or 2 hours from Ollantaytambo station. We opted for the latter journey and loved it
Taking the train option allows you to visit Machu Pichu as a day trip even if staying in Cusco. Possible but—in our opinion–not preferable, we broke our journey up and stayed over in delightful Ollantaytambo (more on that to come).
We had determined that we wanted to be one of the first visitors of the day and to do that we had to overnight in Aguas Calientes (sometimes called Machupicchu or Machupicchu Pueblo). Aguas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Pichu and is in the bottom of a small valley hemmed in by seemingly vertical cliffs. The town itself is dissected by the train line that brings in all those visitors. Most of the town’s hotels are squeezed between the train lines and the river, making for either wonderfully scenic quiet rooms or those overlooking the noise and diesel fumes of the trains, so choose carefully.
There are two train companies that make the thriving Machu Pichu industry possible. They are:
Peru Rail with four daily trains from Poroy Station (near Cusco) all depart between 5 and 9 AM, arriving at Aguas Calientes before 1pm. The earliest return train is at 3:20 pm. The entire trip is almost 4 hours each way which makes for a very long day.
There are 3 classes of trains: ‘Expedition’ Starting price USD 160 roundtrip, ‘Vistadome’ glass top and onboard service for just a little more and the ‘Hiram Bingham’ exclusive train. This is the priciest option at over USD 900 roundtrip in high season and approx. 480 in low.
If you are coming from Ollantaytambo there are more than 10 daily trains to Aguas Calientes. Which is a 90-minute ride starting at 108 USD round trip. Note: the Hiram Bingham train is not available on this route.
Inca Rail Has only one daily train from Poroy Station (near Cusco) departing at 5:55 AM, arriving at Aguas Calientes at 8:48 AM – The return train is at 16:12 PM, arriving Poroy-Cusco at 19:38 and costs around USD 160 round trip.
There are 6 daily trains from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes starting at USD 100 round-trip. They have 3 classes of trains: Premium, Executive and First Class.
Considering the distance travelled these are probably the most expensive train tickets on the planet!
The flow of dollars from the tourists pockets doesn’t stop there, tickets to enter Machu Pichu have to be purchased in advance (bought ours in Cusco) and they are not sold at the site entrance. As the numbers of visitors to the site are controlled it is important to buy in advance especially if visiting in high season. Tickets are date and am or pm specific, so if you bought a ticket for the morning of the 10th and can’t make it, tough luck.
Tickets for entering the site itself cost $70 USD for Foreigners (significantly less if you are an Andean or Peruvian) and if you want to be more adventurous you can pay $16 extra and choose to climb Montana Machu Pichu or Huayna Picchu. Again these extras are time specific and numbers are strictly controlled. Having climbed that trail we know why!
To get to Machu Pichu itself from Aqua Calinte you have two options.
You can walk the 9 ½ km, with a 1300 foot vertical climb and lots of stairs and it takes two to three hours. Be warned, the bus drivers do not slow down for pedestrians.
Or you pay $24 USD (as an adult foreigner) for a return bus ticket. There are no taxi’s or private vehicles allowed on this twisty road so it’s an easy choice.
The site opens at 6 am and the bus ride takes about 20 minutes so we bolted an early breakfast and laden with cameras, waterproofs, sun hats and water we were at the bus station at 5.15 am. You should have seen the lineup; it stretched almost as far as we could see.
As more people piled up behind us, the buses started coming in and as each was filled moved off to make room for the next. We were getting concerned that we would not make it out of there until the first buses had done the round trip, but needn’t have worried as the buses just kept arriving. Moving people to Machu Pichu is a major Industry in Peru!
As we pulled out of town there was a palpable sense of excitement from us all, we were going to see Machu Pichu! The road twisted up and around through dense jungle with the occasional view of the sheer drop below, before beginning it’s decent down to the heart of the Sacred Valley. Mike was the first to glimpse some of the terraces surrounding the site and in seconds we had arrived.
Here we encountered yet another line up as we waited for the site to open and for tickets and passports to be checked once again. This delay also gives you the chance to hire a guide if you so wish, we declined as we knew that our planned trip up the mountain was going to take at least 3 to 4 hours.
At last we were through the gates and standing at Machu Pichu! Swathed in early morning mist and cloud the ethereal and mystical quality of this vast site was overwhelming. Even though 100’s of people had passed through the gates before us, we could have been alone as the mist had swallowed them from sight.
From an isolated spot on a small terrace we stood and drank it in, the quiet the peace and the intriguing glimpses of the city as the mist and clouds, opened and closed around us.
Our plan was to climb the mountain as early as possible (7am) so we spent a little time wandering the terraces and marvelling at what appeared to be almost intact buildings (minus their roofs) looming out of the mist. The site is well signed and no go zones are cordoned off, so with a little understanding of the basic layout we were able to find the trail for our wee climb very easily.
Passports and valid ticket are again needed here and after being passed though. We were off!
This is not a gentle stroll in the park folks, the steps are fairly even in size, mostly…… Sometimes it’s a case of stepping from one slippery flat stone to the next and oh yes, with all that mist and cloud it’s wet too. Good walking shoes are a necessity!
Although we were fairly acclimated to the elevation here, we both found ourselves taking it nice and steady and stopping at regular intervals, to catch our breath and to enjoy the tantalizing glimpses below. About an hour later the clouds were starting to lift and we were getting fairly confident that the gods would smile on us and bless us with clear skies when we reached the top.
In the meantime those glimpses were becoming more surreal and even more of a reason to just stop and take it in. We did see a few people on our journey up but they were few and far between, there were many more on our climb down, as the second wave of climbers were on their way up.
Our destination seemed to be teasing us, ‘that had to be the top there just ahead didn’t it’? Only for us to see that no, the trail just kept on going!
When we finally emerged, red faced, triumphant and soggy from the dew and rain showers, we were wreathed in a ghostly world of mist and cloud. With nothing to do but wait we took the opportunity to sit and relax and hope those gods would be kind.
Yes! As you can see the clouds soon boiled off and we were rewarded with our first glimpse of the entire Machu Pichu site far, far below us. There were about 12 people there so we all took turns for that iconic photo shoot and then found a quite spot to enjoy the view and a well-earned snack.
I have heard other people say that going down is the hardest and I can attest that it is. My overworked leg muscles were beginning to protest and were screaming at me by the time we reached the bottom. However with a helping hand from Mike here and there we made it down intact and triumphant!
It was now after 11 am and our ticket was only good till noon, so how where we going to see much of the site close up? Want to know a secret? The staff doesn’t clear everybody out at noon, before letting the afternoon visitors in, so we just carried on.
The sun was now high overhead, heat was radiating off those stone walls and buildings and we were almost out of water. So we had limited time to see as much as we could before we would have to leave. With Mike’s unerring sense of direction we visited the Sun Temple, the Condor temple and the serried ranks of building s that skirt the central plaza.
Thoroughly exhausted and tired of dodging and weaving around (the other) tourists we eventually decided to call it a full day and found the exit and the very welcome bathrooms. Note: There are no toilets on the site itself, all are located outside of the entry/exit gates.
As our bus wound its way back along the road we had the chance to sit back, relax and relive the experience. Grinning contentedly at each other, we declared that it was worth every penny and every fricken step.