We've seen a lot of sites off the beaten path so far on the trip. These have been some really amazing things, but our first "major" attraction was Machu Picchu (MP). MP isn't just an UNESCO world heritage site, but really a site of world renowned. MP wasn't found by the Spanish as they conquered the Incan empire, as opposed to many other ruins which were destroyed. As such, the site was remarkably intact and has been undergoing restoration almost since it was discovered. American archaeologist Hiram Bingham "discovered" the site in 1911, shown the site by locals who knew of it. It is Unequivocally worth the visit.
Actually, just go look at the (207!) pictures we took; that is the spectacular bit. Go right now, I'll wait… Great, weren't those fantastic? Jordan spent hours pouring through the over 500 images we shot, color correcting and thinning them to the best of the best.
We spent 2.5 days and 2 nights in Aguas Calientes, the city at the foot of MP. I'll discuss getting there and the logistics in the second half of the post. We arrived around 5:45AM to see the site before the throngs of tourists begin to pour in with their tours around 10AM. This allowed us to get some fantastic pictures in the beginning, almost entirely devoid of people. You'll notice that the further into the pictures you look, the more tourists will be present in the shots.
We followed a sign just on the left just after the entrance marked "largo" or "long" which lead up a steep set of stairs to the top of the growing terraces. From here you get a complete view of the city and the picture that you'll most see associated with the site. We spent a long time taking a lot of pictures from this area and saw the sunrise over the eastern mountains.
Afterwards we followed a path the the south with sign for "Inca Bridge". We hadn't heard about this before visiting the site and it isn't widely discussed that I've found afterwards when researching for this post. Inca Bridge is part of a path that leads west out of MP, it is essentially a draw bridge type structure cut into a cliff with a 1,900 foot drop beneath. This was used for protection of the city. I highly recommend the trip out to the site, it is really interesting. The path leading there has some very steep drop offs, without any kind of railing or walls for the most part, but it is well maintained.
After returning from the bridge, we took a bit of a break outside the gates before entering the city proper. We re-entered and began on the eastern edge of the city where most of the housing is located. We spent a long time wandering through this labyrinth of stonework. There are lots of different levels and pathways. Once finished there we our way to the northern part of the park where the entrance to Wayna Picchu (a sister site perched at the top of the mountain overlooking MP). Entrance to Wayna Picchu is limited to 400 people per day and unfortunately was completely booked weeks in advance, thus we weren't able to enter.
We then made our way to western portion of the site where various temples and some amazing stonework can be seen. At this point, it was around 1pm the site was really overwhelmed with people and we were exhausted. Jordan melted down by this tim and started running through the site. We began making our way to the exit after about 8 hours of exploring.
We got some ice cream and water at the park entrance for the typical, overpriced, tourist centric site prices ($3.44/dixie cup of ice cream and $3/bottle of water). After resting a bit, we began our descent down the stairs from MP to Agauas Calientes (we decided not to spend the $7/ticket to take the bus down the mountain). We ended up back at our hostel about 1.25 hours after departing.
Getting To Machu Picchu
This part of the post is entirely about getting to Machu Picchu (MP) from Cusco, Peru. We had a number of references that helped us along the way, but many failed to provide the most straightforward methods. It is important to note that no road connect to Aguas Calientes, the city you must leave from to get to MP. This leaves you with two options for entering the city: by train or on foot.
We'd originally considered a more economical and adventurous route by foot into the city. This would have involved leaving Cusco by bus to a city called Santa Maria then taking a taxi to Santa Teresa, a bus to the Hydroelectric Plant (!) and walking along the train track for 2 hours to Aguas Calientes. After figuring in various costs and how tiring this would be, we decided to take the train.
The train is vastly more expensive, but it is quick and comfortable. We spent $65 each for tickets from Ollanta which is a 1.5 hour collectivo ride from Cusco for $2.60 per person. This saved us a total of about $50 on our tickets to Aguas Calientes. On the return, we took the train all the way back to Cusco (actually Poroy, about 30 minutes outside Cusco) this was $84 per person and we had to pay $13.50 for a taxi back to the city.
You also need to get your tickets for MP; we chose to do this ahead of time in Cusco so that we were sure to get tickets. The only allow 2,500 people in per day and this is high season, they sell out daily. The easiest way to get tickets is as follows:
- Go to http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/
- Select the date you want to visit and follow the prompts entering all your information
- This will give you a reservation, note your reservation number and read the rest of this post.
Once tickets for MP are reserved, there are a number of places that you can pay for them (you can't do it on the website at this time). I had read on one occasion that it might be possible to pay at Peru Rail offices, but this way isn't listed anywhere on the official site (or really on any of the guides we read). Since we had to buy tickets for the train we headed down to Plaza Armas in Cusco and waltzed into the Peru Rail office.
There we booked our train tickets and with our reservation number from the MP website we were able to pay for our MP tickets as well. They printed out both the Rail and MP tickets and sent us on our way. Ultimately, I can't think that there is really an easier way to get those tasks accomplished. (Of note, they also had two computers for use in the Peru Rail office that you could even accomplish the reservation portion of the MP ticket process as well)
We arrived in Aguas Calientes the afternoon before we wanted to go to MP, so that we could wake up early and be among the first to the site. We woke up at 4:15 AM to get to Machu Picchu. Our hostel (Supertramp, yea really) provided breakfast at 4:30 AM and we were out the door around 4:45. We headed to the bus station and got in line, we were close the front and would have been on the 4th bus or so up the mountain. However, as boarding started we were asked for our tickets, which we assumed we got at the front of the line. I ran back to the (UNMARKED) ticket office while Jordan held our spot in line (apparently she got grief from some folks in line while she waited at the front for my return). I quickly paid for the tickets and ran back to the front of the line and we boarded the bus.
I was worried that this might cause us to miss sunrise at the site, however we were able to get on a bus only 4 or 5 behind the one we might have otherwise gotten. An important point to remember is that "sunrise" is actually much later than actual sunrise because the sun must get over the mountains in the east. This ended up being a non-issue and we were there with plenty of time to spare.
I highly recommend getting up early to head to the site, it was vastly different just before 6 AM than it was once many of the day's tourists began to arrive.
Nuts and Bolts
Most of what I'd normally cover here was in the "Getting to Machu Picchu" section, but there are another couple things to note:
- We stayed at Supertramp, they served a proper breakfast at 4:30AM with enough time to make it to the bus stop to be among the first at the site. However, they only have two private rooms which were booked. We stayed in dorms and people came into our dorm as late as 12AM and turned on lights in our room. If you can find another hostel that serves breakfast in the morning I'd recommend it.
- Without question you should be getting up at 4 or 4:15 to make it to the site. The line for busses by 5:30AM when they start up the mountain was extraordinarily long. By noon the site was crazy and almost entirely filled with people.
- I wound NOT recommend taking the stairs up to the site from Aguas Calientes. This is a well-maintained path, but it is stairs all the way up and the site has tons of stairs. We spent 8 hours walking up and down stairs and around the site, you want to be fresh for this. We walked down the stairs, it wasn't difficult at all and saved us $14