I’ve visited many places in the world that seemed overrated once I actually saw them. You know, places that you hear about all your life, and then you visit them and think, “That’s it?” Many people have this feeling when they first see the Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre in Paris. For some reason, people often think it’s too small to be famous. (After all, it’s only 2’6″ x 1’9″.) I’ve led many groups to the Louvre, and almost without exception, the most common reaction is like the humorist Dave Barry’s: “Excuse me! where is the BIG Mona Lisa?” When you get right down to it, for most people, this painting a a tad underwhelming. You wonder why you bothered to fight the crowds to see it.
(Excuse me! where is the BIG Mona Lisa? 🙂
Once in a while, though, as you travel the Earth, you come across something that literally takes your breath away. It’s that sharp intake of breath with the “ohhhh” that follows it: that’s when you know you’re seeing something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Even all the hype about a place still hasn’t prepared you for that moment.
(The classic view of Machu Picchu!)
That is what happened to me at Machu Picchu, Peru’s transcendent World Heritage site and recently voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Even now, as I relive the experience in my mind, I am stunned by what I experienced there.
Getting to Machu Picchu is not easy. To whet your appetite, and give you a small idea of why it’s worth it, check out this cool slide show!
We used the city of Cusco (one of the two capitals of the Inca Empire) as our base. I would definitely recommend spending at least a few days in and around Cusco. This is especially important if you’re coming from sea level, or a low-elevation area. You’re high up in the Andes here, and if you’re not acclimated to high altitude, there’s a good chance you’ll get altitude sickness, which I can tell you is not fun. (And I came from 4,500 feet!) Don’t think that flying into Lima (Peru’s capital) will help much: it’s nearly at sea level. Keep in mind: Machu Picchu is at 8,000 feet above sea level (2,430 meters) while Cusco it at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters).
(Street scene in Cusco. Note the huge blocks of stone that make up many foundations here: these are from the Inca period, and are all laid without mortar. You can see how big the stones are compared to the people!)
There are no roads to Machu Picchu. To get there, you’ve either got to hike or take a train. There are a lot of options within those two means of transport, so I’ll try to break them down now.
One of the great treks in the world is to hike the “Inca Trail.” This is the classic way to approach Machu Picchu. I’ve never done it, but I’ve gathered some information from www.incatrailperu.com, a non-commercial website designed to give information on doing the hike. Here’s what I’ve taken from their great website:
This is the most popular route trekked by hundreds of visitors each day. This beautiful trail starts at kilometre 82 (so called because it is 82 km along the railroad from Cusco) and takes in many of the Inca ruins including Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna and of course Machu Picchu. Because this route is the most popular you can easily find a tour operator with groups leaving everyday that you can join. Joining a group works out much cheaper than a private service. Approximate price of a basic group service is between US$560 and US$660 per person. A group service is when a trekking company advertises a fixed departure date and pools all of their clients together. This means that you will be trekking with other people from different parts of the world which can be great fun. The maximum group size is limited to 16 persons. This offers the most economical way to do the Inca Trail. The price for a private service depends on how many people there are in your group but expect to pay around US$1000 per person for a very small group of between 2 and 4 persons. Prices may drop to around US$560 per person if you have a large group of friends. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Inca Trail 5 day Trek Itinerary (Classic Inca Trail Trek – moderate)
This itinerary follows the same route as 4 day trek. However you have the opportunity to visit the ruins of Llactapata where you will probably camp on the first night. You’ll also camp at different less crowded campsites during your trek. Although you will probably arrive at Machu Picchu in the afternoon of the fourth day of the trek you will usually camp down in the Urubamba valley (or possibly stay at a hotel in Aguas Calientes) before returning to Machu Picchu for sunrise on the fifth day. You’ll still be walking 12-15 km per day on days 2, 3 & 4 of the trail so it is not to be regarded as an easy option. This itinerary is not as popular as the 4 day version so you will probably have to take a private trek which is fine if you have a group of friends but can be expensive if there are just the 2 of you. Price for a basic private group depends on how many people there are in your group but expect to pay around US$950 per person for a very small group of between 2 and 4 persons. Prices may drop to around US$600 per person if you have a large group of friends. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Inca Trail 2 day Trek Itinerary (Sacred Trail – easy / moderate)
This is a less strenuous route and starts at kilometre 104 along the railroad from Cusco. The trail climbs up to Wiñay Wayna where you join the final stages of the Classic 4 day hike. From Wiñay Wayna the trek then descends to Machu Picchu. This is a good option for visitors with limited time or who are not fit enough to complete the 4 day version. The trek has the advantage of allowing you to visit the beautiful ruins at Wiñay Wayna and also to experience at least part of the Inca trail. Unlike the 4 day trek you do not need to be acclimatised to undertake the 2 day trek since the trail is at a lower altitude. Many tour operators have daily group departures on this trek. Approximate price of a basic group service is between US$320 and US$380 per person. Price for a basic private group of just 2 persons is about US$450-500 per person. Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
Salkantay / Inca Trail 7 day Itinerary (moderate / difficult)
A spectacular 7 day trek that passes beneath the sacred snow-capped mountain of Salkantay. This mountain God (or Apu) was worshipped by the Incas and is still honoured by existing Quechua farmers. The trail starts in the warm citrus valley near Mollabamba and eventually joins the Classic Inca trail route at Wayllabamba on the fourth day. The route involves some high passes which can be bitterly cold during the months of June and July. However the trek combines the best of mountain scenery with the Inca ruins of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna before arriving at the citadel of Machu Picchu for sunrise on the final day of the trek. You need to acclimatise in Cusco for a couple of days prior to starting this trek. Some tour operators have fixed departure dates for this trek. The approximate price of a group service is between US$750 and US$850 depending on the size of the group. Price for a basic private group of just 2 persons is between US$1500 and US$2000 per person (the price is a lot cheaper the more friends you have in your group). Trek permit necessary so book well in advance.
There are a few things you need to be aware of if you are seriously thinking of hiking the Inca trail. First, the Peruvian government (to minimize environmental damage to the Trail and the surrounding areas) has limited the number of people that can be on the Trail on any day to 500. This number includes porters and guides: the maximum number of hikers is 200. You are also required to obtain a trekking permit in advance (and there are several government checkpoints along the trail that will check!) Each hiker is also required to have a licensed guide, which means that permits must be obtained from licensed tour operators. The website I mentioned above has lists of tour operators. It also has a huge amount of information for anyone planning to spend any time on (or near!) the Inca Trail.
The first thing you need to know is that there is no train station in Cusco itself. You’ll have to get to one of two places: Poroy (which is about 20 minutes from central Cusco); or Ollantaytambo, which is actually in the “Sacred Valley”, is between 1.5-2 hours away from Cusco, and is reachable by bus or taxi. I definitely recommend a taxi to Poroy, which is easy and cheap!
There is also no train station at Machu Picchu! The closest station is Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo). The train trip itself is pretty spectular.
(This is a view from the Peru Rail train.)
What you are looking at, then,is a train trip from Poroy to Aguas Calientes.
The train is how most visitors reach Aguas Calientes. The two main rail companies that make the trip are Peru Rail and Inca Rail. They both offer widely varying levels of service, from high-end luxury trains, complete with live music, dinner on board, and even fashion shows, down to your basic “here’s your seat, enjoy the ride” type of trains. If you’re looking to splash out on a trip that takes anywhere from 3-4.5 hours, google either Peru Rail or Inca Rail to see their options. We did Peru Rail’s most basic service, which they now call “Expedition.” When we did it, it was called “Backpacker”, so that should give you some indication of what to expect. The train itself and the seats were just fine, but there are no frills on this service. You get a good seat, with the same spectacular views, but for a lot less. Prices can vary wildly, depending on the line and type of service you want. For example Peru Rail’s Expedition costs $45 one way, while the same line’s “Hiram Bingham” service is $386!
(A YouTube video of the trip: gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect on Peru Rail’s Expedition!)
I very much recommend the Expedition service of Peru Rail. Seats were comfortable, the staff were very friendly and helpful (most spoke English well), and you can’t beat the price!
Once you arrive at Aguas Calientes, you again have two options to reach Machu Picchu. You can either hike up or take a shuttle bus. Both can be downright scary! 🙂
The hike up takes about 1.5 hours. If you’re not in reasonably good physical condition, don’t try it: it’s not for the fainthearted! (But then, neither is the bus ride!)
(Stone path that leads from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu: don’t wear flip-flops!)
Start up the bus road that leaves Aguas Calientes towards Machu Picchu. After 30 minutes you’ll take a sharp left turn over the Vilcanota River, passing a large metal bridge. Directly after the bridge take an immediate right turn down a small lane. The lane leads to the Manuel Chávez Ballón Museum (Machu Picchu Museum). Just along that lane you’ll see this sign: follow it!
The path crosses the bus road a couple of times: everything is well-signed, so if you’re careful you shouldn’t have any trouble.
We chose to ride the bus up to Machu Picchu. To say that it is a scary ride would be an understatement. The road isn’t all that wide, it goes through many hairpin turns, and in many places there is no guard rail on the cliff side of the road. Yes, I said cliff! Check out the Google map for the road!
Consettur is the company that operates the shuttle bus. You can buy your tickets in Aguas Calientes, Cusco, or at Machu Picchu itself. I recommend getting your tickets at their Cusco office (Avenida Infancia 433, Wanchaq), because the lines in Aguas Calientes can be QUITE long! Once purchased, the ticket is good for 3 days. The roundtrip bus fare is around $25.
(Aguas Calientes bus stop, for the shuttle bus. Located on Avenida Hermanos Ayar, the street that runs along the river. It’s about a 5-minute walk from the train station: just follow the signs!)
As you can see, Machu Picchu is not a place you can just decide to visit: you’ve got to do your planning, or else book a tour that does it for you. But now that we’re there, let’s see why I think it’s such an amazing place!
Machu Picchu is called the “Lost City of the Incas” because it was never found by the Spanish. That’s pretty amazing when you consider how hard those conquistadores searched for Inca treasure. Of course it was not lost to the Incas or their descendants, the modern-day native people of much of Andean South America. And who were the Incas? Here are 25 cool things you might not have know about that ancient people.
There is some debate about who first “discovered” Machu Picchu, but there is little argument about who opened it to the outside world. That distinction belongs to the American explorer Hiram Bingham, who first saw it on July 24, 1911. He came to Cusco in that year to find Vilcabamba, the last capital of the Incas.
(Hiram Bingham in Peru. Some believe that the Indiana Jones character was based on Bingham.)
When Bingham arrived in the Urubamba Valley, he was told by farmers of some ruins high up in the mountains. With the help of the locals and (so legend has it) led by an 11-year-old boy, he climbed to Machu Picchu (which means “Old Mountain” in the Quechua language of the Incas, a language still used by millions in Peru and Bolivia.) This is what he saw:
(Photograph taken by Hiram Bingham in 1911 at Machu Picchu.)
In 1913 Bingham wrote about his expedition to Peru for the National Geographic magazine (which had co-sponsored the expedition). It is fascinating reading: you can find it here:
We wanted to really explore the site without the crowds, so we stayed at a small hotel in Aguas Calientes for one night. We were able to go up to Machu Picchu twice, before we headed back to Cusco. This turned out to be a great idea, because we were able to visit the site at different times of the day, avoiding the crowds on both days.
We stayed at the Sol de los Andes Hotel, which I can totally recommend.
There are a lot of YouTube videos about Machu Picchu, with many of them giving you a good idea of what to expect when you visit. Here’s one I particularly like, because it has lots of information about Machu Picchu itself.
What makes Machu Picchu so special for me is the feeling you get when you’re there. It’s the sense that you are in the past, and if you close your eyes and listen, you can hear the people of the past, their language, their music, their daily lives. It’s easy to shut out all the crowds and the souvenir sellers and the tour guides at Machu Picchu. Even though the site is not large, you can always find a peaceful corner. To me Machu Picchu is a sacred place, something to be honored and treasured. Unlike other Inca sites, the Christian God never came here. What you find at Machu Picchu is the Inca presence, unadulterated by Spanish names or language, and untouched by any other civilization. Yes, there are plenty of signs of the modern world, but step away from that and you will find Machu Picchu. Close your eyes and you will feel the Incas around you.