Visiting Machu Picchu is one of those classic “bucket list” experiences. We’ve all heard of it and we’ve probably seen pictures of it. Yet, no matter how much a person plans and researches a trip to this world-renowned historical city, it’s impossible to really understand the power of it until you’re there. Machu Picchu is an astounding, beautiful and rather indescribable place. Getting there can be a little complicated as well, making the experience feel that much more unique.
The Machu Picchu archeological site is a feat of engineering. Its breathtaking beauty can be attributed not only to the undulating forested peaks surrounding it, but also to the manpower and genius needed in bringing the place to fruition. Estimated to be built in the 1400s, Machu Picchu required the Incas to completely reshape a mountain, haul in millions of tons of boulders and design complicated water diversion systems. All of this was done without the aid of modern machinery or even horses, which weren’t introduced to the region until the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors.
After riding up on the 7:00am train, our family arrived at the park’s gate early one morning ready to pack as much as we could into our single day pass. After hiking up to the House of Guards on the western side of the city, we marveled at the complexity of it all. Dozens of terraces step down on either side of the mountain. Stone walkways weave around the remnants of massive building foundations. Areas of tightly packed houses open up to large grassy meadows. It’s like looking down at a 3D model. A very big, very old, very impressive 3D model.
At the same time, other peaks surrounding Machu Picchu give an idea of the city’s once natural state – an impossibly steep jungle mountain with sheer drop offs on either side. How in the world did they do this? I wondered.
We passed by the House of Guards and began our trek up the Inca trail to the Sun Gate. The steep walk gave us an appreciation for the process the Incas had once gone through has they hauled materials and supplies in and out of the city. “Cheer up, girls!” I said when the whining began about halfway up. “At least you’re not carrying a massive boulder on your back!”
After hiking back down into the ruins, we could see the perfectly-joined rocks up close and follow the paths of the intricate water systems. “This is crazy,” was a phrase coming out of our mouths a lot.
We decided to hit the restrooms outside the park gate and find a tour guide for the afternoon who could give us a little more information about what we were seeing. Our friendly guide, Felix, spent two hours taking us through the different buildings and chambers while giving us his version of the history of Machu Picchu. I say “his version” because the story of the Machu Picchu area – when it was built, how it was used and who knew about it- vary based on who you talk to. Regardless of the facts and myths, it is a truly amazing experience to see these perfectly planned and constructed ancient buildings in such a unique setting.
While we strolled through the city the weather took a turn of the worse. We huddled under a natural rock canopy for one quick rain shower and then sat in a reconstructed temple for another one just a little while later. In between the storms we got see the city and surrounding hills shrouded in mist.
As we walked back toward the main entrance the skies opened up. We made one last stop at a hut and watched the rivers of water come pouring out of those complex water systems, following the paths designed for them over 700 years ago. The engineering of Machu Picchu was still doing its job in diverting rain water away from the buildings’ foundations and maintaining the architectural integrity of the city. After the bus ride back down to Agua Calientes, we headed straight for the tourist market and bought new Peruvian alpaca wool sweaters to replace our damp shirts. We’ll call them “necessary souvenirs.” After a great meal at El Indio Feliz, the only restaurant deemed not a rip-off in this extremely touristy town, we caught a late train back to Ollantaytamba and our house in the Sacred Valley. We had officially seen Machu Picchu and it was everything we thought it would be. We can check that one off the bucket list!
TRAVEL TIPS FOR MACHU PICCHU
Most people touring Peru have their Machu Picchu tickets booked through a local travel agency. They take a bus or private van to the train station in Ollantaytamba which sits in the heart of the Sacred Valley. After a 1.25 hour train ride, they disembark in the touristy town of Aqua Calientes, climb onto a bus that takes them up to the Machu Picchu park and then tour the ruins for 4 or 5 hours before heading back down to the train or a hotel.
This can be an easy and comfortable way to visit the Machu Picchu ruins. Because the Machu Picchu site is run by the Peruvian government, the process for purchasing tickets is a little bureaucratic and convoluted. In fact, it’s impossible to buy the discounted tickets for children and students on the Machu Picchu web site for some inexplicable reason. These tickets have to be purchased at one of the ticket offices in Cusco or Agua Calientes. Paying the upcharge to go through a tour company can be a good way to go if you have only a few days in this area of Peru and need to make sure you have tickets lined up for a specific date.
Purchasing tickets yourself
As you might have guessed, our family did things a little differently. The nice thing about the Machu Picchu ticketing web site is that you can see how many of the 2500 daily entrances into the park are still available each day, which helps you plan your time and determine when you need to buy tickets. During the time we were staying in the Sacred Valley, we could see that hundreds of tickets were still available each day. This gave us flexibility in choosing the day we made the trip there.
Being the photographer he is, Brian wanted to be at Machu Picchu for the sunrise. Getting the whole family there that early pretty much sounded like it would be hell on earth, so we decided he should see it on his own first. He would go up to Aqua Calientes and buy the discounted tickets for the girls at the ticket office there so the whole family could come back a few days later. Coming up the night before would allow him to get up to the park early for sunrise shots. Sounds like a plan!
We bought Brian’s ticket into the park online the day before he left. However, when he went into the Agua Calientes office to buy tickets for the rest of the family, he learned that he actually didn’t have a ticket for the next day himself. Even though the site had seemingly accepted our payment and even emailed us a confirmation document with the appropriate date and an official reference number, the representative in the Agua Calientes office pointed out to Brian that one word at the bottom of the document meant “Declined.” For whatever reason, the payment hadn’t been accepted, yet we had received what looked like a valid ticket confirmation. Luckily for Brian, other tickets were available for the next day and he was able to purchase one while at the office. However, we now have ZERO faith in the Machu Picchu online ticketing system. Our advice – purchase yours at the ticket office or go through a travel agency.
Hiking up to Machu Picchu Park
Brian is a very athletic hiker and also a bit of a cheapskate, so for his day up at Machu Picchu he decided to hike up to the park gate from Agua Calientes rather pay $24 to ride the bus. Plus, it would get him up there before the first load of people arrived and hopefully allow him to get some photos before the park flooded with other tourists.
He woke up at 3:30am, got ready and did the quick hike down to the first gate, which sits just before the bridge over the Urubamba River. He arrived at 4:10 and was the first person there. However, the line quickly grew behind him. When the guards opened the gate at 5:00am and began the process of checking everyone’s ticket and passport, Brian was the first one to set off hiking up the steep path. The trail to the park cuts across the switchbacked bus route and usually requires about 1.5 hours for the typical hiker. Being long-legged and also a bit of a badass, Brian made it up to the main park gate in about 45 minutes, just before the first bus load of tourists pulled up.
Machu Picchu Mountain
The Machu Picchu Park offers access to two additional hikes overlooking the ruins. Machu Picchu Mountain sits to the north. It’s about a 1.5 hour hike and can be added fairly easily to the base ticket fee since it rarely books up. Because it was available, Brian did this hike and got some great photos of the ruins and Huayna Picchu Mountain which sits behind the city. If you do Machu Picchu Mountain, be forewarned that you will be going up a LOT of steps. Train those quads and gluts beforehand.
Huayna Picchu Mountain can also be hiked for an additional fee. This trail is steeper, shorter and quite a bit scarier. It also books out weeks in advance because only 400 people go up it each day.
Ignoring Park Rules
If you look at the rules and regulations posted on the Machu Picchu web site, you’ll read that things like food, hiking poles, plastic water bottles and a number of other common items one would expect to take on an excursion like this are prohibited. Or so they say. Even as a strict, life-long rule follower, I will tell you to just ignore those rules. Everyone is eating food and drinking out of plastic water bottles. Tons of people have hiking poles. The park rangers on duty seem to have no problem with any of it. Prepare for Machu Picchu as you would any other day of hiking regardless of what the posted rules might say.
As our family learned the hard way, a hot, sunny day can quickly turn stormy in the forested hills of the Urubamba region. One item I wished we’d had when the rain started were those handy, plastic ponchos I saw a few well-prepared fellow tourists sporting. They would have taken up very little space in the backpack, but they sure would have come in handy that day.
Worth the Extra Day
We only stayed one day at Machu Picchu, but I wished we’d had more time. If you really want to do it right, two days would be best. Our family’s day up there was a lot of walking and looking, walking and looking. There’s so much to see both in the ruins and in the hills surrounding them the day begins to feel a little too “go-go-go.” If you want to have time to sit and take it all in, explore the hikes to the Sun Gate or buy the extra tickets for the mountain hikes, you will need another day in the park. My one regret is not having that extra day. You will probably only be in this magnificent place one time in your life, so take the time and spend the money to truly enjoy it.