Despite the fact that no one seems to know what the place was really about, Machu Picchu is one of those places that needs no introduction. It's one of South American most famous sights and #1 image & place to visit listed in my bible, The Lonely Planet's "South America on a shoestring”.
A couple days before my trip to Machu Picchu I arrived to Cusco (like many others) to rest, regroup and make sure all was taken care of. I already had my train ticket to Aguas Calientes and bought the entrance to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary in Cusco so I was ready to go.
From Cusco to Aguas Calientes
My train was Perurail's Vistadome (and on the way back Expedition) - Perurail is one of the top class rail companies in South America. You can already tell that by their website and their sleek office at the Cusco's main square (Plaza de las Armas) confirms the image I had. The Wanchaq train station also stands apart from the typical stations I’ve seen on my trip: extremely neatly dressed staffed hovering around a handful of passengers in the groomed station grounds. Well what do you expect if you pay (at minimum) 56 USD and for a four-hour train ride? Their luxury Hiram Bingham train costs 299,50 USD!! In comparison, a 10 hour bus ride can cost less than 10 USD – and I just booked a cama (sleeper bus with wide reclining seats and meals included) ticket from Cusco to Arequipa: it takes about 10-11hours and cost me 50 soles (under 20 USD).
I didn’t really fancy waking up at 4am so I took the later 8.05am train. Now it was the “rain season” so the train would actually leave from Ollantaytambo (about halfway between Cusco and Aguas Calientes, which is the Machu Picchu Pueblo) and a Perurail’s bus would take us there from Cusco. My plan for the day was just to get myself to Aguas Calientes, take it easy for the rest of the day and go up to Machu Picchu early next morning. No need to try to rush up on the same day.
The bus ride was a bit bumpy but there was plenty of space in the small buss. And the views along the way were worth to stay awake (well I was also typing blog posts on my notebook at the same time). There were fields of all colors, with tiny piglets and lambs running around, misty dark green hills behind them... It was less than two hours to Ollantaytambo and from there we boarded the train which slooooowly started to roll the last miles to Aguas Calientes. I was sitting next to Rafael from Lima. It was nice to have a Peruvian person sitting beside me to ask all the stupid questions about Perú and Machu Picchu!
When I arrived to Aguas Calientes a guy was there to meet me from my hostel - it was fun to see my name in a sign at the train station. At the hostel I was then given a private room with bathroom and cable TV… somehow my dorm bed reservation was upgraded. I guess they didn’t have enough people to fill a dorm room. Well there was a little problem – no water in the entire village. Luckily they had the issue fixed after I got back from lunch. BTW, if you want to eat something in Aguas Calientes I’d have two suggestions: 1) On the cheap: Walk up the hill and you’ll find a row of restaurants that offer a 3-course menu for 15 soles – that is very cheap for the tiny tourist village. 2) Something really good: I had the most delicious dinner in the French-Peruvian bistro Indio Feliz, perhaps the best dinner I had on the entire trip. 54 soles for a 3-course meal of a whole other level. The owner also wanted to offer me a glass of wine, that was a nice ending to my first night in Aguas Calientes.
Machu Picchu - the moment I had been waiting for...
It was an early wake up the next morning to get to the first bus to Machu Picchu: the first buses leave at 5.30am. I had heard people line up well before to get to MP first but I had no idea what's "well before" – I just got up 4.40 and ate a quick early breakfast (nice that the hostel owners offer it even at 5am) and walked the around to the corner to find a line of almost 100 people.. at 5.30 in the morning!! Are these people crazy?! Well, as crazy as me. The bus ride took around 20 minutes and so we were at the entrance.. I could almost hear the drumroll in my head.
It was around 6am when I entered the Machu Picchu Sanctuary. The air was cool and it was still dark when we had left the village but the day was starting break by this point. The hills towering around the site were covered in strings of mist as I walked towards the main point of entry… And there it was, just as magical as in all the pictures.
The crowds were thin early in the morning and possibly around 100 people that were there first thing in the morning quickly spread out the explore the hauntingly quiet site. Early morning is definitely the best time to come there. Already after 7am when I was already well into exploring the village I could notice there were more people entering the site. By noon you couldn’t get past the crowds, including several groups of about 20 people following their guides in the ruins. There are plenty of fast-track tourists that come to Machu Picchu on the morning train from Cusco and leave with the evening train.
There’s a lot to see in Machu Picchu and there's certainly benefits in taking a tour guide (I didn’t myself). If you only want to take the famous “postcard” view of Machu Picchu you only need to walk a little bit from the main entrance, but the actual site is vast and well preserved. It’s more of an ancient village with all the housing complexes, temples and agricultural terraces, while the Maya sites I visited in Mexico, such as Chichen Itza felt more like one giant pyramid surrounded by a bunch of scattered ruins after this. I guess the thrill of Machu Picchu comes down to its gorgeous mountaintop location, which in itself allows the visitor to get a full overview of the place in one look.
I had bought a ticket that would allow me to climb the Huayna Picchu, a mountain behind the Machu Picchu (the peak that appears in all the postcard views of the site). You can go up in either the 7-8am group or the 10-11am group; my ticket was to the later group. Only altogether 400 people can ascend the hill each day so get your tickets early! There used to be a first come, first served system on this but nowadays you can buy the entrance to Huayna Picchu along with your Machu Picchu ticket. There were lots of people who wanted to join the climb that didn’t have tickets or that were let down by their tour agencies who had supposed to have acquired the tickets – I was happy I had sorted one myself!
The climb is rather steep, on tiny steps on a near vertical mountain slope – not for the faint hearted or if you’re in poor condition. I wasn’t actually feeling too well that day but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. It took about 35-40 minutes to reach the ruins that lie on the top of Huayna Picchu and about 10-15 minutes more to reach the summit. You have to pass a small cave to get to the highest point – that was probably the worst part for me, not a fan of cramped spaces. And when I got to the top it started raining… You could barely see the Machu Picchu between all the clouds. But I was happy I made it! By noon I was back down from the hill, I was happily surprised that the descend wasn’t as hard as I had feared on the slippery small steps. I was the only Finnish person on the hill that day by the way!
After coming back down I still walked around in the rest of the ruins for an hour and it was 1pm when I stepped out of Machu Picchu – after 7 hours touring the site. And I don’t think I still had covered it all. When I was coming back, tired, hungry and all in damp clothes I got in the first bus – the line was long but there was just one spot free and I guess I was the only one in the line up there by myself so I got on the bus right away. Back in the village it was sunny now – I was left wondering if it was just sunny down there as there were tons of coulds that wrapped the hills around the village.
If you want you can spend a day or two extra in Aguas Calientes but there isn't anything special you couldn't find in Cusco for example. It's only a small town surrounded by tall hills in all directions but it's nice, clean and safe - though they do seem to have problems with water supply at least at that time. There are hot springs (hence the name 'Hot Waters'), museums, restaurants and some small sights down in the village. I have to say that the one extra day I had there was totally unnecessary but I think that a more energetic traveler (I was pretty beat then) can find some fun things to do there!
travel info for the Machu Picchu tourists
How to get there?
Most routes to Machu Picchu start from Cusco. There are various treks available, typically for 3-5 days. Your options include the famous Inca Trail (you'll usually need to book it one week to several months in advance), jungle trail with mountain biking, zip-lining and rafting or longer treks around the surrounding hills., to name a few. Trek prices start at 200 USD, the Inca trail is the most popular and possibly the most expensive. Most treks that I encountered end with the trekkers arriving to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary early in the morning (before/at dawn).
If you are short on time or don’t feel like hiking you can take the Perurail train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (56-299,50 USD for one way; all trains are very high class and the cheapest ones were both very good). If you arrive with the train it’ll be best to come the day before to be able to take the first 5.30am bus to the site before the crowds. There are also some DYI routes with local (non-gringo) buses and trains through some of the surrounding towns if you want to get there a bit cheaper – these are growing in popularity.
I’m sure there are tons of ready-made (and even tailor-made) tour packages you can buy from various travel agencies around Cusco and around the world: the prices are high and you’ll be following a stream of people every step of the way – the savvy traveler with deep pockets can surely find an exclusive tour package too.
You will need a ticket to enter the Machu Picchu Sanctuary. Note: tickets are not sold at the door. Get them as early as you can: only 2500 tickets are sold for each day and no begging or pleading will allow more – only 400 of those can buy a ticket to climb the Huayna Picchu. The entrance for Machu Picchu costs 128 soles (students get in roughly at half price) or together with Huayna Picchu entrance 152 soles (=about 40€).
Tickets to Machu Picchu Sactuary:
This is possible in theory. I say "in theory" since I didn’t manage to buy one, the payment didn’t apparently go through and the site is notoriously slow. More info about how and where to buy tickets at http://www.machupicchutickets.com (this is an independent website – I won’t vouch for the info but it seemed to be accurate and was helpful).
In Cusco: Oficinas de la Dirección Regional de Cultura Cusco at Av. de la Cultura 238 Condominio Huáscar (around the corner from Av. de la Cultura on a small sidestreet).
In Aguas Calientes: office in the corner of main plaza.
In the tickets it says you cannot bring plastic bottles or food to the site – though that rule clearly wasn’t enforced on the day I was there. Food, drinks and toilets are only available outside the Sanctuary (right outside the entrance there is a restaurant and toilets) but you can exit and enter with your ticket as many times as you want (or so they say) during that day with your ID. The site is open basically from dawn ‘til dusk, 6am to 5pm, when I was there.
Also remember to buy your bus ticket for Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu Sanctuary the night before so you don’t have to worry about it in the morning – it’s 17 USD for a return ticket, unless you feel like walking up (supposedly takes around an hour). Some people walked down but after a looong day in the ruins my feet were shattered - plus it rained... so a return ticket was a good choice! Bus tickets can be bought next to the bus stop in Aguas Calientes.
The Perurail ticket from Cusco to Aguas Calientes can be bought online too at http://www.perurail.com/en/. They also have a pretty good customer service (in English also) and respond to emails. You can buy the train tickets well in advance, if you’d like to change the ticket date or time that can be still done a day in advance (depending on availability).