Nestled high up in the Andes Mountains, shrouded in clouds and mystery, located half the world away, Machu Picchu had always fascinated me. Frequently featured in Discovery Channel programs and National Geographic articles, it was the ultimate travel destination as far as I am concerned. Visiting Machu Picchu was one of the key objectives of the South America trip and turned out to be the main highlight!
Recently elected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the world, Machu Picchu (MP) is visited by over a Million tourists every year. Although visiting Machu Picchu is straightforward, it requires some planning in advance. In this post i’ll share a bit about our preparation and actual experience of visiting this wonder.
When to visit ?
To get the postcard worthy photographs and best visit experience, the best time is between May to October. The busiest is during July and August that coincides with the Summer vacations. This is also the Winter season in South America, but the Summer of November to March is the rainy season in the mountains, making it very difficult to visit. We visited during the shoulder season of May, when crowds are just building up and the weather is decent.
How to reach ?
The nearest major city and that has a well connected airport is Cusco in Peru. From here there are couple of options. First is a hiking trail, famously called “The Inca Trail”, you will trek across the mountains and reach Machu Picchu. Depending on the route, duration varies from 3 to 5 days. Unless you are a Trekking/Hiking enthusiast, have a lot of time in Peru and want to visit MP like the Incas did it, I wouldn’t recommend this way. It is expensive and requires some of preparation to battle it out in high altitude. The slots are also limited which has to be booked much in advance. But it does have it’s own perks! The views en route are parallel to none!
The second and more popular or conventional route is to take the Train to Aguas Calientes – the base town – and bus to the summit. We opted for this option and will cover the same in detail. Two companies operate in this route – Inca Rail and Peru Rail. The trains pass through towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, so it is possible to board here as well.
What to Visit?
Machu Picchu of course! 🙂 But there are 3 areas to visit here – the main archaeological site of Machu Picchu, summit of the mountain Machu Picchu (which has the ruins) and the summit of mountain Huayna Picchu (the summit overlooking the site). Visiting the site would require at least 4~5 hours as we realised. First 2 hours was a guided tour, then some exploration on our own. This can be combined with visit to either of the two mountains. But it will cost you slightly more and demand more time and effort. Also the tickets are also extremely limited (200/Day). Among the two side attraction, Huayna Picchu is more popular offering stairways with deep drops and birds eye view of MP. Unfortunately, we skipped them due to lack of time.
Where to Stay ?
Most people stay in Cusco, take the morning train, visit the ruins and return post lunch. If you follow this itinerary, you are bound to visit when the crowd is maximum! We suggest you base yourselves either at Aguas Calientes or Ollantaytambo. Our pick – Ollantaytambo. Not only is this town cheaper and prettier, there is much stuff to see here as well (Please read our previous post). Aguas Calientes is an over priced and over crowded tourist town.
Planning your visit
Once you have decided how to go about your visit, you should lock down the date. This is critical as both train tickets to Aguas Calientes and entrance tickets to Machu Picchu are limited in number and will sell out in advance. The Train tickets can be booked via Peru Rail or Inca Rail. We opted for Peru Rail. Peru Rail has 3 classes of trains shuttling between the various stations in the valley and Aguas Calientes – Expedition, Vistadome and Hiram Birmingham. Expedition is the cheapest, while Hiram Birmingham is end to end First Class service. We took Expedition to manage the overall budget. Once train tickets are booked, reserve the MP tickets at the Official Site.
We stayed in Ollantaytambo and dedicated one full day for MP visit. We took the first train to Aguas Calientes at 6.30am. The station is just walking distance from the town, but there are small tuk-tuks that can take you there for a small fare. Our’s was the Expedition train and even in this budget option the seats were comfortable and windows on the roof offering outside views.
We reached Aguas Calientes in an hour or so. The town was crowded, touristy and over priced. As you can see below, not a great place to stay.
100m from the exit, we found a queue toward the counter for purchasing Bus tickets to the top. We strongly recommend buying the return bus tickets – $24 per person. It took us 30 mins of waiting to get tickets. We payed in Cash as US Dollars. Cards were not accepted. Then we moved towards the queue to board the buses. In next 20 minutes or so, we got the seats. While standing in line, we also met our guide who offered us 2.5 hours of tour at 110 Sols for both of us. (Negotiated down!)
Once we reached the top, the guide took care of us for the next 2.5 hours. He took us around the major sections of the site, explaining the history on the way. He followed a different route than usual, avoiding crowds en route.
About Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was the only Incan settlement undiscovered and unconquered by the Spanish. When the Spanish reached Cusco, the Incas hid the trail to Machu Picchu. Believed to be constructed in the 15th century, at the height of the Inca Empire, this was a major settlement. The site has Royal residences, Common houses, Temples and Agricultural areas. Highlights from our visit in the gallery below –
Once you have completed your visit, you can go back to Aguas Calientes via two ways – Bus or Walk. We decided to save $24 and also enjoy the scenery and opted for a walk back. Our assumption was that it won’t take more than an hour and it would be a nice walk. But be warned! It was a foolish decision. The walk was longer than we thought, not that scenic and tiring. Please take the bus back! By the time we reached the town we were dehydrated and hungry. We ate in the first restaurant we saw (La Roca Sagrada). That was the best Pizza we had in South America!!! We barely reached in time for the train back at 2.30pm.
- Previous night ask at the Reception for a Breakfast box. Although breakfast is served in the train, it may not be sufficient for a full day’s sight seeing
- Carry and drink plenty of water. Even at this altitude going up and down a flight of stairs tires you easily
- Ensure the Guide you hire is registered and has a badge/ID card. Rates are negotiable. We paid 110 Soles/2.5 hours. He spoke good English and was very knowledgeable
- There is a booth where you can stamp your Passport with Machu Picchu seal. We missed it. Don’t forget!
- Restrooms require change (1 Sol). Use before entering the monument
- Take the Bus down. Don’t walk down unless you have plenty of time in your hand.