Life-long dream. To enter the ruins of Machu Picchu – the famed lost city of the Incas has been a lifelong dream. I had successfully annoyed my now husband to take me to this wonder on our honeymoon and no this story does not end in – “wow you’re so lucky, he surprised you!” Not exactly, it only took a few years of convincing, a promise to stop nagging for 1 month and strict instructions by him to fit it in our “working class” salary budget and if it panned out without the need to sell a kidney, HURRAY we were going to Peru!
While most of the online guides you read advise you to take a tour, we wouldn’t’. We live in a world where information to the remotest of places is a click away and questions are answered in a matter of minutes by bloggers and like-minded travelers. So immerse yourself in blogs and online content that spew information and in no time you’ll be narrating your itinerary in your sleep. Neurotic as I am, we meticulously planned this adventure right down to its last bus transfer and hotel requirement before we stepped on foreign soil but little did we know that some adventures just cant be planned.
Step 1: Fly to Cusco
Congratulations you’ve arrived in Cusco 3310 metres above sea level. This no-frills airport is bustling all year round with backpackers and tourists trying to hook up deals with local cab companies to drive them to the train station in Ollantaytambo from where you’ll embark upon your scenic ride to Aguas Calientes via Peru Rail or Inca Rail.
How? Keep checking train tickets up to 5 months before departure depending on the time of your visit and find the best deals on either of these rails. This 3.5 hour scenic train ride takes you along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley with dramatic canyons and gorges on either side.
Tip: Acclimatizing is necessary if you’re flying from a much lower area; therefore if you do not plan to stay the night in Cusco, take the train immediately to Aguas Calientes the town nearest to Machu Picchu.
Step 2: Welcome to Aguas Calientes – you’ve almost made it
Once you reach the picturesque town of Aguas Calientes you’ll be living out your favourite fantasy in the form of dramatic cliffs, gushing rivers and smiling local’s eager to lend a helping hand with bags and suggestions. Here you can find any form of accommodation such as hostels, guesthouses and hotels suitable for any kind of budget. Not to mention, they have some of the cutest local markets selling souvenirs and other crafts locally manufactured.
Step 3: Rise & Shine – The day has arrived
It’s the moment of truth. It’s now that you must decide whether you’d like to hike up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes or hop on the hourly bus that ferries you up the ruins. Due to the lack of time and a bit of exhaustion we picked the bus to take us up which is an excellent idea if you have no longer than 2 days to see Machu Picchu. The bus ride is about 20 minutes or so and before you know it you’re eyes are welling up with tears for you’ve made it to one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Step 4: This is the real deal boys & girls
I cant exactly describe what I felt when I saw the ruins for the first time. I grew nervous gaping at its magnificence, I stumbled towards it in a trance like state with my camera in hand but unable to click for that would involve taking my eyes off it even if it was just for a moment. Transfixed, our guide (always take a local guide) enthusiastically began explaining the history behind these ruins and it’s significance to the Peruvians. Machu Picchu is believed to have been a royal estate or sacred religious site for the Inca leaders whose civilization was virtually wiped out by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century. For hundreds of years, the ruins were of no importance to the world until an American archaeologist stumbled upon it in 1911 and thus began the story of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Consisting of more than 3000 stone steps that link its many different levels, historians believe that this city was abandoned around a 100 years after the construction but no reason has ever been proven.
Step 5: Spend the day here from sunrise to sunset (or until the time they kick you out)
In the midst of the lush tropical mountain forests on the Eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes lies this Inca treasure. Machu Picchus sloping walls, terraces, stairways and ramps blend seamlessly in to its natural setting straight out of a movie set. The terrace fields, stonework, sanctums believed to be temples to the crafty irrigation system and storage units constructed are to be marveled at for the techniques used.
Tip: Depending on the weather, enter as early as possible to avoid the herd of tourists that will never end. If it’s a cloudy morning enter later, contrary to what most people might say.
Step 6. Climbing Huayana Picchu and the number of squats you will unknowingly take
If you thought getting to Machu Picchu was a task, try climbing the towering mountain of Huayana Machu situated just behind Machu Picchu. From a distance it looks easy or so I told myself while prancing around the ruins but when it was time to begin the ascent, I sure wished I hadn’t eaten 3 scoops of ice cream the night before. For me, climbing this peak was a highlight of my Machu Picchu experience. It all began with a few easy steps up a mountain to a few slightly tougher climbs and to a point where I asked my husband to leave me behind and make a life for himself. Was it worth it? 100%. The view on a clear day is breathtaking from all possible angles and its only here where you get the real impression of the magnitude of this site whilst staring death in the face. Rest assured, your climb down is swifter and less painful with the reward of a well-toned bottom.
Tip: Always purchase these tickets online a few months prior to your visit as the government has restricted the number of climbers to Huayana Picchu Mountain to a maximum number of 400 people per day at 2 different time slots – 7-8 AM and 10-11 AM. We picked the 10 AM slot contrary to the million reviews you’ll read convincing you to take the 7 AM one to avoid crowds but this is based on the assumption of perfect clear weather, which almost never happens. The site receives a few showers unexpectedly almost throughout the year therefore we decided to climb at 10 AM once the low cloud cover moved on. We got lucky!
Step 7: Take a selfie with a llama and Alpaca
Post our Huayana Picchu trek it was time to take a deep dive in to the dramatic ruins that lay before us. We walked in to each ruin remembering what our guide had explained to us only a few hours ago when we were nearly trampled upon by a Llama. Besides being incredibly cute, these animals roam about with a care in the world as kings and queens of these ruins but it’s advisable to not get too close.
Step 8: Say your teary good-byes
Goodbyes are difficult and if you have to say it to one of the wonders of the world, it’s going to be a lot harder than you thought. Once you’ve made it back to Aguas Calientes, taken a hot shower and realized you haven’t eaten much all day; stroll the town for a dinner you wont forget. Given our love for food and the capacity to eat two dinners we visited some quaint spots that served Peruvian and European dishes with the house special of fresh trout and Alpaca meat. While most of the restaurants here are tourist traps and do their best to lure you in, ask your fellow travelers and hotel/hostel for suggestions before you venture out.
While our travel sounds like a breeze, visiting Machu Picchu was no easy feat. It requires meticulous planning months prior to the visit especially if you decide to do it on your own. Below are a few Do’s and Don’ts for visiting the big MP.
- Fly straight to Cusco and drive to the train station. Post your Machu Picchu trail you can rest in Cusco.
- Book your Machu Picchu entry tickets, Huayana Picchu and rail tickets to Aguas Calientes in advance especially during peak season.
- Pack light – While the train can accommodate your 23kg luggage, it would be advisable to carry a backpack with basic essentials. The rail stations provide storage facilities for suitcases.
- Do not forget to carry your passport, ticket and credit card at the entrance gate to Machu Picchu.
- Dress in layers so you can pull your clothes off as it gets warmer in the day.
- Take photos – Lots and lots of them. You finally made it here and wouldn’t do justice to the place if you don’t snap memories. Every angle of this mighty ruin tells a story waiting to unfold.
- Be nice to your surroundings – Mainly the llamas and alpacas that roam freely.
- Guide – Find a local guide to explain the history behind the ruins. This can be arranged by your hotel/hostel or at the entry gate.
- Make friends along the way for you never know when their advise, suggestions company can come in handy.
- Carry a first aid kit, sunscreen and altitude sickness medicine.
- Do not take the tickets for granted. Due to the restricted entry, permits sell like hot cakes and need to be booked a few months prior via the website.
- Local travel agents are out to get you so it’s best to avoid these traps.
- Do not take food inside the ruins, do not feed the llamas and do not litter.
- Respect your surroundings – Crews work daily to maintain the walkways and structures so do not sit, climbs, talk loudly or leave anything behind.
You’ve dreamed of it, you’ve seen it on Instagram and facebook and now you just have to visit. Years ago visiting the far-away continent of South America seemed like a distant dream, a place I would get to visit only when I had pots of money and endless vacation days. It is what you want it to be, I saved a lot of money, I got married (two incomes are better than one), I made up my mind and said that I’m going come what may. That month in South America, I visited two new countries, met the most diverse people I have ever come across, braved fierce weather conditions, nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes, dealt with canceled flights but more importantly pushed myself to a whole new extreme. That’s the power of travel.