Finally, I was there! Yay!
Machu Picchu is on my ultimate travel bucket list for so long because of its unique beauty and fascinating history. The picturesque setting of ancient Inca ruins laying in front of the Huayna Picchu has been inspirations of countless arts, books, and films like “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky”. Yes! Finally, I made it there and from that moment on, I am unstoppable.
Situated at 2,360 meters above sea level, in the Urubamba River Valley, the Machu Picchu Citadel was abandoned by the Incas in the 16th century when plagues afflicting the empire along with Spanish military campaigns waged by conquistadors. The “city in the sky” was then left behind, well protected by nature until it was once again discovered on July 24, 1911, by an American explorer, Hiram Bingham. Today, tourists could visit this one of the world’s greatest ancient wonders by train, or on foot.
Going on a 4-day trek through the historic Inca Trail and reach Machu Picchu is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had done so much research about the trek and sadly I couldn’t make it in the end because of the time constraints and tourist limit. I would recommend, though, any of my friends who are contemplating a visit to Peru going for it (or maybe I will go back there someday). The Inca Trail is a historic route used by the Incas in the old times to enter Machu Picchu. The trail goes through ruins of Sacsayhuaman and the picturesque Sacred Valley. To protect the trail from erosion and overuse, the Peruvian government is limiting the number of trekkers to about 200 each day per season; as a result, trekking groups always books out rather quickly, and sometimes books out months in advance.
Not only the trail has a limit, but also the Machu Picchu Citadel has a limited access to around 2,500 visitors per day. You could imagine that the train and entry tickets could be sold out pretty fast, especially during peak season. Even the train fare may rise tremendously, it doesn’t stop the crowd from their pilgrimage to the 7 wonders of the world. Unless you plan on staying in Cusco for a long time, it’d be better to reserve tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.
My excursion to Machu Picchu kicked off as I was picked up at my hotel in Cusco 6 AM, catching the 8 AM train to Agues Calientes, a small town at the bottom of the valley next to Machu Picchu, at the Poroy train station. The hotel was very nice as they offered me a packed breakfast with cookies, banana, apple, juice box and a sandwich so I could enjoy on the train, we were served with hot drinks and some snacks on the train. The train has only 3-4 cars, and it was 100% full. The ride was a bit shaky, yet the amazing view adds flavor to my adventure. Although I was a little tired (thank God, I didn’t suffer much from the high altitude in Cusco, but Machu Picchu is merely 2,360 meters above sea level and it’s fine), I was really excited and couldn’t wait to see the sites with my own eyes. Before I board the train, I was given the roundtrip train and bus tickets and the entry tickets to the Citadel. I enjoyed my morning coffee looking out to the glorious view of the Sacred Valley, as the train started with sunlight beaming through the windows on the roof of the cabin. It was called Sacred Valley, as I was told later by another tour guide because the valley contains some of the most fertile lands in the region, and it was the property of the Inca Emperor himself. The area is generally warmer, and the locals could grow corns and all kinds of crops – as I see fields and cows on both sides of the train.
The Train, the rain, and the bus ride
Some visit Machu Picchu on a day trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The day trip starts on the same train and tourists reach Agues Calientes by noon, and they had about 2 hours in the Citadel before rushing for the 2 PM train returning to Cusco. I decided to take the overnight trip so that I would fully absorb the beauty of the site. The train doesn’t offer much space for luggage storage. Passengers could only bring a small luggage (or better yet, a backpack) and they have to leave their giant luggage behind at the hotel in Cusco, while the most hotel would be able to provide the storage service. Once I arrived Agues Calientes, the hotel staff were already waiting at the exit to pick up my bags and I could go straight to the Citadel with my small bag. I planned to walk around and stay in the Citadel as much as I could. 🙂
When I got off the train, I could feel the sunlight… (but let the sun fool you) I could feel the rain at the same time! luckily I brought a windbreaker with me. However, I also got a bit worried if the clouds where too thick (especially during the rainy season) that I wouldn’t be able to see the magnificent view of the Citadel (with Huayna Picchu as a backdrop)!
At that point, my feeling was complicated. The bus ride uphill takes about 25-minutes and it was a steep and narrow path that put driving skills to the test. The driver (they were driving stick by the way) had to drive backward in narrow mountainous roads in the rain for a couple of times to make ways for buses coming from the opposite direction!
As the bus zigging and zagging its way uphill, I noticed a beautiful and drama cliffs. At first, I didn’t know what it is…. and it was Phutuq K’usi, a small hill on the other side of the river, and it could be seen from a lot of spots in the Citadel.
The bus service is basically the “only” way for tourists to go up to the Citadel and it is not cheap (US$24 both ways!). It takes about 90 minutes to reach the entrance of the citadel on foot, some tourists would do it, but I reckon it doesn’t worth doing so – the view was great but not special, and it’s just too dangerous with buses passing every now and then), you want to save the energy for the hike in the heritage site 🙂
The buses come and go rather efficiently and they had to. In high season, tourists might need to wait for 1-2 hours to go back down!
It takes roughly 2 hours to complete the classic visitor’s route of the site, depending on the speed. The route starts and ends at the viewing point and it is the best location to view the entire heritage site. The trip usually continues with the Upper Circuit, passing through the Main Temple, the Three Windows Temples, the Main Square, the Sacred Rock, and ends at the entrance of Huayna Picchu. The Lower Circuit covers the lower parts of the Citadel including the Palace of the Mortars, Condor Temple, Sun Temple Royal Tomb, Royal Palace, to Tower. Each of these places and attractions shed lights and insight about the ways of living, history, ritual, and religion of the Incas. I would like to highlight and introduce everyone of them, but the blog then would be too long 😛
Before closing, the site was much less crowded and I could enjoy the quietness with the Citadel for a while. I was even greeted by a group of llamas roaming and grazing in the mountainous terrain.
Other things to do in Machu Picchu Citadel
Apart from the Upper Circuit and the Lower Circuit, there are a few routes in the site that worth exploring on the 2nd day:
Huayna Picchu Peak: Huayna Picchu is probably one of the most photographed hills in the world (or at least in Peru).
Again, there’s a limit to go up to the peak of the “Young Peak” and it is a steep climb. It requires about 2- 2.5 hours but hikers could enjoy a unique and spectacular view of the Machu Picchu Citadel.
Machu Picchu Peak: Takes about 1hour to go up to the peak of the “Old Peak” and it would be a great viewpoint of the classic Machu Picchu.
Inti Punku (Sun Gate): It was a less challenging walk to the Sun Gate and the route was actually the final part of the Inca Trail, and Sun Gate is where the trekkers could get the first glimpse of the Citadel. It takes only about an hour to go up there and I saw and congratulated a bunch of trekkers for completing the pilgrim!
Entrance to the Citadel is only allowed for one day. I entered the site two times and I need to purchase another ticket. The ticket office is at the Plaza Manco Capac (the main plaza close by the train station), and they only accept cash.
Passport is also required to purchase tickets and enter the Citadel.
I would recommend staying for 2 days to fully enjoy what Machu Picchu has to offer. Explore the Citadel on the first day, and the surrounding area on the second day. The view of the citadel from the Sun Gate was unforgettable.