Finally, I was there! Yay!
Machu Picchu is on my ultimate travel bucket list (and probably many people’s list) for so long because of its unique beauty and fascinating history. The picturesque setting of ancient Inca ruins laying in front of 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”. I was not exaggerating and I literally wanted to scream “Yessss!” when entered the site and look at the scene in person for the first time. Finally, I made it there and from that moment on, I felt that I was unstoppable.
Why Machu Picchu?
As a well-known location in the world, the architecture, the sights, and fascinating Inca history and culture should convince you to visit Machu Picchu.
Having said that, reaching Machu Picchu is not that easy as compared to the other Wonders of the World – the Colosseum is right in the city center of Rome, the Pyramids and Christ the Redeemer are located in the city of Rio, Taj Mahal is in Agra, a relatively big city in India, even the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza is only a couple of hours drive away from the big cities. Machu Picchu is secretly hidden in the mountains and Cusco is the gateway that leads to Machu Picchu. It takes a couple of hours by train to get to the nearest town, Aguas Calientes, and then it’s another bus trip to the peak. While Machu Picchu may not cause you any problems with its altitude, Cusco is 3,399 meters above sea level, which may trigger high altitude sickness if you don’t cope with the height. For ways to beat the symptoms, check out my experience in Cusco for some tips and guides.
So, why Machu Picchu? Well, apart from it is so much more fulfilling (and such an adventure) for a traveler to finally set foot on this beautiful place after a long journey, especially for those who spent a 4-day Inca Trail hike; It is simply because it might not be around anymore. The flock of visitors that descend upon the ruins has imposed a threat to this heritage site, and the officials have made a continuous effort in tightening the rules to limit the visitor’s numbers. First, there is a limited number of permits that hikers could obtain to walk their way to Machu Picchu; Secondly, starting from July 2017, the admission is separated into two shifts, shortening the time visitors could spend in the archaeological site to six hours per ticket. While these measures are necessary for the preservation of Machu Picchu, who knows that Machu Picchu will eventually be closed to the public for good?
Machu Picchu 101
Situated at 2,360 meters above sea level, in the Urubamba River Valley along the Andes, Machu Picchu was a citadel. The city dated back as early as 760 B.C., and it has a population of over 1,000 people in the 1400s.
While there were no written records that explained the real reason why the Incas left Machu Picchu, it was abandoned in the 16th century when plagues afflicting the empire along with Spanish military campaigns waged by conquistadors. The “city in the sky” or “Lost City of the Incas” was then mysteriously left behind, well preserved by mother nature, and disappeared to humanity until it was once again discovered by an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, on July 24, 1911.
The discovery of these ancient ruins has offered evidence of how the Incas had lived. Many scientists and historians were brought here and the site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and it is also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
In Quechua, an Inca language, the word “Machu Picchu” is literally translated to “Old Mountain”, or “Old Peak”. Built on the peak of mountains with cliffs that drops almost vertically at 400 meters, the city itself is an architectural wonder. Even today, it’s not easy for tourists to reach the top with ease.
An architectural wonder
The city was built robustly at the peak of a mountain with advanced technologies that amazed today’s world. First, Inca people built over 600 terraces to prevent the structure from sliding down; Secondly, they are actually designed to be earthquake-resistant! Finally, the city is well-connected with a communication system and trails connection to the rest of the world that stretched over 28,000 kilometers long (the Inca trails are now hiking trails for visitors to go to the site). Still, no one can fully explain how such advanced developments came about centuries ago.
Ticket price and opening hours
Machu Picchu offers three types of tickets, all of them include admission to the archaeological site, with an option of entering the two mountains and Machu Picchu Museum. It may require certain physical strength to climb these mountains, I would suggest you do so if you can. In addition, the prices are different among foreigners, the Andean Community (Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador), and Peruvians. For example, a Machu Picchu Solo Ticket costs US$65 (Foreigners), US$35 (Andean Community), and US$28 (Peruvian).
The pricing may be a bit complicated and they do change from time to time. Besides, you will need to purchase an extra bus ticket to go to the peak (although some would walk to the entrance, I won’t suggest it). The ticket office is located in Aguas Calientes, not at the entrance of Machu Picchu, nor at the bus stop. Check out their official website in advance for detailed information for you to make a better decision. Better yet, purchase the tickets online to save the hassle while you are there!
- Entrance to the Citadel is only allowed for one shift. 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 to the train station), and they only accept cash. But there is an ATM near the train station and you should be able to get cash easily.
- A passport is also required to purchase tickets and to enter the citadel.
- There is a restaurant with bathrooms at the entrance of the citadel (or the bus stop)
Starting from July 1, 2017, each ticket allows access to Machu Picchu in one shift.
Morning shift: 6 am to 12 pm
Afternoon shift: 12 pm to 5:30 pm
The best time to visit Machu Picchu
The best month to visit Machu Picchu is from April to October. This is the dry season and the weather is pleasant for you to see the citadel with Huayna Picchu in the background. The rainy season starts in October and continues until March.
December is when I visited and it is considered a bad time. The rainy season brought us a poor visual and the mountains are covered in clouds when it rains. It was true – I visited Machu Picchu for 2 days and it was raining heavily the second day and I can barely see the mountains. Luckily, the weather was nice the first day and the sun came out in the late afternoon. On a positive note, it is a different kind of beauty and mysteriousness seeing the surrounding hills covered by misty clouds in the rain.
The best time of the day is either very early in the morning (in the morning shift) or stay until before closing (in the afternoon shift). The lighting of the morning sun is perfect to see the attractions of Machu Picchu in all their magnitude. Besides, you will enjoy a quieter time in the citadel before the large crowd comes in.
I hike to the Sun Gate and left Machu Picchu right before its closing. By that time, the entire citadel would be emptied and it’s a good time to take pictures without people walking around in the shot. In fact, this is the best time for photographers to take pictures of Machu Picchu because the sun casts a beautiful light on the citadel in the late afternoon. If you are lucky, you may also see a rainbow straddling across Machu Picchu after the afternoon rain in the rainy season.
Before I get into the most “common” way to go to Machu Picchu, I would like to start with the historic Inca Trail 4-day trek. It is truly an adventure and 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 (they gave out very fast). 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 the 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 book out rather quickly and sometimes book out months in advance.
The scenic train, the rain, and the bus ride
Not only the trail has a limit, but also the Machu Picchu Citadel has 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 at 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 it on the train, we were served 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 corn and all kinds of crops – as I see fields and cows on both sides of the train.
How long should you stay in Machu Picchu?
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 (yes, that means I would have to buy another ticket to enter the site) so that I would fully absorb the beauty of the site. If you plan on climbing the two mountains or take a hike, you will probably need to stay there for a longer time.
The train doesn’t offer much space for luggage storage. Passengers could only bring small luggage (or better yet, a backpack) and they have to leave their giant luggage behind at the hotel in Cusco, while most hotels would be able to provide the storage service. Once I arrived at 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… (don’t 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 were 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 on narrow mountainous roads in the rain 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 beautiful and dramatic 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 technically not the only way for tourists to go up to the Citadel – the bus ticket costs US$24 both ways! Some people might simply walk to the entrance of the citadel on foot and it takes about 90 minutes, but I reckon it doesn’t worth doing so because you want to spend as much time as you can in the site, or you would have spent 3 hours both ways, just to walk up and down the hills. Also, it may be a bit too dangerous for visitors like seniors and kids walking on these roads with buses passing every now and then, you want to save their energy walking through the entire site in Machu Picchu.
The buses come and go rather efficiently and they had to. In high season, tourists might need to queue at the bus stop for 1-2 hours to get back down!
The Upper and Lower Circuit
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 sheds light and insight into the ways of living, history, ritual, and religion of the Incas. I would like to highlight and introduce every one of them, but the blog 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.
Make it a 2-day adventure
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.
Apart from the Upper Circuit and the Lower Circuit, there are a few routes in the site that are 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). Because this is the hill in the cover image of this post! Again, there’s a limit to go up to the peak of the “Young Peak” and it is a steep climb. Be prepared and it’s best to book the ticket in advance.
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!
Other things to do in Agues Calientes
Agues Calientes is a really small town and so 99.9% of tourists here are probably come for Machu Picchu. There is a small market next to the train station, and there is one main street on the other side of the stream that leads from Plaza Manco Capac (the central plaza) to the hot springs on the other end.
The main street is mainly filled with shops, hostels, and restaurants; where tourists could spend their time at night and relax, I met with some guys in Machu Picchu and they are nice enough to take me out for a meal after Machu Picchu was closed. Most of these restaurants have similar menus and luckily, I am a big avocado fan. The quality-to-price ratio is, as expected, worse than other places in Peru. But I guess what I am trying to say is, you don’t have to worry a lot about food or forgetting to pack something. You should be fine as the town is quite adapted for tourists with stores, ATMs (yes – by the train station and I got the cash), phone cards, and so on.
In case you still have time (let say waiting for a train), have a soak in the warm medicinal warm pools and relax. These are not exactly the best or “must-sees”, but it does help to relieve sore muscles after a day of hiking through the mountains.