It is my dream to visit all 7 Wonders of the World. Well, 8 Wonders if you count the Great Pyramids. In 2007 I saw the Roman Colosseum, in 2 months I will see Chichén Itzá, but just a few days ago I crossed Machu Picchu off of my bucket list . . . and it was wonderful.
Machu Picchu is the famous Inca citadel which sits on a peak far above Peru’s Sacred Valley. Machu Picchu was built in the 1400s only to be abandoned a century later during the Spanish conquest. The now-famous landmark sat relatively empty, known only to a few locals, until it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Luckily for us.
Getting to Machu Picchu isn’t easy. You basically have 2 options: (1) Spend several days hiking the Inca trail or another trek, or (2) Fly from Lima to Cusco, take a car from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, and then take a bus from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu. I wanted to maximize my time in Peru and decided to save the hiking for a later visit so I chose the planes, trains, and automobiles approach.
I wanted to spend a full day in Machu Picchu, and I was already in the Sacred Valley, so I took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes the day before. I was lucky and had a window seat facing the Urubamba River for the gorgeous 90-minute ride. It is a little pricey, but the rushing river, majestic mountains, and rich ruins make the cost worthwhile.
Aguas Calientes itself is a fun place to spend an afternoon. There are a few things to do in/near town including the Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon (a Machu Picchu museum), the hot springs, and a butterfly sanctuary. There is also tons of souvenir shopping to do, but you can get all the same stuff in Cusco for less.
I got up the next morning at 4am in time to have a quick breakfast at my hotel and meet my private guide in line for the bus at 5am. While the buses start running to Machu Picchu at 5:30, people start lining up hours in advance to see the sun rise at the site.
My goal was just to be at Machu Picchu before the crowds of tour groups arrived from Cusco, but the added bonus was seeing the sun rise over the completely empty citadel. It was magic. There really are no words that capture the beauty of the site. Despite all of the pictures I’ve seen and all of the articles I’ve read, I was not prepared for the real thing.
Having a good guide helped me make the most of my morning. While I’d read a lot about the site (Turn Right at Machu Picchu, The Last Days of the Incas, and The Incas: Inside an American Empire) having someone to tie it all together and discuss the individual buildings really brought everything I learned to life. Plus, my guide knew the best places to stop and talk that were away from the crowds which made for a more intimate experience. But most importantly, he knew the best places to take pictures, which I appreciate as a solo traveler.
I got to see all of the major structures: Intihuatana (or Intiwatana); the Temple of the Sun; the Main Temple; the Temple of the Three Windows; the Temple of the Condor (there were a lot of temples); and the Main Plaza. It was hard to really appreciate it all on my first visit. I really think I need to return to fully take it all in.
We finished our tour just in time for my time slot to hike Machu Picchu Mountain (Montaña)—a challenging hike with a 2,000ft elevation gain and nothing but stairs the entire way up (the peak seen in the pic below). Or, as I like to call it, Pachacuti’s cruel joke. But I’ll write more about that in another post.
Because Machu Picchu is not easy to get to and there are a lot of new rules regarding the historic site, here are a few travel tips before you go:
MACHU PICCHU TRAVEL TIPS:
- Buy your tickets as far in advance as possible. Again, buy your tickets as far in advance as possible. Machu Picchu can sell out, especially during July and August, their busiest time of year. Additionally, if you want to hike Huayna Picchu (or Wayna Pikchu) you will need a special ticket to do so and they sell out several months in advance.
- Buy your tickets through the official government site. There are other third party sites you can use, but this way you know you are getting the real deal and do not have to pay any additional fees. Unfortunately, the government site isn’t very user friendly and their English version isn’t fully in English. Luckily, The Reward Boss gives a great step-by-step walk through on how to buy your tickets.
- Nothing beats sunrise at Machu Picchu, but you have to get up really early to see it. If you are taking the bus up from Aguas Calientes you should be in line by 5am at the absolute latest (that is what I did and I barely made it in time). If you are in peak season, plan to get in line closer to 4am. The busses don’t start running until 5:30, so be prepared to wait. Bus tickets must be purchased in person, but can likely be purchased in advance by your hotel in Aguas Calientes.
- Spend the night in Aguas Calientes the day before visiting Machu Picchu rather than trying to do a 1-day round trip from Cusco. By mid-afternoon the site is crawling with tourists and you get a much less intimate experience. Early morning is the way to go if you want that classic Machu Picchu shot without a bunch of people in the background.
- Do not underestimate the amount of time you should spend at Machu Picchu. I was there from 7am-4pm, and I did not feel like I had nearly enough time to see the site and hike one of its peaks. If you plan to hike Machu Picchu Mountain (Montaña) or Huayna Picchu you should allow 2 days for a visit if you have the flexibility in your schedule.
- Machu Picchu has a new set of rules as of July 1, 2017. They cover everything from entry times, to selfie sticks, to umbrellas, to whistling, to mandatory guides. (A more detailed discussion can be found here.). That said, at this time the rules are not universally enforced. I saw practically every rule broken while I was there. I even saw a guy from England trying to feed pizza to a llama. However, another couple mentioned at the time they arrived the rules were being strictly enforced. So, prepare to abide by the rules rather than risk it.
- Hire a guide. The new rules require a guide for your first entry, but you really should get one anyway.
- To get the “classic” view of Machu Picchu, once you enter head straight up and to the left towards the Guardhouse/Caretakers Hut.
- There are usually llamas (imported from Cusco) around on the terraces so keep an eye out and be ready to snap some photos!
- There are no bathrooms (or trashcans) in Machu Picchu, so plan accoringly.
- Bring water, sunscreen, a rain poncho, bug spray, and extra camera batteries.
- Wear good solid hiking or trail shoes.
- There is a station to get your passport or travel book stamped at the exit to Machu Picchu. It is not an official stamp so if you decide to stamp your passport you are running a chance that you may encounter a customs official who will end up giving you a hard time over it. That said, I’ve had no issues in Peru, Mexico, or the U.S. after absentmindedly stamping mine. (This is not legal advice—stamp at your own risk—but it does look really cool).