Machu Picchu, the most famous place in Peru. Leading up to our visit we were a little skeptical about what these particular ruins had to offer more than all the others we had visited to-date. We knew it was one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, but could it really live up to the hype? The answer…YES! There is something that captured our hearts about this place. It was really mesmerizing and mystical, something that your everyday ruins can’t compete with, and at the end of the day we spent 6 hours at the ruins! A truly incredible experience.
A good place to start to get an idea of what Machu Picchu is all about is by reading the book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams. I had no idea of the mystery still surrounding these 600 year old Incan ruins until I read the book, and it gives you great context for just how expansive the Inca empire was in this region leading up to the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. I could sit here and describe the ruins just as the book did, but do yourself a favor and read the book! Especially if you are planning a visit.
The jumping off point, Cusco:
Everyone who visits Machu Picchu starts in the large Peruvian city of Cusco. We had heard great things about this town that boasts a colonial historical center and sits at the base of the Andes. George and I settled in pretty quickly here to days of visiting surrounding ruins, and nights filled with delicious cuisine and amazing Pisco Sours. For whatever reason (maybe it was the Pisco Sours?) we really had so much fun together in this town, and George even learned how to make a proper Pisco Sour from an awesome Peruvian fellow.
So how the heck do you get to Machu Picchu anyway?
There are so many ways you can visit Machu Picchu from Cusco. We had our work cut out for us in trying to figure which option we would take.
The adventurous option for the well-planned: The famous Inca trail, starting in the large Peruvian city of Cusco (also the old Incan capital) and continuing for 5 days along an ancient Incan built trail, ends by walking through the sun gate welcoming you to Macchu picchu. This sounded ideal! The only problem was the 4 – 6 month advance reservation needed to hike the trail. Overlanding doesn’t really lend itself to that much advance planning, sadly.
The adventurous option for the last minute traveler: We could have done the Salkantay trek into the surrounding area, which ends with either a brutal walk on the train tracks or a ride to the base town of Agua Calientes. Given groups of 20 are the norm for these treks, we vetoed this hike (although heard many great things about it from people who have done the trek).
The “backdoor” option for overlanders: If you have access to a 4×4 vehicle, you can drive to Santa Teresa, and walk along the train tracks for 5 hours to Agua Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. We had just run into Richard and Ashley from Desk to Glory (@desktoglory) at a campsite in Cusco and they recounted the long drive, not-so-scenic hike, and unbearable bugs they encountered on this route. Hmmm…is there another option?
The way 90% of Machu picchu visitors do it: Take the train. Yes, there is an easy and beautiful, albeit expensive, 4 hour train ride from Cusco to the base town of Agua Calientes. After examining all options, we decided that this would work best for us and save us a little time for exploring more of Bolivia (more about that in the next post…)
Visiting the famed ruins…Machu Picchu!!
George and I decided to spend the night in Agua Calientes and wake up SUPER early (4am) to walk up a giant staircase in hopes of beating the first bused-in tourists from town into the ruins. These 1900 stairs are not for the faint of heart, and at this altitude, was our first great feat of the day…
We didn’t end up beating the first bus to the front of the line, but we were pretty happy to be in the first 50 people to enter the ruins that day at 6am. The first glimpse was awe-inspiring. The fact that the Incas could build something this beautiful, at this altitude, hanging on the side of a mountain was pretty spectacular. For the most part we got to take photos, hang out with llamas, and wander through the ruins with hardly anyone there. Truly a magical experience.
Around 9am the ruins started to fill up with anxious tourists ready to tour the ruins. We really wished we had been one of the 200 people to get tickets to climb to the top of the famous Huayna Picchu (its that pointed mountain you always see in all Machu Picchu photos, and has ruins and an ancient staircase going up). But alas, you have to get tickets at least 3 weeks in advance. But we did have another option! We were able to get tickets ahead of time to climb Machu Picchu mountain, which gives you incredible views of the entire ruins and the surrounding mountains. There was just one more little staircase… make that a lot more stairs! We started up the mountain and were rewarded with incredible views and a much needed break from the crowds.
Our mountain climb was a perfect way to spend the rest of our afternoon at Machu Picchu, and to reflect on our time in Peru, which would be coming to an end. Peru is such an adventurous place, and George and I don’t feel like we’ve explored everything this country has to offer. I think we’ll be back again one day, if not to hike more in the Cordillera Blanca, then to explore some of the lesser known Incan ruins that are supposed to be even bigger than Machu Picchu (although not completely excavated). Till we meet again Peru, till we meet again…