Even with all of the awesome places we visited and things we saw, Machu Picchu still felt like it was the main event and climax of our trip. For many people Machu Picchu is the entire reason for their trip to Peru in the first place. While many people think of the ruins as ancient, the truth is that they’re actually not as old as you may think – they were built around 1450, and then discovered and made known to the outside world by an American historian in 1911. It is an incredible sight to see – a green city built atop a mountain in the mist. It was likely not, as one of my neighbors tried to convince us, “that one place that I saw on the History Channel that was built by aliens.”
Getting into Machu Picchu can be a little confusing and will take some time (I will give additional details in a different post). Our journey was fairly typical and went something like this: We left Cusco at 6am by taxi to ride 30 minutes to the town of Poroy. From there, we hopped on the PeruRail train that lasted about 3 hours as it took us into the town of Aguas Calientes. From Aguas Calientes, you will have a 20minute bus ride, or 90minute hike to get into Machu Picchu. You may not want to go into Machu Picchu the same day that you arrive in Aguas Calientes. We bought our entrance tickets to Machu Picchu and our PeruRail train tickets to Aguas Calientes well in advance online. We bought our bus tickets into Machu Picchu upon arrival in Aguas Calientes.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes right around lunchtime and used the afternoon to check into our hostel, rest a bit, and explore the very limited city of Aguas Calientes. Everywhere is walkable in Aguas Calientes and it is all situated along one main drag, Pachacutec. It’s all restaurants, hostels, massage places, and little convenience stores We had plenty of time to wander through the main market and town square, eat some food and play Jenga (I don’t know why, but nearly every restaurant had a Jenga set at every table!), and purchase our bus tickets to go into Machu Picchu the following morning.
[Note: Along with a Jenga set, nearly every restaurant has a “carta turistica” or tourist menu. This is usually a good deal where you will be able to select an appetizer, entree, and dessert for a total of around 15-20soles. Most restaurants will also have a happy hour special where for 15-20 soles, you can get 4 cervezas!]
We retired early to our hostel – Hostal Pakarina – which was a perfect little spot for us. It is right on Pachacutec, just a few blocks up the street from the main plaza and the location where all of the buses depart to go up to Machu Picchu. We woke up around 5am to get ready and walked down to the bus pick-up point. The buses start running around 5:30am but there will probably be a long line starting even before then. However, there are several buses and they run every 10minutes or so, which helps the line move pretty steadily. [Note: there is a trail that you can hike to/from Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. It is advertised as a 60minute hike, but we hiked back down the mountain at a good clip and it took us about 90minutes, and it was fairly strenuous. I would guess that going up the mountain into Machu Picchu would take even longer and be even more strenuous. I would recommend taking the bus up and then hiking back if you want to hike; if you hike up, you may be too tired to fully enjoy the experience.] [Additional Note: The bus rides up into Machu Picchu are about 20minutes, and even by Peruvian standards are incredibly treacherous and full of hair-pin turns on a single lane dirt road. You may not want to look out the window!]
Because Machu Picchu is so unique, I find it difficult to describe. There is absolutely something mystic and awe-inspiring to be standing on top of a mountain in the mist looking at a bright green stone city that was built hundreds of years ago. I would recommend arriving early if possible – it’s incredible to see the mist with the sunrise, and it’s a little bit more tranquil early in the morning.
As you go into Machu Picchu, there are plenty of guides hanging out that you can pay to show you around and give tours of the ruins. We elected to stick to the map that we had and use that as a guide to walk and explore the ruins. When we first entered, we admired the absolutely incredible sights of the city and adjacent mountains in the mist. Several pictures later, we decided to head to the sun gate which is where you would enter if you were coming in from the multi-day Incan Trail hike. It’s another example where the Incans were incredibly resourceful and accurate enough to plan the sun gate so that at certain times of the year, the sun beams directly through it and onto the city. The ruins actually span an impressive distance, and getting to the sun gate was quite a hike even within the ruins. That along with just walking around and exploring the rest of the ruins is a lot of hiking and stairs!
As we made it to the sun gate, a guy in his 60’s offered up a pretty great quote: “Fuck Everest. This is where it’s at – This is impressive.”
Yes, there were plenty of llamas and alpacas roaming throughout the ruins.
We were in Machu Picchu before 7am, and after our hike to the sun gate and back and one loop through the ruins, it was a bit after noon and we were pretty exhausted. We elected not to hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain right next to the ruins that towers above Machu Picchu. This looks like it would give an awesome view, but it is also a challenging hike – we were glad we decided not to do it. [Note: You need to pay an entrance fee to hike this mountain, and you should do that in advance, when you buy your Machu Picchu entrance tickets.]
So after about 5 hours of hiking and exploring within the ruins, we decided that we had probably seen all we would enjoy seeing. We also knew that we had a long hike down the mountain back to our hostel in Aguas Calientes – we had decided ahead of time that we would take the bus up the mountain in the morning into Machu Picchu, and then take the “easy” hike down the mountain back into town. It turns out that the advertised 40-60minute hike, was much more like a 90+minute hike, even while going at a good clip.
So we arrived back in Aguas Calientes to our hostel on wobbly legs with quivering calves. We were exhausted. We enjoyed some food and drinks and then passed out early so that we could catch our early train the following morning back to Ollantaytambo. And from Ollantaytambo an hour and a half bus ride back into Cusco. Did I mention that it can be a little tricky getting into and out of Machu Picchu…
But it was so worth it. After our visit to the Sacred Valley in Cusco, we wondered if Machu Picchu could really be that much more impressive than what we saw. This was really just us being that impressed by those ruins at the time. But after our trip to Machu Picchu, I think we can absolutely say that it was, without question, that much more impressive. The combination of the mountains, the city, the greens, the mist, and the overall aura was magnificent.
Machu Picchu, the landmark that brings so many tourists into Peru is a legitimate and worthwhile reason to take a trip to Peru. It’s not the only thing you should see or do while in Peru, but it is something that you have to do while in Peru. We loved it. Even now, looking back just a few short months ago, it’s hard to believe that we were exploring the city on top of the mountain among the mist. Truly incredible.