I have to say, I went for this one unprepared. I was going to Brazil for summer break and my mom wanted a mother/daughter bonding trip. Unfortunately, it was less than a week after my finals and I didn’t have time to read a single guide, just some general stuff I found on the internet. And I’m usually the kind of person who buys 3 different guides, reads them all and plans every second of the trip. Not that I follow my own plans that often, but I do enjoy the planning and the security that really knowing about stuff allows you.
I visited 3 places in Peru. Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu. It was a wonderful trip and I loved all 3 places, but I’m focusing on Machu Picchu right now because it’s the one people are most interested in, by far.
Machu & Huayna Picchu Tickets
Tickets for Machu Picchu can be bought in advance, or at the cultural center near the central plaza in the Aguas Calientes village. Don’t forget your student ID if you have one. There are 3 kinds of tickets:
- The Machu Picchu one.
- The Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu one.
- The Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain one.
Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu Mountain
You can get the basic Machu Picchu ticket at any time, but if you plan on climbing Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain you should really buy your tickets in advance, as only a limited number of people get to climb it each day.
I don’t think there’s a consensus about which one is better, Machu Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu is by far the most popular one, it’s a lot faster and easier to climb. But people say the best views of Machu Picchu are from the Machu Picchu Mountain. They’re both breathtaking though, and if you stay for a few days you can do both and weigh in on which one is more worth it.
How to get to Machu Picchu
The Inca Trail, if you haven’t heard of it, is a walking trail that takes about 4 or 5 days to complete. You usually start from Cuzco and end up at the Sun Gate in Machu Picchu. I heard about some people doing it by horse, which personally I think sounds a lot better. Either way, it looks like an amazing experience. One that I didn’t have though, as it takes a lot of planning and a big group.
I did see some people at our hotel in Cuzco who were leaving for the trail though, and, already in Machu Picchu, some who had just arrived. The one girl I asked if she thought it was worth it said “Ask me in a week and I’ll probably say yes, but right now I’m too tired.”
One thing I can say to those who plan on doing it though, is arrive in Cuzco a few days early. Altitude sickness is a terrible thing. I’m usually not affected by stuff like that, but I passed out as soon as I left the plane. And I was far from the only one. It took me about two days to get completely used to the altitude. Most hotels provide oxygen if you need it. I did. One thing that they say really helps is coca tea. It’s pretty good, and Peru is the only country where it’s legal. The coca candy worked much better for me, though. I a lot of it, every day, and if I didn’t I got dizzy. I saw a group at hour hotel whose cook was at the hospital because of altitude sickness, and they were probably going to have to postpone the trail. So make sure you get some days to get used to the altitude before you you do it. Only 200 trackers are allowed in the trail each day, so it books out pretty quickly and you don’t wanna miss your turn. Try to make a reservation 4 or 5 months in advance.
There are two companies running the trains to Aguas Calientes (the village next to Machu Picchu, sometimes called Machu Picchu Pueblo) each day, PeruRail and IncaRail. Super creative names, I know. I took PeruRail’s Vistadome. PeruRails was the only option given to my mother by the travel agency, so I don’t know much about IncaRail’s trains.
PeruRail’s has three different trains:
- The Expedition: The cheaper option. They used to have an even cheaper one, the Backpacker, but it was taken out of circulation. They have “large panoramic windows,” though I’m not sure if that means they have ceiling windows. And those are essential.
- The Vistadome: The one I took. It’s like their middle class train. They have ceiling windows, and this is the reason we picked this one. Make sure to take it during the daytime so you can enjoy the view. There are leather seats, plenty of leg room and they serve great typical food. One thing I didn’t like though, it’s how touristy it is. They kept offer you a lot of souvenirs to buy, and that wasn’t really what I wanted to pay attention to at that moment.
- The Hiram Bingham: Hiram Bingham being the American guy who made public the existence of Machu Picchu. He didn’t really discover it, as other people knew about it. This is their most luxurious train. This one doesn’t have ceiling windows though, and as I said, those are important. The price also includes the bus ride up to Machu Picchu, a guided visit, and tea at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. We’ll talk about this lodge later.
Once you get off the train, if you don’t already have one, you also need a bus shuttle ticket. Or not. You can also hike up to Machu Picchu. It’s perfectly possible and very fun, especially if you do it before the shuttles start. If you do it after there will be a lot of dust involved. And if you don’t wanna hike up, you can always hike down. Still fun but less tiring. If you do take the bus, you need to head to the bus stop. It’s quite easy to find and close to the train station. Across the street from the bus stop, there’s a booth where you can get your tickets. The shuttle takes half an hour, and the first one leaves at 6 am. The return ticket costs $18,5o, if I’m not mistaken. I do recommend that, if possible, you buy your tickets in advance, as the line for the buses and for the ticket booth get pretty confusing in the early morning. On our second day we hiked up to see the sunrise (before the first bus) and it was amazing. Regardless of how you get there, try to get there early to see the most popular spots before everyone else arrives.
Always take your passport with you, and a student ID too, if you’re getting the discount. They always ask for both. There are many things that you’re not allowed to enter with, such as food and walking sticks. They don’t check your bags though, so those rules aren’t really enforced much. Og and right to the left of the entrance you can get a souvenir passport stamp! I almost missed that. It looks pretty cool, and it’s the only thing you can get in Machu Picchu itself.
Things to see
There’s some basic stuff that you just have to see. After seeing all of that, you can probably just walk around and explore, it’s what I had the most fun doing. But here’s the basic stuff:
- The Sun Gate: It’s the first thing the people who do the trail see when they get there, their official welcome to the lost city of the Incas.
- Temple of the Sun: Unlike mostly everything you’ll see there, the Temple of the Sun is semi-circular. Comparing it to other buildings, it’s also possible to see that the Temple’s stonework is much superior. There’s a large ceremonial stone next to the windows that is illuminated during the winter solstice, that’s why it’s believed that it was used to worship Inti, the God of the sun. There’s a naturally formed cave there that Hiram Bingham called a royal mausoleum, but there’s no evidence of that, even though it had some importance, as there are (man made) stairs leading to it.
- Temple of the Three Windows: There are many stories about this one, even some UFO theories. There are two most popular stories. One of them is that the windows are representing the Tamputocto Mountain, from where the Ayar brothers emerged to found the Incan Empire. The other is that each window represents a different thing, one heaven, one time (or present time) and the other represents the underground. Like the window at the Temple of the Sun, the Three Windows align perfectly with the winter solstice sun.
- Intihuatana: Machu Picchu was an important astronomical observatory for the Incas, and the Intihuatana stone was used to tell the date of the equinoxes. During the equinoxes the sun stands exactly above the stone so there’s no shadow.
- Temple of the Condor: One of the best examples of their ability at carving stones, the Temple of the Condor is shaped like, well, a condor. What our guide told us is that it was used for religious purposes, but I heard some other guide say that this is a lie told to make it seem nicer and that it was actually a prison. It does have a pretty weird dungeon feel to it. The condor represents consciousness, which just kinda adds to the prison version of the story.
- Main Temple: It is, well, the main temple. Located at the highest point of the city, as the Temple of the Three Windows, it’s located at the Sacred Plaza.
Where to eat
When in Aguas Calientes we always ate at the hotel, but up in Machu Picchu you have two options:
- Tinkuy Restaurant: It’s in the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Machu Picchu and the only one that’s up there next to the city. I’m not the biggest fan of buffets and this one was pretty expensive (around 40USD), but it was also really good. There are two big self-service counters, but basically all I ate was ceviche. Ceviche was basically all I ate in Peru. No regrets. One thing that annoyed me was the live traditional music. Not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that there were about 200 people in the restaurant so the music became just noise.
- Machu Picchu Snack Bar: Though it is really hard to get a table, as there aren’t many available, it was really good. Things were kinda overpriced, but that’s to be expected when it’s one of the only 2 restaurant options up there. They served basic stuff like burgers, sandwiches, pies, pizza and some pastries. My burger was great.
How long to stay
The most common way that people do Machu Picchu is by taking the train early in the morning (We had to wake up at 4), visit Machu Picchu and head back to Cuzco after lunch. As I don’t enjoy rushing through things, especially a place like Machu Picchu, we decided to stay for 2 nights. We already had a guided visit booked though, so on the first day we followed our group until they left at around 2pm. The guided visit was fine, and I totally recommend getting one. You get a map there, but you don’t get any explanations unless you have a guide. It was really interesting and we got to ask questions, but had I left after that I would’ve left disappointed. As you can imagine, Machu Picchu is huge. Besides what the guide will show you, there’s lots more you can see, and some great (short) trails too. I highly recommend that you stay at least one night so you can enjoy it all.
Where to stay
I absolutely loved our hotel. It was called El Mapi, and it was very recently renewed. They were all about recycling, had a nice bar and a great restaurant. The rooms were white and with lots of natural light, they provided a blow drier and really great shampoo, conditioner, etc. Breakfast and diner are included in the price,and they’re both great. Lots of fruit, a great variety of yogurt, pancakes, eggs, bacon, whatever you could possibly want. For dinner we had 4 different options, they all included appetizers, entrée, fixings and dessert. By far the best hotel of the trip.
What to take
There’s one basic thing you have to have with you. The only one thing you can’t forget. Bug spray. Don’t go there without it. I saw some poor guy near the entrance whose legs were bleeding through dozens of mosquito bites. I’m not exaggerating at all. Don’t forget the bug spray.
And that’s basically it! It is so worth it. Definitely a place I plan on going back to and would recommend to anyone.