Machu Picchu Guide
There are very few sites that evoke wonder and amazement than Machu Picchu. It’s one of the new “Seven Wonders of the World”, not exactly sure who’s in charge of that but still it’s deserving of the title. I went in May of 2015 with a large group of people, most of which I didn’t know but made quick friends with and some coworkers who took the opportunity when presented to go.
I figure I should write down all I can about my research and details that I normally will forget over the time so this is what this blog post is about.
If you’re planning on doing a trek or just hoping the train to get there you’ll have to get to Cusco at some point. Unless you bus it directly from Lima.
Almost exclusively you’ll fly to Lima from your location and then hop another flight to Cusco. I found tickets to Lima (not including Cusco in my larger flight plan) to be cheaper and then buying your individual flights to Cusco afterwards. Avianca and LAN fly dozens of flights to and from Cusco all day, going to their site directly can get you a ticket as cheap as $70 (one way). Buying one way tickets is not a good deal, stick with round trip from Lima to Cusco. This might differ for you because my flight plan was LAX -> LIM -> BOGOTA -> SFO for about $900 from May 22nd -> June 10th 2015. Including flights from Cusco added about $140 to that raising it to about $1140 total.
An advisory that I was warned about in Lima was that some the weather is unpredictable and flights can get cancelled and rerouted in a semi-regular basis. Don’t make your schedule too reliant on a transfer, I never had an issues but my friend Scott got rerouted and added quite a lot of time to his flight back home because of a delayed/cut off flight from Cusco to Lima. I recommend giving yourself buffers in both directions.
Cusco is a pretty awesome city by itself, a mecca of religions and tourism. All the hostels and main destinations are within 15 minutes walking distance of each other. There’s a lot to explore outside the city but like most other people I didn’t have a lot of time there.
The main sites to see are the Christ Statue on top of the hill, which is free to get up to. There are also multiple major Incan forts and ruins along the hills, the pass though costs 70 pesos ($24) for the pass for the four monuments in Cusco and 130 pesos ($43) for the 7 day pass to the Sacred Valley. I only went to the first location, Sacsayhuaman, an old Incan fort. The special thing here is in the center of the fort is a series of smooth rocks that act as very very fast slides. Totally worth going down though.
If you’re bringing just straight cash, the best exchange rate is in the Casino near Pariwana Hostel which is near Plaza de San Francisco. I stayed at Intro Hostel which was a nice mix between busy and not-busy without being too huge while being near a cheap supermarket and a laundromat.
If you’re like me and wanted to do some outdoor hiking throughout Peru and get to Machu Picchu, there are a few options for you. I did the Salkantay route but this information is also gleamed from others who did other routes as well as some information of my own research.
The most famous is the Inca Trail and it seems to be the only one that is directly connected to Machu Picchu. It’s the legitimate trail to Machu Picchu, as in the Incans actually did this route to get to the city. It’s also the most expensive and the one filled with the most ruins. You’ll stop by a few Incan sites. There is a limit of 500 permits per day for everybody (supposedly this includes porters but I highly doubt it). As of this posting (sometime in June) everything up to October is already booked, so that’s about 3-4 months lead time to get Incan Trail. Probably even more during busy season and holidays.
It’s going to be the most touristy and expensive, but I imagine for those of you want to actually do a trek INTO Machu Picchu, this is your only option. There’s a moratorium on pack animals for a part of the trail which makes walking down the trail significantly easier as you don’t have to constantly avoid donkey poop.
For those of you who are interested in this, Machu Picchu is quite covered in mist in the morning. You will get more people if you show up later but you might actually get to see the city properly if you show up a bit later than dawn. Especially because the sun is covered by the surrounding mountains around the city too.
This is the route I did, you go over Salkantay Pass, into cloud forrest and down into a more jungle atmosphere. It’s arduous and while it’s only 400m of elevation gain at most in any day, it’s 400m at 3000m elevation. I had trouble breathing and just going up but I’m slow normally, but this just hurt. Those of you who in good shape probably won’t have as much trouble, but even a few people who had done Mt Whitney in a day were struggling. I think the altitude just hits people differently. Coca leaves are supposed to help but since I was just having trouble getting oxygen it wasn’t really all that helpful.
The only thing I know about this one is that it’s very similar to Salkantay in that you don’t end up in Machu Picchu but I believe it’s even higher elevation than Salanktay Pass. The gains are similar are as well.
Costs and Reservations
I found that a lot of people who were just in the area ended doing own same trek for a lot cheaper than us with cheaper companies.
The one I went on Salkantay Trekking was certainly professional. Branded tents, bags, duffel bags, vans, and even a special straw tent cover for those rainy days. We also tended away from the crowds and ate on local farms and local houses instead of the big established areas. The cost of the base trek was about $400, but with additions of the renting good it ended up being around $450.
Here’s the link for those interested: http://www.salkantaytrekking.com/
Some of the highest prices I’ve heard have been $1300. And the lowest I’ve heard is in the range of $200 though I’m never sure if that includes the train ticket back from Machu Picchu, which costs a minimum of $70 and can cost more of depending on the time of day you go. The low prices were available in Cusco itself for those people filling out last minute bookings. Though you can book almost anything there last minute on the trek.
There’s also additional costs for the permits of Huanyu Picchu and Machu Picchu Montana which are the smaller hikes on the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu.
Aquas Calientes, last stop before Picchu
So there are two parts of Machu Picchu that I find important, one is the town of Aguas Calientes. If you’re hiking up from the train station and going along the tracks, if you ask your guide to take you through the jungle to skip some of the tracks you should eventually pass the sister ritual mount in the jungles. You’ll see the larger one in Machu Picchu itself but there’s another smaller one here in the jungle which is pretty cool.
In town, there’s pretty much whatever you want in terms of resources, hot water, beer, etc. The town falls asleep early though because almost everyone is getting up to go Machu Picchu in the morning if they’re there or they had just been hiking 2-5 days. So don’t expect a party. The bus goes up in the morning to Machu Picchu at 5:30, buy your tickets the night before and prepare to wait in line. We got there about 15 minutes before 5:30 and the wait in line was almost 30 minutes after 5:30. So if you want to be the first one in the bus line, get there super early. You can also tentatively just hike to Machu Picchu, it’s a pretty steep climb but it’s a lot of steps and nothing too serious.
There’s food, water and bathrooms once you enter the gate but once you’re inside the city there’s nothing.
The city of Machu Picchu is amazing, it’s ridiculously well preserved (or fixed up in a few cases).
If you find a big giant rock on the ground that’s kinda pointed like a slanted pyramid, there’s a good chance it might be a compass rock.
The “Inca Bridge” is this bridge that they built in the corner. It’s a super short walk and they make you sign in and sign out from visiting it because some idiot kept going past the bridge and died. The bridge links a path carved from the side of the mountain to another path that leads to places unknown (but terribly unsafe). What’s fascinating about the location is that they basically built it into the side of a mountain, more so than the “bridge”, which is just some wood.
The “Sun Gate” is the end of the Inca Trail and is a much longer walk uphill. It’s a pretty interesting view of the city and you can see how much of the city is still covered up and how much you’re not allowed to walk to. The hike is about 30-45 minutes one way all uphill.
Machu Picchu Montana
One of the hikes you can go to once your in Machu Picchu is Montana. The city’s true name is supposedly lost to history and the city is called Machu Picchu because of this mountain, so you’re climbing the namesake of the city.
This is what I did and I would say it’s a moderately hard walk. It’s much steeper climb going taking almost 3 hour round trip on big old giant steps most of the way. There’s some small ledges near the very top but nothing scary to the point where you’d fall off. It’s just single file instead of it’s normal larger path. You can take it slow but there’s nothing that would scare the hell out of anyone going up.
The views at the topic are pretty cool, though if you get a foggy or cloudy day there’s almost nothing to see into the city. The gate opens at a particular time and closes at a specific time (find out the details there) but you’re allowed in at any time during that time.
Montana in general is pretty available, it was sold out quite a while ago on the day we did it because of the fact that we did it around Memorial Day Weekend. So if you avoid major holidays (both US and other) you can get a ticket just the week before. But up to you.
This is the other mountain on the opposite side of Machu Picchu and this is the mountain you see in the background of almost every photo of Machu Picchu. I heard at least a few stories of people who got the pass, who started hiking up and turned around because they thought it was too dangerous. I never got to climb it because the passes sell out pretty far in advance. It’s a much shorter climb of 1.5 hours round trip but far more perilous.
If I was going to do this again, I would have bought the Huanyu Picchu pass and done it and then if I felt like staying and going longer do Montana.
Another free trek nearby that starts from Aguas Calientes and involves climbing multiple wooden ladders, the only problem is that the main ladder getting the initial 40 feet vertically to the trail head is busted. The only thing left is a cable that you have to climb up and down. This was true at least as of May 2015 but you can follow people occasionally post updates on TripAdvisor
If you’re like my group and want to play hide and seek or sardines, it was pretty fun though we did far too large an area. We ended up fencing off the area to the right of Machu Picchu, “right” from when you’re at the gate looking into the city. This was the housing for the young women before they were married. We included the terraces into this area which was too big an area, if you remove those it’s a complicated enough to get a good game going. I recommend doing it, when else do you get to say you got to play games in preserved ruin city?
If you’re on the train back home, prepare for a few surprises on the train ride back. I would’t expect to get any sleep. You also get a snack which is nice.
It was an an awesome experience and there’s so much more that you can’t articulate and talk about in a blog without going to see it. I keep hearing people talk about rumors how Peru is going to shut down Machu Picchu but I’d like to stop those now. UNESCO which is the UN organization that helps preserve historical sites specifically tries to stop Peru from letting more people into the city every year. It makes far too much money for a country that doesn’t have much of an economy otherwise, so go when you can, don’t worry about it shutting down.
If you’re also interested in other Incan sites, Machu Picchu was the religious site but if you want to see the Last City of the Incas, their hidden jungle city they fled from the Spaniards for a few decades I would check out Vilcabamba. The site is significantly larger than Machu Picchu for it was a full Incan city though one for the refuges. The city is still being uncovered month by month as the jungle continues to unearth large swaths of the city.
If you’re interested in reading material about the trek and going I recommend reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time. I have it on my Kindle if you’re a friend and want to borrow it, I believe I can lend it out.
Beyond that, if you’re reading this I imagine you’re interested in going on the trip and I hope you have a marvelous time.