The Incan ruins, the valleys, and the mountains of Machu Picchu are far more amazing than I could have imagined (so, be prepared for a lot of pictures with this post). The ruins date back to the 15th century and were “re-discovered” in 1911, though some believe the local people never lost the site at all. It may have been a place for Incan elites or one with religious importance, but archaeologists are still uncertain what the area was used for and why it was abandoned.
Now, thousands of people visit Machu Picchu every day. However, with land stretched over five miles, it didn’t feel too crowded during my trip. Before I went, I felt like I saw the same pictures of the site over and over, but there was so much more to Machu Picchu, and so much beauty that pictures really can’t do it justice. You have to go for yourself!
There are a couple of ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco:
1) Hike the Incan trail for 4 days/3 nights, or,
2) Take a train through the mountains.
I really wanted to take a train through Peru (and the boyfriend +I were not prepared for a 4 day Peruvian backpacking excursion at the onset of the rainy season), so we took the train from Poroy, Peru (20 minutes outside of Cusco), into Aguas Calientes, Peru (the town surrounding Machu Picchu). The train was fairly expensive, especially if you’re paying with Colombian pesos or Peruvian soles, but I enjoyed the huge windows and rural, Peruvian landscape of the 3.5 hour voyage.
Almost as soon as we got into town, we ate very mediocre, catered-to-tourist food (we didn’t find anything better our whole time there; maybe we should’ve tried one of the 5-star hotels…) and took the bus up to Machu Picchu’s Main Grounds! We thought about walking to the Main Grounds from Aguas Calientes, but as the bus took us higher and higher into the mountains, we realized that just reaching the Main Grounds was a hike and a half. We got to the Main Grounds in the late afternoon, around 2:30PM, which ended up being a treat because the skies were clear and most people were leaving the area for the day.
It felt like we had huge swaths of the ruins to ourselves to explore former rooms, cut-outs in stone walls, old drainage systems, and just wander. As the sun began to set over the mountains and valleys, I became convinced Machu Picchu was one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen, and we’ve been fortunate to experience a lot of beauty together.
Eventually, we decided to save money and trek the hike-and-a-half back down to Aguas Calientes on foot. We met a very sweet stray dog who we lovingly named Taco; Taco accompanied us for the entire glute workout that was descending the Main Grounds. As cute as he was, I wouldn’t let Joe touch him because I’m not convinced that our precious Taco was without fleas.
We were pretty tired after the early AM train ride and hiking of day one (little did we know the stairs that would greet us for day two), so we ate in town and went to bed fairly early.
We were both excited to get back to Machu Picchu for Day #2. I don’t know why people insist on taking the train in + out the same day. If you go all the way to Peru to see a World Wonder, you might as well stay a while.
Staying overnight in Aguas Calientes also allowed Joseph and I to experience the park at different times of day– late afternoon on Day #1 and morning on Day #2. Plus, in addition to the Main Grounds, the park offers two additional hikes: Wayna (also known as “Huayna”) Pichhu and Machu Picchu Mountain. We would’ve gone for Wayna Pichhu, but those day passes were all sold out 6 weeks in advance when we were purchasing. While the Main Grounds offer around 2,500 tickets per day, the additional hikes only offer a few hundred tickets daily. So book in advance!
We bought tickets to climb Machu Picchu Mountain: a few thousand foot incline (I think 2,000+ feet higher than the 8,000+ feet altitude of the Main Grounds) with hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands?) of steps. We did it, somehow, but that hike was no joke. I’m glad I’d already mostly acclimated to higher altitudes with Bogotá, but it was still really difficult. Each time we rounded a corner and saw another set of uneven stairs made from old rocks, I became physically angry. It was too much! I wanted to punch myself in the face. We were also hiking in a cloud for most of it, so there was no constant reward of looking around the view as we ascended. So reaching the top, and watching the clouds part for enough time to see the Main Grounds below us, felt like a huge accomplishment.
We hiked down with a friend we made at the top, had a picnic lunch on the Main Grounds… until an aggressive llama began chasing me… and eventually headed out to catch our train back to Cusco. Because it’s South America and nothing ever goes as planned, there was a protest and our train only took us to a nearby town– two hours by car outside of Cusco! I don’t even feel like getting too much into it, but after much stress, haggling, and arguing with a van driver, we made it back to Cusco that night… and were immediately accosted by a group of schoolchildren who heard me speaking English! They literally joined arms around me, chanting, “My name is! My name is! My name is!” It was adorable. I attempted to talk to them between their giggles, and found out they thought “My name is?” meant “What is your name?”. They all repeated “Lauren” in unison upon hearing it, and explained to me the only other English words they knew as 7 and 8 year olds: candy, milk, monkey, and pig. Classic.
Transportation: Avianca Airlines to/from Bogotá into Cusco; PeruRail train to/from Poroy into Aguas Calientes
Machu Picchu Entry: Tickets ($45USDpp for Wayna Picchu, $42USDpp for Machu Picchu Mountain, $38USDpp for Main Grounds)
- Buy PeruRail tickets and any Machu Picchu hike tickets (Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu Mountain) well in advance; those can sell out weeks or months ahead of time
- It is crucial to bring the proper documentation. Meaning, you need your passport to enter Machu Picchu– and even to just take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. And, to claim your PeruRail tickets, you need the original credit card used to buy the tickets online.
- Bring food/water to the Main Grounds; there is nowhere to buy food or drink once inside of Machu Picchu
- Try going later in the day to avoid crowds– but only to the Main Grounds! The additional hikes are for the mornings; they close them off in the afternoon
- If possible, get Peruvian soles at an ATM before reaching Aguas Calientes (i.e., in Cusco or at the airport). The entire town only has two ATMs, and sometimes they’re out of cash. This becomes even more complicated as the bus from Aguas Calientes to the Main Grounds only takes MasterCard or cash. Not Visa.