Machu Picchu: A Recap and Planning Tips

I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu for more than a decade. Even though its a big cliche, it is one of those “bucket list places” for me. It also made Emily’s list of “top ten places” when we each made our lists when we were newly dating. Here’s a little bit more about what we learned as we planned our trip to the site and what our experience was like when we finally made it there.

Getting There Logistics

After talking with some friends, we made the decision to climb Huayna Picchu as part of our time at the ruins. Huayna Picchu is the tall mountain in the background of pretty much every Machu Picchu photo you see.

While we were staying in Cusco, we popped in to the ticket office run by the Ministry of Culture. After reading this post from Thrifty Nomads, we decided it would be easier to buy tickets in Cusco than online. But, keep that Thrifty Nomads post bookmarked, you’ll use it later…

Emily and I were lucky we planned three days in Aguas Calientes. When we asked to buy the tickets for Saturday, they were sold out. We inquired about Sunday, and thankfully lucked out. Word to the wise, even in the rainy season, it is a good idea to buy your Machu Picchu tickets at the same time you buy your train tickets. In the high season, both of these things need to be booked well in advance.

Finally, we also bought our bus tickets up to Machu Picchu the afternoon before, to avoid the long lines in the morning. I have to admit, we are some pretty clever people at times! It was an early night for us with our alarms set for 4:00 a.m. to shower, eat, and get into line for the busses. I was intent on seeing the sunrise from the ruins.

Machu Picchu DayFog in the morning at Machu Picchu

After eating an early breakfast, and picking up our bag lunches, we headed towards the bus line. We were amazed at the number of people in line so early. However, there weren’t many people in line to buy bus tickets.  So maybe, just maybe, we aren’t as clever as we originally thought!

We eventually got on a bus for the 30 minute ride up to the Machu Picchu entrance. The gravel road was winding, narrow, and didn’t leave much room for error. We were amazed two buses could pass one another and were both grateful we weren’t driving.

After waiting in line to enter the site, we decided to hike up to try and get that iconic Machu Picchu photo. Unfortunately, there were a lot of clouds and fog. For the first 45 minutes to an hour, we were lucky to be able to see more than 20 feet.  The clouds did eventually start to move out, and every so often, you would get a glimpse of the whole place. Of course, this lasted about 10 seconds, before more clouds rolled in.  While this was a little frustrating, we kept the faith, and soon enough, were rewarded with a spectacular view of Machu Picchu.

Climbing (Not Hiking) Huayna PicchuView of Machu Picchu from Huyana Picchu

After walking around a bit more, we ended up near the entrance to Huayna Picchu. We bought tickets for the second time slot, at 10:00 a.m., thanks to a tip from a friend. Based on the cloud coverage early in the morning, this was a solid tip. Each time slot allows up to 200 people to hike up this summit. We decided to wait until 10:30am to go through the entrance and start our hike, again based off a tip from a friend.

The trail up to the summit is definitely designed for those in shape and not afraid of heights. Why do I share this? Basically, you climb a series of stone steps for an hour to reach the summit, with some frighteningly steep sections near the top. As you make the climb, the entire site comes into view. Once at the top, the views are absolutely breathtaking. Once you arrive at the first of the high terraces, you have a choice. Turn around or climb higher. We chose to climb higher along a one-way route, which was frightening, but worth the view. It was a good way to see Machu Picchu from above and plot out plan for the afternoon.

After spending some time at the top, we decided to make our descent down. It was not the easiest trail on the knees for sure, but overall, well worth the hike.  We definitely recommend it for those seeking a little more adventure at Machu Picchu.

One-Way Routes and Waiting Out the RainEmily and Chris at Machu Picchu

After completing the Huayna Picchu hike, we re-entered the site, and decided to have a little lunch.  After lunch, it was time to see the rest of the ruins. However, we were stifled in our attempt to walk around at our leisure. Similar to the top of Huayna Picchu, the ruins at Machu Picchu are organized as a one-way path. So, we could not back track to the beginning of the site. We were forced to follow this one-way path all the way to the exit. Thankfully, your ticket allows up to two re-entries per day. So after a quick bathroom stop, we were ready to head back in.

We had some sun shining through as we re-entered, so we thought we would get that famous picture of Machu Picchu. However, as we were approaching that location, the rain started. It had been raining lightly on and off all day, but this wasn’t a light rain anymore. We threw on our ponchos, founds some cover, and waited out the rain. And with it being around 3pm by now, the rain assisted us in a dramatic way. It basically cleared out the site. So now, instead of exploring the ruins with 2000 other people, we were down to less than 150 people.

Persistence paid off for us and we were finally able to take some photos of the site. It was well worth the wait. After taking some pictures, it was time then to head down and admire the stone work of the dwellings and terraces. Using primitive tools, the Inca’s were able to carve rocks so perfectly that they fit together to form walls without the use of mortar or other binding agents. Being an engineer, this geeked me out.

Exploring the RuinsInca doorway at Machu Picchu

We walked over to the Temple of the Sun and marveled at the architecture. After that, it was time to get some good photos of the Temple of the Three Windows. This was another display of massive rocks chiseled so perfectly and constructed so well, there wasn’t a gap found in the temple. Off to Intihuatana, which looks like a big sun dial, and then down along side one end of the massive field of grass (about 1 acre in size).  We then passed the Sacred Rock, which is right next to the Huayna Picchu entrance, and then off to look around the various dwellings on site. The terraces used for agriculture were one of the more impressive structures. They also played a key role in keeping the site in tact.

We decided to watch a documentary about Machu Picchu, and learned how this place has survived for hundreds of years on basically the edge of the jungle. Though there is a lot of rain, and other mountains have mudslides, Machu Picchu still stands. Why? Well, simply, Inca Engineering.

When building the terraces, the Inca’s incorporated a complex drainage system. Each terrace is constructed by a layer of topsoil for growing food, then a layer of sand, and then a layer of discarded chunks of rock from construction of the walls.  This allows water to flow downward through the terraces without washing out the walls. And throughout the site, there is also an elaborate network of drainage channels underneath the structures to prevent washouts. This was very impressive to say the least.  And as you walk around the site, you could see evidence of these drainage channels. There were the more obvious rock channels above the topsoil, to gaps in the rock walls, which allow water to flow freely to lower elevations.

The Next Time List

While we were able to see and do a lot in our 10 hour day at Machu Picchu, there are still some places that we didn’t get to explore including:

  • The Sun Gate, which is the entrance to Machu Picchu for those that complete the Inca Trail,
  • Hiking to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain,
  • Walking out to the Inca bridge, and
  • While we had time to see it, we did miss the Temple of the Condor.

We were tired after a full day of walking. So, we decided to buy the one way bus ticket back down to Aguas Calientes.  The nice thing is that as of now, they do not offer a discount for a return ticket. So buying two different one way tickets, one in town and one at Machu Picchu, did not cost us more. I would recommend our approach, but also know that taking the bus down when your feet hurt is much more enjoyable than walking down the side of a mountain!

Have you visited Machu Picchu? What was your favorite part?

Aguas Calientes: You Can’t Get There From Here

We made it to Peru! We’ve done and seen a lot since we’ve been here. I wanted to start by sharing a bit about our time in Aguas Calientes before we write about the big day at Machu Picchu and the rest of our time in the Sacred Valley.

We departed Cusco on February 17th and headed towards Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From Ollantaytambo, we took the train over to Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. You can only get to Aguas Calientes by train, as there are no roads that reach this small town. Aguas Calientes is an interesting place. As you would imagine from being the base for touring Machu Picchu, it is a bit of a tourist trap. However, the town has been built right into the mountain, and thus it feels like you are constantly walking uphill. And as one would expect from a town with no roads into and out of the town, we didn’t see any cars at all. In fact, the only type of vehicle here are the busses that take folks up to Machu Picchu, and back down again.   

When planning our trip, we decide to spend three nights in Aguas Calientes. The main reason for this was we knew it was the rainy season. Thus, to avoid a potential disappointment in reaching Machu Picchu only to not really see it, we provided ourselves with some contingency time. Turns out, we didn’t need it. That didn’t mean all was not lost. When looking through our Frommer’s Guide, there were a couple other hikes listed. We decided to go ahead and try these out on the days we did not go to Machu Picchu.  

Hikes Around Aguas Calientesbutterfly in mandor gardens peru

The two hikes that we decided to try were the Mandor Gardens and Putucusi. The Mandor
Gardens were spectacular. For a mere 10 soles (~$3.20 USD), we walked through a well maintained botanical garden including orchids, banana trees, pineapple flowers, a diverse set of birds and butterflies, and even a small stream. After walking through the gardens we followed a well maintained trail to a waterfall. This was a nice way to spend the afternoon, and one of the highlights for us? The fact that in the two and a half hours we spent there, we only encountered six other souls.woman at waterfall in mandor gardens, peru

The other hike we attempted was Putucusi. We read that if you reach this summit, you can actually see Machu Picchu from the peak, so we were excited. However, we only got about 45 minutes up the path, and ran into a bit of a road block. The wooden ladders that would allow us to continue up the trail were no longer there. Only the remnants of the ladders, ropes, and various piles of wood remained. I guess if we had taken the time to look up the hike online ahead of time, we would have learned the hike was closed. Oops…

All About The Gringo’s

Not only does this heading reference the fact that we haven’t been around this many tourists since the Atacama Desert in Chile. It also references the place we stayed, Gringo Bill’s Hotel. I will admit that when looking at places to stay, I wanted to book this for the entertainment factor of the name. Turns out, Gringo Bill’s was pretty nice. Breakfast was good, the staff was quite friendly, and the rooms were pretty comfortable. Yes, you read that correctly, we had two rooms during our stay.

The second night we were there, I went down to go secure our lunches for Machu Picchu the next morning. I locked the door on my way out, and when I returned, I couldn’t get the door to open. Emily tried to help from the inside to no avail. The worst part?  We managed to get the key stuck in the door lock. After Emily called reception, we had not one, not two, but three gentlemen help us to get the door open, by eventually dismantling the handle and lock. Needless to say, it was an adventurous 30 minutes with Emily essentially locked in the room. In the end, we had to move rooms to one located two doors down. I can honestly say that I have never had this situation occur before in all my years traveling. It is something we both look back on and laugh about.

Final Thoughts

We have talked to quite a number of people that made a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco, as well as those that stayed at least one night in Aguas Calientes. I even spoke to a fine gentlemen from Guatemala who completed his second trip to Machu Picchu. Most people had the same recommendation. If you are going to visit Machu Picchu, you need to stay at least two nights in Aguas Calientes. It is much easier to base yourself there the night before you go up. And if you spend the whole day at Machu Picchu, it is a good idea to spend the night in Aguas Calientes.  

Though many of the articles found on the internet and travel guides tend to look down on Aguas Calientes, we would disagree.  It has its own charm to it, and if you are willing to take the initiative and explore, is quite rewarding.  Also don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time in the Sacred Valley, which we’ll write more about in a future blog post. It is truly an amazing place.  

Atacama Desert: Moon Valley and The Highest Geysers on Earth

We landed mid-afternoon in Calama and hopped on a shuttle for the 90 minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama. This is a small mainly tourist town located in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert on the planet. The Atacama only gets 1 millimeter of rain on average per year. In some places, rainfall has never been recorded.

We booked multiple excursions to various places in the desert, including Valle de La Luna and Geysers del Tatio.

Valle de La Luna

On our second day in San Pedro de Atacama, we took the Valle de La Luna tour. We signed up with Desert Adventure and wound up using them for all three tours we took in the Atacama Desert.

Our first stop the Valle de la Luna tour was Muerte Valley, which means “Death Valley”. This is not the correct name. The original name was Marte Valley, which is French for Mars Valley. The name given was based on its resemblance to Mars by a Belgian Priest that had settled in the area.  The locals mispronounced the name, and thus Death Valley stuck. The local parks group is trying to correct this mistake, even posting a “Marte Valley” sign right at the entrance.

From there, we went out to an area in the Salar de Atacama, or Atacama salt flats. We got to climb up right next to one of the biggest sand dunes, saw an example of what the old salt mines looked like, as well as the type of accommodation where the miners lived. All I can say is I am glad I never had to mine salt for work in such a harsh climate.

One of the more intriguing parts of this trip was that we noticed the desert looked a little wet. As it is an El Nino year, the Atacama had a little rain each day for 10 days straight. This is very rare, and had occurred only a few days before we arrived, which is why you could still see remnants of the rain.  

After seeing the old mines and workers accommodations, we went up to a look out over the Valley de la Luna to watch the sunset. It was a pretty nice sunset that we shared with a few hundred new friends.

Geysers del Tatiosteaming geysers in the atacama desert

The final tour with Desert Adventures required us to get up well before the sun. We were picked up at 4:30am for the 80 minute drive to the highest geyser field in the world, El Tatio.  Most folks slept on the way up, but I have never been one that does well sleeping sitting up. I tried to observe the surroundings as much as one can before sunrise.

We arrived at the Geyser fields and had a quick Chilean breakfast (white bread, ham, cheese, cookies), and then we were set to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately with the temperature being a bit cold, and Geysers containing water at ~86oC, which at that altitude is the boiling point of water, there was too much steam to really get to see the sunrise. The steam production was a pretty cool sight to behold.

We continued to explore the rest of the Geyser field, and for the more insane souls, there was an opportunity to take a dip in a thermal bath. We had heard the day before that the pool wasn’t that warm and that a lot of the tourists take advantage of this opportunity. Emily and I had much more fun walking around and checking out the other Geysers.

Llama Kebabsman eating llama kebab

On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in a small village called Machuca. The town is supported via tourism alone, so they were ready for all the tourist busses. We had a chance to try a Llama kebab. One word: delicious. Of course, it didn’t make eating it easy for Emily when not 30 feet away from the BBQ, there was a baby Llama that you could pet and take photos with for a small fee!   

We ended up back at our hostel around noon and took a nap.  We proceeded to get our last lunch in San Pedro after we woke up. As we discussed the past few days, Em and I agreed that this location has been our favorite thus far. I think we would both come back here, and encourage you all to check it out if you can.

La Serena: A Seaside Escape (With All of Chile)

We’re a little bit behind on posting, but here’s a recap of our time in La Serena.

As we rode the bus back to Santiago, Emily and I discussed how much fun we had in Valparaiso. The vibrant colors and graffiti murals were amazing. The journey back to Santiago was quick as both of us were deep into our respective books. We changed buses at Terminal de la Alameda, and were off to the airport.

Spotting a Supertanker

We did have a small highlight waiting to board our flight. A large red and white plane with the tail number 944 landed. I noticed a lot of people getting up to take photos of this plane. Emily and I assumed the plane belonged to the Chilean President, as President Michelle Bachelet had been visiting the regions affected by wildfires. We were both wrong, it was in fact the 747 Supertanker airplane from the United States that was sent to help drop water onto the fires.

Exploring La Serenachurch in la serena

In La Serena, we hired a car and thus I got my first opportunity to drive. Observing the way people drive up to this point, I was slightly nervous. You definitely have to be aggressive and pay attention to your surroundings. Overall, it has been fun…and nerve wracking!

La Serena is the second oldest city in Chile (after Santiago), and is the Capital of Region IV or Norte Chico. The local population is roughly 200,000, but it is also one of the most popular beach vacation destinations in all of Chile. And since we are here in the middle of summer, we are vacationing just like the Chileans!

We had two different hotels in La Serena. This was because we had to make some changes to our original itinerary. The wildfires we wrote about in our Santiago post were starting to affect areas near the Colchagua Valley. We had planned to spend a couple of nights in wine country and decided to adjust our plans because of the fires. When we went to rebook our accommodation, we discovered there were hardly any rooms available in La Serena.

The first hotel was located right next to the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. The city center is home to a lot of small churches and a very quaint place. There were some local markets in the Plaza de Armas, and we strolled through these. We also discovered Chileans love their freshly made fruit juice, and for good reason as the temps hovered in the mid to high 80’s F. There were natural juice stands on pretty much every corner.

Beach Timesunset in la serena chile

Hotel number two, Cabanas Vegasur, was about a half block off the beach, and it was great. We were able to check in and then head down to the beach. The beach at La Serena is very long. Over the course of the next two days, we walked approximately 12 miles along the beach. Now this figure does cover the return journey, but if you cut that in half, that is 6 miles of sandy beach, and we didn’t walk all of it. On a whole, our stay here was nice and relaxing. Having lunch next to the Pacific Ocean, watching a little bit of the under-16 and under-18 National Surf competition, and of course enjoying our vacation with what seemed like 50,000 people on the beach. Emily and I enjoyed our first sunset together on this trip as well, and she took some great photos.

Tomorrow we head inland about 100km to the Elqui Valley, home of the famous Pisco grape growing region. I’ll also get a chance to see what this little Chevy Spark can do. (Emily has started referring to it as the ‘micro machine.’

Santiago: An Overwhelming Chilean Introduction

After a long flight, we touched down in Santiago on Thursday morning. Immigration was pretty straightforward, though we did have a little bit of a scare with customs. As we were walking to have our bags X-rayed, one of the customs dogs gave Emily’s day pack an extra long sniff. We clarified we had no food, but had to have the bag searched after the X-ray. The culprit? Vitamin C cough drops that smelled like oranges! I think the pooch had an ulterior motive; wanting to play fetch with me.

We had a shuttle arranged to take us to our apartment at Altura Suites. Our driver, Enrique, was very kind. We had a nice conversation (in broken Spanish) along the way. We talked a bit about the forest fires plaguing the Central region of Chile. You can read more about the devastating fires here. Altura Suites was located just a few blocks away from the Plaza de Armas, and Cerro Santa Lucia, two of the main attractions. It was nice being so central to the city and was a great base for exploring.

Heat and Hazeview from cerro san cristobal

The biggest hurdle for us to overcome (other than the language barrier) was the heat. Though Minnesota had been unseasonably warm for January, it was above 90F each day in Santiago. We didn’t have AC in our little apartment, so it felt like we couldn’t escape the heat the entire time we were there.

The heat and haze made us both feel a little jaded about Santiago. It’s the height of summer, so air quality in the city isn’t great. Most of the buses and trucks are diesel powered and not equipped with the latest pollution control technologies. So, we didn’t get to see the breathtaking views of the Andes mountains that you see all over Instagram. It would be better to visit Santiago during the spring or fall.

Cerro San Cristobalcable car cerro san cristobal

However, this did not deter us from a bit of an adventure at Cerro San Cristóbal. The largest urban park in all of South America is pretty amazing, even with the haze.

Instead of taking the funicular (cable car) up the hillside, we thought we would walk to the top. The path we chose wasn’t far from the funicular, but little did we know it was closed! So, what was supposed to be a 3 mile walk turned into an 11 mile adventure, complete with a stop at a local swimming pool near the top of the park. While the entrance fee was a little steep, it was nice to cool down in the pool.

Unfortunately the Cerro San Cristóbal experience wasn’t completely rosy. When we stopped at the base of the park, Emily sat on a bench with both of our bags. I was less than 20 feet away looking at an interactive map. An older man approached Emily, and pointed at pesos he had thrown on the ground. While he was attempting to distract her, his partner picked up my bag and got about three steps before Emily realized what was happening. She saw him with my bag and yelled at him. He dropped the backpack and they both took off. It was a big reminder that even in a very crowded area with families and lots of small kids, you have to pay attention to your surroundings. Lesson learned….

Making the Best of Santiagocerro santa lucia

Despite the heat and the bag snatching scare, we absolutely made the best of our time in the city. Santiago’s architecture is a unique blend of Spanish Colonial style and modern buildings. The Palacio de la Moneda (Presidential Palace) is not to be missed. This is where Salvador Allende vowed to stay instead of going quietly into exile during the 1973 Coup d’état. The Plaza de Armas is a great place to go and people watch, and if you are fortunate, take a peak inside Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago.

Santiago’s parks are also incredible. We loved walking through Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal. The parks were clean, full of beautiful gardens, and lovely fountains.

Tomorrow we are heading west to the port city of Valparaiso, a unique city full of street art and colorful houses.

Making Choices, Building Spreadsheets

Well, the departure date is finally upon us. As we sit in the Atlanta airport, anxiously awaiting our flight to Santiago, I am thinking back to all the effort that has gone into planning this amazing adventure. And for those of you that know me, it will be of no surprise that spreadsheets were our best friend as we went through this process.chris using laptop

As previously mentioned, on one of our first dates, we talked about the places we each really wanted to visit. Neither of us had traveled to South America and there were several wonderful countries that ended up on both of our wish lists. So, we started with a total “brain dump” of all the interesting, fun, exciting, and adventurous places on this vast continent we could think of.  We quickly realized that seven weeks was not nearly enough time to see, do, eat, and enjoy all of the places on that original list.  

Making Choices

After the brain dump, we had to start the difficult process of removing certain places, activities, and even countries off the list.  Once we narrowed it down to a manageable list of places, it was then time to start determining where we wanted to go, what we wanted to see, and what crazy adventures we thought we’d get into. This in and of itself was one tall order. Our approach?  Divide and conquer.

Emily had certain regions that she didn’t want to miss, and I did too. So, we each took the lead on those regions, deciding what we most wanted to do.  Once we had an outline of stops on the itinerary, we needed to determine how many days to spend in each place. We started by creating lists of the things we wanted to do and places we wanted to see in each city. We consulted websites, blogs, and travel books from The Lonely Planet and Frommers. Mostly, we guessed, and I’m sure there will be times when we wish we had more or less time in a place. Finally, we built in some downtime so we don’t arrive home needing a vacation from our vacation.

With the rough schedule planned, I was free to do what I thoroughly enjoy doing: figuring out the transportation, working with Emily on accommodation, and putting together the trip budget. And that is when the spreadsheet morphed into a beast of it’s own!

Planning Tools and Planning Lessons

Our itinerary covers large sections of Chile, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands. With this much ground to cover, we had to rely on airline travel. One of my first trip mistakes was not realizing there are two different price points for airline travel in Peru. There is one price for those with residency in Peru, and another for non-Peru residents. I thought we were going to get flights from Lima to Cusco and back for less than $100 each! When I went to book flights a few weeks later, I realized I had been looking at the prices for Peruvian residents. So, our flights ended up being more expensive than I had originally budgeted. It’s probably not the first mistake we’ll make on this trip… 

As for accommodation, we ended up using Booking.com for all our non-tour based travel.  We both spent a lot of time looking at various travel sites trying to find good deals on accommodation, only to come back to Booking.com. The site is really easy to use, has reviews from other users, and keeps our itinerary all in one place (aside from a spreadsheet, of course). We also used Google Flights to do research and find flights in and between countries. Finally, we also had help from friends and family who have traveled to this part of the word. Thank you for your advice!  

It’s hard to believe we’re just a flight away from this once in a lifetime adventure. I’m looking forward to sharing more once we’re on the ground and making our way through Santiago, Chile, our first stop. ¡Hasta luego!