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.  

Lima: A Love Story

Lima is a city sort of hits you in the face right out of the gate. We arranged a car to pick us up from the airport. It was a little on the pricey side, but we were warned before arriving that the taxi system in Lima is a little crazy. Pretty much anyone can be a taxi driver and the drivers aren’t regulated. So, you have to negotiate a fare and hope the driver brings you to the right place. Nine times out of ten, this is probably fine, but given our rickety Spanish we thought it was best to go with the arranged car.

Lima is a city of eleven million people. And there is no real transit infrastructure other than buses, mini-buses, combis, and taxis. So, as you might imagine, that equals a lot of traffic, pretty much all the time. Traffic lanes are suggestions. Honking is required. I often wondered if there were different honks for different things. Like, “Get out of my way,” “Do you need a ride?” “Hurry up!” I’ve been to many big cities, but Lima was something completely different.

So, what did I think of all of this chaos? I loved it. Here are my three favorite things from our two stints in Lima:

Mirabus Tour

Chris and I like to get off the beaten path and figure things out for ourselves when we’re traveling. But, it’s also our style to do the tourist thing from time to time. So, on our first day in the city we hopped on a bright red double decker bus for three hour tour of the city. We drove through Miraflores, San Isidrio and into Lima Centro.

The Plaza Mayor in central Lima is impressive and beautiful. The plaza surrounded by the Catedral de Lima and the Palacio de Gobierno. We were able to see the changing of the guard at the palace, which happens at 1:00 each day. A tour of the cathedral was arranged as part of the bus tour. Francisco Pizzaro’s remains are in an intricate mosaic covered chapel which you visit as part of the tour. Massive roundabouts, stuffed streets, stunningly beautiful and historic architecture, and a bilingual guide made for a great first morning in the city.

If you only have a short time in Lima, a bus tour is definitely worth your time.

Valentine’s Day Surprise

Many of you know I did not swoon over our time Chile. I was relieved to get to Peru. After more than two weeks of no sleep because of the cacophony of Chilean nightlife, I was exhausted. Thankfully, Chris could not have picked a more lovely hotel for our first two nights in Lima – Hotel Runcu in Miraflores. It was clean, quiet, and the hospitality was top notch. They brought us chocolate and cookies on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes it’s not the sweeping views or rich history (of which Lima has many), it’s a plate of sugar cookies when you’re recovering from weeks of sleep deprivation.

We wholeheartedly recommend this place if you’re traveling to Lima.

Parque del Amor

A post about my adoration of Lima wouldn’t be complete without the Parque del Amor, or Love Park. I read online later about the story of this park, which I think is awesome. One of Peru’s famous poets Antonio Cillóniz supposedly inspired the creation of this park after observing that cities do not build monuments to lovers, only warriors. (Most South American cities have statues of war heroes or other significant military figures in their main plazas or squares).

Chris and I were in Lima on Valentine’s Day and so he indulged my idea of walking from our hotel along the ocean to see the famous “El Beso” statue and the park. I wish it could say it was the most ultra romantic part of our trip, but it wasn’t. We understand now why our travel guidebook said, “Watch out!” if you venture over to this park on Valentine’s Day. There were couples holding hands, girls with bouquets of flowers and balloons, families, you name it. There were people everywhere!

We did catch a stunning sunset over the Pacific Ocean, but after that we fled the crowds to grab a bottle of wine and some snacks to enjoy from the comfort of our awesome hotel.