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?

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!

South America, Here We Come

Okay, everyone. We’re one week out. To say things are a little chaotic around our house would be an understatement. We’re squeezing in time to say goodbye to our friends and family, packing up for our new life in Australia, and loading up our packs for fifty days in South America. To kick-off our blog, here’s where we’re traveling over the next seven weeks:

Chileatacama desert

A historic and bustling capital city, funky beach towns, lush wine growing regions, and the driest place in the world – Chile is where we’re starting our South American adventure. I’m most excited to explore the Atacama Desert and Atacama Highlands. The appeal of this region is its total weirdness. There are places in the desert that haven’t seen rainfall since humans have been recording rainfall. The soil and landscape have been compared to Mars. NASA is even testing soil life-detection equipment in the Atacama that might be used on future missions to Mars. Crazy, right?!? This post from A Brit and a Broad beautifully captures the dramatic landscape and the flamingos who inhabit the highland lagoons.

PeruMachu Picchu

Visiting Machu Picchu is one of those bucket-list places for both Chris and I, but its not the only place we’ll visit. We’re spending a few days in foodie-heaven Lima, where I’m dying to nosh on some amazing ceviche. Chris and I both love to hike and so we’ve carved out time to explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Finally, we’ve splurged on a private tour of Manu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Check out the Crees Foundation for a sneak peek at some of the wildlife we might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon.

Ecuador and the Galapagos Islandsgalapagos sea lion

The Galapagos Islands are must-do for both of us and we wanted to take our time visiting one of the most ecologically and geologically unique places in the world. We’re splitting our time between a cruise with Adventure Life as well as hotels on Islas Isabela and Santa Cruz. In total, we’ll set foot on five different islands across the archipelago. I’m geeked out about the idea of swimming with sea lions, finding birds with bright blue feet, and iguanas that swim in the ocean (what?!?!). We have a little bit of time in Quito and Guayaquil, but that’s about it for mainland Ecuador. I wish we had more time and were able to explore all that Ecuador has to offer.

I still doesn’t feel quite real that we’re about to do this, but we’re ready to soak up every minute. If you’ve been to any of the places on our list, we want to hear from you. What restaurants must not be missed? Where should we hike? Tips for taxis or other transport?

Leave a comment below or contact us with your advice and ideas!