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?