To visit Machu Picchu you have two options, walk the Inca Trail, which is booked up anything up to 5 months in advance, or take a train to Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu pueblo, then a short bus up to the ruins. The jumping off point for both is Cuzco or Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley half way there (separate blog entries on Cuzco & Sacred Valley will follow). Since the only thing we have fixed ahead of time on this trip are the flights into and out of South America the train it was.
The majority of people tend to day trip it from Cuzco, this involves an early start and more time spent on the train than at the site (it gets most visitors between 10am and 2pm). The other option is staying overnight in Aguas Calientes, allowing you to beat the crowds in the morning, which is what we chose to do, catching the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes one day, visiting the site the next day and then the following morning catching the train to Ollantaytambo from where we’ll make our own way back to Cuzco through the Sacred Valley.
It still meant an early start in Cuzco (5am for the second day running) as you catch the same train as the day trippers. The train is unusual in that as it leaves Cuzco it zig zags up the hill – forward, back, forward, back, forward – it then crawls to Ollantaytambo. If we had been day tripping how slow the train went for the first 2 hours would have drove us nuts and the scenery is pretty rubbish.
From Ollantaytambo the scenery is suddenly amazing and the driver suddenly finds the accelerator. With it being peak season we expected Aguas Calientes to be the hardest place yet to find accommodation but when we came out of the station we were approached by a tout, not liking his prices we pocketed the card as a fall back and then we were approached by a second who was willing to do a deal and within 5 minutes we found ourselves in a really nice place (its quite new) for a fair price – sorted! The rest of day we spent looking round the town, which coincidentally had a festival on so there was a street parade, bands, lots of costumes etc, just as well really as it’s a small place so not that much to do, and we sorted out the practicalities of visiting Machu Picchu the next day.
The next morning we were up early for the 3rd day running to catch the first bus(es) up to Machu Picchu at 5:30am. When we got there at 5:10am there were already plenty of people in the queue in front of us and by 5:30 plenty of people behind. Luckily a whole convoy of buses turns up (they are only small). When we got off at the entrance to the site we joined another even bigger queue as the ruins don’t open until 6am.
Once in the site we headed up a small hill to get the typical postcard shot before the hordes descended. After watching the sun rise we headed to join the queue of people waiting to register to hike up the big hill (Huayna/Wayna Picchu) you see in the classic photo of Machu Picchu, as its limited to 400 people per day and this being peak season at 7:30am we got ticket numbers 163 & 164 for the second (and last) group that goes up after 10am. We then found a nice viewpoint for breakfast.
Your ticket and big signs at the entrance tell you that you can’t take plastic bottles or food into the site but EVERYONE goes in loaded up with water in plastic bottles and most people take food in. They don’t even attempt to enforce the rules, we saw people carrying food into the site in clear plastic bags, and you’d be a fool to walk round in the sun without water.
Perhaps if they lowered the cafe prices (they have a cafe and restaurant up there and that’s it, there’s nothing else) then people wouldn’t do it. At the cafe a 300ml bottle of water cost 10 Soles, to give that context normally a standard 650ml bottle costs 1 Sole. In a touristy place e.g. on one of the islands on Lake Titicaca where you really don’t have any choice they cost 2 Soles, and remember this is for DOUBLE the volume. Daylight robbery, and after the train to Aguas isn’t cheap and the entry ticket is extortion and didn’t even include the cost of going to the toilet which was an extra 1 Sole (50c NZ) a time. It’s not somewhere you go twice, you couldn’t justify the cost.
The hike up Huayna/Wayna Picchu started off really nice as from the entrance you gently drop down onto the saddle before the start of the steep uphill climb, 350m ascent of very rough steps. To our amazement it took us an hour and didn’t kill us. We caught our breath at the ruins at the top before heading to the summit (just some big rocks on the top) via a narrow cave that you have to crawl though and a ladder. The summit is tiny and the sheer drop a very very long way to the valley floor. Neither of us were keen to get close to the edge, but it was very exhilarating. The walk down started with some very steep narrow steps from the summit and while it got easier it took a lot of concentration and was hard on the calves and knees.
3 hours later we got back to the main site and we weaved our way to the other side, and we headed off on a 30 min hike to see an Inca drawbridge. The walk, on a path that clung to the cliff with a sheer vertical drop to the valley floor, was better than the bridge (see pic), but it was a good way to escape the afternoon crowds at the main site.
We stayed exploring until the sun had set and we got kicked out shortly before 5:30pm in time to catch the last bus back. We weren’t awe struck when we first got there and the main site isn’t very big but by the end of the day we still didn’t want to leave, maybe because by late afternoon most of the crowds had gone and it was better even than the early morning. It may be one of the seven wonders of world and an engineering marvel and it is worth going, but to be honest we thought that the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia are better.
- Llamas make great lawn mowers
- You can make some cool sculptures out of carrots
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