Peru: Machu Picchu

Time was running out as we had booked a 4 day trek for Quilor’Riti (this will be a separate post) so we left our car in Lima and flew to Cusco. That was a huge mistake. Cusco is at 3600m and we only had 2.5 days to acclimate before starting our big trek. We had just gone from sea level to 3600m in an hour and so 2.5 days wasn’t nearly enough time. We had planned to leave early the next morning on the 7:40am train to Aguas Calientes (2600m), the town that lies in the gorge below Machu Picchu.

That first evening, having being instructed to not eat meat, tomato sauce or anything heavy to avoid altitude sickness, we had a simple soup for dinner before negotiating our wake up time the next day. Negotiating a wake up time with me is like negotiating at a market:

Ean: 6am?
Me: 6??? Why do we need an hour to get ready, we just have to get dressed and brush our teeth! 6:45
Ean: 6:30
Me: Done

That first night I was sicker than I have ever been in my life. It was a combination of food poisoning and altitude sickness. Getting up the next morning took everything out of me and I just wanted to die. I slept most of the train ride, then we arrived at the hotel in Aguas Calientes where I slept most of the afternoon and night. We got up at 4:30am the next day because we wanted to take the bus to Macchu Picchu at 5am to get there before the crowd did. I hadn’t eaten anything in over a day and just kept drinking coca tea. In the Andes, tea made with coca leaves are said to help with the altitude and are basically the Peruvian Red bull.

We arrived at Machu Picchu and I struggled climbing up. Walking straight or walking down was fine but walking up would make me extremely sick. We found the right spot to take the iconic Machu Picchu photo, sat down, and waited. We couldn’t see anything yet as mist was covering up everything. I eventually fell asleep for a quick nap. When I woke up, I saw the mist slowly dissipating, letting a slither of a sunshine ray start spreading throughout the valley. The sun started shining on one part of the ruins, then another, then another. Soon the mist had dissipated totally, and the entirety of one of the wonders of the worlds appeared in front of us. Cameras started clicking. It was absolutely magical.

We made our way through the different parts of the ruins. Tourists started filling up the site by 8:30 or 9am. The valley was outstanding and we couldn’t believe we were actually here. The lamas didn’t seem to appreciate the ground they were standing on though.

The Sun Gate was said to be about 15 min away from the ruins. That’s a lie, it is 30 min away, and when you are sick it seems never ending. I just focused on one step at a time and we finally made it. The Sun Gate is where the classic Inca Trail ends, and where you can get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

It is quite a site! Other than the indigenous Quechuas, no one really knew about this archeological site until the 20th century and its purpose or function remains a mystery.

Cusco itself is a nice mountain town. We really enjoyed its cobble-stoned streets, the multiple plazas, the churches, the art galleries and the variety of restaurants. Pizza is very prominent there.

Three hours before our flight we were told about a Chocolate Factory where you could take a chocolate class and make your own truffles. Sadly we did not have enough time but if you’re in Lima or in Cusco, look out for it!

For anyone planning to go to Machu Picchu, I would like to warn you that they will take every penny out of you just to spend a few hours at this magnificent place. They’ve done that by restricting access. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets to hike the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu itself is only accessible via Aguas Calientes, and Aguas Calientes is only accessible via train. You have two options to get to Aguas Calientes from Cusco:

  1. Direct Train (Picks up in Poroy/Ollantaytambo): Train to Aguas Calientes (3 hours), night in Aguas Calientes, bus up to Machu Picchu the next morning and back the same.
    Approx Cost: $450 Approx Travel Time: 8 hrs total
  2. Bumpy Bus + Train: Bus to Santa Teresa (6 hours). Bus to Hydro Electric Station (30 min). Train from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes (30 min), night In Aguas Calientes, bus up to Machu Picchu the next morning and back the same.
    Approx Cost: $175 Approx Travel Time: 18 hours total
  3. [Edit: Thanks Juergen!] Bumpy Bus + Walk on Tracks. Apparently it’s only a 2 hour hike along the tracks, but don’t get caught in the tunnel with the train.

Note: You can choose to climb up to or back down from Machu Picchu instead of taking the bus but it is 1.5 hours. We highly recommend taking the bus up to save your energy for hiking around the site, but then again some people hike around the site after 3 days on the Inca Trail.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, does this help?

Lastly if you are overlanding you can get as creative and wild as you want making your way there through the Sacred Valley. Some of those stories are definitely worth reading seeing as there is no shortage of scenery, hair pin turns or suicidal bus drivers.

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2 thoughts on “Peru: Machu Picchu

  1. There are other options to get to Machu Picchu apart from the two you outlined!
    1. as an overlander you can drive to Ollantaytambo, park your vehicle there and get on the train (I don’t know the current ticket prices, but much cheaper than departing from Cusco). The advantage is that, along the way, you can explore the Sacred Valley with other interesting Inca sites and lovely small towns. We did this in 2008.
    2. or you do it the ‘hard way’ by tracking on foot! This can be done without going on one of the really expensive ‘Inca Trail’ tours… Read about it: http://dospiratos.com/how-to-not-get-run-over-by-trains/
    3. with a small vehicle there are more options but I don’t know all details. The tourism industry is keen to have none published (as it cuts into their profits) but some persistent searching will get you results. Or ask other overlanders who’ve done it!

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    1. When we looked at tickets leaving from Ollantaytambo only saved us $30 each (from the $300 ticket) so opted for the closer station. But this was high season, so it may be different other times of the year.

      We heard mixed reviews on the drive to Santa Theresa. Some other overlanders we met said it wasn’t worth the combined 12 hours of driving. What did you think?

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