PERU SERIES PART 3: Machu Picchu- Tips and how to get there

Since Alex and I returned from Peru, I have encouraged everyone I know and meet to add Machu Picchu to their bucket list if it isn’t already an item. Machu Picchu was breathtaking and greatly exceeded my already high expectations. While reading about Machu Picchu, I came across a quote that captures my feelings better than I can myself. Upon viewing the site for the first time, Hiram Bingham, who has been credited with bringing Machu Picchu into the public’s awareness, stated “The sight held me spellbound, literally paralyzed us by enchantment, the spell of wonder.” Even though Machu Picchu is a place that I felt very familiar with from school and general reading, it still left me awestruck when I finally viewed it in person. It is so much bigger and grander than it was in my imagination.

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First view of Machu Picchu
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The first of many photo ops

Another part of the experience that left a big impression on me was the journey to arrive at Machu Picchu. After winding through rainforests and mountains for over 3 hours, you finally arrive at the base of a mountain, in the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo (f/k/a Aguas Calientes). Upon arrival, you embark on a 20 minute bus ride along switchback mountain roads, hoping that your driver is competent and careful. When you reach the summit, you wait in line to have your ticket checked and enter Machu Picchu. After a short hike, you finally arrive at the edge of the site, certainly in complete awe of the wonder before you! I think the buildup on the train ride only enhances the experience!

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Slightly unnerving bus ride up switchbacks to Machu Picchu

So without further ado, here are my tips regarding everything I think you need to know if you are planning a trip to Machu Picchu! (Note: this post does NOT discuss the Inka Trail treks as Alex and I did not do one. There is a plethora of research out there about trekking if you are planning to do that!)

Getting there:
There are a few train options you can take, but I think the best is PeruRail. Our train ride, which lasted 3.5 hours, included what they called light snacks, but what were really meals with items like mini pancakes, quiche, tomatoes, and fruit. The train had rooftop windows to view the beautiful scenery and the ride included Peruvian music, occasional automated descriptions of the scenery, a traditional dance, and a fashion show featuring alpaca goods. IncaRail is another affordable option, but only runs from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. If you are really looking for luxury, then you may want to consider the Belmond Hiram Bingham, which includes a dining car, bar car, and observation cars, and where you are served a full brunch and gastronomic dinner.

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Ready to go!
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Windows in the roof make for beautiful views!
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The dance show…before I was chosen as a guinea pig!

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If you do not want to stay in Cusco or prefer a shorter train ride, other options for before and after a Machu Picchu visit are Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo or Ollantaytambo. The former has a few very high-end luxury hotels, but the more budget-friendly options do not tend to have the best reputation for cleanliness. On the plus side, you will be as close to Machu Picchu as possible and can rest your weary feet at the thermal hot springs after you exit Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo would also be a great option to spend a night before or after a Machu Picchu visit. It is a quieter town and would shorten the train ride to Machu Picchu by a few hours. It is also at a lower altitude so those with sensitivity to the altitude might want to consider that option.

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Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo

Some scenes from the train ride…

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What to do in MP:
Besides the obvious, there are several hikes on the grounds of Machu Picchu. Some need to be booked in advance and some are open to all. The two hikes that need to be booked ahead of time (at a cost of less than $10 per person) are Huayna Picchu and Cerro Machu Picchu (or Montaña). I love hiking, so after doing extensive research, I decided to book Cerro Machu Picchu. I had read that it was a longer hike, but easier and less crowded. Let me just say that I would like to meet the people who say it is an easy hike. As someone who has hiked a large amount, I thought Cerro Machu Picchu was the hardest hike I had ever done (think climbing stairs for almost 3500 feet/100 meters). Even though I did not personally hike Huayna Picchu, I can attest that it takes less than half the time than it takes to hike Cerro Machu Picchu, and in my opinion, that alone would make it easier. The views were breathtaking, but the heat and altitude got to us and we ended up turning around early to give ourselves more time to explore Machu Picchu. Ultimately, I would recommend hiking Huayna Picchu.

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View from Cerro Machu Picchu after just starting the hike
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Excited to see Machu Picchu behind us and sweaty from the hike!

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If you don’t want to book a hike in advance and would prefer more flexibility in your day, I wholeheartedly recommend the Sun Gate hike. It isn’t a long or difficult hike (an incline rather than stairs) and there are interesting sites along the way. If you hike a bit beyond the Sun Gate and turn around, you can see what it would have looked like to the Incans when they arrived at Machu Picchu. This is also the same entrance used by Inca Trail trekkers. A bit past the Sun Gate on your way back, is a large altar. All along the hike are beautiful views of the Machu Picchu complex.

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Altar along the Sun Gate hike
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Another altar along the Sun Gate hike
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Part of the Sun Gate, through which you can see Machu Picchu!

If you do not have your own map or guidebook (or even if you do), you may want to hire a guide. The guides wait outside the entrance to Machu Picchu so you just have to negotiate a price with them. Prices can be negotiated based on number of people on your “tour” and length of the tour.

When you finish your tour (with or without a guide), I suggest taking some time to sit and just reflect on all you have seen and learned. There is a great field just above the caretaker’s hut and past the funerary rock where you can post up and enjoy some quiet time. Sitting there for a while, talking to Alex, and enjoying the views is a memory that I will not soon forget!

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One of my favorite pictures from the day!
One of my favorite pictures from the day!

More pictures from inside Machu Picchu…

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Quarry inside Machu Picchu
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Temple of the Three Windows

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Sacred Rock
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You can see the switchbacks that we drove up in the distance

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The Temple of the Condor

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A still functioning fountain from Incan times
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Three Doors

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What to bring:

Now let’s get to the specifics. Here is a short list of what you should bring with you to Machu Picchu.

  • Food and water: You cannot purchase any food and water inside Machu Picchu. There is a small snack bar just outside the entrance to MP that sells drinks, hamburgers, chips, and candy, but the prices are outrageous, the selection is small, and the service is slow. The most obvious problem is that you have to take the time to walk out and leave the park and come back. If you are spending the night in Aguas Calientes, this might not be a problem, but if you are taking the train back to Cusco, you probably aren’t going to want to waste your time going in and out of the park. Alex and I brought some bread, fruit, snacks, and water into the park and waited to buy a large meal until we left for the day. Just don’t forget, there are no garbage cans inside Machu Picchu, so you have to pack out what you pack in!
  • Comfy shoes: Obviously, you will be walking and hiking most of the day so wear shoes that you are comfortable wearing all day!
  • Layers: When we boarded the train in the morning, it was around 40 degrees (F) but in the heat of the day, I would guess it was close to 80. I was so happy to have a short-sleeved shirt underneath my sweater and jacket when it got hot, especially on the hikes! And conversely, I was happy to have the layers for the train ride back.
  • Bug spray: If you don’t want to wear long sleeves and long pants, you definitely need bug spray. We got clobbered by some sort of Peruvian mosquito on the hike to Cerro Machu Picchu. It didn’t seem too bad within the complex, but we had sprayed ourselves with bug spray so maybe we just avoided them.
  • Sunscreen: Even if you don’t feel hot, being that high up in altitude means you are that much more likely to get sunburned! Don’t forget sunscreen!
  • Tickets: I’m sure this seems obvious, but if anyone is using this post as a checklist, I am including tickets. You need your ticket to get in the park and it would be heartbreaking to travel so far and be turned away!
  • Passport: Ditto above. The guards will scan your passport (and you need it for the trains anyway), so do not forget your passport! As an added bonus, if you walk to the left near the luggage check stand as soon as you pass through the guard gates at Machu Picchu, you can get a special Machu Picchu passport stamp!

Before we wrap up, I will leave you with some photos of wildlife at Machu Picchu!

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Alpacas galore!

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Vizcacha: a Peruvian rabbit/squirrel

That’s about it! If you have been to Machu Picchu, I would love to hear if you have anything to add. And if you have not and are planning a trip, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions! I love helping people plan vacations and am happy to do whatever I can to help!

In case you missed Part 1 and 2, below is an index to my series on Peru!

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