There are a few places you have to experience before you die. A bucket list of sights and occurrence, if you will, and though there’s certainly room for argument and opinion, some world treasures are simply ON that list. This includes Machu Picchu (without argument, thank you) and I’m happy to say I’ve now (after years of dreaming, longing and false starts) finally seen that glorious Incan city perched in the sky and abandoned for reasons still unknown.
It was all that I had expected. Just as pristine and magical as depicted in all the photos we’ve all seen a million times. But what I didn’t really understand about Machu Picchu before my three day whirlwind tour through Cusco and the Sacred Valley is that it’s an expensive ($200 just to get there…so budget it), complicated trip that is better served in courses than as feast.
Yes, I’ll explain. You don’t just “go” to Machu Picchu. You make a pilgrimage there – even if that’s not what you expected to do. But the rub (I learned) is that you don’t fully decide how you want to get there…or how much it will affect you…unless you’ve done copious research, which (sigh) I did not.
So you shall learn from my mistakes.
The first thing to know is that there’s exactly TWO ways of getting to Machu Picchu, and both require a mother%%$$ amount of stamina. You can hike there (with a guide and group, the trail is heavily regulated and secluded) or you pay a minimum of $130 for a train ticket from Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes. From Aguas Calientes (where you can buy a ticket to enter Machu Picchu, if you haven’t pre-purchased – and that runs about $40) you take a bus ($30 rt) up the mountain to MP. There, your ticket is good for one calendar day. But that’s just not enough time.
Now, it’s important to mention here that the train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes is four hours. So if you’re staying in Cusco, as we were, and you plan to do Machu Picchu in one day, this involves a 4:50 a.m. wakeup call, a 6 a.m. train, the aforementioned four hour ride…a 30 minute bus trip up winding switchbacks to the ruins….the ruins…another bus and another four hour train ride back to town.
Now it’s doable. I did it. But I kicked myself the whole time for a lack of planning…of foresight…I had spent so much time dreaming of SEEING it that I didn’t realize how much I wanted to savor getting there or how I would want to digest it…and it wasn’t on a timetable.
The minimum change I would have made (and something I would recommend to anyone going ) is to spend the night before you ascend in Aguas Calientes. Or, maybe, the night after and then buy two tickets to enter – and try to hike Huayana Piccu—a crazy tall Andes mountain trail that allows you to peer down on Machu Picchu. There’s a million other archeological and historical treks around the actual ruins—and give yourself time to know what and where they are.
Here’s my next piece of advice: If you physically can do the four day Inca Trail hike….do it. How could I have missed this? Pre-conquistador, this trail was how kings, Incans, supplies, moved from the Sacred Valley up to MP. At every step, through thin oxygen and narrow Andes trail, you are walking the steps to one of the most astounding markers of human history. Like if you had to hike miles uphill, at five-thousand meters, to see the pyramids. It is an almost too great reminder of this mysterious world, our smallness, and the relentless march of time. And it’s weird to get there by bus.
It is a tough hike, for sure, but do it if you can. Plan the time and PLAN ahead. Even if you have a week in the region, you don’t just “sign up.” Find and research reputable companies or even independent guides. I have some recommendations, too, so email me if you want them.
Now, the hybrid of the two (bus or trek) is the one-day hike. You do the final four miles, camping the night before and entering the park the way former residents did. So you see it the way Incans saw it…how they somehow built it. I believe this choice also gives you time mentally to prepare for what you’re really doing. Oh. And why.
Have you been? Do you want to go? Advice for our fellow trekkers? Please, please share.