Machu Picchu is one of those destinations. An iconic fixture of bucket list itineraries the world over.
And yet, this isn’t going to be a post about the historic details of the site itself…
The buildings are famed for the precision of their stonework: apparently the perfectly fitting interlocking masonry (sans mortar) exhibited in some of the temples is an incredible display of workmanship not frequently seen elsewhere in the world. But to me it looked more like evidence of patience rather than technology – and I couldn’t help but laugh to overhear a nearby tour guide claim that modern-day stoneworkers are not capable of such feats, when surely what he actually meant is that modern-day stoneworkers have better things to do, given that there have been a couple of advances in construction techniques in the last few centuries that have rendered such approaches somewhat pointless. So the actual manner of construction of the site didn’t interest me much.
The terraced agriculture is well-known and much-vaunted, too. And I’m sure that’s very interesting to a subset of visitors not including me: for the possibility that Machu Picchu was a testing ground for new agricultural techniques and approaches to crop management, as well as for the more mundane earth-moving stability of the terraces and the effectiveness of the underground drainage mechanisms.
As for any other fascinating insights to be gleaned from a detailed examination of the ruins: well, no one really knows much about Machu Picchu – why it was built, what purpose it served, whether it was even important to the Incans – so it’s kind of hard to get carried away with thousands of words of explanation of its historic significance.
Instead, Machu Picchu was cool for me because it’s pretty. So I’m going to show you some pictures.
And because it’s a destination that’s special to a lot of globetrotters – one of the ‘must sees’ of the world traveller’s itinerary – I’m going to mix together a predictably incohesive account of what we did in our time in the area, and some mundane details that might help someone looking for some advice on doing it themselves.
(You’d think the internet would’ve covered the Machu Picchu advice category fairly thoroughly by now, but actually it took me a while to piece together the info we were after before we travelled. So you can think of this as my half-arsed attempt at a slightly more one-stop shop type of how-to affair, deliberately-ish written in somewhat more rambling style so I can pretend there’s some sort of almost narrative.)
And because it’s me, well, that’s going to take a few thousand words. Sorry about that. Complaints to email@example.com.
To get it out of the way, let me start by saying that we decided not to do the Inca Trail, or for that matter any of the other treks in the area: partly it seemed overly touristy (it doesn’t strike me as a good sign that they’ve had to close the pub at the final campsite on the Inca Trail because people were too busy getting shitfaced on the third night of the trek to allow anyone else to have a reasonable sleep before their pre-sunrise start for the Sun Gate), partly it would have been expensive, partly it would have meant delaying other parts of our trip a little more and rushing through Bolivia (the Inca Trail is closed all of February, and we would therefore have had to push our plans back a crucial few days), and partly because we already did Everest Base Camp on this trip last year, so already had some creditworthy trekking under our (now slightly looser-fitting) belts. And on top of all that, we were visiting at the end of the rainy season, and were a little paranoid that our probably-not-to-be-repeated trip might be rained out. So we traded off time getting to Machu Picchu against time actually spent there, and bought site tickets for two days, separated by a gap day in the middle. With any luck we wouldn’t have rain three days in a row. (As it turned out, we were actually very lucky with the weather – it rained only on our gap day, saturating us nonetheless, but not in any sense ruining our trip.)
Since we skipped the Inca Trail – and similarly any of the other hikes in to the area, such as the very cool sounding Salkantay and Choquequirao treks (I’d have loved to do that last one, actually, but oh well) – I can’t tell you anything of use about any of the other Incan ruins to be seen along the way into Machu Picchu. (I’ve heard they’re pretty cool.) And of course you’re free to argue that having not done the Trail, we didn’t do Machu Picchu “properly”, and so I can’t tell you anything of use at all. Hell, we didn’t even hike the train tracks in like real backpackers – we caught the damn tourist train! Good for you. Pat on the back. Feel free to move on.
(That said, for all of the people we’ve run into insinuating that they did it properly because they did the Inca Trail, we haven’t run into anyone else who’s climbed Machu Picchu Mountain or Putucusi Mountain, barring the ones we passed on the way up and down each. And there weren’t an awful lot of people we saw climbing up or down the hill between Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, either. (It’s a nice climb, by the way – about forty minutes up if quick-marched, and thirty minutes down. Be prepared to be drenched in sweat by the time you make the top, though.) So I guess we’ll have to square off our hardcoreness-of-visit credentials and just put that all to one side as we proceed…)
So anyway, many lengthy paragraphs of prefacing aside, let’s have a look at Machu Picchu, shall we?
It’s interesting to reflect on why it is that Machu Picchu is so revered by intrepid would-be modern explorer types. (Including myself – I’m not being pejorative here. Not yet, anyway.) After all, it’s not actually very big. Nor is it historically crucial in the sense of some major function it played in Incan culture: it can’t be, because, as intimated earlier, no one knows exactly what function it played at all. For all we know these days, it was just another unremarkable little Incan village on a hill.
Its location is certainly spectacular: it’s beautifully situated on a ridge between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, at an altitude which means that it’s frequently just on the edge of the clouds. So there’s that.
But the real reason that Machu Picchu is special is that it’s the only complete Incan site left: the only one the Spanish never happened across, and therefore the only one they didn’t destroy. It’s almost certainly not the Lost City of the Incas (which is what its ‘discoverer’ Hiram Bingham was actually looking for when he mounted his expedition to Peru). But it might as well be.
Obliquely because of all of the above, you have to be careful with your expectations of Machu Picchu. Obviously, you’ll hear and read much about it (if you care to – far be it from me to insist that you research the life out of anywhere you travel before experiencing it in the flesh). On your way through South America, you’ll encounter many breathless tourists eager to know whether you’ve been already (it’s kind of assumed that if you haven’t been yet, it’s because you’re still on your way there), and equally eager to impress upon you how ‘blown away’ you’ll be when you finally experience it.
This may leave you with the distinctly false impression that Machu Picchu is large and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring: it’s not. Nor is visiting it even a particularly varied experience – especially since modern historians know so little about it, to the point that they can’t even tell you much about the different areas of the site. (Apparently this is quite amusing for many Peruvians, who thereby realise just how much of what some of the tour guides tell their avid listeners is completely and utterly made up.)
In fact, touring the whole site – excluding Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain – only takes maybe a couple of hours, which explains why so many people do it as a train-in, train-out visit, arriving from Cusco in the morning, seeing the site, and catching the train back to Cusco again that night, without needing to spend any time in not-so-appealing Aguas Calientes (the town in the valley below).
That’s very handy, as it turns out, although not because I’d recommend doing that yourself. It’s very handy because the big tour groups tend to turn up mid-morning and be gone again shortly after lunch time. (Amazingly, that seems at least in some instances to be the case because having come to a once-in-a-lifetime breathless wonder, they walk around for a bit then leave because they’re vaguely hungry, so they decide it’s lunch time, and don’t come back. Seriously, WTF? You begged out of part of your bucket list visit because you were a tad peckish?!)
The Inca Trailers arrive at the Sun Gate at sunrise, so the site is busy-ish (and occasionally slightly whiffy and more than a little self-congratulatory) most of the morning, even before the Cusco crowd rolls in. (Despite that, if you can, I’d still recommend getting there when it opens at 6am – if you’re bussing up, this will require getting on the 5.30am bus from Aguas Calientes, for which you will want to be in line by 5.15am.) But if you hang around for the afternoon you’ll be rewarded, as we were, with a comparatively empty set of ruins to explore. You can even wait everyone out while sitting in the actually quite reasonable open café next to (and just down from) the entrance turnstiles before heading back into the site once you’ve seen big hunks of tired-looking lazy people exit. They’ll let you back in until 4pm (the site closes at 5), so there’s plenty of time for you patient folks after the early afternoon exodus.
(By the way, there is an exception to the morning deluge of smelly hikers, I should mention: the Inca Trail is closed for the whole of February. This meant that when we first turned up to the Sun Gate at about 7am on March 3rd, there was no one yet completing the four-day hike, so we had it to ourselves – and, because we got there before the guards who are typically stationed there to prevent you doing exactly this, we were able to go for a stroll down the Inca Trail the wrong way for a bit. Not that there was much to see there. But I guess we can always claim that we finished the Inca Trail.)
Anyway, the point is, the site isn’t very big, and doesn’t take very long.
What does take a little longer is climbing the mountains. There are two: the famous Huayna Picchu (which has its own set of ruins on it), and the not-so-famous Machu Picchu Mountain (which doesn’t – it’s just a big hill with a good view). As I mentioned earlier, we’d bought tickets for two separate days, to guard against the possibility of a downpour ruining our visit, so as a happy side-effect, we had time to climb both mountains: you can’t do them both on the same day. Partly that’s because you’d be expending a lot of effort, but mostly it’s because you have to buy separate tickets.
By the way, this is important, and much of the information out there on the interwebs is out of date in this respect. It used to be the case that a desire to climb Huayna Picchu required you to be one of the first into Machu Picchu on your chosen day, and then to race across the site to line up next to the might-be-sacred-rock (another one of those things they don’t really know about the place – was this rock actually religiously significant, or is it just a big flat bit of stone?) to be one of the first four hundred in line to be let up. Sometime in 2011 (I think), someone realised how utterly stupid that was, and the system changed: when buying your Machu Picchu ticket online (see later), you have to specify that you want a ticket that gets you access to Huayna Picchu as well, and you’ll pay a little more for the privilege. Sometime after that (I think sometime in 2012?), they decided that money-extraction is fun, and so they’d quite like to do that for Machu Picchu Mountain too.
So now there’s 2500 tickets available for Machu Picchu, of which up to 400 can be tickets that will allow you to Huayna Picchu as well (in two 200-person groups, one entering between 8am and 9am, and another between 10am and 11am). A further up-to-400 of those 2500 tickets can be ones which let you up Machu Picchu Mountain. The Huayna Picchu ones usually sell out reasonably in advance (a week or so, earlier in peak times). The Machu Picchu Mountain ones don’t (although don’t take my word for it – keep an eye on the website linked below to see how many are left for the dates you want). Anyway, the point is: you can only go up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain if you specifically bought tickets to do so in the first place. We overhead a couple of groups in the days before we went up talking about how important it was to get to the site early to go line up for Huayna Picchu, and we also saw others disappointedly being denied entry to Machu Picchu Mountain (even though on the day we climbed it, only twenty-odd other people did, out of the potential allocation of 400). So, y’know, get your shit together and get the right tickets.
Oh yeah, speaking of which: getting tickets. Also a bit of a hassle. You buy them online at the official Machu Picchu site. In theory, you can pay for them with a credit card. In practice, you can’t. (Well, not with a non-Peruvian credit card, anyway.) What you can do instead is buy them in person at an appropriate government office in Cusco or Aguas Calientes. Which is great, if you’re going to be in either of those places long enough before you reach Machu Picchu that you’re confident that there’ll still be tickets left. Otherwise: make a reservation online, print it out, and go stand in line with it outside a Banco de la Nación in Peru somewhere. Like, say, in Lima, as we did. Boring, and somewhat time-consuming. But effective. (A couple of well-meaning people that I generally trust, interestingly, told us that trying to pay at a branch outside the Cusco department of Peru wouldn’t work. They turned out to be mistaken: paying at a branch in Miraflores, Lima, worked for us just fine.)
(I should probably note for completeness that it is also possible to buy your tickets through a travel agency. This is basically what happens when you buy them through a company organising your Inca Trail trek, if you’re doing one. So far as I understand it, what actually happens then is that the travel agency gets someone to go buy them in person in Cusco and post them out. Which is of course fine, but finding a travel agent who’ll do that for you obviously requires a bit of time and effort, and will cost you a bit on top.)
So, where was I before getting side-tracked on all that…
That’s right: we bought tickets for two separate days, with a gap day in the middle. Meaning we caught the train up from Cusco and stayed three nights in Aguas Calientes. Not the most interesting town in the world – every bit as much a tourist trap town as its reputation would have it – but we found some good accommodation at Pirwa Hostels, and we managed to find a couple of good restaurants in Chullpi and Toto’s House. (TripAdvisor also recommended Inka Wasi for pizza – unfortunately that was crap, so I suggest you don’t go there.)
And the climbs up Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu were definitely worth it. Machu Picchu Mountain has great views: in particular, with the right weather, Machu Picchu really is a city up in the clouds, and we spent a good half hour just watching the wispy mist wafting around and forming and disappearing and reforming over the ruins – surprisingly quickly, too. Huayna Picchu is just as interesting as the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins, so without climbing it, you’re missing out on some of what makes the place special. But I suppose it’s only fair to mention that both are occasionally tricky (and, in the heat of the sun, and with high humidity, somewhat exhausting) climbs.
(Oh, one other thing: for Huayna Picchu, if you want to do the whole circuit and go right round the back to the Great Cavern, be aware that they close off the path from the top at 11am – so you need to go in the first batch of people up the hill. So far as I can tell, they don’t tell you this anywhere, which is slightly annoying. We found out when we asked the guards why they were telling us we shouldn’t be going round that way. Or you need to ignore the guard calling out to you to stop going that way (we didn’t ignore him, though in hindsight we should have). Or you need to go back to the bit where the Great Cavern trail comes back around towards the exit, rejoining the main path, and be very nice and smiley to the guard there, and explain that you promise to walk/run very quickly and be back – exhausted – at the exit by 1pm, when they close the Huayna Picchu section of the site. We did that. Not that the Great Cavern was very interesting. But hey, might as well do it all, right?)
Of course, most people won’t do it all, at least in the sense that if you’re only planning on one day at Machu Picchu, then you have to pick between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain. I honestly don’t know which to recommend to you there. Probably Huayna Picchu, I suppose, because there’s a lot more there. It’s certainly the more popular option. But Machu Picchu Mountain has better views – especially given that those views are the classic ones with Huayna Picchu in the background. I guess it depends what you want.
And aside from all that, there’s one other view of Machu Picchu you should consider getting: the one from Putucusi Mountain, across the river. It’s not technically open at the moment: to wander up, you follow along the train tracks out of town (towards Machu Picchu) until you see the stairs going up the hill. When we were there, they were pretty easy to find: they were the ones with the “Accesso Restringido” sign in front of them. Suffering a convenient momentary lapse in Spanish comprehension, we climbed up past the sign, and followed the steps up a slippery jungle trail towards a newly-constructed – but not yet in use – ticket booth and open gate. (I have no idea whether it was all empty and with no one to stop us because it’s generally like that, or because it was fortuitously a Sunday. Your mileage may vary.) Anyway, beyond that there’s some nice big ladders up a stone wall.
Once up the ladders, there’s a few other vaguely tricky bits, then there’s the bit where the sky opens up in a torrential downpour just as you reach the top. But even so, there’s a good view of Machu Picchu. Unless the downpour also includes clouds obscuring your view. Which mostly it did, on this particular occasion.
But still, it was a pretty view, and a fun climb. If I’m honest, the rain made it even moreso – especially as we stood at the top, huddling under a tree, popping out for photos every so often when the deluge eased, and marvelling at our amazing luck that the bad weather was only rolling in for our day off, and not affecting our time actually at Machu Picchu.
So that, I think, is basically it for my story and my advice for Machu Picchu. Congratulations on making it through that many words. For those of you who did, a helpful summary: essentially, if you have the time, check it out from every angle: up any mountain you can manage to climb, across from the Sun Gate, and of course all over right up close from within the site itself.