If you have been in Cusco or read about Cusco on these pages, you will have gained some understanding of the Incan Empire world and its architectural wonders.
Even so, seeing Machu Picchu will probably be one of the highlights of your time here in Peru.
There are however almost year round, big crowds of people coming to the site, and at the moment that number is up to 5200 people per day.
Roughly between October and May, it is the rainy season too, but with a bit of ‘weather’ luck and a day without the big crowds, you will have a great time seeing one of the Wonders of the World.
Most tourists will come here as day-trippers, so the numbers really peak when they all arrive mid- morning and fall when they leave. The site is open year round from about 6am to 4pm each day.
You have probably heard the expression “It’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination” – and Machu Picchu fits this expression perfectly. It is not just about seeing Incan ruins and early Spanish architecture, it is also about the atmosphere, the sky, the clouds, craftwork, markets, colours, people, the sound of flutes, as well as the air and scenery all around you. You are certainly in a unique and some say spiritual part of the world.
There are three ways to get to Machu Picchu – by train service, partly by road (car, bus, collectivos) or by trekking overland via the Incan Trail.
The easiest and fastest way from Cusco is by train and there are three train services with various levels of comfort and price – IncaRail, PeruRail and the most expensive Hiram Bingham train. These trains all leave from Poroy Railway Station. The cheapest fares have the most passengers (both local and visitors) and also give you the most ‘real life in Peru’ experience, roughly a 3 ½ hour train journey each way travelling the 74 kilometre distance.
You could also catch a bus to Ollantaytambo or Chilca – which are much closer to Machu Picchu, but still as trek away.
Most foreign tourists will be encouraged to take the more expensive trains for both their safety and comfort.
In my twenties as a backpacker, I took the cheapest train and at that time the story was that many people would be simply hold on to the outside of the train, holding on by gripping the handles next to the doors. The trouble was their hands would freeze up with the cold and then when the train lurched sideways, they couldn’t grip fast enough and would fall off the train. I didn’t see this happening but when I tried to catch the train back from Machu Picchu (Agua Calientes- now called Macho Picchu Pueblo) to Cusco, I couldn’t get on the train as there was no way to squeeze on-board! Luckily a second less crowded train came soon after.
As with all travel in Peru, you need to be careful of crowded buses and other places where you might be robbed and always know and ideally see where your luggage is located.
The most in-depth way to get to Machu Picchu is by taking an overland trek on the Incan Trail. It is open eleven months of the year- the exception being February. You need to book well in advance in order to go on the Incan Trail and it takes around 4 to 5 days to walk the whole way, camping overnight along the way. In almost all cases you need to take a guide with you or your group, or take a tour and there are different trails that you could follow, depending on your fitness and level of interest and how much you carry with you. See Contiki Tours – under Tours on this website or for a Virtual Tour – see the website www.machu-picchu-peru.info
A heavy backpack will start to weigh heavily on your shoulders very quickly and with the high altitude cold and lack of air, it can be very tiring. In all likelihood you will return back to Cusco after seeing Machu Picchu, so if you have a safe place to leave some of your heavy luggage in Cusco, this will make your trek easier.
In preparing for a trek – remember to bring sun protection – sunscreen, hat as well as extra socks, toilet paper, well-worn hiking boots that you know will be comfortable, water, snacks to eat and clothes that you can easily change into if it gets hot, cold or starts to rain. Many tours will provide food for the trek and almost certainly you will start walking around 7am in the morning and prepare to camp by around 4pm. Insect repellent is also something to bring and also Band-aids or Elastoplast in case you suffer blisters on your toes or heels.
The Incan Trail is not just a single walkway. There are different trails that it takes – but talk to your tour guide and ticket seller or the Tourist Information centre in Cusco about this.
You might also consider hiking some of the other shorter treks that are around Cusco and nearby towns. Being shorter does not necessarily mean easier climbs or trails and you still get to see the amazing scenery around you as you hike. Remember too, to charge your phone-camera before the trek or bring a separate camera with you. There’s nothing worse than wanting to take a photo only to find that your phone or camera has no power.
Agua Calientes – Machu Picchu Pueblo -
The trains and also the Incan Trail leading to Machu Picchu from Cusco will end up in Agua Calientes (Spanish meaning – “Hot Waters” due to the Thermal Springs that are here). In the place I stayed there was no ‘hot water’ – but even so, it is worth staying over here so that you can get up early and head on a bus on the steep curving road up the mountain to the top where Machu Picchu is located.
Agua Calientes is now called Machu Picchu Pueblo and it is next to the train line and station as well as the Rio Aguas Calientes that flows into the Rio Vilcanota River here in the valley. It is only a small town, so ideally book your accommodation early to ensure you have a good place to stay.
I took the bus up to Machu Picchu and then walked down, almost a vertical descent but much easier than a walk/climb upwards.
You can well understand why Machu Picchu was a fabled ‘lost city’. It was only ‘discovered’ by the American archaeologist, explorer Hiram Bingham (1875-1956) in 1911, following his research of old maps and meeting local people in this area. The site was never found by the early Spanish explorers and you can well understand this given its remote location and position so high up.
The site is right on top of a high ridge of land between two sharp rising mountain peaks, with deep valleys on each side. Machu Picchu is 2430 metres above sea level, with Agua Calientes (2040 metres above sea level) and the River below forming a horseshoe shape around the site, some 410 metres below it. The city of Cusco is much higher than Machu Picchu – it is 3399 Metres above sea level.
When I was there, the early morning mist was rising from the river valley below it, the swirls of mist rocketing upwards on both sides past the ancient Sacred Plaza, temples and other buildings, creating an amazing sight. At the time there were also Alpacas grazing there too, but it is doubtful that they are allowed to graze there these days. If you can get up high, you look down over the whole site and marvel at its construction and the difficulty of building here so high up above the valleys.
Much of the story of Machu Picchu remains a mystery even to this day – the reasons and purpose of it being built here, and again, this just adds to the excitement of your visit here and also begs the question – Are their more sites buried in the mountains and jungles here in Peru that have yet to be discovered?
There are so many Incan Ruins and amazing scenery in Peru and you could easily spend weeks, if not years seeing all parts of the country. Ideally if you can and you probably will learn some Spanish as this will also add to your enjoyment of travel here.
Much of the joy of travel is meeting different people – both fellow travellers and the people living in the places you visit, as well as experiencing ‘unique locations’ like Machu Picchu.
I hope you have a great time seeing Cusco and Machu Picchu.