Peru: Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?

If not, it should.

Surrounded by the snow-capped Andean mountain range, deep green river valleys and small villages, Machu Picchu is nestled 7,970-feet (2,430 meters) high above the Urubamba River in the middle of the Peruvian cloud forest – southeast of Lima, hours outside the city of Cusco.

Commonly referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” it is one of the most magnificent sites I’ve ever seen. After learning about the history of the brilliant Inca society, and then stepping foot here, its no surprise why this ruin is one of the Seven ‘human-made’ Wonders of the World.

Far from being lost or deserted, Machu Picchu, (meaning old mountain in Quechua, the ancient language of Inca people) receives about 2,500 visitors a day, and more than 850,000 each year making it one of the most visited sites in South America.

In 1911, Hiram Bingham, an American historian, professor and researcher was led by a young boy from a local village through, what is now called the Sacred Valley, to the Machu Picchu Citadel and has since been credited with its discovery.

During the last hundred years, researchers have made several hypotheses’ as to how and why the city was built. The most accepted and well-known story is that the city was built in the mid-15th Century by the orders of the Inca emperor, Pachacuti, (meaning: earth shaker). Accomplished with only stone, wood and bronze tools, it was used a center for agriculture, worship and astrological observation.

The city split into two major areas: the agricultural zone, with long terraces for growing crops and large food storage houses; and the urban zone, featuring the sacred sector, with astrological temples, religious squares and royal tombs, which have been carved to an extraordinary degree of perfection. Several stone staircases and water irrigation canals are found throughout the city. It’s incredible.

Regardless of what you read online and in the travel books, or hear from a tour guide, once here you will feel the magic and remarkable energy of this site. Don’t just take it from us; you must go see it for your self!

Any visit to Machu Picchu begins in Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire which is located 11,203-feet (higher than Machu Picchu) in the heart of the Andes mountains.

The buildings and plazas in Cusco are by far the city’s most attractive and romantic features. Most of the buildings have been around for more than nine centuries, some older than the Inca Empire. Intricate stonework and detailing can still be seen in many of the city’s streets and plazas.

Although Cusco is known as an authentic cultural hub of the Inca’s, the city is actually over-ran by tourists, has expensive bars, restaurant’s and night clubs, and is filled with annoying salesmen on the street trying to vend drugs, massages, replicated art pieces, restaurant menus and tours. Although it is quite safe, Brandon and I were hassled every time we left our hostal by these salesmen. It was not the authentic, romantic or cultural city we thought it would be. This may have to do with the fact that before Cusco we had been traveling through rural Peru, learning about the country’s history and Incan society.

The city wasn’t a complete disappointment though. We did enjoy visiting the Inca and chocolate museums, relaxing in Plaza de Armas – and eating at Prasada (an inexpensive vegetarian joint offering amazing veggie burgers and falafel tacos!). Prasada was so good we ate here almost everyday! Before we left we also met back up with our buddies Nate, Jesse and John. Most importantly, Cusco was a good place to get adjusted to the altitude.

When we first arrived in Cusco, we didn’t expect the altitude to affect us so badly.

It may have been because we flew into Cusco verus taking a bus. We would have taken a bus, however, bus companies weren’t offering transportation from Ica (where we were) to Cusco due to a controversial mining strike about to happen in southern Peru. Other than Huachachina (read more in my last post), there wasn’t anything great about Ica. Therefore, unlike our friends Jesse, Nate and John,  we didn’t want to wait for the busses to start running. Thankfully we were able to catch a bus north, back to Lima. We figured if we were going to be stuck somewhere it should be Lima. There we would have more to do and see, and hopefully more options to get to Cusco.

Tired and drained when we arrived at our hostal in Lima, an onsite tour agent old us that for $100 more ($50/person) we could simply fly to Cusco. This meant we didn’t have to wait for the strike to start or end. (Sweet.) Sign us up!

There are two airlines that fly to Cusco: Peruvian Airlines and StarPeru.

Each airline offers five flights a day to Cusco, making it easy for travelers to purchase tickets at the airport and get on a same-day flight. To be sure we would catch a flight, we arrived at the airport at 5 a.m. the next morning, where we successfully purchased tickets (totaling $205 USD for both of us). After traveling strictly by bus, flying was a luxurious treat. We were happy for the one-hour flight, especially considering a bus would have taken 22 hours.

Shortly after arriving to Cusco, I got really bad altitude sickness.

It was worse than food poisoning. I was nauseous, had the worse headache and couldn’t stop vomiting. Between toilet runs, I drank several cups of coca tea to help with the nausea. It didn’t seem to help, but I knew it was good for me and I needed to try and keep hydrated. This went on for almost 24 hours. At one point I even thought, “Am I pregnant?” So I took a test. Nope! (PHEW). Brandon on the other hand was fine. Good thing because I needed him more than ever – mostly to reassure me that I wasn’t dying!

It took a couple days for me to recover and for Brandon to get sick. He didn’t get as bad as me, but he definitely felt it. And then, right when we started to feel better – taking long walks, exploring the city, getting ready for Machu Picchu – I made a big pot of beans for dinner, didn’t boil the water long enough and gave us both food poisoning. We were sick AGAIN! Top it off with freezing cold nights (hi-30s) and loud hostal roommates, we were miserable.

Once in Cusco there are many ways to get to Machu Picchu.  

You can drive, hike or take the train to Agua Calientes – the town below Machu Picchu and the main point of entrance to the Citadel. Once in Agua Calientes, you can take a bus, or hike up to Machu Picchu.

Regardless of age, people from around the world come to hike the legendary 26-mile (43km) Inka Trail to Machu Picchu. Although there are literally thousands of “Inca Trails” throughout Peru, this particular trail is noted by hikers as one of the top five treks in the world and may just be the most famous in South America.

Under no circumstance can you hike the Inka Trail or through the Sacred Valley on your own. You must organize your hike using one of the tour operators out of Cusco.

Hiking can take 2-5 days depending on what tour you take.  Costing anywhere from $180-$300 per person, some tours detour from the original Trail and others offer different activities to do along the way. The 4-5 day journey is mainly hiking and can include exploring side mountain trails, going to higher elevations and camping in the forest. If you are not an experienced hiker you can still do the longer hike, however, you will be given a mule to carry your gear.

The shorter 2-4 day journey (often called the Jungle Trek) includes hiking one day (or more) with options of biking, zip-lining and rafting the Urubamba River. With the shorter hikes, you have the option to camp or stay in hostals. It’s up to you and the type of journey you have in mind.

Regardless of the hike you choose, most of the tours include the mandatory guide, accommodations and all costs associated with getting into Machu Picchu.

Although hiking and camping are both activities Brandon and I love to do, we didn’t come to Peru to hike the Inka Trail – nor did we come prepared for such an excursion. We always talked about taking the train because it seemed to be the most romantic option.

The great thing about taking the train is you don’t have to go through a tour company or hire a guide.

Not only did the tour companies seem expensive, the options were limited. Therefore we coordinated and crafted our trip independently to our liking. While in Cusco we went to Peru Rail’s offices and purchased our train tickets (five days in advance) getting the seats and times we wanted; we went to the Machu Picchu park offices (two days in advance) and purchased our entrance tickets so we were assured to get into the park, and the morning of we called our own taxi to take us to, and pick us up from, the train station. This not only saved us heaps of money, we didn’t feel like we had been ripped off or cheated out of the experience. Since our trip, several fellow backpackers have asked us how we coordinated our trip including the costs involved. For this reason, I included our detailed itinerary and associated costs at the bottom of this posting.

After seven days in Cusco, still feeling weak from the altitude sickness and food poisoning, Brandon and I departed from the Poroy Train Station at 6:40 a.m. via Peru Rail for Aguas Calientes.

Traveling through Sacred Valley along the Urubamba River, watching the sunrise over the fog and snow-capped mountains, I became overwhelmed by the beauty. My emotions had taken a hold of me. At one point my eyes filled with tears of happiness. The three-hour train ride was magical and romantic. It was perfect.

Arriving to Agua Calientes around 10:15 a.m. meant that we had a little more than five hours to hike and explore Machu Picchu before catching our 4:40 p.m. train back to Poroy. Since we purchased our park entrance tickets in Cusco two days before (to be sure we got into the park), we didn’t have to wait in the long lines in Aguas Calientes. I highly recommend this for anyone traveling to Machu Picchu, simply because there is a limited number of people allowed in the park per day. And, the park is only open from 5 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Here’s a short video of our train ride through a small town in the Sacred Valley. I choose this video because it is what most towns in Peru look like, not because it captured the beauty of the Valley. We actually didn’t take video of the Valley (only a few pictures) – we were too busy enjoying it.

Overwhelmed by excitement, we finally made it!

Once in the park, you have the option of hiring a guide or using a map to find your own way around. We already read and learned so much about Machu Picchu, and we were so excited to start exploring, that we opted for a map.

With nothing but smiles, we immediately decided to hike to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. The trail, which offered magnificent views of the Citadel and Huayna Picchu, would take three hours. The problem: we had no idea that the ticket into the park only granted us access to the Citadel and that most of the surrounding mountain trails and views cost extra.

Knowing guards can be easily bribed, once the guard was alone, we decided to go for it. Seventeen soles later, we were granted access – whoo hoo (shhh, don’t tell anyone). Halfway through the three-hour hike we planted ourselves on some rocks, over a cliff, and ate lunch. The views of the Citadel were incredible.

After hiking Machu Picchu Mountain we made our way back down and into the Citadel where we got lost in the maize of dwellings and were chased by Lamas (really!).

For more pictures of our adventures, visit our Facebook Fan Page.

Until next time, keep shredding and living. Much love, Katie and Brandon.

_______________________________________________________________

As promised, below is our itinerary from our trip to Machu Picchu. It includes the companies we used and costs involved.

6 a.m.: Taxi from Cusco to Poroy Train station  

Radio Taxi phone: 22-22-22. Cusco to station: 20/S ($7.38 USD)

6:40 a.m.: Depart Poroy via Peru Rail to Aguas Calientes

Viadome class – VIP (better for viewing): 444/S ($164 USD or $82 USD/ticket)

10:15 a.m.: Arrive to Aguas Calientes

10:30 a.m. – 3:50 p.m.: Enter Machu Picchu park and hike.

We purchased park entrance tickets two days prior: 256/S ($100 USD or $50 USD/ticket)

4:40 p.m.: Depart Aguas Calientes via Peru Rail

Expedition Backpackers class – most inexpensive option: 289/S ($107 USD or 53.5 USD/ticket)

8:15 p.m.:  Arrive to Poroy and take a taxi to hostal.

Poroy to hostal in Cusco: 20/S ($7.38 USD)

Total cost: 1029/S ($379.84 USD or $190/person)

4 thoughts on “Peru: Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?

  1. Wow!! Great post!! This has been on our list for sometime, but I want to go NOW! :) Amazing pictures you guys! The videos add so much too…made me feel like I was there! How’s Chile? Xoxo! Ash and Greg

  2. Brandon- Met you guys in Nosara on the beach and talked a few times. I was shooting my son (Marley). I’m in SoCal right now, and hoping to make it by The Senor Barbershop in San Clemente.

    It’s funny, my son rides for Cobian and I was on there website tonight checking out Nate’s video “My Moustache Won’t Dry.” I thought I recognized your tats, and then saw the name on the door and started tripping out. So cool. Hope you guys are doing well and enjoying your travels.

    Tuanis-

    Chris

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