We're smiling, but it took a lot to get here!
When we told people that we were going to be heading up Machu Piccu for this trip, we usually got one of two reactions: people who had NOT been there expressed how it was also a dream of theirs to visit the mountaintop Inca citadel, and folks who HAD been told us that we really needed to buy our tickets early. Like, now.
Suffice to say, we did not buy our tickets early, and as such got to experience a whole new level of crazy in Cusco, Peru. Our plan was to fly into Cusco, spend a couple days getting set up, journey to Machu Piccu where we would camp, and then return back to Cusco. This is all way easier to type than it was to pull off.
For the first leg of our Cusco adventure, we stayed in an AirBNB that came complete with alpacas in the front yard, a plethora of large, friendly dogs and a doting mother who kept on pushing coca tea on us. The whole thing seemed to be family affair, where a different member of the family cooked us breakfast every morning and in the evening various uncles and cousins would hang out downstairs and watch Spanish westerns.
Our Cusco AirBNB- beautiful, rustic and impossible to reach by public transportation
Unfortunately, it was also a 20 minute taxi into town and while this wasn’t a problem getting into town getting back to the house was an issue… One night we got scammed by a taxi driver who faked his meter and another time our driver simply got so lost he dropped us off in a strange part of town in the rain and drove away… It was an experience.
Cusco itself is a very tourist-oriented city, at least in the historic district. If you are hoping to book a day trip, arrange a visit to Machu Piccu by bus, eat a roasted guinea pig or purchase any number of colorful woven Andean products, you will not be disappointed. Vendors (aggressively) pushing selfie sticks and tiny alpaca (llama? Who knows) keychains abound.
Street performers take their jobs really, really seriously
San Pedro Market:
Mad legit market, not there for the tourists. We found massive wheels of Andean cheese, freshly picked fruits and vegetables flowing out of baskets, massive bags of strange and wonderful bread, extremely down-home eateries and an entire section dedicated to offal. The smells were amazing in many senses of the word.
These sweet market ladies are happy to let you take pictures... if you buy something!
Free chocolate museum with samples. What more could anyone want? A solid chocolate model of Machu Piccu? Yes, they have that too.
A museum/restaurant dedicated to the national drink- pisco, which is basically grape brandy. Do not do a tasting on an empty stomach like we did- we had to eat two complimentary bowls of corn nuts just to feel sober enough to leave.
Two happy people about to find out the alcohol content of straight pisco
So in between enjoying rampant free tastings and navigating our way around the cobbled streets past street performers and baby alpaca picture opportunities (yes, that’s a real thing) we managed to figure out how to actually GET to Machu Piccu.
There is so much information and misinformation out there about how to get there and how far in advance to buy tickets that it can be really confusing and difficult to tell what on earth you are actually supposed to do. We read some blogs that gave detailed, but difficult to follow instructions on purchasing tickets, we attempted to navigate the official government of Peru website and as we walked the streets of Cusco travel salesman would shout ‘Machu Piccu! Machu Piccu!” at us and try to sell us van, train, bus and car trips up the mountain. It is very much a free for all.
The truth is that you can get to the Inca citadel in a lot of ways- from the extremely low budget (share a taxi and walk the train tracks) to the very luxurious/expensive (all inclusive resort stay with complimentary shuttles) with all flavors of terrifying bus/van ride in between.... All to get to the exact same place!
The ultimate challenge to be addressed is that Machu Piccu is at the top of a mountain outside of a town that is several hours outside of Cusco, where you start. How you choose to cross all that distance can take many forms. Rather than relate the many adventures and misadventures that we encountered while doing research, I will relate how we got from our hostel in Cusco up to the top of mountain boasting one of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World.
Here's a clue: this parade wasn't the only circus going on
First, we went to the Peru Department of Culture’s physical office in Cusco with our passports and stood in line to buy tickets for the day we wanted to go to Machu Piccu. These are $45 each for just touring the Citadel, and if you are not doing this two days out (like we were) then you can spend more and hike an extra mountain to even more ruins. We were lucky in that we were going during the off season so there were tickets available on this short notice- the common advice is to do all this online weeks or months out. That said, we have had some dubious experiences with things purchased online in South America so we opted to do this in person. Take note that this extra ‘hike’ up Wayna Piccu looks awesome but appears to involve climbing up a cliff face.
Next, we needed to actually get to Machu Piccu! Because we like riding on trains and thought it would be a fun way to see the scenery, we decided to ride the train to Aquas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu PIccu mountain. Purchasing the train tickets ($120pp, roundtrip) was similar to getting the actual tickets to Machu Piccu- we went into the PeruRail office (around the corner from the Dept of Culture) with our passports and arranged for tickets into and back out of Aquas Caliente.
Here’s where it gets interesting- because we were traveling in the rainy season, the section of the train track that actually went through to Cusco was closed due to the danger of mudslides. So even though we had tickets to get into Machu Piccu and train tickets to get (almost) there, we would have to arrange for transport from Cusco to the town of Ollantaytambo where we would meet the train.
‘How are we supposed to get to Ollantaytambo?’ we asked the lady at the PeruRail office.
‘You go to this street and find a colectivo (shared taxi) going to Ollantaytambo the morning of your train ticket’ the helpful lady said.
‘We can’t arrange that in advance, can we?’ we asked the helpful PeruRail lady.
‘No, just go there in the morning and there will be someone there’ she thoughtfully reassured us.
Can you see why people book these tours through an agency?
So, the morning that we had train tickets we walked to the street where we had been informed the vans would be waiting. After agreeing upon a price with a driver, we piled in with our backpacks and got ready to leave. Suddenly, the whole van erupted into an incomprehensible argument with the driver (in Spanish)- and people started to get up out of their seats and leave. Not wanting to be the last people on the van we also got up and off the van (ignoring the fuming driver) and found ourselves directed to another van ($6pp) with another driver who promised that he would be leaving for the train station immediately. With no other obvious choices, we boarded the second van with our bags strapped to the roof and began the drive to Ollantaytambo to meet our train. At this point we had both of our train tickets and Machu Piccu tickets for the next day riding on our collective driver’s ability to get us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo in under 2 hours- it was looking tight.
Our fabulous colectivo, taking its sweet, sweet time
Lucky for us, after deftly navigating through a police checkpoint and past numerous stray dogs in the outskirts of Cusco, our driver decided that it was time to put the hammer down. Doubling the posted speed limits at most times and straightening curves on blind downhill curves, he blew past tiny farming communities, immaculately maintained town squares and towards our first vistas of the magnificent Andes. He only stopped twice to let other riders off and miraculously we made it to Ollantaytambo with time to spare.
Rosie, mid-wild ride, making sure our backpacks are still on top
Once in Ollantaytambo, our planning began to come together. We boarded the train without incident and settled in for an hour and a half ride into Aquas Caliente. The train ride itself did not disappoint- with an engorged river raging against the cliff supporting the train tracks, we passed through dense jungle and over steep passes, being treated to increasingly spectacular views all along the way. By the time we arrived in Aquas Caliente our eyes were full of the towering peaks and we walked through the rain down the main street (there’s really only one) towards the municipal campground where we would be camping for the next few days. We hiked farther and farther down the rough and rocky road with the city buses thundering by on one side and the river on the other with the night falling all around us. All of a sudden through the mist and the rain we spotted an unmistakable outline crowning one of the nearby peaks- hard lines and towers stood out in silhouette against the cloudy dusk- we were finally in sight of Machu Piccu.
The campground itself definitely looked better in the dark, though. A rusty playground sat at one end of the cleared space opposite a shameful ‘bathhouse’, stray dogs fought and barked through the night and inexplicable bright green lights were positioned all over the campground.
One of the few moments when it was not raining!
As such, we did not awake refreshed at 4:30 the next morning to begin the hike up to the citadel. Why 4:30am, you say? Well, the tickets into the site are only good for one day, and the bridge to the trail to the site opens at 5 in the morning. It is true that you can buy bus tickets up to the gate (12pp, per trip) but we wanted to experience the walk in the blooming dawn up to the historic citadel… And experience is the word for what we did.
While the pricey city buses zigzag up the mountain, the trail is straightforward and straight up- slippery stone steps climbed into a foggy, humid jungle with begging stray dogs underfoot as we slowly made our way up the mountain, winded by both the elevation and the effort. Finally, after over an hour of climbing up the primordial staircase into the clouds we arrived at the entrance gate.
The bridge to the trail at 5am- look at all these early risers!
That map was not lying about the trail going straight up...
...But look at the view we got along the way!
After a couple of hours we climbed the final stone steps, stamped our passports and entered the site- and were stunned.
Every promotional picture of Machu Piccu looks about the same- bright green grass, orderly stones and cheery blue skies…. What we saw, however was HEAVY. Massive stones perched in dramatic lines stretching out into the mist. Taller mountains loomed black and stark across the narrow valleys. The structures and walls were too numerous to take in all at once and seemed to grow and disappear with the drifting clouds.
Farming terraces in the mist
In the day that we spent there we actually got to see Machu Piccu in many different lights- the weather changes constantly from foggy to rainy, to sunny and to (my personal favorite) sunny while raining.
You can hire a guide at the site and follow them around to learn about the historic uses of different styles of architecture and the different temples were used for... or you can follow other groups and pick up tidbits as you go. We opted for this approach and wandered around the site all day, photographing mischievous llamas and marveling at the spectacular structures all around us, all of it stone and all of it breathtaking in its ambition and weight. The walls seem to grow out of the mountainside and appear and disappear with the clouds, tiny channels cut into the staircases funnel clear rain water and the rising silhouettes of the temples feel like anchors hung in the sky.
Our ticket allowed us two re-entries and we hung out until they closed the site, opting to save money and walk the road back down in the rain. We held hands as we crunched down the rough dirt road with waterfalls streaming off the cliffside. It felt like a fitting end to our day, from summiting the jungle stairs with the rising sun, to walking amidst the ruins of a fallen empire, to finally descending from the mountaintop stronghold in the growing darkness. Machu Piccu carried a levity that I was not expecting to feel- it is at once both so close and so immediately tangible, but somehow still feels impossible when intimately beheld.
Machu Piccu, By the Numbers
Days in the actual historical site: 1
Total travelling hours between Cusco to our campsite in Aquas Caliente: 12
Times we thought we were going to die on the colectivo ride: 5
Steps up from the bridge to the citadel: 1 million (actually only 2,170, but still)
Price of a bottle of water halfway up the mountain: $5
Price of a bottle of water all the way up the mountain: $10
Did it ever stop raining while we were there: Not Really
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