This article was originally written by Ben Gilbert for Business Insider.
It’s hard to describe the experience of visiting Machu Picchu. People who’ve visited like to call it “breathtaking”.
While being a cliché, it’s not inaccurate. How often are you likely to find yourself standing on an Andean peak, walking through thousand-year-old ruins, looking down on the clouds?
For Indiana Jones, perhaps the feeling is common. For the average person like myself, the feeling is momentous. Visiting Machu Picchu evoked the kind of awe that my childhood brain produced regularly – the kind of awe that’s since faded from my daily life.
Perhaps best of all, visiting Machu Picchu means dedication. Even if you live nearby, you have to really want to visit Machu Picchu. Even if you take a bus to the main entrance, you still have to work pretty hard to just traverse the grounds. Here’s what that experience is like, first-hand, based on my visit in late March 2017.
There’s no easy way to stay near Machu Picchu itself. That makes sense: Machu Picchu is on a remote mountaintop in the Peruvian Andes. For most travellers, including me and my wife, the trip starts very early in a bus at the Cusco bus station.
The bus we took started in Cusco – the former capital of Peru, and the original capital of the Inca Empire – and went to Ollantaytambo.
You could stay in Ollantaytambo, saving yourself an ungodly early bus ride from Cusco. We instead chose to stay in Cusco, as many people do, because it’s a slightly bigger city offering plenty to do. It was the original capital of the Inca Empire, which means there’s a lot of fascinating history in Cusco itself: gorgeous plazas, churches, museums and more. It’s also a common staging area for tourists going to places other than Machu Picchu, which we did.
A few hours later, we arrived in Ollantaytambo. Since we booked our Machu Picchu travel through a company named Inca Rail, our bus was destined for trains operated by the same company.
There are several train operators that run to Machu Picchu: Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the Belmond Hiram Bingham. I’ve intentionally listed them in that order as it shows them in order of expense, from least to most expensive. The tickets we bought on Inca Rail cost US$310 in total, round trip, for two people.
That US$155 per person price includes the bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, the train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, and back again.
The train station in Ollantaytambo is ready for an influx of tourists with each new bus offloading nearby. There are little shops like this selling food, as well as locals selling all manner of food and supplies. If you forgot your poncho, this is the time to buy one.
After a brief spell of downtime between bus and train, we boarded and took our seats. Even though the train is aged on the outside, the interior is comfortable and bright. That last bit is especially important, as there are some dazzling views on the way to Machu Picchu.
The train ride snakes along the Urubamba River, which can be seen here raging alongside the track.
The main differences between the train line we took and the more expensive ones is luxury and window style. Though I was clearly able to capture some gorgeous photos from our train, if you’re willing to shell out more you can get an even better view.
I cannot stress this enough: the Inca Rail experience was beyond comfortable. We were given snacks on the early morning bus ride, a breakfast sandwich on the train, and the operators were very friendly. Many other riders didn’t speak Spanish, and the staff were very accommodating. The views were astonishing for the entire ride to Machu Picchu and back, even without a slightly wider viewing angle.
Unless you’re really looking for a luxurious experience, I don’t recommend spending more money on the fancier train lines. To put an even finer point on it, the town of Ollantaytambo isn’t exactly the lap of luxury – I already felt uncomfortable with how lavish our appointments were in contrast with the town. I’d have felt especially uncomfortable boarding a gold train. But hey, you do you.
But enough about trains. We arrived in the District of Machu Picchu after an hour or two of sweeping vistas. It’s a very small town at the base of the mountain, with a few dozen restaurants and hotels for folks who choose to stay nearby for a few days.
There’s an obvious fashion distinction between tourists and locals.
Apart from a handful of aggressively touristy restaurants and hotels, there isn’t much to the town at the base of the mountain that houses Machu Picchu at its peak. It’s named Aguas Calientes for its hot springs, which you can still visit, but staying in Cusco was a far more lively experience. How long you stay in town depends on how long you’ve got in Peru and what you’re most interested in doing.
There’s a small central square featuring a statue of an Inca leader. You can also see the church in the background – of note, all the churches in Peru were built after 1532, when the Spanish arrived in the country.
The next leg of our journey was blessedly short: a quick bus ride up the mountain where Machu Picchu is. The buses run near constantly, both up and down the mountain. You could walk, which I’m told takes an hour or two up and another hour or two down.
We didn’t walk for a variety of reasons, and I’d suggest you don’t either unless you’re in very good shape. It’s a pretty steep hike up the mountain, and that’s before you spend several hours hiking around the ruins of Machu Picchu itself.
To be clear: I am a 32-year-old in pretty OK shape. I live in a major city and walk everywhere. My wife is in a similar position. Even still, it’s a pretty taxing experience – beyond the hike itself, you’re in a place that’s over 8,000 feet up. You’re likely to be short of breath due to the altitude, which makes the hike all the more taxing.
After a 20-minute bus ride up the ridiculously terrifying road between the village near Machu Picchu and the site itself, we were treated to the first of many absolutely ridiculous views:
The weather up on the mountaintop is mercurial, thus my wife’s light rain jacket. In the four-ish hours we spent exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu, I got sunburned and soaked from rain. Be more prepared than I was!
From the minute you set foot inside Machu Picchu, you’re awash in ruins. We’re talking about an over 500-year-old citadel that was left untouched by the Spanish Conquistadors (only because they didn’t find it).
It’s still not entirely clear why Machu Picchu was built or what its purpose was. The most commonly accepted theory nowadays is that it was built in the mid-1400s for Inca emperor Pachacuti – the Inca leader who expanded Inca society from a small kingdom to a sprawling empire. What’s clear is that Machu Picchu once housed a large town, including various temples, plazas, and residential housing.
Many of the original structures are still intact – Machu Picchu is a Unesco World Heritage site, and it’s maintained strictly. The white line on the ground in the image below is one of many boundaries maintained between tourists visiting and the original structures. Park rangers are all over the site as well, making sure that tourists don’t do anything they shouldn’t.
There are some residents that are allowed to alter the terrain: alpacas and llamas. These adorable animals are docile and friendly, and we ran into a dozen or so on our trek.
OK, fine: one more photo.
Much of what you see here is walkable. There were people having picnics in the middle of their trek through the ruins.
A lot of the journey is spent walking up staircases that are hundreds of years old, winding through gorgeous vegetation – and avoiding large tour groups.
When Hiram Bingham and a cadre of locals “re-discovered” Machu Picchu in the early 20th century, a handful of folks were using the area to grow sustenance – they had cleared off some of the original farming terraces, seen here.
Much of the rest of the site was buried under overgrowth. In the following 50 years, the site was excavated and cleared. Around a million people visit Machu Picchu every year, though the number is tightly controlled by the Peruvian government for preservation reasons.
Though some of Machu Picchu has succumbed to the elements over time, an astonishing amount is preserved beautifully. Keep in mind that this place was built by hand on a mountain peak without the use of modern technology.
There are a few recreations, like this roof (which is not original). It does, however, do a great job of illustrating how residences on Machu Picchu would have looked 500 years ago. And the building foundation is original.
When we weren’t busy looking at the marvellous construction of Machu Picchu, we were marvelling at the glorious local rabbits. These little cuties were entirely unconcerned by our presence.
One of the best shots you can get of Machu Picchu is from near the top of the site itself. From here you can see much of the site (and you don’t have to climb that insane peak in the distance).
But, if I’m being honest, there are incredible views from pretty much anywhere at Machu Picchu. This plateau provided a great view of the massive steps cut into the mountain for agriculture. And the wall on the right side is a great example of how the Inca carefully cut blocks and fit them together, creating walls that would last for hundreds of years in the process.
Here’s a similar shot, from above, where you can see the entire set-up. There are human-sized steps cut into portions of the farming steps, though they’ve been replaced in many areas by safer, less-weathered sets.
One of the best parts of the experience is feeling like an ancient explorer. Though there are groups of tourists being guided around Machu Picchu, you’re just as likely to find yourself completely alone in this magical place – ruins to one side, mountaintop jungle to the other. I can’t quite put into words how that feels.
Like something out of a fantasy tale:
And the fact that – despite Machu Picchu being a major tourist destination and a world heritage site – there’s danger around every turn. Notice that there’s no guard rail here, for instance.
As we finished our tour of Machu Picchu, a storm rolled in and soaked everyone. An exodus of tourists began, and buses began rolling in to ferry tourists down the mountainside. Since we weren’t with a tour group, we got to hop the line as the bus operator needed to fill seats.
It’s nice having a tour guide, but it’s even nicer being able to walk around ancient ruins unattended. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wants a local guide – there are a few dozen stationed at the entrance to Machu Picchu, and they can be hired for a relatively low price. Some travel agents book packages to Machu Picchu that include a tour guide.
But I’d just as quickly encourage you to do some reading ahead of time and go it alone. Being able to explore Machu Picchu without a gaggle of fellow tourists – often asking the most asinine, obvious questions – made the experience all the more magical. If you have questions while exploring, your smartphone is in your pocket – and, yes, there’s service up on the mountain.
Worth noting is that you are allowed to re-enter Machu Picchu after leaving with a single ticket. And that’s important to know as there are several different paths to take through the site. As a result, it’s possible that you’ll miss something on your first tour. Just return to the main entrance and show them your ticket once again.
There is no time limit on your experience at Machu Picchu. We arrived around 11am and left around 3pm. We didn’t go to the adjacent peak, nor did we walk to the Sun Gate (a piece of Machu Picchu that’s somewhat remotely located). If you want to go all out on exploring Machu Picchu, you should book a hotel room in Aguas Calientes to be able to spend a few days there. There are multi-day tickets available, and the bus ticket to the top isn’t outrageously expensive.
One last animal photo for the road – I couldn’t help myself.
And here’s the obligatory “We actually went to Machu Picchu!” photo.
Now that you’ve reached the end, you’re undoubtedly thinking, “I should plan a trip to Peru so I can visit Machu Picchu.” Yes, friend, you should.
Here are a few things I wish I’d known before booking the trip and travelling to Peru:
- You cannot buy a ticket to visit Machu Picchu without being in Peru. The way the system works is you book a reservation online through the Peruvian government, and then you must visit a local bank (in Peru) to purchase the ticket within a short window of time (three days). It’s an expensive ticket (about US$50 per person), but you can pay with a credit card at the local bank.
- There are several ways to walk to Machu Picchu along The Inca Trail. Unless you are pretty serious about hiking, you should not do this. There are options for public transport all the way up to the entrance of Machu Picchu itself. Again, I’m in reasonably good shape, and was in no way prepared for this hike. Thankfully I was able to buy bus tickets on site.
- You should spend at least two days in Cusco before visiting Machu Picchu. Even if you plan to stay in Aguas Calientes before the hike, you’re going to need time to physically acclimatise to the altitude. Since Cusco is at about 11,000 feet above sea level, you’ll likely feel the affects of altitude sickness – I certainly did. That means shortness of breath, headaches, and an overall sense of exhaustion. The locals are used to it, and you’ll get passed – quickly – by elderly folk while you’re huffing and puffing. You’ll want to drop any sense of ego; these are folk who not only live in the clouds, but they come from generations of people who’ve lived there. Cusco is the original capital of the Inca Empire, and it’s been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. You are literally not built for the region. Accept that.
- Don’t hesitate to drink coca tea and suck on coca candies. They contain small amounts of coca – which is used to make cocaine – and it’s a useful way to deal with the exhaustion of being so high above sea level.
- Do not eat a heavy meal or drink a lot when you first arrive in Cusco. It will compound the effect of altitude sickness, and may cause anything from an upset stomach to vomiting. In other words, chill out! Be sure to give yourself ample time to chill out. It’ll make your time at Machu Picchu all the more memorable.