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Peru: Machu Picchu – The Lost City

Today was yet another early start and that saw us on the 6:15 am train out of Cusco to the Andean Village of Agua Calientes, which is the stopping off point for the Incan city ruins of Machu Picchu. It was a wet and cold morning in Cuzco and still very dark as we boarded our train.

The carriage was wonderful. We had assigned seats and the four of us got to sit around a table in comparative luxury. There were even two carriage staff. The carriage had a glass roof but at this early hour there was not much to see, and with the rain set in even if daylight had broken, we would not have seen much beyond the rain-drenched streets of Cusco.

The climb out of Cuzco was steep so the train had to make five switchbacks to climb out of the valley but soon enough we were headed on our 4-hour journey into the mountains. It was very cold and we gladly took the blankets offered out by the carriage staff. As dawn broke we got to see more of the largely agricultural lands of the valleys. Deeper into the mountain we moved into canyons overshadowed by vast mountains, the tops of them still hidden from view by the hanging clouds. As we approached the journey’s end the clouds finally cleared and we were able to see to mountain tops dizzily high above our heads.

On the train to Agua Calientes
The tourist train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes

We descended from the train at the station in Agua Calientes, where we deposited our bags with the bell hop from our hotel and went off to find our guide, who was strangely enough called Darwin. He was dressed in bright yellow so finding him was not difficult and he lead us down through the artisan market to the bus stop. The buses took us on the 20 minute ride from the valley up to Machu Picchu itself. The route climbs 800 feet on a series of switch backs. Karen had her eyes closed for the most part during this journey as there are precipitous drops off the side of the not too wide road. We survived this ordeal and followed Darwin into the ruins.

Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian Inca site located 2,400 meters (7,875 ft) above sea level. Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu is probably the most familiar symbol of the Inca Empire. It was built around the year 1450, but abandoned a hundred years later, at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. The invading Spanish had a habit of destroying the temples and infrastructure of the natives of lands they conquered – fortunately they never found Machu Picchu. Forgotten for centuries, the site was brought to worldwide attention in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. The classic image of Machu Picchu is of the ruins overlooked by the peak of adjoining mountain Wayna Picchu (meaning young peak).

We were lucky as, despite the poor start to day, the clouds broke and we were blessed with clear skies. Darwin led us through the houses, streets and temples of the ruins painting a wonderful picture of the Incan way of life and culture. He explained the about the synchronicity of their lives with the seasons and in particular solar cycles. Our favourite phrase of his was “dooooaaality” (duality). It took an hour and half to complete the tour; even after all this time in this magical place we were still in awe of these magnificent surroundings.

We now had time to ourselves and after a quick bite to eat we decided to walk part of the Inca Trail, an ancient roadway of the Incas leading towards Cusco. Our aim was not ambitious, we simply wanted to reach the Inti-Pata or ‘Sun Gate’ entrance some mile or so away from the main ruins of Machu Picchu. It was a steady uphill climb on a relatively narrow path with steep drops; the walk was not made any easier by the altitude (although we are only at 8000 feet above sea level here!). But the views were amazing. At the Sun Gate we got talking to a very pleasant young Swiss man called Christian. He is on a protracted tour of South America and his main reason for being here is a cathartic one, wishing to forget the pain of a recent break-up of a relationship. Also, he is afraid of heights and is not comfortable with the steep fall away at the side of the paths, so to help him down we talked to him all the way down about the state of modern day education and his career as an Art Advisor to collectors. At one point Karen forgot her own fears as she held his shaking hand!

View of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Sadly, we had to leave the ruins and returned back down to Agua Calientes. Our next mission was to find our hotel and luggage, which we managed to do with a bit of help from a local security guard. The hotel was called the Inti Inn. Unfortunately, our room was on the 5th floor and there was no lift. So, not surprisingly we are out of breath when we finally reached our room, which was very basic. What the heck! We were only there for one night. We quickly turned around and went out for a meal. We had a voucher for a local restaurant which we soon located. It was still early but we were tired and imagined things don’t stay open too late around, so we sat down regardless for our meal.

We ordered our food. Wanting to try something local we decided on the grilled Alpaca, apart from Emily who could not bring herself to eat this. The thought had crossed our minds to try the other local delicacy, Guinea Pig, but the pictures on the menu showed it being served whole so we decided we could not face this and so we stuck with the Alpaca. Whilst we were waiting for our food we were entertained by a local musical group, Inka Swing, who played traditional Andean music. Finally our food arrived, and to be honest we found the meat to be a bit dry, but you have to try these things. After this we returned, exhausted, to our room and collapsed into bed.

Next day we were not so lucky with the weather, the morning the clouds had descended into the valley. This was, after all, the rainy season in the Peruvian Andes. Visibility was not great but it there was a spiritual connection to nature in seeing the clouds weaving their way among the green peaks. This ecosystem is known as “Cloud Forest”, and it is certainly lived up to its name on this day. If we had been doing our tour of Machu Picchu today it would have been disappointing.

Out of our 5th floor window we could gaze across the ramshackle, corrugated tin roofs of the village. Some of these roofs were not bolted down, and are simply held in place by large cinder blocks. The poverty of the area is clear to see and is in sharp contrast to the many tourists wondering the streets who had spent thousands of dollars to get here. Without tourism the way of life here would be very simple and hard indeed.

We did not have much planned for the day and had time to kill before our train departed for Cusco in the early afternoon. After tall he walking of the previous days we had achy limbs, so we decided to take a bathe in the local hot springs. It was a little walk up the hill to the springs, which are a series of large open air, Turkish style baths set in a ravine and filled by hot water heated by the volcanic activity hidden deep below the Andean range. There were quite a few people partaking of the springs and we joined them, relaxing in the warm , mineral rich water. It really did help ease those muscular pains.

After relaxing in the waters we decided to take a walk down the valley to the museum where they had some of the artifacts collected from Machu Picchu. Our path took us along the banks of  Urubamba River, whose rampant, brown, torrential waters had been swelled by recent mountain rains. This river is a tributary of the Amazon and the waters would eventually find their way into the Atlantic Ocean. A mile or so out of town we crossed the river and entered the museum (which has a botanical garden of sorts next to it). As well as a collection of artifacts, the museum provided us with more insights into the Inca culture; how they developed their way of life and their building techniques. It was a fascinating and well presented exhibit. An hour or so later we left better informed about the Incas and return back to the village.

We sat down to have some lunch in one of the many small restaurants and amused ourselves reading the signs around us with some unusual use of the English language (mind you our Spanish is abysmal). Across the street was one sign, next to which lay a cat, with one of the menu options reading “stuffed capsicum with miced meat”. You could see the cat licking its lips in anticipation.

After lunch we had a short amount of time to visit the artisan market and buy a few souvenirs before our train left for Cusco.

On the train ride back to Cusco the weather improved and we get to see the mountains that had been covered by clouds on our outbound journey the day before. Some of these mountains are large snow covered volcanoes, with elevations of over 16,000 feet above sea level. The train company has also provided some entertainment for us in the form of a traditional dance act; a man dressed in traditional costume, wearing a spooky mask and holding a stuffed lamb. Somewhat bizarre! Even stranger was the fashion show, which turned the walk way of our carriage into a catwalk and our carriage staff into models, showing off clothing (for sale) made from Alpaca wool.

The entertainment, as bizarre as it was, helped pass the time on the 4 hour journey back to a cold and wet Cusco.

Planning your visit to Machu Picchu

By far the easiest way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train to Aguas Calientes.  This is the option we took. It’s a scenic 3.5-hour trip each way along tracks that run right along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley, with dramatic canyon walls on either side. The train station is not actually in Cusco its located in the nearby town of Poroy. It’s a cheap taxi ride, but give yourself at least an hour to get from central Cusco to the train station. Traffic in Cusco can be horrible!

We took the Hiram Bingham service which ia a very posh train with a glass ceiling, but you pay a premium for this! Inca Rail or Peru Rail are less expensive and the trains are apperently offer a comfortable ride. They also have carriages with panoramic windows with great views for an additional fee.

Whichever option you choose, book as far in advance as possible. Tickets sell out weeks ahead in some months. Should you miss getting a ticket from Cusco you can get a taxi to the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or vice versa. Taxis and mini vans between Ollantaytambo and Cusco (just over an hour each way) are plentiful. You can also contine your journey to Urubamba, a 20-minute drive from Ollantaytambo, which has a wide range of hotel options – including some luxury resorts.

For those looking for a more challenging route to Machu Picchu you can walk there from Cusco as part of an organised multi-day treks along the ‘Inca Trail’. Thousands of people do this every year so it can be quite busy. If you prefer more solitude and an even greater challenge there are tour companies offering alternative routes.

Most people visiting Machu Picchu will stay in the small town of Aguas Calientes. From here you can hike to the ruins, which is a steep 90-minute hike, or take a bus which winds its way up from the town to Machu Picchu in about 30-minutes. 

What to bring and not to bring:

Bring: Water and a rain jacket, even if it looks like a beautiful sunny day. And speaking of sun, remember that the ozone layer over Peru is compromised. That, combined with the elevation, makes the sun extremely strong here, so wear a hat and use plenty of high SPF sunscreen. Bring insect repellent as well. And keep some one soles coins in your pocket. You’ll need them to access the lone bathroom at the entrance to the site. To use the bathroom or grab food, you’ll have to exit the gates, so bring your passport and hang onto your ticket. You’ll need to show both to re-enter the citadel.

Don’t bring: Drones, umbrellas, or walking sticks or trekking poles since they’re all prohibited at Machu Picchu. Travelers who require sticks or poles for mobility can bring them in but only with protective rubber tips over the ends.

Huayna Picchu peak: You’ll need a separate ticket to climb this peak at the site, and you need to book in advance — there are a limited number of tickets.

Machu Picchu Mountain peak: This also requires a separate ticket — and good knees. The trail is almost entirely stairs. You’ll have the choice of starting your climb at 7 a.m. or 9 a.m.

Though Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu both require additional tickets, anyone can walk up to the Sun Gate (about two hours round trip along a relatively gentle trail with few stairs) for fantastic views of the overall site.

Guides are required at Machu Picchu, whether you’re on an organized tour or traveling independently. Hire one outside the gates, or make a booking in Aguas Calientes.

Best time to visit Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is open year-round. October through April is the official rainy season, but it can rain at any time. And while peak season is July and August, you should always expect crowds. Sundays can be the most crowded, because that’s when people who live in the Cusco province are allowed into the site for free, in addition to the daily quota of 2,500 paying visitors.

As of December 2020, however, that daily quota has been reduced to just 1,116 tourists per day due to the coronavirus pandemic; 75 visitors will be allowed entry into the site per hour.

Where to stay near Machu Picchu

1. SUMAQ MACHU PICCHU HOTEL (5-STAR)

With a privileged location at the Urubamba River and only 20 minutes from the famous Machu Picchu Archaeological Site, this 5-star hotel offers comfort, elegance and relaxation, in Andean Design. Free WiFi access is available.

Peruvian Gastronomy is served at the à la carte Qunuq Restaurant. In addition, guests can have their drinks at the Suquy Cafe & Bar.

2. SUSANNA INN MACHU PICCHU HOTEL

Featuring 3-star accommodations, Susanna Inn Machu Picchu Hotel is located in Machu Picchu, 3.8 miles from Huayna Picchu and 5 miles from Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary. All rooms feature a flat-screen TV with satellite channels and a private bathroom. The property provides a 24-hour front desk as well as free WiFi throughout the property.

3. PANORAMA B&B

Featuring a complimentary buffet breakfast, free WiFi access and located only 650 feet from the town market, Panorama B&B offers accommodations in Machu Picchu.

Rooms here are all fitted with a wardrobe, a private bathroom with free toiletries and 24-hour hot water, a flat-screen TV with cable channels, towels and a spectacular panoramic mountain and river view. Larger rooms, such as the twin or triple rooms feature a private balcony.

4. SUPERTRAMP HOSTEL

Located in Machu Picchu, Supertramp Hostel Machupicchu is near a train station and near the boardwalk. Local points of interest include Aguas Calientes Hot Springs, Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, and Cerro Machupicchu.

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