Like the place itself, the internet is crowded with tourists’ tales of their visits to Machu Picchu. Rather than pile ours on, we’ll keep this brief.
Machu Picchu was awe-some. It’s hard to fathom the how of it all. We loved being there as much for the mind-blowing structures and grounds as for the epic natural beauty; the landscape that surrounds Machu Picchu is other-worldly.
A few pro-tips (with accompanying photos!) below in case you’re planning your own trip:
There are no roads in and out of Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You have to take a train*, which is an expensive, but beautiful ~ 2 hour ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town adjacent to Machu Picchu). As our prior blog posts confirm, we recommend a few nights in Ollanta before your train ride!
Once in Aguas Calientes, you can hike to and from Machu Picchu (about 90 mins up, 60 mins down, depending on your walking speed), or you can take a bus ($12 per person per direction), which takes about 30 minutes. We recommend saving your legs for the grounds and bussing up, but hiking down. The trail down the mountain is surprisingly lush (but note: it is all steps, so not great for weak knees).
*You can also opt to take a bus to a nearby town, Hidroeléctrica, which is a cheaper, more time and labor intensive option. Google it; many a backpacker has paved this path.
While You’re There
Our hostel hosts (Pico’s House – a bit hard to find but very comfortable stay with friendly proprietors) recommended we first visit the Incan Sun Gate, which is a 20-30 min walk away from and above the main grounds. It provides a beautiful vantage point from which to get a lay of the land – you can see the citadel and surrounding landscape, and escape some of the more intense crowds. We concur with this recommendation!
If you can handle heights and are up for a few hours of good physical challenge, book tickets for Huayna Picchu. It is the vertiginous mountain famously backdropping the Machu Picchu citadel, and hiking up and around it was thrilling, mystical, and rewarding. (Only 400 people per day are permitted to hike Huayna Picchu, so book your entrance tickets well in advance.)
First you hike straight up, up, up to the peak and marvel at the fact that there are more stone structures built there at the top, and then most people hike back down. We strongly recommend following the trail to the back of the mountain, where we saw only a handful of people for the rest of the hike. This trail goes down, down, down (including straightdown some precarious ladders, see pic below) until you reach the Temple of the Moon. This is said to have been built by and for Incan women specifically, and the stone work and views were breathtaking. Return to the citadel via another tough but beautiful (and shorter!) ascent.
Whatever you plan to do while there, we recommend spreading your time at Machu Picchu over at least two days. Taking it all in on day one, and then really engaging and exploring on day two made the experience that much more memorable and meaningful. Plus, it’s a chance to see Machu Picchu in potentially different weather conditions, which is a real treat!
Without planning it this way, Machu Picchu ended up being our last real stop in South America. We left on an afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo, where we switched to a bus which took us, under a rising full moon, through the Sacred Valley back to Cusco. We slept and caught a flight the next morning to Lima, where we spent five hours wandering the airport before connecting to our flight to Mexico City.
In 55 days we walked over 300 miles in the cities and towns, mountains and beaches of three amazing countries. We took 21 buses and flights between destinations, and dozens of tuk-tuks, taxis, Willys jeeps, motorcycles, subways, gondolas and other forms of transit within places. We spent time in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, explored the world’s longest mountain range (the Andes), visited two of the continent’s most populous cities (Lima and Bogotá), and spent a week in the second highest capital city in the world (Quito). We sampled so many new fruits, vegetables, spices and meats, shared meals and time with family and friends old and new, and thanked countless strangers for their kindness, welcoming warmth and helpful guidance as we explored a small segment of this vast continent.
As we took off to the west over the Pacific Ocean from Jorge Chávez International Airport, it felt both as if we’d just arrived, and been there for years; covered significant ground, and hardly scratched the surface. With mixed emotion, we said goodbye to South America and flew north!