In continuing my previous post explaining all the necessities of planning a trip to Machu Picchu, this post will touch on the day trip and hike itself. Machu Picchu was certainly one of the highlights (but not the only one!) of our trip to Peru and Bolivia!
Preparing to visit Machu Picchu
We woke up around 4:30am at our Ollantaytambo guesthouse in the sacred valley to catch the first train out that morning to Aguas Caliente (the nearest town to Machu Picchu). Our guesthouse made us a lunch which consisted of an unappealing ham sandwich and fruit. Looking back on it, we probably should have brought more food and water. Ollantaytambo is a tiny town and walking to the train station only takes 15 minutes. There were also cars and tuk tuks waiting in the main square so we paid the 3 soles for a quick ride.
At the train station, it was already filling up with tourists eager to check off one of their ultimate bucket list items, as well as locals who I assume were going to work or home. There are numerous vendor stalls selling water and food just in case anyone wanted to buy food for their trip or just grab a quick breakfast.
Tickets on PeruRail trains are separated by cars and it was pretty clear that when we were all lining up to board the train, we were in the gringo car. Overall, the PeruRail train was actually pretty nice. We bought the cheapest class (which isn’t cheap), and the seats were comfortable enough for the 2 hour journey to Aguas Caliente.
The train and bus to Machu Picchu
The train ride was quite comfortable. It was still pitch black when we departed but the sun started rising slowly. The scenery is absolutely fantastic. Ollantaytambo is in the sacred valley and is characterized by huge, granite mountains with sparse vegetation. As we started leaving the sacred valley and towards Machu Picchu, the scenery started changing into greener pastures, lush with trees, rivers and flowers. The Andes really are impressive to see.
After two hours, our train finally arrived in Aguas Caliente. This town at the base of Machu Picchu was a lot bigger than I had imagined. It was filled with all the touristy shops, restaurants, hotels, and markets. Many people stay here for a night or two, and those wanting to visit Machu Picchu for the sunrise must stay here as no trains leave early enough to arrive in Machu Picchu for it. From the train, we went straight to the bus station located right next to the train (can’t miss it).
Buying bus tickets in Aguas Caliente
We had no idea the lines would be so long but at 7am, it was already a thousand people deep. You have to buy bus tickets in Aguas Caliente as they operate separate from the trains. They are $24 roundtrip. The trick here is if you’re not a solo traveler, to have one person wait in line, and have the other person (with both of your passports) buy tickets.
The buses do come quickly but we still waited a good 40 minutes. Once on the bus, we drove for another half hour through dirt roads, climbing up the mountain until we reached the entrance of Machu Picchu. Those that don’t want to take the bus, can climb the trail to the entrance of Machu Picchu which consists of thousands of steps. At the entrance, there was a mob of people waiting to get in. I presented my ticket that I printed out beforehand, along with my passport and we were finally in!
Entering Machu Picchu
This was it. Finally, we were here. After seeing countless photos, videos, and documentaries on this place, it was finally my turn.
Our path was still shrouded in the morning clouds but this is almost every day. Away we went. The ruins are right next to the entrance so it wasn’t long before I reached the fabled ruins of Machu Picchu. Ten minutes later and we were already at the famous viewpoint area of Machu Picchu where we could gaze upon one of the seven new wonders of the world. Llamas were grazing all around us (yes there are llamas all over Macchu Picchu, and it felt a bit surreal.
However, it was completely covered in clouds in the morning and I could not see a damn thing. I met people that raved about coming to Machu Picchu for the sunrise but they must have been real lucky because other people have told me Machu Picchu is almost always covered in clouds in the morning so I’m not sure how amazing a sunrise experience would be.
Seeing as we couldn’t see anything (around 8:30am), we figured we would start our hike up Machu Picchu mountain (Montaña Picchu). At 8:30am, it was already getting warmer so I changed into shorts and a tshirt knowing that this I would thank myself once I started hiking.
Hiking Montaña Picchu (Machu Picchu Mountain)
Montaña Picchu is no joke. This is a difficult hike to say the least. It’s a 800m climb to the top and is very steep. Being at 2500m already, the hike was even more difficult as we were constantly gasping for whatever thin air we were already breathing. We took numerous breaks to recover and soak in the views, or at least that’s what I told myself.
As we climbed higher, the clouds were beginning to dissipate and we could see more of the surrounding landscape, occasionally gazing at Machu Picchu as it became more visible. Overall, our hike was just under 1 hour and when we reached the summit, it was a sense of accomplishment and relief.
Reaching the summit of Machu Picchu
The views from the top are incredible. It was still relatively early so there weren’t many people at the peak and the clouds were still covering Machu Picchu. When they finally burned off, the views were absolutely stunning. The ruins are small from so high up but you get a more aerial view of Machu Picchu and the Huayna Picchu mountain in the distant.
The best views and photo opportunities go to those that are the most daring. We climbed over the rope fence and sat at the very edge. It’s a sheer drop from the edge and too much sudden movement or irresponsible selfie taking will lead to certain death. In fact, a few weeks prior to our visit, a German tourist was taking photos in the same area but slipped and fell to their death.
We spent at least an hour sitting at the top of Montaña Picchu. The views never got old and I had some good talks with the other travelers sitting on the edge of death with me.
Walking through the Machu Picchu Ruins
It was almost 1pm when we descended back down to the ruins. We paused to eat whatever lunch we packed (if you could even call it that) next to some llamas grazing. The llamas in Machu Picchu without a doubt see more humans than most humans do. They are completely unafraid of humans. I could give one a hug, and they would still be eating away completely oblivious to the world. They provide some good photo opportunities like this one:
We took a good 20 minutes to take all our “iconic” Machu Picchu pictures to get them out of the way. There are numerous areas that are sectioned off for photos that provide the stunning iconic backdrop of the ruins and Huayna Picchu mountain. Whatever you do however, there will be people all around you.
Machu Picchu is actually a very small park as far as acres go and with a minimum of 2500 people visiting, there is no place to find solace and isolation. It’s all about playing with the camera angles to strategically exclude people from your pictures.
Should you hire a guide in Machu Picchu?
There are numerous guides for hire in the mornings charging upwards of 200 soles for a few hours. This is when all the tourists first come so they have time on their side. For a cheaper alternative, consider hiring a guide in the afternoon when people are getting ready to leave for the day. There are many hovering around the entrance and with some negotiation, will do it for half the price of the morning.
We had planned on hiring a guide but hiking Montaña Picchu took it out of us and we just proceeded to walk through the ruins on our own, not understanding much of it. Looking back, we should have hired a guide to fully explain to us the history and lesser known details of the place.
Get a passport stamp!
The best souvenirs are free ones. Machu Picchu has one of the more unique souvenirs I’ve seen in the form of a passport stamp. Right after exiting, there is a stand with passport stamps. A great finishing touch on the whole experience and certainly a passport stamp collectors dream.
Back to Aguas Caliente
Our train back to Ollantaytambo was scheduled for 6:10pm that evening so we left Machu Picchu around 4pm. We took the bus back to Aguas Caliente and with our leftover time, drank some celebratory pisco sours and Cuscenas at Toto’s House restaurant. We met other travelers that had just finished their treks and with the 2 for 1 happy hour this place had going, we drank so much we ended up missing our train!
Stupid (but funny) Tourists
The next and last train for the night wasn’t until 9pm . We met these two American travelers that missed their train because they read 16:10 on their tickets and thought it was at 6:10pm. The first thing I asked them was “Are you American?” and immediately felt better about ourselves because at least our excuse was excessive imbibing of delicious pisco sours. We headed back to Tito’s house to drink more, making sure not to miss our train otherwise we’d be spending the night in Aguas Caliente!
Amazing day and an amazing experience that won’t soon be forgotten!