When I found out we had a race lined up in Peru, I decided I was going to go, so that I could visit Machu Picchu. I’ve wanted to visit Machu Picchu for a long time, and this was finally my chance to visit. I didn’t know at the time how difficult it would be.
I don’t really like tour companies. I prefer to build my own itinerary, or to fly by the seat of my pants. But getting to Machu Picchu isn’t simple or cheap, this might be a good time to use the services of a tour company. But make sure the tour company is one familiar with the area.
First you need to get to Cusco. Most people fly into Peru through Lima, which I had to do since it was closer to the race. There are fairly regular flights from Lima to Cusco. Cusco’s elevation is about 3300 meters, a bit higher than Machu Picchu. It is a good idea to spend a day or two in Cusco to help acclimate to the altitude. There are two sets of ruins near Cusco. The ones right about Cusco can be seen in an afternoon. Then there is the Sacred Valley. I didn’t have time to visit the valley, but it would take about a day.
From Cusco, you can either hike the Inca Trail, or take the train. The Inca Trial is a several day hike and only a limit number of people are allowed on the trail. The train is the faster option, but still takes several hours. You can catch the train at Poroy, about a half hour from Cusco, or from Ollantaytambo which is further away. The train runs about $50-$70 depending on the train type or destination, and tickets can be purchased online at perurail. Tickets can sell out, especially during the high season.
You also need to buy a ticket to Machu Picchu itself. The tickets start at $40 a day, and are limited to 2500 people a day. There are several places in Lima and Cusco you can purchase tickets. But starting in late 2011 you can also purchase your tickets online at www.machupicchu.gob.pe. I would recommend purchasing your rail and park tickets before making any other accommodations.
The train will take you to the town of Aguas Calientes. From here you take a bus up to the ruins. You can also hike up, but as it is almost straight up the mountain, the bus seems the easier option. If you take the first train in the morning you’ll arrive about 10:00 AM. It is possible to visit the basics of the park in about 5 hours, returning to Cusco in the evening. But considering the amount of time and money it takes to get here it is worth spending two days in the park.
Spending two days allows you to visit more of the park, and to do it at a leisurely pace. There isn’t much to do in Aguas Calientes except visit the many restaurants. Although I couldn’t figure out how many of the restaurants differ. They seem to share the same menu, including the same pictures and bad translations! You can visit the hot springs, which are open fairly late. No matter what you do, get an early start in the morning. The light is wonderful in the morning, and the crowds are thinner.
I took the first train out of Cusco, to maximize my time at Machu Picchu. After checking into my hotel, and getting a bite to eat I headed up to the ruins. For some reason I started out with the left hand rule, to tour the ruins. This lead me almost immediately to the sun gate.
This is actually the entrance for the Inca Trail and has some impressive views of Machu Picchu.
It takes about an hour to hike up to the sun gate. The hike isn’t difficult, although the path is rocky and takes some concentration. But at this altitude almost anything strenuous takes effort. The view is spectacular.
After hiking back from the sun gate, I just chilled out on the steps overlooking the ruins for a bit. I had some company.
With two days in the park, I had plenty of time to sit back and enjoy the sites. I decided to check out the “Inca Bridge.” I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wanted to see as much as I could. It turns out the bridge is a draw bridge along a cliff.
The a bridge was built on a the trail, such that the wooden draw bridge could be withdrawn to close down the trail, which wasn’t even two feet wide!
The view from the agricultural section is probably the best view of the ruins, while in the ruins.
Machu Picchu was supposedly built in the fifteenth century. But the claim is that previous civilizations had built there in the past. I don’t know if that is true, but there were some rock formations that seemed out of place.
Down the steps from the agricultural section lies the main gate.
I roamed around the houses near the main gate.
The houses seemed fairly sophisticated, more than I expected.
I made it to the temple complex.
The buildings in this section were also built a little differently.
The stones fit together much better.
At the top of the mound Is the Inithuatana stone.
Apparently there is some significance with the solstices and the stone. But the guides spin some other yarns. As I was standing there checking it out, one of the guides was telling the tourists about the stone. Apparently the rectangular stones corners point in the four cardinal directions. I couldn’t quite figure out how that was possible, but the tourists ate it up.
The park closed at 5:00 and so I headed back to town. I thought it was a little earlier to close, but it was pitch dark by 6:00! Aguas Calientes is a fairly small town. It seems to mostly consist of hotels and restaurants. I checked out most of the restaurants, looking for something interesting. But all of the restaurants seemed to offer the same thing! All of the menus I checked out were identical, literally identical.
I got up early the next morning to hike Huayna Picchu. You need a special ticket as they only allow 400 people up the mountain. The hike is fairly difficult, almost straight up the mountain. The top of the mountain has some more ruins.
I can’t imagine hiking up from Machu Picchu on a regular basis, but they claim the agriculture at the top could support about 30 people.
The view from the top was absolutely amazing.
The agricultural steps here were incredibly steep. I couldn’t imagine working the crops here.
But still the view was impressive.
There is another set of ruins a bit further along the trail, but I wasn’t sure if I would have time to visit them. I was supposed to be on the afternoon train out, so I headed back the way I came. It was much easier going down than up!
I had a couple of hours before I needed to head back, so I wanted to wander around the ruins a bit, there were a few spots I hadn’t seen.
I was wandering through the ruins, when I heard a “Dude!” and I turned around and saw a friend of mine, Patrick Switzer.
Patrick actually hiked up to the ruins. He didn’t take the Inca Trail, but another trail. He was doing the same thing I was doing, visiting the ruins before the race. We were both surprised to run into each other, and we hung out and chatted for a while before I had to take off. I wanted to see a bit more before heading back.
One of the most interesting rock features is the Condor.
They aren’t really sure who made it, and what it meant, but it does look like a condor. The fountains are in the center of the complex, and currently the water comes from a hose. I don’t know where the water came from originally, if there was enough run off from the surrounding mountains.
The last interesting structure was a circular building.
It is the only circular structure up there, and it surrounds a large rock.
Unfortunately it was roped off and I couldn’t get closer to it. There is still conjecture on what the building was used for.
It was time to head back. I’ve heard stories that it could take up to an hour to wait for a bus. I know when I came up the first day, there was a long line waiting for the buses. I guess a lot of people head back around noon for lunch. I figured if it was a bit after noon I might be ok. Fortunately there wasn’t a huge line. It still took me a while to get back into town.
I grabbed a quick bite to eat at a pizza place. It was very good pizza. There are two train tracks that run through town. One set go to the passenger station, and the other set continues on through town. This second set of tracks are fairly close to some of the shops and hotels.
The train ride back is interesting. The first section goes through the jungle, and was very beautiful. There are also quite a few ruins you can see on the way. The second section isn’t quite as impressive as the jungle, but it is still worth checking out.
The ruins are quite impressive. The claim is they were abandoned not long after the Spainards arrived. The ruins were “rediscovered’ in 1911, after several hundred years. I visited some water fountains in Lima.
The lit fountains were impressive
but they also had a photo display of what Machu Picchu looked like when Bringham found it in 1911. The ruins were overrun with the jungle. But what amazed me the most was how much reconstruction actually took place. What we see today, isn’t what it looked like in 1911. The ruins we see today are quite impressive. But they didn’t standup to the ravages of time quite as much as it looks like today.