MACHU PICCHU TRAVEL AND CUSCO ATTRACTIONS
In the native Quechua language, Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain”. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. The historical and iconic monument of the Incas is considered to be one of the most amazing wonders of the world.
If you’re coming here from another country, traveling to Machu Picchu can be tricky. To start, you’ll have to fly into Lima, the capital city of Peru. This city isn’t the most exciting destination, so most travelers stay very few days. From there, most people choose the one hour flight to Cusco rather than the alternative bus ride through the Andes. After you arrive in Cusco, you must make your way to Ollantaytambo by car. From there, the road ends and you can either walk for four days down the famous Inca Trail or take the train to Aguas Calientes for 2 hours.
Now that you’re in Aguas Calientes, you’re almost there. The final steps involve buying a ticket to get into Machu Picchu and taking the twenty-five minute bus ride to the ruins at the top of the mountain. If this whole adventure sounds pretty complicated, it is. To add to the effort, there is literally no way to book your ticket ahead of time unless you go through a tour group. The government website for tickets is sketchy at best and there’s a 2,500 person limit to how many tourists can visit the ruins in a day. If all of this seems like the reason not to go, relax. You’re in South America. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
One final complication is that any hotel or ticket that you buy needs to be connected with your passport. You have to have your passport to buy a bus ticket, a Machu Picchu entrance, even to board the train. You can show up in Cusco with nothing and book the whole thing through a little sidewalk tourist agency. It costs a few dollars more, but they can navigate the websites, check availability and have someone waiting for you at the train station with a sign and make your excursion memorable. Here’s the best way to do this:
Between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, there are several interesting towns and ruins. This area is known as the Sacred Valley and can be visited by taxi or tour bus in a day or overnight trips. There are four main sites right outside of Cusco: Sacsayhuamán is the most impressive of the nearby ruins. The walls are composed of giant blocks of stone so precisely cut, there is no space between them to even fit a knife blade. It’s a baffling archaeological wonder that amazes even the most jaded traveler. There are no carvings or buildings by itself, but the walls are impressive enough on their own and the wandering alpacas make even greater the landscape for photos. Nearby Tambomachay is an interesting site with aqueducts, waterfalls, and canals that run through terraced hills. A short stop at a former Incan fort and a sacred rock with a small cave nearby is included in your Incan Valley ticket and is worth the visit.
If you have the time, you can explore the somewhat touristy Pisac market on Sunday and the town’s nearby ruins. Less frequented and arguably more authentic is the Chinchero market on the way to Ollantaytambo. There are no touristy items for sale at this market, which is only open a few days each week. However, you can buy that alpaca textile you’ve always wanted, much on local fruits and vegetables, or treat yourself to a fried guinea pig washed down with the locally made chicha, a fermented home brew made from corn.
Forty minutes north lies the amazing Incan salt pans of Salineras. Natural salt springs in the area have been redirected into small reservoirs terraced into the cliff sides for hundreds of years. The salt collected is sold in chocolate bars, bath salts and dozens of other products. The site is a photographer’s dream, its salt-encrusted white pools cascading down the mountainside. It’s definitely worth the bumpy road ride to get there.
Nearby Moray is an interesting stop accessible through the back roads between Salineras and Ollantaytambo. The site is made of terraced rings cut into the mountain like a crater. This site has been interpreted as an experiment in agriculture since each terrace is at a different temperature and certain crops can be grown at different altitude levels. From this site, most people continue to Ollantaytambo. The ruins and fortress walls are visible from anywhere in this small town and it makes a great place to spend the night if you want to catch the early train to Aguas Calientes. The town is full of great tourist stalls, cute shops and a worthwhile chocolate museum with free tastings. It’s a picturesque little village surrounded by dramatic mountains with some nice restaurants.
When you get to Aguas Calientes, you’ll soon discover that this little town has no other purpose than to process the thousands of visitors that arrive daily. Chances are you’ll go directly to the Machu Picchu ticket line, then to the bus ticket line, then the bus line, then the entrance line to get into Machu Picchu. To get to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo, you’ll spend at least $150 on the train, $25 on the bus and about $50 to get into the archaeological site.
Once you pass the gates, you’ll want to get away from the tour groups. Pushing, loud chatter and photo bombing from amateur travelers and robotic tour groups can ruin your first impression of these marvelous ruins, so make your way up the hill and away. Alternatively, you can always visit the ruins in the late afternoon and miss the busloads of tourists doing the ruins from Cusco and back in one day.
Machu Picchu is best enjoyed from above, looking down at its complex of buildings as Huayna Picchu looms behind it. You can take a two-hour guided tour to learn more about the mysteries of this site, but setting up a private one so you don’t have to chase a red flag around is money well spent. There are trails heading in several directions from the ruins including a 30-minute hike to glimpse the remains of impassable Incan bridge. The air is thin in the Andes Mountains, so you’ll be winded after a few steps, so it is highly recommended to walk slow.
Once you’ve seen everything, you need to line up for the bus and reverse the steps. You can spend the night in Aguas Calientes, Ollantaytambo, or make the four-hour trip back to Cusco.