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Cuzco, Peru – Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the world’s unique man made attractions that is located in a truly inspirational setting. You can try to experience all you can of Machu Picchu through videos and photographs and travel writings, but there is absolutely no substitute to visiting this city in person. We have been fortunate to have visited Machu Picchu several times. Machu Picchu dates from about 500 years ago.

Machu Picchu is without a doubt one of the most significant historical creations in South America. Not only is it a well preserved/restored city but its location gives it a surrealism and a feel that other historical cities just do not have. It is situated on a small geographic saddle between the main mountain of Machu Picchu and the tall jagged mountain called Huayna Picchu. Located at about 7,500 feet Machu Picchu sits in the cloud forest which means it can be wet and foggy any time of the year.

Local Indians actually knew about Machu Picchu as they farmed in the vicinity of the ruins, however it wasn’t until 1911 that an American named Hiram Bingham “discovered” & pilfered the ruins and publicized his findings to the outside world. He then conducted a serious of excavations and exported many of the artifacts to the USA. Bingham only discovered the ruins for the outside world; local Indians already knew of these ruins and they were the ones that in fact showed them to Bingham.

General Inca Trail Information – The Inca trail is the most popular trek in South America. The two most popular options for this hike are the 2-day or the 4-day trek. Unfortunately it is becoming VERY difficult and VERY expensive to hike the Inca Trail.

Also note that the main 4-day Inca trail is closed part of the year due to inclement weather. The Peruvian tourism authority limits the number of people on the Inca trail at any one time to a maximum of 500 people per day (200 paying persons and 300 guides/staff) and they need to know the names and passport numbers of those people who will be walking the Inca Trail at least 6 days in advance.

As of mid 2012 the waiting list for hiking the Inca trail (normal 4-day hike) during the low season of December and January was 21-30 days. At minimum you MUST reserve your spot for the Inca trail 2 weeks in advance however this is the minimum and in the high season (May through September) up to 3 months in advance is much more preferable or more time if you can swing it. Note that these are suggested times and sometimes there may be availability on shorter notice.

To view the current number of permits *still* available on any day – visit this page.

If you prefer making your reservation when you are in Peru you may find that this is probably a cheaper way to go than reserving online and definitely cheaper than using a none Peruvian based travel agency. However, depending the time of the year you will want to make your reservations early in your trip. Many of the popular tourist destinations – i.e. Lima, Cuzco and Arequipa have travel agencies that can make reservations for the Inca trail.

To reserve your spot on the Inca trail online, you will most likely have to pay a company in advance. Some of the larger tour companies do take major credit cards but most of the normal trekking companies do not, and you will have to wire them a deposit (usually 50% of the trip cost) via a company such as Western Union. The tour company needs the deposit money as they have to pay the government when they make the trail reservations for you. Note: you MUST have a guide accompany you on any of the multiple Inca Day treks. The largest group size allowed is 16 people. You cannot hike the Inca trail by yourself. There are guarded checkpoints to stop such activities. You can however, enter the ruins of Machu Picchu by yourself, a guide is not mandatory for this, although having a guide for an hour or two can bring out insights & history about MP that you would have otherwise not known about.

The cheapest cost for hiking the 4-day Inca trail just a few years ago used to be around $80. Now because of the increased cost of train and trail fees, a cheap 4 day trek will cost you well over $400 per person. The cost of getting into the trail is $80 alone. The cost of a round trip ticket on the backpacker train is $60-100 depending on the ticket class. The two day trek will cost close to $200 per person. On the four-day hike, expect to have some wet weather, cold nights and a lot of walking up and down. The high point of the 4-day trek is 4200 meters, about 13,800 feet. Some very useful information about the Inca Trail hike can be found here: www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/treks/incatrail4.html

The best site for Inca trail regulations and very up to date information can be found here: www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/treks/incatrail_regulations.html

Note travel costs are discounted a bit if you have an International Student ID card www.isiccard.com . In order to get these discounts most travel agencies require you to present this card in person, but you might be able to get away with just presenting your regular student ID.

This is a great site for a virtual tour of the Inca trail: www.raingod.com/angus/Gallery/Photos/SouthAmerica/Peru/IncaTrail/IncaTrail1.html

Two Day Inca Trek – this name is completely misleading as the actual trek portion is no more than 4-6 hours on the first day only. In addition you are actually only hiking on the real Inca trail for the last hour or two. The trail that leads up the side of the canyon from kilometer 104 is not the real Inca Trail but rather a side trail that leads to the real Inca Trail. The Backpacker train stops at Kilometer 104 for the 2-day trek. Its a very quick stop, so you have to beware. You can tell the conductor on your own train-car – when you board the train in Cuzco, that you will be getting off at KM 104 and he may alert you just before you get to KM 104.

The advantage of the two-day Inca Trail hike is that it is shorter and also a bit cheaper then the 4-day trek and it allows you to be at Machu Picchu early the next morning at sunrise, before the hordes of tourists arrive by train and bus later in the morning. If you are not on an organized tour and you have a few days, and you book all your transportation/lodging yourself, you can can just plan on staying at Aguas Calientes a night or two – this way you can get to MP early in the morning before the vast majority of tourists arrive.

Once you get off the Backpacker train at kilometer 104, you will be standing by the train tracks watching the train whiz by you and then finally disappear around a bend in the train tracks. Next you will walk down a short path until you reach the guard station. There you and your guide will give the guards your passport, as you have already reserved your name for the hike days or weeks in advance. Your name will be on the guards list. After leaving the guard shack, you will cross a bridge over the raging river and begin your hike up the other side. There is a bathroom about 5-10 minutes from the bridge. There is one small ruins you may visit as you begin your hike – the hike is fairly steady but not too steep of a climb up the side of the canyon opposite the train tracks – you will climb approximately 2000 feet (approx 610 meters) from the bridge to the high point on the 2-day Inca trek. You will hike through some neat vegetation including some orchids. There are several “huts” or rest stops on your climb. Around lunch time you will be at the Wiyay Wayna lodge. This “lodge” used to be a hostel where hikers on the Inca Trail could stay. The government has disallowed overnight stays here due to overuse and garbage problems. So now hikers on the 4-day Inca trail hike camp nearby – hikers doing the 2-day trek merely stop here for lunch. Some food and drinks are also sold here.

From the Wiyay Wayna lodge its about a 90 minute hike to the “Sun Gate.” This will be your first glimpse of Machu Picchu – Machu Picchu is way off in the distance and looks very small from this vantage point. The Sun Gate is located on the real Inca Trail at the top of a pass – from here there are excellent views of Machu Picchu way in the distance as well as views of other nearby majestic mountains.

From here its about an hour or less hike down to Machu Picchu. On the two day trek, on the first day – you will not have time to wander in Machu Picchu, but rather you will hike just above it. You can either take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, or you can hike down the road, or you can hike straight down the side of the mountain on steep steps that cross the road every time it switches back. Its at least an hour if not longer hike from the MP entrance station to the town of Aguas Calientes – and a very very steep hike. The cost of the Bus as of mid 2005 is approximately $6 US dollars one way (MP to Aguas Calientes). You will spend the night in one of the many Aguas Calientes hostels or guest houses. By the way, Aguas Calientes is not the real name of this city – its real name is the Village of Machu Picchu but most guide books and references only list Aguas Calientes.

There are some great hot water baths in Aguas Calientes, but avoid the loud rude Americans should they be at these baths. There are about 8 or so different baths, some of which are hotter then others. Drinks are served at these baths. Changing rooms are available, but no lockers – so leave your money belt or valuables with someone you trust. The hottest waters here are not overly hot and are rather pleasant to spend some time in. Cost for the baths is approximately 10 soles.

The next morning its best to be on the bus by 6 or 6:30am. This way you can be at Machu Picchu by 6:30 or 7am, before the tourists and about the time the sun is rising. At this time of the morning, there are some great photo opportunities. You can elect to stick with your guide for an hour or two to hear about the history of MP, or you can take off on your own to absorb the “vibe” of the ruins on your own.

The following included items are typically included on a 2-day Inca Trail trek:
-Transfer to train station
-Train to the trail head km-104
-English speaking guide
-Permit to get in the Inca trail
-Entrance ticket to the Inca trail and Machu Picchu
-Lodge in hostel, sharable room
-Meals, 1 breakfast, 1 lunch, 1 dinner
-Transportation to return to Cusco (train-bus)

Train Information – If you are rushed for time, and hiking is not for you, consider the one day Backpacker train trip. At present, reservations are not needed more than a few days in advance of your visit to Machu Picchu if you choose the one day train trip option, BUT, during the busy season you may want to reserve much more than a day in advance. If you choose this option and you arrange all the transportation and tickets yourself, expect to pay anywhere from $60 to $100 US (round trip) for the backpacker train ride, to and from either Cuzco or Poroy (the train station stop in Poroy – a small village, is about 15 minutes from Cuzco) to Machu Picchu. If you go through a travel agency expect to pay significantly more. Be sure to purchase your train tickets at least a few days before you leave for Machu Picchu. There is a first class car which sometimes is the only one available if the 2nd class cars are all filled up. The first class car is available for only a few dollars more! Its a bit nicer than the 2nd class car – nicer bathroom facilities, free drinks are served, and the seats recline and there is more leg room.

There is a “local” train which is heavily discounted each way from Cuzco to Machu Picchu and for the return trip, but apparently tickets to this train are not sold to tourists. However, if you know someone who is Peruvian, I’ve been told they can purchase tickets for their friends on this train; if you are on a tight budget, this would allow you to save significant transportation costs.

Basically you need to be at the train station by 5:30am as the train leaves by 6am sharp. Be sure to wear some warm clothes initially as the train is NOT heated at all and it can get quite cold. There is a small coffee breakfast shop that you can get some basic eateries before you leave such as pastries and orange juice. The train slowly climbs out of the Cuzco valley via many sharp switchbacks. The train will go to the end of a switchback and then stop and will head back the opposite direction just a little bit higher.

Because of the many switchbacks it takes about 50 minutes to an hour to climb out of Cuzco to the top of the ridge. The high point on this train ridge is just a nudge over 12,100 feet (personal altimeter reading). It takes about 4.5 hours from the Cuzco train station to the train station in Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu). Along the way you will travel through scenic valleys and along side the fierce and wild Urubamba river, deep in the canyon. If its clear sometimes you can see very jagged glacier capped peaks rising high above the canyon. Just before you get to Aguas Calientes you may see a fairly large scar on the hillside from a terrible mudslide in early 2004 which killed several villagers, destroyed the train tracks and stranded hundreds of tourists at Machu Picchu. This scar will diminish with time and soon you won’t even know there was a landslide here.

The train ends at Aguas Calientes and from here you hop on waiting buses which leave when they are full of passengers. The bus drivers all know the train arrival times so there is never a shortage of waiting buses. From here, its about 25 minutes by bus on a dirt road that winds its way past the river and finally climbs up to Machu Picchu via a series of many very sharp switchbacks. You will arrive near a large hotel and a drop off area. From here its a 15-20 minute walk to the main entrance.

NOTE: on your return trip, the train may stop at a station before the train drops down the ridge into Cuzco. You may have an option to take a bus into Cuzco which takes approx 15 minutes from this station, rather then continue on the train which will take over an hour because of all the switchbacks. The cost of the bus here is a few US dollars.

You can purchased tickets through Peru Rail: www.perurail.com, largely (if not completely) owned by Orient Express.

Since 2011 there has also been another company operating on this line called Inca Rail (www.incarail.com) – they offer pretty similar services to Peru Rail but they’re very slightly cheaper.

Machu Picchu – By Peruvian standards, the prices are extremely high for food & drink at the cafe here. (However sometimes you can get Granadilla Gatorade!!). The prices however, do make sense as its quite a ways to bring food and supplies in. You can always bring a lunch for the day to save some money. The hamburgers are a bit greasy here, but if you starving this may not bother you. You have to ask for ketchup and mustard & mayonnaise as these items are not automatically given to you. There are a few tables with umbrellas to protect from the rain here. Note, around 12:30pm you may not be able to get a seat here as this cafe fills up very quickly during lunch time. Also bring a hat and suntan lotion, as when the sun is out, it can be quite fierce.

You cannot take any backpacks past the main gate – there is a special room where you can check your bags in for free. You must have a purchased Machu Picchu ticket in order to check your bags – they will give you a receipt which you give them when you return. Also note that there are free walking sticks available near the entrance which you can use during your time in Machu Picchu. You must return them when you leave MP. These sticks are good to have especially if you decide to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu (see below).

Currently you must purchase your tickets in one of two places as tickets are no longer sold at the main entrance to Machu Picchu.
1. Machu Picchu Cultural Centre Machu Picchu Cultural Centre in the town of Aguas Calientes (15 minutes from the entrance to Machu Picchu
2. At the Instituto Nacional de Cultura on Calle San Bernado, a few blocks off of the main square (Plaza de Armas) in Cuzco. The ticket is valid for 3 days, but once you use it, is onlygood on the day of use.

The cost is approximately $40 US for a ticket to Machu Picchu. From the main entrance, it is a short 10-15 minute hike up the mountain on a well worn trail to the first view of Machu Picchu. You can walk up the trail the entire ways to the hut that is located above the actual city of Machu Picchu. The classic shots of Machu Picchu are from near this small house, called the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock that is located near the viewing area, near the end of the Inca Trail. The Funerary rock was hand carved by the Incas and is roped off located right behind this hut. You are free to walk among most of the ruins here with the exception of the main courts in the center of the city which are roped off. A full day here is the minimum time you should spend. It takes a while just to absorb the incredible beauty and you may want to spend a bit of time walking around on the high vantage points before you actually go down and walk within the ruins of Machu Picchu.

As you walk the trail heading towards Machu Picchu from the main entrance, you can either walk all the way up to the Hut (as mentioned above), or you can walk into the Machu Picchu ruins by leaving the main trail and walking by one of two small houses, and then walking along one of the terraces that are built into the hillside. If you continue along the terrace you will soon be in the actual ruins. This is a shortcut to Machu Picchu, rather than walking to the lookout Hut (as mentioned above) and then having to walk into the ruins.

You also have a choice of hiking several trails within the immediate vicinity. You can hike up the main Machu Picchu mountain or the jagged mountain that serves as the backdrop for Machu Picchu called Huayna Picchu.

The climb up Huayna Picchu mountain is well worth the climb if you are in shape and don’t mind a steep arduous climb. The views from the top are spectacular. From the check in hut at the beginning of this trail it takes about 1 hour to reach the top of the mountain. The beginning of this trail to the top of Huayna Picchu is all the way at the backend of the Machu Picchu ruins (ie, you will need to walk all the way through the actual ruins to get to this trailhead). You need to sign your name and time you start the hike on the registry here. Every name is listed next to a number, be sure to remember your “number” as the pages fill up with names of climbers, later in the day. As of 2008, the trail closes at 1pm. When you return from this trail you will also need to sign your name in order to checkout.

The trail is narrow and very steep – fortunately there are ropes and cables mounted next to the steepest sections. Be very careful on this trail especially going down and if the rocks are wet this makes them quite slippery. Towards the top you will find a set of stone steps which are set into an almost vertical part of the trail. As you reach these steps you can choose to walk to the right or left or you can walk right up the stone steps. Taking the left path is probably a little easier hike to the top. The right side will lead to three man made stone platforms with rock steps sticking out the side. Once you descend these, paying particular attention to stay away from the vertical multiple thousand foot drop, you will climb under and through several large boulders at which point you will find yourself right next to the top of the mountain.

There are great views of the surrounding mountains from the top, although the main city of Machu Picchu is somewhat lost in the surrounding views as well as it is partially hidden by the mountain you are on. At certain times of the year there may be many black little biting flies directly at the top of this mountain. They are quite annoying as they are buzzing around where the best photo opportunities are located. However, once you get off the top rock on this mountain the flies leave you alone! The rope that used to be anchored in one of the rock faces below the summit is no longer there, so be careful if you decide to descend from the summit on the steep rock face.

See how many buses you can count on the dirt switch back road leading up to Machu Picchu’s entrance from Aguas Caliente! At one point, the author counted 11 buses on the road at the same time.

Hiking in the actual ruins is very different than seeing them from above. Here you get a real feel for how the city was constructed and how much work was involved for cutting the stones and placing them. You can see close up the “most perfectly constructed wall in all of South America” and you can see the only circular constructed building in all of Machu Picchu. Most of the tourists are here from the hours of 10-2pm. If you can be at Machu Picchu before or after this time, there really are not a lot of people walking in the ruins. The lighting changes dramatically throughout the day here and you really need at least a day to absorb these changes and to visit all there is to see here.

For more information about Machu Picchu please visit these websites:

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Comments

  1. wow! what a beautiful place to visit. First picture telling the complete story.

  2. my friend just came back from a hiking trip Machu Picchu. I can’t wait to go there.

  3. Yes, I’ve been fortunate to have visited several times – its best in the morning w/o the crowds – either getting up very early after spending the night in Aguas Calientes or hiking in from above on the Inca Trail – it doesn’t get much better than that. There are a select number of truly inspiration spots outstanding spots on the planet that blend both human creation and the natural world. Machu Picchu is certainly one of these – I would also have to add Petra to this short list.

  4. We spent two full days at Machu Picchu. I think the tip about early mornings has gotten out. We found it to be quite busy first thing. However, most of the tour groups and individuals seem to clear out in the early afternoon. By late afternoon, we had whole sections of Machu Picchu completely to ourselves.

  5. Lance – thanks for dropping by this page – sounds like things change quickly – I’ve been a few times but haven’t been back recently. Good to know that things clear our later in the day. Thanks for mentioning that!

  6. Thanks for useful information. However, can you recommend any hotels or hostels near Cuzco? I already tried several other sites but the larger sites always list the same few “generic” hotels – I like to stay in places that have more character :) Thanks!

  7. Cheryl – thanks for reading up on Machu Picchu! I do have a basic listing here: http://www.davestravelcorner.com/guides/cuzco/hotels/ – maybe you can find a few that would work for your upcoming visit to Cuzco.

  8. I just reserved my ticket for late June. Actually, the Inca trail was sold out until late August. They are limiting the people more this year it seems.

  9. Julio – thanks for the update. Sounds like things are continuing to become even tighter in regards to trail permits.

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