We visited Machu Picchu close to halfway through our trip, after having a few days to acclimate to higher altitudes in Cusco. It was amazing! We were fairly lucky, as the days before and after were rainy and heavily cloudy but on the day we went it was clear and only mildly cloudy.
We chose to take the train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo early that morning, check into our hotel, buy our bus tickets, catch the bus to Machu Picchu, and hike across the park to start with a Huayna Picchu hike. While it was a bit hectic and stressful to start the day that way, it worked out well and enabled us to only stay one night in Machu Picchu Pueblo, which we preferred. Seeing the sun rise over the mountains on the train ride was also pretty awesome. We took a normal train (not one of the ones advertised for panorama views), but even with that we had pretty nice-sized windows and even windows in the ceiling to see the mountains.
When we arrived at Machu Picchu, the weather was gorgeous. Clouds obscured most of the mountains by the afternoon, but we got some amazingly clear views in the morning as we crossed the park to start the Huayna Picchu hike.
Huayna Picchu Hike
We bought late morning entrance tickets to climb Huayna Picchu, the big mountain behind the ruins in my previous photos, so that we could climb it first thing before we had a chance to get tired from exploring the ruins.
The hike started out mostly uphill, then went downhill and back up as we climbed through a valley to Huayna Picchu.
After that the steps were pretty steadily uphill for a while. Not too steep yet but strenuous because you’re constantly climbing stairs and there are few spots wide enough to comfortably take a break and let others pass by.
When we finally arrived at a terrace platform large enough for several people to stand and rest, we got a nice view and a rest stop before the climb got really tough. Here’s a shot from the platform and a shot of the platform after we’d climbed on a bit.
Beyond this platform, the steps got significantly narrower and steeper, often with sharper drop-offs just beyond the steps.
Partway to the top, we reached another platform area where you could get an outstanding shot of the ruins which, looking back at my photos, looked as good as or better than my photo from the top. Corwin took a great panorama photo here.
At one point, we climbed through a short, narrow cave tunnel which, during rainy season, is also pretty muddy. If you climb this in rainy season, expect to get mud on your hands, pants, shoes, shoulders, head, etc. Finally, after a bit more stair-climbing, you climb through another underpass in the rocks to a small wooden ladder that takes you a few rungs up to the top of Huayna Picchu. The view is amazing. We snapped a quick photo here and them moved on since there wasn’t anywhere left to sit without blocking the entrance for others.
I was OK with moving on, as sitting there felt like sitting on the edge of a rock perched precariously on top of a mountain. I’m sure it’s secure; it just brought out a deeply hidden fear of heights that I never knew I had before. Unfortunately, climbing down wasn’t much better. What felt like treacherous, steep stairs going up felt even more so going down. I think a lot of people felt this way, as we spent a bit of time waiting for people ahead of us to slowly and carefully climb down the stairs, sometimes even getting down on all fours and sit-climbing down (I did this at one point, too).
When we got back to the platform that I mentioned earlier, the view up looked just about as crazy as it had looked going down. Yep, that narrow ramp-wall on the right is the last set of stairs before the platform.
After that, climbing the steps back down from the platform was manageable again, if made a little less secure by legs wobbly from exhaustion.
Immediately after having done the climb we both felt the views weren’t worth it, as it was pretty steep (predominantly switchback stone stair paths), felt a bit treacherous, and left us exhausted by the time we were done and ready to explore the ruins (we’d equate it to the exertion of our 8-hour hike along the Na Pali coast compressed into 2.5 hours). Part of its feeling treacherous might have been my lack of foot mobility given that I spent most of the trip in rain boots (a terrible idea on my part, as they kept my feet at a pretty rigid right angle the whole time), but Corwin was wearing normal hiking boots and felt the same way, so I don’t think it was that alone. In retrospect, I should have either invested in a pair of waterproof hiking boots or accepted that my feet would be soaked in normal shoes the whole trip, as I would have felt much more secure climbing the Huayna Picchu steps and could have avoided some hip soreness from absorbing the impact of landing flat-footed going down steps in rigid shoes.
A few months later, we’re pretty proud of ourselves for having done the climb and we do love the photos we got from it (we even printed Corwin’s panorama to hang in the hall). So, I’m glad I didn’t know what the hike would be like going in, I feel incredibly lucky that it did not rain the day we visited (I actually wonder if they cancel Huayna Picchu hikes for safety when it rains), and while I’m glad I did it I’m perfectly OK with its being a one-time experience for me.
Despite our exhaustion after the Huayna Picchu hike, we took a short break for restrooms and food. To do that, we crossed back across Machu Picchu, exited, and then reentered after our break. As we hiked across the park, I noticed a heavy layer of clouds had settled around us, hiding all of the mountain peaks except for Huayna Picchu.
Fortunately it lifted a little by the end of our break, so we still saw some great views.
We found a small shady spot near the restrooms to sit on the ground while we ate our food, and then we bought ice cream to supplement it. It might have been the extreme exhaustion, but this was some of the best soft serve ice cream I’ve had. I think I tasted coconut milk in the vanilla. I was so hungry and excited to eat ice cream that I completely forgot to take a photo until I was mostly done with it.
Exploring Machu Picchu
After that, we found the energy to explore the ruins and weren’t disappointed. We even saw a few llamas, two of which walked right past us on a terrace!
The views are incredible even if you don’t climb Huayna Picchu, and we were continually amazed that the Incas had built this outpost on top of a mountain, and that they had built such enduring structures over such a vast region in Peru.
I especially liked the structures that the Incas built around or on top of large rocks.
We were also impressed to see people working on continual restoration throughout the site, picking moss out of the cracks between the stones.
From what we read online and in the Museo Machu Picchu de la Casa Concha in Cusco afterward, it sounds like the extent of intact structures that you see today is a result of gradual restoration over the decades. We read that this building was the most intact of all at the site when it was discovered. There’s a clear difference in the precision of the stonework here and in other areas of the site, so it makes sense that this one still stands.
You can still see some areas of the site where buildings have not been reconstructed. I’m curious about whether those areas will also eventually be reconstructed, or have been intentionally left as they are to show the contrast between how the site was found and how it looks today.
Before heading back to Machu Picchu Pueblo, we stopped or one more ice cream since I loved it so much. At this point, they were out of the swirl, but the vanilla by itself was still good. I intended to get a photo before digging in this time, but I was so excited to eat it that I forgot again. Oh, well! You get the idea.
Machu Picchu Pueblo
After exploring Machu Picchu, we returned to Machu Picchu Pueblo, having dinner at Quinua, one of the many touristy restaurants in the town. I tried Inca Kola and was surprised to find it tasted like liquid bubble gum and that I actually liked that (again, for a one-time experience). For dinner I had pionono de pollo laqueado nikkei, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion dish, and Corwin had fettucini with chicken ragout and mushrooms. We enjoyed both.
Like Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu Pueblo also had a Christmas tree made of soda bottles. Pretty creative idea, especially at night when you can light it up from within.
Return to Ollantaytambo
And on our train ride back to Ollantaytambo the next morning, it was clear that we’d been very lucky with the weather at Machu Picchu.
The view was still very nice in the stretches between rain, though.
Tips for your visit:
- Sun Protection: Wear and reapply sunblock throughout your visit as the altitude and lack of shade make it easy to sunburn. The only shade you’ll find in the park is under a couple of structures with benches near the entrance to the Huayna Picchu hike (or in the restaurants if you choose to exit the park).
- Hydrating Effectively: Bring lots of water, as it’s expensive (8 soles) and time-consuming to wait in long lines at the cafe to buy extra water.
- Restroom Fee: Plan to pay 1 sol every time you need to use the restroom.
- Exiting and Reentering: Plan to exit and reenter Macchu Picchu every time you need to use the restroom or buy food/water. Exiting involves going both down and up a number of steps, so make sure you really need to before you do.
- Huayna Picchu: If you’re a seasoned mountain climber, you’re looking for an intense 1-3 hour stair-climbing/descending workout (we’re relatively fit and it took us 2.5 hours round trip, 1.5 hours of which was uphill to the peak), and you’re OK with climbing both up and down steep and shallow stairs with a sharp drop off just inches away from you, then climbing Huayna Picchu might be for you. If not, I’d recommend researching it a bit so that you know what you’re getting into if you do it. Also, be prepared for some financial and opportunity risk in getting tickets for this hike: Huayna Picchu tickets need to be purchased so far in advance (they only sell about 400 per day) that if the weather is bad on the day you plan to visit, you’re not likely to get tickets for another day during your visit.
- Train to Macchu Picchu Pueblo: If you’re not hiking the Inca Trail, trains are the only way to get to Machu Picchu Pueblo. The trains don’t have luggage storage on board, so they have fairly severe luggage limits (smaller/lighter than most airline carry-ons) that they don’t seem to enforce strictly, as we saw a few people with larger bags on board. I’ve heard they’ll stow larger bags below for a fee, and you might be able to get away with keeping a larger bag at your feet if it’s small and/or flexible and you don’t mind being cramped for leg room (assuming the train line employees working that day aren’t strict). We stayed in Ollantaytambo on either side of our Machu Picchu visit, so we left our bags with our hostel and only took the things we needed for one night to Machu Picchu Pueblo.
- Bus or Hike to Machu Picchu: We chose to bus to Machu Picchu to conserve energy for exploring and especially for the Huayna Picchu hike. It cost $19 per person round-trip for a roughly 25 minute bus ride up and similar bus ride down. Buses take a switchback road, while hikers hike steep stairs that cut through the middle of the bus switchbacks.
- If You’re Doing the Huayna Picchu Hike: Give yourself plenty of time to get there, especially if you’re taking the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo that morning. The trail entrance is on the opposite side of the ruins and you’re likely to need to wait in line to enter Machu Picchu since they check passports against tickets at entry.
- If You’re Not Doing the Huayna Picchu Hike: You could probably make Machu Picchu a day trip from Ollantaytambo and save yourself the hassle of leaving your luggage in your Ollantaytambo hotel/hostel’s storage while you take a subset of your overnight things to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly called Aguas Calientes). Alternatively, staying a night in Machu Picchu Pueblo gives you some flexibility to try for a second day at Machu Picchu if it rains on your first day and if you can still get tickets at that point.
- Buying Machu Picchu Tickets:
- Buy your tickets for Machu Picchu in advance (they don’t sell them on site and they do sell out).
- Note that the government website that sells the tickets only accepts Verified by Visa credit cards (this means you’ve set up a password for making purchases with the card online; not all credit card companies support this service; if your credit card company doesn’t know what it is that probably means they don’t support it, but you can find out for sure by calling Verified by Visa directly). If you don’t have that, or even if you do (as we found that even after troubleshooting the service with our bank, the transaction still wouldn’t work and we couldn’t reach anyone at the government website’s support number to troubleshoot it with them), the peace of mind is worth the extra fee charged by a ticket-purchasing service. After we gave up on the government website, we used http://www.ticket-machupicchu.com and it worked without problems. Once they email your tickets to you, you can enter your ticket number into the government website to verify that it’s valid.
- If you’re purchasing tickets for an early January visit, note that the following year’s tickets don’t go on sale until shortly before the end of the prior year (in 2013 the 2014 tickets were available on December 21, a few days earlier than the government website had predicted they’d go on sale), so you might have to wing it a little with your trip planning with the hope of being able to get the tickets you aim for. Ticket-purchasing services claim a guarantee that they’ll get the tickets you request for you when they come available, but given the limited number of Huayna Picchu tickets available and the fact that the services wouldn’t give a clear answer as to how they could guarantee this, we preferred to buy right when the tickets came available.
- Bringing Food vs Buying: If you buy food, you have two restaurants to choose from at the park entrance. Tinkuy is an indoor buffet with exception of a station on its exterior that sells juice, hot dogs, and ice cream, and the other is a counter-service mostly-fast-food cafe with covered outdoor seating. Expect high prices at both and long lines at the counter-service cafe. If you bring food, make sure you’re OK with carrying it the whole day, unless you want to use the limited paid lockers they have at the entrance to the park.
- If You Visit on January 2: Your best bet is probably to buy breakfast near the train station and buy lunch at the park. We wanted to buy food ahead of time since we were catching an early train and likely wouldn’t have time to pick food up in Machu Picchu Pueblo before catching the bus to Machu Picchu, but we couldn’t find stores or markets open to buy food in Ollantaytambo on January 1 so we ended up ordering a boxed breakfast and lunch from our hostel. However, since our hostel also needed the markets to be open to prepare the food, it turned out they were only able to prepare a boxed breakfast and had to refund some of our money. As it turned out, a coffee shop by the train station had a limited selection of empanadas on hand and Peru Rail offers a small free drink and pastry on your train ride, so we were mostly OK. And it gave us an excuse to buy ice cream. Twice. :)
- Ice Cream: After you’re tired and hot from exploring the ruins, get some excellent chocolate/vanilla combo soft serve ice cream (10 soles for a generous serving) from the Tinkuy restaurant (look for a machine next to the sign pictured below; you’ll need to pay at an outdoor cashier nearby and bring your receipt to the person serving the ice cream).
- Restaurant Discounts in Machu Picchu Pueblo: If you stay in Machu Picchu Pueblo and don’t mind eating dinner early, you’re likely to get some good discount offers from competing restaurants wanting to attract customers at dinner time with people already eating delicious-looking food inside. Just don’t be surprised when they make most of that discount back with a hefty tip pre-included in the bill. This is a tourist town, after all.