A year ago, my husband and I ended an eight week backpacking trip through South America at Machu Picchu. Because the ancient city is such a popular ‘bucket list’ destination, I thought it would be fun to recount the experience, as well as offer some tips for hiking Machu Picchu! Here’s an excerpt from the blog post I wrote just after the hike:
Welp, we did it! And it was as good as everyone told us it would be. Because we didn’t have four available days in our trip schedule or room in our backpacks for camping gear, we couldn’t plan a two or four day trek, which how many people experience Machu Picchu. Instead, we hiked up and down from the town of Aguas Calientes (the town below the ruins), and we did an extra hike to Huayna Picchu. The 265 flights climbed and 11 miles we recorded gave us some insight as to the stamina and strength of the Incas. It was STEEP. It was the most steps we walked on our entire backpacking trip, outside of a planned hike in Patagonia.
Right now, we’re sitting at the only French bakery in town, having a semi-decent cup of coffee because our hostel’s coffee was really bad. There’s a huge line winding around the road outside, filled with people waiting for the bus up to the ruins. It’s shocking that more people don’t hike up. It only took us 45 minutes to get to the top, and while it is a steep climb, it sure beats waiting in a line for two hours. It may be that people don’t know about the hiking option, or because the hike entrance is a 20 minute walk from town. Or maybe people are just lazy.
The Huayna Picchu hike is another story. I understand now why many people don’t do it, and why they only allow 400 people to hike the mountain each day. It was a tough hike. Round trip, with a rest at the top, it took us two hours. We went to the peak of the mountain but skipped the caverns, which would have taken an additional two hours. We saw the rain clouds rolling in and figured we’d prefer to see more of the actual ruins before it started pouring. The Huayna Picchu mountain is very steep, and at parts, you need to use a cable rope to get up and down the small stone staircases. Because it’s rainy season, the stairs were wet and the trail was muddy, so it made it a bit treacherous. Going down was much scarier than going up. On our way up, we passed a few people who were crying on their way down, which didn’t make me feel great as we continued upward. But the views were TOTALLY worth it.
From the top, you can look down on Machu Picchu, the rushing river, and the ruins of a village where it’s believed that the Incan priests lived. You can also see the winding road that the buses take to get to Machu Picchu. Pretty awesome and worth the extra money (and great photo opportunities!) There was a popular viewpoint in the actual ruins for taking photos, and once we saw the resulting photo taken for us by another tourist, we understood why. It’s the “money shot” – the most recognizable viewpoint of the ruins, with the mountain in the background. Plus, the view blurs out the many tourists walking through the ruins below. There are 2,500 people allowed into Machu Picchu each day, and that number of tourists really fills the ancient city. I know now why there’s such an interest in getting there early- to avoid the crowds!
While this was by no means an inexpensive part of our trip, it was worth the work to get here. Our hostel, Marco Wasi, was affordable but nothing special. The Peru Rail ticket from Cusco to Aguas Calientes was pretty pricey. The ticket to get into the ruins plus Huayna Picchu was expensive AND a really annoying process- their website is confusing and it denied my credit card twice before accepting it, even after I alerted Chase that I was about to buy the ticket)*. Another thing: you have to pay extra in order to get into the museum, which is at the base of the mountain. We walked there the next day, thinking our tickets would get us in for free, only to learn that it’s 24 soles per person in addition to the 158 soles per person for entrance to the ruins. We decided not to go in (because we were backpackers on a budget). Lastly, the food and drinks in the little town of Aguas are overpriced, but the service is pretty good. Despite any of these gripes, the site of an ancient city at the top of a mountain in the clouds is magical.
You should go.
A bit of detail on the train ride and the town of Aguas Calientes:
The Peru Rail train ride was nice. There’s a luxury train option as well, called Hiram Bingham, but we opted for the cheaper bi-modal option to save money. The bi-modal option includes a bus transfer from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, followed by a train ride to Aguas Calientes. If you choose the bi-modal option, make sure to print out your tickets before you get to the bus station, and get your coffee or tea before you arrive, because there’s not any for sale there! Also, the attendants at the ticketing office said you can’t bring large bags unless you email beforehand, notifying the size of your bags (we didn’t do this and were fine, however). Both the bus and train ride go through lush mountains and the cloud forest before arriving at the Machu Picchu station.
There’s a crossing of two rivers at Aguas Calientes, and one has a hot spring (hence “Aguas Calientes”). There are a few different pools at the springs, with varying levels of heated water and lots of people, but it didn’t get crowded until about 4pm when hikers were coming by after their treks. The springs also serve an array of cocktails that you can order while in the pools, so it seemed like a fun happy hour spot. Walking through the tiny tourist town of Aguas, expect to be bombarded with vendors and restaurants selling their goods and happy hour deals. But don’t let it annoy you- you’re this close to one of the Wonders of the World. Count your blessings.
Also, a few tips for those traveling through Peru or South America in general:
1. Go to Machu Picchu. Soon.
It’s only getting more touristy. The proof of the beauty is in the millions of photos people take of this place, but it’s much better with your own eyes.
2. Take probiotics!
Or eat lots of yogurt before you go. The bacteria in foods there is different, and sometimes the veggies aren’t cleaned as thoroughly as they are at, say, Whole Foods. You’re still likely to have an upset stomach from time to time, no matter how careful you are. Nothing pepto can’t handle:) If you want more packing tips, check out our post on Items You Can’t Travel Without!
3. Don’t skip Lima.
Pisco Sours, the beach, Miraflores, Barranco and a burgeoning foodie scene. Worth a few days before or after your Incan trail trek.
4. Don’t bring any fresh food here
The customs are strict, and don’t allow any produce from outside the country. Another note on customs- expect delays.
5. They all sell the same stuff. Negotiate.
…ok mostly the same. When we first arrived Cusco, I was mesmerized by all of the textiles, art prints, alpaca, jewelry, and decor being sold on the streets, by vendors, and in small shops. But it quickly became background music. The stuff is everywhere! If you want to buy gifts or souvenirs, don’t buy the first thing you see, and don’t accept the first price they offer. I asked around at several stands before finally purchasing a woven table runner at a market in Aguas Calientes. They will all tell you it’s hand made, and very expensive (“hecho a mano, muy caro!”) but you’d be surprised what they’ll actually accept if you feign disinterest.
6. Download the TripAdvisor App
This was our savior when we didn’t have wifi. In the app, you can download map of many cities and towns and save certain destinations to view even when you’re offline. This is very helpful for when you can’t remember the street name of that one art gallery, or when you’re two blocks from the restaurant you picked but don’t know if your next turn is a right or left…
7. Safety: Be smart and you’ll be fine!
Everyone warned us to be safe in Central & South America. We had no issues, but were extra cautious nonetheless. I didn’t bring nice jewelry or wear any expensive clothes. I carried a $10 H&M purse that I wore cross-body, and never hung it on my chair or put it on the floor. And I wore a fake diamond wedding band from Claire’s. Several people in Buenos Aires warned us to be careful with electronics, to wear our backpacks in front instead of the back, and to avoid dark, lonely streets at night. We carried copies of our passports, but left the actual version at our hostels locked in our backpacks or in a safe when available. And we didn’t carry tons of cash, even though it meant paying extra for the ATM fees.
8. If you want to travel by bus, check Plataforma 10
…which is like a Kayak for buses. One heads up- they have an English translation on their site, but it’s not perfect.
*This website was a big help when I was trying to buy Machu Picchu tickets.
Have you done the trek? Do you have any tips for hiking Machu Picchu? Let us know in the comments below!