There are many reasons not to take the train to Machu Picchu. There is one good reason, however: if you’re sick. And Sarah Ann was, so we changed our plans from the adventurous, back-door route to do the easier-on-the-stomach PeruRail. It took us from Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.
We enjoyed lovely views of the countryside and even spotted a few more Incan city ruins before heading into the jungle.
While the owner of the hostel we stayed at in Ollaytantambo said that the train takes two hours, it only took about one hour and 20 minutes. We assume it was because we traveled downhill, from 9,000 feet down to around 7,000. Once in Agua Calientes we strolled through town to find a hostel. We decided (based on other backpackers’ experiences) that it was cheaper to just wander into one when we got there rather than make a reservation. Agua Calientes is designed for tourists: overpriced hostels and restaurants. We were able to find a private room with two twin beds for 70 soles, which we thought was a decent deal. We had been cold the past couple of nights (particularly Sarah Ann) so we pushed the two beds together and all slept under the same covers to stay warm.
We woke up bright and early at 4:15 in the morning to get to the bus stop. At least among backpackers, it is common knowledge passed along to get to Machu Picchu when it opens, at 6 am, to avoid the tours buses that arrive around 10. None of us wanted to be up that early, especially to stand in line for a bus up the mountain while it drizzled, but we thought it would be worth it.
This was the line for the buses at 4:30. When we arrived there were already about a hundred people waiting. Jordan stood in line while Sarah Ann and I went to the other line to actually buy tickets to get on the bus. The prices go up every year. In 2015 a roundtrip ticket on the bus is 24 USD per person for foreigners.
At a little past 5:30 five buses started their engines, and we got on the fourth bus. It is about a 20 minute drive up the mountain, or about an hour hike. We passed hikers going up the mountain and I was impressed at how early they had started to be the first tourists at the top!
Once at the top we were able to see the clouds begin to clear and the sky lighten. The gates to Machu Picchu open at 6 am sharp, and you can’t buy tickets there. They must be bought in advance in Cusco. We were probably one of the first 50 people through the gates, which was fantastic, and we dropped off our backpacks at the luggage storage for only 3 soles apiece.
Once we had everything where we wanted it, we took a big breath and walked down the path into the ruins.
Even though we had been told how amazing it all was, we were still very impressed with how huge the site is. As one of the ancient wonders of the world, it is incredible even today! Called “the Citadel” in Quechua, it was built at the beginning the Incan empire expansion, around 1450, and was one of the only cities the Spanish did not find and destroy. We don’t know how long the Incans lived here until they left permanently. Actually, we still don’t really know what the city was used for. An American explorer, Hiram Bingham, was hiking through the Peruvian jungle in 1911 and spent some time with the jungle locals. They showed him bits of pottery that they found in the mountains, and he asked them to show him the way. When he reached the top of the mountains, he could see the Urubamba river and the jungle below. Then he turned around, and much to his surprise, discovered Machu Picchu. He even found a nice Quechua couple living next to the ruins and farming on the ancient terraces.
After probably picking his jaw up off the ground, he found the end of the Incan trail, and followed it down the mountains, out of the jungle, and into what we call the Sacred Valley now, arriving in Ollaytantambo. By going backward, he was able to discover the Incan trail most people hike these days to get to Machu Picchu.
There are over 200 structures in the ruins, from homes to temples to astronomical centers to perhaps a palace for the Incan rulers. And lots of farming terraces and drainage ditches. I think we passed by six different tour guides who waxed eloquently about how amazing the Incans were with irrigation.
Look! Almost no tourists! This was one of the very first photos we took as we walked along the path. And look at all those stairs! Sarah Ann’s step counter said we walked about 13 kilometers that day, which included 78 flights of stairs. And I think it only counts stairs when you go up them, not down them.
We had lots of fun roaming around the ruins, imagining what the houses were like and how many people may have lived here at one time. Officially, the city was never lost. The locals knew about it, but they never told the Spanish rulers or passed along information until 1911, with Mr. Bingham, III. But the rest of us still like the romantic idea of a lost city high in the mountains. Currently, many archeologists believe it was built at a summer estate for Pachacuti, one of the Incan emperors. They are also restoring some of the outer buildings, even putting thatched roofs on, to show us how the city would have looked in its heyday. This is a photo from Bingham in 1912, after a lot of rubble was cleared away but before restoration and digging began.
This is the center of the ruins, near some temples. Far up the hill was a cemetery.
I don’t want to bore anyone with too many details of Machu Picchu, so I’ll just leave the link to Wikipedia, which actually has a very nice, fleshed out description of the history and current theories of the site.
We explored the ruins for about two hours, climbing lots of stairs, and felt pretty satisfied. We went by ourselves, without a guide, which I thought was nice because that meant we could do whatever we wanted and take whatever photos we preferred.
When we went to the bottom of the ruins, near the base of Huana Picchu (the mountain peak in every famous photo of the place), we saw alpacas!
While we have met backpackers that stayed in the park for six hours (maybe they got the extra ticket to climb Huana Picchu), we thought two and a half was enough. We took the bus back down to Agua Calientes and got breakfast around 9 am. Our train left at 11, so we would have plenty of time to get back to Cusco for an overnight bus to Ica.
On the train ride back we were treated to a fashion show by the staff. PeruRail is…an interesting company. But the fashion show was hilarious, especially when we realized they were selling alpaca coats for 300 USD. And somehow I got caught in the aisle with a costumed staff member dancing some mischievous, traditional dance to traditional music.
That is my “let me down now, please,” face. Sarah Ann and Jordan thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
And so concluded our trip to Machu Picchu: an extremely expensive tourist spot, but totally worth every penny and every early morning hour.