One of my favorite memories from this year was being able to explore Machu Picchu. FINALLY !!! I can now cross Machu Picchu off my bucket list. It was every bit as magical as I thought it would be. Even though I didn’t do the 3-day hike in experience to get there, I did get there. Once you get through the security checkpoint at the base of the entrance, using your passport (which is mandatory), there is still a bit of a physically challenging hike to Machu Picchu’s citadel entrance. The views along the way up are just a tease to the mesmerizing ones from the top.
Machu Picchu is located on a small plateau between two lushly forested peaks high in the Andes which became the building site for the Inca Empire’s greatest city. This citadel in the clouds was abandoned after only 100 years. Thankfully, for us, Spanish invaders never found Machu Picchu. Instead, it was left to nature until explorer Hiram Bingham was told about its existence on an expedition in 1911 and decided to investigate.
This hidden city, protected by the mountains, and still wonderfully inaccessible other than by foot or train, is now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The buildings, temples, palaces and houses, are remarkably preserved. The protective wall of mountains that surround you fade in and out of view as the mist falls and lifts. You get the distinct feeling of being high up in the world and part of a very well-kept secret.
When you read advice about spending a couple of days acclimating to the high altitude, you definitely should. It will help your visit to Machu Picchu become a lot easier. My family spent three days in Cuzco before attempting to venture to the hidden citadel. Altitude sickness is no joke. Greatfully, none of us experienced it. The worst we suffered from were a few headaches.
If you would like to be closer, you could stay in Machu Picchu or Aguas Calientes. Staying in either place will afford you the opportunity to experience the ruins early the next morning.
The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge is the only hotel located close to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Staying at the lodge gives you the ability to avoid the travel time at the start and end of the day. Yet, this convenience comes at a considerable price.
Aguas Calientes has a good range of hotels. The buses start to roll out of town up to Machu Picchu early enough for you to arrive just after the gates open, and well ahead of visitors coming by train (which is what we did).
The most common route to Machu Picchu is to fly into Peru’s capital city, Lima, before transferring to a local carrier on a hour long flight to Cuzco. This is what we did.
Cuzco became our home base during the majority of our stay in Peru.
Our day trip to Machu Picchu was organized and taken care of by American Express Travel Services. They arranged all the transportation (car, bus and train) to the site, purchased the tickets, and hired a guide to meet us at the entrance.
A private car picked us up from our hotel in Cuzco around 5am and drove us to the train station in Ollantayambo in the Sacred Valley. Once there, we boarded the Vistadome train. We chose this one because of the price and the panoramic windows. There are other options available, from regular carriages with comfortable seating, to the luxury Hiram Bingham train with fine dining and entertainment. The Vistadome train, in addition to the spectacular views from the panoramic windows, provided a lunch, snacks, beverages, and a fashion show.
The train ride ends in the small town of Aguas Calientes. It is located in the valley below Machu Picchu and serves as the disembarking point. After getting off the train, you head to your designated shuttle or bus departure point. This is the bus that takes you up the winding road cut into the mountainside to the entry gates of Machu Picchu.
In order to visit Machu Picchu, you need a ticket, passport, and guide. Entrance tickets are split into 2 times: Morning 6am – 12pm and Evening 12pm – 5:30pm. Our tickets were for the evening entrance time. Only a certain number of tickets are available for sale each day. Therefore, purchasing them ahead of time is a good idea.
Visitors must leave the site within the time frame stated, and cannot re-enter once they have left the site. Visitors and guides who don’t enter and leave within the time frame stated, will be assisted to the exit by the authorities. They are located everywhere throughout the site. No corner is left unguarded. You have been warned!
All visitors entering Machu Picchu must be accompanied by a guide. Guides must be official Machu Picchu guides or licensed tourists guides. They must present up-to-date and valid guide identification on entering Machu Picchu. Guides are only permitted to take maximum group sizes of 16 people. Guides need to sign in and out all visitors in his/her group.
The guides are also responsible for informing you of the site regulations. Therefore, it is important to pick your guide carefully and from a reliable tour operator. The average tour time is 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Something else to keep in mind is that the only toilets at Machu Picchu are located on the outside of the park. So, be sure to use them before entering. Again, you have been warned!
After completing our trek through the UNESCO Heritage Site, we stamped our passports with a novelty Machu Pichu image. The desk is located right outside the exit of the citadel. Everyone is welcome to do so.
Afterwards, we waited in the long bus line to catch the next available one back down to Aguas Calientes. The buses ran every 30 minutes until closing. Be sure to allot enough time to catch the bus and departing train back to your hotel. If not, a hotel hunting you shall go.
We finished our Machu Picchu visit by 3:30pm and were able to catch the 4pm bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We were all tired and hungry, so we searched for someplace to eat once arriving back into the small town. Our train wasn’t scheduled to depart until 7pm, so we had plenty of time. Aguas Calientes has a plentiful selection of restaurants to suit your tastes and wallet.
After a tasty dinner, it was time to head back to the train station. It was dark by this point. We boarded our train, enjoyed some light snacks, beverages, and a Peruvian fashion show. Of course, all the items showcased were for sale.
Once we arrived back to the train station in Ollantayambo, the driver who dropped us off, was there to pick us up. He then proceeded to drive us back to our hotel in Cuzco. We arrived around 1am, tired, but safe. WHAT A DAY !!!