Excited to check off our first (new) seven wonders of the world, we arrived in Cusco, a lively city about 80km away from Machu Picchu. We spent a few nights there getting trains booked, park passes bought and plans in order. Due to the global appeal of Machu Picchu, most people do these things months in advance because certain climbs and treks sell out, but our schedule and timing was so random that we had to sort it all out last minute. Luckily we were able to book seats on the trains we wanted, day passes for the park, and the Mount Machu Picchu climb on our ideal date. Overall cost is surprisingly high for South America because they really have you by the balls and know you will pay whatever they charge for the park passes ($80 per person) and about $130 per person for the train there and back. This might not seem like a lot but when your lodging in Cusco costs only $40 a night and that included breakfast you realize they are really taking it to you.
Cusco itself is a cool city even without the allure of nearby Machu Picchu. Positives: ruins to check out right around the city, a great market, solid restaurants (Jack’s Cafe is the best bang for your buck) and decent night life. Negatives: Cusco is filled with taxis always looking for fares so they proceed to honk at you every time they drive by just in case you didn’t notice they were there. This happens with EVERY taxi and there are thousands. So your whole walk to anywhere feels like you are getting cat called by a used car dealership. The market was a fun experience but for us we really struggled buying a lot of the food as the prep stations exceeded our sanitary limits. Stalls with piles of unrefrigerated meat and fish were being sold right next to the fresh produce then food booth owners were touching all the raw meet and dishing you up so you knew every dish came with a nice side of bacteria. While we like to push the boundaries with food and have gone pretty far, we weren’t about to risk Machu Picchu on some “chicken dish” prepared by Salmonella Sally.
Our Machu Picchu adventure began with a two hour collectivo ride. This is a shared van with tourists/locals to make the cost more efficient (think mini-bus). It cost about $3 each and saved us an extra $20 per person train ride along the same route. Once we arrived at the train depot in Ollantaytambo, we caught a train up to the small mountain city of Agua Calientes (creatively named after the hot thermal pools there, i.e. aqua calientes = hot water in Spanish). The train ride itself was beautiful. We splurged the extra $7 to get the train which was 70-80% windows. It allowed you to get a great view of everything from the white water river to the highest snow-capped mountain peaks. They served small snacks and drinks on the ride but the real reason you pay for it is for the beautiful scenery. Part of me was quite jealous of the people who do the 3-4 day hike to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo but at that elevation I know they were probably wishing they were on our train more than I was wishing to be on that trail.
Once we arrived in Aqua Calientes we made our way to our hostel a few minutes away. The whole city is quite small and nestled into the mountainside within a large river valley. Steep mountains rose to the sky on all sides of us giving the feeling we were in the middle of a bowl. While we were only there for the one night we really enjoyed walking around and seeing the small shops and having a bite to eat of the local fare. The only real downside of the city is the restaurant workers practically assault you trying to get you to go to their restaurant instead of the other 100 places. They come out to the street and start rattling off items as fast as possible which is quite comical as almost all places serve the exact same thing and none of it really is that special. Like other cities in South America, we always end up choosing the one place that isn’t begging us to come in because we figure they must have food that stands up for itself. I’d give the strategy’s results a B+ so far.
The next morning, we woke up and had breakfast at 4am so that we could be in line for the first buses to Machu Picchu before 5am. The plan worked well as we were one of the first 200 in the park out of more than 2000 that day. The real benefit of this is you can get in, walk around and take pictures of the ruins before they look and feel like Disneyland. It’s sad to say but during the day there are so many tourists (many older travelers) that really clog things up and ruin great photo opps. All you want is those majestic looking pictures you have seen all your life but they are covered in bright colored fanny packs, tacky Peru tourist shirts, selfie sticks and for some reason always that one girl getting pictures of herself doing all 24 of her Bikram yoga poses. In addition, when trying to walk through the ruins many older tourists are moving at a geriatric pace due to both the altitude as well as their misjudgment of the difficulty of the steepness of the stairs. All of this points back to why we got there early!
Once in the park we took about an hour to get great shots then went over to the base of Mount Machu Picchu to start our assent at 7am. We are glad we chose this start time as it takes about an hour and a half to climb it and the later 9am start time puts you more in the heat of the morning. The climb itself is a grind as you climb uneven stone steps over 2,000 feet in elevation in just over a mile. This means the average angle you are going up is about 30-35 degrees for the first hour then it gets steeper towards the end. To put this in perspective, the average fire escape stairs in an office building are the same degree so this climb was similar to climbing an office building’s stairwell for an hour and a half. Katie and I must have glossed over this as there are plenty of things saying it is a moderate to challenging climb yet we rolled into it like we were taking a beach stroll (cue me wearing a 20lb backpack). Fast forward to the end of the climb and both of use talking mad shit about the Incas and how they must have been gluttons for punishment but at least they had great butts.
Once we hit the top we realized it was all worth it. The views were surreal as it gave you a panoramic view of all the surrounding mountain peaks plus a birds-eye view of the ruins. We spent about an hour up top getting tons of pictures as well as having a snack. Side note—inside the park itself there are food options, no toilets and no trash cans and it says you cannot bring in food, but everyone at the top (including us) brought food. To me it is a bit unrealistic having people do 3-4 hours of intense hiking and telling them not to replenish the calories. And no toilets…don’t get me started. Nobody should have to worry about having an “I pooped my pants at Machu Picchu” story. I was about two minutes away from checking that off my (honey)bucket list. I know TMI but we are in South America. It’s all TMI.
Once we hiked back down we spent the rest of the afternoon touring the ruins and having lunch. By around 2pm it was pretty toasty and we were ready to call it a day, so we finished off by hiking back down to our hostel. In the morning we had opted for the $12 bus (each) to get us to the gates since it was pitch black and all uphill, but we figured paying that much to go down a hill seemed a bit much considering that $24 of savings paid for our lodging that night. This meant we added a 1.5 hour downhill hike to the end of our day, all in all giving us about 5-6 miles of hiking stairs at 6,000-10,000 feet of elevation. We were dead. Luckily the only thing left for us was a quick jump in the river at the bottom, a change of clothes, and catching our train out so we could retrace our route back to Cusco. Was it all worth it you ask? 100% yes. Make sure this is on your bucket list.
Next up…the AMAZON!