When I told people I was planning a trip to Peru, the next question was inevitably, “Are you going to Machu Picchu?” Or for some: “There’s that famous mountain with all the ruins on it in Peru, right?”
Well OF COURSE I’m going to Machu Picchu! It’s only one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, one of Peru’s (and arguably one of South America’s/the world’s) most well known ancient sites, it’s surrounded by beautiful rain forests and mountains, and it’s covered in ancient ruins! Plus, people still don’t quite know what Machu Picchu was for, which is awesome! I love finding little pockets of mystery that still exist in this hyperconnected world, it keeps your imagination going.
Travelling from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, there’s a few starting points. You can hike from anywhere on the Inca Trail, and if we weren’t in such a rush for the whole trip, I would have absolutely hiked. (Don’t worry, I’ll be back.) Otherwise, you take the train. There’s no roads that lead to Aquas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. Reminder: you might also see the town called Hydroelectrica or Machu Picchu Pueblo, depending on the date of what you’re reading.
You can take the train from Cusco, Ollantaytambo, or Urabamba. You also have your choice of train operators: PeruRail or IncaRail. We scheduled a roundtrip on PeruRail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The train from Cusco is much more expensive, and has a very limited timetable, so we decided to chance a combi between Ollantaytambo and Cusco.
Combis are usually large vans/small buses that run between cities. We simply walked down a street in Cusco, found one going to Ollantaytambo for a good price, and hooped on! An hour or so later we were in Ollanta, waiting for our train. If you’re not afraid of a random van, take the combi, it’s a great experience, cheap, and easy (kind of)!
The next morning, we hiked up the mountain with our new crew. We got up early, and hit the bridge just as they were allowing people to start the hike up to the site. If you have the stamina, please, please hike up the mountain! I don’t want to fool you…the hike is tough. You have to be in decent shape or take it kind of slow. The bugs are killer, and the stone steps on the way up can be slippery.
BUT! The views are breathtaking. The sun rises over the mountains and cloud forests. The birds are calling. You continue to climb. You reach up for an old stone hand hold, and just as you’re about to run out of breath, you’re greeted by another small clearing and another magnificent panorama of the jungle around you.
We spent a solid 8 hours hiking around Machu Picchu. Check out some of the pictures!
Of those 8 hours, a full 3 were dedicated to Huayna Picchu and the Temple of the Moon. If you want to hike Huayna Picchu, make sure you get your ticket early. There are a limited number of tickets for the mountain, and timed entries occur between 7-8AM, and 10-11AM. If you have a 7-8AM ticket, you can enter any time between 7 & 8, but a crowd is usually waiting by 6:30. As long as you have the right ticket, you’re all set. You can’t enter the 10-11AM wave if you have a 7-8AM ticket, and vice-versa.
The hike up to Huayna Picchu isn’t a walk in the park, but the view is awesome. You know all those amazing pictures you see of Machu Picchu?
You know, the ones that made you want to plan a trip?
Like this one?
Yeah, those are taken from the summit of Huayna Picchu.
There are a few overhangs on the way up, and the very top is covered in rocks that you can scramble up to. I really felt like I was on top of the world when I was there. The hike probably took us a little under an hour, and is dotted with narrow steps and steel cables to hold on to. Please be prepared for this. Wear good hiking boots or rugged sneakers, and wear layers. You’ll be happy when you take things on and off when alternating between climbing, sweating, standing in the wind, and taking in the views.
Temple of the Moon
The Temple of the Moon is located around on the north face of Huayna Picchu. If you’re looking at Huayna Picchu from Machu Picchu, the Temple of the Moon is on the other side.
A word of caution: If you’re afraid of heights, have bad balance, or are unsure with your footing, please be careful on this hike. I really don’t recommend it if your hike falls into any of those categories, it is by no means an easy one. At some points, it could get down right dangerous, especially with rain, bad shoes, or anything like that.
From the summit of Huayna Picchu, walk north (away from Machu Picchu) and you’ll see the sign. You can actually see the rough location and some of the path here on Google Maps.
The hike is tricky and takes some time, but is absolutely worth it in my opinion. The name is a bit of a misnomer, researchers still aren’t sure what the spot was used for. The Temple of the Moon is essentially a large cave. There are altars of some sort carved into the walls of the cave, giving it a very interesting feel. Some of the current theories include some kind of offering space or that the cave had something to do with the burial process.
I’m not going to lie, we really didn’t have much time in Aguas Calientes. We arrived in Aguas Calientes We spent pretty much the entire day at Machu Picchu (time well spent, I’ll add). We arrived late the night before, got off the train and wandered on over to Supertramp Hostel, where we were staying. We checked in to our room, and met an awesome group of foreign exchange students from France that were staying in the same room as us. We also went out and found some late night food, and then turned in, eager to hit the mountain the next day.
After Machu Picchu, we went back to the hostel, showered, and laid low for a bit. We took advantage of Supertramp’s lounge space after we checked out of the hostel. If you’re looking for a hostel in Aguas Calientes, I highly recommend Supertramp. Breakfast is early and has eggs, which are hard to come by with hostels.
After the power nap, we went down to the train station early and checked out the market. If you’re planning on going to the market at Pisac, I wouldn’t spend a ton of time here, but it’s interesting to walk through. The market is huge, with plenty of vendors, and the competition keeps prices low. If you see something you like, go for it!
Tips & Tricks for Machu Picchu
- Don’t spend a ton of time in Aguas Calientes. Do explore, but there’s too many great sites elsewhere in Peru, for you to waste your time on the tourist trap. I figure a day for Machu Picchu, a day for the town.
- Do check out the market by the train station for souvenirs though! Great prices since there’s tons of competition.
- If you’re coming from Cusco, take the combi to Ollantaytambo. You save a ton of money, and it’s a much better story!
- Pack snacks for Machu Picchu! All the signs say no food, but you’re only allowed to go back in (if you leave fore food/bathroom) twice. Just be discreet, and DO NOT LITTER.
- If you want to go to Machu Picchu, go soon! We overheard a guide saying that the government is considering installing cable cars to preserve the site. In other words, you may not be allowed to physically walk the site in the future.
- Don’t be discouraged by all the hiking! Use your trip to Machu Picchu as an excuse to get in better shape, and take it slow if you have to. There’s plenty to take in, you don’t need to rush while you’re there. Trust me, all the hikes are worth it.
- Don’t forget your passport stamp! It’s self-serve (which theoretically invalidates your passport..) If I had known, I would’ve brought a blank piece of paper, and stamped it a few times, it would be a neat memento for family/friends.
- If you don’t want to hire a guide, I highly recommend The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour, by Ruth M. Wright & Dr. Alfredo Valencia Zegarra. The book has tons of information, pictures, and an extremely useful map.