In 2000, a Swiss foundation launched a campaign to determine the New Seven Wonders of the World. The original list was compiled in 200 AD, but only one of the seven ancient wonders still exists. More than 100 million votes were cast and the final results were announced in 2007. It’s impossible to please everyone, but there weren’t many naysayers about the choice of Machu Picchu as one of the world’s New Seven Wonders. Machu Picchu is one of the few intact pre-Colombian ruins left in the world. This Incan citadel was built in the 1400s on a 2,430m (7,970ft) mountain ridge in the Urubamba Province of Peru, 80km northwest of Cusco. The Incas had no written language so modern archaeologists can only surmise the importance of the houses, terraces and temples left behind. The city was left uninhabited for centuries following the Spanish Conquest, and only rediscovered by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. In this post, I’ll share my Machu Picchu adventure + travel tips. Read my previous post if you’d like to know what this trip costed.
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What’s In This Article?
This post is lengthy so feel free to skip to the parts you’d like to read.
Getting to Machu Picchu alone is an adventure. From Jamaica, I flew to Panama City, Lima then Cusco. I spent a day exploring Cusco + acclimatizing to the altitude. Cusco is 3,500 feet above sea level which means that newcomers often get altitude sickness. I’ll share how I dealt with altitude sickness in a separate post. From Cusco I took the Inca Rail train to Aguas Calientes, a small town and the closest settlement to Machu Picchu. The next day, I took a thirty minute bus ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. Therefore, the whole process of leaving Jamaica and finally arriving in Machu Picchu took four days. Get Your Guide can simplify the process of visiting Machu Picchu.
It’s important to buy your Machu Picchu ticket and train tickets early as they sell out weeks in advance. That’s because strict numbers have been placed on the number of visitors per day to prevent damage to the heritage site. I’d bought my tickets three months in advance online. However, the bus tickets can be purchased upon arrival in Aguas Calientes. Your passport is required to purchase tickets.
Aguas Calientes is a small cozy town located in the Urubamba Valley, 2,040m (6,690ft) above sea level and 6km away from Machu Picchu. The town is also called Machu Picchu Pueblo (Town) since it’s mostly a transit town for tourists en route to the heritage site. Aguas Calientes earns its name from the nearby natural hot springs which are supplied by geothermal energy. The town did not exist until the construction of the railroad. At first, it was the residence of the railroad construction workers then transitioned into a tourist town by 1931 with the opening of the railroad. This rapid influx of tourists led to the creation of hotels, restaurants and shops to serve the tourists– and the rest is history.
Aguas Calientes is connected by one main street, Avenue Pachacutec. All the shops, businesses and hotels are connected to this street via narrow footpaths and bridges. There are no cars. The only vehicles are the buses which take tourists to and from Machu Picchu. Exploring this small town on foot was a delight. I could choose where to have dinner from eyeing the menus and prices displayed outside the restaurants. The colourful markets commanded attention, as did the numerous stone carvings and statues I passed.
Aguas Calientes has several places to visit including a butterfly garden, museum, nature reserve and of course, the hot springs from which the city got its name. I visited the hot springs (known as Baños Termales) but didn’t swim in the public baths because: 1) they were crowded and 2) I didn’t like the colour of the water. The sulphur content gives the water an off-putting brown colour. Instead, I headed for the waterfall. The steep 15-minute walk to it brought me even closer to the mountains and nature. The river was too cold to swim in but I enjoyed watching the waterfall from the riverbank. I wouldn’t say Baños is a must-visit spot but I’m glad I went.
Lastly, let’s talk about my accommodation in Aguas Calientes. I stayed at the 3-star Hotel Raices Machupicchu for US$40 per night (double occupancy). One thing about this town is that everyone builds up to compensate for the small space, so this hotel had a total of EIGHT floors. My room was on the sixth floor which gave me a gorgeous view of the river which courses through the town. My room was clean and comfortable, came with hot water and a cozy alpaca blanket for chilly nights. A simple breakfast of artisan bread, jam, coffee, tea, sausages, cheese and fruit was provided daily. My only problem with the hotel was that the lift wasn’t always working during my stay which sometimes meant climbing 5 flights of stairs– not the most exciting thing to do after hiking to Huayna Picchu.
Exploring Machu Picchu
The bus ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu is often touted as dangerous, but I didn’t feel as if I were in any real danger. The roads are winding and so narrow at points that only one vehicle could pass. Jamaica is 50% mountainous so I’m familiar with these kind of roads; that’s probably why I was unbothered. I only wished the drivers gave warning to other motorists by tooting their horn but I guess not many vehicles are on these mountains anyway. The drive provided breathtaking views of the striking mountains and sweeping river valley. At the entrance, you’ll be joining queues with hundreds of other tourists but the process of verifying our tickets and passports only took 10-15 minutes. Machu Picchu receives 2,500 tourists per day, but it used to receive MANY more until restrictions on the number of daily visitors were established. Consider staying at the luxury mountain lodge by the gate to beat the crowds if you have a large budget.
My boyfriend took a liking to this guide Maria in Aguas Calientes while we were waiting on the bus, and she turned out to be a sweetheart. She’s a Spanish-speaking guide with modest English fluency. She spoke Spanish slowly so we could understand her, interjecting with English when she could or if we failed to comprehend. Maria was very knowledgeable about Machu Picchu and her patience with taking our photos was a huge plus. She took pictures even when we didn’t ask and coached us so we could get those memorable shots. Our high school Spanish competence sufficed with a Spanish-speaking guide, so if you’re looking to save– consider hiring one. English-speaking guides cost much more. Prices are negotiable but start at US$40 up for individuals and small groups.
Machu Picchu was breathtaking. The pictures don’t do it justice. I marveled at how the Incas were able to establish these terraces, temples, homes and even an observatory to know the seasons of the year which would guide the planting and reaping of crops. They did this on steep inaccessible slopes with no wheel in the 1400s. All the stones were chiseled precisely and fitted together perfectly with no mortar. The buildings are still standing as they did 600+ years ago, minus the roofs which were made of organic material and have disintegrated over the centuries. A few roofs have been restored to simulate how Machu Picchu would have looked in yesteryear. This bears testimony to the great skill and ingenuity of the Incan architects and stonemasons. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Click on each picture to view.
Huayna Picchu towers above Machu Picchu at 2,693 metres (8,835 ft) above sea level. Huayna Picchu means Young Mountain, whereas Machu Picchu means Old Mountain. Huayna Picchu is the steepest and most challenging trail in this heritage site. It should only be undertaken by adults with reasonable fitness as hiking at this altitude and on 750 rough uneven stone steps may prove dangerous. The mountain’s peak was believed to be the residence for the high priest and local virgins. Before sunrise, he would walk to Machu Picchu with a small group to signal the coming of the new day. However, the Incas had no written record so the actual use of Huayna Picchu can only be guessed.
This photogenic mountain forms the perfect backdrop for the Machu Picchu sanctuary but it’s even more beautiful from the peak. Huayna Picchu offers a panoramic view of the entire sanctuary, as well as of the Urubamba River and Valley. Only 200 visitors per day are permitted to hike this gorgeous trail.
Machu Picchu Travel Tips
My visit to Machu Picchu went quite smoothly as I’d done lots of research even before buying the ticket. Here are my top 10 pieces of advice for future travelers to Machu Picchu:
- Buy your ticket to Machu Picchu at least 2 months in advance. In fact, buy the ticket before you even purchase your flights or accommodation. Many travelers find themselves in Cusco before realizing that tickets are long gone, and their Peru trip becomes in vain if Machu Picchu was the main destination.
- The best time of year to visit is during the dry season of May to September where daytime temperatures average 12ºC to 24ºC. The summer (December – March) is warmer but coincides with the rainy season.
- Don’t underestimate altitude sickness! Spend a day or two in Cusco to acclimatize to the altitude. Fitness level is not a good predictor who may become most affected by the altitude. Symptoms of altitude sickness include: headache, vomiting, dizziness and shortness of breath. Prevention and treatment include rest, painkillers, staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol and strenuous exercise. Taking prescription drugs such as acetazolamide (Diamox) and drinking coca leaf tea can also help.
- Pack lightly. The trains restrict passengers from Cusco-Ollantaytambo-Aguas Calientes to ONE piece of luggage only. For that reason, I had to leave my carryon in Cusco at Hotel Golden Inca Cusco, which I’m glad they allowed me to do for free! That meant repacking what I’d need for the two days into a single backpack.
- Don’t rush the trip. You’re going to be tired after visiting Machu Picchu, especially if you hike to Huayna Picchu. Therefore, leave the evening after to relax or explore some sights around Aguas Calientes. You’ll be exhausted running to catch the train back to Cusco that same day.
- Don’t bring these forbidden items with you to the park: tripods, selfie sticks, umbrellas, bags which exceed 5kg in weight, food, plastic bottles, illicit drugs, alcohol, paint, music instruments, speakers, weapons, banners, clothing intended for advertising purposes and canes with a metal tip. I heard of bags getting searched but that wasn’t my experience. I even saw people eating which meant they smuggled food in. To be safe, stick to the rules and spare yourself the embarrassment.
- Instead, take these with you: a raincoat or waterproof jacket in case it rains, reusable water bottle, proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test, a digital or printed copy of your ticket and your passport. In fact, PLEASE ensure you have your passport or you won’t be allowed entry.
- Dress appropriately. Machu Picchu is chilly at night but becomes hot as the day progresses. Therefore, light clothing is fine but pack a raincoat or jacket in case it rains or gets cold. Wear sunscreen.
- Hire a guide. The regulations indicate that a guide is mandatory but this is not always practiced. However, a certified tour guide will point out the significance of all the buildings, terraces and temples which makes the visit more fulfilling. You can either reserve your guide online, hire one in Aguas Calientes near the bus station or at the Machu Picchu entrance gate.
- Get your Machu Picchu passport stamp. Peru no longer stamps passports on entry since the pandemic, so this nifty passport stamp available at Machu Picchu or in Aguas Calientes is one way to remember your trip. I got mine stamped at the Centro Cultural Machu Picchu next to Iglesia Virgen del Carmen in the Aguas Calientes town centre.
Last but not least, ensure you pee before you enter the park as there are no bathrooms on the trail. There are restrooms by the entrance.
Machu Picchu left me exhausted but my heart was VERY full. I think I earned my pisco sour and pizza which I had that evening to refuel in Aguas Calientes. Try to see this world wonder at least once in a lifetime. If you’ve already been or would like to go, please sound off in the comments below. Also, consider booking your Machu Picchu visit via Get Your Guide to take some hassle out of the planning.
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‘Til next time.