Machu Picchu Primer

IMost people who want to go to Machu Picchu are often misinformed that the trains go there directly. Machu Picchu is on a mountain range overlooking the town of Aguas Calientes. There are no train or bus from Cuzco, or outside town for that matter, that goes directly there. All the buses and trains that purport to be going to Machu Picchu actually stops in Aguas Calientes, even the hotels that are listed as being in Machu Picchu are in Aguas Calientes. There are two train lines running the Ollantaytambo-Machu Picchu route, but only one is available to foreigners, the tourist geared . Backpacker chatter says they kick off foreigners who attempt riding the cheaper, non-touristy train meant for locals.

Llamas roam freely in the grounds, they are mostly friendly and will let you pet them. Be warned though, they tend to spit, and I saw a girl catch spit in her open mouth.

Most people come to Machu Picchu on the first train from Poroy (Cuzco), spend the morning there, and head back on one of the afternoon trains. Honestly, unless you are super pressed for time, doing this would be a disservice to yourself. Machu Picchu needs more than a couple of hours to be seen and appreciated, for the amazing feat of engineering that it is. It is also physically taxing to explore the sight. Everywhere you go, you either need to go up a steep flight of stone stairs, or go down it. Neither of which is very fun to do when you’re in a hurry. Add to that the fact that MOST tourists follow the same path and schedule, you will hardly have a moment of peace or solitude to fully enjoy it.

Huayna Picchu’s summit gets really crowded beginning 8AM. Be extra careful when you’re at the top, some tourists get overzealous trying to get the “perfect” shot of them on the top with the whole Machu Picchu complex in the background.
The intrepid Vistadome at the Ollantaytambo station.

The option I would recommend is to take the Vistadome  603 train the day before from the town of Ollantaytambo, leaving at 15:37H, stay in Aguas Calientes overnight, and take the first bus up to the site. Note, the trains coming from Poroy (Cuzco) run only in the morning, with the last train leaving at 09:05 in the morning. The Ollanta-Machu Picchu route has more options available, and the town has a beautiful ruined citadel that make it worth exploring for a day. Click here for details on getting there from Cuzco.

The tight and steep stairs of Huaynu Picchu..
The tight and steep stairs of Huaynu Picchu..

Another reason to go to Aguas Calientes the night before, instead of the day of your trip to Machu Picchu, is climbing Huayna Picchu is best done during the first shift. Huayna Picchu is the scraggly mountain you see behind every tourists’ picture of their visit to Machu Picchu. It is an additional and separate ticket from the complex, and you need to select whether you want to ascend at 07:00H or 10:00H. Your ticket will state that you have two hours allotted to you in the mountain, though I have not seen this enforced. There are pros and cons to both times, but the 07:00H ascent wins for me for two main reasons. First, it’s early in the day and you still have loads of energy and breakfast was only a couple of hours ago. Trust me, you’ll need it! It is also still cool out, and more comfortable to climb. Second reason is that it’s less crowded at that time. Not to say that there are no crowds, but everyone there will be going the same direction as you, up. On the second shift, the people from the earlier ascent are now coming down, so you now have to traverse the super steep and often slippery stairs with people heading the opposite direction of you. The trail is narrow, and there are portions of the climb where only one person can go at a time, and the rest have to wait either behind or after the person climbing, although in really tight spots I’ve seen people cling to the side of the mountain using the vines and roots to steady them and keep them from falling down. There is only one way up and down the mountain, so make sure you are fit enough to finish the climb. The summit reaches 2,720 masl, and the hike lasts from 30 minutes to two hours depending on your fitness level. Know that this hike is only about 10% on the ground, the rest of the time you are climbing up the side of the mountain

The majestic Huayna Picchu, or Old Man Mountain. I know him best as the frenemy who tried to kill me.

The second most popular option is to go on the famous 4-day Inka Trail Hike. The hike is 40km (25 miles), and ascends to as high as 3800 masl (meters above sea level). The hike starts at KM 82, and ends on the 4th morning at Intipinktu, or the Sun Gate. This option while very physically demanding and not for everyone, rewards those who finish it with the amazing sight of Machu Picchu slowly being revealed as the sun slowly rises over the horizon. The fourth day of the hike is the day spent exploring the complex. Details on the hike including how to choose a tour company, what to pack, as well as helpful tips are listed. Click here for details.

If you do decide to stay the night before, do make sure to do two things. First, get your ticket for the bus to Machu Picchu the next day. The bus ticket seller is open until 9pm. It does open at 5am if you want to get it the day of, but you will already find a huge queue of people with tickets waiting for the bus as early as 4am. Second thing to remember is there are no food sellers or restaurants inside the Citadel. The closest restaurant is the Sanctuary Lodge, which is pricey and mediocre at best. Your best bet is to have your hotel or hostel pack you a box lunch and snacks. Almost all hotels in Aguas Calientes offer this as well as breakfast starting at 3am. A final note, disposable plastic bottles are not allowed inside the complex. Make sure your water is in a refillable bottle like Nalgene or Camelbak. They do check bags at the entrance!

Have fun and happy exploring!

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