Travelling to Machu Picchu, Peru
The image of Machu Picchu is familiar; mysterious stone structures almost floating among the misty mountains. A citadel perched high above the deep green river valleys.
Machu Picchu also has a compelling story. Somehow lost and forgotten - inaccessible and buried in the jungle. Then, more recently, rediscovered by an American adventurer, self-promotor and historian Highram Bingham. With this story separating fiction from fact isn't always easy.
To help unravel these blurred lines is the the excellent book The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland by Hugh Thomson. It is an accessible but thorough account. Part travel narrative, part serious investigation into regional Inca history and part stories of the European and North American explorers. It also nicely captures the tension between serious archaeology, slow, cautious and studious, with the swashbuckling adventurers, motivated by ambition, publicity and quick - but often incorrect - conclusions.
In 1911, when Highram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu - with the help of some unsung locals who actually knew about it already - he quickly concluded it was the "lost city of the Incas" where after their defeat by the Spanish conquistadors at Ollantaytambo, they fled down the valley and apparently built a new city atop the now famous ridge. As further investigation proved, this was in fact incorrect. The lost city was the further away (and even more inaccessible) at Vilcabamba.
But Bigham was so convinced of his theory that it took some years for it to be fully debunked. Ever since then there has been a level of confusion and mythology around the site. Who actually lived at Machu Picchu? Why did they build it in such a difficult but also spectacular location? Was it aliens? Who knows, but the place has become a magnet for freaks, mystics, crystal devotees.
One oddly appealing theory Thomson raises as to the "why" is almost too simple. The Inca's built the site because they liked the view. Western theorists, archaeologists and explorers all tend to assume that a culture such as the Inca would not be sophisticated enough to choose a location because of aesthetics. They assume there must be a practical or economic rationale for everything. But why not? Everyone likes a nice vista. It's an interesting idea that is almost too obvious.
Possibly no-one will ever know exactly why the site was built there. However, one thing agreed upon is that the site was of religious and spiritual significance. It may also have been a seasonal city and it is possible the site was abandoned due to diseases introduced by the Spanish, which often traveled faster than people. Archaeological evidence suggests it was first built around 1450 and abandoned a over 100 years later.
Reading Thomson's book is great background for travelling in this region. If you need to get it in Peru, it is available at the good bookshop SBS Libria in Cusco. It is also available from a bookshop in Aguas Calientes but like everything in that town, it will be more expensive. there is also a lot more info and other books at his website here.
THREE VIDEOS OF MACHU PICCHU
One thing that no-one can argue about is that Machu Picchu is spectacular. It's top of the list of most visitors to Peru. Arguably, it is the most iconic image in South America. The three videos below showcase this and also include a few handy hints.
The first video, one of our own Travel Collected videos, shows some of the things a visitor to the sight is in for. These include crowds, a slightly hairy bus ride and if you can get cellphone reception up there.
Samuel and Audrey walk a shortened version of the Inca trail to Aguas Calientes and then head up to Machu Picchu. When they get there it is pretty misty, but clears up later. They have an informative guide along with them, so we get to see the Inca toilet - along with other significant archaeological features. Lots of stop-motion of the crowds. For both of them this is their second visit, and in both videos they interview each other. You will get some useful info.
Gabriel Traveler churns out hundreds of videos of his far reaching cheapo world explorations. The below is part three of a five part series where he climbs up from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. He has his own quite ad-hoc style with a running and detailed stream of consciousness commentary. On the plus though is that Gabriel obviously does his research on places, so it isn't just ramble (mostly), but it can actually be quite informative. That said, some of the time he is simply reading aloud from the Lonely Planet guidebook. But in other videos he has clearly read up.
If you really want the details, from what's good for breakfast to the quality of the coffee, then you need look no further. Part four where he walks around the site here.
MACHU PICCHU PRACTICAL INFORMATION
Which ever way you intend to get to Machu Picchu, you need plan, book and organise a few things in advance. Don't leave it to chance.
Entrance fees to the site are much more than any other Inca ruins and the town of Aguas Calientes is only easily accessible by train, which by Peruvian standards also isn't cheap. Stay a night in Aguas Calientes so you can get up early to visit Machu Picchu at dawn.
If saving money is a big priority, you are very fit and have plenty of time, then the least expensive way is walk along the rail track either from Ollantaytambo (28km) in the east, or Santa Teresa (15km) in the west. Take good care not to get hit by a train - don't crank your headphones on this walk.
Once in Aguas Calientas sleep in a flea pit hostel, which probably doesn't matter because you will be so tired from walking and getting up at the crack of dawn anyway. Gabriel Traveller - in his video above - says his hostel was $US10, which seems very cheap. Then before dawn the next day spend a couple of vigorous hours climbing the steep hill to Machu Picchu.
Whether you have much energy left to actually explore the ruins depends on how much endurance training you have been doing in the lead up. A better and fuller step by step description is "How to get to Machu Picchu for $1" written by Along Dusty Roads.
Most people, however, pay for the overpriced (though admittedly spectacular) train, sleep in an average but expensive hotel, eat some in a mediocre restaurant and take the bus up to the ruins. But at least they don't arrive totally exhausted.
One thing everyone does have to do though is buy an entrance ticket - and this should be done well in advance of your visit. Tickets are restricted to 2500 visitors per day and they can sell out. Don't leave it to the last minute and you can't buy them at the gate. Tickets are available from the official government website, which looks and operates like it it was built sometime back in the previous millennium. Without following a step by step guide written by another third party site you will find it near impossible to buy tickets. This outline by Thrifty Nomads is good.
One thing to remember is you must print out your tickets, and you can only do this immediately after you have bought them. Only make the purchase when you have a printer handy.
Machu Picchu tickets are $US47 for general admission, $US62 for general admission + Montana (nice view) and the same price for Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu & Temple of the Sun. Huayna Picchu is the central peak that is visible in most photos of Machu Picchu, it has a great view. Apparently the latter tickets must be purchased well in advance and is quite a climb. Aside from the official Government website, you can also get tickets in Cusco, Aguas Calientes and there are also various third party travel agencies that sell them.
Take your passport when you go to the site to check this against your ticket.
For the train, you need to buy tickets well in advance - you can either book Peru Rail or you Inca Rail. Although it can be a bit tricky to choose in advance, the left side is best of the way to Aguas Calientes and the right is better on return. There are various types of carriages with different windows and therefore views.
In Aguas Calientes there are hundreds of hotels, hostels, cafe's and restaurants. This place is built for tourists, so has something of a shanty town vibe. High prices, low standards. No-one is likely to come back anytime soon, so no need to provide good service for return business.
Busses start going up to the Machu Picchu from 5.30am for when the gates open at 6am. However, there are lines from very early, often in their hundreds. Both our own Travel Collected video and the Samuel and Audrey videos show this. You should also buy your tickets from the little bus ticket stand by the river the night before to avoid lining up twice (for the ticket then the bus).
ONCE YOU GET TO MACHU PICCHU
The first thing to realise is that visiting Machu Picchu isn't too dissimilar to going to a music festival. There are crowds. And while the crowds are likely to be more sober than those at a music festival, there will be equal chaos. The crowds are entirely focussed on their cameras, phones and thrashing around with selfie sticks. But, unlike most music festivals, Machu Picchu features rocks, cliffs and other hazards. Be careful. Look out for large tour groups blocking thoroughfares, led by frothing and flag waving guides. Another danger are pensioners kitted out with ski poles and telephoto lenses. Keep your wits about you and don't get taken out.
Also, like a music festival, take water and snacks to keep you going. Some guidebooks say you can't bring them onto the site, but no-one seemed to be checking. Realistically it is a large site, it can get really hot and you will get hungry. If you don't have water with you, you can buy it at the gate. Take all rubbish off the site.
The other similarity to a music festival is bathrooms. The only place you will find these is near the entrance, which can be a long walk back from the site. It is no problem to leave the site to use the bathroom and return, but it is a long and potentially steep climb. Plan ahead.
Finally, like a music festival it might pour with rain, or it might be scorchingly hot. There is also very little shelter. Be prepared.
While it is beyond the scope of this page to give a detailed description of the site, make sure you have time to take in the views from high above the site, and also get down among the various structures. Two of the most impressive sites are Intihuatana - 'Hitching Post to the Sun' and the Temple of the Three Windows - pictured below.
It can be worth hiring a guide when you get there, or if not take a good guidebook so you know what you are looking at.