Machu Picchu – The Pearl of Peru

Machu Picchu.

Finally, we made it to our last stop in an amazing trip through the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Machu Picchu, considered one of the 7 New World Wonders, is the greatest jewel of the Inca culture in Peru. We had always dreamed about visiting that beautiful place. In the end we managed to fulfill our dreams, exactly three months after we started our adventure.

So how do we get there?

After charming Cusco, beautiful ruins of cities, fortresses and holy places, our last stop on the way to the Pearl of the Inca Empire was Ollantaytambo. It is often regarded to as the last town on the route to Machu Picchu, which sometimes mistakenly called the Lost City. Although Machu Picchu is hidden high in the mountains and still holds a lot of secrets, the true Lost City from the tales is located approx. 70km away in Vilcabamba (which was explored, among others, by Polish travelers Tony Halik and Elżbieta Dzikowska). To get from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, a small town situated at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain, you can take a train ride, fly a helicopter or walk… or take the bus 😉

In our case, helicopter flight wasn’t an option – we couldn’t afford such a pleasure, because we still had many other places to visit. Similarly, only for a brief moment we though about “on foot” option, that is the famous Inca Trail. The fact is that four days of hiking and watching breathtaking views certainly makes a big impression, but you cannot take the route on your own – you have to go on an organized tour with a guide. There’s a lot of licensed organizers of Inka Trail trekking, but even the cheapest package goes around 600 USD (or more) for 1 person for 4 days and 3 nights (sleeping in a tent at an altitude of 3000-3500 metres above sea level).

Inca Trail map.
Inca Trail map.

We were leaning towards train option – it looked as quick and convenient 😉 However, when we went to the station and saw that the one-way tourist ticket costs 56 USD per person, we turned around and went to the town to look for the bus. Because even though there’s no official information on the buses, sooner or later every enthusiast of low-cost traveling hears about it. And you don’t need at all to look hard for them. Private buses run every day on the route from Cusco and Ollanytaytambo to hydroelectric plant and back. Although from the hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes you still have to walk 10 km, however, when the tickets cost 4 times less than the train (we paid less than 50 USD for two people, both ways), then you might consider this option of transport.

On the road…

Our bus (with another 15 tourists) departed from Ollantaytambo at 9:00 am. We arrived to the agreed spot last, so we had the luck (though one could say that it was more misfortune) to sit next to the driver. We didn’t know then, however, that the route will be one of the most interesting and the most dangerous , which we had travelled to date. 150 km of road going on the slopes of mountains, climbing steeply to the Abra de Malaga, where, after reaching the level of slightly more than 4,000 m, it started to slide down into the valley winding again. Dangerous turns – quite a lot of them actually – and the proximity to the edge of the cliff caused our hearts to tremble each time our driver was overtaking a trucks or a group of cyclists. The rosary and the picture of a saint hanging on the rearview mirror – swinging right in front of our eyes – weren’t reassuring at all.

Crossing river on the road to hydroelectrica.
Crossing river on the road to hydroelectrica.

At the same time this 150 km were one of the most beautiful routes, which we had the opportunity to travel. Amazing and spectacular views of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, each accompanied by sharp turns while climbing up to the Abra de Malaga. Summit wrapped in a dense fog, in which little could be seen, however, on the eastern side of the peak, when the road descended down, a magical, idyllic landscape emerged from the mist – green or newly plowed fields, among which only here and there one could see tiny farms. Only the last section of the route, from Santa Teresa to the hydroelectric plant, led by unpaved road along the cliff, partly carved in the rocks, stressed us a bit again – even despite the lovely views of the canyon and the Urubamba River.

Just before 'the walk on tracks' from hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes.
Just before ‘the walk on tracks’ from hydroelectric plant to Aguas Calientes.

In the end, we safely arrived to the hydroelectric power plant, and from there to our goal of Aguas Calientes, it was only 10 km of walking. We put on our backpacks and hit the road. Madness? Maybe… but we weren’t alone in this madness. Almost everyone who decides to travel by bus, goes on foot from hydroelectric to Aguas Calientes. And why pay 26 USD for a train that runs along the route, when you can relax during the 2 hour walk in a beautiful natural setting? In addition, the tracks go around the mountain on which Machu Picchu is located, so you can see some of the buildings before you even get to the site itself. there’s no secret – walking 10 km with a heavy backpack can be exhausting, but we don’t regret doing it instead of taking the train or hiking Inca Trail.

…to the top

Almost everyone, who plans to visit Pearl Peru, wants to see the sunrise at Machu Picchu. We weren’t original – we also wanted to see it. In our case, it ended with wishes only. After a long and stressful bus ride from Ollantaytambo to hydroelectric plant and quite tiring walk from there to Aguas Calientes, our common sense won. We didn’t wake up at 4:00 am, to go along with the crowds and make it to the top. We didn’t stay in lines to buy a ticket to the bus to the top or in line at the entrance gates before they opened. At the summit we didn’t run in stress, pushing through other tourists just to find, like a thousand others, the best shot at the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Dawid standing next to information board before the walk up to Machu Picchu.
Just before the walk up to Machu Picchu.

We set off for the way up when the majority of tourists just ended visiting or was already returning to Aguas Calientes. The path to the top was almost empty – only occasionally we met other tourists. But we cannot say it was one of the easiest we walked. The path was elevating 400 meters, almost 2km long and made of high stone steps.

Dawid on the steps leading to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes.
Climbing up to Machu Picchu.

Somewhere in the middle of the road to the summit, Dawid said that it’s the most exhausting hikes he ever had (two weeks later other trail claimed this inglorious title, but more on that in future posts). Tired and panting, we arrived to the gate just before noon. After a brief moment of rest and catching our breaths, we approached the entrance gates to finally see Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Beautiful, magical, awe-inspiring, breathtaking… And many, many, many other adjectives come to mind when you see the ruins of Machu Picchu for the first time. Among them, somehow instinctively, there’s always one slightly negative – “full of tourists.” If it was so crowded at noon, we don’t even want to know what’s going on in Machu Picchu at sunrise. Fortunately, we didn’t have to hurry that day – we stayed until closing time. And it was the best idea to explore the ruins, because the initial crowds gradually began to disappear, to be gone almost completely at about 3 PM. After 4 PM we saw only single tourists, guards and llamas.

Patrycja and Dawid with Machu Picchu in the background.
Us in Machu Picchu.

Pearl Peru and beautiful cultural heritage of the Incas – that’s how definitely Machu Picchu should be called. The city was built around 1450 on the pass between two peaks of Wayna Picchu and Montaña Machu Picchu. It’s surrounded on three sides by the valley of the rushing Urubamba River, which is why from almost every place in this ancient town you can admire the amazing view of the valley and the surrounding mountain peaks, which are often covered in mist.

Machu Picchu ruins.
Machu Picchu ruins.

The city was built in the classical Inca style. Mountain slopes and peaks are covered with dense, wide agricultural terraces, irrigated with extensive system of canals. They were probably providing about four times more than it was required by inhabitants of Machu Picchu. High vertical stone walls, separating each level of the terraces, were also designed to slow down potential invaders.

The Temple of The Sun at Machu Picchu.
The Temple of The Sun at Machu Picchu.

All buildings were built from precisely cut stones, without use of mortar. Temples and palaces of the aristocracy were made of smooth stone blocks and industrial buildings and houses were built of fieldstones and were covered with thatched roofs. The most important of all buildings in Machu Picchu were the Temple of the Sun (the most important deity of the Incas), the Temple of the Three Windows and the Intihuatana, ritual stone, which probably served as the astronomical clock or the Inca calendar.

Ceremonial Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu.
Ceremonial Intihuatana stone.

Today, most of the buildings in Machu Picchu is a faithful reconstruction of old buildings, which gives visitors the best view of how it could look like in its heyday.

The Temple of Three Windows at Machu Picchu.
The Temple of Three Windows.

This extensive complex of palaces and squares, temples and houses was inhabited by priests, representatives of the Inca nobility, soldiers and caregivers of the local temples. Machu Picchu could be an astronomical observatory, a place for performing ceremonies, defensive citadel or town that Inca elite inhabitet – or everything above. Such excellent location makes each theoretical purpose of the city very likely. It is also likely that the town was at the same time performing all of these functions. Unfortunately, the Incas didn’t use written language, so there’s no ancient records of the true purpose of this place or why it was completely abandoned only 100 years after the construction.

Postcard picture - lama in Machu Picchu.
Postcard picture – lama in Machu Picchu.

So full of mysteries, picturesque Machu Picchu still stimulates the imagination – despite difficulties in getting here and the tourist crowds, this place amazed us and will be remembered as one of the best days of our trip.

 

Practical tips:

  • Are you planning to see the Inca Machu Picchu? Do you want to get to Wayna Picchu or the top of Montaña Machu Picchu? Remember that there’s a limit of tickets available for each day. While in the low season there’s no problem to reserve or buy tickets the day before, in the high season tickets may be sold out 2-4 weeks ahead, especially when it comes to tickets to Wayna Picchu.
  • Tickets to Machu Picchu can be bought on the internet, e.g. using Ticket Machu Picchu webiste. Tourist ticket for only Machu Picchu costs 68 USD. Price is higher if you also wish to go up Montana Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu or visit the museum.
  • It’s also possible to buy tickets for Machu Picchu at much lower price – for 128 PEN (38 USD). That’s the official ticket price set by the Ministry of Culture of Peru. Where to buy tickets at this price? In one of the many offices of the Ministry of Culture of Peru (there’s one in Aguas Calientes and in Cusco) or by booking online at www.machupicchu.gob.pe and picking up the tickets at chosen Ministry office. On the website you’ll find the prices and availability of the remaining tickets (Wayna Picchu, Montaña Machu Picchu and Museum).
  • A list of the Ministry of Culture offices with addresses, contact details and opening hours can be found at Ministry of Culture website.
  • Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Pueblo, i.e. Machu Picchu Town) can be easily reached by train. From Cusco and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes there are several carriers, including Inca Rail or Peru Rail. Tickets can be purchased in a variety of classes, from the cheapest, called the economic or “backpackers” to the presidency class, one way or bundled with a return ticket. Train timetables and other information can be found directly on the sides of the carriers: Inka Rail, Peru Rail.
  • What’s the cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu? The same way as we did 😉 Taking a bus from Cusco or Ollantaytambo to the hydroelectric power plant and walking from there to Aguas Calientes (along train tracks). Private buses go on this route every day. The price is very similar everywhere, both in Cusco and Ollantaytambo ticket for one person in two directions can be purchased for 60 – 80 PEN (18-24 USD). You can reach hydroelectrica using the “combined” way (taking colectivo buses on the route Cusco – Ollantaytambo – Santa Maria – Santa Teresa and a taxi from Santa Teresa to the hydroelectric power plant, but it will probably costs the as the direct bus). From hydroelectrica to Aguas Calientes the walk takes about 10km (depending on the pace – around 2 hours). Trodden path leads along the tracks and – MOST IMPORTANTLY – goes around TUNNELS! It is crucial to remember if you don’t want to be “surprised” by the train in one of the dark tunnels.
  • Aguas Calientes is a very touristy place, so it has its pros and cons. The plus side is undoubtedly a large number of hotels, hostels, guest rooms and wide choice of restaurants and eateries. However, we reaaaallly didn’t like the attitude of residents towards the tourists. The tourist are treated like a walking bag of money, which arrived today, and tomorrow will go on, so there’s no point in being nice to them. Everywhere, in every place, at every step you can feel the overpricing that can be called “nailing cash” on tourists! Apples will cost 2 PEN (0.60 USD) per 1 kg when sold to Peruvians, and for the tourist it will be 2 PEN for ONE apple. Train ticket to the hydroelectric plant (the one that goes on 10km track) for the Peruvian will cost 5-10 PEN (1.50 – 3 USD), and for tourists it’s 28 USD. And it’s not only our opinion – we asked other tourists from various countries.
  • And something for people who don’t like walking up steep paths. From Aguas Calientes to the entrance gate of Machu Picchu and back runs an official bus. One-way tourist ticket costs 12 USD. Tickets can be purchased either on the internet, as well as at designated outlets in the city. Detailed information can be found on the official website of the carrier www.consettur.com.

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