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By Rachel
Machu Picchu – June 26, 2012

Intriguing. Breath-taking. Clever. Splendid. Gorgeous. Overwhelming. Oh wow.

When we first had our first sight of Machu Picchu, these were the thoughts going through my head and more. Admittedly, the only thing I knew about Machu Picchu was that it used to be an ancient Incan city and was re-discovered years after it had been cleared out. I knew nothing of the incredible foresight and engineering capabilities of the Incans, the fantastic setting in the mountains nor the religious significances of various parts of Machu Picchu. But in a way, I’m glad that I went in as a blank slate and was meaningfully surprised at all the tid-bits I learned along the way and could experience Machu Picchu truly for the first time in person.

The basics:

Machu Picchu, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in the 15th century as an Incan estate for royalty and religious attribution the Incan gods. In theory anyway. By the time it was discovered externally by American Hiram Bingham in 1911, the Incans had long abandoned the ancient city due to the Spanish conquests in the 16th century.  It is located near the apex of the mountain Machu Picchu and is built to meld with the mountains topography so it seems like it’s one with the mountain. This remote location in the mountains made it difficult to access (the Incans had enough foresight to have the ability to close off their trails leading to the city if necessary) and the altitude was supposedly an homage to the sun, a symbol of religious significance for the Incans.  I’ll save the rest of the story for the pictures!

The practicalities:

I’m sure there are different ways to go see Machu Picchu and tour companies can also arrange this all for you (including the Inca Trail which is a four day hike to Machu Picchu and should be booked at least six to nine months ahead of time so we didn’t do it) – this is the route we took from Lima:

1)      Take a flight from Lima to Cuzco. The cheapest we found booking about two weeks ahead was $147 on Star Peru in June 2012.

You can also take a bus, though if you have the time to take the bus route, suggest stopping in one or all of the following places to break up the otherwise 24 hour bus ride (and not a pleasant one through the winding mountains, though the views are great):

  • Huacachina (via Ica)– amazing sand dunes – fun spot to go sand boarding and dune buggy riding – pretty cheap as well – we paid 30 soles for about 2-3 hours where we did both through our hostel, Bananas (loved!). About 5 hours from Lima – take a local bus (Soyuz or Peru Bus) and it’s only about 22 soles to Ica and then 5 soles by taxi to Huacachina (see our post on Huachina).
  • Nazca lines – see the mysterious Nazca lines that were drawn by who knows? Only 2.5 hours from Ica. Again, take a local bus company – 11 soles. The flight over the Nazca lines was about $85 per person in July 2012 (see our post on Nazca). Recommend staying a night just in case you have flight delays and not plan on passing through.
  • Arequipa – we didn’t visit Arrequipa but that’s where most people were heading if they were going from Lima to Cuzco. I think it’s about 8-9 hours by bus – definitely take Cruz del Sur for this one – super comfortable buses with wifi and meals included. Worth the splurge for such a long trip. Spend a couple days and go see Colca Canyon.
  • Cuzco – again, 12-13 hours – take the Cruz del Sur overnight bus (see our posts on Cuzco and the Sacred Valley).
  • We basically did this route in reverse on the way back from Cuzco (skipping Arequipa) because we wanted to be in Cuzco for the Inti Raymi festival. From Cuzco, most people that did the above route were headed to Puno and Lake Titicaca and then into Bolivia via Copacabana.

2)      Once you get to Cuzco, give yourself a couple days to acclimatize because the altitude makes it hard to breathe! Take a couple of the city tours or tours of the Sacred Valley or just enjoy Cuzco J

3)      Buy a train ticket to Aguas Calientes. There are only three trains from Cuzco and they are more expensive than the ones from Ollantaytambo which are perfectly nice. To get to Ollantaytambo, just ask your hostel where the minibus pickups are – they have these mini buses that wait until they are full to go (they coincide well with the train timings) and cost 10 soles per person in June 2012. They are kind of in a random alley so make sure you ask someone! Our roundtrip train ticket was $95 per person, booked online at Peru Rail’s website (you have to have a Verified by Visa or Mastercard SecureCode to book online). Recommend booking the train ahead of time if you can to be able to get the schedule you want, but met plenty of people that waited til they got to Cuzco to book it. We left in the afternoon from Ollantaytambo so we could enjoy the view, went to Machu Picchu the next day and came back on the evening train.

4)      Buy tickets for Machu Picchu – again, advise buying these online ahead of time but the site only takes Verified by Visa cards. Pain! If you don’t plan to climb Huayna Picchu, then you can probably wait until Cuzco to get tickets. If you want to climb HP, try book ahead of time or be really flexible on what days you can go! The website is: http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/ – It’s a little confusing – you first reserve your tickets and then you have six hours to pay for them. Use the reservation number and go to the payments section to pay for them. We didn’t have the Verified by Visa so we ended up having to go the Minister of Culture office in Cuzco (Av. de la Cultura 238 – have to take a taxi from Plaza de Armas area) to buy them because we didn’t want to wait until we got to Aguas Calientes since we were getting there in the evening.  Tickets to see only Machu Picchu: 128 soles per person.

5)      Buy bus tickets from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu – I believe you can only buy these in Aguas Calientes – we bought the night before from the bus station as we wanted to go early the next morning and didn’t want to wait in line. The bus ticket is $17 roundtrip. You can also buy one way and walk but not sure how to do that! Also, note that there are no taxis in AC – make sure you arrange with your hostel to pick you up at the train station or you know where you are going!

6)      Get to Machu Picchu and you go straight thru – make sure you have your tickets (not just the reservation) and passport! Also, take some snacks and water because the stuff there is expensive! There are guides outside offering tours – not sure how good they are – we had our own guidebook on Machu Picchu which was nice because we could enjoy it at our own pace instead of being whisked around in a tour.

7)      The best time to see Machu Picchu is first thing in the morning (like 6am) which we intended to do. However, we couldn’t fall asleep the night before, so we ended up sleeping in and going around 8. Still got there before most of the tours though! All in all, we saw all of Machu Picchu at a very leisurely pace in about four hours.

So in total, the cost for the two of us to see MP was:

Flight to Cuzco:  $294

Bus to Ollantaytambo:  $8

Train to AC:  $190

Bus to MP: $34

Tickets to MP: $99

Total: $625

Not including lodging or food of course – just the logistics! Totally worth it though!

Side note: We hated Aguas Calientes – the town is a tourist trap and the restaurants were frustrating (ask before hand if there is a service charge – they claim that they don’t make a wage and only receive the service charge which isn’t true!).

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