My South America Trip – Part 3 Machu Picchu

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Today we will be starting our journey to Machu Picchu. This is the breakfast provided by the hotel within the room rate. The eggs, potatoes, avocado and steam corn cake are made freshly from the kitchen once you put in the order. The cold items and the bread are laid out on the counter in a buffet style. The steam corn cake is a traditional local breakfast item that the Peruvians eat and taste like steamed glutinous rice except the texture is smoother and softer. Overall, the food was scrumptious and very filling, the staff are very attentive and extremely helpful. We checked out and left our luggage in storage with the hotel and brought only a duffer bag as we are returning for another night’s stay after the big climb.

There are 2 train stations with trains travelling to Machu Picchu. The Poroy station which is only 20 mins from Cusco city and the Ollantaytambo station which is located in the Sacred Valley. However, the Poroy station operates only from May to December and is closed for the rest of the year so we are only left with 1 option which is to travel to Ollantaytambo station which takes about 1 hr 40 mins by car. We decided to go with the same company we took from the airport for safety reasons. We are picked up in a private SUV at USD 72. For travellers on a budget, street taxis cost approximately USD 28, a shared taxi costs around USD 3.60 and a bus will cost around USD 1.25. The journey by bus will be longer leaving on a fixed schedule so you can decide on the transfer depending on your budget and preference. All hotels will readily provide you with more information on the different options and where to take them.

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Our driver for the day Roland is extremely cheerful and polite and spoke great English. He was able to explain to us all the tiny interesting facts and stories about Peru. For example Peru has at least 3,000 types of potatoes and South America has at least 5,000 species of potatoes etc. ( I wonder how those potatoes taste like ) Throughout the journey, we passed little towns like this one where the locals go about their daily business.

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Since this was a private transfer, we can choose to stop whenever we need for toilet breaks or food. Our driver suggested for us to make a stop at this town called Chinchero where the locals make a living by selling handicrafts made from Alpaca and Llama’s fur. There are many cottages where the local rear a few Alpaca and Llamas as pets for tourist to take pictures.

We stopped by one of the less touristy cottages and the ladies dressed in traditional costumes showed us the local way of dying the fur with natural ingredients. The entire process from cleaning the fur with a tree root used as a bleaching soap to getting colours from ingredients like red from the white substance on the cactus, orange and yellow tones from local yellow flowers and purple from the purple maize. Colours are adjusted in different tones by adding acid ( lime or lemon) to change the PH level.

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We continued our journey to Ollantaytambo after burning some cash buying some baby alpaca scarf and coin purses as souvenirs. We arrived in another 1 hour and there was still 30 mins to go before our scheduled train.

There are 2 train companies operating the trains to Machu Picchu, the Peru Rail and the Inca Rail. Each company has 4 categories of trains. For Peru rail, the top of the class is the Belmond Hiram Bingham train which is modelled after 1920 trains. Imagine Orient Express in total luxury. The next class is the sacred valley train which is like the first class category with luxury seating and restaurant cabins. The Vistadome train is the next class with panoramic windows for great view and photography opportunities. The most basic will be the Expedition train. Inca rail has the same equivalent with Private Machu Picchu train, First Class Machu Picchu train, 360° Machu Picchu train and lastly the Voyager Machu Picchu train. Train tickets will differ in prices due to timing and the speed of the train. For more details on pricing and schedules, click on the names PeruRail and IncaRail for more details. Do book your tickets beforehand online to avoid not getting a seat.

After much research, we realised that there is not much difference between the 2 companies. We took the Inca Rail because it suited our schedule the best and there was no major cost difference from Peru Rail. The ride comes with a serving of cold sandwich / wrap and a cup of beverage. The entire ride takes about 1 hr 30 mins and if you want a better view, do request for seats on the left of the train ( in the direction towards Machu Picchu ) when you collect the tickets at the ticket office. Something we learnt as well was even if the ticket numbers are in running sequence, they might not be next to each other. We had tickets that had running numbers but were diagonally apart physically as well as different rows altogether in our 2 rides. Remember to raise this to the counter if you are travelling together and wish to sit together.

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The small town of Aguas Calientes was bustling with tourists and there were plenty hostels , hotels, restaurants and cafes almost all filled with people. For the benefit of being able to be the first few at the Machu Picchu gates by the opening hours, we decided to splurge on the hotel for tonight. Instead of staying at Aguas Calientes, we decided to stay at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge which is located right in front of the Machu Picchu entrance. This saves us the trouble of waking up extremely early to queue for the bus to go up to Machu Picchu. The other way up to Machu Picchu is of course to trek up the slope.

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The bus station is located at the far end of the village. You will walk past this extremely huge and touristy Machu Picchu sign where almost everyone stops for a photo. Just before this sign, there is a small tourist information booth where you can check for bus timings, location of hotels/hostel or just about any information of the town.

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The bus looks very much like this model and is operated by a private company Consettur Machu Picchu. The buses which has a limit of about 18 – 20 seats per bus, depart at an interval of 10 mins in the morning and 20-30 mins in the afternoon. Buses start as early as 5.30 am and end at 3.30 pm going up to Machu Picchu. For buses heading back down, the earliest start from 6.00 am and last bus at 6.00 pm.

The tickets of the bus cannot be bought online as the operator does not offer online purchase. You can only purchase them at the bus stop before you board the bus or at Cusco. (For details, refer to end of post ) Do have your passport and cash for the purchase of the tickets as they do not accept card payments. If you are like us, who likes to pre-purchase everything ahead of time, you can purchase the tickets through the use of an agent with a small fee. We paid USD 4 extra for this service. Each ticket cost USD 19 ( return ) USD 10 (single ) from the sales counter at the bus stop so just add-on the fee per person for the cost by the agent. You can find the agency site here

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We checked in to our Belmond Sanctuary Lodge around 3.00 pm and received a pleasant surprise as the staff gave us an upgrade. As with any Belmond hotels, the service at the counter was impeccable. Our room was extremely spacious with an open-air porch leading to the back garden patio where you can see part of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. There is really nothing to complain about our room other than the price but for the location and the comfortable rest you get just before the climb, in my personal view is totally worth it.

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The menu in the restaurant is pricier than those in Aguas Calientes so we ate our own food we brought with us. The only complain I had about the hotel was that the shower ran out of hot water at 1.00 am and with the temperature in the mountain dipping at night it was quite impossible to shower without hot water.

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This was taken from our hotel corridor which shows the proximity of the hotel to the gate

We got up at 5.00 am to get ready for Machu Picchu and there were already over 50 people all waiting to enter at the gate. We got the hotel staff to introduce a guide to bring us through the site the day before and we got Elvis who is a freelance guide and does this guided tour 4 times a day. The tour is 3 hrs and we paid USD 70 for 2 person. If your group is larger you can try to bring down the price. You can also try to engage guides who standby the entrance for last-minute bookings.

You can purchase the tickets to Machu Picchu via the government website, however the site only loads on Adobe Flash, lags very badly and has many issues loading. You can check out the government site here and they only accept VISA for card payments. Alternatively, there are many websites to purchase the tickets to Machu Picchu and the prices do not differ much.

There are 3 types of tickets going to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu site only at USD 47, Machu Picchu and Montana at USD 62 and Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu at USD 62. The time slot for Machu Picchu is from 6.00 – 12.00 pm and 12.00 – 5.30 pm while the time slots for Montana are at 7.00 – 8.00 am and 9.00am – 10.00 am and for Huayna Picchu at 7.00 am – 8.00 am and 10.00 am – 11.00am. Machu Picchu only tickets are limited to 5,000 per day, ticket with Montana and Huayna Picchu at 800 per day respectively. Tickets go out very fast so do purchase them way ahead of your trip to avoid any disappointment. Remember to bring your passport with you for checks at the gate against the ticket you purchase.

Read about my other tips on visiting Machu Picchu at the end of the post.

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Once you pass the gates, there is a slope leading up to the lowest platform where you can see the site. From there you can choose to go different ways to experience the site. Our guide led us to climb upwards towards the highest platform for the best views of the site before it gets too overcrowded.

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The climb is not very tough but for unfit people like me, it posed a small challenge. As the steps date from Inca times, they are mostly of different height and shapes. Certain areas are flatter and easier than others but if you pace yourself and do the climb slowly, I would say it is not a problem. There are elderly doing the same climb so just do it slowly and you will be fine. Do note that if you are feeling the effects of altitude sickness, you might be short of breath more often than on ground.

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The hut in a distance used to be the watch house for guards to look out for enemies and alert the city on any dangers. The area where you see the people gathering is said to be the best photo point by all guides. However, I personally find where I am ( where the lady with red scarf is ) to be a much better vantage point. The photos below will show the angle of the entire site as seen from this point.

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I cannot resist posting 2 photos of the same view. This with my camera and the one below with my phone. This is my favourite view of the entire site itself.

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For those who want this aerial view, climb all the way to the top before you explore the ruins itself. The mountain we see in the photo is the Huayna Picchu mountain while the Montana is behind where we are taking this photo.

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Once we proceed downwards to the actual ruins site, the sun is blistering hot and the temperature starts to get warmer. Remember to get loads of sunscreen or carry an umbrella or wear a cap. This picture shows the actual gate to enter the ancient city and in the past, they close the gate using huge individual wood trunks that they put across this gate.

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This area is speculated to be like a temple with 3 windows facing out to the sky and the world. The structures are built using all different shaped stones which are broken into the required shape at the quarry at the back of the site using zero machinery. Bigger stones are broken down by hitting on the stones repeatedly with sharper stones or logs.

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The upper area of the site is used for vegetation to feed the city and some of the lower grounds are for farming animals. Sheep and Alpaca are their main source of meat in the past. While walking through the ruins, you can see small drains that is built into every single row or column of the ruins to enable water from the mountains to reach the vegetation areas as well as all areas within the city for living or animal usage.

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There are different columns like these with open doorways. There are speculations that these are rooms for the king’s page girls and boys and there are also other sayings that these are for chosen offspring of the royal family to stay for royal training to take over the helm in future. There are no real and exact explanation to what each of these rooms or areas are used for but it is very interesting to go through each column and rooms and experience how the Inca people used to lived.

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There are many of such huts which has been converted into rest areas for tourist and they are ever so crowded as everyone will be taking a break from the sun. The stone in the middle is found in this shape and many says it is the same as the mountain just behind it. Beyond this area, you will find the entrance to Huayna Picchu. For those with the package tickets, you can go on to explore Huayna Picchu.

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Before we came to Machu Picchu, we did so much research and found sites that say the Montana is a much easier climb compared to the Huayna Picchu. Knowing my own unfit condition, I convinced my travel buddy to purchase the Montana combination although she would really like the Huayna Picchu option. However, after completing the 3 hr tour with the guide climbing up and down the site, I knew I could not go on to the Montana. Even Elvis told me not to force myself. So on the way out, I found this hut with a fabulous view of the ruins and told my buddy to go ahead. The next series of photo are with courtesy from her.

The road to the Montana while less steep is filled with bushes and feels entirely raw like trekking in forest trails. There were quite a fair bit of creepy crawlies so for the not so tough girls, do be prepared. The photo on the left shows the view you get from the Montana which is an aerial view of the entire valley. The Machu Picchu ruin can be seen but extremely tiny in comparison.

The route to the sun gate is free with the Machu Picchu site only tickets. If you wish to visit only the sun gate, you can purchase the basic ticket. The route is very long and takes almost 1 hr 30 mins to reach the top. The roads can be quite steep at some point. You can’t really see Machu Picchu from the sun gate but you get a clearer view of the surrounding mountains and valley. The photo on the bottom left is the ruins at sun gate. My buddy came back to the hut almost 2 hours later and she went at an incredibly fast speed as it was starting to drizzle.

In comparison, she is much fitter than me but still came back drenched in perspiration and totally exhausted. The next day on the train back to Ollantaytambo, I met a very fit couple ( going to the gym daily and exercises frequently ) and they were sharing their experience on the climb to the Montana and they too found it horribly exhausting and difficult. In comparison, my friend who visited Machu Picchu 2 years ago did Huayna Picchu and he mentioned it is very do-able and the views are much prettier. So guys do take my advise, if you are unfit like me, just do the ruins, the views are good enough. If you are more fit, do the Huayna Picchu instead of Montana, it is simply more worth your efforts.

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Once you exit the site, there is a small hut with a table with the Machu Picchu stamp. Do remember to stamp this before you leave as a memento. There is usually a short queue but the wait is short as everyone does it fairly quickly. Most people stamp it on their passport so you can choose to follow or stamp it somewhere you can put in your photo book. Before heading for the bus, we used the bathroom facilities provided by Belmond for hotel guests who have checked out upon their return from the hike. This was extremely pleasant as the bathroom was huge and well-stocked.

We left Machu Picchu back to Aguas Calientes at around 2.00 pm to rest for the night. We booked a room with Hotel Ferre Machu Picchu which is located at the opposite end of the town from the bus station. It is just next to the train tracks for the some of the trains not stopping at Aguas Calientes. The hotel is very basic at USD 70 per night for a twin room but for those who are a light sleeper, you might not get a good rest with the noise.

We headed out for a late lunch which is our first proper meal of the day and took a walk around town as we did not get to see the town on the previous day. There is a small plaza square where the locals gather and chill as well as a small church for service. Most of the town has train tracks running through them and most of the restaurants and hotels are built on either sides of the tracks. There is 1 central market for fresh fruits and vegetables which closes around noon. Connected to the train station, there is a huge open air sheltered square with multiple stores selling handicrafts, local coca teabags, scarfs, shawls, snacks and produce as well as home decorative items. You can bargain a few soles down but do not expect huge discounts given.

We settled for our lunch / dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hotel. The restaurant Full House has an open balcony facing the rapid rivers flowing through the town. The view is amazing but can be slightly noisy if you intend to have a conversation. I finally decided to try the Alpaca meat as seen above while my buddy had the tomato based quinoa risotto soup. We did not want to try the guinea pig even though it is a specialty in Peru but we did try the local Chicha beer which is basically corn beer. In the ancient days, Chicha beer is fermented using spit. Yes, spit! They used to chew on the maize and spit out the chewed portion to make the fermentation process better and faster. Of course, today they do not do this anymore ( I’m not so sure if you do try the homemade ones ) The bottled one I tried has an interesting sweet twang to it and tasted a little like lemon or citrus beer. As for alpaca, I found it too gamey for my liking. It tasted a lot like venison but much tougher. Much later, I was told that I should have tried the alpaca burger as the patty is much juicier compared to the steak.

Places to buy the bus tickets to Machu Picchu

Cusco Office
Address: Av. Infancia 433, Wanchaq, Cusco
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday, 08.00 am – 12.45 pm & 3.00 – 6.00 pm
Sunday, 08.00 am – 12.45 pm
Inter Bank
Address: Av. El Sol 380, Cusco
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday, 09.00 am – 1.00 pm & 2.00 – 6.00 pm
Saturday, 09.00 am – 1.00 pm
Aguas Calientes Office
Address: Av. Hermanos Ayar S/N
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday, 05.00 am – 9.00 pm
At Machu Picchu
Address: Next to the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge entrance
Opening Hours: Monday – Sunday, 07.30 am – 5.30 pm

10 Tips to visit Machu Picchu

  1. Buy only the morning session as you can enter anytime between 6.00 am to 12.00 pm. The original plan is for visitors purchasing the morning tickets to exit by 12.00 pm, however nobody will get you to leave if you overstay your ticket timing. ( unless you are a nuisance to the wardens )
  2. You can re-enter Machu Picchu as many times as you need to as long as it is still within the time of ticket you purchase.
  3. There is no washroom on the mountain and the nearest will be a café located outside the entrance
  4. Eating is not allowed within the historic site but to replenish your energy you can quickly snack on 1 or 2 energy bars. Do note that there is no trash bins within the site so while you can quickly snack on small items, please be responsible and carry your trash with you. ( do not openly picnic as eating is officially prohibited )
  5. You get dehydrated very easily especially during the hot seasons. Make sure you bring sufficient liquids to replenish the water lost during your hike
  6. Big bags are not allowed, bring only small-sized backpacks.
  7. No drones are allowed or you can risk getting your gear confiscated. ( I witness one guy had his drone taken)
  8. Do not act like a fool and jump across the ruins if the way ahead is blocked. It just means you have to take another route. These are historic ruins that are well protected and well-loved by the people. Wardens will not hesitate to remove you from the site if they catch you doing anything harmful to the site. ( I witness a group of boys asked to leave even when they just entered the site )
  9. Do everything at your pace and do not rush to finish everything. If you think you need more time, do buy tickets for the whole day. Do consider your own conditions before taking on any challenge on the hike. The ruins are in the mountain and medical help is not available readily.
  10. Pay for a guide. While the site is quite easily managed in terms of routes, the guides are well-trained and can provide you with different perspectives of the ruin unless you have done your own readings beforehand. These guides also take care of you to make sure you are safe during your time with them.
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