The most popular way to get to Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail, a tough four day trek that follows the path the original Inca people took to reach the mountain city. Generally people do this with a tour, and all food, camping equipment and guides are included. However, several things factored into our decision not to visit Machu Picchu by this route. Firstly, it is the more expensive option and would be quite a way out of our price range. Secondly, I am not the best or keenest hiker, and four days of strenuous high altitude trekking would probably finish me off. Finally, and probably the most crucial point, our visit to Machu Picchu ended up being in July, which is bang in the middle of high season. If you’re planning to do Machu Picchu in high season you are advised to book your Inca Trail trek at least 6 months in advance, and as we were simply not able to plan that far ahead it really wasn’t a feasible option for us.
The other option for getting there (and as it turns out, only a marginally less expensive alternative to the four day trek) is getting the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Costing anywhere between $100 and $1,000 return per person (depending on the times you travel and whether you go for the standard train or the fancy train), getting the train to Aguas Calientes is definitely still a stretch for those on a budget, but the alternative – hiking along the train tracks – didn’t sound very appealing. So we bit the bullet and booked ourselves on the train leaving Cusco at around 6 in the morning.
Unfortunately, when it says the train leaves from Cusco it actually means a station about a 45 minute drive outside of Cusco, so the morning of our departure found the 3 of us walking up and down the side of the main road in the dark desperately trying to hail a taxi. After about 10 minutes we managed to flag one down, but bizarrely the driver refused to take us out to the train station! It took about another 10 minutes of us getting gradually more frantic until at last our saviour appeared and agreed to take us – for what we imagine was quite an inflated fee, but at that point we were past caring.
We had booked tickets on the standard train, but there is an option to go on a fancy dining train that serves you a meal on your journey and even gives you the option of a bedroom to sleep in – though quite why anyone would choose this mega expensive option for a 3 hour train journey is anyones guess. The standard train is still pretty nice, with comfy seats and a glass roof that lets you watch the mountains roll by during the ride. This was a bit wasted on us though as we all promptly fell asleep when the train set off! Michelle especially was a little worse for wear at this point – we had enjoyed a bit too much red wine the night before, and for Michelle its effects hadn’t quite worn off. Dan and I almost had to drag her out of bed that morning as she had forgotten to set an alarm, and seemed confused when we told her it was time to leave for Machu Picchu!
When we arrived in Aguas Calientes it was a short walk to our hostel, Don Andre. The hostels in Aguas Calientes are pretty pricey so we had already resigned ourselves to staying in a dorm, and at £11 per night for a dorm bed Don Andre was the cheapest option we could find online. We were incredibly lucky when we arrived however, as the very kind hostel manager checked our reservation and showed us to a private 3 person room for the same price! She then asked us how we planned to get up to Machu Picchu the next day, and when we told her we would be getting up early to hike up the mountain she promised to prepare a packed breakfast for each of us. Then she went on to explain the new rules for entry to Machu Picchu, which state that everyone who enters is required to pay for a guide – something that we had found out about shortly before going. As of 1st July this year, people wishing to visit Machu Picchu not only have to pay the minimum $50 entry fee (it costs extra to visit Wayna Picchu and Machu Mountain) and extortionate amounts of money just to even get there, you now have to fork out around $25 to $50 more per person (depending on the size of your group) to pay for a guide to take you around the site – and you are expected to tip around $10 to $15 on top of that. Entry times have now also been staggered, so you either have to buy a ticket for the morning or the afternoon, and you can’t stay past your alotted time. Apparently these new measures are to prevent too many people visiting Machu Picchu each day (the site is apparently sinking due to the thousands of visitors it receives daily), but we read one article that said that thanks to the new policies, it will actually be possible for several hundred extra people to visit every day!
To be honest, this didn’t improve our overall perception of Peru and the way everything seems to be designed to milk as much money as possible from tourists, and we had been dreading the prospect of finding a guide once we got to Aguas Calientes. Fortunately though the owner of our hostel seemed to sympathise with the situation, and told us that she could arrange a guide for us for a fraction of the cost we had found quoted online – around $10 each. We gratefully accepted her offer, and she told us to meet our guide by the entrance the following morning at 6.30am.
On a side note, in practise it seems like it would be pretty easy to get into Machu Picchu without a guide at all. When we went through the entrance the first time nobody checked whether we had a guide, and after our tour finished we went back through the entrance on our own (tickets permit entry twice during your time slot) and again, nobody seemed to be enforcing the guide rule. It seemed like it would be quite easy not to pay for a guide at all, but it might not be worth the risk.
The next morning we were up at 4am to hike up the mountain – which turns out to be the default budget backpacker option. By 4.30am we were dutifully queuing by the entrance to the walking trail (for some reason they insist on checking peoples tickets for Machu Picchu before letting them hike up the mountainside) along with several hundred other backpackers – and we all then marched up the trail together in one long, sweaty, huffing and puffing line. The hike up to Machu Picchu is no joke – it’s literally an hour and a half straight up a makeshift stone staircase carved into the mountainside. If you don’t fancy this the other option is to take the bus, but this apparently costs around $8 per person and after having to pay through the nose for everything else, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to fork out for the bus too!
Finally, after what felt like an eternity of climbing in the dark, we made it to the top and met our guide bang on 6.30. He then led us through the entrance and we got our first glimpse of the wonder that is Machu Picchu. And a wonder it is – the view really is magnificent, and those iconic photos you see of the ancient city nestled beneath the mountain really don’t do it justice. Our guide was extremely knowledgable and took us on a fascinating stroll around the site, telling us all about the Inca people and what it was like to live there. He showed us how to tell the difference between homes and religious temples, because houses were built out of rough, misshapen stones while the stones for the temples had been carved and smoothed into perfect squares. He also told us how the Inca people knew the best altitudes and conditions to grow various crops, and the giant steps that you can see stretching from the top of the mountain to the bottom is where different crops were grown – with the conditions varying from cooler, drier climate at the top to hot, humid jungle towards the bottom.
After about an hour the tour was finished, and our guide told us we now had free time until our ticket expired to wander around the site ourselves and take photos. We then spent an enjoyable hour or so sitting on the grass and looking over the city, laughing at the wild llamas who paraded around freely, trying to steal peoples food. As the site gradually became more and more crowded, we decided it was time for us to say goodbye to Machu Picchu and head back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes – a hike that was definitely far easier in reverse!
We stayed in Aguas Calientes that night before getting up the next morning for our journey back to Cusco. Strangely there wasn’t an option to get the train all the way back to Cusco – trains on the return journey all stop at Ollantaytambo, where you then hop in a collectivo for the 2 hour ride back to Cusco. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo we decided to make a quick stop to visit the Inca ruins there, which turned out to be much more impressive and informative than the ruins at Pisac! Afterwards we took a little walk around the town, visiting the markets and stopping for some lunch, before heading back towards the train station to catch a collectivo to Cusco.
Overall we feel Machu Picchu is definitely worth a visit for anyone travelling to Peru. The expense of visiting is quite off putting and did taint our experience a little, but in the end we all hadan amazing time and came away with incredibe memories to look back on.