2011 marked 100 years since a Yale professor introduced the world to Machu Picchu, now the most gilded image of South America. He most likely was not the first explorer to lay eyes on the sight, actually thought it was another city entirely, and the Peruvian government has been disputing the return of the artifacts he had shipped home to Connecticut for decades…but in my countryman Hiram’s defense, his exploration and publishing efforts did unlock, if not the secrets, at least a glimpse of a culture mostly destroyed by its Spanish conquerors.
The ruins of condor-shaped Machu Picchu sit within a cloud forest straddling the saddle of an Andean mountain, making it invisible from all angles for most of the day. That’s the only reason it wasn’t destroyed along with the other Incan hamlets during the march of the conquistadors. Pizarro’s brass couldn’t find it…
The most sought after way to explore the lost city of the Incas for today’s adventure seeker is to trek the 4-day Inca Trail that winds 43km through the Andes, culminating with an entrance through the Sun Gate and down into the ruins. Due to deterioration of the trail from too many staggerers, the number of trekkers is limited to 500 permits per day, and you cannot walk the line solo. Therefore, you must book months in advance to reserve a spot, especially during the popular dry season (May – September). Many don’t realize that there are several other breathtaking walks in the area available, so if you want to walk in Hiram Bingham’s (horse’s) shoes then do a little research on a variety of less-touristed trekking options.
I decided against taking the Inca Trail, mostly due to my worthless knees – still recovering from New Zealand’s “Grating” Walks. The trail is known for its arduous, craggy downhill jaunts, which make me want to stick a fork in my eye. I also had a desire to see more of the area between Cusco and the site, itched for shorter bursts of hiking in lieu of a multi-day marathon, wanted to try to seek out some alone moments at one of the most visited attractions in the world and decided to learn how to forge my own path to Machu Picchu without a group, a guide or time constraints. If you have any of the same inclinations, then here are my tostada crumbs…
Fly into foggy Lima on LAN Airlines, the big South American operator, or your preferred international airline if you want to cash in points. I would pre-arrange an airport transfer with your hotel or hostel since the airport is 20-30 minutes from any part in which you’ll be residing, and the taxis at the airport are known for their sketchiness. If you don’t arrange a pickup beforehand, then negotiate the fare to your lodgings before you get into the car. It should be around 45 soles at the time of writing, which exhibits the oddity of catching a cab at the airport because a cab from town to the airport could only be 20 soles. If you do catch a cab, have the address, phone number and reference points of your hotel/hostale on hand. Many Lima cabbies don’t actually know where they are going, and very few speak English.
You are either going to love the capital or hate it, so spend anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks exploring its sprawling districts. I stayed at 1900 Backpacker’s Hostel in central Lima because it’s a converted colonial mansion. I thought it was great, but I would pick a hostel or hotel in the traveler-friendly districts of modern Miraflores, posh San Isidro or bohemian Barranco depending on your tastes, which are all near the coast. Lima is very spread out, and moving between districts isn’t really feasible on foot. Combis (local buses) are cheap but you’ll end up in East Jesus if you don’t speak Spanish. Here are some activities I recommend in the capital:
1. Surfing Lima’s coastline
2. Taking a bay bike tour with Bike Tours of Lima
3. Going out in Barranco
4. Treating yourself to dinner at Astrid y Gaston, which put Peru on the culinary map
5. Making a day trip to central Lima for some standard museum and architectural sights
Once you are ready to get the hell out of Dodge, book a flight to Cusco on Taca Airlines ($100-$300), a cheaper local operator. You can take the 22-hour bus, but it’s not recommended due to the tedious terrain or for single white females…Take the first or second flight out in the morning, so you have a better chance of not having your flight cancelled due to the incessant fog. Have your hostel or hotel call a taxi, so it will actually be an official one. If they forget (it happens) you can hail one on the street, but not everyone will be willing to take you to the airport, so build in a few extra minutes. It should be around 20-30 soles.
When you get to colonially charming Cusco, I would leave immediately and spend quality time there post-Picchu. Cusco has an elevation of around 11,500 feet; whereas, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are around 9,000, making them better places to start acclimating. A lot of people day trip it from Cusco to Machu Picchu in one day. Don’t even think about it.
Head from Cusco into the three-town Sacred Valley, which is a more authentic view of Andean culture than what you will see near heavily trod Machu Picchu. The two most popular towns are Pisac for its likable markets and Ollantaytambo for its uniquely preserved Incan city grid. You can spend a few days in this area, and walk to the city squares to find drivers to take you to the different towns and sights or take combi buses for $1.
I spent 3 days in picturesque Ollantaytambo. I tried to pre-arrange a guy to drive me from the Cusco airport to Ollantaytambo (1.5 hours) but there was an Internet disconnection, so he didn’t show. No problemo. Just head to the Tourist Information counter at baggage claim and ask for a car to the town. It should be around 100-150 soles ($40-$50). It’s a gorgeous drive, and if you take a car you can stop and take photos.
Get a room at El Albergue in Ollantaytambo, hands down one of my favorite BUYs I’ve stayed. This newly built, rustic bed and breakfast is oddly inside of the train station, so ask your driver to drop you off at the station. If you know when you want to leave, have him drop you at the Perurail ticket counter, so you can go ahead and buy your train ticket to Aguas Calientes (gateway town to MP). There are three train options: Expedition (backpacker train), Vistadome (lots of glass, a bit nicer) and Hiram Bingham (throwback luxury operated by Orient Express). To save now, spend later, book a ticket on the Expedition train ($50), which is perfectly suitable. Your ticket will say you have to be there 30 minutes prior. That’s a bit egregious – 5 minutes is fine because you have assigned seats. You will need your passport handy to board the train.
If you don’t know when you are going to leave, ask Smithers to drop you down at the gates to the railway. Tell the guard you are staying at El Albergue, walk through the gates, and the inn will be on your right. This 16-room more for less property is owned by an American artist Wendy Weeks who lives in Lima. Ask for rooms 15 or 16 ($50 per night) which are in the newer addition and have balcony views looking out to the glacier. Don’t worry that there is no AC. Open the windows and enjoy the chilly Andean air at night, but close them before you conk out or you will be glacierized.
This place is such a good value for its exceptional views, cathedral-ceilinged cleanliness, free breakfast at the popular restaurant, train travel convenience, hammock-lined green space, helpful manager Diego and random palm tree from the Canary Islands that flourishes in the garden. Make a dinner reservation in house, try a pisco sour (local brandy and egg white cocktail) or coca tea (herbal mate) and pick up two New Yorkers to enjoy the sights with. The only semi-con is the 10 minute walk into town, but you like it because it gets that oxygen moving at the high altitude, you can peek into people’s doorways, and it’s a blessing when you don’t have to run for your train near the end.
In Ollantaytambo, many locals live in the original Incan stone structures with a surviving irrigation system that show superb city planning. Get not lost wandering through the perfect old town grid, hike up the fortress for a view over the town or the ruins on the opposite side to see giant hummingbirds and sit in the square or in a cafe watching authentic Andeans carry their wares to and fro. You can find a driver in the square who will drive you and your friends to the glacier (1 hour) for around $30. Due to the fog, it’s a gamble on getting a view, but maybe you stop at the random building on the side of the road and unknowingly stumble upon a meeting with a local tribe. Look for a red plastic flag hanging outside a window so you can try chica, fermented corn brew…Take a chance on roasted guinea pig…Just BE here for a bit, prepping for Machu Picchu with a taste of the “real Peru”.
Market tip: If you go to buy a hat, or anything rather, please smell it first. I walked around for days thinking, “God, this place smells like a barn.” Until I realized it was me…Not the most enjoyable way to try to blend in.
The 1.5 hour train ride (morning recommended) from Ollantaytambo will drop you in Aguas Calientes, a makeshift town for tourists coming to see Machu Picchu. The town is small but a bit confusing because it straddles the Urubamba river and hugs the train and bus stations. I recommend spending two nights here. Pirwa hostel is cramped and down the road from the main square but only $13 per night and clean. Gringo Bill’s is right behind the square and has doubles from $75. After you drop your bag somewhere, walk to the iPeru building to the right of the church on the main square to buy your ticket to Machu Picchu. You cannot buy them at the site. Stay long enough to get a spot to hike Huayna Picchu (153 soles), the mountain sitting in the background of all of the classic postcards. Hopefully on a Sunday because most of the tour groups will be at the Pisac Sunday market. Only 400 people are allowed up per day, 200 at 7am and 200 at 10am. Get a ticket for the first group.
Next walk across the square, down a block and take a left to the bus station to buy your bus ticket to Machu Picchu. They are $17 for a round trip seat, last for three days and are not for a specific time as the buses leave every 10 minutes starting at 5:30am. However, you should buy it the day before just so you don’t have to wait in line the next morning. You will already be waiting in line to board one of the first buses. You can pay in soles or USD. If you decide to pay in dollares, then check your bills for tears along the edges. Seriously. Even a minute one will make your money no good here.
Hanging out in Aguas Calientes, you can walk around town, head to the suspiciously murky natural hot springs north of town and park it on a bench or the 24 hour cafe in the town square. That’s about it. For dinner, I would go to Indio Feliz, a Franco-Peruvian gem one block up from the church and to the left. Most of the restaurants advertise pizza, which seems very out of place. I tried it for kicks and could barely keep it down. I asked a Peruvian why there are so many pizza restaurants, and he said that it’s because they think that is what tourists want. I asked him if he would want someone to make him really bad alpaca if he visited the States, and he laughed. So when in Rome…eat as the Romans do, which in this case is NOT pizza.
Set your alarm for 4:30. Most of the hostels and hotels begin their free breakfast at 5am. Bring a small day pack with water, bug repellant, your passport (yes), money, your tickets, sun glasses, hand sanitizer, tissues, some light reading (literally) and a brown bag lunch. Some hotels offer packed lunches, but you could save by putting together your own at one of the many minimarts. People may tell you that you cannot bring food. False. Everyone, especially those who are hiking, bring granola bars and lunches. They don’t check your bag, and the cafeteria on site is very expensive and outside of the ticket gates, so you would have to make the decision to leave for the day if you want to eat there.
Get back down to the bus station by 5:20 or so and get in line to load the bus. A way to save is to walk up to the entrance gates, an option that more take on the way down. The walk takes 1-2 hours on the way up and 30 minutes to an hour on the way down, so you would leave Aguas Calientes around 4am to stay on this same plan.
You get to the main entrance between 6 and 6:15. You need your passport and ticket out to get through one of the 4 turnstiles. Once through the gate, it is a bit confusing entering the site this early because it is cloaked in clouds. You really can’t see anything but 5-10 feet in front of you. Take the trail straight across the site, about a 15 minute walk. If you feel yourself getting lost, first take a second to enjoy the feeling you are walking through this lost city solo, just like an Incan would have done 500 years ago, the clouds wafting through the passageways like ghosts stealing away just out of reach. Then snap back to reality and look for one of the many guides and rangers and just ask, “Huayna Picchu?” and they will point you the correct way. About 5 minutes from the entrance you will see a small sign on the ground to confirm.
You get to the mountain’s gate at 6:45. It opens at 7am, so take a few minutes to stretch or read a bit of history on the site from your guide book. You are the tour guide after all. You are the 16th person through. You know this because you have to sign in and out as a precautionary measure. The sign says the trail takes an hour, but that is mildly generous if you are in trekking shape. This hike is highly vertigo-inducing and not recommended for the unfit. You literally climb stairs straight up the mountain side for 45 minutes straight, so dress appropriately and watch your step. The good thing about doing it at this time is that you can’t look down because you can’t see anything!
You pass 10 of the people in front of you on the way up, including a couple dressed for dinner and now drenched (leather tote, cufflinks and all…). The Brazilian couple in front of you is a bit put off by the arrow pointing into the dark cave, so they dawdle trying to find another way up and wait for you to go first. The 3 Japanese guys stop to take some photos before the top with their inspector gadget camera that hugs cliff sides. Data from The Goonies would have been jealous. The last stretch is a wooden ladder leading to the peak. You are up there, sitting in the clouds at 8,920 feet a few seconds before the others follow. When one of the Animen gets up to the top, he stretches his arms out and triumphantly exclaims, “Buenos Dias!” to the unknowing valleys below.
Everyone tries to find their own spot on one of the rocks before it begins to get crowded around 8:30. The funny thing is that no one knows which direction to sit. You don’t even know which side the ruins are on because you can’t see anything for the clouds. You make a taking a picture motion plus a shrug to one of the (real) guides, and he tells you to swivel around. Over the next couple hours, the clouds slowly roll in and out the valley, revealing their secret inches at a time.
Everyone will be taking turns getting their photos on the rock that looks like a seat and juts out toward Machu Picchu, but the whole picture may not be revealed for a while, so a good spot to out-squat the fog is if you shimmy along the side of the boulder to the left of the wooden ladder and sit down into the groove where it turns the corner. Don’t look down..
Most people get bored waiting for the peak of Machu Picchu mountain to come into view and begin heading down. This is also a great time to be up here and to eat your smuggled lunch, when the sun is starting to peek through, and the first group is heading down, but the second group hasn’t made it up yet. It takes around 3 hours total from summiting for the last of the clouds to leave, but the wait was worth it. You now have a clear view of the back of the postcard – how the classic image appears in the mirror.
It will take you an hour to get down because you have the joints of a Golden Girl. You will spend however long you like meeting the llamas that roam the grounds, finding your own spot near The Watchman’s tower for the must-snap photo and enjoying the 100+ flights of stairs until you have to go to the bathroom and therefore must depart.
Around 800,000 people visit Machu Picchu every year, 400 climb to the peak of Huayna Picchu each morning and Hiram Bingham was the first to rediscover the site. But no two days are the same, no cloud patterns static, each sunrise a slightly different shade, so on this unique morning in the life of the lost city, in that fleeting moment of dawning exploration, you were its discoverer. On this day, you were the first.