Recommendations for a Trip to Machu Picchu

Recommendations for a Trip to Machu Picchu

Our Machu Picchu trip was not something that we had planned to do in advance.  In fact, it wasn’t on our radar at all, other than us saying, “I think it would be cool to see Machu Picchu someday.”  But when Spirit Airlines was offering a huge discount on Tuesday & Wednesday fares during the month of May, it meant that we could fly to Peru for just a tad over $200 per person.

At that price, who wouldn’t want to take a Machu Picchu trip?!?!?

This post is going to focus only on Machu Picchu recommendations.  I will have other posts dealing with Lima and Cusco and the Spirit Airlines experience.

The Prelude: Aguas Calientes

Much like Grand Canyon Village in Arizona, Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a dreadful little town where your options are limited and the prices are inflated.  Recommendation #1 is that if you know that going in, you will be prepared instead of disappointed.

Machu Picchu Trip Aguas calientes

Personally, I did find two aspects of our stay enjoyable.  First, we had a very good meal at Incontri del Pueblo Viejo.  The service was exceedingly slow, even by Peruvian standards, but the food was delicious and the ambiance was nice. Second, I got the best night’s sleep at Gringo Bill’s Hotel. The bed was the most comfortable of the entire trip.

The Preparations

Our plan was to get up at 4:00 AM and catch the first bus to the site at 5:30 AM so that we could see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Thankfully, I checked the weather forecast beforehand, because it was calling for rain and clouds. We wisely decided to go later in the morning instead. If I had gotten up at 4 AM to see the sun rise and then couldn’t see it, I would have been seriously put out!

Recommendation #2 is to check the weather and prepare accordingly.

We found out that you could buy your bus tickets any day, not solely on the day that you visit Machu Picchu. We decided to go ahead and buy ours the day before so we would be ready to go after breakfast the next day.  I have two important tips for you here: you will need your passport to buy the bus ticket, and the bus ticket office only accepts cash or Master Card.  You will not be able to pay with a Visa.

The Ascent

The next morning after breakfast, we headed down to the area where the trains line up. There was a long line of people, but also a long line of buses, so the line moved quickly.  The bus ride takes about 20-30 minutes, but it feels longer because you’re going very slowly and zigzagging back and forth across the side of a mountain. Recommendation #3: If you are prone to motion sickness, you may want to consider taking some medication.  The ride is pretty bumpy and the bus lurches from side to side quite a bit while navigating the sharp turns.

The Arrival

When the bus finally pulls up to the Machu Picchu entrance point and you disembark, you will probably encounter someone asking if you want to hire them as a guide. Recommendation #4 is to do so, for a couple of reasons. First, there are no informational signs at Machu Picchu, no brochures, nothing to give you any sort of indication as to what you’re looking at or why it’s significant. I suppose you could purchase a guidebook and bring it with you, but who wants to be looking down and reading when they could be taking in the scenery while listening to the information? Not I.

The site

We waited until our guide gathered some more people, and then we entered. I cannot adequately describe the feeling that you get when you enter the site and see the vastness of it. It is nothing short of breathtaking.

There are massive mountains in front of you, with clouds hovering over and in front of them. Clouds, not fog! In both directions, up and down, you see row after row of terraces, where the Incas grew coca. Ahead of you is one lone tree in the midst of the remaining walls and structures.

Here is one of the first pictures I took:

new machu picchu recommendations rules july 2017

Our guide started the tour by telling us to look at the walls.  The Incas were masterful masons and architects.  These walls have been standing for roughly 600 years, and you won’t believe what’s holding them together.  The “cement” that they used was a mixture of clay, llama hair, cactus juice, and ash. Pretty incredible.

machu picchu recommendations stone wall

In other areas, stones had been cut with such precision that they fit together without any sort of cement or mortar.  These stones were smooth and flat, and reserved for use on special buildings, such as temples or the king’s residence.

machu picchu recommendations stonework

Most of the living quarters we saw – whether those of the king or of a common worker – had small cubbyholes built into the walls for them to store belongings.  And here I thought my closet space was on the small side:

machu Picchu recommendations storage space
Inca “closets” – cubbyholes built into the walls of the king’s bedroom.

Our guide told us that the Incas would sacrifice black llamas to their gods. I asked him why black llamas, and he explained that the black llamas were not as common as white or brown llamas. The black llamas, by virtue of their rarity, were considered special and therefore more pleasing to the gods.

There are (at least) four temples in Machu Picchu. One of the best known is the Temple of the Three Windows. Our guide explained that there were three windows to correspond with the symbolic animals that the Inca connected to creation:  the condor represented the spiritual realm, the puma represented the earthly realm, and the serpent represented the realm of the underworld.

machu picchu recommendations temple of the three windows
The Temple of the Three Windows

Perpendicular to the Temple of the Three Windows was the Main Temple. One side of it was sort of lopsided, which was due to natural conditions.

Main Temple machu picchu recommendations
Main Temple with rocks that have moved out of place over time.

I think that my favorite spot in Machu Picchu, however, is the Temple of the Condor, which quite literally resembles a condor.

machu picchu recommendations temple of the condor
Can you see the head and body of the condor on the ground, and its wings jutting up behind it?

At one point in our tour, I looked over to the right, where we had entered. I was amazed to see just how far the rows of terraced gardens extended down the mountain side.  I thought we had entered at the bottom of those rows, but we were in the middle. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that they covered the entire side of the mountain.

machu picchu recommendations terraces
Row after row of terraces – and there are many more that you can’t see here!

There are at least thirty terraces in this photo, and even more that did not fit in the frame!

We also walked around a large grassy area that served as the Main Plaza, an important place for ceremonies, announcements, games, etc.  Our guide clapped his hands to demonstrate how it worked. The sound reverberated off the surrounding rocks and was amplified tenfold. Add acoustics to another skill of the Incas.

Machu Picchu recomendations central main plaza

In general, I was glad that we took our Machu Picchu trip when we did instead of waiting until we were older. Although we did not hike the Inca Trail, it was still a physically grueling place to visit (particularly when you have creaky knees like I do!). Here’s what my iPhone said I did that day:

machu picchu trip workout

138 flights!  Dang.  I’m tired all over again just thinking about it. So Recommendation #5 is to try and get in shape a little before you go. A little pain now will save you from a lot of pain later.

The Incas only lived at Machu Picchu for about 100 years, or three generations. They abandoned the site when the Spaniards began invading the area. So the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, and for 400 years it sat dormant, slowly becoming swallowed up by the lush vegetation. The world knew nothing of its existence until a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III found it in 1911.

One thing that I found really odd was how quiet it was there.  There were loads of tourists from all over the world, and yet for the most part it was peaceful and quiet throughout the site. Maybe because there is something about a place that big that reminds us of how tiny a speck we are in the grand scheme of things. Maybe because the history of the place is so sad and, frankly, a little overwhelming. Whatever the reason, Machu Picchu was a travel experience that I will relish for years to come. I highly recommend making the trip to see it.

Note:  Rules for touring Machu Picchu will be changing effective July 1, 2017. Click here to read my blog post outlining those changes and what you can expect

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