Ok- I am going to be perfectly honest! I was adamant that when we visited Peru, Machu Picchu was going to be one stop among many others, and that our whole trip would not be JUST about Machu Picchu! Now that was BEFORE visiting this world wonder! We undertook an arduous hike and throughout our trek, we kept reminding ourselves to enjoy the journey! We second guessed our intent many a time and hoped that all the exhaustion and hard work would be well worth it!
Fast forward to after completing one of the best experiences and achievements of our lifetime! The grandiose Andean Inca fortress that many only dream about seeing- Machu Picchu. This hidden gem has the magnificence and magic to convert the disbelieving. And suddenly everything makes sense. This is the real deal guys. The experience is totally worth it and there is something in store for everyone. Whether it is the thought of trekking the difficult Inca trail that entices you or the intellectual satisfaction of learning fascinating facts about the lost Inca empire that draws you, you will leave with your heart's desires fulfilled. So don't shy away because it looks too difficult to pursue and don't miss this opportunity of a lifetime!
We knew that we wanted to visit Peru in October and had our international flights booked way in advance. However, we hadn't booked for Machu Picchu as such until August. Late August, I went into a frenzy when I realized that people book their hikes a year in advance. I obviously panicked and then as I read more, I learned about our options. Here's a summary:
Take the Train
Most people who visit Machu Picchu use this option. You can catch a train from the Ollantaytambo train station to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The train journey will take you about an hour and a half. Train services are available through Peru Rail and the Inca Express. This is the option to take advantage of if you do not want to hike up the mountain on the Inca Trail. Also, if you are pressed for time and want to cover as much as possible without wearing yourself out on the hike, this may be your choice to pursue.
Once you get to the town of Aguas Calinetes, you will need to catch a 40 minute shuttle ride from there to Machu Picchu. Check out this website that has different travel route options nicely broken down. The Only Peru Guide
Hike the Inca Trail
If you consider yourself fit, enjoy a good hike, and want to connect with nature, this is definitely the way to go. You will truly appreciate the first views of Machu Picchu when you tread on the paths that the Incas walked on back in the day. There are many hiking options available to you:
The traditional 4-day Inca Trail- This is what books out really early. People book their four day hikes at least six months to a year in advance. We would highly recommend Llama Path as a local tour operator for this experience (more on this company to follow). You will have porters to carry your luggage for you and they set up your tents as well. The food is freshly and speedily prepped when you arrive at your campsite. We've heard that you get hot water to freshen up in the mornings which is wonderful after you've roughed it out. Quite the experience and a must do for all you dare devils.
The short 2-day Inca Trail- I cannot advertise this option enough. If you really want to hike the Inca trail but don't have four days in your crunched itinerary to spare, definitely sign up for this option. The trek on day one takes you through the best points of the Inca trail before making it to the much awaited view of Machu Picchu. You spend the night at the end of the day at a hotel in Aguas Calintes, which allows you to take that much needed hot shower and rest up in a cozy bed! We stayed at La Cabana and had a very comfortable stay. On day two, you take a bus to Machu Picchu and leisurely explore the area at your own pace. A win-win all around. Also, you earn some major bragging rights!
Add on treks- On day two of the above 2-day itinerary, you can choose to add on a hike to the popular Montana Huyana Picchu or Montana Machu Picchu. There is an additional cost for these hikes and you need pre-booked permits for them.
Alternate Hikes- If traditional is not your thing, there are plenty of other trekking options available. You can do the longer 7 day Salkantay trek combined with the Inca trail. Another trek that gained a lot of popularity in 2017 was the Choquequirao trek which is 4 days and 3 nights. Llama Path offers a nice mix of different options on their website.
Now that you know your options to get to Machu Picchu, you need to consider the cost. This is no cheap affair and hence it is really important to pre-plan. The below prices will give you a ball park of the cost involved. Do consider that you will be spending a good amount of time with your tour guide. So it is best to book with a good company that you trust for an enjoyable and comfortable experience.
4 day-3 nights- Inca Trail- ~ $700 USD per head to join a group that has about 12-16 members.
2 day-1 night- Inca Trail-~ $435- $460 USD per head to join a group that has six or more members.
The above cost usually includes:
- pick up from Cusco
- travel to Ollantaytambo train station
- train ride to milestone 104 km from where you begin your hike
- shuttle journeys to and fro from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
- hotel accommodation on the 2-day trek or camping accommodation
- most meals
- train ride back to Ollantaytambo from Aguas Calientes
- drop off to Cusco
Additional Cost- There is an additional $75 charge to hike Huyana Picchu or the Montana.
Note: In July 2017, the government of Peru changed their regulations for Machu Picchu. Of note, the entry into Machu Picchu is now split into the 'AM' slot from 6 am to 12 noon and the 'PM' slot from noon to 5:30 pm. You are supposed to leave the site according to your allocated time slot. Also, you need to be accompanied by a guide during your visit. For more on this, read this: Only Peru Guide .
For more on packing essentials, take a peek at our 12-day Peru Itinerary blog post.
2-Day Inca Trail Highlights
We signed up for the 2-day Inca trail adventure with Llama Path and it truly was a one of a kind experience. Our main guide Alberto was very knowledgeable and friendly. We had an additional guide as well considering the size of our group of 16. Both guides made sure everyone was comfortable and we had a great time overall. We would gladly recommend Llama Path to anyone!
Day 1- Landmarks on the Short Inca-Trail
I borrowed the image below from Llama Path's website to give you an idea about our trek and the parts of the Inca trail that we covered.
We had an early morning 4 am start from Cusco. We boarded the train from Ollantaytambo to milestone 104 Km, where we refreshed and began our trek. During our train journey, we enjoyed the beautiful vistas of the towering Andes mountains, vast surrounding landscape, and swift flowing Urubamba river.
- We hiked for about six hours. Our group was big and owing to varying fitness levels and naturally planned breaks, we made it to Machu Picchu on day one at around 4:30/5:00 pm.
- The first four hours of our hike were the hardest as it was a steep uphill climb. In total we trekked for 12 km along the Inca trail.
- We appreciated the cool breeze and the light drizzle during parts of our hike. We were luckily blessed with amazing weather!
- We climbed so many steps during our hike, some steep, some small! I cannot even begin to describe this to you. There was a period after our Machu Picchu hike when we had a phobia for stairs! The intensity is real. We got an amazing gluts workout...lol!
Here are some landmarks along the trail:
- Wiñay Wayna- translates to "Forever Young" in Quechua. We felt a sense of true accomplishment when we got to this beautiful Inca ruin site. Just 4.7 km away from Machu Picchu, this location is a true beauty that is cradled in the Andean mountains, surrounded by stunning vistas. Oh and by the way- there are a lot of STEPS here as well:) This place is also known as the 'Small Machu Picchu' and is believed to be a significant religious or ceremonial site.
- Sun Gate- the magical gateway to get your first look at Machu Picchu.
- Machu Picchu- the icing on the cake and all your hard work finally pays off!
Day 2- Machu Picchu Tour and Montana climb
We were lucky that we got our entry permits to Machu Picchu for the morning slot from 6 am to noon. This way we had time for our Montana hike after a guided tour and made it back to Cusco on the same night.
We had to once again wake up very early in Aguas Calientes to catch the shuttle bus to Machu Picchu.
Note: You need to give yourself at least two hours each way to get from the town of Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu and back. The actual travel only takes about 30 to 40 minutes. However, the line up for the shuttle is insane and you could easily be waiting for at least an hour to hop on one of these shuttles. While in queue, you can entertain yourself by watching the shuttle drivers making crazy turns along the sharp edges of the road!
On day two, once we reached the heritage site at Machu Picchu, we had a two hour guided tour. We gaped in awe at the stunning vistas as the fog and clouds draped us in snowy white. As we stared into the distance, the whole place disappeared right in front of our eyes and then re-emerged from the shadows. It was like we were in a dream and no amount of eye-rubbing or pinching could make the beautiful views more believable! We stood there taking deep breaths and thanking our stars for this experience!
Climbing Montana Machu Picchu:
At around 9:30 am, we began our ascent of the tall Montana Machu Picchu, which is the mountain opposite the Macchu Picchu fortress. Interestingly, there isn't much said about this climb on the web. We were keen to add on a trek on day two to maximize our experience (yes we're crazy)! Since the permits to Huyana Picchu had sold out, we chose the Montana Machu Picchu climb instead and boy what an undertaking it was!
On average, it takes about 1.5 hours to get to the top. Mind you, the ascent is steep and we were on all fours at certain points to gain balance and to support our aching legs. The stairs were uneven and rugged, especially closer to the top. We took our much needed breaks and made it to the summit in about 2 hours. It was raining and the cool breeze provided a soothing relief to our aching bodies! We enjoyed the divine views before we started our brisk climb back down.
Note: Highly recommend good hiking shoes at Machu Picchu. We couldn't imagine doing this hike in running shoes. You can apparently rent a good pair of hiking shoes in Cusco city if you don't own a pair.
Machu PiCchu Intriguing Facts
(Nerd Zone Alert)
- Machu Picchu means 'Old Montain'.
- This citadel was thought to be a site for the upper class Inca nobles- an Inca learning institute of some sort.
- It spans across 25,000 sq meters area and is built at an altitude of 2,400 meters on the Andes mountain above the Urubamba river valley.
- It was believed that a total of 500 inhabitants including 300 working class people and 200 noble folks lived at Machu Picchu. The working class were moved up here from the lower plains and valleys to build a community at the mountain top. This heritage site was found to have temples for worship of the forces of nature, residential neighborhoods, and storage units for the cultivated produce.
- When the Spaniards attached Peru, this was the only significant Inca ruin of this expanse that was left undiscovered or hidden and hence preserved. The Inca nobles during their time at Machu Picchu did not tell many people about this sacred location as they did not want widespread information about this place to get to the locals. When the Spaniards colonized Cusco, the nobles ordered all residents to evacuate Machu Picchu and to go back to the lower valleys. Since the weather is semi tropical in this region, dense vegetation grew quickly and covered all of Machu Picchu. Hence the whole architecture got hidden under dense vegetation.
- Machu Picchu was discovered by an American scientist from Yale University by the name of Hiram Bingham in 1911. He lead an expedition to learn about the fabled lost city of the Incas. He got word about the place from local farmers and he cut his way through the dense forests as he hiked up the mountain in search for the lost city. When he finally arrived at Machu Picchu, he found two farming families already living there. They were poor farmers who secretly used the land at the top of the mountain for cultivation since they could not pay the high taxes on the main land. They were living at Machu Picchu for eight years before Hiram Bingham found this site. So fascinating!
When we think back at our whole experience from visiting this world wonder, we still can't believe we made it! We truly challenged ourselves as we embarked on this journey of a lifetime. We walked on the path trekked by the ancient Incas. We set foot on the land of the nobles and explored their sacred chambers. The fog and mystical clouds filled our being with awe as we watched them envelop the once lost city of the Incas. What an extraordinary experience to say the least! Feeling so grateful and blessed.
Also as a side note- Llamas make the world a happier place:)
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