The Almighty Machu Picchu
Let’s face it, a trip to Peru wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Machu Picchu. If you’re like me, then visiting the sacred site has been on your bucket list since you first figured out the concept of a bucket list. So it probably comes as no surprise that when we decided to visit Peru for a month, we more or less planned our entire itinerary around visiting Machu Picchu. The first thing we did after purchasing our flights to Lima was book a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and buy our entrance tickets. But with all the anticipation we’d built up for our visit, was the visit worth the 10+ years of internal hype? Abso-f***ing-lutely.
The first few notes of Aloe Blacc’s song “The Man” rang out to let us know it was time to wake up and begin our journey. We’d been told we could beat the busloads of tourists up the mountain if were willing to trek up the mountain before sunrise, so we set out around 3:45 am towards the first gate with a flashlight and our backpacks. Arriving at the gate shortly after 4:00 am, we found a short line of visitors who had the same idea. By the time the bridge opened at 5:00 am, there were over 200 backpackers from all over the world waiting in line behind us. As soon as we were let through, an oddly polite mad dash up the mountain ensued. Eager to beat the sun to Machu Picchu, we more or less turned the hour and a half hike into a 40 minute sprint up a seemingly endless stretch of excessively steep steps and switchbacks as sunlight slowly began to crack through the misty darkness. Drenched in sweat, we arrived at the gates of Machu Picchu at 5:38 am, 9th and 10th in line. I’d told Shelby we would visit Machu Picchu 4 years ago and the day was finally here.
At 6:00 am, we walked through the gates as hundreds of other tourists piled through behind us. We knew we had a short window to take pictures with the sunrise sans the plethora of selfie sticks that were following behind us, so we immediately headed for the lookouts we’d scoped out online. Within a few short minutes, we were atop one of the tallest lookouts at Machu Picchu, staring out at the majestic city, with nothing but fog in our line of sight. That’s right, I’d been dreaming of this moment for more than ten years and we could barely see more than 15 feet in front of us, let alone make out the ancient ruins below us!
As we waited for the fog to roll through, more and more people began to fill the site. With only brief lapses in the cloud cover, we roamed the upper portion of the ruins near the Inca Bridge entrance and eventually decided to crack open one of the snacks we’d smuggled in. While we waited, we met a few other backpackers from Australia and Germany and began exchanging stories while the llamas grazed amongst us. The Aussies weren’t short on their share of wild party stories.
Once the gate opened, we all hiked along the Inca Bridge path that was carved into the cliffs. After arriving to the shockingly narrow bridge, we flew my drone around a bit to explore the cloud covered valley a little more, enjoyed an avocado sandwich and headed back to the main site. By this time, the fog had somewhat cleared up so we snapped a few pictures and explored the ruins a bit further. Our ticket for Montaña Picchu was from 9:00 am to 10:00 am, so before long we split off from the group to find the gate and begin our trek to the even higher vantage point with hopefully less clouds. After about 25 minutes of grueling uphill hiking, the fog had not dissipated, it was starting to rain, numerous groups coming down had told us to turn around and Shelby was starting to turn green from the altitude. Although we’re both usually pretty stubborn and competitive in situations like this, we decided another hour of hiking for zero visibility probably wasn’t worth it and chose to cut our losses.
Clearly disappointed, we headed down to explore the other side of the sacred site that we hadn’t yet seen. Towards the back of the site, we set up a makeshift picnic with the rest of the snacks we’d brought in (at this point we were down to the chocolate and a bottle of wine) on a secluded ledge that overlooked the valley and the edge of the ruins. By now the fog was rolling in and out and we were finally able to make out the other mountains for a few minutes at a time. Although we weren’t really looking at Machu Picchu anymore, this is when I truly began to appreciate how magnificent it was. All of the mountains near Aguas Calientes are the same: super dramatic, super steep and absolutely brutal in terms of terrain. The more we realized this, the more I began to ask myself why they chose these mountains, how they pulled this off and what it must have been like living and working in these eerie and awe-inspiring conditions day in and day out. It was truly remarkable to think about what went into what we had seen and how much was probably still unseen because of how extreme the conditions are at Machu Picchu.
So… was this the Machu Picchu experience I’d dreamed about for half my life? No. Did the pictures in my head match the moments we were able to capture in person? Definitely not. Would I recommend the version of Machu Picchu we saw over the one we wanted to see? Absolutely. Despite the unfavorable conditions, we were still able to see most of what we had come to see, and what we saw was incredible to say the least. But I think the real magic came when the conditions forced us to experience the other aspects of the area that make Machu Picchu’s greatness what it is. If the weather had been perfect, we probably would have taken our pictures, enjoyed the views and roamed around the ruins before heading on our way. We probably wouldn’t have stayed for 6+ hours searching for all the details and vantage points that could “make up” for the fog and we definitely wouldn’t have been as concerned with meeting the awesome people we got to talk with while we waited. Instead of brushing through the perfect tourist experience, we got a friendly reminder that no matter how much we plan everything out, we can’t always control our circumstances, but if we’re willing to roll with whatever comes our way, we may enjoy it more than we could ever imagine.
What We’d Recommend
In case you’d still opt for the picture-perfect Machu Picchu experience, here’s a brief list of tips we’d recommend from our own and other people’s experiences.
Take the Bus
As incredible as it was to hike up to Machu Picchu with the other tourists at 0 dark 30, you can hike up any mountain anytime to catch a sunrise and get a similar experience. Check your ego at the bridge and save your legs for hiking up Montaña Picchu or Huayna Picchu. After all, the busses arrived to the gates 10 minutes after we did, so you’re not even guaranteed to beat the crowds if you hike.
Spend the Extra Money on the Secondary Hikes
Even though we didn’t get to see them in person, the views from Montaña Picchu or Huayna Picchu are outrageous. Spend a little extra money on the second admission ticket. Word to the wise, the “one way” paths are enforced once you get onto the floor of the site so if you’re doing Montaña Picchu, you may want to time your ticket so you can knock it out right off the bat.
Go in the Afternoon
Apparently everybody has the same bright idea to beat the tourists to the top by going as early as possible. By lunch time, most of the original visitors had started to clear out. We met other travelers who arrived later in the afternoon and practically had the place to themselves, with video to prove it. The weather also always seemed to be clearer in the afternoon in Aguas Calientes.
Do it the Old-Fashioned Way
Nobody that we met who had done the Inca Trail was disappointed with their decision. The route itself is supposed to be incredible and you get the added benefit of arriving to Machu Picchu when the site is closed to general admission. If you have the time and are up for a trek, this definitely seems like the way to go.
Bring Some Snacks
If you’ve read a few of my posts then you’ve probably figured out that I’m always hungry. Now I’d probably recommend you bring snacks everywhere you go, but given the physical demands of Machu Picchu and how much time it takes to see all that there is to see, I’d highly recommend concealing a bottle of water and a couple of simple snacks in your backpack. They didn’t check any bags at the turnstile (I got a little nervous when I learned about the signs addressing bringing food, drink and drones into the site right before we walked in) and I’m pretty sure the rules exist simply to direct you to the 20 soles burgers at the snack bar. As long as you’re respectful and clean up after yourself, none of the guards inside seem to pay you any mind. At the very least, I’d recommend binge eating some protein bars and chugging water while you wait in line if you’re concerned about the rules.
Buy Your Tickets Ahead of Time Online
Although we clearly experienced some unfortunate timing of weather buy buying our tickets so far in advance, it’s much harder to predict the weather in Peru than it is the number of visitors Machu Picchu will have each day. A set amount of tickets is sold per day and once those are gone, nobody else is getting in. Guarantee your spot by booking it in advance. Be careful though, the website has the most convoluted process I’ve ever seen and effectively requires you to print your tickets twice. Fear not, a quick Google search will get you a number of How To’s that can walk you through the process step by step.