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Peru - A Guide to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley
Everyone sees pictures of Machu Picchu and thinks to themselves: wow, that place looks incredible. Wouldn't it be amazing to go there? But then I'm sure they are assailed by doubts related to the logistical difficulty of getting there, safety, language, etc. So I intend to answer these commonly asked questions. But I also intend for this guide to be for those who have already done some homework and want some tips and more in-depth advice.
This guide is obviously for those who wish to see Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley in an independent fashion. That being said there's a lot of information here even for those who'd rather go with a tour, and I think this write-up will help you choose which tour is right for you. Should you go the private tour way the information here may help you coordinate your trip with your guide. As far as my thoughts on "should I take a tour?" I will predictably side with the do-it-yourself camp. With all the information available, both here and in guidebooks and other websites, seeing Machu Picchu yourself is a piece of cake.
How do I get to Machu Picchu?
The trail to Machu Picchu doesn't begin at the gates of Machu Picchu. It begins in Lima. Lima is the destination for all international flights bound for Peru. And to get to Machu Picchu you must pass through the Inca capital, and Spanish colonial city of Cusco. From Lima's Jorge Chavez airport there are at least 12 flights per day to Cusco. It's recommended that you take your Cusco-bound flight in the morning. The flight path into Cusco takes you over Salkantay Peak, which in the afternoon can whip up wind shear that leads to flight cancellations. Wind is less of a problem in the morning. It's also recommended that you take LAN Peru as they have the most flights per day to Cusco, thus if your flight gets cancelled you have a greater chance of not having to wait to the next day to fly. Flying in the morning and flying with LAN are just simple precautions; flight cancellations happen, but they are infrequent and aren't something to worry about.
The truly adventurous (and I mean this) can get to Cusco overland on a bus via Ayacucho and Andahualyas. This will be an experience of a lifetime, for good and bad, I guarantee.
Once in Cusco you'll want to grab a taxi to your hotel. I'm happy to report that the municipality of Cusco is eminently enlightened on the issues tourists have with taxis, and all taxi drivers must adhere to a single flat rate to get you into the city. No haggling necessary.
There is no ATM at Machu Picchu or Aguas Calientes. Make sure to withdraw your money either in Lima or Cusco. There also is an ATM in the town of Urubamba in the Sacred Valley. You can get a cash advance in Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu but expect to pay a hefty commission.
Cusco to Machu Picchu, via Inca Trail
From Cusco your overland route to Machu Picchu begins. You have three options. The first option is the Inca Trail, a two or four day hike which ends in you walking through the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu. If you've seen Motorcycle Diaries, you'll have an idea of what this is about. More on this below.
Cusco to Machu Picchu, via train
The second option is to train directly to Machu Picchu from Cusco. If you have a time crunch, this represents the most efficient way to get to Machu Picchu. The train drops you off 2km from Machu Picchu, in the town of Aguas Calientes, the location of all services and accommodations for Machu Picchu (with one exception, the Sanctuary Lodge which sits just outside MP's gates). There are three train services available: the Backpacker, Vistadome, and the Hiram Bingham (named after the American who "discovered" Machu Picchu). They go in order of price and amenities. The PeruRail site (see link at bottom) has all the information but the site is unreliable and a bit illogically oriented. So here's the train schedule, more logically oriented (using 24 hour clock):
As you can see, you can leave Cusco, see Machu Picchu, and be back in Cusco on the same day. If your goal is to see Machu Picchu and return to Cusco that same day, the best way to maximize your time is by taking the Vistadome 2 or the Hiram Bingham. I do not recommend doing Cusco-Machu Picchu-Cusco in one day. Doing so means you will miss sunrise on Machu Picchu, which is beautiful, but more importantly this is the time of day with the least amount of tourists.
The Backpacker is one-way $42, return $65; Vistadome $60 and $101, and the Hiram Bingham is $476. Return ticket required for the Bingham. The Backpacker and Vistadome leave from the central Cusco train station, and the Hiram Bingham leaves from, and arrives back at, the Poroy station, a 20 minute cab ride from Cusco central. The Bingham thus isn't the most convenient, but it's supposed to be a throwback to 19th century train travel. Not ironically, the company that runs PeruRail is same one that runs the Orient Express. I took the Backpacker train and found it perfectly comfortable; its set up like an interregionale train in Italy only a bit nicer.
Buying tickets a day in advance is a good idea, or more if you have the time. Purchasing tickets is very easy at the train station; you do not need help of a guide or Helpy McHelper on the street. Do not be persuaded by the story of "tickets are sold out but I can help you get one" etc. Agencies will get/sell you a ticket but put a hefty premium on top of it.
Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, via train
The third option is to take the train, but this time from Ollantaytambo. Ollanta is the last town in the Sacred Valley, a beautiful and quaint village. For those who are not in a rush, this is the way I highly recommend going. More information on Ollanta is below in the Sacred Valley section, such as how to go Cusco-Ollanta. Pertinent to Machu Picchu, here's the train schedule from Ollanta to Aguas Calientes (using 24 hour clock):
* These two Backpacker trains are not on the PeruRail site, but I know from personal experience that they exist, and I've had confirmation from the ThornTree message board over at Lonely Planet. Why it isn't on the website, I don't know. The site also incorrectly states that there are no one-way Backpacker tickets. This is false, one-way or return tickets are available.
Prices are Vistadome one-way $42, return $69; Backpacker one-way $30 return $51. You can absolutely purchase your Ollanta-Machu Picchu train ticket in Ollanta itself, do not let anyone tell you differently. Why there are more trains servicing Ollanta to Machu Picchu than from Cusco to Machu Picchu I don't know, but this does mean you have a better shot of getting a seat by leaving from Ollanta.
What's the Inca Trail hike like? Logistics?
From Cusco you can do a two or four day hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. The hike is strenuous. I'm not sure exactly how many stair-steps there are, but it would be a good idea to get out your Stairmaster and do a little fitness work prior to going. That being said, everyone from little kids to groups of seniors do the trek, so it's definitely doable.
I did not personally do the hike as I balked at the price tag (expect to pay around $400 for the four day hike), the necessity to book three months in advance, and the less than glamorous prospect of hiking in a 20 - 30 person caravan (your average hike will have 15 - 20 hikers, plus porters, guides, cooks). This isn't to dissuade anyone from doing the hike; it certainly has a romanticism that taking the bus does not. Just be aware that this is the reality of the hike, and plan accordingly. I'm assuming private guides can be arranged for your party of two, but expect to pay a serious premium for this service. Hiking the trail without a guide is illegal. Frommer's has some information on the agencies to use, see in the links at the bottom.
The recommended base tip for porters is 30 soles ($10). Tipping below this is akin to tipping below 15% at a restaurant. The plight of the porters is a rather sad one, and so make sure to tip more if you feel the service warrants it. Agencies generally treat their porters like crap, with low pay, bad equipment, and forcing them to carry over the government mandated weight limit, etc. Their base wage is ridiculously low and they depend on your generosity. For more information on this, see the Inka Porter Project link at bottom.
How do you recommend "doing" Machu Picchu itself?
Arrive in Aguas Calientes, relax the rest of the day. Well, you actually have two responsibilities: most importantly buy your Machu Picchu entrance ticket in Aguas Calientes! Ask at the tourist office. Secondly, go get some food and make a lunch for the next day. The food at the site is very expensive and mediocre. Plus, when you get hungry and you're at the far end of the ruins you won't want to walk all the way back to the entrance to eat. It's a big site. Brownbag it. The Sanctuary Lodge does a great breakfast buffet, $22.
I absolutely do not recommend a group tour for the day. They may be cheap, but the tour guides I saw ranged from boring to obnoxious. Plus there's the downside that your pace and their pace might not match. Every guide I saw seemed to be in a hurry to move his cattle about and get the thing over with. A private guide would obviously be much better, but I'd want specific and solid information pointing to a particular guide. Just going by a recommended agency is generally useless since they all share guides between themselves and so you never know what you're going to get. Tour agencies in Peru are like a box of llama steaks.
So, you wake up the next morning at 5:30am and get on the first bus. They begin departing at 6:00am. Because you bought your ticket the day before you won't have to wait in line at the ticket booth at the site (which can get long, I waited 20 minutes), and you will cruise right through the turnstile. And because you left on the first bus of the day, you will arrive at Machu Picchu and have the entire place to yourself. You'll see the sunrise and gape and awe over the site as you see it in its virgin state, devoid of tour groups and annoying Peruvian tour guides. Most tour groups do the Cusco-Machu Picchu-Cusco trip in one day, meaning they are getting off the train at 10:00am, and so starting at 10:30am the site begins to get very busy.
What to do then? How to avoid the tourist horde? Hike to the top of Huayna Picchu. What? Climb a mountain? Yes! It's much less formidable than it looks. No matter what shape you are in, if you are able to walk, you can do the hike. John Muir said that once about Mount Whitney, and this is no Mount Whitney. I saw people of all shapes and sizes (including a group of 10 seniors from Japan) doing the hike. The only common factor is determination and patience. If you are out of shape the hike up will take an hour to an hour and a half, if you are in decent to good shape about half that. It isn't a very long hike, just a steep one. The trail is good and it's mostly in the shade. The idea is to take it slow, the altitude will affect your breathing (you're at about 8,500 feet), so just take regular breaks but keep plugging at it and you'll have paradise as your reward. It would be a sin to come all the way to Peru, to Machu Picchu, and not scale Huayna. The view from the top is otherworldly, and for me was the most impressive part about the entire day. You won't find a view like this anywhere in the entire world. When you get to the top you will realize it was all worth the pain. And because you brought your lunch with you, you can enjoy your sandwich and fruit with that view. The ranger will not permit anyone to begin the hike past 1:30pm; just something to keep in mind.
So you did your climb up, relaxed in paradise for an hour, and then did the half hour hike back down. It should now be around 1:00 - 2:00pm. Which is perfect timing, since the tour groups are now heading back down to Aguas Calientes. By the time 3:00 or 4:00pm rolls around the site will be back to how it was in the early morning. Rather than noisy tourists you'll get silence. I stayed until close, and in that last hour I was essentially alone in the ruins. For those who sleep like logs and do not wish to get up at 5:30am on their vacation (and I don't blame you), plan on staying until close so you can get that I'm-all-alone-in-heaven feeling.
As for how to fill in the time at the ruins, that's up to you. The site is very big.
For those who want to see the sunrise through the Sun Gate, you'll either need to do the Inca Trail or hike from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins. It's a good 30 - 45 minute walk from the entrance gates to the Sun Gate, so the bus won't get you there in time. It takes approximately one hour to hike from town to the site. Keep in mind that it's often cloudy in the morning. Jungle mists. Another cool option is to take a night tour, which some agencies offer. I did not get a chance to but I would imagine, moonlight and cloud cover allowing, it would be very atmospheric.
When is the best time to see Machu Picchu?
For reference, I went in early June. June - August is considered high season. May - October is the cool, dry season; November - April is the warm, rainy season. The Inca Trail is closed in February for cleanup, and due to the heavy rains that fall in that month. The actual day you pick is also significant. The best days to visit Machu Picchu are Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. On these days Pisac (a town in the Sacred Valley) has its big crafts market, and tour groups descend in droves upon that town. Thus you have less people at Machu Picchu. Sunday is the biggest market so that day in theory will have the least amount of groups at Machu Picchu.
What's Cusco like?
If you're wondering why this isn't a guide to Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley and Cusco well it's largely because I'm not overly fond of Cusco. It's neat in the sense that it's a very Spanish looking city in the middle of Peru, but that's about it for me. It's overrun by tourists, not to mention the hawkers and touts who feast on tourists and give you zero peace when out in the main traffic areas. The centro is very pretty and there are a few cool things to see and do there, but I can't stand the people there. The shame is that for most tourists this is the only image of Peruvians that they get, and Peruvians get a bad rap for that. Peruvians are a kind and helpful people just like the rest of us, but if you only visit Cusco you wouldn't know that.
Is there more to see than Cusco and Machu Picchu? Yes! The Sacred Valley!
Everything Cusco and Machu Picchu isn't, the Sacred Valley is. The Sacred Valley is a narrow and very scenic valley that winds between Cusco and Machu Picchu. In it are some very cool things to do and see (ruins at Pisac and Ollanta, the salt mines, Moray amphitheatre, and the town of Ollanta itself). The ruins are both very impressive, and this is coming from a guy who isn't big on ruins. But best yet, as opposed to hectic Cusco and slammed Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu, is the serenity of this valley. Tourists are few and far between. Your average tourist does not stop here for long, if at all. Their loss and your gain. Of the three main towns, Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollanta I only find Ollanta to be attractive, but it's just the general vibe you get here that is so seductive. I absolutely did not want to leave. If you come all this way and don't spend at least a couple days in the Sacred Valley, then you are doing yourself a disservice.
Leaving the Valley
How best to get between Cusco and the Sacred Valley towns?
The easiest way by far is to take taxis. The distances between towns are short (from Cusco to Ollanta, the furthest town, is only 1 hour and 30 minutes) and the fares are cheap. There's only one main road connecting these towns so picking up a cab is never a problem.
For a more authentic Peruvian experience you can take a combi. Combis are basically just a big van that they stuff people into. It's quite an experience being in a van and surrounded by Peruvians who are wondering what you are doing in a combi with them, trust me! This is by far the cheapest way to get around, basically $1 a ride. The location of the combi stations in Cusco should be marked in your guidebook, and the Sacred Valley towns are so small that finding them very easy.
Is the language barrier an issue?
Not really. The Cusco region and Machu Picchu are very touristed zones so you'll generally find fundamental English being spoken. Knowing a few words in Spanish, like when you go anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world, will come in handy. But there's no significant language barrier to worry about.
How safe is it?
Cusco is not the safest city in the world, but neither is it the most dangerous. It's not the type of place where you have to worry about violent attacks during the daytime or evening. But late night hours give reason to take caution. Muggings, sometimes violent, do happen. I would estimate however that the majority of people who get mugged had violated the universal rules of night walking: stay sober, don't walk alone, and stay in the lighted areas. If you do go out and enjoy drinks, and are coming home late at night, take a taxi. Some people recommend always taking a taxi at night, but I see this as unnecessary.
What about altitude sickness?
Some people get altitude sickness after getting into Cusco. For that reason it's oft recommended, and wisely so, to head to the Sacred Valley first and see Cusco on your way back. Cusco is at 11,500 feet, whereas the Sacred Valley is at 9,000, which is an elevation at which the majority of people have no symptoms and can painlessly acclimatize. Machu Picchu is even lower than the Sacred Valley, so no worries there either.
The main factor behind altitude sickness is dehydration. This is what causes the headaches. You get dehydrated at high altitudes because of the dryness of the air. You literally lose more water exhaling than you gain by inhaling, meaning you dehydrate yourself just by breathing. You'll definitely notice yourself being more thirsty than normal when at such elevations! The key here is obviously water, and to avoid diuretics like caffeine and coffee.
Can you recommend an itinerary?
You could do the entire trip on a 10 - 12 day holiday. I would recommend spending four nights in Cusco, four in Ollanta, and one in Aguas Calientes. From Ollanta you can daytrip back up the valley and see Pisac and the salt mines and the Moray ampitheatre. Pisac is probably the second most attractive town in the valley. If you enjoy markets you could take a night or two from Ollanta and spend them there, and do the market and ruins.
Cusco has plenty of stuff to keep you busy, just keep a "serenity now" attitude when walking around. Don't flip out like Frank Costanza.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3434: Rar's photos from his 2005 Peru trip
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3468: Photo essays on South America, from Slow Travelers
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