As I sit on the train heading back to Ollantaytambo, I can’t help but reflect on what an amazing trip this has been so far (even with the unexpected occurrences). As alluded to in my last post, I have spent the last 2.5 days in Aguas Calientes visiting Machu Picchu, one of the premier tourist destinations in the world. This post will cover my preparation for Machu Picchu prior to coming to Peru, my journey to get to Machu Picchu, and my overall experience at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Pre-trip Planning. When I had decided that I would be traveling to Peru, I knew that, if I only went one place, it had to be Machu Picchu. Unlike skipping the Galapagos Islands during my time in Ecuador because of the high price, Machu Picchu was a trip that I could afford. In addition, by not figuring out a way to visit Machu Picchu, I would lose credibility as a budget traveler who, to this point, has specialized traveling through Central and South America. As such, my entire trip was planned around getting to the ancient Incan city. The first thing I had to do was secure my tickets from the Peruvian government website (www.cultracusco.gob.pe). I had decided to visit Peru in November 2021, but actually had to wait until January 2022 to buy my tickets because the government only releases tickets for three weeks in advance. However, the ticket buying process was fairly simple and I bought a basic ticket for $41 USD. (I would go onto to regret not buying the more expensive ticket once I got to the site). The ticket was sent to my email account, and I was able to download it to my cell phone. The next most important thing was actually getting to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. To do so, I had to buy a plane ticket to Cusco from Lima ($46 USD), and then buy a roundtrip ticket from Cusco to Aguas Calientes ($111 USD). There are two main train companies that go to Machu Picchu, PeruRail and IncaRail. I ended up going with PeruRail because that was the first company that popped up in Google. However, both companies offer identical service. I was able to secure these tickets prior to even leaving the United States, which is great because it helped spread out the costs.
Getting to Aguas Calientes. The journey to Machu Picchu begins with the arrival in Cusco, one of Peru’s highest cities by altitude. It took me about 1 ½ hours to fly directly from Lima to Cusco. In hindsight, it may have been better spending the first half of my trip in Arequipa to get acclimated to the altitude. Upon arrival in Cusco, I ended up getting severe altitude sickness to the point where I debated about actually going to the hospital. Nevertheless, I stuck it out, and was well enough to head to Aguas Calientes after one night in Cusco. During Peru’s rainy season, there is no direct train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. Instead, I was required to take a bus from Wanchaq station to Ollantaytambo, which is about a 3-hour ride. From Ollantaytambo, I transferred over to the train to Aguas Calientes, which is a 1 ½ hour journey. This is referred to as bi-modal service. If I had more time in Peru, I would have skipped the train ride and considered doing the 4-day hiking excursion from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. For the train ride, I actually had to wear a face protector in addition to my mask which cost me about 4 Peruvian soles ($1 USD) to buy outside the station. While the seats were comfortable, the train itself was very basic (no Wi-Fi capabilities) and only went about 40 kilometers an hour. I was also not allowed to eat or drink during the journey due to COVID restrictions. It was nice being able to see the lush green mountains as the train chugged through the Peruvian highlands. Unfortunately, I got stuck with an aisle seat on both of my trips, so I was unable to capture any quality photos from the ride. The town of Aguas Calientes was small and extremely compact. It was so small that there were no taxis as everything was in walking distance. With that being said, it was also stationed on a steep hill which made getting around quite the workout at times. The hotel I stayed in was a basic hotel near the town square and was surrounded by restaurants, massage parlors, and corner stores. Next to the train station, there was also a Peruvian flea market that sold things like Inca dresswear, souvenir shot glasses, and Machu Picchu post cards. Comparatively speaking, the food in Aguas Calientes was fairly expensive as the average cost for a plate was $12 USD. However, one should expect that considering the popularity of Machu Picchu as well as the remoteness of Aguas Calientes. One thing that did surprise me was how hard it was to find a laundry store. There was one in the central tourist zone, which was fully booked, and I actually had to walk deeper into the local neighborhoods to find a place to wash my clothes in a reasonable amount of time.
Machu Picchu. My ticket into Machu Picchu was scheduled for 9AM the day after I arrived in Aguas Calientes. One of the things that I had to do was decide whether I wanted to walk to the entrance or take the bus. I ended up deciding to take the bus and bought a roundtrip bus ticket for $24 USD at the small bus station in the center of town. They also required that I have a physical copy of my passport to purchase the tickets. On another note, one of the things that I discovered in Peru is that it is nearly impossible to get around the astoundingly high “tourist tax” for many purchases. I left my hotel at about 8 AM to find a line of a few hundred people waiting to get on the shuttle buses. You were required to show your bus ticket as you got on the bus and the buses left every 5 minutes. I was able to finally get on the bus about 830AM and head up to Machu Picchu. The bus ride up to the entrance made me realize why the Peruvian government charges tourists $12 a ride. The ride itself took about 35 minutes and was entirely uphill. Walking that trail would probably take someone of average fitness at least 3 hours. I had a real scare upon arriving at the entrance to Machu Picchu as many of the guards were shouting for people to get their passports out with their tickets. Of course, I left my passport in my hotel room and begin to think that I would not be let in the park. Had that happened, I pretty much would have not been able to go to Machu Picchu considering my itinerary. Luckily, I had a picture of my passports photo page on my phone and the worker let me in. Machu Picchu itself was magnificent. In addition, due to the Peruvian government’s restriction on tickets it was not overwhelmed with tourists like Angkor Wat in Cambodia. There is a nice little hike to the point where people take the famous Machu Picchu postcard pictures and then you hike down to the actual stone compound. I decided not to pay $50 USD hire a local guide which probably would have made the trip more interesting; however, I was able to catch snippets of things being explained by other guides as I walked through the park. Another thing that I missed out on was the opportunity to trek up Waynapicchu because you have to pay in advanced to hike up that portion of the mountain. I think it would have been about $20 USD more to get the add-on had I bought it when I bought my ticket. Walking at a brisk pace, it took me about 2 hours to make my way through the park and surprisingly enough there wasn’t a long line to get back to Aguas Calientes. As disappointed as I was to miss out on that opportunity, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this once and a lifetime opportunity.
As indicated in the beginning, I am now ending the first leg of my bimodal journey back to Cusco. It is important to note that trains only leave Aguas Calientes in the afternoon and I had to pay my hotel about $14 USD to stay in the room until the train left. As I type this, the train is about 10 minutes from Ollantaytambo station and should be getting back to Cusco around 8 PM. I will be staying in Cusco for the next few days where hopefully my second experience will go much better than my first.