On The Trail

It’s an image that had been burnt into our retinas by months of online planning and travel brochure browsing—the surreal sight of ancient stone ruins clinging to a lush green ridge line, all emerging from a halo of clouds. We wondered, could Machu Picchu, Peru live up to the hype? In May 2006 we set out to discover the answer and we’re pleased to report that there really is nothing like the real thing.
City of Gold
The main access point to Machu Picchu is the city of Cusco, a destination in its own right and a great place to prepare for the journey ahead. From high up on the sides of the bowl-like valley you might think you’re somewhere in Europe—tiled and terraced rooftops weave along narrow streets, interspersed by large public squares and the spires of numerous cathedrals. On closer inspection, however, the city’s foundations belie a more exotic past. Beautifully intricate stone walls like massive jigsaw puzzles underpin much of the city.
But Cusco is not a city frozen in time. Atop the stone foundations the Spanish commissioned numerous cathedrals (thanks to Inca gold) and, more recently, with tourism has come a multitude of tour agencies and guest houses and a myriad of restaurants and night spots. This is definitely a place worth exploring before embarking on the trip to Machu Picchu: Walking the narrow streets proves a tactile pleasure as the walls beckon to be touched, the rounded joins explored.
Finding accommodation in Cusco is quite easy and it’s all dirt cheap. Hotel Colonial Palace (Qera 270, Cusco, Peru. Phone +51 084-232-151), for instance, located in a lovely colonial era building, has doubles with bathroom set around a lovely courtyard (including breakfast) from US$17.50.
The Lost City
From Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu), it’s either a 20-minute windy bus trip or a steep one to two hour walk to Machu Picchu. Either way, to avoid the queues, be sure to purchase your tickets in town before you head up (and remember to carry your passport with you as the ticket inspectors may require it).
As the gates opened at Machu Picchu at first light, we wound our way up the Inca steps in the dark, guided only by a torch and the occasional sign. The experience was well worth the physical effort though as the first signs of day lit up the cloud-encrusted valley below.
As we entered Machu Picchu the humid closeness of the clouds created an eerie atmosphere as the drifting clouds offered tantalizing glimpses of the stone terraces and buildings.
Perched on a narrow ridge with steep valleys on three sides, the true purpose of Machu Picchu is not settled. Nevertheless, the importance of nature to the Incas is everywhere to see: Stone windows frame neighbouring mountain peaks; intricately carved stone slabs mimic the surrounding scenery; buildings and terraces take the form of animals—the entire complex, a crocodile; another cluster an eagle. Wandering through the complex is an awe-inspiring experience—how did they carve that block so precisely; how are the walls still standing; why was it built here?
The small mountain to the rear of the complex offers a spectacular vantage point. The walk to the peak took us another hour, but the views were worth every drop of sweat—we saw with our eyes that well known image—it was not a moment of Internet induced déjà vu but one of awe-inspiring deliverance. No number of brochures can prepare you for the full impact of the scene before you—terraces and stone buildings geometrically scaring the sides of the ridge; raging river snaking around the lush tree-lined valley below.
Take the High Road
There are numerous ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco—the choice depends on the size of your budget, the duration of your trip and your preferred mode of transport.
The Inca Trail
If you’re wanting to walk the Inca Trail you’d better book early and be prepared to pay top dollar for the privilege—during the high season treks sell out three months in advance and cost from US$300 for the standard four days/three nights (add US$150 for a porter to carry your personal gear, definitely a worthwhile investment unless you’re extremely fit). If the Inca Trail is booked up, there are endless tour agencies in Cusco that can arrange alternative treks, some of which finish at Machu Picchu.
Although we personally did not walk the Inca Trail, we spoke to many people that had had a fantastic experience doing so (and no one complained about it being too strenuous). Treks sound professionally run and most people rave about the more than adequate catering. Something has to be said for arriving at Machu Picchu by the route the Incas themselves once walked. However, a word of warning, during May 2006 a landslide at the end of the Inca Trail meant that trekking groups could not enter on the Inca Trail but were forced to take the rather less romantic route through Aguas Calientes. Best to check the situation before you book.
But if you’re arriving in Cusco straight from sea level don’t expect walking in this region to be easy—at between 2,500 and 4,000 meters it doesn’t take much to lose your breath. In fact, if you’re booked to walk the Inca Trail it’s a requirement that you arrive in Cusco three days in advance—whether this is to support the local economy or to acclimatize no one is really sure.
If you’re not inclined or don’t have the time to walk, three to four trains run daily between Cusco and Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu). Leaving from San Pedro train station (15 minutes walk or a short taxi ride south from Cusco), the train climbs slowly out of Cusco and then travels down the Sacred Valley (stopping briefly at the towns of Poroy and Ollantaytambo) terminating in Aguas Calientes. The journey takes around four hours and costs from US$73 return (for the backpacker class).
If you’re in a real rush, the first train reaches Aguas Calientes shortly before 10am, so it is possible to arrive in Aguas Calientes, transfer to a bus (US$6 one way) and be at the gates of Machu Picchu by 10:30 am. This whirlwind tour would see you back on the last backpacker class train departing Aguas Calientes at 4:10pm. But if you have any affinity with nature or any interest in human civilisation, this whirlwind tour is not going to leave you with sufficient time to truly explore Machu Picchu.
For a more relaxed tour we recommend spending a night in Aguas Calientes and then heading to Machu Picchu first thing the next morning. If you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort to rise early you’ll be at Machu Picchu many hours before the really great masses arrive on their whirlwind tour.
Last stop—Aguas Calientes
Located in the steep sided valley immediately below Machu Picchu (its sole purpose being as a stopping off point for Machu Picchu) Aguas Calientes has a welcoming (although touristy) feel about it.
There are any number of accommodation options in Aguas Calientes. You’ll save a lot of money (up to 50 percent) if you’re prepared to find accommodation on your arrival, but if you book in advance you’ll pay around US$50 for a double room. Presidente Hotel (Avenida Imperio de los Incas 135, Aguas Calientes, Peru, has two star doubles with bathroom (including continental breakfast) from US$57 (some with river views).
Machu Picchu and the areas leading to it are a real pleasure to explore. The locals are friendly and always smiling and helpful, it’s near impossible not to stumble across yet another amazing ruin amongst the breathtaking scenery, and yes, it really does live up to the hype.