You’ve seen pictures; you’ve studied it; you’ve imagined it.
And still, Machu Picchu is a stunning revelation that captivates the heart and soul.
Tucked between two mountains some 50 miles from Cusco, this remote “lost city” escaped attention (and destruction) until 1911. Today, over a million visitors a year make the trek to Machu Picchu via Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley train (sit on the left for river views!).
Is it worth the effort? Oh yes. Machu Picchu proves the point that even the best picture can’t always match the reality.
Must-do tip (seriously!)
I know you’re tired, fighting jet lag and the altitude, eager to get to your hotel. But if your train arrives by 3:30, and it’s a nice day, you should dash to the bus stop and head for the site.
You guides will be very dubious since it takes about 20 minutes each way by bus and the last bus leaves Machu Picchu at 5:30. At best, you can count on an hour at the top. But it will be one of the most enchanting hours of your life: just you, a handful of tourists (the busloads of tours will have departed), and a few llamas.
You will need your entry ticket and a bus ticket plus your passport. You should be fit, but you don’t have to be an athlete. Just take the first left toward the house of guardians, up a fairly easy though steep trail, for the best overview of the beguiling city nestled against Huayna Picchu mountain.
I was especially elated with this quiet introduction to Machu Picchu as the weather deteriorated the next day.
Hiking Huayna Picchu
It took me a while to sort out the three major hikes at Machu Picchu:
- Huayna Picchu, also called Wayna Picchu, is north of the citadel and most frequently pictured. Its peak is 8,835 feet. This has a summit climb as well as a longer, more arduous loop that goes down to the Moon Temple.
- Machu Picchu mountain or Montana, is south of the citadel, and a little higher at 10,111 feet.
- The Sun Gate, also south, is at 8,924 feet. It’s the usual entrance for those doing the multi-day Inca Trail.
You need to get one of 400 daily permits in advance for the first two hikes. I wanted to do it all but alas, had to settle, happily, for Huayna Picchu–just the summit.
As I mentioned, March 26, 2017, was a drizzly gray day. (Again? See my New Zealand Tongariro Crossing report!)
I started at 10:35, hiker No. 315 on the sign-in sheet and nearly the eldest at 57. I returned at 1:04.
It took me an hour of huffing and puffing up endless steep, uneven slippery stone steps, many with chains, to reach the peak.
(I had passed up acclimating two days in Cusco in favor of a night in Ollantaytambo and another at Aguas Calientes. So I’m thinking my breathing was hampered. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
Over 40 minutes at the top, hikers jockeyed for position as the clouds came and went, offering tantalizing misty views of Machu Picchu and Montana behind it.