The only thing that turns people into “photographers” faster than their own newborn babies is traveling…even more so if you’re visiting one of those must-see places like Machu Picchu. A couple of short weeks ago we shouldered our bags and did this ourselves as we took a quick trip to Cusco and Aguas Calientes with our best friends.
Much like my post about our trip through Argentina and Uruguay this past Christmas, keep scrolling for a gratuitous display of what we did with a few tips thrown in by way of providing some text.
Our guidebook was a bit of a turd, so I planned principally by word of mouth–both from friends who’d been there before and using advice from travel forums. One thing a pal told me was that Cusco deserves more than just a quick stopover, ideally two or three days. Another thing people go on and on about the altitude (more or less 11,000 feet above sea level). But, I thought that coming from Bogotá (around 8,300 feet) we’d be fine…well, that altitude is no joke and Cody and I found ourselves laughing at how quickly we became out of breath.
As soon as we saw Cusco, we were glad to have taken the advice and allowed ourselves an afternoon and the following full day/night to meander through the cobbled streets. Every alley seemed to beg us to stop for a picture and I was constantly tripping as I rubber-necked at all the stalls filled with brightly colored textiles.
Cody and I couldn’t help but notice that among the picturesque squares and wide open sky is an interesting cultural tension. If you can’t identify colonial architecture, don’t worry–it seems that any thing of Spanish origin has been hung with an Incan flag. Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire until the Spanish captured it in the 16th century, which means that there are colonial churches on top of Incan ruins on top of stones laid by the Killke (who predated the Incan people). The principal reason tourists are drawn to this area is to visit those Incan sites, but the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site prohibits altering the Spanish architecture.
A true Andes town, Cusco is surrounded by hills; at night in the Plaza de Armas you feel like you’re in a fishbowl of twinkling lights, which made for a lovely nighttime snap.
One night the guys stumbled upon Cholos Craft Beers Cusco and found (in Cody’s opinion) the best IPA from South America. Both the beer and pizza (ordered from the shop next door, they’ll bring it over once it’s ready) warranted a second round so the four of us went together another night. A couple more food tips for Cusco–Hugo’s Cafe has the best hot chocolate I’ve had in recent memory and Jack’s Cafe gave us the big, U.S. style breakfast that Cody and I have missed since living in Bogotá.
After spending Thursday and Friday in Cusco, we were up early to take the train to Aguas Calientes on Saturday morning. In case you’re not familiar with the trek to Machu Picchu, the only way to get to the site is either by hiking via the Inca Trail or taking a train from Cusco. Either way, it will cost you. Machu Picchu is a difficult place to get to and once the site became a tourist attraction it seems that the resulting infrastructure was designed to wring as many dollars as possible from visitors…not that I blame them.
Arriving in Aguas Calientes is quite literally a breath of fresh air–both because there are practically no cars (just the buses that circulate to and from the Machu Picchu entrance) and also because at 6,700 feet elevation, you can finally breathe again. Even though it’s packed with tourists, the little town still has charm.
As you can see below, our hostel was right next to the train tracks and on the backside was hugged by a river. When we arrived, I mentioned how someone left a review complaining that the river was too noisy…but apparently the rumbling train wasn’t an issue?
There isn’t too much to do in Aguas Calientes–I get the impression that most folks use it as a place to stay before an early visit to Machu Picchu or as a place to rest a couple of days after hiking the Inca Trail. We were intending to do a hike up to Putucusi Mountain but were repeatedly told how dangerous it was and even when we tried, we couldn’t find the starting point. To pass our afternoon we ended up walking along the train tracks to visit the Mandor Gardens, which led us past some waterfalls.
Of course, our entire trip to Peru was planned around our visit to Machu Picchu. I bought our tickets months ahead of time, because our visit fell during the high season and only 2,500 visitors a day are allowed to visit the site (of those, only 400 per day allowed to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu). Sunday morning around 5:30am, we fell into line with a couple hundred other tourists all heading to the same place–and even though the line was daunting, it didn’t take us that long to get on the bus, climb the switchbacks to the park’s entrance, and get inside.
Through all my research, there was one thing I was pretty certain about: you should hire a guide to take you around the park. I read in multiple places that the grounds are huge, none of the buildings are marked or have explanations, and that it’s helpful to know how the construction of the site was guided by the complex history and belief systems of the Incan people. It was crowded and hectic at the park gate, so we told ourselves our book would suffice. However, as soon as we saw the complex and read the book’s crummy descriptions, we realized we wanted shepherding and hi-tailed it the few hundred yards back to the entrance.
So…here’s my one big piece of advice for people visiting Machu Picchu: if you arrive when the park opens, don’t let the crowds overwhelm you. Let the frenzy die down a bit (seriously…it will take 15 minutes and won’t impact your trip) and then take a moment to talk to the remaining guides gathered outside the park. If you’re set on seeing the “sunrise” (good luck with the morning cloud cover), then come back. Chat with your potential guide to make sure you can understand each other and that you’re comfortable with their knowledge, then agree on a price. I have to say, it was such a good decision: he explained the history of the Incan people and the site’s second ‘discovery’ by Hiram Bingham, showed us sacred places and explained the differences between the stones…our experience was so much richer with his knowledge. And as icing on the cake, he knew the best places to take photos and happily helped us document our visit.
There are a million photos of Machu Picchu on the internet, so I’ve only included my favorites. But seriously, the first glimpses of this city in the mountains are truly amazing and are worth the time and expense it takes to get there.
Our guide pointed out how the stone below was shaped to look like the mountains in the distance.
The precise cut of the stones signifies importance–the tighter fitting the stone, the more important the building. Our guide also pointed out the myriad places buildings and were integrated with and shaped around the mountain itself.
After touring the main part of Machu Picchu we spent the second part of our day hiking to the top Huayna Picchu, which I read should be visited because of the stunning views. If you’re not familiar, Huayna Picchu is the mountain pictured below at the far end of the complex.
As we handed over our tickets and saw the sweating, panting, and pallid hikers exiting from the first group I remember thinking, what did I get myself into? After we climbed about 1200 feet in one kilometer, I understood why those people looked about ready to keel over.
Once we reached the top (which is basically a cluster of boulders), the views are breathtaking. Not only that, looking down on clouds is surreal.
After some pics and having a rest, it was time to go back down. If the way up is steep, the trip down is plunging. Tiptoeing down skinny, uneven steps is one thing, but doing it with a cliff on one side is enough to send your stomach (or balls if you have them) into your throat. Eventually I couldn’t take looking down that cliff, so I tossed aside my dignity and shinnied down crab-walk style on all fours.
The next morning (after we’d taken the train and spent the night in Cusco), we were getting ready to head back to Bogotá when Cody found this article:
13 Places On Earth People Risk Their Lives To Visit. Wouldn’t you know it, Huayna Picchu is number 3. Not only did we go on a once in a lifetime trip with our best friends, but we risked our lives together as well!
As I wrap up, I have to note that pretty much all the travel/outdoor photos in the blog are taken by Cody (well…unless he’s in them). Looking at all of the beautiful moments from our trip I realized that my dear husband deserves a big ole I’m sorry for all the times I roll my eyes and sigh as he pauses to take pics. I never take photos or even think about it and I always end up so appreciative that he was lurking and capturing all our memories (especially the one below). So, hats off to you my dear! ;)