Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers
Recently, I learned that most people who visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu do so at the culmination of a two- to five-day hike through the rugged mountain terrain.
Um, no, thank you.
I learned from my first trip to Peru that altitude can really kick my butt, and surgery on my Achilles tendon three years ago has left me unable to walk for more than a few hours. I know I can’t be the only one for whom this multiple-day trek on foot is impractical, if not impossible. What about people with young children in tow? What about people who, due to injuries or age, just don’t have the stamina to walk through rugged mountain terrain for several days? Are we just out of luck? Do we need to resign ourselves to the fact that they only way we will see Machu Picchu is through someone else’s photos?
Thankfully, the answer is no. Non-hikers can see Machu Picchu in person. It just takes a little more planning in the way of logistics, and in all honesty, more money. Are you ready to plan your trip to Machu Picchu? I know I am, so let’s get started…
First, let’s talk about the places you will travel to or through in order to get to Machu Picchu. First is Cusco, a city of about 435,000 in southeastern Peru. Regardless of where you are beginning your journey, you will most likely get to Cusco via Lima. The flight from Lima is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and there are at least 20 flights every day. There is generally not a huge price difference between booking straight to Cusco or booking to Lima and then making a separate reservation to Cusco. If you want to do some sightseeing in Lima and you have the time to do so, you could book your trip to Cusco separately.
I recommend spending a few days in Cusco to get acclimated to the higher altitude. (Cusco has an elevation of 11,000 feet.) But beyond that, Cusco is a great destination in its own right. Incan walls topped with colonial Spanish architecture, people dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, ruins dating from Pizarro’s attack on the Inca, and many unique museums are among the things you can see there.
One of the must-see Cusco museums is Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco. , Av Sol. №603. This free museum inside El Centro’s textile store features a gallery containing displays of traditional Quechuan and Andean textiles. The museum explains the historical significance of the textiles and the techniques used to make them. You can also buy high quality, authentic textiles here.
From Cusco, you will go to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also called Aguas Calientes. There are multiple ways to do this. Here are a few possibilities but as always, you should check to make sure all services are running prior to your travel day:
- Cusco to Aguas Calientes: From Cusco, travel by car approximately 25 minutes to the Poroy Station. From there, take a bus to Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado. Take the Hiram Bingham Train to Aguas Calientes. The entire journey will take about 5 hours. **The Hiram Bingham is the top-of-the-line luxury train and is quite expensive. As of this writing, it is the only train operating a bus+train service from Poroy. Additional services are expected to run from Poroy after April 2017.**
- Cusco to Ollantaytambo and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: From Cusco, travel to Ollantaytambo by taxi, minivan, or by bus. Taking a taxi or minivan will take about 90 minutes. Going by bus will add an extra hour to the journey, but it is considerably cheaper. Once in Ollantaytambo, you can sightsee a little if you’d like. It is the site where the Incas retreated after the Spanish took Cusco. When you are ready to move on, take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. This train ride will take about 90 minutes.
It is important to get your train tickets and tickets for Machu Picchu as far in advance as possible. Under no circumstances should you wait to buy your tickets the day before you want to travel.
Once you’re in Aguas Calientes, you can either proceed straight to Machu Picchu, or stay the night and plan to go see Machu Picchu the next morning. I recommend the latter, with one caveat. As with most towns set up near major tourist attractions in remote areas — Grand Canyon Village comes to mind — everything will be far more expensive than it should be.
If you want to go immediately to Machu Picchu, you can take a short walk and get a bus. The busses depart every 20 minutes, from 5:30 AM to 3:30 pm.
As with the train, if you’re planning on spending a night in Aguas Calientes, you should book accommodations well in advance. There are about 15 different hotels in the little town, but that doesn’t mean many will have vacancies.
I recommend getting out of bed early and being ready to catch the first bus that leaves at 5:30 AM, which means getting to the bus stop around 5:00 AM. I know, it’s brutal for folks like me who aren’t morning people, but it isn’t as though you’re doing this every day. Getting there early will allow you to be one of the first people at the site (better photographs with fewer tourists in them!) and if you’re lucky you may get to see the sun rise over the Incan ruins.
The bus to Machu Picchu takes about 20–30 minutes and involves a lot of zigzagging around the mountain. Consider yourself forewarned if you’re prone to carsickness.
The bus drops you off right at the entrance. From there, it’s a fairly flat five minute walk to the ruins where you have an excellent view. Once in the ruins, there are steps up and down; however, you can do as much or as little walking as you want.
And again, booking in advance is an absolute necessity. Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate, and they are limited to 2500 per day. Advance purchase tickets are available from the official government website (www.machupicchu.gob.pe). Can you imagine traveling all that way only to be told you can’t get in? Don’t let that happen to you!
Also, bring your passport to Machu Picchu with you. You will need it to get in. And they will stamp it, which is pretty cool.
Some things to consider when deciding when to go:
- High season is May to October
- The site is especially busy during periods of national holidays — roughly from July 28 to August 10
- Solstice days (June 21 and Dec 21) are also busy — everyone descends on the ruins for a glimpse of the dazzling effects of the sun’s rays.
- The rainy season is November to March. During this time, you are likely to get rain for brief periods during the day, and clouds obscuring the site in the mornings.
Once you’re there, walk at your own pace and see as much or as little as you want to see. You will get little in the way of printed materials telling you what you’re looking at, but guides are available to hire on site for about $30/two hours. Alternatively, you can bring a guide book with you.
Once you get through the main entrance, there is a path up to the left that takes you to the spot above the ruins, near the Caretaker’s Hut and Funerary Rock. This is where you will get the classic view of Machu Picchu that you see on so many postcards. If you are there early enough for sunrise (6:30–7:30am), you should do this first.
Afterward, explore as much or as little as you want. Some of the points of interest are only accessible by steep paths and/or stairs, but you will have all the time you need if you arrived early, so pace yourself. Some of the major areas within the ruins are:
- Temple of the Sun (also called the Torreón) has extraordinary stonework, the finest in Machu Picchu, with large stones that fit together seamlessly. However, it is accessible only by a steep set of stairs, and entry inside the temple is not permitted. I would skip this unless you’re feeling particularly energetic — there are other areas with impressive stonework that are not as difficult to reach.
- Below the Temple of the Sun, there is a section of cave called the Royal Tomb, although no human remains have ever been found there. Inside is a meticulously carved altar and series of niches that produce intricate morning shadows.
- To the north, just down the stairs that divide this section from a series of dwellings called the Royal Sector, is a still-functioning water canal and series of interconnected fountains. The main fountain is distinguished by both its size and excellent stonework.
- Back up the stairs to the high section of the ruins is the main ceremonial area. The Temple of the Three Windows has views of the Andes in the distance across the Urubamba gorge. This is likely to be one of your lasting images of Machu Picchu, so it should be on your short list of places to visit within the ruins.
- Just behind the Main Temple (to the left if you’re facing the Temple of the Three Windows) is a small cell, termed the Sacristy, renowned for its exquisite masonry. It’s a good place to examine the way these many-angled stones (one to the left of the doorjamb has 32 distinct angles) were fitted together by Inca stonemasons.
- Up a short flight of stairs is the Intihuatana, also known as the “hitching post of the sun.” It is a carved rock or a type of sundial, which in all probability was an astronomical and agricultural calendar.
- Follow a trail down through terraces and past a small plaza to a dusty clearing with covered stone benches on either side. Fronting the square is a massive, sculpted Sacred Rock. This area likely served as a communal area for meetings.
- To the left of the Sacred Rock, down a path, is the gateway to Huayna Picchu, the huge outcrop that serves as a dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu. Each day, 400 people are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu. I’m assuming that, if you’re reading this article, it’s not something you would be keen on doing.
- Returning back down the same path (frighteningly steep at a couple points) is a turnoff to the Temple of the Moon, usually visited only by Machu Picchu die hards who don’t want to miss a single thing. The path takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours round-trip from the detour. I don’t recommend pursuing it.
- The lower section of Machu Picchu consisted mostly of residential and industrial buildings. The most interesting part of this section is the Temple of the Condor. Said to be a carving of a giant condor, the dark rock above symbolizes the bird’s wings and the pale rock below quite clearly represents its head.
Exploring Machu Picchu is not just for hikers, backpackers and mountain climbers. So plan your trip and go see it! The mountains of Peru are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and the ghostly remains of the Inca civilization are both beautiful and unforgettable.
This article was first published on the author’s blog, travelasmuch.com